Hopefully, the rest of the 2014 NFL preseason will be a bit less extreme than it has been thus far with the league's renewed emphasis on illegal contact. Nevertheless, this situation is bound to make teams rely on the pass as much as ever.
That's good news for wide receivers, who should produce at an unprecedented rate if the current number of flags being thrown carries over to the regular season.
ESPN Stats & Info documented the stark contrast between this preseason and the previous regular season:
Entering today, 29 illegal contact penalties accepted in 22 NFL preseason games in 2014... 38 accepted in 256 reg. season games all last yr.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 16, 2014
Identifying some marquee sleeper options is therefore even more useful when it comes to fantasy football. With so many players to choose from, along with the uncertainty and optimism that comes before the real games start, it can be difficult to seek out the diamonds in the rough.
Let's take a look at some of the wideouts who may not be universally renowned yet are positioned for great success this year.
Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles
Maclin has never produced a 1,000-yard campaign. He's also coming off a torn ACL that sidelined him for the 2013 season.
That qualifies him as a sleeper, though it has nothing to do with Maclin's talent and upside in head coach Chip Kelly's offense.
Maclin was often overshadowed by DeSean Jackson, who is no longer with the team. As long as Maclin proves to be healthy and fully recovered from his knee injury, there is no reason he can't emerge as Philadelphia's leading receiver.
What makes Maclin so dangerous is that he's proven to be a capable outside receiver and crafty route-runner.
That may not be where he's best suited, though—this is something the Eagles have apparently realized. Without Jackson to take away many targets, there are also more opportunities for Maclin to line up in the slot.
Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com observed that Maclin has been lining up there as of late:
Seeing more Jeremy Maclin in the slot today than in camp.— Geoff Mosher (@GeoffMosherCSN) August 12, 2014
Although it was in practice, Jeff McLane of The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that Maclin generated some serious buzz when he matched up with New England Patriots superstar corner Darrelle Revis:
Jeremy Maclin continues to toast Darrelle Revis in 1 on 1s. Looked right at us after beating him as if to say, "You reporters catch that?"— Jeff McLane (@Jeff_McLane) August 13, 2014
This is most impressive since Revis was reportedly dominating in camp to the point that the Patriots were already trying to negotiate a new contract for him:
Eagles receiver Riley Cooper hadn't posted more than 315 receiving yards in a single season before he had a career year in Kelly's system last season, amassing 835 yards on 47 receptions. That's an average of 17.8 yards per reception for a player who isn't as explosive as Maclin.
All signs are pointing to Maclin coming back and making a statement in 2014 with a savvy quarterback in Nick Foles leading the way.
The offense will be relying on star ball-carrier LeSean McCoy a great deal, but there will be plenty of balls coming Maclin's way.
A 2009 first-round pick, he is ready to truly live up to his draft status with a monster year.
Projected Statistics: 80 receptions, 1,200 yards, 11 TDs
Kendall Wright, Tennessee Titans
In his second year as a pro, Wright had one of the most inconspicuous 94-catch seasons in recent memory. And that came with an unstable QB situation that saw starter Jake Locker limited to just seven games and spelled by backup Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Justin Hunter only showed flashes of promise as a rookie, but he is bound to be more of a threat in 2014. He will attract a lot of attention, if his four catches, 111 yards and two TDs versus the New Orleans Saints on Friday are any indication.
Meanwhile, veteran Nate Washington should still produce, though he is approaching age 31 this month.
These circumstances, combined with Kenny Britt's departure to St. Louis, suggest Wright will continue to be the No. 1 target in the Titans' passing game.
Be it through underneath routes over the middle or blowing the top off coverages, Wright has all the tools to be a superstar with the proper quarterback throwing him the ball.
Check out this analysis from ESPN The Magazine's Mike Clay (subscription required) when discussing the best fantasy draft steals:
Here's a fun fact: Wright was targeted 134 times last season, but only once was he thrown to while in the end zone. He's the first player since Wes Welker in 2008 to have 125-plus targets but two or fewer end zone looks in the same season. Now a fun fact for Wright: Slot receivers have a long history of success under new Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt (think Anquan Boldin, circa 2008). So expect Wright to get his share of goal-line looks this year.
Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.com wrote a brief article last week simply titled, "Forget balance: Throw to Kendall Wright." That speaks volumes about the reliance the Titans ought to have on Wright in 2014.
Locker needs a big year to solidify his status as the QB of the future, so he will be dialing Wright up time and again to form a dynamic passing-game tandem Tennessee hasn't had the luxury of in years.
It's scary to think that Wright has so much more room to improve, particularly with regard to his touchdown production after scoring just six in his first two years. Look for him to more than double that total en route to a maiden Pro Bowl appearance.
Projected Statistics: 105 receptions, 1,300 yards, 8 TDs
John Brown, Arizona Cardinals
Expectations perhaps weren't the highest for Brown coming into preseason, since he was coming from a Division II program in Pittsburg State and had to vie for catches with the likes of Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.
Apparently, Brown is poised to make an immediate impact despite the massive jump to the NFL level—which presents far superior competition than what he faced in his college days.
NFL.com's Marc Sessler highlighted some of the comparisons Brown has drawn:
Cardinals rookie wideout John Brown has now been compared to T.Y. Hilton, Marvin Harrison & Anquan Boldin in the space of a week.— Marc Sessler (@MarcSesslerNFL) August 13, 2014
Brown had five receptions and 87 yards in his preseason debut on a whopping 10 targets. Then he amassed 86 yards on just two receptions in his second appearance. This doesn't seem to be a fluke at all.
Grantland's Robert Mays wrote about the top training camp rookies last week, featuring some bold testimony from Cardinals general manager Steve Keim regarding Brown's abilities:
I haven’t seen a rookie come in and do what he’s done — and it’s early still — since Anquan Boldin. This guy came through the first day, and being from Pittsburg State, has uncanny instincts, unbelievable understanding of route concepts, leverage, being in the right spot at the right time. On top of great ball skills, he has unusual speed and explosiveness. You add all that in combination, and it’s amazing this guy who came from Pittsburg State can do this. Through this part of camp, I haven’t seen any of our players cover him, and I think you’d probably be able to put on the Texans tape and realize they didn’t have anybody to cover him.
Which wide receiver will have the best fantasy season?
Carson Palmer appears to have established an instant rapport with Brown. That Palmer is entering his second year in coach Bruce Arians' vertical passing attack also bodes well, as Arizona can capitalize on Brown's shiftiness in the slot and speed to beat secondaries deep.
In an NFC West division featuring such strong defenses, Brown may be just what the Cardinals need to get over the hump.
They have plenty of momentum coming off a 10-win season, and Palmer has so many weapons at his disposal.
Few could have forecast Brown being such a prominent contributor this early, but that's the way he is trending.
Arizona has to feel like it stole Brown (91st overall) during the 2014 NFL draft. Now fantasy owners are bound to experience similar exhilaration if/when Brown lives up to the deserved praise he's generating in camp and in the preseason.
Projected Statistics: 65 receptions, 1,100 yards, 7 TDs