Receiver Battle Royale – Part 2

| February 15, 2012

Previously on Receiver Battle Royale, we examined the trends of the top two pass-catchers on the Packers, Steelers, Falcons, and Giants. In this second installment, we will slide a bit further down the rankings to take a detailed look at the top receivers in Dallas, Denver, Oakland, and Baltimore. Because season-long stats can be misleading, we’ll identify the turning points in players’ seasons—and, in some cases, careers—to delineate lasting trends. These trends will lead us to some wide receiver gems that can be drafted in the middle rounds to give your fantasy team a boost in 2012.

Note: All scoring is standard non-PPR and includes points from rushing and special teams plays.

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Dallas Cowboys: Miles Austin vs Dez Bryant vs Laurent Robinson

Prior to last season, fantasy experts fiercely debated whether Miles Austin or Dez Bryant should be drafted as the Cowboys top receiver. Austin had the longer track record, and Bryant showed tremendous potential. Surprisingly, neither finished 2011 as the team’s top wideout. Laurent Robinson narrowly outscored them in points per game (PPG) and total points despite being released by the Cowboys prior to their week two game. Injuries forced the Cowboys to re-sign Robinson and insert him into the starting lineup in week four, his breakout game.

Full Season Stats Gm Snaps %Snaps TA/Gm Rec/Gm YPG TD PPG Total
Laurent Robinson 2011 14 599 63.6 5.8 3.9 61.3 11 10.8 151.8
Miles Austin 2011 10 572 86.4 7.2 4.3 57.9 7 10.0 100.2
Dez Bryant 2011 15 791 78.2 6.7 4.2 61.9 9 9.7 145.3

Robinson is an unrestricted free agent. Despite his interest in re-signing with the Cowboys for less money than he could make with another team, I don’t think they’ll make him a reasonably competitive offer as their fourth pass catcher behind Austin, Bryant, and Jason Witten. The team can’t even negotiate with Robinson’s agent until free agency starts on March 13th, making it easy for another team to lure Robinson away.

Even if Robinson returns, I don’t think he’s a contender to outscore Austin or Bryant next year. In the seven full games the trio played together, Robinson’s snaps and targets were significantly lower than the Dallas starters, and he was especially fortunate to score five touchdowns despite the decreased playing time. The trend of limited playing time would continue if Robinson stayed in Dallas, and he would not be able to sustain last year’s level of production.

Weeks 6–8
and 14–17*
Gm Snaps %Snaps TA/Gm Rec/Gm YPG TD PPG Total
Laurent Robinson 2011 7 255 55.8 4.0 3.0 57.6 5 10.0 70.3
Miles Austin 2011 7 423 92.6 6.4 3.9 41.9 3 6.8 47.8
Dez Bryant 2011 7 360 78.8 5.9 4.1 59.7 3 8.5 59.8

* Weeks 6–8 and 14–17 are the only weeks where all three receivers played full games together. Austin left the week nine game early due to injury.

Austin’s 10.0 PPG in each of the last two seasons has been higher than Bryant’s averages, but Austin’s numbers took a big hit when he played with both Bryant and Robinson. That’s because Austin scored nearly a third of last season’s points during a monster game in week two when Bryant and Robinson were both out. In fact, Austin has been especially opportunistic his entire career.

Cross-season Trends Gm Snaps %Snaps TA/Gm Rec/Gm YPG TD PPG Total
Austin
wk5 2009 –
wk5 2010
18 1057 82.8 9.2 6.6 101.8 13 14.6 261.9
Austin
wk6 2010 –
wk17 2011
22 1311 89.1 6.7 3.7 52.1 12 9.1 199.8
Bryant
wk6 2010 –
wk17 2011
23 1073 69.9 6.3 4.0 56.9 15 9.7 223.4
Austin 15 Gm* 15 889 91.4 6.3 3.5 44.4 7 8.1 121.1
Bryant 15 Gm* 15 672 69.1 5.9 3.9 57.1 10 10.0 149.6

* The 15 games in which Austin and Bryant played full games together after Bryant’s emergence. Weeks 6–12 in 2010. Weeks 1, 6–8, and 14–17 in 2011.

