Last year saw several low-profile wide receivers like Miles Austin, Sidney Rice, Steve Smith (NYG), and Mike Sims-Walker emerge from relative obscurity to become reliable every week starters for fantasy teams. Which current low-profile wide receivers might follow their lead and become impact players in the 2010 NFL season?
In order to answer that question, I think it's important to analyze why the aforementioned players were successful. Looking at that group, I think we can identify a few key factors that contributed to their emergence.
Miles Austin - A talented player with a strong combination of size and speed, Austin was held back by a lack of opportunity until the release of Terrell Owens vacated a starting position opposite Roy Williams. Austin won the job and never looked back.
Sidney Rice - The former second round pick out of South Carolina flashed a lot of ability in his rookie season. Many people expected a breakout in 2008, but minor injuries and poor quarterback play held Rice back. Once the team added Brett Favre into the mix, Rice exploded.
Steve Smith - The release of Plaxico Burress and the decline of Amani Toomer created an opportunity for someone to step up and become the top receiver for the Giants. Smith, a former second round pick out of USC, capitalized with a major breakout season.
Mike Sims-Walker - The former third round pick out of Central Florida generated a lot of buzz early in his NFL career for his impressive play in practice, but injuries and a lack of opportunity held him back until the 2009 season. With Reggie Williams and Matt Jones out of the way, Sims-Walker emerged as the top target on the Jaguars.
Noticing any trends? Three of these four players were high draft picks and all four of them benefitted from a sudden increase in opportunity, whether it was through the departure of a high-profile teammate or the addition of a quality quarterback.
If we want to figure out which wide receivers will break out next season, I think we should focus on former high draft picks and players who will benefit from an improved opportunity. Here's a list of candidates by team:
Bills : James Hardy, Steve Johnson
TO should be gone next season, creating a new starting job opposite Lee Evans. Who will fill the void? Assuming the Bills don't draft someone or sign a free agent, I would probably bet on James Hardy . The former second round pick out of Indiana fits both of our criteria.
Dolphins: Davone Bess, Greg Camarillo, Brian Hartline, Patrick Turner
Bess, Camarillo, and Hartline had the opportunity to emerge last season and none of them capitalized in a big way (neither did Ted Ginn). The Dolphins will probably upgrade this position in the offseason, but if they stay put then Patrick Turner could surprise. The 3rd round pick out of USC has the frame and skills to be a poor man's Keyshawn Johnson.
Patriots: Julian Edelman, Brandon Tate
If Wes Welker is unable to make a hasty recovery from his late season knee injury, one of these youngsters could benefit from his absence. The former QB Edelman made bigger waves in 2009. Long term, I'm more intrigued by Brandon Tate , the former third round pick who's dealing with knee issues of his own. If he can get healthy and learn the nuances of the position, he could emerge as a quality target next season.
Ravens: Donte Stallworth, Mark Clayton
Someone will have to step up if Derrick Mason retires. Clayton has been a disappointment after being picked in the first round of the 2005 draft. Stallworth has always been a decent second or third option, but it's difficult to imagine him suddenly emerging as a 1,000+ yard guy after spending a year on the sidelines. My guess is that the Ravens will add a prominent receiver in the offseason, either through free agency or the draft.
Bengals: Matt Jones, Andre Caldwell, Jerome Simpson
Chris Henry passed away, TJ Houshmandzadeh is long gone, and Laveranues Coles is a shell of his former self. Can one of the other pass catchers on the roster emerge as a reliable second option for Carson Palmer. Jones is an enigmatic talent who never lived up to his hype in Jacksonville. Simpson appears to be a draft bust.
That leaves Andre Caldwell , the former third round pick out of Florida who made some strides last season despite a disappointing finish.
Browns: Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie, Chansi Stuckey
The Browns have a bare cupboard at wide receiver after trading away Braylon Edwards. Who can step up and fill the void? Robiskie had a poor rookie season despite his billing as one of the most NFL-ready receivers in last year's draft.
Stuckey is a journeyman caliber talent who seemingly lacks top upside. Mohamed Massaquoi lacks the consistent hands of a reliable No. 1 target, but the second round pick out of Georgia appears to be the best receiver on the roster.
Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward are entrenched as the starters here. Unless Ward suddenly declines, this team is unlikely to yield a surprise breakout WR. Mike Wallace would be the player to target if Ward struggles early.
Texans: Jacoby Jones
The former third round pick out of tiny Lane College has flashed explosive ability throughout his career. If the team decides to go with him over Kevin Walter in the starting spot opposite Andre Johnson, Jacoby Jones will be a name to remember in the late rounds of your fantasy drafts.
Colts: Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez
When Marvin Harrison exited the Colts, most people thought former 1st round pick Anthony Gonzalez would emerge as his replacement. Instead, Gonzalez got hurt and a pair of unheralded young players filled the void. Collie is a reliable possession receiver who should reprise his role as a backup.
