Gut Check #222
By Matt Waldman
July 7th, 2011

The Weekly Gut Check examines the players, strategies and guidelines fantasy football owners use to make personnel decisions.

Profiling WR Breakout Candidates

It's that time of year for another edition of "Profiling WR Breakout Candidates," with your host, The Gut Check. If you're annoyed with my third person reference to myself then you're obviously not ready to delve into the position. Hop onto your Facebook account for half an hour, post some picks of yourself doing something extraordinarily mundane, and caption the photos as if you're being covered by Time and I think you'll have sufficiently boosted your level of narcissism to read about the most me-oriented position in the NFL.

The Fantasy Landscape at WR

Between 2006-2010, an average of 14.4 players made the top-36 list that weren't there the year before. In a three-receiver fantasy league, that gives fantasy owners a 60 percent chance of successfully targeting a receiver who will produce numbers equivalent of a fantasy starter for two years in a row.

The receivers who stuck around each tier for the past 3-4 years:

Ranking
Consecutive Seasons
Top 12
Two
Three
Four
Thru 2010*
3 (25%)
2 (17%)
0 (0%)
Thru 2009*
6 (50%)
8 (67%)
4 (33%)
Top 24
Two
Three
Four
Thru 2010*
12 (50%)
8 (33%)
5 (21%)
Thru 2009*
15 (63%)
10 (42%)
7 (29%)
Top 36
Two
Three
Four
Thru 2010*
22 (61%)
14 (42%)
10 (28%)
Thru 2009*
23 (64%)
18 (50%)
10 (28%)

* "Thru 2010," means 2009-2010 for two consecutive seasons, 2008-2010 for three, and 2007-2010 for four.
* "Thru 2009," means 2008-2009 for two consecutive seasons, 2007-2008 for three, and 2006-2009 for four.

Even with a significant dosage of new blood in 2010 (Brandon Lloyd, Mike Williams, Steve Johnson, Johnny Knox, Michael Crabtree, and Jeremy Maclin), this information should indicate that there has been less movement with the upper echelon receivers. Keep in mind that some of the players who made that attrition rate higher were Dwayne Bowe, Braylon Edwards, and Lance Moore, all top-36 fantasy receivers last year who had been in this tier at least a couple of years ago. Add Vincent Jackson to the mix - an example of player whose contract entanglements eliminated him from contention for production that would otherwise seem like a gimme - and I think the data is strong enough to consider targeting receivers earlier in drafts that many traditionally recommend.

However, there is still enough attrition each year due to injury to remain vigilant about spotting potential breakout candidates.

Thanks to Tony San Nicholas, a fantasy owner I knew years ago who researched which stats were most common to create a breakout candidate profile, I continue to work with his base method while adding my own twist to provide readers a list of players to consider for the coming season. These are the five factors that constitute his profile:

  • 85% of breakout receivers (at least 150 fantasy points) did it between their second and fifth seasons
  • 81% caught at least 41 balls
  • 78% scored at least twice
  • 71% gained 400 yards
  • Five receivers per year reach that 150-point mark per year, on average
  • I believe stats are a good starting point for further investigation. However, opportunity and skill sets are often more important. This is something to remember when viewing any statistical analysis of a player's prospects. I think of stats as a huge fishing net and opportunity and skill sets as the way to sort what you haul in - throwing back what doesn't fit your needs.

    Last year six players reached that 150-point mark. For 2011's list, I will include some players not meeting all of the criteria, but have a significant opportunity to contribute this season. There were three receivers that didn't meet this stat profile in 2009, but got over the hump in 2010: Brandon Lloyd, Steve Johnson, and Tampa rookie Mike Williams.

    Lloyd and Johnson were two players at this time last year I didn't even mention during the spring, and I only listed Williams as one of 3-4 rookies worth watching. However all three were definitely on my radar by August.

    Of the players that did meet the profile in 2010, Hakeem Nicks was my bull's eye; Bowe, Maclin, and Britt were projected starters in three-receiver lineups; and Harvin, Collie, Garcon, and Crabtree also produced as starters. If you're scoring at home that's 7 of 11 candidates who I pegged as top-36 receivers early in the summer. Although a breakout season is 150 points, which is akin to top 10-15 numbers, I felt my analysis and that 7 for 11 completion percentage. I'll take that every year.

    Dwayne Bowe

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    KC
    72
    1162
    15
    206.6

    The TDs might drop but I don't think the receptions and yards will next year. Bowe finally saw the light.

    Hakeem Nicks

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    NYG
    79
    1052
    11
    171.2

    A big-play possession receiver with his career on the upswing.

    Jeremy Maclin

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Phi
    70
    964
    10
    160.0

    Provided the reliable complement to DeSean Jackson's low-reception, high-yardage, so-so TD totals.

    Percy Harvin

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Min
    71
    868
    5
    133.5

    At the low end of the range I projected Harvin, but I'm sold on him as a solid starter for years to come.

    Kenny Britt

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Ten
    42
    775
    9
    131.5

    Just imagine if warrants were worth as much as receptions in fantasy leagues?

    Pierre Garcon

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Ind
    67
    784
    6
    115.0

    Minor injuries and inconsistent play put Garcon's progress in a holding pattern in `10.

    Austin Collie

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Ind
    58
    649
    8
    112.9

    Three concussions derailed what was shaping up as a top-5 season.

