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Athlon Sports looks at the sleepers and busts at the quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end positions this week. These are the players we think you can wait on and still get solid production from and the players we think have an average draft position (ADP) that is too high for what you will get in return.
But if you miss out on one of the top WRs or get one, go elsewhere for a few rounds and then look to get another one or two later, here's who we have as the sleepers to look out for and the busts to avoid. These are in no particular order. Check out the Athlon 280 to see who is where, as well as our current preseason WR rankings.
See more of Athlon Sports value players, overvalued players and top rookies in our Best Bets story
Santonio Holmes, New York Jets
It didn’t take long for Holmes to work his way into the Jets’ passing plans. After serving his four-game suspension to start last season, the former Steeler drew nine targets his first time out. Over the final 12 games, he drew at least 13 more targets than anyone else on the team. He also caught two more TD passes than anyone else. Holmes’ yardage should climb from a career-low average, but even last year’s rates over a full season would make him a top-20 fantasy wideout.
Anquan Boldin, Baltimore
His debut season in Baltimore started out according to plan but turned sharply south. Through seven games, Boldin was on pace for 87 catches, 1,181 yards and 11 TDs. After the bye, though, everything fell apart. He saw 13 fewer targets over the final nine games than in the first seven. His catch rate dropped from 62 percent to 54 percent. The receiving average went from 13.6 to 12.3. Boldin has taken a lot of hits and is about to turn 31, but the first half of 2010 shows he still has something. The addition of Lee Evans to stretch the field and no proven TE helps as well.
Mario Manningham, New York Giants
Manningham drew 20 more targets, caught 10 more balls and scored three more TDs in the eight games after Steve Smith’s 2010 injury than in the previous eight. However, 28 of Manningham’s 56 second-half targets came in two games. Take away those and his two no-catch October games, and you get a five-target average per game. Nine of the remaining 12 games fell within one of that number. With Smith now gone to Philly, Manningham should see plenty of opportunities.
Jacoby Ford, Oakland
Ford figures to be one of the more fun guys to draft in fantasy this year. He looked awesome when given the chance in the second half of 2010, specifically in a pair of 100-yard receiving days. The speed that produced three kick-return TDs met with unexpectedly good hands. Now, his new coach — last year’s coordinator — calls Ford a No. 1 receiver and potentially one of the league’s best. He might not arrive there this year, but that belief should at least translate into opportunity.
Devin Hester, Chicago
It wouldn’t be fair to say the Hester-as-receiver experiment failed. He’s been OK. He just hasn’t turned into the kind of reliable starter the team hoped. That’s all right. Hester showed in 2010 that he could go back to being the league’s best return man with a chance to focus there. In addition to being listed as the team's kick and punt returner, Hester is also penciled in as a starting WR. With an ADP of 202 and as a starter in that offense, he's certainly worth a shot.
Jerome Simpson, Cincinnati
Has any receiver gone so quickly from bust to busting out? Through the 13th game of his third season, the former second-round pick had one career reception. Then he gathered 21 targets, 18 catches, three TDs and a pair of 120-yard games in the final two weeks. Coach Marvin Lewis said Simpson could be a No. 1 wideout. The new offense, uncertain QB situation and addition of A.J. Green limit that, but Simpson has at least grown excitement from what looked like a pot of disappointment.
Robert Meachem, New Orleans Saints
Meachem can be dangerous. He’s a big-play guy in arguably the league’s most exciting offense. He has 17 TDs in only 101 career catches. He also has yet to catch 50 passes in a season three years after the Saints picked him in the first round. Meachem says that his surgically repaired ankle will be better than it has been for a while. Camp will tell us more. Meachem also heads into a contract year with Marques Colston coming off a second microfracture knee surgery. The stage is set.
Emmanuel Sanders, Pittsburgh
The first thing Sanders needs to do this summer is prove that his broken foot is fully healed. Following February surgery, he got back to running in late June. If that checks out, though, his 2010 performance has led many observers to predict a 2011 breakout. Sanders sat significantly behind Mike Wallace and Hines Ward in season targets but closed the gap in the second half of the season. He drew just eight fewer than Ward over the final seven games, though he caught 10 fewer passes.
