It's that time of the season where things are starting to fall into place. I've done plenty of mocks, and also participated in, and advised for a couple of league drafts. Player draft positioning is pretty well set, and with only the virtually-meaningless preseason Game 4 and seven days until Opening Night, the slotting doesn't figure to move much as we head into National Draft Weekend (formerly known as Labor Day).
My goal is to post a flurry of material over the next handful of days to get everything out there before the majority of you have your drafts this upcoming weekend. And hopefully provide a helpful snippet or two along the way. I'm going to close out my breakout series, provide my positional sleepers and my "Busted" column, as I did last year, and perhaps a strategy piece if I have time.
The evaluation to find breakouts at this position is similar to that of the running backs. I'm looking for guys who have put their talent on display in the past, albeit probably on a limited scale. I'm also evaluating their opportunity. Both as it relates to their position within the pecking order of their respective receiving corps, and also the propensity their team has for throwing it within their offensive scheme. Lastly, the most important qualification for the guys listed today is who's throwing them the ball?
Before I get into the list, there are few players I'd like to mention quickly who I feel are due for big years, but don't quite fit the definition I've been using for this series as their draft position is already reflecting an anticipated improvement. Just like my two previous breakout installments, it's not all about who will increase their output and have a career year. My goal is more to pinpoint players set for an up-tick that will outperform their draft day cost and still have a nice value window.
He's developed into the team's top target, Christian Ponder should progress in Year 2, he's a multi-dimensional threat (rushing/receiving/returning), and how can you not love this stat from Matthew Berry; (List #5) "once Ponder took over in Week 7, Harvin led all receivers in offensive touches with 100, second-most was Wes Welker...with 74!"
I've flip-flopped on the Denver receivers all summer. First, I was pumping Decker and his early-developing chemistry with Peyton Manning. Then, I became enamored with Demaryius Thomas' physical prowess, big-play ability, and upside, and favored him. Now, I've come back around and feel like Decker's routes are going to be easier for a "lesser" Manning to complete with greater success and frequency.
I anticipate Garcon to be solid, if not spectacular in 2012. He gets the chance to be the unchallenged top dog on his team for the first time in his career and he should be smack in the middle of his prime at age 26. I expect a repeat of last year's targets (134), with a more capable driver behind the wheel (RGIII vs. Collins/Painter/Orlovsky) leading to a modest increase from last season's production (70 rec., 947 yards, 6 TDs)
5. Darrius Heyward-Bey - Oakland Raiders - |STAR|ADP 125
|STAR|average draft position referenced from ESPN.com as of 8/29/12
Heyward-Bey gets bottom billing today because I don't love his quarterback and the Raiders would be smart to center their offense around Darren McFadden and the ground game. Last season, he finally shed the bust label that had been hanging over him like a dark cloud and posted a very quiet 64 catches, 975 yards, and four scores. He also delivered on his much-talked-about but rarely-seen big-play ability with 14 receptions of 20-plus yards and three 100-yard games.
I'd rather have DHB than his flashier, more popular teammate, Denarius Moore, who is going 25 picks ahead of him. Heyward-Bey should be the no. 1 option (he was targeted 39 more times than Moore in just two extra games last season), is the more well-rounded player at this point, and produced well (3 of his 4 scores and two 130-plus-yard games in his last five) at the end of 2011 with Carson Palmer at the helm.
I'm predicting 70-plus catches, 1,100 yards, and 7 scores, making Heyward-Bey a solid WR3 in all leagues.
4. Titus Young - Detroit Lions - |STAR|ADP 119
Young has had some bouts with immaturity already in his brief professional career, but no one is questioning his talent. He's on the smaller side, but he's very fast, and he should be much more comfortable with his playbook, his quarterback, and understanding NFL coverages after a year of experience and a full training camp.
Detroit has a lot of weapons in the passing game, Calvin Johnson most notably, but Megatron's presence will ensure single coverage for Young and no team attempted more passes in 2011 than the Lions. An uninspiring rushing attack got no help in the offseason (besides the expected return of Mikel Leshoure and the drafting of Iowa tackle Riley Reiff), so a similar approach should be a safe bet from Matt Stafford and company.
Look for Young to surpass the more seasoned (31 year-old), less explosive Nate Burleson as the team's no. 3 target (behind Brandon Pettigrew). Increases over his 48 catches and 607 yards from his rookie campaign are a mortal lock, and his six touchdowns (four in the final four weeks of the regular season) give an indication of his potential.