    Michael Crabtree

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    SF
    55
    751
    6
    110.1

    Hovering within range, but he'll need help.

    Mike Sims-Walker

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Jac
    43
    562
    7
    98.2

    Infighting and minor ails limited Sims-Walker and his tenure in J-ville appears over.

    Robert Meachem

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    NO
    44
    638
    5
    95.2

    Athletic tease in system that spreads it around. Leery he'll ever get over hump.

    Steve Breaston

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Ari
    47
    718
    1
    82.2

    Injuries and sub par QB play held Breaston back.

    Didn't Breakout Last Year, But Worth Monitoring

    Before we get to the preliminary list of receivers that met the statistical profile, here are 26 receivers that didn't meet all of the criteria in 2010, but might make the leap if they overcome the obstacles I listed for each. Most of these guys I wouldn't count on for significantly better production in 2011.

    Nate Burleson

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Det
    55
    625
    6
    106.6

    The skill is there, the durability was better, but the QB durability was absent. Don't get too excited.

    Anthony Armstrong

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Was
    44
    871
    3
    105.1

    Emerged from nowhere and he may return to nowhere as quickly, but monitor closely.

    Nate Washington

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Ten
    52
    687
    6
    103.9

    Young offense and new QB makes him a mild wild card at best.

    Jabar Gaffney

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Den
    65
    875
    2
    99.5

    Way beyond fifth year and Eric Decker a better talent, but can contribute if necessary.

    Mike Sims-Walker

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Jac
    43
    562
    7
    98.2

    Great talent. Will a new situation help? Might be a low-risk bargain at this point.

    James Jones

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    GB
    50
    679
    5
    97.9

    Great offense, but still at least no better than fourth in pecking order if he stays.

    Robert Meachem

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    NO
    44
    638
    5
    95.2

    What's different this year that he'll bust out of the Saints' WR platoon?

    Kevin Walter

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Hou
    51
    621
    5
    92.1

    The Texans still like Jacoby Jones to progress and that's enough to limit Walter's upside.

    Eddie Royal

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Den
    59
    627
    3
    86.8

    Needs a lot of injuries and time in the film room to progress and produce more.

    Josh Morgan

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    SF
    44
    698
    1
    83.5

    Needs good QB play in a good system and Crabtree commanding double-teams.

    Louis Murphy

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Oak
    41
    609
    2
    77.2

    Will be second fiddle to Jacoby Ford and third fiddle to the ground game.

    Brandon Gibson

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    StL
    53
    620
    2
    76.8

    Needs St. Louis depth chart to turn into a M*A*S*H unit. It has happened before.

    Ben Obomanu

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Sea
    30
    494
    4
    75.1

    Needs players projected to earn time in front of him to get hurt.

    Devin Hester

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Chi
    40
    475
    4
    74.5

    Needs to return to FT special teams. Lacks starter-caliber skill sets at WR.

    Brian Hartline

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Mia
    43
    615
    1
    70.2

    Clearly behind Bess and Marshall.

    Jordy Nelson

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    GB
    45
    582
    2
    70.2

    Might lose time to Jones and rookie Randall Cobb. Decent player but stuck.

    David Gettis

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Car
    37
    508
    3
    69.0

    Physical talent, but QB play needs to improve significant. Think 2012-2013.

    Blair White

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Ind
    36
    355
    5
    65.5

    Demonstrated heady play as a UDFA but needs injuries ahead of him to see field.

    Mohamed Massaquoi

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Cle
    36
    483
    2
    65.5

    Rookie Greg Little needs to share some of his excessive intensity with MoMass.

    Jason Avant

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Phi
    51
    573
    1
    63.3

    Will have same role as bye-week filler and might lose some looks to Riley Cooper.

    Deon Butler

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Sea
    36
    385
    4
    63.1

    Miraculously quick recovery would be a start.

    Michael Jenkins

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Atl
    41
    505
    2
    62.5

    Greg Little could spare more of that excessive intensity. Jenkins should take a number and get in line.

    Arrelious Benn

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    TB
    25
    395
    2
    55.0

    Flashed a little bit before injury. Wait 'til 2012.

    David Nelson

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Buf
    31
    353
    3
    53.3

    I'm partial to Roscoe Parrish, but Nelson is a good in-case-of-injury guy.

    Emmanuel Sanders

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Pit
    28
    376
    2
    49.6

    I really like him, but Hines Ward is back for one more year. Sanders will improve, but wait until `12

    Brandon LaFell

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Car
    38
    468
    1
    48.8

    The QB situation, Steve Smith's impending departure, and impending WR free agent clouds his upside.

    Darrius Heyward-Bey

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Oak
    26
    366
    1
    47.4

    He's on the slower version of the Robert Meachem track at best.

    Jerome Simpson

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Cin
    20
    277
    3
    45.9

    No. 2 to Green, No. 3 to Shipley, No. 4 to Gresham, or does Ochocinco return?

    Damian Williams

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Ten
    16
    219
    0
    22.4

    Williams could lead Tennessee in receiving this year if Britt gets disciplined, but take "could" lightly.

    Despite my relative pessimism with most of this list, here are players I would consider on draft day because there's enough talent level to mix with potential opportunity.

