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Flyin High

Welcome to Round 13.

The running backs have been picked clean. The quarterback pool has been reduced to a puddle. The tight end stragglers are either old, injured or unproven. This is the landscape of a draft that’s in it’s final stages; it’s a veritable fantasy wasteland.

However, before we distractedly start eyeballing kickers, there’s one more thing to get excited about: our late-round WR fliers.

For some of us, the term ‘late-round flier’ is synonymous with ‘exciting rookie wideout’. And this year, there are a number of young players from which to choose. There’s gigantic James Hardy, who’s going to start opposite Lee Evans in

Buffalo. There’s Eddie Royal in

Denver, who continues to impress.

Pittsburgh’s Limas Sweed certainly has his admirers, as does Robert Meachem of the Saints.

Of course I don’t have to tell you how hard it’ll be for these guys to make an impact in 2008. There’s a steep learning curve when WR’s make the jump to the NFL. If you’re skeptical about this, let me give you a quick reality check.

Since 1998, only nine rooks have had more than 55 receptions. Only nine have had more than five TD’s. Only eight have had more than 850 yards.   

And let’s face it: there is no Calvin Johnson this year. There are no obvious standouts. If you draft a rookie WR in 2008, you’re basically just taking a wild stab.

Hey, maybe that’s all you’re looking for in the late rounds. Not me. I’m going to try to suck the value out of every last selection. Even towards the end of the draft, I’m looking for wide receivers that have a legitimate shot at success. I want players who’ve proven that – in the regular season, playing against motivated NFL defenses – they can operate effectively within their respective offenses.  

Let me give you five late-round fliers that fit this bill.

1) Jabar Gaffney – Okay, I realize that Gaffney may not make it past the 11th round – at least not in Shark leagues. But I have to mention the guy. It looks like Gaffney has reprised his role in the Patriots offense (it doesn’t appear as though Chad Jackson is going to steal any of his playing time), which means that he’ll be option #3 in the most potent passing attack in the league. This, in itself, should get your attention. If not, let me remind you that in the latter portion of 2007, Gaffney basically wrestled the job away from Donte Stallworth. And, in his last six regular season games, Jabar has had 21 receptions, 307 yards, and four TD’s.

Now, I’m not going to prorate these numbers in order to gauge Gaffney’s 2008 fantasy potential (I don’t think that he’ll have 10 TD’s this year). I’m merely pointing out that he’s proven that he can be effective. He’s a polished route runner, he’s capable of finding the end zone and, most importantly, Brady seems to trust him. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if this year Gaffney outperforms the likes of Patrick Crayton and Vincent Jackson.

2) Ronald Curry – Like Jabar Gaffney, Curry may not make it past the 11th round. But, having been stuck in the middle of

Oakland’s revolving quarterback mess for the past few years, he is often overlooked.

Check out his numbers:

  • 2004 – in only 12 games, Curry had 46 receptions/717 yards/six TD’s

  • 2005 – missed almost the entire season due to injury

  • 2006 – 62 receptions/727 yards/one TD

  • 2007 – 55 receptions/717 yards/four TD’s

Not bad when you consider that during this four-year period, Curry was catching passes from the QB quintet of Kerry Collins, Andrew Walter, Aaron Brooks, Daunte Culpepper and Josh McCown. Actually, seeing these five names strung together, Curry’s numbers seem almost extravagant.   

This year, Ronald has been battling Drew Carter for that No. 2 WR spot. But, after a three-catch performance in Friday’s preseason game against

Tennessee, Curry has the edge (Carter didn’t have a reception in the contest). In fact, during that game, Curry was the only WR to catch a pass from JaMarcus Russell. And, since Javon Walker continues to look shaky, it’s possible that Curry will be used as a possession receiver in the

Oakland offense. He certainly has the tools. He is big and fast and fully capable of working the underneath routes. Of course, there is always the possibility that the injury prone

Walker will miss some time, in which case Curry would step into the #1 role. That could certainly push him from borderline fantasy commodity to legitimate fantasy starter.

