| Top Ten Fantasy WR’s to own
||Smith’s preseason hamstring injury raised more than a few eyebrows, but conventional wisdom suggests that his bum hammy was one part legitimate setback and two parts a great way to keep him fresh for the real season. He’s reportedly back to full health and, as always, he’s confident that he can improve on his career numbers from a year ago (103 catches, 1,563 yards, 12 TDs). That seems unlikely, but the addition of Keyshawn Johnson should help, not hinder, Smith’s potential as now opposing defenses will have to pay attention to the Panthers’ No. 2 wideout – a challenge that didn’t exist a year ago.
||In the past three seasons, Johnson has caught no fewer than 90 passes, gained at least 1,274 yards per campaign and hauled in no fewer than nine TDs. During that time, he’s played in all 48 of the Bengals’ regular season games. The only thing that could prevent Johnson from repeating the feat may be QB Carson Palmer’s rebuilt knee, but those fears have been reduced to lingering doubts based on Palmer’s performance during the preseason.
||If any upper-tier wideout doesn’t get enough respect, it may be Holt. He’s durable, he’s consistent and if you throw out his rookie year his career averages over the past six seasons are 94.5 catches, 1,450 yards and eight TDs. Gone is offensive guru Mike Martz, but in his place is new head coach Scott Linehan, who as Miami’s offensive coordinator in 2005 helped turn the Dolphins’ 29th-ranked passing offense from 2004 into the 14th-ranked passing team last season. Expect more of the same from Holt in 2006.
||After a very un-Harrisonlike start to the 2005 season, Harrison erupted during the second half of the campaign to re-establish himself as one of the league’s top wideouts and the clear-cut No. 1 WR on the Colts. Indy will rely on QB Peyton Manning’s arm more ever now that Edgerrin James is in Arizona, and Harrison, despite his waning youth (he’s 34 now), should be able to match last season’s numbers of 82 catches, 1,146 yards and 12 TDs.
||Fitzgerald enters his third year with a short-but-significant track record of durability – he’s never missed a game – and on the heels of a career season in which he caught 103 passes for 1,409 yards and 10 TDs. Some may argue that the addition of RB Edgerrin James and the presence of WR Anquan Boldin will limit Fitzgerald’s stats, but both wideouts had monster seasons last year and the presence of an actual running game should only create more opportunities for everyone involved.
||Boldin’s 2005 numbers (102 catches, 1,402 yards, 7 TDs) look eerily similar to Fitzgerald’s, and Boldin pulled off the feat while playing in two fewer games than Fitzgerald. Therein lies the difference. Boldin may be a more productive wideout than Fitzgerald game-in and game-out, but his tendency to get injured dampens his preseason value just a bit. He already dealt with a minor hamstring injury this preseason, and the risk of another ding at some point merits Boldin being placed just behind Fitzgerald on this board.
||It goes without saying: there is not enough room here to detail all of the red flags associated with counting on Owens as a season-long No. 1 fantasy wideout. He’s been a train wreck for the better part of a year, but the last time he played for any stretch of time (Weeks 1-8 of the 2005 season), he piled up 47 catches, 763 yards and six TDs in seven games with the Eagles. In short, he’s a big-time risk, but if he stays healthy and in line he could wind up being the No. 1 fantasy WR in the NFL before you know it.
||Randy Moss is one of the top three athletes of all time (next to Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders) and one of the top two wide receivers of all time (along with Jerry Rice). Okay, those are Moss’ own words in a July 21 Sporting News Radio interview with James Brown, but nonetheless they do mean something: at the tender age of 29, the superfreak still feels like he’s the best receiver on the planet, and he’s healthy again, to boot. So QB Aaron Brooks can’t hit the broad side of a barn from 10 feet away? Moss has made a career of wrapping his hands around off-the-mark passes. That is, unless he’s already given up on the play. The last time Moss was fully healthy for a complete season (2003) he was busy piling up 111 catches, 1,632 yards and 17 TDs – all matching or beating career highs. As with Owens, the risk of resting one’s fantasy fortunes on Moss is huge, but his upside is tremendous.
||Chambers has been productive throughout his career, but he really hit his stride last season with 82 catches, 1,118 yards and 11 TDs – and that was with Gus Frerotte at QB. Now Daunte Culpepper is at the helm and looking like his old self, and the only question that remains is whether or not Culpepper’s reconstructed knee can hold up to the wear-and-tear of a 17-week NFL season. If it doesn’t, then there may be problems as it is now Joey Harrington, not Frerotte, waiting in the wings.
||Wayne was the Colts wideout to own in fantasy play last season until reality prevailed and Harrison re-established himself as the clear-cut No. 1 option in Indy throughout much of the latter half of the campaign. Wayne’s status as the No. 2 WR on the Colts is but a minor inconvenience – he’s a respectable No. 1 option in fantasy play and he’s durable, having played in 64 games in a row. Better yet, Wayne turns only 29 in November, and on an offense with an aging Harrison his production can go nowhere but up. Look for a repeat of last season’s 83-catch, 1,055-yard, 5-touchdown campaign with a slight increase in TDs.
