“There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” George W. Bush
“Like ever.” Taylor Swift
Last year, Alshon Jeffery, Josh Gordon, and Keenan Allen exploded onto the scene and outpaced the projections of even their most fervent advocates. As a result, you can expect the trendy first and second year players to carry ridiculous price tags in redraft leagues and cost an absolute fortune to acquire in dynasty.
But not all asymmetrical bets are placed on up-and-comers. Post-hype players can represent similarly gigantic profits, as anyone who wagered on Knowshon Moreno can tell you. And unlike their unproven brethren whose potential exploits are unlimited and whose performances are not yet tinged with disappointment, post-hype players carry bargain bin price tags. In the following scenarios, I’m willing to get fooled at least one more time.
1. Kenny Britt
I know what you’re thinking. Kenny Britt is done. And he probably is.
The arguments against Britt are pretty clear. On a per play basis, he was 2013’s worst player at any position. Britt dropped 39% of his catchable passes and needed a couple late catches to finish with more receptions than drops.
Britt brings a combination of injuries and character flaws so toxic that he went unclaimed at the trade deadline despite a laundry list of playoff hopefuls with a gaping hole at No. 2 receiver. In a league where Randy Moss and Terrell Owens received chance after chance, the Titans couldn’t sell him for a seventh round pick.
In trying to decide why no one wanted Britt, we might be looking at simple risk aversion instead of actual risk management. One of the mistakes teams made in failing to trade for Josh Gordon was an inability to see the upside. Britt’s upside is nearly as large. Consider.
- It’s easy to forget just how good Britt was before the 2011 knee injury. In 2010 Britt finished No. 1 in the NFL in Expected Points Added Per Play at 0.63 (min. 30 receptions). He then matched that number through three games in 2011. To put that number in context, Calvin Johnson’s record-breaking 2012 season was worth 0.42 EPA/P. Josh Gordon’s epic 2013 breakout was worth 0.43 EPA/P.
- Britt is still young, and his impressive college and NFL stats were put up at a young age. Britt’s college breakout occurred at 19.3 years of age, one of the youngest in our database, and his 0.9 age-adjusted Dominator Rating (AADR) also places him among a very strong peer group. He’s one of only 15 players in NFL history with 1,000 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns at the age of 22 or younger. Britt will only be 26 next season, an age when many players are just seeing their careers take off.
- At 6’3” and 218 pounds, Britt is a physical monster who immediately posted strong efficiency numbers despite catching passes from Kerry Collins and Vince Young. It’s still a stretch to compare him to Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, but those players have previously demonstrated that elite talents can change teams and thrive. Moss and Owens each managed 1,300-plus-yard, 15-plus-touchdown seasons with their third teams.
Now several years removed from his last serious injury, it’s possible Britt will be back to 100% for the 2014 season. If he is, his success really comes down to his mental approach. He doesn’t have to become a completely different person. He just has to learn how to channel his selfishness Ayn Rand style. Moss and Owens were rarely able to keep their attitudes in check for any consistent stretch, but a ferocious combination of ego and narcissism (and talent) drove them to incredible heights before the next Icarus-like collapse. Britt has gone on record saying Tennessee intentionally sabotaged his career. Now he has the chance to prove it.
2. Hakeem Nicks
As a second year player in 2010, Hakeem Nicks finished with the fourth highest number of fantasy points per opportunity in the NFL. (Britt was first.) Through Week 10, he was No. 3 in total points behind only Roddy White and Terrell Owens. Then he developed compartment syndrome. He’s never been the quite the same since.
Only four players in NFL history have accumulated 2,700 or more receiving yards by the age of 23. All of them reached 3,000. As you can guess, Nicks is the fourth member with 3,034 yards and 24 touchdowns. The other three? Randy Moss, David Boston, and Larry Fitzgerald.
