Fantasy Preview: Wide Receiver Camp Battles

WR Training Camp Battles to watch in 2014

Who will emerge as the top WR threat for the Patriots passing attack in 2014?

Almost every team has competition at the WR position at some level, some for the #1 WR slot, others for the slot or WR3 role.  Because of this, we tend to focus on camp battles on high-octane offenses, as these are the types of WRs that can really make an impact week in and week out.  They are a better bet for week in and week out production, and the upside is usually greater.  So we will predict who will be this year's Josh Gordon or Alshon Jefferey.   This is also where Dynasty Owners need to find quality production at a cap friendly contract.  Most of the top ranked fantasy players in Dynasty Owner (as measured by Dynasty Dollars / Point) are Wide Receivers so pay close attention to this group in training camp.

Patriots: Thompkins,Amendola,Dobson,Edelman

New England: If there is anything we've learned about the Belichick/Brady era of the past decade, it's that we know the Patriots are going to pass early and often, and they are going to spread the ball around judiciously.  In the past 3 seasons, NE has ranked 2nd, 4th, and 10th in overall passing yards on the season and this year figures to follow that trend.   While Patriot WRs tend to go low on draft day, because it's always hard to guess who will emerge, they almost always factor into the fantasy league outcome later in the season, especially lately when Gronkowski has struggled staying healthy and they had to rely on their playmakers on the outside.  

This year, after Julian Edelman, all other WR slots are up for grabs, and we count the 3rd WR role in NE as the most important as they rely heavily on shifty playmakers out of the slot or flex position every year.  It's unclear if Edelman will man that role or will lineup outside as the WR1 (a position he lacks ideal size for).   First, let's look at the contracts:

  • Julian Edelman ($4.25 MM / Yr)
  • Aaron Dobson ($850k / yr)
  • Danny Amendola ($5.7 MM / yr)
  • Kembrell Thompkins ($500k / yr)
  • Brandon LaFell ($3 MM / yr)

Right away, two guys jump out amongst the 5 who are anticipated to complete for two open jobs.  Dobson and Thompkins, both on the 2nd year of rookie deals, figure to be competing for one of the starting WR roles and should either win the job in camp they should immediately be on your radar in the later rounds of dynasty drafts. Both players had stretches of games last year where they looked like they might break out, especially early on in the season.  However, both players faded in the latter part of the season, and left fantasy owners wondering if they hit a rookie wall, got in Belichick's doghouse or a little of both.  

With Edelman topping over 100 catches and 1,000 yards last year, mostly from the slot, you have to believe they don't want to move him out of that position for too many snaps.  So the two outside positions seem to be wide open.  Amendola figures to be more of an Edelman type, though he's struggled mightily to stay on the field the last several years.  

Brandon LaFell has been hyped for a while now, though he's never lived up to that hype on a consistent basis.  The Patriots did bring him in for 3 years at $11MM so chances are they really envision him winning one of the two starting jobs.  At 6-2, he'd be a sizable target in the red-zone that the Patriots haven't had at the WR position in a few years.

That leaves Thompkins and Dobson likely competing for one starting slot.  Going into camp, Dobson is the favorite.  He had a better season last year and was a much higher draft pick (2nd round) vs Thompkins (undrafted Free Agent) and will be given every opportunity to grab the job out of camp.  Thompkins is the enigma, as he can land anywhere from a starting WR job to being on the roster bubble in favor of a newly drafted prospect like Jeremy Gallon.   It's worth noting that Thompkins was the surprise of the NFL coming out of last year's training camp, so he might just be a pre-season wonder who fools owners on draft day.  Proceed with caution.  

That's why it's so essential to watch the Patriots WR battle in camp this year.  While it's tough to pick a winner right now, it's almost guaranteed that at least 1 WR will emerge with a very small contract and big upside in that offense.  

Who we predict will win the job(s): Edleman, Dobson, LaFell

Who fantasy owners should want to win the job(s):  Edleman, Thompkins, Dobson

Long Term Dynasty Owner Outlook:  Edelman is locked in and if he can mirror last year's production is a solid bargain at his relatively modest $4MM / Year contract. However, we'd probably stay away from Amendola or LaFell as they both have bigger contracts than their anticipated output will justify.  If Tompkins or Dobson win either or both jobs, both become instant targets on draft day.  Ideally, one will emerge as a clear cut number 2 option in that offense by the time your draft rolls around.  Keeping it long term will be another story altogether, so if history has taught us anything it's that you should not overspend on anyone in the Patriots offense other than Tom Brady.