Pierre Garcon is the most athletic of this young trio and despite his untimely drop in the Super Bowl, Garcon is poised to become a valuable asset for fantasy teams.
Jaguars: Mike Thomas, Jarett Dillard, Nate Hughes, Troy Williamson
The release of veteran Torry Holt has created a vacancy in the starting lineup. Can any of these guys seize the opportunity? Dillard was a record-setting receiver at Rice, but his lack of size and speed makes him a question mark in the NFL. Hughes and Williamson are journeymen who have thus far failed to make a positive impact on Sundays.
Mike Thomas is a short, explosive receiver who slipped to the fourth round of last year's draft after a prolific career at Arizona because he lacks prototypical height. He's probably the best bet of this bunch, although this competition could go to almost any of these contenders.
Titans: Kenny Britt
Justin Gage and Nate Washington are mediocre veterans. LaVelle Hawkins has failed to disinguish himself thus far. That leaves Kenny Britt as the clear favorite to become this team's number one receiver. The former first round pick out of Rutgers seemingly has the size and skill needed to become an adequate first option.
Broncos: Eddie Royal, Kenny McKinley
It was all Brandon Marshall all the time last year in Denver. Expect more of the same if Marshall returns next season. If he leaves, the Broncos will probably try to find a replacement in the draft or free agency. Kenny McKinley could provide a spark off the bench and Eddie Royal is an electric talent who could re-emerge as a relevant contributor in fantasy leagues if he should find himself the featured receiver for this team.
The Chiefs are expected to bring back Chris Chambers, who will team up with Dwayne Bowe to form the starting duo. It's unlikely that any of the other current roster options will overtake either of the veterans.
Raiders: Darrius Heyward-Bey, Louis Murphy, Chaz Schilens
The Raiders don't have a franchise QB on their roster at the moment, but it's unlikely that their play at the position will be any worse than it was last season. Improved QB play should mean improved results for their young group of receivers.
Chaz Schilens is a big body with reliable hands and questionable separation skills. Louis Murphy is a deep threat who flashed decent potential as a rookie.
Those two should be considered the frontrunners to start, but ridiculed former first round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey has more upside than either of them. Heyward-Bey was a legitimate first round talent despite being taken 20 spots too high and his elite athletic ability gives him a higher ceiling than any other receiver on the roster.
Chargers: Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee, Buster Davis
Maybe the Chargers shouldn't have cut Chris Chambers after all. Chambers put together a great second half in 2009 after the Chargers released him while his replacements struggled to achieve fantasy relevance.
Expect more of the same from this motley crew in 2010. Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates will be productive. None of the other pass catchers on the roster appear to have much upside.
Cowboys: Kevin Ogletree
Chronic underachiever Roy Williams is up to his old tricks. The Cowboys will likely keep Williams in the starting lineup because of his experience and his big contract, but if the team finally tires of his inconsistency then Kevin Ogletree could emerge as a prominent player in Dallas. Ogletree is a good athlete who has generated a nice buzz since signing with the team as an undrafted free agent last season.
Giants: Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham
Steve Smith was the top receiver on this team last season, but that might not be the case next season. Hakeem Nicks has the size and run after the catch skills to become a quality possession receiver in the mold of a young Muhsin Muhammad. He could overtake Smith as the team's first option in 2010. Mario Manningham will likely be the third option.
Eagles: Jeremy Maclin
DeSean Jackson is an explosive player, but he has never caught more than 62 passes in a season, leaving plenty of opportunities for a teammate to carve out a significant role. Last year's first round pick, Jeremy Maclin , is the unquestioned favorite to emerge.
Redskins: Malcolm Kelly, Devin Thomas
The Mike Shanahan era promises improvement for an offense that struggled to find an identity in 2009. Santana Moss will continue to be the team's best deep threat, but he's not an elite first option at this stage of his career and the team will be looking for someone else to step up and give them another solid option in the passing game.
The presumed choice is Devin Thomas, the former second round pick out of Michigan State who possesses an good combination of size and speed.
Thomas will figure into the equation, but my money is actually on Malcolm Kelly , another former second round pick with untapped potential. Kelly is a big target whose size and hands could provide a nice complement to the speedy Moss.
Bears: Devin Aromashodu, Johnny Knox, Devin Hester
New offensive coordinator Mike Martz is known for engineering deadly passing attacks. The Bears haven't had a 1,000 yard receiver in years. Can Martz break the trend? Devin Hester has explosive talent, but early indications suggest that his role in the passing game will be scaled back. J
ohnny Knox had a great rookie year for a late draft pick. His blazing speed and surprising hands will make him a dangerous target downfield.
Perhaps the most promising player of the bunch is Devin Aromashodu , a journeyman who seems to have finally found his niche after a few years toiling in obscurity. Aromashodu emerged as a playmaker down the stretch last season and Martz might be able to mold him into a productive starter.
