Wide receiver can be the most fickle position in the fantasy football business. One can be 100 percent healthy and still not produce up to expectations through no fault of his own.
An offense can turn its attention to the run, particularly inside the five. His starting quarterback can go bust or sustain a serious injury, leaving an incapable backup as his distributor. Or his quarterback can just play like he belongs in the Arena League.
Larry Fitzgerald the past couple of years landed in that last category.
Fitzgerald is back in the top 10 at the position since Carson Palmer can still get the ball downfield, so don't expect to see him on Bleacher Report's bust list below. Also, Percy Harvin already suffered his season-threatening injury. He was sure to be on this list. Danario Alexander too.
We have to dig deeper for receivers you cannot like at their respective draft positions, but we found some good—err, potentially bad—ones. (By the way, the guts to predict another injury-plagued season for Danny Amendola are no longer there.)
1. Wes Welker, Denver Broncos
Before we get into why Welker will actually disappoint this season, here is a little side story (shameless self-promotion alert): Yours truly was very excited to be getting the Sports Illustrated cover for its Aug. 12, 2013 issue, ranking the top 32 fantasy football options at each position.
The excitement was mitigated by the harrowing realization of seeing the rankings headline on the cover juxtaposed to this:
"Reality: Manning-Welker Could Be Even Better Than Brady-Welker."
That, folks, is why there is such a thing as an SI cover jinx.
There is no possible way Welker will be as good with Peyton Manning as he was with Tom Brady—not in fantasy terms. Anyone who would think that is living in a fantasy world...oh, wait. (Must get back to the reality this writer works in a fantasy world.)
It is no knock on Manning. Welker just was the do-everything receiver in a pass-happy Pats offense. Now, Welker is a third option for a Broncos coach, John Fox, who has always favored a power running game. It is a recipe for fantasy disappointment.
Take 30 catches and 325 yards off any player's projections from his previous season's numbers, and you have yourself a potential bust. Demaryius Thomas, 25, and Eric Decker, 26, are bigger, faster, stronger, younger and less of an injury risk. They also have one full year working with Manning already.
Go back to the Patriots' record-breaking 2007 season, where Welker was the frequently targeted underneath guy and Randy Moss was blowing the cover off defenses downfield. Even though Welker reeled in 112 balls, he was used as a decoy at times. He will be that guy more often this season.
A receiver who winds up with 80 catches for 900 yards and five touchdowns as a fourth-round pick—if he even stays healthy for a 16-game season at the advanced age of 32—clearly qualifies as a bust.
Again, there is no way Manning-Welker is going to be close to Brady-Welker. There are just too many alternatives.
2. Steve Smith, Carolina Panthers
The 34-year-old was supposedly washed up years ago. The revival of Cam Newton rejuvenated Smith, but Father Time is undefeated. He eventually wins.
Now, this argument didn't go over well with Drew Brees at his quarterback draft position in the QB Busts preview. Clearly, the complaints were coming from those who haven't turned 30 yet. Everything takes longer to heal. Everything gets sore more easily and stays sore longer. Bones are more brittle. The legs are heavier. The speed and explosiveness desert you.
These should be obvious facts of life. Get over it, pimple faces.
Now, granted, no one expects Smith to be a 10-touchdown threat anymore, but he is still a fifth-round pick on average in fantasy and will be drafted among the top 30 fantasy receivers. There is only one receiver older with that fantasy status. He is on this list below.
Smith cannot be counted on as a starting fantasy receiver in 12-team, two-receiver formats. Heck, just pick a younger guy with 10-touchdown potential like Steve Johnson, Cecil Shorts, T.Y. Hilton or Sidney Rice. Don't be stuck holding the AARP card when Smith falls off the fantasy map—be it because of injury or general decline.
3. Pierre Garcon, Washington Redskins
First, we have to get a few things out of the way with Garcon. He is not old. In fact, he is in his prime at age 27. He has a potentially great quarterback to distribute the ball to him, and he is reportedly doing great physically in camp.
The potential has you sucked in. The camp reports have given you what you longed to hear.
Here is where the danger lies: In mid-April, Garcon said on the NFL Network, "I'll be healthy enough to play; I can't say I'll be 100 percent, but I'll be back out there helping the team in any way possible."
It is easy to forget even Garcon can admit he is going to be a high-maintenance player.
You want the receiver you have to pick in Round 5 to be a lot more confident in his health, particularly someone who is coming off shoulder surgery and has dealt with chronic foot issues. Garcon has the body of a 34-year-old because of the nicks.
So, he is not a bust because of a current injury—or his age—but his chronic nature of being regularly injured. Garcon is just not worth the fifth-round price tag this season, even if he will be great for a few games.
He is a headache for too many weeks more.
4. James Jones, Green Bay Packers
If you have played fantasy football long enough, you have learned how difficult it is to guarantee red-zone targets and touchdowns from year to year. Targets, catches and yards in general tend to remain consistent, but those that come in the red zone vary with game plans, circumstances and other personnel.
Jones was a fantasy starter last year because Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson both suffered through injury-plagued seasons. Jennings is now in Minnesota, and Nelson is dealing with more injury woes in training camp.
It all lines up for another 14-touchdown season, right?
Ask Nelson how that goes. He slumped from 15 touchdowns to just seven last year—albeit partly because of injury.
There are myriad reasons it took Jones six seasons to finally prove to be productive enough to be a steady fantasy starter at wide receiver, despite playing in one of the most productive passing offenses of our generation, if not all time. All of the reasons don't need to be clear to us.
Just know you will have to draft Jones among receivers that have had 65-plus-reception, 1,000-yard seasons. Jones hasn't, and he might never have them.
5. Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts
If you have followed this writer for years, this pick won't surprise you. If you haven't, it will outrage you.
Like the Brees bust pick, you cannot fathom a reason Wayne won't be the 100-plus-catch, 1,350-yard receiver he was in Andrew Luck's rookie season. Luck will be better in Year 2, no question here about that, but Wayne is the oldest receiver who will be drafted at all in fantasy—much less in the first four rounds. You have to be wary of the receiving cliff.
If you don't buy into avoiding age risks, you probably drafted Santana Moss in 2011. Maybe you even stubbornly selected him last year, despite the Redskins announcing Moss would just play in three-receiver sets in a run-heavy offense.
Even if Wayne was rejuvenated last season, he is six months older than Moss. Wayne will turn 35 in November. His predecessor, Marvin Harrison, a future Hall of Famer, dropped from 95-1,366-12 at age 34 to 20-247-1 at age 35. He retired one season later.
It happens. All. The. Time. Let Wayne's risk of sudden demise happen on someone else's team.
Dishonorable Mention: Tavon Austin, St. Louis Rams
Fantasy owners love what they see, and they fantasize about what they cannot. It leads to over-amped expectations. You can see Austin's physical gifts; you can imagine the talent, but we haven't realized the actual production yet.
Austin, the first receiver picked this past April, is a potential game-breaker in this league. He is also undersized and might not start unless the Rams open in a three-receiver set.
Receivers don't tend to be great fantasy options right away, and Austin will get picked among similarly talented young prospects who have had a season or two to learn their NFL systems, gain their quarterbacks' trust and earn their play-callers' confidence.
Your seventh- or eighth-round pick is better used on a backup fantasy quarterback. Seriously.
At least that position will be more sure to generate a lot of points in your lineup or fantasy trade value down the road. Even if you pick Aaron Rodgers, Brees or Manning in the early rounds, the backup quarterback you pick in lieu of Austin will net you a more productive receiver come midseason.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, is the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this season. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game. You can also listen to him on his podcast that he deprecatingly dubbed the Fantasy FatCast.