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Let's get something out of the way up front: rookie wide receivers stink. Every few years, a super-freak like Randy Moss comes along to put up decent fantasy numbers, but that is as rare as a bathed Frenchman. Rookie wideouts mostly ride the pine, and blow routes and drop passes when they do hit the field. No matter the pedigree, they're maddeningly consistent in their inability to contribute to your fantasy squad. Certain players are still worth taking a shot on though, because through a combination of perceived talent level and situation, they can break out. Let's take a look at this year's rookie crop to see if we can find a few contributors.
Demaryius Thomas, Denver: The good news is that Brandon Marshall is gone, and there are plenty of catches available for somebody in Denver. The bad news for Thomas in the short term is that he doesn't understand how to be a pro wide receiver, so he won't be the one making those catches. The system he played in at Georgia Tech was a run-option offense in which he didn't run a normal route tree. The system was effective to that point that Thomas was often so ridiculously wide open that he averaged 25.1 yards per catch. Running normal routes and setting up defensive backs are things he's going to have to learn, which will take time. While he has great size and decent long speed, he's not particularly quick. He'll rely on his huge frame to muscle open on short routes and maybe in the red zone. While he might be a good player down the road, he's just too green now to warrant a draft pick in anything other than deep leagues.
Dez Bryant, Dallas: He's got the skills to be an exceptional player, but the situation he enters in Dallas is tricky. They have a solid running game, and very good pass-catchers, Miles Austin and Jason Witten. Roy Williams is also still hanging around and still has some skills. What I'm saying is that Bryant is strictly a bonus for the Cowboys. That might be good from the long-term standpoint of his career development, but it doesn't portend particularly good receiving numbers for 2010. There's lots of potential for success with Bryant, but don't go crazy for him in re-draft leagues. Remember, his reputation is mainly based on a stellar sophomore season, as he was suspended for the season after only three games as a junior and then left school early. The bust potential is quite high. Take a flyer on him later on, but his ceiling for this season is WR3, and that's being generous. Don't get suckered in by the media buzz around him; focus on the player and the situation.
Arrelious Benn, Tampa Bay: Here's another guy who needs some time to learn after leaving school early and coming from a goofy offensive system. Regardless of what he needs to learn, though, the Buccaneers will shove him into the lineup right away. They best returning WR they have is Michael Clayton, who had 34 catches in a starting role. Benn has the size and skills to be a contributor in Tampa Bay's short passing game, and it's quite possible he could rack up a good number of catches. He'll likely be light on the yards and touchdowns, though.
Mike Williams, Tampa Bay: Williams is another rookie wideout who could start. I won't re-hash his various incidents of knuckleheaded behavior; suffice to say he's as stable as Courtney Love driving a Yugo through downtown Baghdad. But when he's on the field, he's a very good football player. Williams can be a mid-to-deep level threat and an excellent complement to Benn's skill set. Unless you're in a really deep league, there are way too many red flags to draft him. However, I'm betting he makes a decent mid-season pickup. It also wouldn't surprise me if he goes mental and quits football. Mr. Williams, sir, you are a true freak. If you ever want to fill in for me in this space, I'd be honored.
Golden Tate, Seattle: Tate is the most pro-ready WR coming out this year, and one of the most likely to make some fantasy noise. He's polished as a route runner, and he'll have some excellent teachers in Seattle. For the sake of argument, we'll assume that Matt Hasselbeck can stay healthy and upright. The problem is T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Tate and Housh have similar styles, and will fight for the same short to mid range opportunities. Considering his track record, I'd consider it advantage: Housh. That's not to say that Tate can't carve out his own space in that offense, but he'll still be a second or third option. It's not totally insane to think he'll post about 50-60 catches for 750 yards, putting him at about Jeremy Maclin's contribution as a rookie last year. Expect to use Tate as a WR3 at some point in the season.
Brandon LaFell, Carolina: Upside, thy name is LaFell. He is inconsistent, but when he's on, it's hard to stop him. LaFell comes into a team perfect for his skills, and there is almost no one between him and a starting job opposite Steve Smith. The knock on him is that he doesn't work hard, but expect Smith to beat that out of him. The Panthers have been searching for a partner for Smith seemingly forever, and if LaFell steps up, there should be plenty of catches for him. Carolina's offense is certainly more effective with Matt Moore under center than it was with Jake Delhomme. LaFell will have good value if he wins a starting gig.
Emmanuel Sanders, Pittsburgh:Limas Sweed is done for 2010 after an Achilles tear, and the Steelers are pretty thin at WR. Enter Sanders, a sleeper with big-time potential. If he can slip into the lineup as Pittsburgh's No. 3 WR, he can definitely make a contribution to your lineup after Ben Roethlisberger's return. He's a small, fast guy with deep ball skills similar to those of Mike Wallace. Remember, Wallace had 756 receiving yards and six TDs last year as Pittsburgh's slot man. With Byron Leftwich or Dennis Dixon starting the first four to six games at quarterback, there won't be opportunities for Sanders to make an impact early enough to warrant a draft pick. However, keep him on your list of potential mid-season replacements.
Mardy Gilyard, St. Louis: With all the uncertainty and ineptitude in the St. Louis offense, Gilyard definitely falls in the "sleeper" category. Their leading receiver last year was Donnie Avery, who posted a scintillating 47 catches for 589 yards and five TDs. Of course, the play at QB was horrible, and Sam Bradford would have to be on the bench to do much worse than last year's cast of jokers. It's inevitable that the QB play will improve. Brandon Gibson and Laurent Robinson each had a few decent moments last year, but neither staked a permanent claim to a starting job. Gilyard could eventually bring some mid-season value to your roster as a WR3.