Continued from Part I.
WIDE RECEIVERS (cont.)
Steve Smith - Carolina Panthers
2011 Stats: 79 receptions, 1,394 yards, 7 touchdowns
Smith is the one player on my "All Last Year's" team who has enjoyed superstar status in the past. From 2005-08 he averaged 88 catches, 1,288 yards, and 8 touchdowns and was a perennial top-10 selection at the position. He then entered the football golden age of 30, the quarterback play in Carolina deteriorated dramatically, and Smith's numbers tailed into a corresponding free fall. Newton then came to town and served as his fountain of youth, as Smith posted his third-best yardage total and second-best average-per-reception in 2011.
The chemistry between the pair was impressive out of the gates. Despite limited practice time, the tandem was virtually unstoppable through the first eight weeks. In the second half, defenses made adjustments to the sterling rookie's penchant for launching the deep ball to his speedy little sidekick and the production for each of them slipped. From Week 10 on, Smith posted only one 100-yard game and had only one outing in which he caught a pass of 30 yards or more.
Are those second-half numbers a sign of things to come? Will Smith return to his pre-Newton, "heading into the twilight of his career" form?
I don't think so, but a repeat of last year is unlikely. His totals in 2012 will probably fall somewhere in between. His receptions and touchdowns-per-game in 2011 were within reasonable ranges of his career averages, and his targets-per-game actually declined from his previous five-year mean. The big plays however, had a significant effect, as his yards-per-reception was up 23.1 percent and his yards-per-game 32.4 percent from his career norms.
2012 "Repeat" Targets: 71 receptions, 1,255 yards, 6 touchdowns
Laurent Robinson - Jacksonville Jaguars
2011 Stats: 54 receptions, 858 yards, 11 touchdowns
This spot was a toss-up between Robinson and Nate Washington. I decided to go with Robinson because I think he'll get more love in drafts (the two are virtually identical in early ADP figures) as we move closer to the season. Washington has more players to share the load with in Tennessee, and while the prospect of Blaine Gabbert being responsible for one of your fantasy wide receiver's production is a scary thought, I could envision owners seeing Robinson's 11 scores from a year ago and projecting a solid year based on an increased role alone.
What's shocking when looking at Robinson's numbers is last year's breakout wasn't a result of increased opportunities on a per-game basis. His targets-per-game only increased 13.7 percent. He just did a whole lot more with those chances. His touchdowns-per-game increased an eye-popping 618.2 percent and his yards-per-reception (42.0|PERCENT|) and his yards-per-game (133.1|PERCENT|) climbed significantly as well.
His catch percentage also increased (69.6|PERCENT|), and when combined with the previous statistical improvements, unfortunately for Robinson's sake, my conclusion is his success from 2011 had a lot more to do with Tony Romo than it did his own progression. With Gabbert now the key to his future, the outlook is dim.
2012 "Repeat" Targets: 49 receptions, 772 yards, 10 touchdowns
Jimmy Graham - New Orleans Saints
2012 Stats: 99 receptions, 1,310 yards, 11 touchdowns
Last season, two tight ends took the world by storm and have changed the game, likely forever. Graham and Rob Gronkowski of the Patriots were both second-year players who enjoyed breakout years for the ages, but Gronkowski's 10 touchdowns in his rookie year led me to select New Orleans' alley-oop superstar as the more shocking development.
His numbers shot up across the board, which I didn't need to do any calculations to confirm, but his yards-per-reception only increased slightly and his touchdown percentage was solid in his rookie year as well. The big change from Year 1 to Year 2 was his usage. Graham developed into the Saints most deadly and consistently targeted weapon. In fact, he finished sixth in the NFL among all players with 149 targets.
At 6-foot-6, 260 pounds, with a 38.5-inch vertical and 4.55 speed, he is essentially impossible to cover. The New Orleans offense might run into some difficulty this season playing without the leadership of Payton, but I don't think any of that spills over to Graham. All Drew Brees has to do is let it fly and the former Miami Hurricane basketballer will go up and get it.
2012 "Repeat" Targets: 89 receptions, 1,179 yards, 10 touchdowns
Mike Nugent - Cincinnati Bengals
2011 Stats: 33-of-38 field goals (0 from 50+yards), 33-of-34 extra points
David Akers of San Francisco might have been the expectation here, but he's been a stellar fantasy kicker for the better part of the last dozen years.
I'm not going to expend too much energy on a kicker as they fluctuate wildly from year to year, but Nugent's resurgence is worthy of note. It had been five years since Nugent had made more than 15 field goals, and he was coming off tears of his ACL, MCL, and meniscus in his kicking knee before booting a career-high 132 points.
He doesn't have the strongest leg in the league and he'll play in some inclement weather in Cincinnati and the other locations of the AFC North, but the team's improving offense should provide him ample opportunities to be a reliable fantasy asset again in 2012.
2012 "Repeat" Targets: 30-of-34 field goals, 30-of-31 extra points
2011 Stats: 44 sacks, 10 fumble recoveries, 17 interceptions, 0 safeties, 2 touchdowns
There are several teams who could have qualified for this spot, including the top unit in San Francisco (although they were an elite unit as recently as 2009) or the upstart Lions defense. I went with the Texans because they were dead last in 2010.
The peripheral numbers didn't improve dramatically, outside of sacks, but the defense turned into a force over night. The unit enjoyed a 58.8 percent increase in sacks from their previous three-year average, but the yards-against figures were staggering. The Texans finished 4th against the run, 3rd against the pass, and 2nd overall.
Changes in personnel were part of the turnaround, as the team added cornerback Johnathan Joseph through free agency and drafted J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed. Connor Barwin developed into a star under the new system as well. That system, installed by Wade Phillips, was the real key to the Texans improvements.
The team lost Mario Williams to free agency, but that didn't seem to affect them when he was out due to injury in 2011. I expect last year's performance to be more the standard than the exception for this unit moving forward. I also expect them to score a couple more touchdowns in 2012.
2012 "Repeat" Targets: 40 sacks, 9 fumble recoveries, 15 interceptions, 0 safeties, 2 touchdowns
What are your thoughts on last year's breakouts?