Rookie receivers entered the league last year with the loudest bang 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. In the first of a four-part series, we'll look at three second-year players who are near locks to outperform their Average Draft Position.
Allen Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Last season, the Jaguars offense finished with the lowest point total in the league (249) and average 4.7 yards-per-play. Non-explosive and inefficient, it was hard to expect anything else from a unit that was comprised almost entirely of rookies, and Toby Gerhart. Quarterback Blake Bortles struggled to find a groove, and wore down with too much on his shoulders as a rookie behind a bad offensive line. A young quarterback surrounded by similar levels of inexperience in a poor offense can make for an uncomfortable situation for any rookie passer. However, during the early parts of the season, there was one thing that Bortles was comfortable doing, and that was throwing to Allen Robinson. Frequently in trouble on third down, Bortles' eyes would naturally float to his biggest wide receiver. In the weeks they played together, he threw to Allen Robinson 24 times on third down, which was ten targets more than the next highest receiver. The chemistry is evident on film, as is the trust Bortles has in Robinson.
Robinson averaged 8.1 targets per game in the 10 contests he participated in last season. If you extrapolate that for a 16-game season, he would have been thrown at 130 times, which would place him in the top-20 in terms of NFL receivers. That mark should be his floor in projections for the 2015 season; there is no real reason to assume Robinson will not be targeted at the same rate in his second season -- new addition Julius Thomas will siphon from the 66 targets divvied up to Marcedes Lewis and Clay Harbor, and pull from the 110 left behind by Cecil Shorts. If Bortles improves even one iota, then Robinson should be able to turn in an 80-catch season without even being hyper-efficient. In PPR leagues, that sort of safe floor is gold. Particularly in a receiver where a premium investment is not required.
Mike Evans and Odell Beckham headline the 2014 rookie crop due to their highlight-reel level plays. Allen Robinson did not provide us with many of those plays as a rookie. However, we know he is capable of impressive athletic feats. Much like a similar photo at Penn State, a picture of Allen Robinson showing off his 39-inch vertical jump at Jaguars' minicamp has made the offseason rounds. He does not have the deep speed of some of his peers, but he possess the ability to make plays in contested, and jump ball, situations. For a big man, Robinson separates from defenders very well in the short and intermediate areas of the field. Quietly, the big receiver displayed pristine route running and release technique as a rookie.
*Robinson, top left, gets a clean release from the line of scrimmage and earns timely separation on an out route. *
Presenting a reliable target early in-route for a young quarterback is essential, which is why the Jaguars' receiver will continue to see incredible volume as he progresses through his career.
Allen Robinson currently hovers around the WR30 draft spot, according to ADP data collected by MyFantasyLeague.com since May 15th. In our own NFL.com leagues, his ADP is the 147th player off the board in fantasy leagues; behind players like Percy Harvin, Cody Latimer and Dorial Green-Beckham. Those players may not even combine for the number of receptions Robinson will finish with, if healthy. Last year, the WR30 in PPR leagues was Rueben Randle, the owner of 71 catches for 938 yards and three scores. Robinson was on pace for a 77/877/3 line as a rookie, despite only playing 31.5 percent of the team's snaps in the first two weeks of the season. Meeting his ADP should be no problem, and exceeding it is well within reach. If the "Jaguars stink" theory causes him to drop into the very late rounds in your league, he could become one of those steals that turn into a league winner (a la Josh Gordon in 2013).
Mike Evans, Buccaneers
There is a "been there, done that" factor here, as Mike Evans was a top-10 receiver in standard leagues last year. As a rookie, Evans rewarded owners who took him in the mid to late rounds last year as a solid contributor to their fantasy teams. However, it is fair to point out that the big receiver scored 44.1 percent of his fantasy points in three consecutive games midseason where he blew up for 458 yards and five touchdowns. Those contests came against the Browns, Falcons and Redskins --only one of whom (Cleveland) fielded a successful secondary last year. In general, his season totals were inflated by, and his successful fantasy outputs dependent upon, touchdowns. Scoring 12 times, while impressive, is quite a difficult feat to replicate.
So, really, your approach to Mike Evans will be all about how you want to play the odds. The safe money is on him not replicating his touchdown production of a year ago. However, what many are overlooking is that Evans can still make good on his ADP even if he comes in short of 12 scores. Last year, he turned 123 targets into 68 catches and just over 1,051 yards. Not the sterling example of efficiency, but his teammate Vincent Jackson turned 142 targets into 1,002 yards and 70 catches with the same quarterbacks. There is no question who the better player is at this point, and we should expect Jackson and Evans' target totals to reverse this upcoming season. Jameis Winston is not likely to produce Andrew Luck level stats as a rookie, but he should improve the offense enough to give a boost to both of his top receivers. Improvement behind center should lift Evans' efficiency, and make any potential touchdown decline easier to manage. With this new quarterback, we should expect Evans to receive more targets, and improve on both his rookie yardage and catch totals.
