As the NFL evolves, so must fantasy football. It's the era of the quarterback. Teams use committees of running backs, and at least one of them better be able to catch. More offensive coordinators consider tight ends weapons. And more wide receivers contribute much sooner than they used to.
It used to take three or four years before the large majority of wideouts were ready to contribute. Now, many rookies make an impact right away. How do you know who they'll be? In some cases, it's obvious; in others, it's not. Sometimes, the obvious answer is misleading; in others, the obscure solution waits to be discovered.
Fantasy football players must be able to identify the potential early contributors and the posers. Many rookies are often overvalued, but others barely register, despite their upside. Each case is unique. Defining parameters for what makes this type of player increases the probability of success.
Most rookie wideouts, like other freshmen, won't contribute heavily; the game is too difficult to make such a transition, for most. However, recently initiated receivers who were considered mildly to extremely successful in their first season have several interesting denominators.
It goes without saying: It helps to join a productive NFL offense, particularly one that passes proficiently. Teams that pass with a high frequency offer more opportunities.
Obviously, talent is a requirement. Most wideouts who succeeded early on were, not surprisingly, draftees in the first couple of rounds. Noble draft status isn't a requirement, though; even NFL teams overlook players with high grades and opt for less skilled prospects, as any fan who has groaned about his favorite team's draft choices (pre- or post-performance) knows.
The true freaks are on every fantasy football player's radar. The Houston Texans' Andre Johnson, the Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald, the Cleveland Browns' Braylon Edwards and the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson were all top-three draft choices. When you're eligible for such a fraternity, you have a rare combination of speed, size and other tools.
Success is expected - right away, usually, which is why fantasy players sometimes overvalue this type. That quartet delivered, to varying degrees. Analysis of their situations would only lead to conclusions about why any receiver might or might not be successful in the same position.
Beyond the obvious
Nearly all receivers who are or will be under discussion played in an offense that had pro-style elements or, in rarer cases, was pass-heavy. The less gimmicky a college playbook, the more beneficial it is to future NFL players. Coming from a big-time program isn't necessary, but it increases the likelihood that a player will play at a more notable NFL feeder.
An early introduction to a pro-style offense increases "football intelligence," making the adaptation to the NFL less of a struggle. Intelligence is an outstanding attribute for players who must learn complex systems, like variations of the West Coast offense. The NFL doesn't release official Wonderlic scores (or, at least, most of them; league personnel must have selective loose lips), so scouting reports and other measures must serve that purpose.
Generally, the farther from the ball a position lines up at the snap, the lower the expectations are for "measurable intelligence." Most coaches don't expect much from receivers in this department. However, proficiency here aids potential. Obviously, the "smarter," more instinctive and more experienced the receiver, the greater his chance to transition quickly. Edwards reportedly scored an exciting 27 on the Wonderlic.
The name of the game in the NFL, above all, though, is the ability to create separation. As we descend the talent staircase, those with less ability to make that happen depend more on other elements to increase their potential. Separation is achieved in a variety of ways. Those who reach it separate themselves from the pack. Not all productive rookies did.
What about so-and-so?
Some flash-in-the-pan wideouts posted quality fantasy lines in recent years, but they failed to live up to the ensuing heightened expectations. They may impress, statistically, but the probability that they were going to do so or would continue their success wasn't high. A quick examination shows why.
Colbert (6-foot-1, 205 pounds), a Carolina Panthers draftee, displayed moderate promise while playing opposite Muhsin Muhammad, who had a huge season (93 catches, 1,405 yards, 16 touchdowns) in his walk year. Colbert, a USC product, was never considered a dynamic player and didn't work to improve, while Steve Smith began to emerge.
Brown isn't physical or fast. The Philadelphia Eagles' 2005 second-rounder was solid as a replacement for deactivated malcontent Terrell Owens and demonstrated growth in Year 2. However, Brown's nagging injuries and lack of physicality held him back. He also lacks motivation.
The Jags knew when they drafted Jones (6-foot-6, 218 pounds) in the first round that he was a project. The college quarterback was a physical specimen with great speed, but he had much to learn about the nuances of receiver-hood. Jones progressed some in 2006 (41 receptions, 643 yards, four TDs) and 2008 (65 catches, 761 yards, two scores), but it's difficult to work on your game after multiple run-ins with the law.
Gonzalez (6-foot, 193 pounds) isn't physically imposing or exceptionally fast, although he has an excellent pair of hands and above-average smarts. He simply took advantage of the absence of a player ahead of him on the depth chart of an outstanding offense. Nothing about him screamed stud. Gonzalez basically missed the entire 2009 season because of a knee injury, so he must contend with breakout players Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie, besides the rest of the Indianapolis Colts' hungry mouths, now.
None of these players, with the exception of Jones, has the size or strength to break free from the line of scrimmage on his own time after time. They're pretty ... nondescript. (Jones possesses the height, but he doesn't have the power to gain leverage at the line repeatedly.) None of them has mentionable experience returning kicks, nor do they have the ability to perform such duties at a high level.
In any case
Elite talent is likely to be accompanied by opportunity; naturally, these players deserve attention first - in the forecasting arena. Some players might end up in situations where they are seemingly immune to the effects of their lack of apparent gifts. Others weren't considered high-end prospects, but maybe evaluators sold them short. Either way, players in that class are rarely immediate and reliable fantasy contributors.
First-year wide receivers can easily make for good quality fantasy football draft picks, but it takes care to project their potential return. Players who aren't categorized as the cream of the crop still succeed early. Usually, these players have several common characteristics. Identifying those who have them gives you a good place to start.
About Nicholas Minnix
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. Follow @NicholasMinnix
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