Wide Receivers Preview
By Christian Peterson, Associate Editor
August 2, 2005 10:00 AM ET

Can Randy Moss stay atop the fantasy world in Oakland?

Running backs are the bread and butter of fantasy football. Thanks to record-breaking seasons by Peyton Manning and Daunte Culpepper a year ago, quarterbacks are making a comeback – we'll call them the lunch meat, or in Brett Favre's case, the cheese. But you can't have a good sandwich without a little mustard or mayo, right? Welcome to the third in our continuing series of preseason position-by-position previews, where we'll focus on the often overlooked, underappreciated fantasy condiments – the wide receivers. We'll start with the stud wideouts at the top, but we'll also delve into the depths of our rankings to answer a handful of key questions about the entire fantasy receiving class.

The Superstars
Like quarterbacks and running backs, the wide receiver crop has one player generally considered to be the No. 1 choice –Randy Moss. However, unlike the other positions, Moss is not clearly head-and-shoulders above the next couple of stalwarts. Hence, three players are clustered very tightly at the top:

Randy Moss, Raiders: Moss has averaged an impressive 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns per season so far in his career, but for the first time he faces a few question marks now that he won't be catching passes from Daunte Culpepper. Can the historically inept Kerry Collins keep him happy? Are the injury woes that caused him to either sit out or play injured in six games a year ago a thing of the past? The bet here, obviously, is that Moss has enough talent to put up great numbers despite the obvious downgrade at quarterback. Collins has enough talent to work with in Moss, Jerry Porter, and LaMont Jordan, he almost has no option but to succeed in this offense. Right?

Terrell Owens, Eagles: Coming off a season in which he racked up 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns in just 14 games, Owens should give Moss a run for his money atop the wideout rankings. But an offseason of constant holdout speculation and bickering between he, his agent, Eagles management, and even Eagles teammates bumps T.O. a notch below. Although the soap opera continues just as the Eagles open camp, for now we have to Assume Owens will be back in the fold in time for week one of the regular season. As long as his off-the-field antics don't become too much of a sideshow, expect another great season from Owens, who has proven repeatedly he can do as much talking on the field as off.

Marvin Harrison, Colts: Apparently wanting to fit in with T.O. and Moss, the usually squeaky-clean Harrison got into the act off the field this offseason as well. The allegations that Marv assaulted a couple of young autograph seekers before last season's Pro Bowl makes him an official, card-carrying member of the enigmatic superstar receiver class, as do his remarkably consistent numbers. In the last six years, Harrison has averaged 1,450 yards and nearly 13 touchdowns per season in an explosive Colts' attack. He's one of the more rock solid picks you can make in the first two rounds of your fantasy draft.

Who's next?
There's a clear dividing line between the Big Three and those below them. Who's next in line?

Torry Holt, Rams: Holt's inability to put up huge touchdown totals hinders his fantasy value a bit, although 22 touchdowns in the last two years is nothing to sneeze at. Torry is an absolute yardage monster, reaching at least 1,300 yards in each of the last five seasons. Nothing has changed in St. Louis to make anyone believe Holt won't produce again this year, but it's tough to envision him suddenly breaking through for 15 or 16 scores, which the three receivers above him are all more than capable of.

Chad Johnson, Bengals: Steady improvement by Johnson was arrested only slightly by Carson Palmer's learn-on-the-job campaign of a year ago. That Johnson has amassed over 2,600 yards and 19 touchdowns in the last two years catching passes from Jon Kitna one year and a first-year signal-caller the next is testamount to his ability. As long as Palmer progresses in year two, there's little reason to believe Chad won't improve his numbers as well.

Javon Walker, Packers: Walker's new book, "How to do All the Wrong Things After a Breakout Season" isn't due in stores until October, but the receiver did himself no favors by threatening to hold out, not to mention pissing off Brett Favre, this offseason. Super agent and child rescuer Drew Rosenhaus' second-best receiver ultimately decided to report to camp on time, then kissed and made up with No. 4. Both are good signs that Walker is ready to equal or exceed a season in which he more than doubled his previous best in yardage and scored a dozen times. With Favre set to air it out early and often to support what appears to be a weak defense, Javon should continue his progression.

Knocking on the door
All of the following backs could challenge for the top six, but have enough question marks to rank a notch below.

Joe Horn, Saints: Based on his stats over the past five years, Joe Horn probably doesn't get as much respect as Joe Horn should in fantasy circles. Of course, that has as much to do with the fact that Jo-Jo the Idiot Circus Boy is throwing Joe Horn passes as it does with Joe Horn's skills. Joe Horn has managed to score 21 touchdowns in the last two years and has over 1,300 yards in two of the last three seasons. If Aaron Brooks eventually figures out his head from his ass, Joe Horn could put up even better numbers.

Andre Johnson, Texans: Upside (n.): An advantageous aspect; an upward tendency, as in the prices of a stock or the fantasy prospects of Andre Johnson. We were expecting great things from Johnson in his sophomore campaign a year ago. Although he racked up 1,142 yards, he disappointed with just six touchdowns, including just two in the last 11 games. The Texans didn't give David Carr too much help on the offensive side of the ball this offseason, so Andre will continue to face plenty of double teams, but he has the raw talent to be one of the game's best. It's time to put up or shut up in Johnson's magical third season in the NFL.