Saints:  Stills/Cooks/Colston

New Orleans Saints: Another high octane offense, the saints ranked 2nd in overall passing yards last year and have been in the top 5 in each every year since 2006.  This year, Brees arguably has a more dynamic WR corps than he's ever had, in terms of playmaking ability and explosiveness.  

While many other camp battles are about who will win the job, interest in the Saints pre-season is to really determine the pecking order of the weapons they have in place. Jimmy Graham still figures to be the top option, but there is room for one or even two more high performing WRs in this pass happy offense.   Marques Colston is reliable but aging, and two young and dynamic playmakers are both vying to take the spotlight in New Orleans.

Kenny Stills is already being hyped as a second year breakout candidate, as some advanced metrics from last year point to a big season on the horizon.  Stills was 2nd in the entire league in yards / target among RBs, WRs, and TEs, although that's probably a function of him being a strict deep threat in that offense.  He never saw more than 6 targets in any game last year.  

Speaking of targets, 1st round draft pick and lightning quick playmaker Brandin Cooks figures to get a lot of those out of the slot and is also trending way up as a target on draft dates.  In fact, many pundits claim he has a great shot to be the offensive ROY simply because of the opportunity and playmaking ability in that offense.

Colston returns as the WR1 and this year looks to shake off an injury plagued season and prove he can still perform at an elite level despite entering his 9th season in the NFL.   He's proclaiming he's fully healthy and does not enter camp with any ailments as of yet.

Eagles: Maclin, Cooper, Matthews, Huff

The contracts

  • Colston ($7.2 MM / Yr)
  • Stills ($2 MM / Yr)
  • Cooks ($588k / Yr)

Who will win the job: Colston, Stills, Cooks

Who fantasy owners should want to win the job: Colston, Stills, Cooks

Long Term Outlook: Again, this battle is all about targets and emergence of the pecking order. Ideally for fantasy owners, Stills and Cooks will both become preferred targets over Colston, and Stills has a chance to evolve from a deep threat to a more complete number 1 WR if Colston continues to battle injuries or loses another step on the back half of his career.    Either way, savvy Dynasty Owners will want to get one of or both Stills and Cooks in drafts this year, as one of them is bound to pay off as an elite performing option in a high-octane offense at a great bargain contract.  Colston may still churn out a productive year, but at $7.2MM per year he's in the top 15 of all NFL WRs in salary so you will be taking a gamble on him staying healthy to justify that cap hit to your team this year.  And it's tough to see him playing at an elite level for several years to come, especially with emerging young talent like Stills and Cooks.  

The 9th ranked passing offense last year lost it's top WR threat in D. Jackson, and opens a huge opportunity for a draft day steal or two in Philadelphia.  Chip Kelly's fast paced offense is still expected to score in bunches and that should translate to another year of great WR production out of the unit, so this battle is probably the most wide open and intriguing camp battle in all of the NFL in terms WR competition.  

  • Maclin ($5.2 MM / Yr)
  • Cooper ($4.5 MM / Yr)
  • Matthews  ($1.2 MM / Yr)
  • Huff ($700 k / Yr)

First, the OTA's were buzzing with Rookie 2nd round pick Jordan Matthews.  Eagles beat writers and camp observers all agreed he had all the makings of the best WR on the roster already.  It's OTAs and the exhibition games will tell if that hype is warranted, but it's worth noting that Matthews is looking like the early favorite to be the diamond in the rough in this battle.  

Who we predict win the job(s) out of camp: Maclin, Matthews, Cooper

Who fantasy owners should want to win the job(s): Matthews, Maclin, Huff

Long Term Outlook: Both promising rookies have great contracts and an opportunity to be the top targets in this offense - something that no other rookie WRs have other than the Jaguars WRs and their passing game can be anemic at times.   If Matthews or Huff show they will be major contributors to the Eagles offense in year 1, don't be afraid to overpay on draft day.  Remember you are buying players for years to come if they are productive, so don't be too short sighted on the situation this year.  

Cooper and Maclin have both shown to be productive options in the Eagles offense last year, but both battled with bouts of maddening inconsistency.  Cooper was the more steady option of the two, but his game appears to be most similar to Matthews so if the rookie continues to shine in camp we think it will ultimately be at the expense of Cooper's opportunities.