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The Gut Check No.266: Prove It - The Receivers Edition

Regardless of the league format, we've all been fooled by that player who flashes promise but doesn't deliver. It's time for these receivers to put up or shut up.  

With the exception of one season, Michael Westbrook broke my heart as a fantasy owner. The 6'3", 221-pound receiver from Colorado was the fourth overall pick of the Redskins in the 1995 NFL Draft. I won't go as far to say that Westbrook could have been as good as Calvin Johnson, but his potential wasn't that far away. Think Anquan Boldin's physicality as a runner and pass catcher with a more dangerous vertical element to his game and you have an idea why Redskins great Darrell Green believed Westbrook had the talent to become a great player.

Injuries, miscues, and a general overall distaste for the professional game made Westbrook a tease for fantasy owners from 1995-1998. In 1997, he demonstrated his greatest passion on Stephen Davis when he punched out the running back in practice. Westbrook now has refined his skills and attitude and fashioned that raw talent for punching and kicking into a fulfilling career as a martial artist, holding black belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Taekwondo.

From 1995-2000, I couldn't quit Westbrook. I only received full satisfaction in 1999 when the Redskins receiver made good on his world of ability with a 65-1191-9 season. It was only one of two seasons during his eight-year career where he played every game - even playing through a broken wrist and compiling 7-125-1 against San Francisco in Week 15.

You remember who helps you earn fantasy championships.

I also remember that Westbrook's coach was Norv Turner. The same Norv Turner who had Ryan Mathews, who might be the running back version of Westbrook. Now Turner has Josh Gordon and Greg Little - two players with a lot of Westbrook-like facets to their careers. It might be said that Norv Turner is the Westbrook of coaches/coordinators.

In the previous installment of Prove It, I addressed the quarterbacks and runners that I think need to make good on their talent soon or it's time to write them off as prospects that couldn't cross the chasm between college star and professional starter. This week it's receivers and tight ends.

There's no doubt these players have the physical talent to compete at the highest level. However, so many little things have been missing from their games that there's reasonable doubt that they'll ever make good on their talent. I'm profiling each player as if I'm speaking to them.

Consider it tough love. You might need to practice some of it by limiting how many of these players you hold in re-draft and dynasty leagues. Some of them I still believe are worth the risk; others have "Westbrook" stamped on their foreheads. All of them have to prove that they can get their professional act together and perform to their potential.

JARED COOK

I have so many questions for you, Cook. Are you a wide receiver or a tight end? Can you get open versus man coverage? Why do you disappear against quality competition?

Most of all, how are you going to prove to us that you're not Lance Kendricks Part II: "Return of The Terror Goose Egg"?

I suppose the best argument in favor of your services in 2013 is that there isn't a proven skill player on the Rams' roster. You might argue Chris Givens and Sam Bradford, but I'm talking about players with at least two seasons as proven fantasy starters.

You've at least been in the league for longer than a minute and you did have a 49-759-3 season in 2012. I also like that you've had two straight seasons with yards-per-game average over 40.

Progress deserves credit, even if it's not TE1 quality fantasy production.

However, the red zone doesn't seem to be your area of strength and for a tall/heavy wide receiver - smaller/quick tight end that's a problem. Your college stats are also worse than your pro stats and considering you played under Steve Spurrier, it's an ominous sign:

YearSchoolConfClassPosRecYdsAvgTD 
2006* South Carolina SEC SO WR 6 113 18.8 1
2007 South Carolina SEC SO TE 30 421 14.0 3
2008* South Carolina SEC JR TE 37 573 15.5 3
Career South Carolina       73 1107 15.2 7

I remember watching you at Columbia. Your healthy yards per catch average came from slipping through the cracks of zone defenses. I didn't see many plays where you could be that guy Jon Gruden and current NFL coaches like placing as the single "X" receiver opposite a trips formation in the red zone and asking them to win one-on-one. You're not that kind of bad-ass that Gruden was talking about during the first minute or two of this segment with Broncos reserve QB Zac Dysert.