Reggie Wayne, Colts: Wayne finally put it all together in year four with Peyton Manning, registering career bests in yards (1,210) and touchdowns (12) a year ago. It should be business as usual in no-defense, all-offense Indianapolis this season, so don't expect a drop-off for Marvin Harrison, Jr.

Darrell Jackson, Seahawks: Jackson had one of the quieter 1,200-yard, seven-touchdown seasons in recent memory a year ago, perhaps because he isn't constantly yapping about his own virtues to anyone who will listen, like most of his wide receiver compatriots. Jackson isn't a prototypical deep threat and he drops too many balls to be considered among the elite, but he's the No. 1 option in a potent offense that returns all of its important parts this year.

Toughest players to rank
For one reason or another, some players are very tough to rank. These players' value could skyrocket if things go their way, or they could tank if they don't.

Nate Burleson, Vikings: Burleson thrived as a part-time go-to guy and part-time Randy Moss sidekick a year ago. He busted out with 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns, including four scores in the five games Moss missed with a hamstring injury. Now, Moss is gone, which leaves two sides to Burleson's fantasy coin. On one hand, he could thrive as the No. 1 option and pick up more than his fair share of the 13 annual touchdown's Randy leaves behind. On the other, he's not a prototypical No. 1 receiver. He doesn't have the speed or athletic ability generally required of that role, and could struggle if faced with double teams from the opposition. Burleson appears to be enough a playmaker to keep himself among the top 15 fantasy wideouts, but he could go either way depending on how he adapts to being the head honcho in Minnesota.

Steve Smith, Panthers: All those lucky enough to have grabbed Muhsin Muhammad off the free agent wire a year ago have Smith to thank for Mushy's resurgence. Had Smith, Carolina's clear No. 1 option after a 1,110-yard, seven-score year in 2003, not broken his leg in week one, Muhammad may never have seen the light of day. Now, Smith is healthy and Muhammad is gone, bringing us right back to square one. While some are tempted to simply transfer Mushy's gaudy 2004 totals to Steve's significantly smaller shoulders, others aren't sure the Panthers will be forced to air it out as often as they did a year ago, nor are they confident that the 5-9 spark plug can be a dominant presence in the red zone. The cloudy situation in the Panthers' backfield offers few answers, so it's not hard to see why it's tough to place Smith in your rankings this preseason.

Drew Bennett, Titans: Fueled by a ridiculous three-game stretch in which he had 517 yards and eight touchdowns late in the year, Bennett was one of last season's pleasant surprises. Problem is, the guy who was responsible for throwing all those passes, Billy Volek, is once again a backup in Tennessee. Not only that, former No. 1 receiver Derrick Mason, who drew most of the opposition's attention a year ago, walked to Baltimore in the offseason. How will Bennett respond to being the Top Dog? Was his late season run a mirage, or is he the real deal? Will Steve McNair rekindle the same magic shared by Bennett and Volek a year ago? Tough questions all, and depending on how you answer them, Drew can be considered as high as the No. 11 or 12-ranked receiver, or somewhere in the 20s.

On the rise
Michael Clayton, Buccaneers: Clayton eased into things in his rookie season, failing to cross the stripe or top 75 yards until week four. By the time it was all said and done, however, Clayton had become just the 14th wide receiver in NFL history to top the 1,000-yard mark, and he grabbed seven touchdowns as well. Most of his best work was done with Brian Griese at the helm, which he should be for an entire season this year. Clayton doesn't have blazing speed, but his 6-4, 200-pound frame makes him perfect as a possession receiver. There is little reason to believe Clayton can't match or surpass his rookie numbers in a Tampa offense that now knows what it has in the second-year man, and should feature him right from the start.

Roy Williams, Lions: Fantasy owners were so spoiled by Williams' utter dominance and circus catches in the first three weeks of 2004 that the rest of his injury-marred season came as a disappointment. Williams scored four touchdowns in the first three games, including several highlight-reel grabs, then suffered an ankle injury that hampered him for much of the rest of the season. He scored just once in a 10-week span in the middle of the season, but returned to prominence with three touchdowns in his last two games. While concerns about the fact that he'll be catching passes from Joey Harrington and/or Jeff Garcia are not without merit, Williams has the talent and the support system (Kevin Jones, Mike Williams, Charles Rogers) to continue his development in year two.

Ashley Lelie, Broncos: Right on schedule, Lelie busted out in his third NFL campaign, logging his first 1,000-yard season and adding seven touchdowns. He's as explosive as any receiver in the game, averaging a gaudy 20.1 yards per catch. Oddly, Lelie didn't catch a single touchdown inside the 20-yard line. That stat is bound to change as Jake Plummer turns his attention from the aging Rod Smith to the 6-3 Lelie, who should be a primary target in the red zone and in your fantasy draft as a No. 2 receiver.

