After the NFL Draft and the flurry of undrafted player signings, minicamps and OTAs are where rookies make their first real impressions. To a certain extent, you can throw draft grades out the door. But those on the outside looking in have to take advantage of their chances.
Certain skill sets give wide receivers the definitive ability to separate from a defensive back. Offseason and training camp performances open eyes, but can practice performers make noise when they step on the field? Which 2010 rookie wideouts will actually succeed and be significant fantasy football players?
Dexter McCluster, Kansas City Chiefs
McCluster is an outstanding athlete with great burst and surprising strength. His incredible lateral quickness is probably his greatest gift; that alone gives him an excellent foundation to create separation. However, his technique in some facets of a receiver's game - running routes, gaining clean breaks - needs serious refinement.
Mississippi used McCluster in a variety of ways, mostly as a change-of-pace running back. He has very good hands and top-flight elusiveness, ideal for after the catch, though. He rarely returned punts or kicks but has the capability to be outstanding in those roles. The Chiefs can line him up in the slot and send him on short patterns like screens, drags and out routes. They'll employ him as a rusher, and he'll play in the Wildcat.
The roles of KC's backs and receivers will essentially overlap with McCluster's frequently, potentially making him more of a gimmick than a vital cog. The Chiefs will have to limit his snaps, so his output will be highly inconsistent. But they want to use him as much as they think they can. McCluster will make highlight-reel plays and perhaps generate a couple of big fantasy days, but he's likely to receive more carries than many anticipate and serve in roles that limit his value in some weeks. He could be anything from a borderline No. 3 fantasy receiver to a tough-to-start No. 5.
Mike Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This is an outstanding football player. He is swift and quick to speed up or slow down. He comes out of his breaks fast, possesses quality hands and demonstrates better-than-average strength. He has great instincts. Williams' agility is more than adequate.
If NFL teams taught college courses, Williams might have opted out of the draft. He has the gifts to have been a first-round pick, but character concerns and inconsistency made him fourth-round material. Positive experience: He worked to get his scholarship back at Syracuse for 2009. Negative notes: He needed to do so because he committed academic fraud in 2008; he quit the Orange about halfway through his last season.
Josh Freeman has big-time talent but still plenty of room to grow. Williams is in line to be Freeman's No. 1 target because of a strong offseason and camp. This combo could flop, but Williams is rarely drafted, and he clearly lacks notable competition in the short term. For upside alone, he's worth a late-rounder, at least in non-PPR leagues.
Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys
Bryant (6-foot-2, 217 pounds) has wonderful hands, concentration and maneuverability. He can even return punts, although he may not excel at it in the NFL. Those traits help him make up for a lack of elite speed, and he can still hit that next gear quickly. That plus his solid strength make him tough to handle for most DBs and great after the catch, but it's uncertain that he can run away from defenders.
Too soon for Bryant fantasy love?
Oklahoma State's pro-style spread attack didn't leave Bryant unprepared for
the league. What is the effect of missing nearly an entire season, though? And
now training camp? Mental discipline will be his biggest obstacle. Tony
Romo loves Miles Austin and Jason
Witten; he's warming to Roy Williams. Bryant
will almost assuredly shine here and there, but he won't be a major piece until
he learns his place.
Bryant's ankle injury did some fantasy drafters a favor; they know to skip him. He's still overvalued in non-keeper leagues. He's worth a roster spot because of his upside in case one of the Cowboys' starters goes down, though.
Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
Limited workout availability meant that some evaluators were skeptical of Thomas' abilities. Regardless, he has an incredible combination of size (6-foot-3, 229 pounds) and body control. His hands and speed are above-average. However, Thomas lets some balls hit him in the body, and his acceleration is questionable. His ability to move laterally needs improvement, but he should overpower most corners.
Thomas' obvious drawback: his route-running ability. Georgia Tech's triple-option offense didn't require him to run pro-style patterns. He has a lot to learn. Josh McDaniels is an innovative play designer and will draw some up just for him, but that isn't dependable fantasy lineup material.
Ambitious owners often draft him ahead of teammate Eddie Royal, a big mistake. Thomas can be an impact player, but it'll take time. The more time he misses, the more he suffers. Jabar Gaffney knows the offense well and will be reliable. Eddie Royal is primed to bounce back. Only if Thomas learns quickly can he boast second-half upside and be a buy-low trade target.
Emmanuel Sanders, Pittsburgh Steelers
Sanders (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) is fast and elusive, changes direction quickly and doesn't lose speed when he cuts. He was an electric returner in college. It's a little surprising, then, that he doesn't do better off the line. Sanders may not have the same effect on special teams in the NFL. He has good hands, an incredible work ethic and leadership qualities, though.
