Change At The Top: Wide Receiver Edition, Part 3
Antonio Brown (50 percent)
What to like: Brown’s consistency in 2013 made him one of the more valuable options, as five catches and 70 yards was essentially a lock. One would assume that the week-to-week production came with the lack of upside, but only A.J. Green was targeted more and registered a higher catch rate on deep passes than Brown. He will turn 26 years of age this July, placing him in his physical prime for the upcoming seasons (for what it’s worth, the possession-oriented Wes Welker caught 112 passes in his age 26 season).
What to fear: His explosive 110 catches on 165 targets came in a season in which Ben Roethlisberger played 16 games for the first time since 2008 and attempted 110 more passes than his previous 16-game career average. Gone is Emmanuel Sanders, leaving the Steelers without a dependable number two option. Le’Veon Bell touched the ball 289 times in 13 games as a rookie and appears to be a workhorse that is going to be the focal point of this offense.
Verdict: Expecting a repeat performance is a bit on the optimistic side, but the skill set is there to be a fantasy asset. Assume that Brown recorded nearly 350 yards and four scores in two explosive games, making a 2014 stat line that resembles his 16 game averages from 2012-2013 (75 catches for 1,050 yards and 4-5 scores).
Alshon Jeffery (90 percent)
What to like: In his second professional season, Jeffery showed off his athletic ability (no receiver had more targets and a higher deep ball catch rate) and soft hands (had the lowest drop rate of any receiver that ranked in the Top 15 in receptions). His physical tools are impossible to overlook and the highlight plays figure to be the rule more so than the exception moving forward. His dominant sophomore season (89-1,421-7) was just as impressive as the second year stats put up by studs like Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green. Those stellar numbers were accumulated despite one-quarter of his stat lines featuring 42 or fewer receiving yards and no touchdowns. Let me put that another way: in 75 percent of last season, Jeffery averaged 108.3 yards on 6.5 catches and 0.6 touchdowns. Extrapolate those numbers over a 16 game season and you’re looking at a Top 10 receiver in terms of touchdowns with the fourth most catches and most yardage in the NFL.
What to fear: Critics will point to the past connection that Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler have, or the fact that Jeffery tallied 472 total yards and three scores with Cutler sidelined. He was targeted just five times inside the red zone, a stat that will limit his TD upside if it doesn’t improve.
Verdict: The fact that Jeffery was targeted more and averaged more yards per catch than Marshall on “obvious” passing downs (third-and-six or longer) might be the first sign of a passing of the guard. I don’t doubt that both will be heavily involved and productive in the fantasy world, but my money would be on this being the first season where Jeffery is the better option. Marshall has earned the respect of defenses around the league, thus allowing Jeffery to flourish without the threat of heavy coverage schemes. Does Cutler love Marshall? Sure, but Jeffery is the upgraded version that is six years younger. He was born on Valentine’s Day and I suggest you find some love for him sooner rather than later.
DeSean Jackson (35 percent)
What to like: His career season (82-1,332-9) came on the top ranked run offense in football, therefore making his move to Washington a potential move in the right direction. He will have the entire offseason to work out with the unquestioned starting quarterback, a luxury he didn’t have in Philadelphia last season.
What to fear: Last year was the fifth consecutive season in which at least 27 percent of Jackson’s targets came at least 20 yards down the field, lending itself to plenty of inconsistencies. That trend wouldn’t scare me as much if Robert Griffin III had shown the ability to put touch on his deep ball, but that hasn’t been the case (ranked second to last among quarterbacks that attempted at least half of his team’s pass attempts in 2013). Pierre Garcon has been targeted heavily by Griffin during his first two seasons and has done nothing to expect a change. Jordan Reed should only improve, and while the Eagles had a better ground game than the Redskins last year, they were also considerably more efficient through the air (12 more passing touchdowns and 10 fewer interceptions).
Verdict: Jackson was drafted in the sixth round of our mock draft (just after Julian Edelman and ahead of Sammy Watkins) – a result that clearly indicates expected regression. Chip Kelly’s offense is about as fantasy friendly as it gets, and while Jackson does maintain value from staying in the NFC East, the Redskins offense figures to use him more as a complementary piece than a focal point. His ability to make the big play should result in a handful of weeks where he produces like a Top 10 receiver, but expecting his year end numbers to finish among the elite is too rich a price tag for my liking.
Jordy Nelson (45 percent)
What to like: Did you know that he is nearly the exact same receiver as Jeffery (6’3” 217 pounds as compared to 6’3” 216 pounds)? With James Jones no longer in town, Nelson (16.44 yards per catch since the beginning of 2011) is the primary deep threat in an explosive offense. Aaron Rodgers has been the starting quarterback in Green Bay since 2008, and in every one of those seasons a Packer receiver has finished in the Top 10 in PFF’s WR Rating (three straight seasons with a Top 6 finisher). Nelson notched seven touchdowns in the eight games that Rodgers started and finished.
What to fear: Any player that relies heavily on the big play is going to have weeks where he simply disappears. After a two-year decline in percentage of plays that he was asked to run block, Nelson saw a spike in blocking assignments with the emergence of Eddie Lacy. Normally, this wouldn’t be a major concern, but for a player who needs a great volume of targets to be effective, it is at least worth tracking.
Verdict: I had the Packers offense as the one that could produce a trio of double digit touchdown pass catchers last year, not the Broncos, but this offense has that sort of capability. Green Bay may seek more balance than in years past, but without a reliable tight end and the loss of Jones, the quick strike ability of this offense is still plenty to give not one, but two receivers tremendous fantasy upside this season.
There you have it: a look at the Top 10 players at Quarterback, Running Back, and Wide Receiver in 2013 and the odds of them repeating such success in 2014. Agree? Disagree? Get at me @unSOPable23 and I’d be happy to discuss.