On the decline
Hines Ward, Steelers: Ward's numbers have decreased in a disturbing trend over the last three seasons. After career highs of 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2002, Ward has regressed to 1,163 and 10 in 2003 and all the way to 1,004 and four a year ago. That decline in production was evidently enough for Hines to believe he is being underpaid, as he unexpectedly did not report to Steelers' camp over the weekend. Ben Roethlisberger has a year under his belt, but with no Plaxico Burress to stretch the field on the opposite side, Ward will have a tough time reversing his downward spiral in the face of constant double-teaming and in a conservative, run-first offense.

Brandon Stokley, Colts: Stokley feasted on opposing defenses who were desperately trying to stop Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Edgerrin James last year. Flashing great straight-ahead speed, Stokley racked up over 1,000 yards and scored 10 times, usually doing little more than running straight down the seam and settling in under another Peyton Manning dart. More impressively, he managed to stay healthy for all 16 games for just the second time in his six-year career. It's not going to last. First, Manning will be hard-pressed to repeat his record-shattering season. Second, Brandon missed eight or more games with various injuries in three of the four seasons prior to his breakout 2004. Don't count on lightning striking twice.

Derrick Mason, Ravens: Mason developed into a fantasy regular over the last four years in Tennessee, logging four straight 1,000-yard campaigns to go with 29 touchdowns in that span. He was rewarded with a lucrative five-year deal with the inept Ravens this offseason. The move to Baltimore comes with an automatic downgrade at quarterback, unless you've had too much purple kool-aid and believe Kyle Boller will suddenly turn into the next Brett Favre. The best numbers put up by a receiver in the Boller era: 632 yards (Travis Taylor, 2003) and six touchdowns (Marcus Robinson, 2003). That's just not very good.

Biggest question mark
Lee Evans, Bills: Evans started his rookie season slow, then erupted for seven touchdowns and two 100-yard games in his final six games en route to an impressive 843-yard, nine-touchdown debut season. Lee has the speed to get deep and showed an uncanny knack for the end zone, but questions abound as he enters his sophomore campaign. Downgrades along the offensive line will not help new quarterback J.P. Losman avoid the same pressure that led to former starter Drew Bledsoe being sacked 140 times in three years. Losman has a gun for an arm and the athleticism to make plays, but he'll face a steep learning curve. While examples exist of players who haven't suffered much with a first-year signal-caller at the helm (see: Chad Johnson, 2004), the combination of Evans' and Losman's inexperience makes improving on Lee's stellar rookie season far from a sure thing.

Most likely to surprise
Reche Caldwell, Chargers: Caldwell was enjoying a breakout season as easily the Chargers' most explosive receiver when his season ended with a torn ACL in week six. At the time, his three touchdowns in five games was tied for the team lead, and Reche was flashing the same big play ability that made him a second round draft pick in 2002 out of Florida. Caldwell reported to camp and declared himself fully recovered from his injury at the end of July, which makes him the best candidate to emerge as Drew Brees' No. 1 wideout once the season opens. With the caveat that Caldwell must prove he can stay healthy – he also missed seven games with hamstring and concussion issues in 2003 and has already missed time at camp with a strained hammy – he could be a key cog in a very explosive Chargers attack this season.

Most likely to disappoint
Muhsin Muhammad, Bears: Muhammad goes from fantasy nirvana, where Jake Delhomme launched pass after pass his way all season in Carolina, to Chicago, a fantasy wasteland in which a cast of has-beens and might-never-be's tossed a grand total of nine touchdowns last season. Need more? Muhammad's 16 touchdowns a season ago, in a contract year, were more than his four previous seasons combined (13), and a Bears quarterback hasn't thrown for more than 16 touchdowns since 1996, when the legendary Erik Kramer threw 29.

Names you don't care about now, but will by season's end
Kevin Curtis, Rams: Curtis came from out of nowhere to become one of Marc Bulger's most reliable targets down the stretch in 2004. In his final three games, including two playoff tilts, Kevin latched onto 17 balls for 334 yards and a touchdown. He's still third in line behind Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, but he's one of the fastest receivers in the league and the Rams offense has been known to produce a few solid third receivers in the past (Az-Zakir Hakim averaged around 700 yards and six touchdowns in 1999 and 2000). If the aging Bruce were to return to the days of Isaac Bruise, you could be looking at the No. 2 receiver in one of the most potent passing attacks in the NFL.

Clarence Moore, Ravens: Yeah, I'm digging pretty deep here, but nearly every year someone emerges from obscurity to shock the fantasy football world (ahem, Muhsin Muhammad). Moore is currently third or fourth on the Ravens' depth chart, which probably means he won't even appear on your fantasy cheat sheet. Still, keep the following facts in mind: 1) As a rookie, Moore scored four touchdowns (two separate games of two touchdowns each) last year on just 24 receptions. 2) Clarence stands six feet, six inches tall. 3) The Ravens' Nos. 1 and 2 receivers each stand a miniscule 5-10, and one is an untested rookie (Mark Clayton). Then ask yourself this question – If it's third-and-goal at the five-yard line and you need a touchdown, would you rather throw the ball to Shaquille O'Neal or Muggsy Bogues?