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The Weekly Gut Check - Vol. 35
Applying The 3rd-Year WR Theory For 2005

Rookie Scouting Portfolio The “Gut Feeling” is often synonymous with a sense of desperation resulting from a lack of preparation. The Gut Check is a huge proponent of studying the numbers, but there’s a point where one can place too much emphasis on the wrong information. This can result in the undervaluing or overlooking a player’s potential. Therefore, The Weekly Gut Check is devoted to examining the frame of reference behind certain number-driven guidelines that fantasy football owners use to make decisions.

Although The Weekly Gut Check doesn’t claim to be psychic, he does believe that he can dispel certain numbers biases and help you make the best choices for your team. We’ll keep a running tally of The Weekly Gut Check’s insights. This way you can gauge his views as something to seriously consider, or at least seriously consider running the opposite way as fast as you can!

With the help of Tony San Nicholas last year, The Gut Check listed five candidates to experience a breakout fantasy season at the wide receiver position in order of likelihood:
  1. Andre Johnson, HOU
  2. Javon Walker, GB
  3. Reggie Wayne, IND
  4. Charles Rogers, DET
  5. Brandon Lloyd, SF

Johnson, Walker, and Wayne definitely had breakout years in 2004 for standard scoring leagues (.1 pts/10 yards receiving and 6 pts/TD). Johnson reached the 150-fantasy point benchmark, although generally a point total that would have placed him in the top-15, it was only good enough for 23rd. Walker, turned in the 2nd-best performance of any fantasy receiver in 2004 with a grand total of 210 points. Reggie Wayne? Merely 7th, with 193 points, only 8 points fewer than long-time stud and teammate, Marvin Harrison. Rogers received an incomplete due to a second collarbone injury in two years. Brandon Lloyd experienced nagging injuries, inconsistent play at quarterback, and growing pains. In essence, The Gut Check was 75% accurate on his predictions.

Let’s use the same information to target candidates for 2005. Here’s a quick review of analysis we’ll use to arrive at the players (for a more detailed explanation, check out last year’s article):

  1. Create a sample size from the Top 15 WRs during a 20-year span.
  2. Pinpoint the highest percentage cluster of years where a breakout occurs.
  3. Create a statistical profile of a receiver the fits the potential breakout criteria.
  4. Determine the receivers from 2004 that fit the profile entering 2005.

It’s important to note that Tony San Nicholas’ analysis yielded a much higher accuracy rate. In a short, he discovered 71.4% of rookie WRs over the past 20 years with between 50-59 receptions and 700-799 yards experienced a breakout season in the following year. Last year, the sole candidate to fit the criteria was Andre Johnson. This year, there are several more candidates:

50-700 Reception-Yard Benchmark
Last Name First Name  Rookie Year  Team G  Rec  Rec Yd  Rec TD  FF Pts
Williams Roy 2004 det 14 54 817 8 129.7
Fitzgerald Larry 2004 az 16 58 780 8 126
Houshmandzadeh T.J. 2001 cin 16 73 978 4 121.8
Stallworth Donte 2002 no 16 58 767 5 106.7
Givens David 2002 ne 15 56 874 3 105.4
McCareins Justin 2001 nyj 16 56 770 4 101
Northcutt Dennis 2000 cle 16 55 806 2 92.6

For owners wishing to play it safe, stop right here with Williams and Fitzgerald. The problem is most owners will also expect a jump in performance from these two receivers. It’s not like either of them had far to go to reach the 150-point mark as a rookie. Houshmandzadeh, Stallworth, and Givens are intriguing candidates either due to surrounding talent, quarterback play, or in Stallworth’s case—great physical potential. Yet, Houshmandzadeh and Givens often share time with a larger stable of capable receivers. McCareins seemed like a viable candidate in 2004, but switching teams and systems contributed to his drop in production. The return of Laveranues Coles and McCareins return to Mike Heimerdinger’s offensive scheme brought over from their days in Tennessee could be positive factors. Dennis Northcutt is a bit of a surprise, and his role within the Brown’s offense hasn’t been solidified at this time. Based on last year’s research only 3% of all receivers experiencing their breakout season occurred in their sixth season, guess which season this is for Northcutt?