From a pessimistic perspective, the closest parallel may be Boston, a supposedly moody, lackadaisical player who suffered multiple knee injuries soon after posting those numbers. An optimist will look at that performance and realize Nicks was a gigantic talent. Such a person might be willing to bet on the talent re-asserting itself. In criticizing their former No. 1 receiver, the Giants suggested an unwillingness to work was the reason for his lackluster 2013, not that his athleticism is gone (although that’s certainly what it looked like on television).
Nicks is another example of a player who would have been beloved by the RotoViz collegiate projection metrics. His final season 0.52 Dominator Rating is the seventh best since 2006.
Even if we ignore those first two sterling, pre-compartment syndrome seasons, we find that the comps for Nicks are pretty impressive. Here’s how his yardage numbers compare to other receivers from age 23 to age 25.
There are negative comps like Frank Sanders and Roy Williams but also very positive ones like Andre Johnson, Michael Crabtree, Dwayne Bowe, and Terrell Owens. A couple of years ago DeSean Jackson played his contract year with the express purpose of avoiding injury. He bounced back in 2013 with a career year. Nicks is, or at least was, a much bigger talent than Jackson. In 2013 he posted the same yardage market share as Eric Decker. In 2014 he won’t be catching passes from Eli Manning or running routes choreographed by Kevin Gilbride. He might even catch a touchdown.
Williams is another tall, heavy receiver who broke out at an early age in college and tends to dominate in the red zone at the NFL level. Heading into 2013, he was probably one of the most undervalued players in the league with weight/production comps like Dez Bryant, Andre Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, and Terrell Owens.
Unfortunately, Williams turned out to be overvalued instead. Drafters who eschewed the Tampa passing game were correct in assuming you didn’t want any part of the No. 2 receiver in an offense quarterbacked by Josh Freeman and presided over by Greg Schiano. Williams was a bust even before a mid-season hamstring tear sent him to IR.
The strongest argument in Williams’ favor remains his impressive rookie season, but it transpired long enough ago to be removed from consideration. My assumption was that creating a comp list using only his age 24 to age 26 seasons would be thoroughly unimpressive, but the results are surprisingly mixed.
I still expect Williams to fall out of the Top 12 rounds in redraft and come almost for free in dynasty. Even if his desultory 2013 doesn’t bother you, new reports suggest his attitude problems have re-emerged. Had Schiano remained in charge, the Bucs were supposedly planning on releasing him (and releasing him to sign Britt, if the rumors were true, which is pretty funny in its own right). Of course, Schiano is gone, replaced by Lovie Smith, another head coach who treats offensive play as largely irrelevant.
Here’s why you should buy: New coordinator Jeff Tedford will (theoretically) bring a complex and balanced offense where Vincent Jackson isn’t the first, second, and third read. Moreover, although I was an unabashed skeptic of Mike Glennon heading into 2013, my recent look at rookie passing numbers suggests he has at least a chance to become a solid NFL passer. In fact, Glennon’s closest comp is probably Nick Foles.Update: The move to Buffalo could be underrated for Williams’ dynasty value. He’s immediately the best red zone target on the roster and a much bigger talent than Robert Woods when healthy and motivated. Of course, he may never be either of those two things again.
4. Lamar Miller
The running back position was topsy turvy in 2013. High profile busts like Trent Richardson, C.J. Spiller, and David Wilson were counterbalanced in part through the redemption stories authored by Knowshon Moreno and Donald Brown. You can add Miller to the list of huge disappointments, but I strongly believe the thesis Ryan Rouillard articulated last offseason is basically true. Miller has an excellent chance to be a star.
If you followed my Agility Score articles last spring, you know I like to create comp lists that take weight, Speed Score, Agility Score, and collegiate performance into account. Those pieces picked out Le’Veon Bell and Zac Stacy as two undervalued draft gems, and so far at least, those picks appear to be right.
Miller has been in the NFL for two years, but it’s worth taking a look at his athletic profile and trying to gauge where he fits. (Miller’s agilities are from his pro day; his 40 is from the Combine.)
