Times have changed. Nowadays, rookie wide receivers receive significant opportunities - and make good on them. To do so, they must possess a definitive ability to create separation or play in an offense that establishes it for them regularly. How that comes about varies a great deal from player to player, though.
The process consists mostly of identifying wideouts with the combination of elements needed to be successful fantasy football players right away. The result is the separation of over-hyped NFL freshmen from the contenders as well as potential overlooked first-year performers from the leftovers.
A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
Perhaps the only negative about Green's individual game is that the 6-foot-4, 211-pounder isn't physical enough. You won't find reels of Green beating a press. Expect him to see that look much more often in the NFL.
Green has such a fantastic combination of speed, body control, elusiveness and hands that he had little need to defeat an opponent with pure strength in college. Those freakish skills in the open field will allow him excel at times in his rookie season. They've already made him the talk of Cincy's camp, where his pro team is running an offense that he says is reminiscent of Georgia's.
It wouldn't be surprising to see Green get off to a blazing start. How far will that momentum take him in 2011? It could be quite a distance. Eventually, though, defenses will jam him frequently, and rookie passer Andy Dalton will be a big factor in his ceiling. You shouldn't have to draft Green as a starter, so at least he's worth a gamble.
Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Unlike Green, Jones has proven to be adept at beating a jam. In fact, the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder possesses abilities that are extremely similar to Green's: He's strong in the air, accelerates extremely quickly and is quite agile. He has good hands, too. The rub lies in his occasional breaks in concentration, which lead to drops. In the NFL, they can quickly lead to a lack of looks - and even some splinters.
Atlanta intends to attempt to take advantage of Jones' talent early. He's a safer bet than Green because he joined an established, productive NFL offense that won't ask him to do too much. The Dirty Birds want to stretch the field more often in 2011, too. There's tremendous upside in 2011 and beyond.
Jonathan Baldwin, Kansas City Chiefs
KC landed a wideout who, like the first two in this year's NFL Draft, has great size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and is quite a talent. Baldwin, however, is a project. His footwork is inefficient, he doesn't accelerate quickly, he suffers from lapses in concentration, he runs routes imprecisely and he doesn't read defenses well. It sounds like he entered Todd Haley's doghouse the moment that Roger Goodell stepped to the podium and called his name.
But don't mistake Baldwin's lack of polish (or his brashness) for a poor work ethic. He's merely immature, as his "family business" with Thomas Jones - that resulted in a broken thumb, another setback - suggests. He doesn't have top-end speed, but he's far from slow and is incredible in the air, which recalls his high school basketball career. His technique to beat the press needs a lot of work, but he has a strong upper body, so it should come in time. The deck is stacked against Baldwin in 2011. He's not worth drafting, but maybe he'll contribute in the second half.
Titus Young, Detroit Lions
The 5-foot-11, 174-pound Young doesn't have breakaway speed, but he's fast enough (in the 4.5 range). He accelerates so quickly that he creates an advantage in a hurry and is quick in and out of breaks.
He might lack the hips to execute in small spaces, agility that comes in handy more on punts than kicks, which Young returned much more often in college. He also lacks the physicality to beat the press. Detroit drafted him to play in the slot, however, as soon as this season.
Scott Linehan reportedly has certain plays in mind for Young, but the rookie is transitioning from a high-flying spread offense. He won't have a prominent role, at least in 2011, and a pulled hamstring in training camp put him further behind. Down the line, if the Lions look for ways to isolate him, he could be a fantasy contributor, but there are too many mouths this year.
Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens
Smith is the epitome of a deep threat. He loses little of his 4.4 speed and high-end acceleration with that 6-foot-1, 204-pound frame when he puts the pads on. He's a glider.
Smith's work ethic may allow him to evolve into a good complement to Anquan Boldin, but he's stiff and slow to change direction. His route-running suffers, and evaluators note that he has trouble finding soft spots in zones. He didn't receive poor grades for his hands, but preseason drops have hurt his standing a bit.
The signing of Lee Evans ensures that, barring an injury, Smith's role won't be large enough to matter in fantasy. The Ravens will take advantage of his talents in select situations. He should be adept on screens and other short stuff if the offense sets up even the narrowest lane.
Greg Little, Cleveland Browns
There may be a perception that Little has serious character flaws because he missed his final season for accepting benefits from an agent. You can forget that when he's in the arena. He's smart, works hard, can be considered coachable and above all is passionate about the game. In camp, Little reportedly hasn't always looked like a man who sat out for a year.
The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder loves to play physical football. When the ball is in the air, it's his. His balance, strength and other positives help him make up for his shortcomings. He lacks elite speed and slows when he changes direction.
It may take awhile for Little to reacclimatize to game conditions, no easy task when the transition is from college to the pros. North Carolina's pro-style offense gives him a bit of an edge, but he'll also have to absorb the nuances of a West Coast-style attack. His gifts will give him the opportunity to be a fantasy factor, although likely inconsistently. He could be dynamite in a year or two.
