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Third-year receiver rule: Low cost breakout candidates

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In the latest episode of the NFL Fantasy LIVE podcast the gang discussed the potential of the Bengals' offense and the Rams' plan for Todd Gurley. Then they debated the draft value of some second-year running backs like Jerick McKinnon and Devonta Freeman. Don't forget to subscribe and listen in HERE!

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Prior to last season's "Year of the Rookie WR" the status quo for breakout candidates among fantasy wideouts was in their third season, a phenomenon dubbed the "Third-Year WR Rule". But beyond DeAndre Hopkins and Keenan Allen, not a single name from the 2013 draft class really jumps off the page in terms of contributing in a major way in fantasy this season. So while I didn't want to repeat some of the great work that my colleague Alex Gelhar did last summer on some of these guys entering their sophomore campagins (Part 1--Robert Woods, Justin Hunter, Hopkins,/Part 2--Markus Wheaton, Terrance Williams, Kenny Stills and Kenbrell Thompkins), I decided to take a look at three other receivers from the same class who might be in draft queues during the later rounds, and determine if they will have any value to fantasy owners in 2015 and beyond.

 

Charles Johnson, Minnesota Vikings


2014 IN REVIEW

Following the Vikings' Week 10 bye, Charles Johnson emerged as the top receiver among a middling group of Minnesota pass-catchers. According to Pro Football Focus, from Week 12 on, Johnson played on no fewer than 90 percent of the team's offensive snaps yet he managed to break double-digit fantasy points just twice in standard scoring leagues.

We also need to remember that he had a rookie quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater with fewer than six pro starts under his belt throwing to him by the time Week 11 rolled around. Not surprisingly, Johnson's highest yardage totals came against two second-rate pass defenses (Week 11 vs CHI, Week 14 vs NYJ).

ANALYSIS

Upon a review of Johnson's 2014 film there wasn't anything that really blew me away. There were good things: he was effective beating man coverage on deep routes as well as finding gaps in zone defenses underneath and registered a few decent gains on screen plays. Johnson's speed was also noticeable right away (He ran 4.38 and 4.39-40s during his pro day back in 2013, though he wasn't selected until the seventh round in the NFL Draft). But there were also bad things like a goal-line fumble in Week 14 -- a play on which he would have scored his second touchdown of the game but, alas, the score went to running back Jerome Felton who recovered the ball in the end zone.

2015 AND BEYOND

Despite just six NFL starts to his name at age 26, Johnson is quickly becoming one of the biggest breakout candidates in fantasy for the upcoming season. He even kicked off Around the NFL's "Making the Leap" series where ATNFL writer Marc Sessler pegged him for 60 receptions for 900 yards and six touchdowns. There is clearly fantasy value to be had in that projection. But based on what's happened in the past in terms of Vikings receivers generating excessive amounts of hype in the summer months, I'm taking a wait-and-see approach (See: Patterson, Cordarrelle).

Plus with Mike Wallace now in Minnesota, Johnson will no longer be Bridgewater's No. 1 target -- especially on fantasy point-generating deep routes. Johnson will have to demonstrate that he can be a consistent fantasy asset this year before I'd be willing to consider him for future seasons.

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2015 DRAFT VALUE

From a fantasy perspective, Johnson's Round 8 ADP (according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com) is too generous for my liking. I'd be more apt to select a proven veteran receiver like Roddy White or a FLEX back like Ryan Mathews or Tre Mason in that spot, and let my league mates take the risk on Johnson that early this year. I'd be much more comfortable taking him at his Round 13 ADP according to NFL.com drafts.

 

Stedman Bailey, St. Louis Rams


2014 IN REVIEW

Following a four-game suspension to start the season, Stedman Bailey put himself on the fantasy radar with good production late in the season. He piled up 12 receptions for 189 yards and a score in Weeks 12 and 13 making himself a waiver-wire target for some desperate and deep-league owners in the fantasy playoff race, although he didn't produce much the rest of the year. Bailey finished the season with 30 catches for 435 yards and one offensive touchdown (you might also remember this trick punt return touchdown against the Seahawks).