    Nate Burleson, Lions: We've seen that Burleson has after-the-catch skills, good hands, and sound route running. Matt Stafford likes him and if the Vikings can benefit from a healthy ground game that produces, Burleson could earn more targets. Titus Young might be an exciting prospect to the less savvy fantasy drafter, but he's a limited player at this stage. He might provide some big games, but I doubt he has the he has the route skills to become a consistent producer in 2011. Burleson is that low-risk, high-upside player available in the late rounds who can provide bye-week production even if he doesn't reach the 900 yards and 10 touchdowns that it will take for a breakout performance. Although his injuries have held him back, he continues to be a smart choice where you can grab him.

    Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars: The soon-to-be former Jaguar had everything you'd want from an emerging primary receiver save the durability. Now he's earning a reputation as somewhat difficult to work with. Whether or not it is true, it is getting play in the media and will make Sims-Walker might become a less desirable free agent with this combo of being injury- and drama-prone. The best place I could imagine Walker landing is Chicago where they have big play threats in Devin Hester and Johnny Knox and an underneath possession guy like Earl Bennett. However, the Bears lack the true primary receiver who can do it all. Sims-Walker has that potential and if he finds a home in a WR-needy environment, he could be a bargain - especially in a place like Chicago where he could fly under the radar as fantasy owners still tout the viability of players with half his skill set.

    James Jones, Packers: Jones had his share of drops, but he's fast, physical, and emerging young player I think an NFL team will find is worth acquiring as a potential starter - especially an NFC North team like the Bears or Vikings who could enjoy learning what he can tell them about the Packers offense. The possibility that the Packers won't try to bring him back and they drafted a receiver like Randall Cobb to prepare for it is not a glowing endorsement. However, there's a lot more we need to learn to draw that conclusion. It's this fuzzy outlook that makes him a higher risk choice.

    Ben Obomanu, Seahawks: Likely a first-off-the-bench reserve, Obomanu demonstrated big-play ability (16.5 YPC) that helped fantasy owners last year. Like his former running mate at Auburn Devin Aromashodu, Obomanu was a strictly a perimeter player last year. Seattle signed Obomanu a three-year extension, but Golden Tate and Kris Durham are players Seattle hopes can provide more versatile presence opposite Mike Williams. I don't think they picked wisely at receiver. Tate reminds me of Early Doucet - a great athlete with good concentration, but not a refined hands catcher who will need additional work. If Matt Hasselbeck returns, Obomanu is a player to take at the end of your draft because his rapport with the veteran QB and his speed could make him as valuable as receivers taken in the mid-rounds.

    Anthony Armstrong, Redskins: The 28 year-old rookie had an impressive year for a moribund Washington squad. There's not much veteran competition for Armstrong in 2011, but Leonard Hankerson and Niles Paul are talented enough to make process difficult for Armstrong if he rests on his laurels. I don't think he will and as of now he's on my list to consider. But the quarterback situation and impending free agency period doesn't make him a lock. Donovan McNabb is a good deep ball thrower but barring an offseason trade, John Beck or Rex Grossman will start for Washington. Beck demonstrated strong anticipation and decent zip at BYU and could be a reasonably good match for what Armstrong showed he could do vertically.

    Rookies

    In 2010, four rookies were good enough to make an impact on fantasy leagues and the two I already didn't mention above will be on the preliminary list of breakout candidates for 2011. Mike Williams was one of those rare rookies with top-tier production. This year we have talents in good situations to produce in year one. Bengals rookie A.J. Green, Falcons draft pick Julio Jones, Greg Little of the Browns, and Redskins receivers Leonard Hankerson and Niles Paul are likely in the best situations to prove they can produce.

    Of the five, I believe Green is the most talented and in the best situation to see a lot of targets. However, the new offensive coordinator and potential turnover at receiver and quarterback are the biggest question marks. Jones is in the best situation to see big play targets because of the surrounding talent, but I don't believe the Falcons are going to take flight in the manner Roddy White has been touting. I think Jones has Michael Jenkins-like numbers, plus another 100 yards and 2 TDs. This would place him in the range of the 50th-60th fantasy wide receivers for most seasons. Hankerson and Paul have talent, but I won't be targeting them until I hear something more about the Redskin's rookie duo that gives me a better reason to do so. Hankerson is more well rounded a talent but has to show more consistency with routes and hands. Paul is a better athlete than Hankerson, but his route skills are more limited.

    That leaves Greg Little, who I think is physically as talented as A.J. Green and Julio Jones but was too immature to maximize his his opportunities at North Carolina on a consistent basis. If he has truly learned to become a more focused, professional, and accountable person, he could be the best player on the Browns receiving squad right now. This status could make him the top-producing rookie in the 2011 fantasy football season. At UNC Little's intensity boiled over too often, but I think if he's truly focused he could become a monster at the position.

    This is going to scare some old-time fantasy owners, but Little reminds me physically of Michael Westbrook. Man did I have a fantasy football crush on Michael Westbrook. Physically, Westbrook was so good but he didn't love the game. Now he's teaching Brazilian Jiu-jitsu after having one really strong season in 1999 couched between several more disappointing ones. Little has that kind of talent. Hopefully he loves the game enough to maximize his potential. The Browns offense is reportedly very similar if not the same in words and calls, which should give Little an easier transition that could immediately get him on the field. If you're going to take a chance on a non-rookie runner, Little is one of the first I would consider with one significant caveat:

    Maturity.