Far from Green
Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
This former high school quarterback has played and understands all the skill positions. He also returned kicks; he's fast and explosive. The theoretical negatives: The 5-foot-10, 191-pound wideout (he's reportedly smaller than that) is average in space, and his hands were considered a work-in-progress.
Cobb's equalizer: his preparation. He watches a ton of film, has that diverse experience and learns quickly, all of which could allow him to be a factor in this offense instantly. And his hands aren't mitts, but they're underrated. He runs routes well, reads defenses and will excel at getting open.
He probably wouldn't excel after the catch, except that Green Bay's offense is designed to let its receivers gain yards after hauling one in. His college team ran the spread, but many of Cobb's routes were of that nature. Kentucky has been adopting many of the Pack O's principles, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and Cobb identified the resemblances immediately.
Cobb's biggest obstacle is Green Bay's depth, but there seems to have been no need to re-sign the unfocused James Jones. He's seems likely to become one of Aaron Rodgers' fav targets in the slot - eventually. Follow him in case the Packers have trouble keeping him off the field.
Austin Pettis, St. Louis Rams
Pettis, a third-rounder, is a strong 6-foot-3, 209-pounder who'll play a physical game. He's sound technically, with his most impressive attribute being his hands. He seems to get a good feel for how defenses are playing him. He should be an asset in the red zone. The Boise State product doesn't have the speed and burst to run away from people, however. He's not particularly agile, either.
Josh McDaniels' offense is difficult to learn because he often asks his receivers to fill an array of roles, but reportedly, Pettis is up to speed. He'll probably make the rotation but remain a few rungs down the ladder. Fortunately for him, there isn't a need for speed in this system.
Pettis doesn't have a high ceiling and is contending for attention among a large group of wideouts. The competition includes several question marks, but even if their answers are weak, will he stand out? McDaniels doesn't care about the name on the back of the jersey, so if Pettis does, he'll play, but don't bank on much.
Leonard Hankerson, Washington Redskins
This 6-foot-2, 209-pounder is a smart football player who works extremely hard. Ideally, he'd improve his ability to accelerate and transition into and out of breaks more quickly, though. Perhaps of most concern is that he has questionable hands - this after he worked extensively on improving them in the summer prior to his final season at Miami.
Hankerson can stretch the field and be a force in the red zone, but how consistently? Couple that uncertainty with Washington's unpredictable aerial game because of the QB situation - John Beck, or Rex Grossman? Even if Hankerson gains a prominent role - which will probably take time - he'll be an unattractive play in many weeks. He won't go quietly, at least.
Vincent Brown, San Diego Chargers
Brown is the type of football player who seems to lay it on the line. He reaches top speed quickly, transitions well and plays a little bigger than his 5-foot-11, 187-pound frame. The long strider doesn't have top-flight speed, though. The San Diego State product looks like an overachiever.
At this level, Brown may get lost in the crowd. He's missed much of camp with a hamstring strain and is behind a few players on the depth chart, but the Bolts are high on the local star. Rookies don't make noise in this offense, however. Besides, if you're not big, you'd better be a burner.
Jerrel Jernigan, New York Giants
This kid bursts off the line of scrimmage and is lightning quick at top speed. He has that elusiveness in tight spaces that helps small punt return men make fools of defenders on coverage teams. As a receiver, his hands are at least adequate. Troy took advantage of his speed underneath more than his ability to run routes.
Despite his size (5-foot-9, 185 pounds), Jernigan isn't afraid to stick his neck out. But he's not a physical player and profiles only as a slot man, which is mostly where he played for the Trojans. The good news: For years, the Giants have been searching for one of those.
Some on New York's staff are high on Victor Cruz as the No. 3 receiver, so Jernigan might be behind a couple of players as well as the curve on offense. He was much likelier to make an impact as a special teamer initially, but major hands and concentration issues in an exhibition contest have hurt his case. The rookie initially caught Tom Coughlin's eye, but further mistakes will probably cost him dearly.
The Seattle Seahawks are high on Kris Durham, a 6-foot-5, 216-pound fourth-rounder from Georgia. He isn't a great route runner, but he's underrated: He wins jump balls and has the speed to get behind defenses. He's also raw and probably behind too many receivers to be a fantasy factor in 2011, especially given the QB sitch. He worked with Charlie Whitehurst before he was even drafted, though, and is an interesting project.
Smart, shifty sleeper
It's unfortunate that Edmond Gates will have had little time to absorb knowledge of the Miami Dolphins' offense. He's incredibly unpolished (he didn't even play high school pigskin) but has effortless blazing speed, slipperiness and elusiveness. The 6-foot, 192-pounder should be what Ted Ginn Jr. wasn't. Gates will be dangerous if he learns to work underneath.
Greg Salas is reportedly versed in Josh McDaniels' offense already. The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder will have trouble gaining separation without help, though; he probably gives the St. Louis Rams little more than depth.
