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Sophomore WR encore: Four with a perfect price tag

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Rookie receivers entered the league last year with the loudest of bangs we've heard in quite some time. A number of them broke records, showing off both the talent and the depth of the 2014 receiving class. Now, as they enter their second seasons, this group will not be sneaking up on anyone. Along with the rest of the NFL, fantasy owners will watch with bated breath to see what this exciting crop of playmakers does for an encore.

With these second-year wideouts available throughout fantasy drafts, from the early rounds to the last few, how owners sort through them will go a long way in deciding league championships. Last week, we looked at the sophomores set to outperform their ADPs and those who will be overdrafted. In the third of a four part series, we'll examine four second-year players who are properly priced in drafts. These players offer big potential for your fantasy team, and come at a fair market value

Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants

 

The idea that there is any kind of pushback on Odell Beckham Jr.'s 2015 fantasy stock is more than confusing. By any measurement, he just had the greatest rookie wide receiver season of all time. He finished with 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns in 12 games. Had he played a full 16 games, Beckham's pace would have taken him to 121-1,740-16. That's right. Completely ridiculous numbers as a first-year player in the NFL. Let's not forget that Beckham had no offseason practice, as he was rehabbing a nagging hamstring injury. Theoretically, he should have come into the league as unprepared as any rookie. Instead, he dominated. With that in mind, it's fair to wonder if we have yet to see the best of what this player has to offer. A terrifying prospect for opposing defenses.

Beckham was both wildly efficient and productive last season. In 2014, he scored .26 fantasy points per snap. The rest of his rookie peers averaged .16 points per snap. He produced like a high-end NFL veteran, not a player who had spent all offseason on the shelf heading into his first campaign. Not only did Odell Beckham produce on a great individual level, his impact filtered through to the rest of the offense. Most noticeably, Eli Manning was markedly better when Beckham entered the lineup. Since 2011, in games without Beckham, Manning has 1.58 touchdowns, 262.5 yards and 18.97 fantasy points per game. Those numbers increased to 1.75 touchdowns, 285.6 yards and 21.75 fantasy points, while his interceptions dropped from 1.21 to .75. Even Reuben Randle had the best two game stretch of his career in Weeks 16 and 17 when teams were selling out to (unsuccessfully) stop Beckham. Some of the best NFL receivers elevate the performances of their teammates, but rookies are not supposed to do that.

As good as the numbers are, the film may be even better. No matter the assignment or competition, Odell Beckham was almost always open. Opposing general managers regarded him as the best route runner in the stacked 2014 wide receiver class. He proved that on the field, displaying nuance and polish of a far more experienced player. Even so, it feels as if his athleticism was undersold. While nothing from his combine performance was eye-popping, just take a few moments to watch his game and it becomes apparent he's one of the best athletes on the field. Beckham eviscerated lesser competition like Washington's secondary, but also took Richard Sherman to task when they faced off, which even the All-Pro corner admitted.

After a legendary rookie season, fantasy drafters are responding. In MFL10 drafts that took place in the month of July, Odell Beckham went off the board as the second wide receiver. He's also widely been a late first-round pick, although is slipping to the second round of NFL.com fantasy leagues. Last year's WR2 in standard leagues was Jordy Nelson, and he finished with 98 catches, 1519 yards and 13 touchdowns. There is no reason Beckham cannot do that in 2015. He could regress off his outrageous pace from last season, and still pay off his ADP. Aggressively taking Beckham in the first round is a fine idea, snagging him in the second round should feel great for any owner.

The case of Odell Beckham's fantasy value feels rather elementary. Keep finding ways to convince yourself he isn't the personification of dominance on the football field. Odell Beckham showed us who he was last year. We should believe him.

Martavis Bryant, Pittsburgh Steelers

 

Another player with some shadows of doubt regarding his second season follow up is Steelers wideout Martavis Bryant. Opinions vary on his stock, but it seems rather clear that he is one of the best breakout candidates in the NFL this season. Bryant surprised many by earning playing time in the middle of the season, and scoring eight touchdowns in the process. Now a year later, fantasy owners are wondering what kind of second act the talented wideout has in store. Look closely, and it's clear to see that he's in line for a big season.

Bryant did not play for the first six weeks of the season, but earned playing time in Week 7 and never looked back. While he never played a full snap count, Bryant was wildly efficient with his opportunities. Playing 306 snaps as a rookie, he scored an absurd .34 fantasy points-per-snap, which was nearly .1 higher than the next highest fantasy point-per-snap rate among the sophomore receivers. The Steelers used him in a role that was extremely valuable for bringing in points for fantasy owners. Many of his catches were of the high-reward variety as he played the role of the deep threat, maintaining an 11.4 yards-per-target figure.