Steve Breaston, Kansas City
Injury and the absence of QBs made Breaston easy to miss in 2010, but he still delivered points of value. He topped 130 yards twice in the first four games he played. He reached 10 targets three times in the first seven. His 87 targets over 12 games project to 117 in a full season. Breaston remained a key option in a bad passing game and posted a career-high 15.3 yards-per-catch average. He brings the big-play ability of a kick returner. Now he reunites with Todd Haley in Kansas City with a strong running game and could be a solid option for the Chief passing game.
Derrick Mason, New York Jets
Mason’s six TDs over the final nine games — with Anquan Boldin struggling — made it look like he came on strong down the stretch. The fact is, though, that his targets per game dipped slightly, and his receiving average slipped by a yard per catch. Mason’s receptions per game were virtually the same in each half, and his season total was his lowest as an NFL starter. Mason remains a productive player heading into his age-37 season, and could be a safety valve for an average QB in Mark Sanchez.
PPR GOLD (Grab these guys if your league awards points for points per reception)
Mike Thomas, Jacksonville
Thomas is a man of hidden value in fantasy. The eight-catch, 149-yard day in Week 10 against Houston last year might have been the only game you could call “big” by fantasy standards. His lone TD in that one came on a batted Hail Mary. Thomas reached 90 yards only one other time. He surpassed six catches only one other time. He also only fell short of four receptions five times. He also ran for 114 yards and ranked sixth in the league in punt-return yardage.
Santana Moss, Washington
Strictly a PPR play. He racks up targets and catches but few TDs. He's shown in the preseason that he's still a solid PPR play. There's nothing sexy about the pick other than consistent productivity.
Danny Amendola, St. Louis
This year's "the next Wes Welker." There’s something to be said for knowing your role, and Amendola does. He’s a solid kick returner who has turned into a dependable interior receiver with limited yardage. Rotoworld.com’s Chris Wesseling pointed out that Amendola’s 8.1-yard receiving average last year was the lowest ever for a wideout with at least 60 receptions. Amendola averaged 3.5 yards more per rush. If Josh McDaniels looks at him and sees Wes Welker, though, there could be even more of those short shots.
Davone Bess, Miami
Brandon Marshall arrived to play No. 1 receiver last year and ranked fifth among wideouts in targets per game (10.4) and sixth in total receptions. Despite that, Bess’ workload increased. He ranked 19th at the position in targets and 11th in catches, and there was no spike in the games Marshall missed or noticeable increase when Brian Hartline went down. Bess has simply become central to the Dolphins’ pass offense. He presents low yardage but possesses the team’s most consistent hands.
Lance Moore, New Orleans
Moore isn’t just sneaky for opposing defenses. He slips the coverage of fantasy owners as well. He finished two of the past three seasons as a top-25 wideout across formats. Perhaps the injury trouble of 2009 was the only thing between Moore and a third such season. At the same time, the Saints present so many options. If Robert Meachem steps up, does Moore fall? Does Jimmy Graham take TDs away? Moore caught more than two-thirds of his targets each year, so we know he’ll be dependable.
Jordan Shipley, Cincinnati
Shipley proved just as dependable right away in the NFL as he was in college. His 70.3 percent catch rate ranked fifth among all wide receivers with at least 25 targets, and none of the four ahead of Shipley matched his 74 targets. He faces the same uncertainty as the rest of the Bengals’ offense, with a new coordinator, new QB and other new pieces. Still, it’s tough to imagine OC Jay Gruden not finding a place for the second-year wideout, who tied for third on the team in catches in 2010.
Steve Smith, Philadelphia
Smith has preached encouragement at the speedy recovery from microfracture surgery on his left knee. The lockout has kept us from discovering proof, though. The emergence of Hakeem Nicks last year cut into his big receiving numbers of 2009, but Smith was on pace for 144 targets and 94 catches through the first eight games. That would have ranked seventh and third at the position, respectively. He can be had very, very late these days and may drop all the way to a waiver wire pickup. See how the Eagles roster settles out and then make a decision on him.