Austin entered the starting lineup in week five of 2009. That began an 18-game stretch where he averaged 14.6 PPG. Starting opposite Roy Williams was very good to him. In week six of 2010, Bryant scored his first receiving touchdown, and from that game forward, he has outscored Austin 9.7 PPG to 9.1 PPG. Digging deeper into those games, it’s clear that Austin took advantage of Bryant’s absences to bolster his stats. During the 15 full games they’ve played together over that stretch, Bryant has outscored Austin by nearly two PPG. That’s a solid trend of superiority that Bryant has achieved while playing significantly fewer snaps than Austin. Bryant will likely increase his workload to playing 80% of the snaps next year, providing more opportunities to improve upon already solid levels of production.

I have Bryant ranked 14th and Austin just inside my top 20. Like many receivers in the 11–17 range, Bryant has the skills and upside of a WR1, but Austin and Witten steal too many opportunities for him to make the top 10. Keep a close eye on Robinson during free agency in mid-March. He’s likely to sign with another team, but if he re-signs with Dallas, Bryant and Austin will drop a few spots in my rankings. Robinson is just outside of my top 30, and would also drop several spots if he returns to Dallas. His four disappointing seasons prior to 2011, two of which were marred by injuries, are hard to ignore.

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Denver Broncos: Eric Decker vs Demaryius Thomas

Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas produced comparable regular season numbers. Decker played a higher percentage of snaps and scored more total fantasy points, but Thomas edged out Decker 7.2 PPG to 7.1 PPG. Early in the season, Decker was waiver wire gold, scoring 10.9 PPG with Kyle Orton at quarterback; however, Tim Tebow’s week seven ascension to starter quashed Decker’s fantasy value. Decker scored a measly 5.3 PPG with “a good running back” trying to throw him the ball during the last 11 games of the regular season.

Gm Snaps %Snaps TA/Gm Rec/Gm YPG TD PPG Total
Thomas 2011
regular season
11 542 70.8 5.9 2.9 50.1 4 7.2 79.6
Decker 2011
regular season
16 988 91.2 5.7 2.8 38.3 8 7.1 113.3
Decker 2011
with Orton
5 276 86.8 7.8 4.4 53.2 4 10.9 58.6
Decker 2011
with Tebow
11 712 93.1 4.7 2.0 31.5 4 5.3 58.6
Thomas 2011
last 7 games*
7 423 88.9 8.6 5.0 106.4 4 14.1 99.0

* Only includes weeks 13–17 of the regular season and Denver’s two postseason games.

The trajectory of Thomas’ season was the opposite of Decker’s. Thomas missed the first part of the season and got off to a slow start with Tebow, but the Tebow-to-Thomas connection really started clicking in week 13. Over his last seven games, Thomas scored 14.1 PPG, a pace that would have made him the second best fantasy receiver had it continued for a full season.

Tebow’s style of play may be nerve-wracking for fantasy owners to watch, but his connection with his top receiving threat isn’t a fluke. Brandon Lloyd averaged 12.8 PPG with Tebow in 2010, and Thomas will continue his positive trend into next year. Thomas has more upside and less risk than most other gambles you can take with your third or forth receiver pick. For that reason, I have Thomas ranked in the mid-twenties and look forward to confidently drafting him as my WR3 in numerous leagues.

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Oakland Raiders: Darrius Heyward-Bey vs Jacoby Ford vs Denarius Moore

The Raiders’ passing offense was riddled with injuries last year, forcing them to start three different quarterbacks and four different receivers. This makes it difficult to identify trends that will continue into next year, but that shouldn’t keep you taking this passing offense seriously. Carson Palmer is far from an elite quarterback, but he has produced a top-15 receiver in all six seasons in which he started more than nine games. There’s a good chance that Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford, or Denarius Moore will continue that trend in 2012.

Gm Snaps %Snaps TA/Gm Rec/Gm YPG TD PPG Total
Darrius
Heyward-Bey 2011
15 815 79.0 7.1 4.3 65.0 4 8.0 119.5
Denarius Moore 2011 13 627 70.5 5.6 2.5 47.5 6 8.0 103.9
Jacoby Ford 2011 8 215 38.8 4.1 2.4 35.4 2 5.1 41.0
Ford 2010
weeks 7–17
10 536 76.2 4.8 2.5 47.0 7 10.2 101.7

Ford is the weakest link in the trio. He missed half of the games in 2011 and only played 38.8% of the snaps when he was healthy. He scored more than 4.4 points in only one game last year, totaling a measly 24.5 points in his other seven games. Fantasy owners were excited about Ford’s strong finish in 2010; however, 43% of the points he scored in weeks 7–17 came from rushing and special teams plays. He couldn’t sustain his 2010 level of production with so little attention in the passing game last season, and that’s a trend that will continue.