It's okay. Not everyone can be the "Weapon X" receiver in these situations like Hakeem Nicks, Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Rob Gronkowski, Vernon Davis, or Jimmy Graham. Tony Gonzalez's days as the resident, split-from-the-formation, terror is a thing of the past, but he's still a red zone beast because he finds the smallest cracks in zone coverage and still wins the ball against multiple defenders.

The best catches I've ever seen you make are bad balls against zone. I like that you can take a hit and come down with the ball, but when you draw a corner or safety playing man against you, you don't win. Gonzalez wins. You're a better athlete than Gonzalez right now, but the difference between you and him is usage and the fact that he's a proven post-up option.

Watch these 23 minutes of tape above and what I see is that you're a scheme-dependent player. Put you on a linebacker or safety in the slot and ask you to run a crossing route or hook and you'll get open. But unless the coverage breaks or the defender takes a horrible angle, you're not getting a lot of yards after the catch - even if you look like you should.

But I see the logic of the Rams' decision to sign you. If they get enough production on the outside and if you and rookie Tavon Austin can place linebackers and safeties in a double-bind with the layers of routes you two run, there are some clear opportunities for you to catch deep crossers and post patterns against safeties out of position and generate big plays (see the Detroit and Minnesota portion of the highlights above).

In an offense where you can feast on zone coverage and a better quarterback, you're potential top-12 fantasy material. You've shown glimpses of this with Matt Hasselbeck and more sporadically with a green Jake Locker. If you and Bradford can develop chemistry and you don't get lost in the offense due to mental errors with route adjustments, I think you have what it takes to be a solid TE1, perhaps even a top-six tight end.

However, if you want to elevate your game into the elite tier, you have to become that man-to-man bad-ass. Prove to me that you're more than a zone bully and your career could skyrocket.

I'm not counting on it, because I don't believe it's true skill of yours. But I'll take the risk of picking you in the TE10-12 range, which is your current ADP. If I can pair you with Jermichael Finely (TE13), Dustin Keller (TE18), or Martellus Bennett (TE14), I should have decent trade bait in re-draft leagues. I'd probably recommend Keller to my readers because the idea of picking tight ends back-to-back in the range of rounds 11-14 might be a little too much unless the draft has at least 20 rounds.

While I bet your asking price in dynasty leagues is inflated due to the "I can't quit you" factor and most owners infatuated with good-looking athletes, I would at least float a trade offer for your services. If I own rights to you in these league formats, I'll give you one more year.

Just don't' expect much patience if you look like a Titan or Gamecock in sheep's clothing.

JORDAN CAMERON

I like what I see from you, Jordan Cameron. You displayed nice athleticism at USC and some people think of you as the 'next' Jimmy Graham or Antonio Gates because you're also a former basketball player. I'm not one of them, but count me in if there's a vote for the 'next' Greg Olsen.

The tape demonstrates that you have the makings of a fine zone option on underneath routes and the occasional seam play where you can sneak past a linebacker. You have a quick enough first step to get your pads square after you catch the football.

I just wish you were a better ball carrier after contact. You tend to brace yourself for a hit and that dynamic athleticism that you flash as a pass catcher doesn't happen as often as a runner.

Norv Turner's offense will give you more opportunities down field as long as you can demonstrate that you have the skill to win these seam routes (See what I mean about Turner? Teams with 'Prove It' players are drawn to him - or vice versa). I think the biggest question is whether you can prove that you can transition from part-time football player with a basketball player's toughness to a full-time NFL tight end with football toughness.

You're already dealing with a hamstring injury this spring and the Browns are expecting you to earn the starting job. The fact that Ben Watson is now backing up Graham in New Orleans is a strong indication that it's your job to lose, because free agent Kellen Davis has proven that he's a nice run blocker who drops too many passes to make good on his Gronkowski-like dimensions.

Your TE22 value is about right, but your athleticism and opportunity to start is good enough to take you as a second tight end in re-drafts. The hope is that your production can be parlayed into a trade that involves you or the tight end fantasy owners selected earlier in the draft. If they can get help at other spots on the roster by doing so, you're a winning fantasy ticket, Cameron. If this happens, I think it means you'll be the guy most owners are keeping.