Cecil Shorts has great technique when hauling in the rock and is considered a quality route runner. Still, in college, he's slow into and out of cuts and developing his routes, and he has only modest speed can't offset. The small-school product has impressed the Jacksonville Jaguars thus far with his advanced understanding of the game, however. There are rumblings that he's made to start, eventually. He might become an interesting PPR claimer.
The Baltimore Ravens have a steal in 6-foot-2, 201-pound Tandon Doss, who has excellent hands and a high football IQ. He lined up in a variety of spots at Indiana, runs routes well and understands how defenses play him. He could be of service early on in a possession role, although to what extent is TBD unlikely to matter in fantasy.
Kealoha Pilares was a standout in camp for the Carolina Panthers, according to reports. His experience as a running back (including two seasons at Hawaii) has made him a bold receiver. His burst earned him some comparisons to Steve Smith. It's way too soon to get so excited, especially since he has much to learn and suffered an ankle injury that puts his availability in question.
Fifth-rounder Denarius Moore is a pure playmaker but reportedly lacked focus at Tennessee. The 6-foot, 194-pounder has captured plenty of attention. He does a variety of things well - run routes, haul it in and play physically - but had a rep for doing none of them exceedingly well. It may not amount to much for fantasy purposes, but he's continued to make a mark as Week 1 approaches and may earn a notable role with the Oakland Raiders.
The New York Jets think that they've found their new Brad Smith in fifth-round choice Jeremy Kerley. He's not fast but explodes in any direction, which he can change instantly. He's not known for his ability to run routes, though, and Smith wasn't exactly a fantasy asset. Maybe Kerley will be - if your league has separate special-teams or wildcat scoring.
Niles Paul doesn't have a high ceiling, but his quality hands, plus speed and size (6-foot-1, 224 pounds) made him a solid draft-day deal. The Washington Redskins don't offer a lot of fantasy promise to wideouts, though, so if he does make the roster - he should, the staff likes him - it won't matter much.
Sixth-round pick Ryan Whalen is a smart, precise, physical possession receiver from Stanford. The Cincinnati Bengals have a few explosive athletes ahead of him on the depth chart, so the overachiever will have a hard time cracking the rotation, even if he remains on the roster.
In a potent offense like the Dallas Cowboys', the No. 3 receiver may matter. Sixth-rounder Dwayne Harris (5-foot-10, 203 pounds) is a thick presence in the middle of the field, where he runs sharp routes. Unfortunately, that's Jason Witten's office, and Harris has quite a bit to learn. As the year progresses, the coachable playmaker could be a minor factor, if he sticks around. He's struggled after wowing initially.
The 5-foot-10, 184-pound Aldrick Robinson might be an underrated, darting speedster. Health issues for the Washington Redskins gave the sixth-round choice a chance to make the club via special teams - where his ability would play but needs polish - but it seems unlikely now.
Ronald Johnson (5-foot-11, 199 pounds) was kind of a big-time recruit whose game never matured at USC. He has the skills to be a difference-maker - he's explosive, turns on a dime and has great hands - but he's also inconsistent. If the San Francisco 49ers stick with him, he's an impact return man who could blossom as a receiver under that staff and with a quality passer.
Mark Sanchez's best boyhood pal, Scotty McKnight, is a precise route runner, but he hasn't done anything to make a case to remain with the New York Jets. There are too many other players in this game, and if he sticks around, he won't make a statistical impact.
With good speed; a 6-foot-1, 221-pound frame; and good instincts, Stephen Burton has a lot to work with. He has much to learn about the nuances of the game and hasn't had a strong camp with the Minnesota Vikings, however, particularly because of drops.
DeMarco Sampson, 25, a seventh-round pick from San Diego State, has drawn raves from the Arizona Cardinals. In the summer, he boarded and worked out with Larry Fitzgerald, which upped his education and fitness, giving him an edge. He might lack the burst to maintain space because of his past injuries, but can handle DBs and has made a strong enough showing to remain as depth and eventually a bit more.
Lestar Jean, who went undrafted, had a chance to stick with the Houston Texans because of his tantalizing raw ability. His speed isn't exceptional, but he hits top gear quickly. He struggles to beat the press, but he's a strong 6-foot-3, 215 pounds with great reach. He goes up to get the ball. Unfortunately, he suffered a shoulder injury and ended up injured reserve.
Undrafted Ohio State product Dane Sanzenbacher isn't a burner or physical, but he has very good hands and is always where the QB expects him to be. That combo earns him support, as does his competitiveness. The 5-foot-11, 182-pounder could make the Chicago Bears' roster - even as the sixth receiver retained - and eventually be a solid slot receiver.
Minnix is baseball editor and a fantasy football analyst at KFFL. He plays in LABR and Tout Wars and won the FSWA Baseball Industry Insiders League in 2010.
The University of Delaware alum is a regular guest on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio and Baltimore's WNST AM 1570.