Going Deep  

 

Going Deep: Catching up with 2014 pass-catchers

  • By Marcas Grant
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I've never been much for fashion. I mean, I've tried putting together cool looks and keeping up with trends. But when it's all said and done, I've been a jeans and t-shirts guy.

Yet there was a time in my life when I labored in obscurity at a well-known national clothing chain commonly found at your local shopping mall. Let's just say it rhymes with, uh ... snap. Anyway, it wasn't strange to use our generous employee discount to buy already discounted items in the store. The catch is that they were things that were generally out of season. It's pretty cool to buy a peacoat for 20 dollars. Except when it's late May and you'll have to wait 4-6 months to get any use out of it.

Alas, my Tales of Fashion Hoarding do have a fantasy corollary. It applies to all of us who are no longer competing for a championship in our league. This is the time we start sizing up some players who might not get us much use right now, but who could look awfully sporty when we get to the fall.

So let's begin with the pass-catchers. As a group, they've made strides this year. Guys like Josh Gordon and Alshon Jeffery added their names to the likes of Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant as must-have accessories for any fantasy owner. Of couse, the secret to any good fantasy football wardrobe are the hidden gems. That's why I'm givng you some tips on what could be the hottest looks for next fantasy season.

Okay, enough with the bad fashion analogies. Here's my top five...

5. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans:


The Texans had high hopes for Hopkins coming into the season. There was some talk that he could be this season's top rookie receiver. Then again, the Texans had high hopes for themselves as a team this year ... and we see how that's all worked out.

But if there's a team that could be next season's Kansas City Chiefs, it's the Texans. The pieces are certainly there on defense. With a healthy Arian Foster, the running game should be in good hands -- especially if the team can re-sign Ben Tate. And you can expect Houston to try and improve its quarterback situation. All those things make Hopkins an intriguing option for 2014.

Don't look for him to suddenly become a top target in an offense that could still sputter at times next season, but he should take a step forward. Andre Johnson will be one year older, provided the Texans don't move on from the understandably disgruntled veteran (in which case, even better news for Hopkins!). Either way, with a year under his belt, Hopkins will have a better grasp of the offense and should be a more productive option.

Oh and if you're looking to compare him to some other wideouts, he compares pretty favorably to Riley Cooper and Michael Floyd -- two players who took a nice step forward this season.

Way-too-soon 2014 draft projection: WR3 in Rounds 11-14

4. Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle Seahawks


Immediately, the caveat with Baldwin is that he will have to fight with Percy Harvin for targets next season. Regardless, the Stanford man has found a way to pop up when fantasy football owners least expect him. This season, he's second on the Seahawks roster in receptions (43), yards (699) and tied for the most TD receptions (4).

Those numbers might not blow anyone away, but Baldwin has tallied more fantasy points this season than Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks and Greg Jennings. He's also not far behind teammate Golden Tate, but has done it while exhibiting more consistency. Tate's numbers are inflated by the 21-point effort he had in Week 8. Baldwin's peak this season was 13.7 points (Week 13), which means he hasn't hit the same type of valleys as Tate.

Plus it can't be overstated how much he's gained a rapport with quarterback Russell Wilson. Making plays when needed is nice -- in the past five games he has 20 catches for 327 yards (16.4 yards per catch) and three TDs. It also never hurts to be able to make tough catches -- especially ones that result in touchdowns.

Way-too-soon 2014 draft projection: Low WR3 in Rounds 11-15

3. Coby Fleener, TE, Indianapolis Colts


Another Stanford man. Another player with caveats. Part of Fleener's success in 2013 owed to injuries to Dwayne Allen and Reggie Wayne. Although it's fair to say Fleener might have seen an uptick in production just from playing in Pep Hamilton's familiar offense.

There's always the danger that Fleener goes back to being third fiddle once Wayne returns or that he could split targets with a healthy Allen. But Fleener has shown that he can be a playmaker in an offense that still has the potential to be very dynamic.

It also doesn't hurt that the tight end position has been one of the toughest for fantasy owners to figure out this season. And there will be at least one less big-name player to consider at the position after the expected retirement of Tony Gonzalez.

Way-too-soon 2014 draft projection: Low TE1 in Rounds 9-12

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2. Brandon LaFell, WR, Carolina Panthers


LaFell isn't exactly a young player -- next season will be his fifth in the league. But he has seen steady improvement through each campaign. It also doesn't hurt that the plays opposite Steve Smith, who isn't the wideout he once was. Carolina's offense is still predicated on running the football, but LaFell is becoming a more reliable option when Cam Newton takes to the skies.

It seems that the Panthers are looking to share the wealth in the passing game a little more in recent weeks. Going back to Week 9, LaFell has 41 targets. That is third-best on the team, but not so far away from Smith's team-leading 47 opportunities over that same span.

All of it adds up to LaFell deserving to be considered a legitimate low-end WR2 option for next season. Don't believe me? Well his career numbers are even better than Brian Hartline, who played his way up draft boards last season on the strength of one huge game ... and has held his status with a string of nice performances this year. LaFell has the chance to truly step up in Carolina's continually emerging offense next season.

Way-too-soon 2014 draft projection: Low WR2 in Rounds 10-13

1. Kendall Wright, WR, Tennessee Titans


After years of waiting (unsuccessfully) for Kenny Britt to break out, the Titans lost their patience and turned to the playmaker from Baylor. And boy has he produced. Wright has a real chance to finish among the top 30 scorers at the receiver position, thanks to a good bit of consistency. Only twice this season has Wright scored fewer than five fantasy points in a contest.

In the last few weeks, he's turned things up. He's seen 33 targets in the past four games, which he's converted to 23 catches for 277 yards and a touchdown. More importantly, Wright is one of the few No. 2 wideouts who has moved up to a No. 1 spot in his respective offense primarily through performance. Since it's not likely tha Britt will be back in Tennessee next season, expect Kendall Wright to come off draft boards as a mid- to high-WR2.

Way-too-soon 2014 draft projection: WR2 in Rounds 8-12

Just for good measure, here are a few honorable mentions: Marlon Brown, Zach Ertz, Rueben Randle, Jordan Reed, Ace Sanders, Timothy Wright

Without a doubt, all of this could change dramatically between now and the summer. We still have free agency and the draft to get through before we start to solidify any of our draft lists. But consider this a handy viewing guide for the final few weeks of the season. Next week, we'll tackle running backs.

Marcas Grant is a fantasy editor for NFL.com and a man who recently bought his first ever pair of cufflinks. They double as bottle openers. You can follow him on Twitter.

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