I think your value is a little higher in dynasty leagues, but if you can't get it done in Year 3 with a golden opportunity handed to you by TE-friendly coordinator Turner and head coach Chudzniski (a former tight end at Miami) then you're likely fighting for a roster spot next year.

What you need to prove is that you can stay healthy, learn the offense, and perform consistently. If you can do these three things, you're a top-15 fantasy tight end in Cleveland. If you can demonstrate some man-to-man skills that your cohort Jared Cook hasn't, you could infiltrate the top-10.

I'll let you prove it on my teams in leagues where tight ends earn weighted PPR consideration and Josh Gordon sits out early in the season. I'm even open to making you my second tight end deeper non-PPR leagues once we get into the range of the draft where I'm considering an NFL roster's No.3 RB or No.4 WR.

It means you're more likely an end-of-the-draft flier in leagues that don't have preimum TE scoring. In dynasty leagues, I'm probably the guy trading you to the one hoping he lands a value.

GREG LITTLE

Let's stay in Cleveland and address all the Norv Turner-Westbrookian-Matthews energy happening by Lake Erie. While most people will say that your cohort Josh Gordon has more to prove than you, Greg Little, I'm not talking about what happens off the field.

On the field, Gordon demonstrated that he is a stud-in-training. The problem is he does not know how to be a mature adult off the field. As a former resident of Miami, I can attest that the idea of spending the off season in South Florida after already displaying a track record for not knowing when to say 'no' is a bad idea.

But if there was a receiver last year that I bet the Wilson football manufacturer would have nicknamed the 'No Fly Zone' for untimely drops, you would have been at the top of my nomination queue. You were brutal against the Giants and this was a week after you dropped five balls against the Ravens.

You were not the same player I saw at North Carolina, but I did see glimpses of the true you down the stretch. You should be what a healthy Miles Austin is to the Cowboys.

First, you have to prove that you can hang onto the football for a full season. Gordon will miss four games to begin the year and in Turner's offense you'll get a shot to run deep routes because the only active player on this roster during this span that is capable of a true vertical game is Travis Benjamin.

You have impressed the coaching staff in practice by getting deep this spring. Of course, fall is a different animal. The fact that the Browns will move you, Bess, Nelson, Gordon, and Benjamin around to different receiver spots means that you just might find some easy opportunities for big plays.

The downside is that if you're not working hard enough, you can make mental errors, Brandon Weeden and Chudzinski loses confidence in you, and your third year in Cleveland might just be your last. Victor Cruz displayed his ability to win in the vertical game as a UDFA in the preseason of his rookie year. However, he didn't become a fantasy darling until he learned the option routes and reads behind them.

What I loved about you at UNC is your versatility. You played running back for a year. This comes as a surprise to some, but you had a running style that reminded me of Larry Johnson. Sounds crazy for a receiver, but at 6'2", 231 pounds you looked nearly identical in build to Johnson at 6'1", 235 pounds.

Get the ball in your hands and moving in the right direction and you're capable of elevating your game from Brandon LaFell-ville to full-time fantasy starter. I've seen you drag defenders extra yards or set up safeties and linebackers with a spin and bounce of glancing shots. Purely on the basis of talent you and Gordon could be the one of the five best WR tandems in the NFL.

As WR56 going somewhere between the end of round 10 and the early part of round 15, you're decent fantasy value on paper. Considering that I'd rather take Vincent Brown, Michael Floyd, and possibly Alshon Jeffery before you, and may only get two of these three receivers, you're a reasonable risk as a my No.3 bench option because dropping or trading you won't be painful (check with me in November when I do and you're well on your way to 1300 yards and double-digit TDs).

I wouldn't be surprised if half the dynasty league owners in existence have written you off as a bust. You've dropped the ball enough to warrant it. This is likely your last chance to demonstrate that you can be more than a 700-yard, 4-touchdown receiver. It begins with catching the ball and making the correct route adjustments.