(Note – this listing considers the rankings of WR’s if a draft was held today)
Climbing The Ladder
Doug Gabriel (NE) – A week ago, Gabriel was just another Oakland wideout who was good for an occasional spot start, you just never knew when. Suddenly, he is the most talented wide receiver on the Patriots and should remain as much until holdout WR Deion Branch rejoins the team, which could be months from now. Gabriel is no Branch, but he has the size (6-2, 215) and the athleticism to be a consistent threat. He’ll need to learn the Patriots’ offense in a hurry, but nevertheless he should be on the field for the start of the Pats’ season opener at home on Sunday against Buffalo. Fantasy owners searching for a viable No. 3 WR in Week 1 should likewise hurry and grab Gabriel off the waiver wire if it’s not too late.
Greg Jennings (GB) – The Jennings hype began from the moment he joined the team, and the rookie’s preseason performance (12 catches, 328 yards) was enough to bump Robert Ferguson out of the team’s No. 2 WR spot on Sept. 1. He’s now a starter on a team with a QB (Brett Favre) who’s been known to make the Packers’ No. 2 WR position a valuable source of fantasy points. It may be jumping the gun a bit to start Jennings this weekend when the Packers host the Bears, but nevertheless fantasy owners in need of receiving help should find a way to pull Jennings off the waiver wire (assuming that he’s still there) and onto their squad.
Derrick Mason (BAL) – Mason slid from the ranks of top fantasy wideouts last season – albeit slightly – and he had a pretty darn good excuse. No longer was he on the same offense with long-time pitch-and-catch mate Steve McNair. Nonetheless, Mason’s 86 catches, 1,073 yards and three TDs were nothing to sneeze at, especially with Kyle Boller throwing the ball. Now the Mason-McNair duo has been reunited and word is that the pair wasted little time re-establishing their old chemistry. Expect a return to the seven-TDs-per-season average that Mason rung up in Tennessee from 2000-2004, and another 1,000-yard season is a near-lock, as well. Mason has been banged up this preseason (knee, concussion), but he’s played in 48 straight regular season games and in 138 out of 144 games in his nine-year career, so durability shouldn’t be an issue. Mason should perform at the level of a low-tier No. 1 fantasy wideout throughout the season, which is a gift considering that he’s being drafted as a solid No. 2 fantasy wideout in most leagues.
Hines Ward (PIT) – Doubt Ward’s fantasy prospects openly and a chorus of Ward supporters will point to his toughness, his competitiveness and his history of upper-level fantasy production. That’s all very well, but the cards are really stacked against him in 2006. He’s coming off of a season in which his 11 TD catches disguised what was an otherwise disappointing campaign by his standards (his 69 catches and 975 yards were both his lowest marks since 2000), and his hamstring injury has become more than a lingering concern. Last season was also his first in this century without Plaxico Burress lining up opposite him, which is probably more than just a coincidence. No doubt Ward will be a solid fantasy play for much of 2006 – just don’t expect No. 1 or possibly even No. 2 WR numbers from him.
Deion Branch (NE) – The Patriots/Branch/Branch’s agent saga has grown so complex that it’s going to take a couple of weeks alone just to figure it out. Simply put, the two sides are so far apart and both seemingly so unwilling to budge that the Patriots traded with Oakland for WR Doug Gabriel last week. Reports are that both sides may be willing to wait it out for months, meaning that fantasy owners who have drafted Branch had better be prepared to do the same. If you’re one of those owners, it’s time to grab Gabriel off the waiver wire and hope for the best – which may be a long time coming.
Santana Moss (WAS) – Moss’ overall numbers last season – 84 catches, 1,483 yards, nine TDs – were everything a fantasy owner could hope for in a No. 1 wide receiver. However, upon closer inspection there are more to those stats than meet the eye. After a torrid start through the first six games of the season, Moss was actually a very average wide receiver, statistically speaking, from Week 8 to the end of the season. Take away his three-TD, 160-yard output in Week 16 and he had one 80-yard game and a single touchdown over the last nine weeks of the campaign. New arrivals Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El will no doubt ease the pressure on Moss, but they will also provide QB Mark Brunell with a couple of legitimate targets that he didn’t have a year ago at the wide receiver position. Moss may make a fine No. 2 wideout in fantasy play and should be a must-start more often than not, but don’t expect No. 1 WR fantasy numbers from him again.