Challenge Contests — by Justin Eleff
CHERRY-PICKING THE CHALLENGE WIDE RECEIVERS
Posted Aug. 01 at 02:37 AM
(And mixing fruit metaphors all the while … )
The first thing that struck me about this year’s salary lists, especially for CDM’s Football Challenge? I couldn’t remember a year with a bigger gap between the top wide receivers – and I mean in terms of their likely statistics, not just their salaries – and the muck in the middle.
I still can’t.
So this week I’m spending more time than usual at the top of the list. This year, this position demands it; if you can only afford a couple of sure things at an especially mucky position, you want them to be really sure things.
How to spot those? Look at everything else before you look at a receiver himself.
Look, the numbers of every offensive player in football are at the mercy of other people. Systems produce numbers almost as much as the players in those systems do; systems = head coaches’ philosophies and coordinators’ brainchildren. Offensive lines either enable numbers to be produced or prevent their production. Quarterbacks aid (or hinder) the running game by being competent enough (or not) to keep safeties from cheating toward the line. And everyone – and I do mean everyone – aids (or hinders) the passing game.
Of all players we have to care about in playing our games – even including kickers – receivers’ numbers are at the mercy of the greatest number of other people. Head coaches must sign off on the pass. Coordinators must call it. Lines must hold up. Quarterbacks must read defenses. Only then do route-running and separation skills really begin to matter.
Which means that if I’m spending big money here, I have lots of reasons to worry. The key is to spend it on receivers who aren’t just the best players, but the best players in the best situations.
I want a throw-first coach, if possible, or at least an aggressive OC.
I want a solid line.
And I want a more-than-solid quarterback.
I think I’ve hit upon an exception to this rule – more to come below – but if pressed I’ll generally take the good QB behind the leaky line ahead of the leaky QB behind the good line.
And finally, of course, I want a true stud receiver. I want him big, fast, precise, with soft hands and the slightest touch of an attitude problem. With my own season on the line I want the guy who’s so certain he should have the ball that his quarterback will force things now and again. Again, more to come below.
Without (much) further ado, then, my rundown of the true studs follows, organized not by salary or conference but by a single guiding principle: With so many reasons to worry in the abstract, I’ll only list the teams that provide their receivers with the best combinations of ancillary factors. In doing my cherry-picking, that is, I’m only looking at plum situations.
A lot of studs drop out of consideration altogether for that reason: No Terrell Owens while I wait to see if Tony Romo has recovered from his season-ending disaster; no Larry Fitzgerald or Anquan Boldin while I wait to see what the Whisenator does with Arizona’s O.
Note, too, that not every favorable situation gets mentioned below. Philadelphia and San Diego look pretty good for the passing game, for instance, but I don’t see a real stud on either roster.
(Or, if I do, he isn’t priced as one. Tune in again next week, and know that I don’t mean Reggie Brown.)
BUFFALO / CAROLINA
You could’ve made a heap of money a year ago by betting me that I’d ever list a Dick Jauron or J.P. Losman offense in a column like this – let alone a Dick Jauron and J.P. Losman offense. Even typing that last sentence has me shaking my head. But it’s like this: Losman showed me a little last season, and Lee Evans showed me a lot. I’m fairly certain there’s only one other WR in the NFL who could’ve dragged Jauron and Losman into this column. Evans is just that explosive. He’s that swift. And he’s that much better than every other Bill.
The real potential in Buffalo, then – as in Carolina, home of the other player who could’ve overcome Jauron and Losman – is for whoever quarterbacks the team to lock on to one guy and not unlock for 16 straight games. A few years ago Jake Delhomme made Muhsin Muhammad an out-of-nowhere superstar because he had no other options after Steve Smith broke his leg; since then Delhomme has keyed on Smith on damn near every passing play.
What I guess I’m saying is that there is a way to get me to ignore a lot of ancillary factors: Slot a true stud receiver, a guy with special physical ability, on a team with a mediocre passer and no other options, and good things seem to happen. That has to be a function of the stud himself – these guys are so good that they’re getting the ball through regular double- and triple-teams – but, whatever, numbers speak for themselves. You can’t coach the speed that lets Evans score from 60 and 80 yards out. You can’t coach against it, either.
I won’t own Evans to start the year, but only because I will own Smith and don’t want to press my luck. Odds are no worse than 3:1 that they wind up together on my rosters at some point in 2007.
Not just a good situation – the best situation, for two reasons. One, the ingredients are all here: Great QB, coach a lot warmer to the passing game than we might have guessed given his background on D, even a line that (with the loss of Eric Steinbach) seems better suited to pass-blocking than run-blocking at the moment. Plus, the lengthy suspension of Chris Henry should force Carson Palmer to focus more sharply on his two studs – and that’s the very best part.
