Change At The Top: Wide Receiver Edition, Part 2
A.J. Green (85 percent chance of repeating Top 10 finish of 2013)
What to like: His quarterback trusts him enough to put him in a position to make big plays, and even if the quality of pass isn’t always there (how a player with this sort of athleticism is catching less than 57 percent of the passes thrown his way is beyond me), the quantity (344 targets over the last two seasons) of targets is more than enough to make up for it. He ranked second to Torrey Smith with 38 targets at least 20 yards down field and finished 2013 with a greater catch rate on those deep passes than Calvin Johnson. I have my doubts about Andy Dalton, but from a fantasy prospective, he does all he needs to in order to keep Green as an elite play-maker (of quarterbacks with at least 60 deep passes, Dalton topped the charts in percentage of attempts that were at least 20 yards down the field). If Marvin Jones can take the next step forward, defenses won’t be able to sell out their deep coverage on Green, thus providing him with more mismatches … not that safety help over the top had ever stopped Dalton from looking his way anyway.
What to fear: The increased involvement of Giovani Bernard could make this Bengals attack a bit more conservative, as Dalton figures to yield to his versatile back. Cincinnati also has a nice tight end duo, and with Jones ranking as a Top 20 receiver in terms of red zone targets, it is very possible we see a decline in Green’s touchdown total.
Verdict: Dalton’s limitations are less than ideal, but not enough to outweigh the obvious ability of Green. Cincinnati’s schedule lines up nicely, as they only play one projected poor weather road game all season long. The Bengals offensive line graded as the top unit in the league last year, and with all five starters returning, that should be enough to keep Green as a Top 5 receiver in 2014.
Brandon Marshall (80 percent)
What to like: If you subtract two outlier seasons in Miami, seasons where he was rumored to be interested in joining the NBA during the NFL labor negations, Marshall has rattled off five straight seasons with at least 100 catches, 1,100 yards, and six scores (105-1,303-9 season averages). Even with a changing quarterback situation, an elite running back, and an emerging Alshon Jeffery, the 30-year-old Marshall was able to produce five games with at least seven receptions, 100 yards, and a touchdown. The superior production came in a season in which he recorded his most drops since 2008, indicating that he left some fantasy points on the table. Jay Cutler has made plenty of money by targeting Marshall in big spots, so while I think Jeffery will be the best Bear receiver this year, the Cutler/Marshall connection has enough equity to think that he too can be a Top 10 pass catcher again in 2014.
What to fear: Jeffery could emerge as a younger version of Marshall and become Cutler’s new go-to option down the field (he had more catches that traveled over 20 yards in the air than Marshall last year and finished sixth in yards per route run). The Bears have plenty of young offensive weapons, making Marshall, while dependable, the option with the least upside. Chicago’s offensive line ranked as the fourth worst unit when it comes to pass blocking in the NFL in 2013.
Verdict: Marshall has size and experience that can’t be taught, a combination that should result in another standard season from this beast of a receiver. As long as Cutler is throwing him the ball, I am not considering him as anything less than a WR1 until he gives me a reason to, and a 100-1,295-12 on 163 targets is no reason to.
Dez Bryant (75 percent)
What to like: Much like the Cutler-to-Marshall combo, Tony Romo trusts Bryant to bail him out when he gets in a bind. Unlike Marshall, Bryant doesn’t have an Alshon Jeffery to contend with and he should continue to see the majority of the Cowboys deep targets. The presence of Jason Witten is a value-increaser, as he demands significant attention between the numbers. Bryant’s reception total, targets, and touchdowns have increased with each passing year, making his first 100 catch season a very real possibility in 2014. Over the last three seasons, Bryant has cashed in 18 of his 28 catches inside the 20-yard line, as his size is simply too much for any defensive back to handle in a jump ball situation.
What to fear: The Cowboys failure to succeed with a pass-oriented offense results in a focus on the run in 2014. Terrence Williams is a nice young talent that could breakout this year, thus taking away some of Bryant’s targets. His streaky nature (as many sub 40 as 100-plus yard games last season) has yet to hurt his year-end numbers, but his tendency to disappear is a major concern.
Verdict: He looks the part of an elite receiver, and with consistent improvement, there are few tangible reasons to expect any sort of decline in 2014. Dallas has a handful of strong offensive options, but Bryant is yet to reach his prime and should continue to be treated as an average WR1 with as much upside as any receiver in the game.
Eric Decker (30 percent)
What to like: Decker will be going from the fourth banana in an explosive passing game to the top dog on an offense that has offensive question marks. At first glance, that may not sound like a positive, but Decker is without question the most talented receiver on this team, and in a quarterback competition, wouldn’t you think that both signal callers will be force feeding the ball to the guy most likely to catch it? Maybe that’s an oversimplification, but Decker has established himself as a big time play-maker (18.1 percent of his receptions over the last three years have gone for at least 20 yards) and both Mike Vick and Geno Smith have showed nice touch on the deep ball. The last time Vick held the keys to an offense for more than 10 games (2011), he ranked fourth in deep ball accuracy while Smith tied for seventh in his rookie campaign (a mere 1.5 percentage points behind Manning). As you’ll notice in the PFF Draft Guide, the Jets receivers also get a nice bump in fantasy value from facing the NFC North and AFC West cornerbacks.
What to fear: That Smith (or Vick) doesn’t grasp the offense and the Jets offense in 2014 looks a lot like it did in 2013 (second fewest passing yards and worst touchdown-to-interception ratio). New York has preferred a “ground and pound” attack under Rex Ryan, and with three NFL caliber running backs on the roster along with two mobile quarterbacks, it’s not farfetched to say that this team has the potential to through fewer passes than any team in the league.
Verdict: It’s not Decker’s talent that I doubt, it’s his situation. He’ll have his moments in an offense that should adapt to new personnel, but counting on consistent production is a thin line to walk. Even in a Manning-led historically good offense last year, Decker totaled 13 catches 170 yards and no touchdowns over a three week stretch, not to mention three other games with less than 45 receiving yards. He is poised to mean more to the Jets than to your fantasy team this season, as his ceiling is an average WR2 this season.
Tomorrow I wrap up this three part series with the receivers that ranked 7-10 in 2013 and take a look at their chances at staying in the WR1 conversation for 2014.