When we glance at the always slippery surface, this feels like a year when up to a half dozen rookie wide receivers could emerge to become valuable fantasy commodities, and do so quickly. Of course, that means they’ll all suck.
The position of wide receiver as a whole is highly volatile, with production the most dependent on game situations. It’s true, the same can be said for, say, running backs and quarterbacks, positions where players also often go boom or bust depending on game situations (i.e: a big second-half lead results in more running). The difference, though, is that there are multiple receivers and overall multiple targets for a quarterback, leaving every touch and target vitally important.
That’s why production can sway wildly for even the league’s most explosive receivers. Take A.J. Green, for example. For a time he hovered around the top three this past season in receiving yardage, and he finished with 1,350 yards at a pace of 84.4 per game. Yet even he had a game with just one catch for eight yards (Week 7 against the Steelers).
Combine that inherent opportunity for inconsistency with the typically gradual growth that follows all but the most elite wideouts, and fantasy expectations are often limited at best. Last year there was hope for Justin Blackmon despite concerns about his route running, his quarterback situation, and general ability to be an idiot. Looking purely at his 2012 numbers now it seems like he justified that with an OK year considering the Gabbert-ness of his offense, with 64 receptions for 865 yards and five touchdowns. Then you remember that 236 of those yards came in one game.
Looking at this year’s group, there are a lot of reasons for hope. Mostly because that’s all we have.
Tavon Austin (St. Louis Rams): A small and shifty dude to fill the Danny Amendola role by likely be much better than Danny Amendola, Austin is versatile, and will be utilized in multiple formations. During his final season at West Virginia he received 72 handoffs which he then turned into 643 yards, an absurd total for a guy who’s listed as a receiver. In reality, he may assume that title in name only, and although he certainly won’t receive that kind of backfield workload in the NFL, Austin could be moved around often enough that he resembles Randall Cobb or Percy Harvin.
He’ll be given space to work with and opportunities to be creative due to the outside speed of Chris Givens and Brian Quick, and Jared Cook’s presence up the middle deep in traffic. The addition of Jake Long is also encouraging since Sam Bradford has been sacked 105 times over just 42 game appearances.
There’s a need for hesitancy, though, despite Austin’s tremendous upside. Will the Rams need time to properly harness his dynamic ability? And will that ultimately lead to more busting than booming early? With a very young wide receiver corps, will targets be spread more evenly at first? Those questions alone still make Austin a late-round flier, or a low-end WR3 at best.
Robert Woods (Buffalo Bills): Woods may not nearly possess Austin’s talent and upside, but he lands in a situation where the opportunity for immediate production is better, and there’s a far more imposing threat on the other side of the field to draw attention. That man’s name is Stevie Johnson, and he had 1,046 receiving yards last year with eight touchdowns.
Beyond him and Woods, the Bills’ wide receiver depth chart is…meh. Donald Jones is gone, and all other Bills receivers not named Johnson who are still on the roster from last year combined for 274 yards in 2012. Johnson and Woods could quickly be the ideal duo, because while the former is stretching the field, the latter has the hands and instincts to make tough catches in coverage. Sort of like this…
If there was anything close to an arm we can trust and learn to love in Buffalo, I’d tell you to draft Woods higher than Austin. But alas, we’re dealing with either E.J. Manuel or Kevin Kolb, bringing some uncertainty and reducing Woods’ value to flex territory during drafts.
DeAndre Hopkins (Houston Texans): This is where the real rookie wide receiver value should lie. There are few questions lingering around Hopkins’ place on the Texans’ depth chart, his likely usage, or his quarterback. He’s been brought in as a first-round pick to finally solve what’s become an ancient riddle of finding both support and a complementary option for Andre Johnson.
There’s some serious Hopkins man crushing going on in Houston, with Gary Kubiak comparing him to Rod Smith. That’s some high praise, and given his better quarterback situation and expected targets, Hopkins should be the first rookie wideout off the board. ESPN’s Christopher Harris compared Hopkins to Roddy White long term, and if a significant chunk of the 164 targets Johnson received this past season (fifth in the NFL) go in his direction, the Clemson standout will light up fake scoreboards fast.
Cordarrelle Patterson (Minnesota Vikings): It’s tempting to slide Patterson in to the same sort of hole Hopkins is about to fill. Both young wide receivers will be supported by great running games (led by Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster respectively), and both are the complementary options to veteran, aging receivers.
But although he’ll likely be fine long term, the immediate problem with Patterson is a core one: his route running. Here’s what our Alen Dumonjic wrote prior to the draft after watching far too much Patterson tape:
If Patterson plans on being an elite receiver at the next level, he’s going to have to improve his route-running. He won’t be able to make a living running quick routes that get him out in space because when it’s third-and-long, he’ll have to make a big play 12 to 15 yards downfield. Running poor routes won’t allow him to make any plays, and a franchise could once again be faced with a high selection bust at the position.
Hear that? Bust potential. While that seems daunting right now before even his first season, the possibility of Patterson being a bust should be greeted with a resounding meh, because we’re only dealing with the here and now.
What’s concerning is that Patterson may be a little more…normal. He only played one year of Division I football in the SEC, and therefore he’ll need time to develop, and he’ll likely progress slower. That’s fine, and it doesn’t mean he’s deeply flawed. He could still surprise us and surpass Jerome Simpson/Jarius Wright (whoever ends up being the No. 2 opposite Greg Jennings) relatively early in the season.
Watch him on the wire, but stay away on draft day.