With all that said, no one really expects Bryant to maintain that level of efficiency if and when his role grows. If he did that, he'd break fantasy record books even if you projected him for around an 800 snap share. However, what this does show us is that Bryant can significantly regress off his 2014 production pace and still pay off his draft cost.

By season's end the Steelers offense had graduated to one of the leagues' best, and was running almost exclusively through Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Bryant. There were more than enough targets for all to eat. Observers can expect that to continue. Some worry about Markus Wheaton, but it is quite apparent that he is the odd man out, and the one who has not gelled with Roethlisberger. Communication and rhythm have been recurring problems in that relationship. Whereas Bryant is the type of big receiver the future Hall of Famer has pined for over the years. Bryant played very well when he got his chance, and even did well getting open at all areas of the field, not just in the deep game. When push came to shove when the Steelers met the Ravens in the playoffs, the team trusted Bryant and played him on 81.6 percent of the snaps. Bryant rewarded them with sound play and a touchdown in the loss.

Bryant came into the league with questions about his commitment, maturity and lack of playing time in college. However, he has been reborn in Pittsburgh, refining his craft with dedication that drew praise from his quarterback. He's carried that focus into the offseason, where he's added an additional 10 pounds in order to be a more complete receiver.

Drafters currently partaking in MFL10s are taking Bryant off the board in the fifth-round range as the WR24. An expensive price, but one that he can certainly pay off. Last year's WR24 in standard leagues was Jordan Matthews with 872 yards and eight touchdowns. It is well within the range of possibilities for Bryant to reach those numbers, and he could realistically shatter that touchdown number (he scored eight in 10 games as a rookie). Also remember, that in some leagues, the secret will not be out. In NFL.com ADP data, Bryant comes in as a 14th round pick. That's thievery akin to breaking into Fort Knox and walking back out the front door with the loot.

Bryant shattered efficiency molds when he got on the field last year, and assisted in elevating his entire offense's performance. He's also growing into the player he always had the potential to be. Everything points to a massive breakout on the horizon in Bryant's second season.

Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia Eagles

 

Given some of the high-flying ways of Odell Beckham and Mike Evans, and the hype-trains around Brandin Cooks and others, it's easy to forget what a solid rookie season Jordan Matthews had. The big receiver played 779 snaps as a rookie and scored eight times. He got better as the season went on, and played especially well with Mark Sanchez behind center. There is some debate among analysts in regards to the role Matthews plays in Chip Kelly's offense, but regardless of his spot, he looks to be a strong bet in fantasy leagues this year.

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In Chip Kelly's first two years in the NFL, he's gutted the Eagles roster -- most noticeably at the skill position spots. He's opted for steady, reliable contributors over the high variance and exciting players Andy Reid employed. Jordan Matthews was a main cog in that renovation model, as Kelly identified a pretty specific role for him to maximize his potential. Matthews played 92.4 percent of his snaps lined up in the slot. While he carries the athletic profile of a big outside dominator, he is incredibly proficient at beating zone and underneath coverage. Matthews is an intelligent player, and has the savvy of a veteran to work through the trash of the middle of the field to present a safe target for his quarterback.

Of course, Matthews has the size, route-running ability and athleticism to survive on the outside. However, his designated role of the "big slot" receiver is an incredibly valuable one for fantasy football. These players are mismatches for smaller nickel corners, and are put in great position to rack up receptions and yards after the catch. Marques Colston has averaged 74 catches, 1027 yards and eight touchdowns in a similar role in the New Orleans Saints' offense. Those numbers also come with several seasons of Colston missing games due to injury. Even though he is theoretically a superior athlete to Colston, Matthews can play that same role, and post better numbers if he stays healthy.

As a part of the Chip Kelly turnover, the newly minted personnel overseer allowed the team's number-one receiver from 2014 walk out the door. Consequently, 143 targets were vacated when Jeremy Maclin left in free agency. Matthews already soaked up 103 as a rookie, but he could certainly absorb a portion of Maclin's looks. Rookie addition Nelson Agholor is going to eat plenty of those targets, as he'll play the role Maclin held, but Matthews should be the priority as the more established player. Additionally, someone needs to snake some of Riley Cooper's 95 targets from a season ago. The sophomore receiver is also the type to make good on his chances; much more so than the other Eagles' 2014 receivers. Matthews caught 65 percent of the targets sent his way, while the rest of the group collectively averaged a 59 percent catch rate. His efficiency speaks to both the role Kelly has created for him, and his own reliability as a player.

The Eagles ran the most offensive plays in the NFL last season, with 1,127, and averaged the 11th-most yards-per-play. Chip Kelly's fast-paced and efficient offense gives plenty of chances for a number of players to see valuable fantasy reps. As the offense goes into no huddle mode, Matthews should absorb plenty of targets tearing through the slot portion of defenses. He has 100-catch upside given his role, reliability, and the tempo of the offense. However, he won't just be a product of volume, as he'll be a valuable player in the scoring areas. Matthews was the 10th-best receiver in the red zone (among those with at least eight targets there) in terms of fantasy points-per-target.