I'm open to the idea it can happen, but not trusting it will. I'd rather take a wait-and-see approach. In fact, Ryan Broyles sounds more enticing as my No.3 receiver in that re-draft list of late-round guys above and he's WR57.

You look like a thoroughbred, Little. The good news is that most thoroughbreads don't begin racing until they're three years old. Now that you're ready to race in NFL years, it's time to put it all together.

DESEAN JACKSON

In terms of straight-up abiilty, there's no contest between you and Mike Wallace. I'd rather have you in my offense. I saw what you did in Cal's west coast system. You ran digs, hooks, and deep comebacks; took the hits; and popped up for more.

If there was an award for the player with the most joystick-like moves on a real football field (named after Barry Sanders, naturally), you'd be the reigning champion. Well, unless that award has a qualifying condition such as 1000 yards of offense, because you haven't reached that watermark in two years.

I admire your softer side off the field. Helping out that local Philly kid who was getting bullied was the right thing to do. But when you admitted that you didn't play as hard during your contract year for fear of getting hurt and not earning the type of deal you wanted, it altered the perception many have of the kind of football player you are.

Not that your 65-touch, 1002-yard, 4-touchdown 2012 was bad, but it was woefully average for a player who had no worse than 1160 total yards and 7 touchdowns in the two years prior to the contract year.

For many fantasy owners - and I imagine first-year coach Chip Kelly - you have to prove that you're the same player that struck fear in the hearts of NFL defenders around the league in 2009-2010.

I believe it. I saw flashes of toughness and excellent play against coverage last year when you posted 7 catches for 114 yards against the Ravens in Week 2

This is the type of play that teammates, coaches, and fans expect from you. [Note: A quick technique point for those readers apt to criticize Jackson for juggling the ball. The reason coaches drill it into receivers' heads that they need to extend their arms and attack the ball is for just this situation that occurs on this target. When a receiver gets his arms away from his body to attack the ball at the earliest window, it's easier to handle the ball if not secured right away. There's more time and space to adjust to a ball that rebounds off a player's hands and arms than his chest. Even if there was a little luck involved with this reception above, Jackson's strong technique created the good luck.]

Chip Kelly plans to use you in ways similar to Oregon's DeAnthony Thomas, which means you have a good shot of matching or exceeding career highs in touches. I believe the offense puts you in position to have your best year to date, but I must admit there is an undercurrent of fear about how much punishment you can take in this system.

Your track record indicates you can. You've only missed 1-2 games a year between 2008-2011, but you only played 11 games in 2012. I agree with you that last year was a complete debacle so it's likely that fans should write it off. However, combine last year with your play-it-safe 2011 season and there's reason that you have something to prove.

You're leaving fantasy draft boards at 86 overall as WR34 - a seventh-round pick considered a No. 3 fantasy receiver with upside. The fact you're often picked after T.Y. Hilton, Mike Williams, Tavon Austin, and Steve Johnson is an indication to me that fantasy owners don't trust you.

As a sixth or seventh-round pick, I think you're good value this year. If I can find some disenchanted dynasty owners, I'd see if I can get you at a discount. However, your back is to a steep cliff and you better step forward or next year you're just a flier on greatness.

JEREMY MACLIN

Unlike you're running mate Jackson, I have serious doubts about your football prowess, Maclin. Some of this is because you were one of the most inconsistent No.3 fantasy receivers of the 2012 season. You had 7 games with fewer than 6 fantasy points; 3 games with 7-10 points; and 6 games with at least 15 points. Sadly, your final four games of the season were from the two highest performing categories and it's unlikely many felt comfortable using you as a starter during the fantasy postseason.

From strictly a stats perspective, you seem like the safer bet than Jackson because your season totals for the past three years are 60-70 receptions, 850-964 yards, and 5-10 touchdowns. However, that inconsistency of production I outlined from 2012 extends to your 2010-2011 seasons.