It’s important to point out that last year, the 50-700 reception-yard benchmark didn’t include Reggie Wayne or Javon Walker—both players that significantly exceeded Andre Johnson and became top 10 WRs. This is where The Gut Check’s expanded analysis should pinpoint a few more candidates. Yours Truly is willing to sacrifice some percentage points in accuracy in exchange for more players to fall within the spectrum. Especially when a player such as Lee Evans isn’t on this list.

Based on last year’s research with a 100-player sample size that does not include rookies, we arrived at this performance profile for a potential breakout candidate.

  • 85% of the sampled breakout receivers achieved this feat between years 2-5 of their NFL career.

  • 81% had at least 41 receptions

  • 78% had at least 2 touchdowns

  • 71% had at least 400 receiving yards.

  • An average of five receivers per year attain breakout status.

Only two players slipped through this profile: Nate Burleson and Brandon Stokley. Burleson qualified as a second year receiver fitting within the receiving yardage and touchdown profile, but he only had 25 receptions in 2003. Stokley was already into his sixth season as a pro. The Gut Check even mentioned that between one or two of the five receivers attaining breakout status didn’t meet the 41-400-2 criteria or played more than four seasons in the NFL.

Here’s the initial query for 2005:

Breakout Candidates - Initial Query
Last Name First Name  Rookie Year  Team  G  Rec  Rec Yd  Rec TD  FF Pts
Evans Lee 2004 buf 16 48 843 9 138.3
Williams Roy 2004 det 14 54 817 8 129.7
Fitzgerald Larry 2004 az 16 58 780 8 126
Houshmandzadeh T.J. 2001 cin 16 73 978 4 121.8
Stallworth Donte 2002 no 16 58 767 5 106.7
Givens David 2002 ne 15 56 874 3 105.4
Colbert Keary 2004 car 15 47 754 5 105.4
Curry Ronald 2003 oak 12 50 679 6 103.9
McCareins Justin 2001 nyj 16 56 770 4 101
Gardner Rod 2001 was 16 51 650 5 95
Parker Eric 2002 sd 15 47 690 4 93
Northcutt Dennis 2000 cle 16 55 806 2 92.6
Lloyd Brandon 2003 sf 13 43 565 6 92.5
Wilson Cedrick 2002 sf 15 47 641 3 82.1
Bryant Antonio 2002 cle 10 42 546 4 78.6
Randle El Antwaan 2002 pit 16 43 601 3 78.1
Gaffney Jabar 2002 hou 16 41 632 2 75.2

There are ten additional candidates than those derived from the “50-700” benchmark. The next round of elimination is based on retaining players heading into the season with a firm hold on a starting job. As of the time this article was written, the receivers eliminated are either fighting for the starting job (Bryant and Northcutt, and Wilson and Randle El), facing the prospect of waivers (Gardner), at best share the #2 spot with another receiver (Gaffney), or are clear cut #3 WRs for their squad (Curry).

This leaves ten solid candidates based on production and current standing with their team entering the season. To reiterate, an average of five breakout receivers make the top 15 for the first time in a given year:

10 Solid Candidates
Last Name First Name  Rookie Year  Team  G  Rec  Rec Yd  Rec TD  FF Pts
Evans Lee 2004 buf 16 48 843 9 138.3
Williams Roy 2004 det 14 54 817 8 129.7
Fitzgerald Larry 2004 az 16 58 780 8 126
Houshmandzadeh T.J. 2001 cin 16 73 978 4 121.8
Stallworth Donte 2002 no 16 58 767 5 106.7
Givens David 2002 ne 15 56 874 3 105.4
Colbert Keary 2004 car 15 47 754 5 105.4
McCareins Justin 2001 nyj 16 56 770 4 101
Parker Eric 2002 sd 15 47 690 4 93
Lloyd Brandon 2003 sf 13 43 565 6 92.5

Before Yours Truly creates a final list, there are 74 players that did not meet the 41-400-2/2-4 years experience criteria—remember, 1-2 of these players will likely break out. This is why the Gut Check prefers to stick with the more defined criteria, but here’s a list of players with some noticeable opportunity based on a defined starting role entering camp or buzz surrounding that players’ prospects of earning such a job:

Breakout Long Shots
Last Name First Name  Year  Rookie Year  Team  G  Rec  Rec Yd  Rec TD  FF Pts
Watts Darius 2004 2004 den 16 31 385 1 44.5
Ferguson Robert 2004 2002 gb 13 24 367 1 42.7
Williams Reggie 2004 2004 jac 16 27 268 1 32.8
Parker Samie 2004 2004 kan 4 9 137 1 19.7
Gage Justin 2004 2003 chi 16 12 156 0 15.6
Battle Arnaz 2004 2003 sf 14 8 143 0 14.3
Jenkins Michael 2004 2004 atl 16 7 119 0 11.9
Calico Tyrone 2004 2003 ten 1 2 13 0 1.3
Rogers Charles 2004 2003 det 0 0 0 0 0

Ferguson is only appealing in the case of injury or if Walker’s holdout cuts into training camp or the regular season. Darius Watts is in a similar position. Samie Parker is a deep sleeper. A player the Gut Check thinks could wind up starting by the end of the year, if not a lot sooner. Nevertheless, the #2 WR spot has a fair share of candidates heading into camp.

Another interesting guy is Arnaz Battle. Highly regarded, WR coach Jerry Sullivan compares Battle’s athleticism and effort to Anquan Boldin. Considering both were converted quarterbacks, the stylistic-athletic comparisons aren’t a stretch, but the production might be. Yet, Battle has worked himself to a starting position heading into the preseason. The Gut Check isn’t convinced the 49ers quarterbacks will be ready to have a passing game that’s dynamic enough to breakout out two receivers and Brandon Lloyd’s statistical profile is a better match for such a season.

Justin Gage and Michael Jenkins are talented players still developing their game—as are their quarterbacks. Both face competition at their position from some highly regarded young talents.

The most intriguing players on this list are Charles Rogers, Reggie Williams, and Tyrone Calico. Rogers fit the statistical criteria heading into 2003, but never saw the regular season. Williams went through the typical rookie adjustment period and the Jaguars’ system reportedly wasn’t a match for Williams’ talents. This year Jacksonville has installed an aggressive, vertical passing game, which should match the talents of Leftwich, Smith, and Williams. One of the stats the Gut Check uncovered in 2003 was that since 2003, at least one team had two wide receivers ranking in the top 15 for all but one year. 2004 was no exception with the Colts (3), Rams (2), and Packers (2) comprising nearly 50% of the fantasy receiving top fifteen.

Another point to consider is the number of receivers breaking the 150-fantasy point mark in 2004. There were an unheard of 23 receivers with at least 150 fantasy points—the highest total since 1993 (19 players). Is this a product of the new illegal contact rules? Although the increase last year was significant, the Gut Check expects defenses to adjust to the rules and the average number of 150 point producers decreases.

Even with the decrease, the number should remain higher than the historical average that hovered between 16 to 17 players prior to the rules adjustments. This means instead of expecting five breakout receivers in 2005, The Gut Check is going to expect six to account for the rules change.

Here are five players that didn’t make the cut, but are definitely worth drafting in mid-to-late rounds for 2005:

Reggie Williams
Yours Truly feels Willams is in a great situation to experience a breakout year. Carl Smith’s new offensive system is an aggressive, down field scheme featuring multiple-receiver sets. This matches Byron Leftwich’s talents as a quarterback to exact specification. Leftwich is a gunslinger and he throws one of the best deep balls in the NFL. Prior to Leftwich’s knee injury, the second year quarterback went on a bit of a fantasy tear due to the team playing from behind. The Gut Check knows Jack Del Rio took a look at that film with Leftwich operating in those sets and knew he needed to tailor his offense around it. Jimmy Smith is still looking like a receiver in his late twenties and this system provides Williams the chances to beat single coverage deep rather than run short intermediate routes to complement the aging veteran. In addition, Williams lost the ten pounds he gained at the request of the coaching staff last year. Reports out of mini-camp suggest Williams looked like the deep threat the Jaguars thought they were getting when he was a Washington Huskie. What keeps Williams off the final list? In comparison to Brandon Lloyd, Williams is behind the curve in his adjustment to the NFL due to the previous offensive system and his frustration with it. The Gut Check believes Williams has a chip on his shoulder to shed the premature label of bust, but he won’t fulfill his tremendous promise as a primary threat until 2006.

Justin McCareins
McCareins’ chance to perform in former Titans’ offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger’s system yet again is a positive. In terms of fantasy production, McCareins has been steady the past few years but as a receiver he still needs to work on catching the balls that should be caught. The Gut Check still has nightmares of McCareins dropping Steve McNair bombs placed right on the money with defenders more than a step behind the receiver. The Jets’ number two receiver is a worthwhile mid-round selection with possible upside—just not as much as others.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh
A hard working receiver that maximizes every ounce of physical talent. He’s just not that physically talented as most of the receivers on the roster. Of course when one considers Kelly Washington, Peter Warrick, and now Chris Henry, there aren’t any NFL rosters with that level of athleticism at the receiver position with the exception of the Oakland Raiders. Houshmandzadeh may be the #2 receiver in name, Carson Palmer will have a lot of weapons and the Gut Check expects the fifth-year pro’s stats to plateau in 2005.

David Givens
A fantasy favorite as a sleeper in 2004, Givens qualifies yet again as a guy on the verge in 2005. Tom Brady spreads the ball around in this offense and The Gut Check expects few changes to Charlie Weis’ system. The addition of David Terrell, Tim Dwight, and heralded rookie TE Ben Watson’s return from the training room will be mean too many footballs headed to hands other than Givens’.

Kerry Colbert
Colbert surprised in 2004, but NFL defenses will account more for Colbert in 2005. The loss of Mushin Muhammad and the possible impact to the Panthers’ offense seems a bit underestimated in The Gut Check’s opinion. Steve Smith is explosive, Muhammad brought a dimension to the passing game Carolina won’t be able to replace this year unless they add a player of similar height-leaping ability-hands (possibly Gardner). Even if there’s an addition, it spells less looks for Colbert.

Eric Parker
The Gut Check likes Parker as a late-round flier. The Tennessee alum displayed good hands and flashed big-play ability last season. There are a few obstacles that lower his value. First, the Chargers drafted Vincent Jackson—a receiver with the body of a tight end, speed of a deep threat, and good hands. Second, Reche Caldwell and Kassim Osgood complete a depth chart of pass catchers with youth, promise, and skill. And third, Parker signed a one-year contract in May which likely means Parker is auditioning for another team unless he can separate himself from the pack. He’ll need to create a lot of separation to keep the Jackson’s development at bay. Additionally, San Diego at their most aggressive is a balanced offensive attack. Drew Brees had an excellent year, but expect Gates, Tomlinson, and McCardell to be the focal points. With all this said, keep an eye on Parker either late in the draft or on the waiver wire.

One more candidate that doesn’t qualify under the criteria but has too much talent to deny mentioning is Detroit rookie Mike Williams. The quality of the Lions’ quarterbacking will have to skyrocket for three receivers to breakout in 2005, but the Gut Check believes two of the three receivers in the Motor City will do it. If either Charles Rogers or Roy Williams gets hurt, look for Williams to step in without much drop off. If not, The Gut Check still expects Williams to be a viable candidate for 2006.

Here are the top six candidates for a breakout season in 2005:

Roy Williams—Unless you are new to fantasy football this selection is no surprise. Williams flashed dominating hand-eye coordination and ability to adjust to the ball in the air as a rookie. Adding Mike Williams and a healthy Charles Rogers should makes Detroit a vastly improved offense. The key is Joey Harrington’s development and more importantly, how quickly coach Steve Mariucci will pull him for Jeff Garcia if improvement from 2004 isn’t immediate. The Gut Check believes Garcia has the skills to make this offense a potential juggernaut if Harrington falters. Roy Williams is the most physically talented receiver in the game, including Randy Moss. He may not have the ability to track the ball or possibly the pure speed of Moss, but he’s a more versatile route runner and provides more options to a quarterback all over the field.

Larry Fitzgerald—When it comes to tracking a ball’s trajectory, hands, and toughness Fitzgerald is on track to have no peer. Like Roy Williams, Fitzgerald played his rookie year on a bad ankle. Unlike Roy Williams, Fitzgerald didn’t disappear as the year progressed, and began showing glimpses of the unreal skills he displayed in college. Add a healthy Anquan Boldin, explosive rookie runner J.J. Arrington, and Kurt Warner to the mix, and the Cardinals have a promising offense. Warner’s thumb is still a question mark and he gets skittish with the pass rush, but he showed toughness last year and enough leadership to put the Giants in playoff position before Coughlin (and in the Gut Check’s opinion, Ernie Accorsi) pulled the plug in favor of Eli Manning. The Gut Check also likes the addition of CB Antrelle Rolle. Dennis Green was a 49er coach and got to see some classic battles with Rice and Lott. Imagine Rolle and Fitzgerald, two talented, tough, and ultra-competitive players, will improve in a similar situation. Williams and Fitzgerald are two dynasty must-haves, guys you’ll likely have to reach for in re-drafts, but the values will likely be worth it.

Lee Evans—Evans is the most explosive of the great WR draft class of 2004. Although he had the most impressive statistics for a rookie WR this side of Michael Clayton, Evans comes into 2005 with second-year man, J.P. Losman at quarterback. This is an adjustment that could set Evans back a step, because this is in effect Losman’s rookie year. True, the Bills’ signal caller had a year to prepare in the film room and demonstrated excellent command of the offense in mini-camp, but the primary receiver in this offense is still Eric Moulds. In fact, every time Yours Truly saw something about Losman, he was seen next to the veteran receiver on the field, and in the weight room. Statistically, Evans is a great candidate but The Gut Check would temper the expectations a bit in comparison to Williams and Fitzgerald.

Donte Stallworth—This receiver might be a more explosive than Evans, but he’s underachieved due to nagging injuries and lapses in concentration. It appeared Stallworth finally got his act together at the mid point of last season. The Gut Check believes Stallworth will finally develop into a more dominant option. Aaron Brooks is a much-maligned quarterback, but he’s a good fantasy option. Yours Truly expects Stallworth go off draft boards around the same time as Justin McCariens, he just believes picking Stallworth offers greater potential rewards.

Charles Rogers—It’s easy to write off Rogers as fragile, but bone breaks aren’t as worrisome injuries to the Gut Check as chronic issues with ligaments and tendons. This is a receiver that will likely see a drop in value due to the injuries, the emergence of Roy Williams, and the drafting of Mike Williams. The Gut Check sees a great opportunity for draft value here. Yours Truly won’t reach for Rogers like he might with Williams or Fitzgerald, but he’ll gladly take him if he’s available as a #2/#3 option in 10 or 12-team league.

Brandon Lloyd—A Gut Check favorite in 2004 and still a player Yours Truly believes hasn’t maximized his talent. Alex Smith will likely need at least a year to be effective, but it’s still worth noting that Lloyd’s 43 catches, 565 yards and 6 scores in 13 games with poor quarterback play and pedestrian receivers around him projects to 52 catches, 709 yards, and 7 scores. These figures place Lloyd in the realm of strong candidates such as Larry Fitzgerald and Roy Williams. That’s nice company for a receiver playing with a rookie free agent for much of the season. There was a lot of discussion during the offseason the Niners would either select a receiver in the draft or acquire a proven free agent talent. San Francisco ultimately decided to stick with their receiving corps, as is—a fairly clear indication they are satisfied with the potential of this group. Jerry Sullivan is regarded as one of the better teachers of wide receivers in the game with both David Boston and Anquan Boldin as examples of his influence. Although Brandon Lloyd doesn’t have the size-speed ratio of either receiver, his hands, body control, and on-field intelligence may exceed Sullivan’s previous pupils. This was a tough choice between Lloyd and Reggie Williams, but Lloyd makes the cut based on him being the primary option and San Francisco will likely have to throw more than they want in 2005.

Matt Waldman would like to thank Doug Drinen of for his indirect assistance with this article. His site provides a comprehensive, and fairly accurate, history of the football statistics available for download and in a format easy to manipulate with database.