Drafters universally agree across formats that Jordan Matthews will have a big sophomore season. MFL10 ADP lists Matthews as the WR16 and a mid third- to fourth-round pick. NFL.com ADP has him as the WR17 with a fifth-round average. If you want Matthews on your fantasy team for 2015, you will have to pay for him. His role in a tempo-based offense and skills as a player illuminates that he has the safe floor, and reception upside to justify the investment.

Jarvis Landry, Miami Dolphins

 

You'll have to bring a fire extinguisher with you any time you run into a Jarvis Landry detractor. Prior to his NFL campaign, they bent over in laughter at his woeful performance at the NFL Scouting Combine. To be fair, a 4.77 40-yard dash and 7.55 three-cone drill are strikingly poor numbers for a wide receiver. However, not enough of his loud chorus of doubters acknowledge that his testing may have been compromised due to injury:

As fantasy expert Evan Silva pointed out, it seems foolish to consider Landry athletically deficient when he ranked fourth in the NFL in kickoff return average (28.1) among returners with at least 20 runbacks and handled punts as a rookie. Speed and impressive physical feats will never be the staple of Jarvis Landry's game, but to act as if his is devoid of any semblance of gifts is asinine

Even after a strong rookie season, Landry's doubters still find reasons to poke holes in his game. They'll gleefully cite his 9.0 yards-per-catch figure to denigrate the good tape the rookie wide receiver put up. However, the facts show that the Dolphins trusted him and he jived well with his quarterback, as Landry absorbed 112 targets as a rookie. That 19 percent share of the team's offense was right on par with highly-paid Mike Wallace, and was trending upward as the veteran's began to trail off. Blindly, many just choose to ignore the obvious; Landry had a good rookie season and is a major part of the Dolphins offense.

Much of the concern surrounding Landry has to do with his rookie role as exclusively a short-area pass catcher. Time has shown that players of that ilk need volume to be strong fantasy assets, if their teams choose to use them in that fashion only. However, there is no real reason to project Landry to lose any targets, so the worry surrounding him is confusing. In the offseason, the team lost 250 targets, good for 42.2 percent of their total from last year. Landry soaked in targets last year, and he could certainly eat at least a little bit of that left behind pie. Let's also consider that because the Dolphins gave their wide receivers an intense facelift, Landry is now the senior and only returning member of the group.

Ryan Tannehill has shown many times over in his career that he likes structure, and is still a mediocre, at best, deep ball thrower. When the plays or blocking break down in front of him, Tannehill's mindset guides his eyes to Landry. With those two in lockstep. Landry should continue to get targets at a rate that will sustain his fantasy value, given his style of play.

Fantasy owners have seen plenty of slot receivers have value in their leagues, despite shortcomings. Randall Cobb is built just like Landry and had a poor scouting combine performance, but he has graduated to become one of the better receivers in the NFL. Landry has the applicable skills and traits to have big seasons as these players did in the right situation, and Miami appears to be that situation.

The Dolphins ran the 12th-most plays in the NFL last season, which was up from 24th the year prior. The hiring of offensive coordinator Bill Lazor brought some of the Chip Kelly up-tempo offense to South Beach. Schemes like this are designed for quick passing, which means targets get funneled to short passing weapons. In Miami, Jarvis Landry is that player, and he has that role on lockdown with all of the new additions being perimeter players.

Even though Landry was exclusively a short passing option in year one, that doesn't mean he is not a rugged playmaker. In 2014, he was the 13th-most efficient wide receiver at scoring fantasy points in the red zone, among those with at least eight targets. Landry is adept at making plays in tight coverage, and has vice grips for hands to pluck the ball out of the air. There is more discover from his game, despite his detractors wanting to just hammer home the 9.0 yards-per-catch average. There is no reason Landry cannot become a player who annually puts up stat lines close to the 90-1,000-6 range.

All summer, Landry has hovered in the mid-rounds of fantasy drafts. MFL10 drafters take him off the board as the WR28, and he is a sixth-round pick in NFL.com ADP data. Last year, despite only playing on 67.5 percent of the team's offensive snaps, Landry finished as the WR31. As one of the only holdover (and most valuable) pieces in Miami's offense, he feels like a good bet to see the growth to meet the investment his ADP requires.


Matt Harmon is an associate fantasy writer/editor for NFL.com, and the creator of #ReceptionPerception, who you can follow on Twitter @MattHarmon_BYB. Tweet him for fantasy advice, as he sorts through his tiered rankings and podcast rotation.

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