Speed Score 105-120, Agility Score 10.8-11.2, Rushing DR > 0.45, Carries > 200
As you can see, Miller belongs to a pretty elite group and probably would have been drafted no later than the mid-second round if not for concerns about a lingering shoulder injury. We also see that two of the aforementioned redemption stories – Brown and Moreno – appear on the list. James Starks notably outperformed Eddie Lacy by a large margin this season, albeit on limited carries. It’s also interesting to see Jamaal Charles make an appearance. Kansas City’s initial reluctance to play Charles is easy to forget as we enjoy his current exploits, but the Chiefs saw fit to leave him languishing on the bench for nearly a year and a half before Larry Johnson’s off-field antics finally forced their hand.
Miller’s profile is also slightly superior to that of Christine Michael, a player who retains a ton of dynasty value despite sitting behind both Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin.
Miami’s offensive line travails combined with Mike Sherman’s obsolete scheme to render the 2013 Dolphins’ rushing attack inert. A probable influx of blocking talent mixed with Bill Lazor’s hoped-for brilliance and Miller could be the next back who breaks out in a big way. Now’s the time to lower your cost basis in the talented former Hurricane.
Finley averaged 1.96 yards per route before suffering a scary back injury in 2013. That trailed only Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Jordan Reed, and Vernon Davis. While Finley’s value cratered amidst rumors he may never play again, it now appears that he may be cleared by the time free agency opens. Most are suggesting the Packers will move on, but they could reconsider if his market is soft.
Finley was the star of last season’s Maeby Fuenke series looking at player age. He’s younger than Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis.
6. Stephen Hill
Almost everyone considers Hill a workout warrior who was overdrafted by disgraced former GM Mike Tannenbaum. That’s possibly true, but it’s not necessarily the whole story.
Hill owned a very good Dominator Rating coming out of Georgia Tech, but he also possessed one of the highest Height-adjusted Speed Scores on record, a score that puts him in an elite group that contains Vincent Jackson, Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas, and Darrius Heyward-Bey.
While most people will tell you he’s pretty clearly DHB Jr., there’s quite a bit more room for optimism than you might think. Far from being definitive proof of failure, Hill’s first two seasons create a historical comp list that’s actually somewhat favorable.
First two seasons, yardage between 450-700, weight 210 or above, drafted in first three rounds
You probably don’t want to be mentioned in the same breath with Jonathan Baldwin, and the Fantasy Douche was just recently reflecting on the surprising disappointment of David Terrell. But if you stop reading there, you miss out on the most important part. For the minimal cost it will take to acquire Hill this offseason, you would certainly take a lottery ticket that could turn into Jordy Nelson, Eric Moulds, or Vincent Jackson. As an even more encouraging aside, it’s notable that the first two seasons for Nelson and Moulds occurred at the ages of 23-24, or two years older than Hill.
Bill Connelly of the excellent Football Study Hall has contended that Danario Alexander’s 2009 season was the third best by a college wide receiver between the years of 2005 and 2011. By his criteria, it trailed only Dez Bryant’s 2008 and Justin Blackmon’s 2010. If you added Dominator Rating to the equation, you could move Alexander ahead of Blackmon. His 0.51 remains one of the only recent seasons to top the 50% threshold.
Alexander wasn’t drafted due to his myriad left knee injuries but was signed by the receiver-needy Rams as a free agent. Unfortunately, they grew tired of dealing with his weekly flare-ups and released him in 2012, only to see him explode with the San Diego Chargers. He finished No. 1 in the entire NFL in fantasy points per target (minimum 50 targets). Then, just as his career seemed to be turning a corner, he tore his right ACL during the 2013 training camp.
By all accounts, Alexander’s troublesome left knee was finally nearing 100% when he suffered his latest setback. That he blew out his other knee is probably a good sign. The recovery rate for ACLs has become very encouraging, and he will have had a full year to get healthy. It’s quite likely that Alexander will never again be the player he was for Missouri in 2009, but at his peak Alexander was a similar prospect to guys like Josh Gordon and Julio Jones.