3. Torrey Smith - Baltimore Ravens - |STAR|ADP 84
A.J. Green and Julio Jones were the big stories from last year's rookie class, and rightfully so, but Smith's season was nothing to sneeze at. His 50 receptions, 841 yards, and 7 scores got somewhat lost in the shuffle. Just a small step forward in 2012 will make him a dynamic option in all formats, though slightly less valuable in PPR.
Smith has speed to burn, and the ability to get deep. Joe Flacco also has the arm strength to get the ball there, but unfortunately he overthrew Smith on those routes more often than not last year. Of the 20 passes on which Flacco targeted Smith at least 30 yards downfield, they completed only five. As a result, Smith was a boom or bust player and struggled with consistency. A year of experience and a full offseason should lead to significant progress with the pair's chemistry (that deep ball completion ration can only go up) and lead to a jump in numbers as Smith moves toward becoming the Ravens no. 1 weapon in the passing game.
2. Antonio Brown - Pittsburgh Steelers - |STAR|ADP 65
A question I've heard, and read, over and over this summer is "who will be this year's Victor Cruz?"
Brown won't be coming off the practice squad out of no where and salsa-ing his way deep into the hearts of fantasy owners, but if it's just the bottom-line production you're seeking, I think he's the guy. They are similar in stature, skill set, and circumstance. Brown shares Cruz' ability to take a 5-yard pass for a 90-yard score. He's fast, runs great routes, and his experience as a punt returner has helped him develop tremendous elusiveness after-the-catch.
Mike Wallace, like Hakeem Nicks does for Cruz, will draw the over-the-top attention and double-coverages, leaving Brown plenty of room to work underneath. To illustrate, he finished last season second in the league in third-down receptions for a first down. Essentially, he became Ben Roethlisberger's go-to guy in a pinch and is a very tough cover for defenses. Wallace is certainly more dynamic, and a better overall receiver, but Brown actually had more targets, more catches, and more yards from Week 7 on last year.
There were several teams in 2011 that threw the ball enough to produce two valuable receivers, and I think the Steelers will throw more often this season in response to their questionable (and banged up) rushing attack to join that group. Brown had 18 receptions of 20-plus yards last year, averaged 16.1 yards-per-catch, and his upside is huge. The big knock on him is the measly two scores he racked up in 16 games, but is that likely to repeat? I would say emphatically no, and his three touchdowns already this preseason seem to indicate a significant increase is coming.
1. Julio Jones/A.J. Green - Atlanta Falcons/Cincinnati Bengals - ADP|STAR|31/30
I realize this is kind of cheating, because by all accounts these two playmakers "broke out" as rookies, but I don't think they're getting valued high enough.
Brace for it, brace for it... I have Jones as my no. 2 ranked wide receiver this season.
Physically, I think he's on the level of Calvin Johnson (the only WR I rank ahead of him), and I believe Jones will make a Calvin-esque like leap in production from Year 1 to Year 2. He missed three games last season, played several hurt, and still managed 959 yards, 8 touchdowns, 16 20-plus yarders, 5 100-yard games, and a 17.8 yards-per-reception average with just 95 targets.
I know experts have been predicting a shift in Atlanta's offensive philosophy to attack through the air more for years, but this year it's going to happen. They'll be in the top-5 in attempts and yards. That means a whole lot more action for Jones, who is healthy and has had a full year with the playbook and his quarterback.
Jones has already put his dominance on display this preseason, and with the issues surrounding those typically ranked in the top 5 at the position; Larry Fitzgerald and his QB(s), Andre Johnson and his healthy/age, Greg Jennings and his concussion issues, and Wes Welker and his contract issues/mouths to feed with Brandon Lloyd in town, I feel completely confident taking Jones that high.
Green is also a freakish talent. I have him ranked at no. 4, with Fitz being the only guy to squeeze in between the two sophomores. Cincinnati's less-explosive passing attack and quarterback, along with the fact Green had two extra games to slightly outpace Jones last year are my reasoning for bucking the trend in ranking these two. Green's jump-ball ability might already be tops in the league, or at least rivaling Johnson's, so he's going to score a lot and be utilized in the red zone, and he's got top-end speed and great hands.
Check out my evaluation of the big guys up front on Rotowire's Offensive Line Grid
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Please comment and list your favorite WR breakouts! Tight ends next. Happy drafting.