For the past two seasons this offense has been Calvin Johnson and the 10 dwarves. Expect more of the same in 2010. The Lions had the opportunity to add a quality second option like Hakeem Nicks or Percy Harvin in the draft last season, but instead took TE Brandon Pettigrew. Third round reach Derrick Williams lacks talent and the other receivers on the roster seem hopeless.
Packers: Jordy Nelson, James Jones
Donald Driver has aged gracefully, but after a late season slump in 2009 he may finally be expendable. James Jones is the favorite to replace him as the second receiver in the explosive Green Bay passing attack. Jones had good strength and run after the catch skills, but he's inconsistent and slow.
I think Jordy Nelson is a better bet to become Driver's replacement. The former second round pick out of Kansas State lacks flashy athletic qualities, but possesses enough skill, speed, and size to be an adequate third option behind Greg Jennings and TE Jermichael Finley.
There's no real mystery here. Sidney Rice, Bernard Berrian, and Percy Harvin will resume their roles as the top three receivers on the team. Expect the explosive Harvin to earn more opportunities as he continues to gain experience.
Falcons: Harry Douglas
Michael Jenkins is a mediocre starter and Brian Finneran is on the backslope of his career. Harry Douglas lacks the size to play on the outside, but the speedy slot receiver and former third round pick out of Louisville could become a factor here if he can recover from the knee injury that kept him out of action in 2009.
Panthers: Dwayne Jarrett
Steve Smith will be the team's first option next season, but Muhsin Muhammad is on the decline after a long and productive career. Dwayne Jarrett has been a draft bust since the team spent a second round pick on him in 2007, but the former USC star is still only 23 years old. He could still become a productive pro if he can overcome his lack of quickness and strength.
Saints: Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson, Adrian Arrington
The Saints will most likely continue to spread the ball around in 2010, decreasing the fantasy value of their individual players. Marques Colston should once again be the team's top target. Henderson will be the deep threat while Arrington could carve out a role if he can make the active roster.
Robert Meachem has gradually improved since being selected by the team in the first round out of Tennessee in 2007. It's unlikely that he'll overtake Colston as the team's first option, but he looks like the second best receiver on the roster for fantasy purposes.
Buccaneers: Sammie Stroughter
Yuck. The Bucs are one of the worst franchises in the league and their WR corps is pitiful. Antonio Bryant is not expected back in 2010, opening the door for someone else to emerge as the team's top target.
The Bucs will most likely try to add some prominent players in the offseason, but if they stay put then Sammie Stroughter is a mildly intriguing breakout candidate. The late round pick out of Oregon State had a surprisingly productive rookie season, but lacks upside.
Cardinals: Steve Breaston, Early Doucet
The Cardinals are expected to part ways with Anquan Boldin, creating a starting job opposite Larry Fitzgerald. This should be a competitive battle between Steve Breaston and Early Doucet .
Breaston will be the favorite because of his speed and production (he eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark in 2008), but the team may instead opt to start Doucet, whose size and run after the catch skills more closely resemble Boldin.
Doucet will be hard pressed to mirror Boldin's production now that QB Kurt Warner has retired, but he's a young player who could have a decent future.
Rams: Donnie Avery, Laurent Robinson, Brandon Gibson
Gibson had a nice rookie year for an unheralded late round prospect. Robinson is a former third round pick who has flashed talent when he hasn't been hampered by injuries. Those guys each have the potential to become starters for this struggling franchise, but Donnie Avery is the most gifted receiver on the roster.
The speedy former second round pick out of Houston will have to overcome his lack of size and durability if he's going to become a reliable option in fantasy leagues.
49ers: Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan, Jason Hill
Crabtree is the most talented player and the strong favorite to become the team's top wide receiver in 2010, but his high profile will make him an expensive acquisition in most fantasy leagues. Jason Hill has shown flashes of becoming a solid second or third option when given opportunities to play, but he appears to be buried on the depth chart at the moment.
The best value here might be Josh Morgan , an athletic target with good size and hops. Morgan's production should be modest as the third option behind Crabtree and TE Vernon Davis, but he seemingly possesses the skills to become a productive receiver down the road.
Seahawks: Nate Burleson, TJ Houshmandzadeh, Deon Butler
Houshmandzadeh had a fairly mediocre season after signing with the Seahawks last offseason. Deon Butler showed flashes of becoming a quality slot receiver in limited action. Nate Burleson has been hampered by inconsistency and injuries since his breakout season in Minnesota, but he's probably the best receiver on the roster. He's capable of exceeding expectations if he can stay healthy.
As you can see, the list of potential 2010 breakout receivers is a long one. There are lots of talented young players who could capitalize on improved opportunities. Keep their names in mind as you prepare for the upcoming season. Most of these guys will fail to become impact players, but if you're really lucky you just might end up with the next Sidney Rice or Miles Austin. Once upon a time they were longshots too.