That last trait makes him a potential impact player because he'll desire to stand out. Sanders' numbers were astronomical in June Jones' wide-open offense at SMU. He operated often in the slot, where he's destined to play as a pro. Antwaan Randle El and Arnaz Battle are solid veterans but most effective in minority roles. Mike Wallace is the favorite to start opposite Hines Ward, a job Sanders is ill-suited for.
It may take some time for Sanders to ascend the depth chart. However, by the time Ben Roehtlisberger returns, with the offense's continued emphasis on the passing game, Sanders could be a factor as the third receiver. Wishful thinking? Perhaps, but no one drafts Sanders, so remember his name.
Brandon LaFell, Carolina Panthers
LaFell (6-foot-2, 211 pounds) was extremely productive in college. He makes the most of his above-average abilities - physicality, speed, quickness, hands, route-running ability - but has none that are exceptional. His greatest attribute may be his toughness. He can beat people at the line in multiple ways.
Marginal quarterback play at LSU has always made their receivers a little tougher to evaluate than others. LaFell is pretty polished, though. In theory, he's competing with several players for the No. 2 job and would be the most logical choice, as long as he has a solid preseason.
The flux that Carolina may have at QB emphasizes LaFell's modest 2010 ceiling. He could be an above-average receiver down the road. However, Matt Moore showed promising command of the offense late last season. LaFell, a potential starter, is staring at opportunity, making him worthy of a flier as depth.
Jordan Shipley, Cincinnati Bengals
First, Wes Welker comparisons are tiresome. Shipley (6-foot, 190 pounds) has outstanding hands, intelligence and toughness. But Shipley runs all routes well. He also needs to work on his receiving technique. Shipley's great change-of-direction ability comes at high speed - not timed speed, but something he doesn't lose when he straps 'em on. It made him an incredibly dangerous return man at Texas. He's not a sidestepper, but a darter.
Tate fighting for time
Secondly, he could line up anywhere at Texas, but he's ideally suited for the
slot in the NFL. The Bengals
seemed to covet, more than anything except pass rushers, an over-the-middle
and down-the-middle threat. Andre Caldwell flamed
out in that role. Chad Ochocinco, Terrell
Owens and Antonio Bryant would garner the
most attention, but Bryant can't get on the field.
The Bengals are quietly in love with the mature Shipley. He'll need a couple of breaks, but he looks like an excellent flier pick in deep PPR leagues. No one drafts him. If Cincy gets rid of Bryant (a smart decision), Caldwell will likely be a backup on the outside. Shipley will have the inside track on the slot position - a spot the Bengals will target somewhat frequently. Shipley may still have to contend with rookie tight end Jermaine Gresham.
Golden Tate, Seattle Seahawks
Tate (5-foot-10, 202 pounds) is the type who outplays his size. He doesn't accelerate particularly well, probably a reason he didn't excel on returns despite his outstanding vision. He's a handful, but he can be jammed. Nevertheless, he's fast and has some real swivel in his hips.
Tate occasionally loses focus but is probably the most NFL-ready wideout of the 2010 group, thanks to his maturity and former Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis' offense. Fightin' Irish alums are Golden Domers in more ways than one, anyway. Given how well Tate has performed in camp, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him supplant Deion Branch at some point this year.
As long as Tate lines up at flanker or in the slot, he will succeed. How many catches will that translate to, and when? Matt Hasselbeck's health is a glaring potential limitation. Deon Butler is Seattle's most improved receiver. The 'Hawks may even be considering a trade for Vincent Jackson. Tate is an intriguing choice as a WR6 in PPR leagues, but the upside is questionable.
Damian Williams, Tennessee Titans
Williams (6-foot-1, 199 pounds) is the opposite of Tate; he plays like a smaller receiver. He shined in the return game thanks to great burst, acceleration, agility and ability to see openings. He's also tough to handle at the line, but besides that, he's not very physical. He has pillows for hands, though.
USC churns out pros. The concern regarding his production is Vince Young and Tennessee's offense. This passing game will be inconsistent. The club already has three receivers - including last year's impressive rookie, Kenny Britt - ahead of Williams in the pecking order.
Williams' 2010 fantasy prospects (unless the format rewards for return yards) aren't great considering the tangential factors. He'd be an exciting prospect in a Mike Martz unit or a WCO. If the Titans sustain injuries at the position, Williams could be an interesting waiver wire pickup.
Arrelious Benn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
He's strong and quick off the line and has great burst. In fact, Benn (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) is in many ways the most talented wideout in the 2010 class. His awareness, hands and athleticism earn high marks. He's not gone in a flash, but he shakes and bakes. Benn could easily be a quality returner. Two major concerns: his work ethic and his health.
Illinois' spread attack isn't overly complex, and the Illini often lined Benn up in odd spots, like the backfield. It may take him awhile to transition. Reportedly, he's working hard to learn the pro game's nuances and Tampa's playbook. The Bucs' offense, beginning with Josh Freeman, is plenty green, though, and fellow rookie Mike Williams has impressed with his preparation.
Benn isn't much of a 2010 fantasy pick given his situation; he could chip in as the season wears on. However, if he continues to apply himself, in the long run, he could be the best of this class.
Thomas better as second-half stash
The Arizona Cardinals are giving undrafted Stephen
J. Williams (6-foot-5, 208 pounds) rave reviews because of his playmaking
ability, fortified by his speed, hands and size. But he still has to learn how
to sell routes. With absences, Williams is receiving first-team time, and he
seems like a quick study. He should round out the roster. It's unlikely that
he'll make an impact because of Arizona's downgraded passing game, but he intrigues
if injuries keep the depth chart depleted.
Philadelphia Eagles fifth-rounder Riley Cooper (6-foot-3, 222 pounds) has a ferocity few Iggles on the roster can match. He needs his size and power to gain separation, but he can do that, as well as run routes, very well. He has a beat on the No. 4 position. He'll probably be a Philly favorite, making important catches, but it's uncertain that he can contribute in fantasy-worthy quantities, even with regular snaps on this potentially explosive O.
Expect the Washington Redskins to keep undrafted Brandon Banks (5-foot-7, 155 pounds) over seventh-rounder Terrence Austin (5-foot-11, 175 pounds) because Banks is a ridiculous burner and special teams ace. D.C. may be experimenting with him in the Wildcat, too. If the 'Skins use him like Dante Hall's teams did, Banks could be dynamite ... just not often enough to own him.
The excitement over undrafted Victor Cruz's huge effort in the New York Giants' first preseason contest won't die. Tom Coughlin loves the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder. He works extremely hard and should make the squad, especially if he can return kicks. Fantasy owners needn't concern themselves with the overachiever, though; the Giants need to lose a couple of players on the DC.
New England Patriots rookie Taylor Price (6-foot, 205 pounds) has high-end speed, moves, agility, hands and route-running ability. Unfortunately, with Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman around, targets will be hard to come by. The Pats may use Price as a backup returner, a role he rarely fulfilled for Ohio but may help him improve his long-term standing.
Jacoby Ford (5-foot-9, 186 pounds) is a blazer. His surprising power makes attempts to jam him dangerous gambles. He was an outstanding returner because of his speed and vision, not his lateral dexterity. Ford's route running and hands need polish, but he could be a home run hitter for the Oakland Raiders - and not just on fly patterns. He'd be hard to own, though, even considering Chaz Schilens' inability to stay healthy.
University of Cincinnati product Mardy Gilyard (5-foot-11, 194 pounds) can't play on the line and endures lapses in concentration. The slot receiver doesn't project to be a big fantasy points earner with the St. Louis Rams, at least this year. Besides, Danny Amendola seems to have an edge for that job. Gilyard can return punts (as can Amendola) and kicks (especially), though. He's the type a coordinator could design isolation plays for.
View the Cleveland Browns' Carlton
Mitchell (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) strictly as a project. He has blazing
speed, quick acceleration and the moves to blow by defenders, before or after
the catch. He's super raw, in both his catching technique and route-running,
Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak believes that former tight end Dorin Dickerson (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) has all the tools to be a team's top target ... some day. His feet are slow, and his instincts are lacking.
The Baltimore Ravens' David Reed (6-foot, 191 pounds) made a huge impression in offseason workouts because of his speed, acceleration and hands. It has been a different story in training camp, where pro-style routes at game speed (not those in the spread offense at Utah) seem to have him rattled. His learning curve and B-more's newfound depth prevent him from being a factor.
Kansas product Dezmon Briscoe (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) doesn't have elite speed or sensational moves, but he's a savvy player who earned good grades from evaluators. They might have been a bit generous, but he's solid. He'll probably spend the year on the Cincinnati Bengals' PS anyway.
Denver Broncos third-rounder Eric Decker has the fundamentals and, despite his frame (6-foot-3, 220 pound) and mediocre speed, the agility to be a solid possession type because he gets away from the line cleanly. Injuries and a steep learning curve will keep him from contributing much this year, though. His future in the NFL is a long way from anything but TBD.
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.