BIG TARGETS (simply put these guys are attractive red zone targets)
Braylon Edwards, San Francisco (6-2, 214)
Edwards finished 2010 as a top-20 fantasy WR without PPR and a top-30 guy with it. Edwards posted the largest receiving average of his career in 2010. He notched his second-best TD total. The yardage is quite likely to come down. He’ll need to catch more balls to repeat his TDs. Edwards drew more targets in three Browns seasons than he did last year, and two of those ended with fewer yards and TDs despite more receptions. Here's what he has going for him: Michael Crabtree is a bust and if his QB can attempt a forward pass he has the frame to go get it.
Plaxico Burress, New York Jets
He replaces Edwards and should step into the role nicely. He's basically Edwards, but has this going for him: He has two receivers to draw attention away and could be the go-to target in the red zone as opposed to Vernon Davis probably being the red-zone target in San Fran.
Roy Williams, Chicago (6-2, 215)
Even while disappointing wildly since joining the Cowboys, Williams has posted strong TD rates the past two seasons. He has scored about once every six catches over that span. He reunites with Mike Martz and gives Chicago a big receiver for Jay Cutler to aim at.
Mike Williams, Seattle (6-4, 235)
There are unlikely comebacks, and then there’s this guy. Williams spent a year away from football before being drafted in 2005 and never seemed to recover. He washed out of Detroit in two years, as well as two other stops. Williams seemed like a novelty last summer when Pete Carroll brought him to Seattle, but a slimmed-down version drew 7.9 targets per game. Williams will remain the No. 1 target and should score more but will also continue to be limited by the Seattle offense.
Eric Decker, Denver (6-3, 220)
The foot injury that cut his senior college season short also caused a slow start to his pro career. Decker showed extremely reliable hands in college, topping out with a Big Ten-leading 84 catches and 1,074 yards as a junior. He sits behind Eddie Royal on the depth chart and on a team that's unlikely to see many three-WR sets, but if he can supplant Royal he profiles as the guy who will get the necessary yardage to convert on third down. Decker’s also capable of the big play; he averaged 15.2 yards a reception in his final season with the Gophers.
Jacoby Jones, Houston (6-1, 210)
Jones seemed poised for a big step forward in 2010 but didn’t really deliver. A dip from 2009’s TD rate seemed inevitable, but cutting his TDs in half while nearly doubling his catches didn’t help fantasy owners. Jones did catch an impressive 65.4 percent of his targets. The problem was that he didn’t earn more playing time or an even bigger role, in spite of injuries to others. His receiving average also fell. If Jones can grow his role, however, big-play upside comes along.
Riley Cooper, Philadelphia (6-3, 222)
Being 6'3" and 222 pounds as a receiver makes you noteworthy as soon as you make a roster. Cooper could grab a few TDs as a red zone target. The addition of Steve Smith may hurt Cooper's 2011 potential.
Harry Douglas, Atlanta
Douglas’ 2009 ACL tear didn’t cause him to miss any time in 2010. It might have cost him a shot at prominence, though. Atlanta could have used another downfield threat to complement Roddy White, but Douglas could only garner 53 targets, and he caught fewer than half of them. He has posted a decent nine catches of 20 yards or more in 45 career receptions. If Atlanta morphs into a passing team, Douglas becomes much more intriguing on a team with two outside threats and he can settle into the inside role he belonged in all along.
Jason Avant, Philadelphia
Avant’s numbers actually dipped a bit with Michael Vick under center last season, which makes some sense. Vick’s big arm makes it easy to look downfield on the scramble when plays break down, while his legs make it attractive to go after the first down himself. With Green Bay’s D focusing on DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin in the wild card round, though, Avant led with nine targets and seven catches and the lone TD catch. His No. 3 role, however, will always cap Avant’s production.
Arrelious Benn, Tampa Bay
Benn finally started to really get worked into the gameplan over the season’s final third. He never drew more than three targets in a game before Week 12, but then went 6-5-4-4 over the next four contests. Week 16 brought a torn left ACL. Offseason reports have been nothing but positive, and Benn says he won’t be held back at all. Can we believe it? Only Kellen Winslow, Mike Williams and Cadillac Williams topped his 25 catches last year. The team might have to believe in Benn.