You've had 16 games in 48 starts with fewer than 6 points. If I have a strong lineup and my WR3 is my weakest link, I could live with you here. However, the change to the Chip Kelly system makes you a bit of a wildcard.

You thrive on crossers, slants, and corner routes, so I think there's still a nice fit for you in the Eagles' new scheme. I have also seen evidence of you making tough catches of contested targets. However, your big plays come against zone defenses where safeties blow the coverage, or corners get fooled with play action or route combinations flooding their area and you slip by.

This is what most NFL receivers that contribute to a starting lineup can do. What you need to prove to separate yourself from just a nice cog in an offense is win against man coverage and become a red-zone option. I don't think you have it in your game and it's what could make you expendable.

You're a good athlete with sound hands and the speed to make defenses pay for their mistakes in a contract year in a new system that could make you a rich man elsewhere if you outplay the team's assessment of your value. I think it's likely. I'll go as far to say that if Eric Decker outplays his contract in Denver, the Eagles would rather have him as their possession guy when Matt Barkley takes over.

What it means for fantasy owners is that you're worth taking as a low-end WR3 even if the upside on you isn't better than mid-range WR2 in re-drafts. I also think you're a sell-high candidate at the end of this season for dynasty leaguers if all goes well.

And if I own your rights, I'm selling them.

JUSTIN HUNTER

Wait. What? You haven't even seen your first professional game and I'm telling you to put up or shut up? You bet your sweet Tennessee bippy. I can see you coming a mile away, rook.

You have All-Pro skills but a "dog ate my homework" approach to the game. Your head coach had to call you out to the press last year because you don't practice hard. And your body is as temperamental as a European sports car.

The Titans are already urging you to get over your boo-boos and get some work in. You might be able to run by, or out leap some of these NFL corners with your prodigious vertical skills and hands, but I've seen you get eaten for lunch by far lesser defenders in the college game. You're high on the fumes of your press clippings or hypnotized by the glow of your name featured online.

Listen, no one is going to say your name without shaking his head in disgust and disappointment if your career goes the path of Michael Westbrook.

. . . AND IT Goes DOUBLE For YOU, KENNY BRITT

Your new teammate Hunter is more talented than you, but you have teased fantasy owners for years. The only thing you've done that was professional grade outside of a 2010 season where you ranked No.22 among fantasy receivers has been to get hurt and find trouble. Now that you realize that training camp isn't for getting into basic football shape, you might have a shot at proving you're is worth considering as future WR1.

Funny what a contract year does. It's a lot like that impending dentist appointment and you start brushing and flossing religiously a couple of weeks before and then try to act surprised when the hygienist tells you that your gums aren't in great shape.

They know. We know. It's sad that you didn't know.

Yet, I think you're worth the risk this year as WR38 as of late June. Getting you in rounds 8-10 is a solid value because your upside is strong WR2 material even if we're finally waiting for it to happen in Year 5 of your NFL career.

Even if your technique isn't pitch perfect like Hakeem Nicks, we know that you can catch. Although you've injured your knees twice, you still have the size and motor to do damage against the back seven of a defense. And despite the fact that Jake Locker has no more than a couple of years to prove that he can become a quality NFL starter, he has the gun and the wheels to find you wide open.

Prove that you can stay healthy and away from the back seat of a black and white. If you can do that, you could be a huge reason why fantasy owners who picked you are contending for championships in 2013.


More from Matt Waldman:

The Gut Check No.291 - The 2014 Free Agent 50 - December 17
The Gut Check No.290 - Dynasty Review - December 10
The Gut Check No.289 - Re-draft Strategy Review - December 4
The Gut Check No.288: Fantasy Cornucopia - November 27
Stretch Run Moves: Genius or Insanity - November 19
Gut Check No.286 - Film Room 5-Pack - November 13
The Gut Check No.285 - Zac Stacy - November 4
Gut Check No.284-Misery Football Theater - October 30
The Gut Check No.283 - The Gut Check's Film Room - October 22
The Gut Check No. 282: Redraft-Dynasty-IDP - October 16