Gut Check #225
By Matt Waldman
July 31st, 2011

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

Dangerous Plays - Wide Receivers

This month, I'm writing about players who are the fantasy football equivalent of a cliff that isn't safe for base-jumping, but less cautious people are still taking the leap. Two weeks ago, I profiled a signal caller whose 2010 stats were good, but I think many fantasy owners expect too much too soon. Last week, I profiled running backs that present more risk than reward at their current ADP. This week, it's wide receivers. I call this series "Dangerous Plays."

2010 Review

Last year's "Dangerous Plays" at receiver were Larry Fitzgerald (2.02) and DeSean Jackson (2.12).

Fitzgerald was still considered an elite fantasy producer heading into 2010 drafts despite the Cardinals lacking a suitable replacement for the retired Kurt Warner. This was my conclusion based on an accurate analysis of his projected 2010 targets without Warner and Anquan Boldin:

"If I could take Fitzgerald as a solid WR2 or strong WR3 in summer drafts, I'd be happy. But we all know his current value is as an elite No. 1. Unless you believe Matt Leinart has improved enough to keep Fitzgerald in that tier without Boldin, then he's worth it. I don't, and it makes Fitzgerald a dangerous pick at his current value."

Selecting Fitzgerald could have easily cost a fantasy owner an elite WR1 or QB1, if not both if he simply skipped Fitzgerald altogether.

I was wrong about Jackson. However, I will argue that his totals wouldn't have been as good if Kevin Kolb stayed healthy and Mike Vick never saw the field. I was concerned that Jackson's chances of exceeding a 16 yards per catch average were unlikely. Jackson increased his 18.5 YPC from 2009 to 22.5 in 2010.

I was dead wrong. Vicks elite scrambling ability coupled with his cannon arm put safeties in no-win situations and gave Jackson golden opportunities for even more game-breaking plays than with Donovan McNabb.

2011 Dangerous Plays at WR

Note: Average draft position data is from Fantasy Football Calculator's reports on July 26.

Wes Welker - ADP 4.11 (18th receiver off the board)

Better Risks

  • TE Jermichael Finley 5.01
  • QB Tony Romo 5.02
  • WR Steve Johnson 5.03
  • TE Jason Witten 5.07
  • WR Santonio Holmes 5.09
  • RB Mark Ingram 5.11
  • WR Austin Collie 6.03
  • Welker did a fine job of coming back from a late-2009 ACL tear. The Patriots slot receiver scored seven touchdowns in his 2010 return - a nice bonus. He's still Tom Brady's most reliable target and he should see some of that pre-injury explosiveness return for 2011 training camp.

    What I don't find comforting about Welker is that he no longer gets to work opposite a deep threat the caliber of Randy Moss. From 2007-2009, Welker averaged 152 targets a year when Moss was playing to expectation. In 2010, Welker's targets dropped to 123 - still a nice number, but that figure also represented the total number of receptions he had the year prior.

    The Patriots changed the offensive strategy in 2010 when it incorporated Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, and Alge Crumpler into its fold. Hernandez and Welker often play a similar role as intermediate field stretchers in the slot. Those roles don't change dramatically even when Hernandez is split wide.

    Both players can gain yardage after the catch and they are used to create mismatches because Brady can move them around the field or change formations to adjust to defensive schemes. Gronkowski also stretches that intermediate seam, but more so on routes where the opposing defense is preoccupied with the significant mismatches that Hernandez or Welker present in these 2-3 TE schemes.

    Welker now has a pretty good deep threat in Chad Ochocinco to thrive as more than a low-end WR2 or quality WR3. But Ochocinco is not the caliber player that Randy Moss was a few years ago. In this current incarnation of the Patriots offense, Welker lacks the luxury of a receiver of Moss' caliber to command bracket coverage in the deep area of the field. The Patriots slot receiver will still earn nice opportunities from Ochocinco's presence, but not like before when Moss commanded double and triple coverage.

    There are just too many difference makers in rounds 4-5 to take Welker, who I believe has more limited upside than the likes of Jason Witten, Jermichael Finley, and Tony Romo. We're talking about three players who, based on their ADP, could actually be bargains because their ceilings are elite production at their respective positions.

    I also think Steve Johnson and Santonio Holmes have more yardage and touchdown upside. If you're at the end of the fourth round, these two might be nice additions if RB Mark Ingram remains a late fifth-round pick. Personally, I'd take Ingram a round earlier than his ADP and then hope Austin Collie (6.03) is around in round five. Both players have far more upside with yardage and touchdowns.

    Welker is a safe player in the right area of a draft. Right now, his ADP is too safe, which actually makes him too dangerous. That's what picking limited upside too early in a draft can be.

    Steve Smith (Giants) - ADP 7.05

    Better Risks

  • TE Jimmy Graham - 7.04
  • WR A.J. Green - 7.11
  • WR Johnny Knox - 7.11
  • WR Steve Smith (CAR) - 8.02
  • WR Santana Moss - 8.09
  • WR Mike Williams (SEA) - 9.01
  • WR Randy Moss - 9.03
  • Steve Smith is one of my favorite young receivers in the NFL. However, there's a strong chance he'll be on the PUP list when the season begins. His microfracture surgery will require some time for him to be completely healthy again. I believe he'll be more of a bargain in 2011, but this season I'm thinking of him the same way we should have thought of Lance Moore in 2009 - never completely healthy and a risk to expect substantive performances.

    I could go into the merits of the players I mentioned, but the reason I have Smith listed is just too easy to waste that kind of space.

    Julio Jones ADP - 7.10

    Better Values

  • TE Jimmy Graham - 7.04
  • QB Josh Freeman - 7.09
  • WR A.J. Green - 7.11
  • WR Steve Smith - 8.02
  • WR Santana Moss - 8.09
  • WR Mike Williams (SEA) - 9.01
  • WR Randy Moss - 9.03
  • On the surface, it may seem weird to label Julio Jones a dangerous play and A.J. Green a better option when Jones has a chance work opposite a stud like Roddy White where they bookend a future Hall of Fame TE like Tony Gonzalez and have Pro Bowl QB Matt Ryan throwing them the football. In contrast, Green will have rookie or journeyman veteran quarterback, at best; a second-year tight end; and unproven receivers with the jettisoning of Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco.

    What gives?

    Targets. As I mentioned in my Dangerous Plays: QB article, I do not think the Falcons are going to install dramatic changes in the 2011 offense, which means Julio Jones is more likely to play the Michael Jenkins role. This translates to 70-80 targets, 40-50 receptions, 500-700 yards, and 3-5 touchdowns. That's commensurate with a fantasy ranking of 40-50 among receivers in most seasons.

    In addition to the offense, this aforementioned article discusses my take on Julio Jones current skill sets and deficiencies that I believe will limit his fantasy ceiling in 2011. In contrast, A.J. Green is a more refined receiver at this stage of his career, should receive more targets as the likely primary option, and that will translate to numbers more befitting at least a No. 3 fantasy wide receiver even if the Bengals quarterback play is as shaky as I expect.

    Personally, I'd rather take my chances with veterans like Steve Smith, Santana Moss, or Big Mike Williams - especially if Smith and Moss are in new locations next week. In fact, Randy Moss at 9.03 is just too appealing for me to pass up this late. We may forget all about Randy Moss, Steve Smith, and Santana Moss in 3-5 years when Jones is tearing up the league, but if I forsake these guys for a rookie in the Falcons current system I'm always going to remember jumping the gun.

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

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