    I'm following Little on Twitter and he already has called Jim Rome a clown. Even if he's right, it's just best if he learns to ignore the media. A lot of young players are more concerned with perception than production. If Little begins making headlines for the wrong reasons, be careful. It's just another reason why A.J. Green is a safer choice all around.

    2011 Breakout Candidates: The Preliminary List

    The receivers on this list not in bold are between their second and fifth season and had at least 41 receptions, 400 yards, and two scores in 2009. Those in italic are players I believe have the talent and situation to consider despite not meeting the criteria.

    Kenny Britt

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Ten
    42
    775
    9
    131.5

    QB and new coaches aside, his greatest obstacle might be the NFL's personal conduct policy.

    Percy Harvin

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Min
    71
    868
    5
    133.5

    Migraines and a young QB temper enthusiasm, but look what he did with Joe Webb and you'll feel a little better.

    Johnny Knox

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Chi
    51
    960
    5
    126.2

    He wasn't a complete receiver as of last year, but he's still mighty dangerous and a decent WR4.

    Mike Thomas

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Jac
    66
    820
    4
    117.4

    Thomas and Bess are similar players in offenses where they may never see No. 1 numbers. Good picks, not much upside.

    Pierre Garcon

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Ind
    67
    784
    6
    115.0

    I'd rather have Collie, but if Collie gets hurt Garcon is capable of high-end WR2 production if he becomes more consistent.

    Austin Collie

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Ind
    58
    649
    8
    112.9

    Three concussions will scare folks off, but not me. He has a chance to be a WR1 this year.

    Davone Bess

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Mia
    80
    817
    6
    111.7

    Love what Bess does, especially on third down. But I'm not convinced Miami will maximize his potential.

    Michael Crabtree

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    SF
    55
    741
    6
    110.1

    On another team Crabtree is a 1000-yard receiver this year. We'll see if Jim Harbaugh's arrival makes SF a different squad.

    Danny Amendola

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    StL
    85
    689
    3
    95.0

    I don't think Amendola is in the same class as Thomas and Bess, but he's paired with a better starting QB and coordinator.

    Dez Bryant

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Dal
    45
    561
    6
    92.1

    Should be a no-brainer, but off-field concerns might temper enthusiasm. Not mine.

    Mike Williams

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Sea
    65
    751
    2
    87.1

    I think he finally figured out how to be a pro and he's been reportedly working hard this offseason.

    Jacoby Ford

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Oak
    25
    470
    2
    88.1

    I was so wrong about Ford last year. He looked like a different player in Oakland. That said Al Davis' Raiders temper my joy until he can hire a coach who stands up to "Just Win, Baby."

    Steve Breaston

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Ari
    47
    718
    1
    82.2

    If the Cardinals add a quality starter at quarterback I like Breaston. If not, his production isn't going to move much from here unless he's elsewhere.

    Earl Bennett

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Chi
    46
    561
    3
    75.0

    Can he double these totals? Not if Chicago brings in quality free agent.

    Jacoby Jones

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Hou
    51
    562
    3
    74.9

    He inched closer to showing us loyal fans that he's worth waiting on. Is this the year? I think he'll progress another notch.

    Jordon Shipley

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    CIN
    52
    600
    3
    78.0

    The focus might be on Amendola as that sneaky slot guy for fantasy leagues, but consider Shipley, too.

    Brandon Tate

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    NE
    24
    432
    3
    67.4

    Highly talented, but predicting the Patriots offense is useless. Draft late as a breakout flier.

    Roscoe Parrish

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Buf
    33
    392
    2
    55.5

    Give Mike Thomas or Davone Bess to Chan Gailey and they might be 1000-yard guys. Parrish is worth that low-risk chance.

    Mark Clayton

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    StL
    23
    306
    2
    43.2

    Either Clayton or Alexander will likely be the big play guy in Josh McDaniel's offense.

    Danario Alexander

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    StL
    20
    306
    1
    36.6

    See above.

    Jason Hill

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Jac
    11
    248
    1
    30.8

    Talent finally about to earn a chance.

    Eric Decker

    Team
    Recs
    Yards
    TDs
    Fpts
    Den
    6
    106
    1
    16.6

    I think he beats Gaffney for the WR2 spot and at least earns 50-700-5 in year two of his career.

    If 2011 follows the trend of 2006-2010, 14-15 receivers who didn't have top-36 production in 2009 will be on the list this year. It means several of these 20 breakout candidates who were in the top 36 last year, won't be there this year. I'm rating these players from least to most likely to make the leap.

    Red Tags In Their Lockers

    Danario Alexander, Rams: If healthy enough, Alexander has the athleticism to produce fantasy starter numbers in three-receiver lineups. I want to see Alexander last a year before I count on him as anything more than a late-round reach for the sky. I think most feel that way right now. It's when he has a few nice moments in the preseason where the irrational behavior is going to peak and the ADP jumps. Mark Clayton is the Rams receiver I'd prefer to take this year. Alexander might show that he's finally over his injury issues but multiple knee surgeries this early in his life makes it difficult for me to be optimistic on draft day.

    Brandon Tate, Patriots: There was a lot to like about Tate at North Carolina prior to his injury. There hasn't been much to see of him since. If New England doesn't add a Steve Smith, Santana Moss, Chad Ochocinco, or Randy Moss then Tate could have another chance to start opposite Deion Branch. However, it will still make him the fourth or fifth option at best - at least until he demonstrates that he's elevated his game to a level that deserves more targets. He's a late-round flier at this point.