At the very least, Curry is familiar with sub-par quarterbacking. Even if Russell struggles more than expected, Ronald’s basement is only so low. But if the ball bounces his way – if Russell starts to rely on Curry or if

Walker goes down – you might get 75 receptions, 950 yards and eight TD’s out of this guy.

   

3) Justin Gage – It pains me to recommend a Titan receiver, even as a late-round flier. Vince Young is just a terribly unpolished passer. However, Gage is the No. 1 WR in

Tennessee, and there are signs that he and Young have developed a rapport. In the final eight regular season games of 2007, Justin had 36 receptions, 527 yards and two TD’s.

True, the Titans have a stable of mediocre receivers and Gage doesn’t exactly leap off the page. But we have yet to see how Justin McCareins and Alge Crumpler will adjust to the ever-erratic Vince Young. Roydell Williams, who played well last season, is still recovering from a broken ankle that he suffered in January. In fact, he has recently had a setback and has not been practicing for the past week. Williams has admitted that even if he works his way back onto the team, he’ll be playing in pain all year. The last Titan receiver of note is Brandon Jones, who wasn’t able to beat out McCareins for the No. 2 WR spot. Jones doesn’t figure to be much of a factor; he hasn’t had more than 27 receptions in any of his first three seasons.  

Well, Gage is in no danger of losing his starting role. So he’s going to see a certain number of looks. And, with Roydell Williams seemingly out of the picture, Gage is the only receiver in the group who has proven that he can be productive with Vince Young at the helm. For that reason, I think that Gage has a real chance to become the go-to guy in

Tennessee’s passing game. That might not mean much, but if Gage can be as effective this year as he was in the last eight games of 2007, he’ll put up some pretty good numbers.    

4) James Jones – In the first 12 games of 2007, Jones had 43 receptions, 633 yards, and two TD’s. He had 60+ yards in six of these games and he had at least three catches in all of them. Then in the last four games of ‘07, Jones had only four catches for 43 yards.

Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has said that Jones hit a ‘rookie wall’ last year. Well, that shouldn’t be an issue in 2008. The problem this year, obviously, is the change at quarterback.

The thinking is that this season, in order to play to the strengths of Aaron Rodgers,

Green Bay will likely return to a more traditional West Coast scheme. This means more spread formations, more quick passes and possibly more involvement for No. 3 WR James Jones. Granted, Rodgers is an unknown commodity at this point. But if he pans out, Jones stands to benefit.

James is not a deep threat, so he won’t be hurt by the loss of Favre’s cannon. And he has shown that he can be very effective working the shorter routes. He has developed a role for himself in

Green Bay and, as his impressive rookie numbers indicate, he is capable of making some plays. So, even as the third option in the passing game, Jones should be productive enough to be fantasy-relevant (provided Rodgers plays well).

5) Kevin Walter – In many leagues, Walter won’t be drafted at all. It’s not hard to see why.

Last year, in the seven games without Andre Johnson in the lineup, Walter had 41 receptions for 528 yards. In the nine games with AJ in the lineup, Walter had 24 receptions for 272 yards.

Hmmm. Maybe I’m a glass half-full kinda guy, but I actually find these numbers encouraging. What we’ve got here is a legitimate handcuff for Andre Johnson. And that has value.  

Obviously, if AJ goes down again this year, you can’t really replace him. But Walter has proven that as the #1 WR, he can be productive in

Houston’s offense. If you’ve drafted Johnson and he misses some time, Walter’s presence on your roster can mitigate the damage. He’s certainly light years ahead of what you’ll find on the waiver wire.

Hey, even if you haven’t drafted AJ, you can still grab Walter – he could make a nice piece of trade bait. You know that Andre Johnson owners are going to be a bit antsy this year. He missed the last preseason game because of a groin pull and his knee is still an issue. Maybe you can time your trade proposal with the next report of Andre’s injury troubles. You can dangle Walter like a piece of meat.

And there’s always the possibility that

Houston will come out firing this year. They’re showing signs of it. You never know – Walter could develop into a solid option even with AJ in the lineup.

Given that you can probably pick Kevin up in the last round of your draft, he deserves a spot on your roster.

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