By all accounts, wide receiver is perceptibly shallower this year than in those past. I concur with this sentiment, to a degree. The NFL has developed into a passing league. More and more teams are using spread formations, and using the pass to set up the run, as opposed to vice versa. There are, perhaps, more solid-to-elite passers in the league than ever before. So what's the point here? The passing yards and touchdowns will be there. The challenge this year is figuring out who's going to get them. And how to draft the position most efficiently.
After the top eleven guys: Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Greg Jennings, Roddy White, Mike Wallace, Vincent Jackson, Hakeem Nicks, Miles Austin, Brandon Marshall, and Reggie Wayne (I would make it a full dirty dozen as you'll see in a minute), it seems to be a giant crap shoot as to who will have a solid 2011. If you can get two receivers from this list (get at least one), or my mystery number twelve man, you should be stacked at the position. This is my strategy for wide receiver in 2011, especially in PPR leagues. It will likely take two of my first three picks. The next 20 guys have serious questions. Whether it be an injury, a new role, a new team, a crowded offense, a suspect quarterback, suspension, jail, too old, too young, coming off a breakout or career best, I don't want to be betting on many of these. Strike early to avoid reaching for the hazy middle class. Load up on running backs, snag an elite tight end or quarterback, and I'm going to give you three receivers poised for big years, can be had for a fair price, and will fill your WR3 spot, or dull the sting if you miss out on the top echelon. Plus three deep-league wildcards.
It seems silly to start a sleepers column with the man who finished top dog at his position the prior year, but Lloyd simply is getting the Rodney Dangerfield treatment, "no respect". Lloyd is a popular bust pick this year due to his miraculous rise from anonymity to stardom in 2010. I see it differently. His skills were always praised, and his lack of past production was a mystery to most. Now that he broke out, and finally found a situation that allows him to thrive, don't assume a giant regression. Kyle Orton is a better passer than most give him credit for, and the tandem has looked good thus far in the preseason.
Three True Values
The first two entries aren't necessarily sleepers. If fact, their average draft slots have bumped up to make them pretty well evaluated. The idea here is I really like these two guys in particular. So, if there's a situation where a tier or run is ending, or starting, and you can draft either guy, do it then. Their respective situations make them safer, and grant them more upside than those ranked around them.
Knox garnered some less-than-positive attention this summer when he expressed his displeasure with being dropped down the depth chart for the Bears. If Roy Williams was gifted a starting spot over me, even with my 5'9'' 160lb frame and zero career catches, I'd be pissed too. Roy is not very good, and reportedly came into camp out of shape. Knox will be a much bigger factor in the Bears' offense. Coming into his third year, a well-established breakout point for receivers, Knox appears set to step up his game. Or at least maintain the status quo. The six-foot speedster out of Abilene Christian has scored five times in each of his two seasons, and last year averaged a whopping 18.8 yards-per-catch, coming up just shy of 1,000 yards. Mike Martz is no fool, and will find ways to involve Knox, his best playmaker, whether he's starting or not.
Evans must have been elated to get out of Buffalo. Not that Ryan Fitzpatrick is a total bum, as were most of the quarterbacks Evans had throwing to him previously in his career, but last year he displayed a serious preference for Stevie Johnson. More poignant, Lee's new quarterback, Joe Flacco, certainly throws a better deep ball, Evans' forte. The move to Baltimore seems to be a perfect fit. Anquan Boldin appears to have aged five years over the last two, ol' reliable Todd Heap is gone, as is Derrick Mason, Donte Stallworth and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The Ravens rushing attack should pull eight defenders into the box regularly, leaving Evans room to burn on the outside. He could see a lot more targets, and make a lot more plays than his draft slot currently implies. At the very least, he should be a safe investment and consistent producer.
3. Joshua Cribbs - Cleveland - ADP 82, provided by ESPN.com
Unlike the previous two entries, who are really just value picks, Cribbs is a legit sleeper. In the majority of leagues he'll probably go undrafted. I'm not saying he'll be a stud, or even an every week starter, but he should be a useful asset. To this point, Cribbs has made his mark as a return specialist, but there is potential for more. First of all, the Browns don't have a number one option. Tight end Ben Watson led the team in both receptions (68), and yards (763) last season. In year two of the Mike Holmgren era, with Colt McCoy getting more settled into playing quarterback in the pros, the offense should be more prolific. For that to happen, someone has to step it up on the outside. I think that guy is Cribbs. In the Browns preseason opener he made a beautiful touchdown catch on a fade pattern, displaying skills of a seasoned flanker. He is a fast, dynamic threat, and a tough tackle each time he gets his hands on the ball. Look for that to happen more often in the traditional method in 2011.
It's good to be first
One of the great joys of being a fantasy owner is discovering new talent. Getting a guy who's on nobody's radar and watching him blossom for your team, well, it makes you feel like a genius. And that's always cool. Two years ago, I had one such player that I knew would be on all of my fantasy teams. Most people had never heard of the guy, never mind considered drafting him. Sure enough, I had to spell out what position he played, and for which team each time I selected him. That player, was Mike Sims-Walker. He put up 869 yards and seven touchdowns, but it felt like 1,500 and 12 to me.
Like most of my value and sleeper picks, my discovery of MSW occurred watching the preseason. Most experts say the preseason isn't important. They're wrong, preseason stats aren't important. There is much you can gleam from these exhibitions. The things I look for are; skill (the eye test), role and opportunity, and the quarterback play and offense around them. A few guys fit two of these categories this year, but none of the trio hit all three. The best part here, is you don't necessarily have to spend a draft pick on these guys. Being aware is the key, ready to snatch them off waivers when the time is right. Don't be afraid to jump on the hot new item that pops up the first few weeks of the regular season either, no matter how improbable their numbers might seem, or unfamiliar their names are. Last year, I got Stevie Johnson, the year before Austin. Activity is rewarded in fantasy, be a move-maker.
Brown is the one "unknown" guy I've seen this summer that has wowed me with his talent. He also has a good quarterback and great offense around him. Unfortunately, he has veterans Mike Wallace, Hines Ward and Jerricho Cotchery ahead of him on the depth chart. There is a good chance Brown ends up being this year's Victor Cruz (preseason hero), but if any of those guys gets hurt, or he wins a starting job, pounce.
Shipley looks like the next Wes Welker, my absolute favorite player in the league. The problem is his quarterback looks like Andy Dalton, and the Bengals are almost certain to stink. He should play a big role, however, as intermediate routes will probably be Dalton's bread and butter in year one.
Truth be told, I've never heard of this guy. He looked okay in the action I've seen of him thus far and you can't underestimate the importance opportunity plays in production. I expect the Cardinals to trail in a lot of games, he's been tabbed the starter opposite Fitzgerald, and Kevin Kolb likes to sling it. The situation outside of his talent, alone warrants a late round flyer.