Dezmon Briscoe, Tampa Bay
The team may be able to hold off or delay its belief in Benn due to Briscoe's preseason performances. He has been a solid target for Josh Freeman throughout camp and could start if Benn can't make it back before the opener, and could hold onto the gig anyways.
Golden Tate, Seattle
There are players for whom you can find statistical reasons for optimism. Then there are purely speculative upside picks. Tate is the latter. There was plenty of hope for his debut season, but he was slow to pick up the offense, was admittedly undisciplined and missed five games. Coach Pete Carroll has consistently mentioned Tate as a guy they want to “break out.” The Seahawks desperately need that playmaking and will ensure opportunity if Tate is anywhere close to ready.
Blair White, Indianapolis
Combine Peyton Manning with the obvious “Blair White Project” nickname, and it’s tough to ask for much more from White’s debut. After Austin Collie’s first concussion (and Dallas Clark’s injury), White turned into a solid PPR contributor. He caught four passes or more in five of the final seven games, though he never topped 52 yards. If Collie stays healthy in 2010, we likely won’t see much of the “Project,” but the concussion questions mean that we shouldn’t forget about him.
Marcus Easley, Buffalo
Easley drew strong reviews with his speed last year and has been deemed a “beast” by teammate Steve Johnson. Another deep threat never hurts, particularly when a passing team traded away deep threat Lee Evans this preseason.
Earl Bennett, Chicago
It was disappointing to see Bennett’s targets per game fall in season one under Mike Martz. Part of that can be attributed to the team’s league-low pass-attempt total, but Martz has also copped to not getting Bennett enough work. If Martz makes good on his word to fix that, Bennett could be in for a significant bump. His catch rate in 2010 topped Devin Hester’s by 11 percentage points and Johnny Knox’s by 14. His connection with Jay Cutler that dates to college could finally pay off.
Danario Alexander, St. Louis
Two things are obvious with Alexander: talent and injury risk. The troublesome left knee made him go undrafted. Then Alexander got a four-year deal off the practice squad and caught four passes for 72 yards and a TD in his first game. Then he had a fifth surgery on the knee; then two outings with more than 90 yards. Alexander shows inconsistent hands, but the knee is the real question. If he can get healthy, he should find a prominent role. That’s a gigantic “if,” though.
Jason Hill, Jacksonville
A third-round pick of the Niners in 2007, Hill was never able to crack the starting lineup before getting dumped. Hill’s highlight was a fleeting two-TD flash in his first game of 2009 that followed rumors of a developing connection with Alex Smith. In Jacksonville, he's starting opposite Mike Thomas. Hill averaged 22.5 yards per catch in brief action with the Jags last year and would take over a spot where Mike Sims-Walker excelled at times.
Anthony Armstrong, Washington
Was Armstrong a bright spot in a fairly dismal 2010 for Washington, or did he just appear to be because everything else was so dim? Armstrong emerged as a downfield weapon in his rookie season. His 19.8 yards per catch ranked third among all players with at least 20 receptions. He matched teammate Santana Moss with six games of at least 80 yards despite catching less than half as many balls. He is behind Moss and Jabar Gaffney on the depth chart, but could rise to the top once the roster settles in.
Greg Little, Cleveland
You know a team needs passing-game playmakers when a second-round pick who sat out the 2010 season in college is immediately viewed as the likely No. 1 receiver. That said, Little is easy to like. A former RB with 166 career college carries who caught 62 passes in 2009, Little possesses good hands, terrific size, excellent leaping ability and enough speed. If he shakes off the rust quickly from a year away, Little shouldn’t have much trouble snatching offensive prominence.
Torrey Smith, Baltimore
The Ravens so badly need a downfield threat that they tried to pretend Donte’ Stallworth was an answer last year. He caught two passes, while Todd Heap posted the best receiving average among Ravens with at least 10 catches. Enter Smith. The former Maryland Terrapin is a raw route-runner but a speedy guy with pretty good size. He added more than two yards to his receiving average in his final college season and blew up for 12 TDs. The acquisition of Lee Evans probably hurt him for 2011, but it's not like Evans has lit up the NFL universe. So keep an eye on his progress to determine Smith's.