Unlike Ford, Moore and Heyward-Bey healthily played in the starting lineup for the majority of the season. Their 8.0 PPG isn’t flashy, but their late-season numbers with Palmer show potential. Palmer’s first start was in week nine, and he improved upon the Raiders’ early season passing woes by serving up an extra 12.2 PPG to pass-catchers over the Raiders’ last nine games.

2011 with Palmer* Gm Snaps %Snaps TA/Gm Rec/Gm YPG TD PPG Total
Darrius
Heyward-Bey
9 477 76.9 6.8 4.1 60.1 3 7.8 70.1
Denarius Moore 6 303 73.5 6.7 3.2 67.7 3 10.0 60.2
Jacoby Ford 3 80 38.3 3.7 2.7 56.3 1 7.5 22.5

* Only includes weeks 9–17, which were the weeks that Carson Plamer started. Does not include Palmer’s second half play in week seven.

If you extrapolate the three receivers’ stats with Palmer across a full season, all three of them would have been in the top 30. Picking an Oakland receiver as a middle round gamble is well worth the upside. I have Moore just inside my top 30, Heyward-Bey just outside my top 30, and Ford in the mid-forties.

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Baltimore Ravens: Anquan Boldin vs Torrey Smith

Torrey Smith replaced an injured Lee Evans in the Ravens’ starting lineup opposite Anquan Boldin in week three, and in less than a quarter of play, the first three catches of Smith’s career amassed 133 yards and three touchdowns. Much like Evans did many years ago, Smith wowed his fantasy owners with big play ability, finishing the season as the team’s top receiver.

Full Season Stats Gm Snaps %Snaps TA/Gm Rec/Gm YPG TD PPG Total
Torrey Smith 2011 18 1030 82.6 5.5 3.0 51.8 8 8.1 145.1
Anquan Boldin 2011 16 1033 92.1 7.3 4.2 66.3 4 8.0 128.1

Smith had a couple of big games, but he barely topped Boldin’s mediocre 8.0 PPG. Even if you omit Smith’s first two games (when he wasn’t in the starting lineup), he still only averaged 9.1 PPG. He scored nearly a quarter of his season points in week three and a ridiculous 52% of his points on just 12 receptions thrown 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. It’s hard to rely on a receiver with 10 games of fewer than 4.5 points.

Passes Over 20 Yards TA Rec Yards TD Points %Yards* %TD* %Points*
Torrey Smith 2011 41 12 456 5 75.6 48.9 62.5 52.1
Anquan Boldin 2011 17 6 198 1 25.8 18.7 25.0 20.1

* Percentages of season totals for yards, touchdowns, and fantasy points that were accumulated via deep throws.

Boldin on the other hand has been much more consistent than Smith. Unfortunately for his owners, Boldin has been consistently un-startable for multiple years. Over his last three-and-a-half seasons, Boldin has averaged 7.9 PPG. If this rate of production were applied to 16 games in 2011, Boldin would have been the 29th ranked WR/TE. On draft day, don’t get attached to his name and gaudy stats from yesteryear. He’ll turn 32 years old during the 2012 season and is well past his prime.

Gm Snaps %Snaps TA/Gm Rec/Gm YPG TD PPG Total
Anquan Boldin 2010 18 1133 92.3 6.3 3.9 49.9 8 7.6 135.9
Anquan Boldin 2009 15 782 79.4 7.9 5.7 68.6 5 8.6 129.6
Boldin 2008
wk12 – playoffs
7 357 82.5 8.9 5.9 62.3 2 7.2 50.3
Boldin 2008
weeks 1–11
8 525 92.4 10.3 7.8 99.0 10 17.9 143.2

The bottom line is that none of the Ravens’ receivers should be drafted as starters. Boldin is outside of my top 40, and I have Smith in the mid-thirties. Once you get this far down your draft board, you’re looking for high-upside lottery tickets. There’s a chance that Smith’s 41 long passing targets will turn into more than 12 catches next year, but in a head-to-head league I’m not willing to ride the roller coaster of inconsistency to take that gamble.

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