    Danny Amendola, Rams: In PPR leagues Amendola gets bump to the next category because 85 receptions in 2010 is a nice total. However, 689 yards and 3 touchdowns off that catch total leaves me unimpressed. In contrast, Jordon Shipley had only 89 fewer yards on 33 fewer receptions with the same amount of scores. I'm not convinced we're looking at the next Wes Welker unless the uninspiring crew of St. Louis reserves filling in for Mark Clayton and Donnie Avery made it more difficult for Amendola to get better opportunities. I'm willing to believe that explanation for now, but not enough to take him before rounds 12-14 in non-PPR leagues.

    Roscoe Parrish, Bills: Here's a guy I like more than Danny Amendola because I think he'll do more with his receptions. At the rate Parrish was producing before a season-ending injury, he would likely have made a decent WR4 in most leagues for a full season. I don't see a ton of upside for Parrish, but he'll be handy in a fix. I'm sure Damon Runyon (see Literary Style section) would agree.

    Earl Bennett, Bears: Mike Martz believes Bennett will see more time in the starting lineup and become a significant part of the offense. In some respects he survived Devin Aromashodu and Devin Hester and appeared to be a more valued receiver as 2010 came to a close. The problem I have with the Bears receivers is that neither Bennett nor Johnny Knox demonstrates versatile skills alone. Combine these two into one player and you have a primary receiver capable of top-15 fantasy production. But as much as beat writers want to label Martz a mad scientist, I doubt that we're going to see 'Earl Knox' anytime soon unless his real name is Sidney Rice, Mike Sims-Walker, or Steve Breaston. Therefore, I think Bennett's production is limited to 800-900 yards and I don't see double-digit touchdowns in his future to bring that value to breakout status. However, those projections are if Bennett looks great and the offense is clicking.

    This narrows the field to 18 receivers that I think are capable of breaking into the top 48 in 2010.

    Skilled, But the Stars Must Align Exactly (Projected top 36-48)

    Jordon Shipley, Bengals: I'm not buying Peter King's assertion that Andy Dalton is the next Drew Brees. Nor does the Gruden family infatuation with Dalton bump his value a notch in my book. I think Dalton can become an average NFL quarterback with work and experience. What this means for Shipley in 2011 is a lot of Amendola-like opportunities. His stat total of 52-600-3 was nice last year. I'm thinking 70-800-6 can put Shipley very close to a top-36 standing at the end of the year. However, that's his upside opposite rookie A.J. Green sans T.O. and Ochocinco.

    Jacoby Jones, Texans: It's the same storyline for Jones for the third year in a row. He's supremely talented and in a great offensive system. He has to convince Gary Kubiak that he's ready to become the clear-cut outside presence opposite Andre Johnson. If he does this, all the talk about Owen Daniels having a monstrous year could be hot air. Then again, if Daniels does get his, Andre Johnson does his usual thing, and Arian Foster reprises a top-10 RB performance, Matt Schaub could be an elite fantasy producer if Jones figures it out and gets into yardage territory of 700-800. I'd say Jones is a healthier version of Danario Alexander with less upside barring an Andre Johnson injury. If Johnson goes down, Jones could be a fantasy revelation.

    Davone Bess, Dolphins: Mr. Third Down Conversion is one of my favorite short players in the NFL. SMU head coach June Jones compared Bess with Andre Rison when the Dolphins third-year receiver was playing for Jones at Hawaii. Bess has strength for his size, quickness, and excellent concentration. His skill to find the openings in zone is becoming his calling card. Put Bess in Amendola's job in St. Louis and you're looking a guy who could produce top-20 fantasy stats from the slot. However, Miami lacks that kind of talent and imagination in the passing offense.

    Steve Breaston, Cardinals: If Breaston goes to Chicago he could sneak into the bottom end of my top 36, but in Arizona I still don't like him as anything more than a WR4 even if the Cardinals find themselves a worthwhile starting quarterback. I'm more wary of the system than Breaston, who has proven to be a tough guy between the hashes with the athleticism to make big plays when set up to do so. Then there's Andre Roberts, who is training with Larry Fitzgerald and has the talent to put a dent in Breaston's opportunities.

    Eric Decker, Broncos: I want to rank Decker higher because I think he has starter ability to produce as a WR2 for much of his career. He's a future Donald Driver-Muhsin Muhammad (I like Cecil Lammey's comparison) type of guy in the right offense. I just don't think Decker will skyrocket that far up the stat sheet this year because the Broncos offense won't be as wide-open. However, I think Decker will eventually win the job opposite Brandon Lloyd and have enough good games late in the season that he becomes and oft-mentioned, emerging receiver on the lips of most NFL writers and analysts in 2012. I'd rank him closer to the top 36 than the top 48.

    Good, But Don't Go Overboard (Projected Top 25-36)

    Pierre Garcon, Colts: Last year I wrote that most people believed Garcon was the safer pick than Collie, but with Manning's skill to find the open receiver, I thought Collie had savvy beyond his years. Collie was a fantasy monster before his multiple concussions ruined his fantasy season. Garcon was a viable WR3 as a result of Collie's absence, but he wasn't as consistent as his owners hoped.