Finally, it’s worth remembering how young Alexander still is. He’s almost exactly the same age as A.J. Green. He’s younger than oft-injured players like Percy Harvin and Jeremy Maclin. He’s younger than the injury-prone and more athletically limited Ryan Broyles.
Author’s Note: As I was finishing this article, a report surfaced that Alexander underwent a second ACL surgery in January and may not be ready for training camp.
8. Justin Blackmon
Blackmon averaged 2.58 yards per route in 2013 during his brief stint between suspensions. Among players who played in at least 25% of their team’s snaps, that ranked behind only Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, and Josh Gordon. Good arguments exist both for and against Blackmon. He was my top-rated receiver from the 2012 class, although I felt he probably had a lower ceiling than Stephen Hill and Alshon Jeffery. My analysis wasn’t nearly as favorable heading into last season. Blackmon headlined my DR and HaSS red flags column, a list that also included ADP underperformers like T.Y. Hilton and Kendall Wright along with busts such as Vincent Brown and Ryan Broyles.
The basic premise of this piece is that you should target anyone over 210 pounds who has flashed in the past and might be available at a discount. It’s probably more trivia than anything else, but only 11 players have posted multiple 190-plus yard games in their first two NFL seasons. It’s a list that includes Blackmon and is headlined by luminaries like Jerry Rice and Randy Moss, not to mention Lance Alworth, Gary Clark, Bob Hayes, Isaac Bruce, Josh Gordon, and Alshon Jeffery.
9. A.J. Jenkins
I won’t waste too much time telling you about Jenkins. The list of small, early round receivers with fewer than 500 yards in their first two seasons but then emerged: Santana Moss.
But few early round picks were given up on as quickly as the 49ers gave up on Jenkins. This could be seen as an even bigger red flag or a sign of impatience. One of the explicit reasons for the trade was to clear cap space. Recently rumors circulated that Kansas City is very high on Jenkins. This strains credulity a little, but Andy Reid is one of the few NFL coaches to successfully deploy smallish receivers.
I’ll leave you with the list of recent receivers drafted in the first three rounds with an Age-Adjusted Dominator Rating above 0.0, a weight below 195, and forty time faster than 4.45. (AADR goes negative, so these are all the receivers who were average or better in this metric.)
Jenkins also finds himself on Jon Moore’s excellent list of speculative adds for 2014.
10. Charles Johnson
No list of deep, deep sleepers is complete without mentioning Charles Johnson. Last summer the draftnik community enjoyed an unprecedented love affair with Cordarrelle Patterson’s unique athleticism, but Johnson put up the most eye-popping offseason workout numbers. Despite incredible physical gifts, Johnson’s somewhat checkered past caused a fall into the draft’s 7th round where he was nabbed by GM Ted Thompson (who happens to be something of savant when it comes to finding receiving value). Unfortunately, he tore his ACL in training camp and was so still so athletic that nobody realized it. Of course, he wasn’t able to make the Packers with a torn ACL, and the Browns eventually signed him from their practice squad. Theoretically, he could compete in 2014 for Cleveland’s vacancy at No. 2 receiver.
Jon Moore’s article on Charles Johnson remains one of the most-read RotoViz pieces. Johnson wasn’t just athletic – he dominated as a senior at Grand Valley State. Of course, a 24-year-old athletic monster should probably put up some impressive numbers in Division II. Anyway, Johnson is nothing more than an end of the roster stash for very deep leagues, but he’s a much cheaper version of Kelvin Benjamin if you want some exposure to that type of prospect.
If you’re looking for those pre-hype runners, these guys could be the next Fred Jackson, Pierre Thomas, or Joique Bell.
If perusing my post-hype list actually convinced you to invest even more heavily in this year’s crop of rookie wide receivers, here’s a look at the rookie receivers who already qualify as post-hype for the same reasons a rookie third round receiver became a surprising star in 2013. Who is the 2014 Keenan Allen?
Shawn Siegele is the creator of the contrarian sports website Money in the Banana Stand and Lead Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy.