Fantasy Football 2014: Developmental WRs Worth Gambling on This Year
Lightning in a bottle is one of the most sought-after things in our fantasy (football) world. As popular as it is to seek, it is even tougher to find. That doesn't keep us from looking, though. They call it fantasy football for a reason, after all.
We break down seven of our favorite developmental wide receivers worth gambling on in fantasy football this year. These guys represent the potential to catch lightning in a bottle, even if that potential looks like a group of bottles full of nothing but empty promises right now.
We leave rookie wide receivers out of the discussion, along with St. Louis Rams second-year man Tavon Austin, who was 2013's first wideout drafted. High-end rookies at the position tend to be overrated and overdrafted in fantasy. Read: Sammy Watkins, Odell Beckham, Brandin Cooks and Kelvin Benjamin. Austin's lackluster rookie season is an example of the potential disappointment you would be reaching for with those guys.
Then, the lower-end rookie receivers tend to need a lot of work and time. Austin still does, too—even if his talent won't allow him to fall to a reasonable round in fantasy drafts this summer.
Yes, you can scream about San Diego's Keenan Allen to us right now, but he is the exception, not the rule, for the kind of value you can gain from a rookie receiver in fantasy.
Instead, we point to the overlooked, underdrafted, second- and third-year receivers who are going to fall in drafts because we saw them last season, and most of what we saw wasn't worth our attention.
That can change for them and us this year. Whether it is health, another year's experience or finally emerging as a starter for the first time, these seven receivers are more worthy of a late-round gamble than dozens of others as the picks wind down on draft day.
Aaron Dobson, New England Patriots
Tom Brady might be turning 37 in August, but he still makes average targets great. He turned Wes Welker into the ultimate slot receiver and Julian Edelman into a 100-catch, 1,000-yard beast. Aaron Dobson is his next project.
Dropson, as he became known in the Boston area a year ago, was often the object of Brady's ire as a rookie. Brady was breaking in a whole new set of targets due to injuries (Rob Gronkowski), free-agent defections (Welker) and incarceration (Aaron Hernandez). The quarterback struggled to do so before Edelman emerged for good when Danny Amendola was injured and subsequently disappointed when he returned.
Dobson was a leading candidate to erupt as a rookie, but injuries and drops limited him to 12 games, 37 catches for 519 yards and four touchdowns.
Those are not exactly exciting numbers for a fantasy pick, but Dobson will be on the board in the late rounds and has the potential to start for a Brady offense. Dobson's second year can do wonders for Brady and head coach Bill Belichick's confidence in him. That can make him a sleeper to reach 60 catches for 800 yards and eight touchdowns.
Kenbrell Thompkins, New England Patriots
Continuing with New England Patriots sophomores, we should like the prospects of Kenbrell Thompkins, who flashed as much potential as Dobson, if not more, in their first season. Thompkins was an undrafted rookie who starred in training camp, earned his spot and even started games ahead of Dobson and Amendola a year ago.
Thompkins' best work came early in the season when Brady's other targets were struggling. Thompkins' struggles came later, as he finished with just 32 receptions for 466 yards and four touchdowns. He had just nine of those receptions (no touchdowns) in the second half of the season.
This doesn't mean we should completely ignore Thompkins. He was looking like a long-term starter for Brady and the Pats in the early going. He could flash that kind of potential again, winning a starting job over Dobson in training camp, perhaps.
The Dobson-Thompkins camp battle loser might not be worthless, either. Consider them both solid late-round fliers for second-year breakthroughs.
Justin Hunter, Tennessee Titans
At the outset of Justin Hunter's rookie season a year ago, he was the modern-day Cris Carter. All he did was catch touchdowns—two in back-to-back games in Weeks 3 and 4 last September. He had just three receptions through the season's first two months.
He had two more big performances in the second half of the year (100-plus yards and a score in each), setting him up to potentially start opposite Kendall Wright for the Tennessee Titans as a sophomore. Hunter is a big target at 6'4", which is the reason he made an initial impact in the red zone.
Titans offensive coordinator Jason Michael was effusive in his praise of Hunter to Craig Peters of the team's official website in June, saying Hunter "has shown flashes of making plays. He's a big, long receiver that's still growing into the position. As coaches, we've got to keep pushing him to make those next steps. The sky's the limit there."