    If Collie, Dallas Clark, and Reggie Wayne remain healthy, I doubt Garcon cracks the fantasy top 20 at his position. However, he possesses the big-play ability and knowledge to come up big in several games. He probably won't reach his 67-784-5 from 2010 if the rest of the Colts receiving corps play as capable. Expect 48-600-5, but the upside of 75-950-8 if he takes over for an injured Wayne or Collie early. He's one of those upside handcuffs at receiver with decent bye-week production at worst.

    Mike Thomas, Jaguars: There is a lot of talk about Mike Thomas as the de facto No. 1 WR in Jacksonville in 2011. His 66 catches for 820 yards and 4 touchdowns was a significant increase in production from his 48-453-1, rookie year - more than doubling his fantasy production and placing him No. 36 among fantasy receivers in his second season. I thought Mike Thomas had more Steve Smith (Carolina) potential within him than those who regarded the Arizona Wildcat a future slot receiver. Thomas demonstrated flashes of ability to win the deep ball in tight coverage in college that caught my eye. However, his use in the Jaguars offense doesn't reflect that kind of confidence in Thomas as a downfield threat.

    Thomas had four games with a yard per catch average over 14 yards and only one game with a reception over 40 yards, and that was the game-winning Hail Mary play against the Texans. In contrast, Jason Hill had two receptions over 40 yards in the five games he had a reception. Hill also had four games with a catch over 25 yards; only one less than Thomas' total in 16 games. This has a lot to do with Thomas' role in the offense, but to target a short receiver on deep routes requires a lot of confidence and rapport between the receiver and quarterback. Unless we learn that Garrard and Thomas have worked hard on this aspect of their connection, it is difficult to count on Thomas becoming much more than what he did for the Jaguars last year.

    If Jason Hill fulfills that big play role successfully, then Thomas can earn more opportunities underneath to gain yardage after the catch, but with Marcedes Lewis as another intermediate/underneath presence, I don't see Thomas exceeding more than a 5-catch per game average and if you increase his 2010 ypc to 13 yards, that barely puts Thomas over 1000. Since Lewis and Maurice Jones Drew are the likeliest red zone targets, projecting more than 6 scores for Thomas is too risky.

    What this means to me is that Thomas at best is a 148-fantasy point player in non-PPR leagues, just barely below the breakout threshold. However, to reach that total Thomas needs one of the following:

  • David Garrard to have a Pro Bowl-caliber season.
  • His teammates at receiver and tight end to get hurt early in the season.
  • Blaine Gabbert to be a revelation early.
  • None of these scenarios are likely, which means Thomas in `11 is more of the same - give or take 5 catches, 80 yards, and 2 touchdowns -probably good enough as a No. 3 receiver, but there's not much upside unless the Steve Smith gene is activated.

    Michael Crabtree, 49ers: According to those around the 49ers, Crabtree's foot injury is more than soreness and it could be a worrisome factor in his 2011 season. This knocks the third-year receiver a notch down my board. The fact Alex and Troy Smith are the likely candidates for the starting job in San Francisco also keeps his potential in a holding pattern. Then there's the concern from some that he lacks the work ethic to become the player he's capable. One camp claims he's immature and lacks the desire. Another camp claims he's a loner, but works at his craft.

    Last year, I was excited about Crabtree's 48 catches, 625 yards and 2 scores in 11 games without mini-camp or training camp. But his 2010 season was 55 receptions, 741 yards, and 6 scores and while it was better production he had five additional games to earn it. Some of the problem was the offense, which didn't always target the young receiver. Crabtree had five games with less than three catches and nine games with less than four. Jim Harbaugh should be capable of remedying that situation.

    His ceiling this year is probably 80 catches, 1150 yards, and 8 scores, but there are four major questions regarding Crabtree: the offensive system; the quarterback; his health and his desire? That's too many for me to get excited about him at this stage of the summer. Even if I'm willing to believe he'll be healthy and he has the heart to play the game at a high level, I'm not sold on Alex Smith turning the corner. That puts a significant damper on my expectations. Think 65 catches, 900 yards, and 7 scores as a more appropriate upside.

    Jason Hill, Jaguars: In 2009, Mike Sims-Walker had 63 receptions, 869 yards, and 7 scores as a Jacksonville Jaguar. Only 12 of those receptions were over 20 yards. Five of Hill's 11 receptions in 2010 were over 20 yards. It isn't a good comparison of data, but it does give us a hint that Hill's role in his limited time with Jacksonville was that of a deep play threat and his 22.5-ypc on 11 catches is more evidence of that fact. This is also correlates to the Jason Hill I've been touting for four years. The Jason Hill at Washington State who demonstrated a lot of skill on vertical and deep intermediate routes.

    No one got to see this skill in San Francisco where he averaged no more than 10.6 ypc in any given season there. Mike Martz liked him a lot. Mike Nolan didn't. Mike Singletary didn't. But Jack Del Rio and David Garrard talk about getting Hill like the Jaguars pulled off a heist. I think the Jaguars feel fine about their offense and I would be surprised if they add a player in free agency who is considered an upgraded to Hill.

    I believe Hill has primary wide receiver upside for the Jaguars, but it is likely he, Thomas, Lewis, and Jones-Drew account for 75 percent of the receiving yardage with each in the range of 600-800 yards. Where Mike Thomas is likely an 800-yard, 5-touchdown player, I see Hill as an 800-yard 10-touchdown guy if Garrard performs at the top of his game, which I would project as a 3600-yard passing year.

    Jacksonville's QB situation, sieve for a defense, and Hill's unproven stat line in the NFL makes the fifth-year wide receiver a terrific low-risk, high-reward investment in fantasy drafts because these factors I just stated will likely keep his average draft position in check. He's definitely on my list of players to acquire because what I always saw from Hill has been a poor man's Isaac Bruce (maybe that's Derrick Mason). He may never be a 1400-yard, 15-TD receiver, but I think 1000-1200 yards and 10 scores is possible as his career progresses in Jacksonville. It won't happen this year, but he'll be serving notice that it's more likely than most people currently imagine.

    Kenny Britt, Titans: The Human Warrant will be subject to the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy despite his activities occurring during the lockout. Britt may receive a suspension has small as 1-3 games, but where there's smoke there's fire and I don't think the fire department has even arrived on the scene. If Britt only misses a small number of games he's likely working with a new quarterback and one of those candidates will be rookie Jake Locker. Britt did didn't arrive in shape for camp last season, so he better be doing more than highway sprints from the door of his car at the shoulder of highways. Last year I said Britt's most optimistic production for 2010 would be 800-900 yards. I have the same expectations of Britt in 2011, at best. He is capable of last year's numbers but I'd keep that as his upside due to the issues I mentioned above. If I can get him as a WR4 behind a great corps of receivers then I think that's the best strategy.

    Jacoby Ford, Raiders: The second-year Clemson star is probably on everyone's list of emerging wide receivers for 2011. I'll admit that I didn't see the behaviors at Clemson that Ford exhibited in Oakland. Ford appeared to be a far tougher and more determined player than I concluded. His mentality in the first Chiefs match up where he willed the Raiders to victory with a 6-catch, 148-yard performance was notice to the league that he might be more than a special teams player.

    Ford only had one more 100-yard game, but he did scored four touchdowns as a non-special teams player in the next 7 games despite averaging just over 2 catches per contest in that span. This is what worries me. Is Ford going to earn enough targets to reach 60-80 catches where his big play ability will be worth counting on? I think it's a fair question and one that fantasy owners will need to answer before they select him.

    Bernard Berrian had a 20.1 ypc during his first year in Minnesota. His stats were 48-964-7. Nice numbers on a low catch count, but he never really built on that season. What you have to ask yourself is Ford a Bernard Berrian or is he a Steve Smith (Carolina) who once posted an 18.2 ypc with a stat total of 78-1421-6 in 2008?

    You'll have difficulty convincing me that Ford can reach Smith's total without a Muhsin Muhammad-like complement and much better play from Jason Campbell. However, I think Ford showed more versatility as a rookie than Berrian has his entire NFL career. But Ford will need to see at least four catches per game to get me interested in his potential. Fortunately, that appears to be the plan.

    Four catches per game would be 64 receptions for the year. That's a healthy number if Ford can repeat a nice yards per catch average. However, anticipating him to repeat an 18-ypc or higher at that figure is not likely because to reach 64 catches, Ford will need to be targeted on a lot more higher percentage passes, which will be far shorter in range.

    My expectations for the Raiders' newest deep threat are tempered. If his ypc remains in the range of 18 yards then I doubt he'll exceed 50 catches. If he exceeds 60 catches I bet his average per reception is likely 14-15 yards. Either way we're looking at a 900-yard maximum. Good numbers, but not necessarily top 20 without a nice touchdown total. I'm putting him close to the Oh-So-Close category, but he's not there yet.

    Johnny Knox, Bears: I thought Knox would be in the range of 700-800 yards last year. He earned 951 and cracked the top-24. It could be reasonable to presume that Knox will take another step and become a true primary threat capable of knocking on the top-12, but I don't see it in him. He's still not as versatile of a threat as the top NFL pass catchers ahead of him. Consider the logic in my Jacoby Ford explanation. I think a repeat performance is a good bet. It makes him a solid fantasy starter, just not a breakout player.

    Oh-So-Close (Top 20)

    Mark Clayton, Rams: Clayton and Jason Hill are somewhat similar stories last year. Clayton briefly showed his stuff early and got hurt while Hill got his brief chance late in the year. I think it is natural to be more optimistic about Clayton because one can rationalize the injury as the reason he didn't do more. However, I could easily see Clayton and Hill trading positions on this list when the season is over.

    Then why is Clayton ranked higher for me? Josh McDaniel's skill for taking a player with good straight-line speed and rapport with the starting quarterback and finding situations for him to consistently thrive (Brandon Lloyd). Now the Broncos starter adjusts to the football on intermediate and deep routes better than any receiver in the league save possibly Larry Fitzgerald. I haven't seen this rare talent from Clayton.

    What Clayton possesses is better after the catch skill as a runner and a more talented quarterback in Sam Bradford. With speedsters like Donnie Avery and Danario Alexander healthy, opposing safeties could have a very difficult time focusing on Clayton, which will give him a lot of single coverage in the intermediate and deep-intermediate range of the field.

    Although Clayton has the better QB at this point and a better offensive mind drawing up the plays, he still has more downside than the players I've placed ahead of him. That said, I have a difficult time thinking he'll earn less than 850 yards and 7 scores in 2010. I'm more inclined to believe he'll be a 1000-yard receiver with 8-10 scores if everything goes right for him.