With Winston opening things up, the Buccaneers should find themselves in the red zone and scoring position far more often. This should benefit Evans, who has the size, long arms and physical mindset to dominate in that area of the field. As a rookie, the majority of his touchdowns came on vertical routes where he streaked down the field and was asked to "just go get it." These type of routes required very little anticipation or touch from the quarterback, both of which are skills Jameis Winston is proficient in.
During his 40-touchdown season at Florida State, Winston made beautiful music with a 6-foot-5 target in Kelvin Benjamin. The two former Seminoles were adept at playing off each other's skill sets; Winston the aggressive passer, and Benjamin the "fight for the ball" receiver. As an NFL player, Winston will essentially be paired with the souped-up version of his former Florida State teammate in Mike Evans. His abilities as a jump ball-in-traffic receiver align much more with the way Winston plays the game than the sideline streaking ways of Vincent Jackson.
As it stands today, Mike Evans is going as one of the first 12 wide receivers off the board in fantasy drafts. The expectations are that he will perform as a WR1. However, there is a catch. Evans comes in at the tail end of that discussion, and with many owners targeting running backs early, he rarely goes in the first two rounds. In fact, Evans currently carries a fourth round ADP in NFL.com leagues. All signs point to him returning value at that spot, and his special gifts as a wide receiver make him a strong candidate to score more like an early second round pick.
Ultimately, whether you draft Mike Evans or not is about how you want to play fantasy football. Sure, there are safer options for your top receiver. That approach can certainly make your team a very good one. However, if you want to take a player that will help you lay waste to the rest of your league and potentially dominate the competition, Mike Evans gives you that for a fair price.
John Brown, Cardinals
Rewind to July 2014. The fantasy community was knee-deep in offseason buzz pieces about an unknown Pittsburg State receiver who was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals. We were left to wonder whether this was just the typical offseason news cycle faux hit, or whether this was the real deal. It turns out, the Legend of John Brown was in fact justified, as the rookie played a major role in the offense and received 103 targets. Not even the shiniest of optimists would have predicted that prior to the 2014 season. Now, the speedy receiver is a major factor in the offense and the type of young building block this veteran team needs going forward.
A look back to recent history could have helped identify the John Brown rookie season before it happened. Bruce Arians has long had an affinity for smaller receivers as primary targets of his offense. He facilitated the initial rise of Antonio Brown, all 5-foot-10 of him, to where he is one of the premier receivers in the NFL. Even more eerie, Bruce Arians offenses have had several seasons of success with third round rookie receivers who were 6-feet tall or shorter:
Much like T.Y. Hilton and Mike Wallace, John Brown came out of nowhere to contribute in Arians' offense in his first NFL season. While Brown produced the least impressive raw stats of the trio, there is a caveat here. Hilton and Wallace got 16 games of Andrew Luck and 15 games of Ben Roethlisberger, respectively. Brown was forced to play 10 games with a Drew Stanton/Logan Thomas/Ryan Lindley triumvirate of sadness taking turns behind center. If you take the numbers Brown recorded in the six games Carson Palmer played in, and stretch them out for a full season, his campaign suddenly looks even better.
John Brown performed markedly better when the team's starting quarterback was in the lineup. Had Palmer played out the full season, it is not out of the question Brown would have finished right in line with Hilton's 2012 season. The two players have very similar skill sets, and are both in the 5-foot-10 and 180-pound Arians' mold. For his encore, Hilton recorded 82 catches for 1,083 yards and five touchdowns. No one should rule out Brown having a similar season, if Carson Palmer plays all 16 games.
Speaking of Palmer, he loves John Brown. He invited the young receiver out to California to spend extra time training together during the offseason. When Palmer declared himself 100 percent last month, he also went out of his way to extend praise to his second-year receiver. "I expect huge things from him this year, there's something different about him," Palmer said of Brown. The diminutive speedster reportedly added 10 pounds of muscle to better fight in press coverage and contested situation. Or perhaps, Palmer is noticing some more advanced route running from his young receiver. Last year, Brown was almost exclusively targeted on go and screen routes as a specialty player. However, he showed a propensity to get open on a variety of patterns, and the Cardinals could easily open up the route tree for him. Palmer certainly recognizes that there is a ton of room for improvement in this player that just found his way to the NFL from a Division II college. So should fantasy owners.
Larry Fitzgerald is still a capable veteran, and Michael Floyd has some yet untapped upside. Still, it is well within the range of possibility that John Brown is universally regarded as the best Cardinals receiver by this time next year. At this time, Brown is going off the board as the 45th receiver in MFL10 leagues, and is a 14th-round pick on NFL.com. He finished last year as the WR47, so his current ADP does not factor in any improvement upon his rookie season. Drafting Brown is taking a player who is already on T.Y. Hilton's career path, but only investing in him at a draft position that is lower than his floor. An ascending talent, playing for a coach who has long maximized players with his skill set, John Brown is a massive buy.