Finding free agent gems at receiver
By Matt Schauf
Every week folks grab the Keiland Williamses and LeGarrette Blounts of the fantasy world off the waiver wire in hopes that they luck into some gem of a bye-week cover. The wide receiver position is far more open to breakout performances, though, simply because there are more of them around and more variables involved in their production.
Just this past week we saw DeSean Jackson rank among the top fantasy scorers despite catching just one pass before leaving early with a concussion. We saw rookies Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant wind up in the end zone with their only receptions. We saw Mario Manningham for the first time in three weeks.
And there were plenty of other noteworthy happenings at wideout. That’s why I’m choosing to lock in on my receivers for this week’s trip to the wire and rank the top options for Week 7 and beyond.
1. Deion Branch, WR, New England
Is this an overreaction to his nine-catch re-debut with the Patriots? Perhaps, but Branch led the team with 12 targets. He previously spent four seasons working with Tom Brady and is in the middle of his ninth year as a pro. Thus, the only question with Branch should’ve been how quickly the Patriots would work him into the mix. The fact that he started his first game and led the way in targets and receptions sure seemed to answer that one. The biggest advantage that Branch has on just about everyone else in this list is playing with one of the league’s top quarterbacks. New England has a lot of options around in the passing game and more talented players than Branch in that group, but there’s something to be said for connection between quarterback and receiver. Branch has shown a lack of durability throughout his career, but you can’t look at that too much when fishing for free-agent help in Week 6. Just pick him up and use him when you can.
2. Mike Williams, WR, Seattle
This guy surely isn’t available in all leagues, but odds are that plenty of players can find Big Mike available after he tallied just seven catches and 74 yards over his previous three games. We can’t overreact to the 15 targets and 10 catches Sunday at Chicago. After all, it was only two weeks earlier that Brandon Stokley led the team in targets. That said, Williams has started all year amid a very young corps of pass catchers and drawn 14 more looks than any other wide receiver on the team (three more than tight end John Carlson). He’s not going to put up fantasy-starter numbers every week, but point-per-reception owners should be able to at least consider him in the weekly mix. For comparison’s sake, he has just two fewer catches than Tampa’s Mike Williams – a rookie who has looked terrific and emerged as a top option for a team in need – and a nearly identical per-catch average (12.4 to 12.3). Seattle’s Williams is lacking the touchdowns, and that will continue in a weak offense. In PPR, however, he clearly brings upside.
3. Robert Meachem, WR, New Orleans
Were I playing without PPR, I would most likely place Meachem at the top of this list. That he ranks just sixth on his own team in targets (one behind No. 2 tight end David Thomas) tells you a lot about the reliability of his usage. That said, Meachem has scored from at least 35 yards out in each of the past two games and plays for a team that needs to rekindle it’s deep passing game. Drew Brees has always professed to be a fan of this young playmaker, and the two connected for a touchdown once every five completions (on average) last year. Playing Meachem will mean frustrating empty weeks, but some big ones also lie ahead.
4. Danario Alexander, WR, St. Louis
There’s a chance that this ranking will look too low within just a few weeks. Alexander was a college star just last year, hauling in 113 catches on a team where no other player topped 46. That season that also included 1,781 yards and 14 touchdowns, however, also ended with him tearing up a knee. That led to a fourth surgery on that part of his body, which happened to be sore following Sunday’s four-catch, 72-yard effort.
I wouldn’t worry about that knee soreness, but at least make note of it, combine it with the fact that he’s a rookie who joined his team in-season and the fact that he’s playing with a rookie quarterback and try to keep any expectations in check. The Rams’ receiver group is searching for a leader at this point with Donnie Avery and Mark Clayton gone for the year and Laurent Robinson constantly in and out of the lineup, but there were also three other Rams who matched Alexander’s five targets against the Chargers. St. Louis activated Alexander so early because he’s a talented, big (6-5, 215) wideout who can help a young team, and there’s no way to quantify his upside right now. Just don’t break the bank for him in a typical redraft league.
5. Louis Murphy, WR, Oakland
Murphy ranks only slightly behind Alexander because he actually has to deal with a worse quarterback situation than a team starting a rookie. That fact is evident in any league that finds him on the waiver wire this week, as Murphy has followed a promising start to the year with just four catches over his past three outings. The last of those three, however, provided some hope. Jason Campbell looked terrible against the Niners in Week 6, which should make it easy for the Raiders to turn back to Bruce Gradkowski as soon as his injured shoulder will allow. Already this season, Murphy has enjoyed two five-catch games with Gradkowski under center – the first of which coming all in the second half of a game started by Campbell. Murphy disappointed in the last game he shared with Gradkowski, but the good ones plus some 2009 success is enough to breed optimism for when the two reconnect.
One more for the long term: Anthony Armstrong, WR, Washington
This first-year player was a key component in Washington’s upset of Green Bay, showing up for a deep touchdown, a terrific grab on a tipped-ball to extend a drive and just generally proving a willingness to hustle. He has worked his way into the starting lineup for the past two games and drawn seven targets in each. Armstrong will have to do a little more (eight total catches in those games) before I feel good about starting him in average-sized leagues, but he’s trending up for a team that needs options to emerge.
Help for this week
Patrick Crayton, WR, San Diego
Legedu Naanee missed Week 6, and Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd joined him on the sideline during the loss at St. Louis. It sounds like Gates’ injury isn’t nearly as serious as initially feared and he might be back for Week 7, but the other two are battling hamstring ailments. Floyd seems likely to be out, with Naanee at least a question mark. Crayton emerged for six catches and 119 yards as his Chargers played from surprisingly far behind all day, and his veteran wiles figure to be important against New England in Week 7.
Jason Avant, WR, Philadelphia
As mentioned above, DeSean Jackson left the Eagles’ game early. Even so, Avant’s relevance to the Eagles’ pass offense showed via four first-half targets. For the game, he caught all five balls thrown his way, and his 75 percent catch rate leads all Philly non-running backs for the season. That follows right in line with the dependability he has shown in previous seasons. With Tennessee’s strong pass rush up next and Jackson likely out, quick outlets will be at a premium for the Eagles. Avant figures to be prominent in that group.