Third-Year Deep Sleeper Wide Receivers
By: paul.hickey | 6/4/10, 1:00 AM EDT
It has been a longstanding fantasy tradition that each season, a handful of third-year wide receivers emerge to become legit fantasy options. The 2006 season had Jerricho Cotchery, followed by Braylon Edwards and Roddy White in 2007 and by Greg Jennings in 2008. Last season, Robert Meachem, Sidney Rice, Steve Smith (of the Giants) and Mike Sims-Walker did the trick.
At first glance, though, 2010 appears different, and not just because the 2008 NFL Draft was the first since 1990 in which no wide receiver was selected in Round 1. Not that the long tradition of third-year wideout success will be broken, but this year’s breakout candidates aren’t as obvious. You see, stars from the 2008 draft class have either already emerged (DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon) or have potentially already had their 15 minutes of fantasy fame (Eddie Royal and Mario Manningham).
Still, there are a few rays of hope heading into 2010; you just have to dig a little deeper to find them. They are in the form of super-sleepers, and while some have shown flashes of their capabilities, others have virtually no pro resume whatsoever.
Here are the candidates, listed in order from most to least likely to break out in 2010.
Early Doucet, Cardinals.You probably saw Doucet step in for an injured Anquan Boldin in the playoffs in January and haul in 14 balls for 145 yards and two scores in two games. Impressive, yes. And on top of that, I’m not convinced Steve Breaston is the answer opposite Larry Fitzgerald. Breaston is a finesse slot threat with solid speed, but Doucet is a Boldin clone — a physical wideout who can create separation with his strength and gain yards after the catch. Doucet’s solid play had to have been a reason for the Cardinals feeling comfortable enough to part ways with Boldin this offseason, and while he might not enter the season as the starter opposite Larry Fitzgerald, he’ll put up better stats than Breaston by the time the year is over. The hype machine with Doucet is nonexistent thus far, which means he can still be had for cheap. Dynasty owners might want to look into trading for him on the low, and seasonal owners should snag him in the last rounds of drafts.
Josh Morgan, 49ers.I haven’t been as high on Morgan as others during his first two NFL seasons. I just haven’t seen it with him. He was too raw to make an impact as a rookie, and with Isaac Bruce and Arnaz Battle still on the roster last season, I disputed those who called him a sleeper heading into 2009. However, 2010 could be the right time to add this guy. Not only is he a clear projected starter opposite Michael Crabtree, but the 49ers’ passing game — and offense in general — appear to be on the rise. Quarterback Alex Smith finished the final 11 games of the 2009 season with 2,350 yards passing and 18 TDs, which extrapolates to 3,418 yards and 26 TDs over a full season. While the presence of Crabtree and Vernon Davis limits his potential, Morgan could blossom into a solid WR3 in deep leagues.
Malcolm Kelly, Redskins.Call it a hunch, but it looks like the stars could be aligning for this former second-round pick to finally live up to the pre-draft hype that surrounded him during the 2008 offseason. Kelly was widely considered the top wide receiver coming out of college that year, prior to unsuccessful pre-draft workouts that caused him to slide in the draft. The huge 6-4, 227-pound target has shown progress during his first two seasons despite not really being able to make it on the field consistently. Still, he had receptions for 36 yards, 27 yards and 84 yards during the final seven weeks of the 2009 season, and even more encouraging is the fact that he now plays under Mike Shanahan and has Donovan McNabb throwing him the rock. He’ll compete for a starting gig with fellow third-year man Devin Thomas, and he has the size, skill set and situation to make him very intriguing.
Devin Thomas, Redskins.Thomas was the second wideout taken in 2008 but has been very inconsistent during his two pro seasons. Like Kelly, Thomas has the size (6-2, 215) and talent to become a potential stud, but first he must earn a starting gig. If Thomas and Kelly didn’t play on the same team, it would be much easier to predict which one would have the better odds of becoming a legit fantasy option. For now, however, I give Kelly the slight edge due to his physical similarities to Brandon Marshall, who rose to fantasy superstardom under Shanny just three years ago.