ANALYSIS

As a third round pick out of West Virginia in 2013, Bailey was known for his soft hands and physical gameplay which he used to create separation. While his size (5-foot-10, 194 lbs.) prevents him from creating mismatches on the outside (although small receivers are trending up), he found much success in both man and zone coverage from the slot position.

In Week 12, Bailey repeatedly victimized Chargers' DB Marcus Gilchrist in one-on-one coverage, opening enough space for Shaun Hill to deliver seven completions for 89 yards and a touchdown. But perhaps Bailey's most impressive showcase of his talent came in Week 13 when he found a seam in a soft zone coverage and hauled in a sailing wobbler over his head with one hand which you can see in the embedded highlight.

When given the chance, the 24-year-old proved that he can routinely beat the average NFL defenders assigned to cover him. Since he's not a big No. 1 wideout, he won't be matched up against the most talented DBs opposing teams have to offer, leaving him some room to prosper.

2015 AND BEYOND

Bailey has dealt with receiving passes from a litany of mediocre signal-callers through his first two seasons. Now, the Rams are refreshing their offense under new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti and have brought in 2013 fantasy sensation quarterback Nick Foles to hurl the rock.

This year, Bailey will still be competing for targets with Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin and possibly Brian Quick (I know, not the most potent stable of WRs). But in a depth chart published by Pro Football Focus, Bailey projects as the starting Z-receiver ahead of Quick, who is still rehabbing an injury. This should be viewed as a make-or-break opportunity for Bailey which has potential to lead to consistent success in the stat sheets as well as for fantasy owners.

2015 DRAFT VALUE

While Austin may be spawning more offseason hype, Bailey has a lot going for him. I like his chances as a breakout candidate over the speedy Austin, and since he's virtually going undrafted in standard leagues, you should be able to wait and scoop him up as a late-round flier at virtually no cost.

 

Aaron Dobson, New England Patriots


2014 IN REVIEW

A second-round pick out of Marshall, Aaron Dobson drew comparisons to the great Randy Moss and led the Patriots' rookie receiver class in 2013 with 518 yards and four touchdowns on 37 receptions in 12 games. But he underwent surgery that offseason to repair a stress fracture in his foot which hampered his 2014 campaign to just three catches for 38 yards before being placed on injured reserve in late November with another unrelated injury. All of this has virtually wiped him off of the fantasy radar.

ANALYSIS

Since he barely played last season, I took a look at Dobson's 2013 film on Game Rewind to get an idea of what his strengths are. His size (6-foot-3, 200-pounds) offers the Patriots something their receiving corps lacks, save for Brandon LaFell who is nearly identical in size. Last season LaFell was Tom Brady's big downfield target and finished as a top-25 fantasy wideout with more than 900 yards and seven touchdowns.

Dobson has the same statistical potential that LaFell enjoyed last year despite the fact that he doesn't possess first-class speed. His size helps him box defenders out, leaving him room to make tough catches -- something demonstrated in the highlight embedded above. He possesses great stop-start ability which showed in his success on comeback and change-of-direction routes which is exhibited below (Dobson is lined up at the top of the field):

2015 AND BEYOND

While Dobson has proven he can excel at the NFL level, his injury risk remains a concern. Yes, he is more than a year removed from the procedure on his foot but the issue may be detrimental to his main strength as a receiver: an impressive quickness and agility for his size that allows him to juke or U-turn on a dime. We've seen fantasy studs like Julio Jones have the same sort of injury and recover with no issue but I'd be remiss to compare the two receivers.

Dobson will also have a tough time climbing the depth chart as he'll have to fend off LaFell (who reportedly sat out of OTAs with a foot injury), Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and of course, Rob Gronkowski for opportunities. If he does carve out a role though, it's not out of the question for him to achieve his 2013 form. In that case, he would easily become a coveted fantasy wideout as this season progress as well as down the line especially if he remains in New England.

2015 DRAFT VALUE

In standard leagues Dobson will likely end up as an undrafted waiver-wire type. He is still worth paying attention to throughout training camp and the preseason in hopes that he emerges as a valuable low-cost acquisition in deeper leagues.


Matt Franciscovich is an associate fantasy editor at NFL.com. He's been listening to the latest My Morning Jacket record The Waterfall at least twice a day in recent weeks. Hit him up on Twitter @m_franciscovich for music recommendations and fantasy advice.

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