Tandon Doss, Baltimore
Doss didn’t post huge receiving averages in college, but he was enough of a playmaker that Indiana handed him the ball 42 times over his final two seasons and used him as the primary kick returner. He joins a Baltimore team with an aging receiving corps. Despite leaving after his junior season, Doss might be a more polished prospect than second-rounder Torrey Smith. Better route-running might help him get on the field more than Smith in 2011, especially if injury strikes a starter.
Vincent Brown, San Diego
The Chargers already have big-play options in the passing game, guys who can dominate downfield. What they could use is a more consistent shorter-range threat. To that end, Brown enters the league as a crisp route-runner with dependable hands. The speed doesn’t drop jaws, but he managed to convert it to receiving averages of 17.3 and 19.6 yards in his final two college seasons. At the least, the status of several Chargers receivers could clear a starter path by Year 2.
Cecil Shorts, Jacksonville
Shorts arrives in Jacksonville with the “polished” tag after generating some pre-draft buzz from the school (Mount Union) that also produced Pierre Garçon. He averaged a strong 17.1 yards per catch as a senior and posted six multiple-TD games despite missing three weeks. Going to the Jaguars also presents opportunity with Mike Sims-Walker gone and few proven targets remaining. The reality, though, is that Shorts comes from a Division III program, which is even a significantly bigger jump in competition level than most rookies face. With Jason Hill the only thing standing between himself and a starting spot, Shorts is worth keeping an eye on.
Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis
It’s easy to predict a slide for Wayne. At 32, he put up the lowest receiving average of his career in 2010. Youngsters Austin Collie and Pierre Garçon have emerged, and Peyton Manning is certain to throw fewer than last year’s 679 passes. Wayne has finished top 15 at WR in targets for five straight years, though. He accounted for at least 25 percent of Colts targets in four of those seasons. Manning is looking uncertain for the opener per the signing of the "retired" Kerry Collins. It drops all Colt skill players, and even upon his return the timing will be off and there are plenty of other options Manning has these days if all are healthy.
Desean Jackson, Philadelphia
Jackson and Michael Vick might be the best combo since chopped steak and Cheez Whiz. The strong-armed, improvisational QB found the lightning-quick wideout for five TDs last year in limited time together. They also averaged 23.4 yards per connection, 0.9 better than Jackson’s already-absurd season average. Health will probably always be a problem for the diminutive Jackson, and a 49 percent catch rate portends continued inconsistency. The highs are high, though.
Marques Colston, New Orleans
Here’s what to like about Colston: Everything to this point. In five NFL seasons, he has led the crowded Saints offense in receptions three times and receiving yards four times. The only time he didn’t was when he missed five games in 2008. Here’s what not to like: offseason right knee microfracture surgery. The good news is that he had the same thing on his left knee before the 2009 season, didn’t miss a game and scored nine TDs. His receptions dipped compared with other seasons, though.
Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City
Bowe’s numbers will fall this year. We know that. Randy Moss and Terrell Owens have never posted consecutive 15-TD seasons. Jerry Rice did so once. We also know that the Chiefs attempted the fourth-fewest passes in the league last year, at least 61 fewer than they did in any of the previous three seasons. They’ll play a harder schedule this year. They won’t win as much. That should mean significantly more passing. Look for a reception total in the 80s.
Brandon Marshall, Miami
If you arrive with Marshall’s baggage and proceed sluggishly through your first season with a new team, try to spend the offseason doing something other than getting stabbed by your wife. Fortunately, aside from that, Marshall has said he’s gotten into the best shape of his career with the same regimen he used to prepare for the 2006 draft. He did draw the fifth-most WR targets in the league last year despite missing about 2.5 games and surpassed 1,000 yards for the fourth straight time. But is he worth the mid-fourth round ADP he currently possesses? In PPR leagues maybe. In non-PPR leagues, forget it.
