No position in fantasy football requires more time to develop and season than wide receiver and the rule of thumb of two years to learn the position is most often true. For every flashy rookie like DeSean Jackson or Eddie Royal there are dozens of other wideouts who require development and who give out signs that they are “taking the final step” towards being a valuable fantasy commodity.
Anthony Gonzalez – The 2007 first round pick by the Colts had a traditional rookie season with 37 catches for 576 yards and three scores but was coming on strong in the final six games. Marvin Harrison is back but has played with obvious eroding skills and has a career low 10.2 yards per catch so far this year. And while Harrison has caught nine of the 15 passes thrown to him, it has been Gonzalez who has been the more heavily used receiver with 20 passes thrown to him for 14 receptions and 185 yards.
He’s only a second year player and yet Gonzalez is already stepping up to become the true complement to Reggie Wayne in the always prolific passing attack of the Colts. Peyton Manning started the 2008 season trying to knock off the rust and Gonzalez will only get better this season – and many more to come.
Matt Jones – The ex-Arkansas quarterback was a first round pick by the Jaguars back in 2005 and he was brought in based on his extreme athleticism. Standing 6’6” and weighing 220 pounds, he ran a 4.36 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. But his first three seasons were always long on potential and short of results. His best year came in 2006 with 41 catches for 643 yards and four scores and then once again he lost his starting job and only had four games with more than two catches last year. He was easy to write off having missed his third year breakout opportunity. The Jaguars even made other plans by acquiring Jerry Porter and Troy Williamson in the offseason.
Topping off his offseason was an arrest for cocaine possession in July that seemed certain to kickoff the final demise of his NFL career. But it hasn’t. In fact Jones became the star of training camp and secured a starting job again. He’s playing with all the passion, focus and skill that the Jaguars have waited three seasons to see. Jones hasn’t scored a touchdown yet this year but leads his team with 20 passes thrown to him for 11 catches and 130 yards – more than twice that of any other team receiver. And those stats came while playing against the Bills and Titans secondary. The struggles of the rushing game in Jacksonville only serve to make the passing game even more important.
Jones is due for a court date on October 10th, but that’s a month away and could end up as a slap on the wrist with any penalty conveniently working around the season. He’s finally seen the light this year even if it was flashing red and blue on top of a police car.
Bryant Johnson – Yet another first round receiver who was drafted in 2003, Johnson was shoved to the side when he did not develop as quickly as Anquan Boldin or Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona. The ex-Penn State star peaked in 2006 when he turned in 740 yards on 40 receptions and scored four times. He dropped to 528 yards on 46 catches last year and finally left the Cardinals when his five year contract expired.
Johnson landed quickly in San Francisco where the home of Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens had become a wasteland for wide receivers. But the 49ers hired Mike Martz to run the offense this year and install his pass-happy scheme that had created superstars in Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Roy Williams. While the flanker role was given to the newly acquired Bruce, the always productive split end job has gone to Johnson who is already starting to payoff for the 49ers.
He still flies under the fantasy radar but Johnson leads the team in pass targets (12) and receptions (9) that have gained 126 yards and scored a touchdown in Seattle last week. Starting quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan has quickly gone from only 195 passing yards in the season opener to 321 yards on the road one week later. The aging Bruce is there to help install the offense and lend a veteran presence. Johnson is there because he is a talented former first-round draft pick in his prime getting a second chance at his NFL career playing split end in the most pass-intensive offense in the league.
Fantasy teams will start to use back-up players because of byes that begin next week and Anthony Gonzalez, Matt Jones and Bryant Johnson are already great fill-ins for your starters. And by the end of the season if not earlier – they will become your starters.