Don’t get me wrong: All things considered, especially given his unprecedented mix of me-first attitude with a genuine penchant for working hard enough to back up his jabbering, Chad Johnson might be the best bet in the whole NFL to serve our fantasy purposes. But when I say the very best part, I don’t mean C.J.; I mean T.J.
Johnson tops the salary heap at $2240. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, though, with his slightly more workmanlike numbers (lower receiving average but more TDs than Johnson in 2006), is way down at $1340. He’s the one receiver whose salary makes the least sense this season – the next-cheapest player named as a stud in this column is Javon Walker, at $1780 – and as such the one you absolutely must own.
Javon Walker can be great if Jay Cutler is merely good. But Walker is priced near the top of all WRs, Cutler near the bottom of all QBs. To me that means Cutler himself is the better speculation early on.
Kind of the opposite of Buffalo / Carolina here: You have the mediocre quarterback, sure, but the guy who looks like a stud on paper may lose too many balls to the viable alternatives that those other teams lack. Roy Williams is the stud, but then Calvin Johnson cannot conceivably be far behind him. If it were just the two of them, given the long (and well-documented by Ian) history of stud receivers struggling in their rookie years, I’d own Williams in a heartbeat. The problem isn’t so much Calvin Johnson as Mike Martz and, by extension, Mike Furrey.
When Furrey catches 98 passes in a season, leading the NFC, Martz has demonstrated conclusively that he will never allow his middling quarterback to lock in on one guy the way J.P. Losman and Jake Delhomme have in recent years. I count Williams and Furrey as something like 1.50 great wide receivers combined, with at least .99 of that coming from Williams. Martz treated them – and that meant that Jon Kitna, too, treated them – as near-equals. Mix in Johnson in 2007 and Williams may lose a lot, and this when good health has finally pushed his salary to where it always belonged.
The Packers passed enough last year, and Donald Driver is still good enough, that this situation demands mention for its Buffalo / Carolina potential. There’s little question that Brett Favre is still the best quarterback among the three in question, but then my praise of Driver only goes so far; he’s nowhere near the class of Steve Smith and Lee Evans.
One reason I keep predicting that Reggie Wayne’s numbers will surpass Marvin Harrison’s – and I do: I say it every fall – is that for all his greatness, I can’t find any indication that Harrison would be pissed if it finally happened. He’s just too … classy … for my taste; I want my guys hogging the headlines. Andre Agassi would’ve been a bigger fantasy asset than Pete Sampras.
So here it is, all lined up for this fall’s prediction, an old-fashioned challenge: Harrison pulled a $2020 salary in the Football Challenge, Wayne an even $2000. Nothing to stop me from putting my money where my mouth always is, except, I suppose, that Harrison is still unquestionably great.
Of course there are numbers to go around in a Tom Moore / Peyton Manning offense, and of course you won’t go far wrong owning either or both Colts if you can afford them. But here’s the gun-to-your-head decision: Wanna bet on one instead of the other? Or spend a little less on a guy whose team doesn’t have a second cherry to pick?
Another factor in the Buffalo / Carolina analysis is the quality of the running game. When I write that J.P. Losman and Jake Delhomme (and even Brett Favre) don’t have other options on offense, I really mean that. Marc Bulger is only one part of a worlds-better backfield than those other teams have; Steven Jackson is a better RB than Bulger is a QB.
That said, the fact that Bulger is worlds better than Losman / Delhomme has to count for something, and the fact that Torry Holt (unlike Donald Driver) nearly measures up to Steve Smith (let alone Lee Evans) for something as well. I can see owning Holt if things break in certain ways this season. Just can’t see owning him to start the year.
How does it all fit together, then? With every plum considered, this is the master list of cherries heading into 2007, every stud I’ll consider owning:
1. T.J. Houshmandzadeh
2. Steve Smith
3. Chad Johnson
4. Reggie Wayne
5. Marvin Harrison
6. Lee Evans
7. Torry Holt
8. Roy Williams
9. Javon Walker
10. Donald Driver
Posted by austin lamb | Aug. 06 at 01:51 AM
no. i love T.J but still hes gonna be #6 at least. and wheres reggie brown???
Posted by austin lamb | Aug. 06 at 01:55 AM
the rest is ok.
Posted by JUSTIN ELEFF | Aug. 15 at 02:45 PM
I maybe should've made clearer that the Top 10 was ALL FACTORS CONSIDERED, most especially including $$$. On pure ability my list would be something like Smith / C.J. / Wayne / Harrison / Holt / Evans and then a mix including the rest of the guys on the list above plus a few necessary all-world inclusions. T.O., Larry Fitzgerald, you get the picture. I'm glad the rest was OK, though ...
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