    Percy Harvin, Vikings: Sigmund Bloom brought up an excellent point about Harvin a few weeks ago on the Audible when he was discussing my appreciation for the receiver's vast potential when he entered the league. Despite working with the likes of Joe Webb at quarterback from weeks 11-17, Harvin had some of his most productive games of the year. This was without Randy Moss and Brett Favre, mind you.

    Whether the Vikings use Christian Ponder, Webb, or acquire a veteran like Bruce Gradkowski to run the offense, I think Harvin has demonstrated the right mix of skills to make plays outside, over the middle, in the red zone, and at any range of depth. The only concern is his chronic migraines and whether there are contact-induced or will progressively get worse throughout his career.

    Harvin has been migraine free for months. The skeptic will point to the lack of football as the factor. However, Harvin told Ed Miller of the Virginian-Pilot, "This is the best I've felt, probably, since I've been in kindergarten…There were a couple of things they found in my neck that I won't get into - some things they found and fixed, along with diet and the rest of the things that can cause them."

    The key part of this quote to me is that Harvin cites his early childhood as the range of time he hasn't felt this good. This means he's had migraines when he wasn't playing football and using the sport as a reason for his problems is erroneous. Of course, it might not be a bad thing say around your league mates all summer. Maybe he'll fall to you as a WR3-WR4, who is likely to produce WR2 stats. If the Vikings acquire a veteran QB of Matt Hasselbeck's caliber, he could become a WR1.

    Marquee Talents (Top 15)

    Mike Williams, Seahawks: The Seahawks lack a quality receiver opposite him, he might lose quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, and he only scored two touchdowns last year. I don't care about any of that because Mike Williams finally "gets it." He's reportedly working his tail off to stay in shape and that means he's going to be ready to build upon a 65-catch 751-yard season where he displayed moments that you would expect from a 6-5, 235-pounder with big mitts.

    Examples of what I'm talking about include his 10-catch performance against the Bears and two, 11-catch days against the Cardinals. These were games where Williams frequently out-muscled defenders who knew the ball was coming his way, but couldn't do anything about it. Williams also compiled these season highs despite missing some games due to a minor injury.

    Williams will never have the speed of a Vincent Jackson or Calvin Johnson, but I do expect he'll gain some speed now that he's had an entire year of dedication to his body. I also believe he'll earn more reps with the No. 1 QB in Seattle, which should enhance his rapport with the passer when it comes to red zone looks.

    I think 80-100 catches for 1000 yards and 8-12 scores is a strong likelihood for Williams even if he's performing with a younger quarterback or a veteran other than Hasselbeck. The reason is that he's going to be the best receiver the Seahawks have and his game is built for dealing with tight coverage and fighting for the ball. The best part is that you won't have to draft Williams like he's a top-15 receiver.

    Dez Bryant, Cowboys: He might be temperamental. And as evidenced, he can be an off-field pain in the rear. But when he's on the field there's no question that he is capable of being one of the best receivers in the game. Bryant is a physical, fast, and glue-fingered receiver with desire to win in coverage or the open field. And you don't need me to convince you if you saw him play, because the truth is evident in his game.

    The Dallas quarterbacks saw it enough to feed him the ball an average of nearly four times per game as a rookie. With Miles Austin and Jason Witten accompanying him, Bryant should be a shoe-in for 1000 yards and 10 scores. If Tony Romo stays healthy, Jason Garrett now has enough control to make this a strong offense and Bryant, Witten, and Austin are all capable of 1000 yards. The only worry is Bryant off the field. I'm not sure what else you want me to tell you.

    Austin Collie, Colts: Here is what I had to say about Collie last year:

    This is the same story I told with Anthony Gonzalez last year: Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark are options A and B with Peyton Manning. As much as I love Collie's hands, work ethic and ability to find the open seam, Pierre Garcon has the downfield athleticism and size to be option "C" to Collie's option "C1." And this is all said presuming Anthony Gonzalez doesn't return to form and challenge Collie or Garcon for more time on the field. This is the kind of offense and pairing with a quarterback where Collie could easily be a 1,100-1,200 yard receiver, but not with all of this talent on the depth chart. Unless Manning learns to throw two balls at the same time, Collie is nothing more than a valuable reserve in 2010.

    I was right and wrong. He was easily on his way to an 1100-1200 yard season. However, I didn't think the potential for it was 2010. Now everyone is worried that his three-concussion season has robbed Collie of his potential. I think it was a valid concern between the time of the third concussion and the time that Collie dismissed the concerns he'd retire as crazy talk and the Colts didn't draft anyone else of note at the position.

    I sure hope everyone I compete against is extra cautious with Collie as draft pick. He has more vertical speed than Wes Welker, as good of a quarterback as Welker, and better hands. And when you have two players like Collie and Manning who work their tails off to learn each other's tendencies and the tendencies of the defense, you're going to see a lot of quick passes for big plays as well as accurate throws in the red zone in tight coverage. Bryant might out produce Collie, but I don't think it will be by as large of a margin as most think.

    Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to waldman@footballguys.com.

    Our FREE daily email is packed with all the fantasy analysis you need.

    © 2011 Footballguys - All Rights Reserved