While writing for Sports Illustrated in 2009, I astutely predicted that Vikings wideout Sidney Rice—coming off a 15-catch debacle in 2008—would amass 1,150 receiving yards and seven TDs with Sage Rosenfels as his starting quarterback.
Of course, that was before Brett Favre officially entered the purple picture and helped Rice tally 83 catches for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns, while playing a major role in Favre's MVP-caliber season with Minnesota (33 TDs/7 INTs/4,202 yards).
In three years, Rice has graduated from an eminently replaceable asset to coveted receiver in fantasyland. But that ascension has sparked a prove-it-again ritual within my research, in the quest to find a new stud out of the rubble of receivers with 30 or fewer catches last season. (And Tennessee's Kenny Britt doesn't count, since his standing as a top-30 receiver, when healthy, was forged long before tearing a knee last September.)
In my search for the next Sidney—a 1,050-yard receiver who will undoubtedly be drafted at Round 11 or lower—I have established the following criteria:
1. The receiver has an established quarterback throwing him the ball.
2. The wideout has the physical traits (size, speed, hands) to be a No. 1, 2 or 3 option in real-world circles.
3. The receiver has modest competition within his own team, fueling a potential breakout.
This year's hunch pick is...Buffalo's Donald Jones, a versatile and cat-quick wideout who can flourish on the outside or when deftly handling the slot-receiver role between the 20s.
Over time, I have come to appreciate Jones' burgeoning relationship with Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (7.1 targets in his last eight healthy games) and the way Jones complements No. 1 receiver Stevie Johnson.
But let's be clear here: Heading into Year 3, Jones won't be a reliable source of fantasy goodness until he can consistently stay on the field. It's part of the job that comes with being a No. 2 asset.
Regarding the August drafts, Jones will likely be a Round 14 or lower pick in 12-team leagues, a below-average value for the No. 2 receiver on a club that threw 569 times last season and only rushed Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller 277 times.
But it all comes back to injuries: If Jones can stay healthy and take more significant steps on the field, he'll be a steal for the intrepid GM in search of low risk and big upside.
Top 20 Fantasy Wideouts For 2012 (w/30 or Fewer Receptions Last Year)
1. Donald Jones, Bills
Rationale: A breakout candidate for standard-scoring and Points Per Reception leagues.
2. Vincent Brown, Chargers
Rationale: There's a reason why San Diego invested a Round 3 pick last year. It's time for him and Malcom Floyd to rise up amid the absence of Vincent Jackson.
3. Leonard Hankerson, Redskins
Rationale: Hankerson (eight catches, 106 yards in Week 10 last year) has perhaps the greatest upside of any receiver here.
4. Jonathan Baldwin, Chiefs
Rationale: Baldwin's rookie season wasn't a complete washout. He had a five-game spurt of 29 targets from Weeks 7-11.
5. Devin Aromashodu, Vikings
Rationale: This physical dynamo drew 84 targets last season—tops among the group.
6. Danario Alexander, Rams
Rationale: Alexander collected 33 targets in a four-game spurt from Weeks 2-6 last year...but only caught 14 balls.
7. Arrelious Benn, Buccaneers
Rationale: Benn should fare well as Tampa Bay's No. 3 receiver, behind Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.
8. Greg Salas, Rams
Rationale: The Rams' logjam at receiver makes it hard to gauge whether Salas can take a sizable leap in Year 2.
9. Devin Hester, Bears
Rationale: The NFL's greatest kick-returner of all time only averaged 3.2 catches per game last year.
10. Randy Moss, 49ers
Rationale: We couldn't make this list without giving emeritus credit to Moss, but does he have anything left in the proverbial tank?
The Next 10
11. Earl Bennett, Bears
12. Jacoby Ford, Raiders
13. Jordan Shipley, Bengals
14. Riley Cooper, Eagles
15. Steve Smith, Rams
16. Louis Murphy, Raiders
17. Ramses Barden, Giants
18. Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers
19. Jordan Norwood, Browns
20. Riley Cooper, Eagles
Jay Clemons can be reached on Twitter, day or night, at @ATL_JayClemons.
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