Chaz Schilens, Raiders.Like Kelly and Thomas, Schilens’ size alone makes fantasy owners raise their eyebrows. At 6-4, 225, he was the leading candidate for Oakland’s WR1 job heading into 2009. The preseason wonder looked great on August 13, hauling in five balls for 52 yards in the first half against the Cowboys. Due to a high ankle sprain, however, he didn’t play again until Week 10. With new quarterback Jason Campbell and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson in town, though, Schilens could pick up where he left off in Week 17 last year, when he caught eight balls for 99 yards against the Ravens. Even though I like his teammate Louis Murphy better, consider Schilens an early-season waiver wire sleeper.
Donnie Avery, Rams.The speedster took a step back in Year 2 after flashing big-game ability as a rookie. While Avery has been criticized by many for not progressing last season, in fairness, he had a lot working against him. Not only did he play in a stagnant Rams offense, but he was never fully healthy after breaking his foot in training camp. The return of Laurent Robinson from injury has many owners downgrading Avery, but I see him as the Rams’ most talented wideout. He’s a poor man’s DeSean Jackson and could be a solid WR3 in deep leagues if he can stay healthy and develop a good relationship with rookie quarterback Sam Bradford.
James Hardy, Bills.The 6-5 target dealt with an ACL tear at the end of his rookie season and is still a project when it comes to route-running. In addition, he plays for perhaps the most unattractive passing offense in the NFL. Still, Hardy finds himself competing for the starting wide receiver gig opposite Lee Evans, and word out of Bills offseason workouts is that Hardy is the leading candidate for the job. While he might not be a fantasy option due to Buffalo’s quarterback situation, Hardy has a high long-term ceiling due to his size, frame and leaping ability.
Earl Bennett, Bears.The former college teammate of Jay Cutler’s had a solid statistical second season, catching 54 balls for 717 yards and two scores. However, he’ll have to compete for a starting gig with Devin Hester, Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu. Still, offensive coordinator Mike Martz likes to play up to five wide receivers at a time, meaning Bennett could produce some solid games and serve as a decent bye week or injury fill-in in deep leagues.
Harry Douglas, Falcons.The speedy DeSean Jackson-like weapon tore his ACL in the 2009 offseason, making it impossible for him to build upon his intriguing 2008 rookie year. If he returns to full health, look for him to have a few big games in 2010, but not be consistent enough to warrant long-term roster consideration.
Andre Caldwell, Bengals.The solid possession receiver had a few good games in 2009 but now finds himself behind Antonio Bryant (and Chad Ochocinco, of course) on the depth chart and must compete with Matt Jones and rookie Jordan Shipley for the No. 3 role. Consider Caldwell a flier who is worth monitoring only in very deep PPR leagues.
Jordy Nelson, Packers.I was once very high on Nelson as an eventual replacement for Donald Driver and believed he could make an impact in Green Bay’s pass-friendly attack that sometimes features up to five wide receivers. Unfortunately, Nelson played primarily on special teams in 2009, and two other pass-catching weapons solidified themselves as higher in Aaron Rodgers’ progressions — wide receiver James Jones and tight end Jermichael Finley — making Nelson a long shot for fantasy success.
Steve Johnson, Bills.Like teammate Hardy, he is big (6-2, 202), suffered a season-ending injury and will compete for the No. 2 role in Buffalo. While there’s little to no chance he’ll make an impact in fantasy leagues this season, he’s a solid enough prospect to monitor. Should Buffalo’s offense progress under new coach Chan Gailey, Johnson could enter the fantasy radar at some point in his career.
Paul Hickey is the lead contributor for Athlon Fantasy Football and operates the website NoOffseason.com, a 365-day resource for obsessive fantasy owners who eat, breathe and sleep fantasy football. While the site appeals to all fantasy heads, there is a special emphasis on dynasty formats and IDP leagues.
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