Sidney Rice, Seattle
Through four seasons, Rice has spent much more time in the training room than the end zone. The most significant impediment came in the form of last year’s hip injury. With that all better, it’s tough to shake the vision of his 2009. And we shouldn’t. Rice will be only 25 when the season starts and showed enough flashes in his first two seasons that many weren’t shocked by the breakout. The best evidence of that upside is a 12.3 percent career TD rate, 0.5 points better than Cris Carter’s. Then there's Tarvaris Jackson. If that's not enough, there's Charlie Whitehurst. Still not impressed, what about Brodie Croyle. Rice is going around Dez Bryant, Dallas Clark and Antonio Gates currently. That's an ADP of 53. He and Mike Williams should both go around Williams' ADP of 75, and that may be courteous with this QB situation.
Michael Crabtree, San Francisco
It’s hard to find reasons for new enthusiasm with Crabtree. He’ll play with the same QB of the past two years, the one he spent the summer in no hurry to join. You give Crabtree a chance, though, because the talent is there. That’s why the Niners drafted him 10th overall and started him right away despite a holdout that lasted into the season. It’s why Jim Harbaugh has already spoken highly of him. Keep an eye on the foot soreness that reportedly bothered him in the summer.
A.J. Green, Cincinnati
Judging by his size, deep speed and list of glowing scout assessments, Green looks like a more-polished version of Sidney Rice. He topped the yardage total of teammate Mohamed Massaquoi as a 2008 freshman in two fewer catches and matched the second-round NFL pick in TDs. Green went on to lead Georgia in all three categories for two years. Lauded as perhaps the best receiver prospect since Calvin Johnson, Green should quickly become the favorite option in Cincinnati. Problem is his QB situation. Neither rookie Andy Dalton nor Bruce Gradkowski are appealing options to get him the ball on a consistent basis, particularly with the current ADP of 98 he carries.
Johnny Knox, Chicago
Here's what we said prior to learning Roy Williams had pushed Knox to the fourth receiver spot in Chicago: This will either be a breakout season for Knox or the end of people predicting a breakout. Some might argue that downplays his 2010. The Bears threw the fewest passes in the league last year — shocking under pass-happy OC Mike Martz. Project Knox’s rates in those 466 attempts over the 563 of 2009, and you get a top-20 PPR receiver or a top-15 guy in non-PPR. For what it’s worth, rookie Torry Holt posted a 52-788-6 line for Martz in 1999. In 2000, he jumped to 82-1,635-6. His ADP of 117 concurs with his unfortunate demotion, but just in case you hadn't followed the Roy-over-Johnny situation, this lets you know not to draft him in the fifth to sixth round where he belongs. Until this roster settles, he's not draftable.
Deion Branch, New England
We figured that reuniting with his original team could only help Branch last year, but who could have expected 48 catches, 706 yards and five TDs as a Patriot? Those 11-game reception and yardage totals were his best season marks since 2006, his first year in Seattle. Branch hadn’t scored five TDs since his last year in New England. Not even second-half knee trouble could slow him down. Branch’s age and the maturation of some young Pats receivers could hurt his numbers in 2011. The addition of Chad Ochocinco and two RBs in the draft don't help either. He's a bust right now because he has an ADP of 88, and with this many mouths to feed, he's not worth an early eighth-round pick.
Malcom Floyd, San Diego
Floyd’s fantasy-sleeper groundswell grew stronger as Vincent Jackson’s 2010 holdout moved closer to the regular season. The year began without Jackson, and Floyd scored in three of the first five games, went for 95 yards twice in that span and broke out for 213 at Oakland. He also experienced more of the injury woes that have been a recurring theme. Heading into his age-30 season, Floyd has only twice topped 37 targets in a season, finishing 2010 with a 48.1 percent catch rate. He currently has an ADP of 80, and even in this pass-happy offense he's not worth a mid-seventh round pick.
More Fantasy Football Cheat Sheets and Rankings:
2011 Fantasy Football Rankings: Top 280
2011 Fantasy Football Rankings: Top 240 w/ IDPs
2011 Fantasy Football Rankings: Quarterbacks
2011 Fantasy Football Rankings: Running Backs
2011 Fantasy Football Rankings: Wide Receivers
2011 Fantasy Football Rankings: Tight Ends
2011 Fantasy Football Rankings: Kickers
2011 Fantasy Football Rankings: Defense/Special Teams