With Wright (5'10") and veteran Nate Washington (6'1") more on the smaller side, Hunter just might emerge as an eight-plus-touchdown threat this season. The Titans might not throw much, but they figure to have a very good running game, which can position them to score. That is where Hunter can star for fantasy owners as a late-round pick.
Markus Wheaton, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers' loss of Emmanuel Sanders to the Denver Broncos in free agency this winter is Markus Wheaton's gain. The second-year receiver is slated to start opposite 2013 breakthrough receiver Antonio Brown, according to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The 2013 third-round pick saw only six receptions for 64 yards as a rookie, but the burner from Oregon State can replace Sanders as the field-stretcher in what should be a run-heavy Steelers offense. If you have been around football long enough, you know good running teams—read: the Seattle Seahawks—find deep-ball success against defenses that roll their safeties up to stop the run.
Wheaton won't necessarily be a big fantasy contributor with catches, yards or touchdowns on a consistent basis, but he is going to have some big games when the Steelers offense opens up for Ben Roethlisberger. This makes Wheaton an intriguing stashee as a bye-week replacement.
Ryan Broyles, Detroit Lions
Ryan Broyles is a what-if player. What if this talent could get and stay healthy?
Broyles has torn an ACL (twice) and his Achilles tendon in the past three seasons successively. That is a lot to come back from, which is why the Detroit Lions made sure to sign Golden Tate this winter and draft tight end Eric Ebron in May.
But Broyles is still working his way back to become a factor in arguably the most pass-happy offense of this, or any, generation. If he can prove healthy in training camp, he can beat out Kris Durham and journeyman Kevin Ogletree to be the Lions' third receiver behind Calvin Johnson and Tate. That should free up Broyles to work a lot of single or no coverage in the middle of the field.
Heck, if something happens to Megatron or Tate, a healthy Broyles could even rise so far to be a fantasy starter in three-receiver formats. That makes him a sneaky-good, late-round flier.
Marquess Wilson, Chicago Bears
Everyone loved Alshon Jeffery's huge breakthrough into fantasy superstardom a year ago—so much so, fantasy owners are desperately seeking the next talent on the verge of a similar rise. Many fantasy pundits are pointing at an unheralded talent in the same huddle as Jeffery: Marquess Wilson.
The Chicago Bears offense exploded under West Coast offense guru Marc Trestman last season, so even the third receiver on their roster might serve fantasy owners well this year. That third wideout looks like it will be Wilson, "unless Wilson falters significantly in camp," according to Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com.
Wilson was one of the biggest buzz names around OTAs, as Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote. Because Brandon Marshall, Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett are all targeted so heavily by Jay Cutler, a quarterback who tends to play favorites, there isn't a whole lot left for Wilson to do initially. If he establishes himself as a starter in three-wide sets, though, look out.
Wilson is more of a speculative pick in long-term keeper formats, but if anything happens to Marshall or Jeffery, Wilson will wind up being picked up in all fantasy leagues.
Da'Rick Rogers, Indianapolis Colts
You really have to know your prospects to have been on Da'Rick Rogers' trail last season. Heck, he was even cut by the Buffalo Bills—a team not exactly ripping up the passing game—before landing on his feet with the Indianapolis Colts.
Rogers, an undrafted free agent, was passed on in the 2013 draft because of off-the-field question marks. He wound up making his mark on the field in December and January for Andrew Luck and the Colts.
Now, with LaVon Brazill having been released after a full-season suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, Rogers has a chance to make the Colts roster as the No. 4 wideout behind Reggie Wayne (knee), offseason signee Hakeem Nicks and burgeoning star T.Y. Hilton.
That is a tough trio to crack, perhaps, until you consider Wayne is 35 and coming off reconstructive knee surgery, Nicks hasn't played at 100 percent in years and Hilton is just now entering his third season.
There are myriad ways Rogers could find his way onto the field for what figures to be one of the most impressive offenses in football. Luck has big-time breakthrough potential in his third season, as shown in his playoff performances last January. Rogers can play a role in it. Consider him a deep draft-day sleeper or a potential waiver-wire pickup when—not if—Wayne and/or Nicks need to take plays or full games off.
Sure, there are dozens of talented receivers capable of making a splash out of nowhere this year, but the seven we outline here are our favorites because of their circumstances.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. 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.