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The Receiver Riddle of 2009


Out of all the positions on your fantasy roster, wide receiver might be the most challenging to fill with consistently productive players. The receiver position is so important because all leagues require two starters, yet nabbing two who are solid enough to start on a weekly basis is maddeningly difficult. There are simply not enough marquee pass catchers in the NFL that can deliver the big points on a regular basis.


Which receivers to draft and when has kept many an owner up until the wee hours of the morning, pacing, puzzling and racking their brains. Here’s the riddle: Can a manager acquire two solid starting receivers without sacrificing talent and depth at other positions? The problem becomes magnified during the season. You find you just didn’t get the receivers you needed for your roster and now you have to choose between Hines Ward and Donald Driver as your No. 1 go-to-guy. I still suffer post-traumatic stress over this dilemma, but I digress. What we need is a serious discussion about strategies for addressing the problem.


It seems to go without saying, in most fantasy circles, that you never take a wide receiver in the first round or even the second round. Those rounds are reserved for stud running backs (and Manning/Brady, depending …). With few exceptions, most fantasy experts agree that a manager must never waste an early pick on a receiver, let alone the first two picks on the best two available receivers. Although, now that you’re thinking about it, you have to admit, it’s an intriguing strategy. No?  More on this strategy later.


RECEIVING LEADER IN FANTASY POINTS

2008 Larry Fitzgerald    1,431 yards 12 TD
2007 Randy Moss          1,493 yards 23 TD
2006 Marvin Harrison    1,366 yards 12 TD
2005 Steve Smith          1,563 yards 12 TD
2004 Terrell Owens       1,200 yards 14 TD
2003 Randy Moss          1,632 yards 17 TD
2002 Marvin Harrison    1,722 yards 11 TD
2001 Marvin Harrison    1,524 yards 15 TD
         Terrell Owens       1,412 yards 16 TD
2000 Randy Moss          1,437 yards 15 TD
1999 Marvin Harrison    1,663 yards 12 TD
1998 Randy Moss          1,313 yards 17 TD

Before we go any further, we need to study our history. Over the past 10 years, a manager could predict with great certainty that the receiving leader would be one of two names: Randy Moss or Marvin Harrison. You can throw in a T.O. and a Steve Smith as the exception years. If you look at the statistics above you will notice that Handy Randy was the points leader at the position in 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2007, with 2007 being perhaps the most prolific in NFL or fantasy history.  If you throw out the Raider years, Moss has been frighteningly consistent as well as productive. Also take note that when Moss leads the league he does so by dwarfing the statistics of his peers. It’s true, the runner-up receiver is often not even close.  This man “plays when he wants to play”? I guess, he wanted to play for the last decade or so.


Enter the beast in the desert. Larry Fitzgerald looked superhuman in the postseason last year and he was, in fact, the leader among receivers in the regular season.  However, his numbers (1,431 yards and 12 TD) pale in comparison to Randy’s, when Randy is at his peak. Fitz’s numbers do resemble
Harrison and Fitz has now done it in back-to-back seasons (1,409 yards and 10 TDs in 2008) so he is fast becoming the latest model of consistency at the position. Also, take note that this physical specimen is only 26 years old and just entering his prime. Have we seen Fitzgerald’s statistical ceiling? Does Kurt Warner still stock shelves for a living?


It seems like every expert has crowned Fitzgerald as the new number one receiver for 2009, but I have to raise one pointed eyebrow at that. The return of Tom Brady looming on the horizon gives me pause. Is Randy about to relinquish his royal scepter at the age of 32? The last guy as good as him was named Jerry and I believe he was still the best in the league at age 80.


Not only is the return of Brady-to-Randy a threat to Fitz’s supremacy, but one has to wonder when rickety Warner will go down with another bad injury. I love the guy and he’s been my starting QB for the past two seasons, but the former stock boy is living on borrowed time. So here’s the riddle: Will Fitzgerald be the best receiver in fantasy in 2009 and will he be worth a first-round pick?  My answer is a whole-hearted, “NO WAY!”


Unless, of course, you dare to go where no fantasy manager has gone before: two receivers with the first two picks. That’s right. Don’t waste early picks on the likes of Michael Turner (overused last year) or DeAngelo Williams (lightning won’t strike twice). If you go this route, go ahead and take Luscious Larry first. You just might be able to grab Randy in the second round. If not Randy, probably one of the Johnsons (preferably Calvin, but Andre’s nice too). Now you’re totally stacked at the position, while everyone else is grumbling.


Is this approach a gamble? Maybe, but if you land a pair of second tier RBs in the next two rounds, you could come out ahead. Figure you can grab someone like Jonathan Stewart, Le’Ron McClain, LenDale White, Earnest Graham, Darren Sproles, Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Cedric Benson or even Larry Johnson. Then scoop up a rookie who’s likely to start, like Chris Wells or Donald Brown, and pray for some luck.


You want a sleeper running back no one is talking about who will be available in the later rounds? Reach for Ahmad Bradshaw on the Giants. News Flash: he’s a better runner than Derrick Ward! In the mix, you can still land a decent QB like Carson Palmer or Matt Hasselbeck, and for once you won’t have to worry about those two darn receiver slots on your roster. Doesn’t that sound simply delightful?


Hey, it’s fun.  It’s unique and it just might work, but let’s say you’re not a gambler and you believe the conventional wisdom that receiver picks are reserved for the third round and beyond. Well, that’s no problem because we are witnessing the emergence of a new group of stud receivers, one of whom may be even better than Fitzgerald or Moss in the coming seasons. That’s right. I believe that, but I want to bypass the two receivers who are said to be the second- and third-best, because I don’t think they will be all that.


Andre Johnson is good, but he has yet to break eight TDs in a season and his QB is always banged up. This hurts his consistency. Calvin Johnson is a huge talent also, but he’s the lone weapon in the Lions’ arsenal and defenses will key on him.  And his QB is going to be who? Expect a decline in his numbers in 2009. Reggie Wayne and Steve Smith are on their way down, as well. They won’t be worth their draft positions. If you’re looking for the next big thing, allow me to throw some names at you.


Roddy White is a muscular dynamo who will continue to build chemistry with Matt Ryan. Plus, the arrival of Tony Gonzalez will only make it harder for safeties to double Roddy, who is an excellent runner after the catch.


Greg Jennings is another stud-in-the-making. He’s a vertical threat who loves those laser throws from Brett Favre …er Aaron Rodgers. At 25 years old, the sky’s the limit.


As Antonio Gates slipped last year, Vincent Jackson made himself the number one option in the

San Diego
offense. Superb thrower Philip Rivers will look for

Jackson
‘s 6’5″ frame often in 2009.

Jackson
is explosive in space and an ideal red-zone target, sort of like Plaxico Burress and Brandon Marshall, without the off-the-field issues.


Will we be talking about Matt Cassel to Dwayne Bowe this season? More than likely! Bowe is entering that pivotal third season for wide receivers and he has all the ability to break out with the best QB he’s ever played with.


Let me throw one more curve ball at you.  Does it occur to anyone that defenses facing

Arizona
in 2009 will be geared toward stopping Fitzgerald at all costs? Isn’t it possible that double and triple teams on Larry will mean increased production for Anquan Boldin? This player is an awesome talent playing with the meanest chip on his shoulder. It’s very possible that the best receiving statistics for the Cardinals will belong to Boldin by season’s end. Chew on that! 


Other solid No. 1 receivers you should be able to grab in the third or fourth rounds will be Marques Colston (if he’s healthy), T.J. Houshmandzadeh (if Hasselbeck is healthy), Terrell Owens (if he’s patient with Trent Edwards), Wes Welker (if Tom Brady is still mad about losing that Super Bowl), Brandon Marshall (if Kyle Orton can hit the side of a barn), Braylon Edwards (if he can catch) and Antonio Bryant (if anyone can throw him the ball).


When those players are gone, your drafting of receivers becomes a bit of a crapshoot and this is where your picks are, in some ways, even more crucial than your early rounds. Really, after the Top 15 or so receivers, the selection thins out considerably. People always talk about the drop in quality running backs from the first to the second tier. Let’s be honest. Those running back second-stringers are a pleasantry compared to the wasteland of slim pickings you’ll face at receiver, if you don’t solve the “Receiver Riddle of 2009.” Below is a Dark Horse List of the Best of the Rest. Choose wisely. 

16) Roy Williams – The perrenial underachiever finds himself in the perfect situation now that T.O. is history. Not even a Romo-Witten conspiracy will prevent him from producing. His numbers should be reliably decent, if not thrilling.

17) Jerricho Cotchery – With Laveranues gone, he is the clear No. 1 so his numbers should climb, either with Clemens or Sanchez at the helm.

18) Santonio Holmes – Needs to rebound after a drop in 2008. The hero of the Super Bowl, Big Ben surely will look for Holmes more than the smiley guy on the other side. Right?

19) Anthony Gonzalez – The changing of the guard has to happen some time and this could be the year Gonzalez steals the show from Reggie Wayne, just as
Wayne gradually supplanted
Harrison.

20) Santana Moss – You know he’s quicker than a wink, but he gets a bad rap for catching the injury bug too often. Did you know he averaged 880 yards and five TDs the past three years? The Little Moss is a little more consistent than people realize.

21) Kevin Walter – The other Texan receiver ain’t bad at all. In fact, he’s the best catcher of TDs no one’s ever heard of. With defenses sweating Johnson, Walter could easily repeat his eight TDs from last year. Maybe even add to it.       

22) Derrick Mason – So what if he’s pushing 40? He could be in a wheel chair and still haul in over 1,000 yards and five TDs. He’s done just that the past two years.

23) Laveranues Coles – Someone’s going to be

Carson
‘s main man come September. Why not Ol’ Reliable from Gang Green? Coles will quietly look to prove he isn’t washed up, while Chad Motor Mouth talks and talks.

24) Lee Evans – As T.O. garners all the attention of defenses, Evans could benefit greatly. He’s was a top-tier act in 2006. He still finished with 1,017 yards in 2009. I smell a sleeper.

25) Hakeem Nicks/Domenik Hixon – Come on. Take a chance. You know you want to. One of these Giants is going to be a gamer in 2009. I’d put Crabtree in this spot, but he doesn’t have a legitimate QB to get him the ball. Eli averaged 22 TD passes the past three years. Plax is gone. Someone’s going to have to catch those.

26) DeSean Jackson – He’s ready to be the focal point of the Eagles’ passing attack.  He’ll get every yard and TD that doesn’t have Westbrook’s name on it.

*** If your league awards points for individual return yardage, Josh Cribbs and Johnnie Lee Higgins might be worth picking up in the late rounds as well.

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