Draft preview: Wide receiver surprises

Published May. 25, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

The wide receiver position will be shuffled once the lockout ends.

A number of big-time receiving options will don new uniforms, thereby creating new opportunities for those secondary options to emerge. We see it every season as second-string quarterbacks are elevated because of injuries or poor play. New reception-league heroes emerge, and target counts shift.

Fantasy owners became accustomed to receivers taking a back seat to the action for their first several seasons in the NFL. That adage is constantly being tested. A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Jonathan Baldwin will obviously assume huge roles for Cincinnati, Atlanta and Kansas City, respectively. They’re not alone.

Leonard Hankerson, Washington

Anthony Armstrong demonstrated potential as a downfield option for Mike Shanahan’s offense last season alongside Santana Moss. Moss’ departure would slide Armstrong to the top slot and open a spot for Hankerson in the starting lineup. At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, he has the size and physicality to create space downfield and fend off defenders. Rex Grossman or John Beck will appreciate his effort.

Arrelious Benn, Tampa Bay

Fellow rookie Mike Williams was the breakthrough star in the receiving corps for Josh Freeman last season with 964 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. As Freeman continues his development, the speedster from Illinois will be integrated more effectively into the attack. Benn caught 25 passes in 2010, including two catches of at least 50 yards. He shan’t challenge for a huge reception total, but I anticipate that he claims a much larger role in 2011.

Donnie Avery, St. Louis

Avery was expected to be the leader of the St. Louis receiving corps for Sam Bradford’s initiation to the NFL. Instead, Avery sustained a season-ending knee injury during training camp and watched as Bradford spread the ball around to myriad options, including reception-league machine Danny Amendola.

Avery is slated to return for his contract year and offers Bradford a potent speedster downfield if his knee checks out. He amassed 100 receptions (12.6 yards per catch) with eight touchdowns in his first two NFL seasons. Avery caught multiple passes in 13 of 16 games during his sophomore season.

Early Doucet, Arizona

Doucet made several appearances on the fantasy radar last season. He caught four or more passes in three games during a five-week span in the middle of the season. Doucet registered five receptions of at least 23 yards last season and offers the Cardinals an opportunity to stretch the field. Of course, Doucet has the speed to create problems downfield provided that the team acquires a functional quarterback.

Titus Young, Detroit

Speed kills. The Lions will be one of the often-cited “surprise” picks as fans and pundits begin to chart their would-be NFC playoff grid for 2011. The additions made in this year’s draft on both sides of the ball and the expected return of a healthy Matthew Stafford has long-dormant Detroit fans cheering.

Young has been added as a fantasy speed option downfield for Stafford alongside the already-formidable three-man crew of Calvin Johnson, Nate Burleson and Brandon Pettigrew. He’ll be matched one-on-one on the edge and could translate to a huge big-play contributor as a rookie.

Greg Little, Cleveland

Little missed the 2010 season for accepting improper benefits at North Carolina. That didn’t stop the Browns from selecting the 6-foot-2, 230-pound behemoth in the third round of the NFL Draft. They looked at his 62 receptions for 724 yards and five touchdowns from 2009 and saw the future.

Little will become an immediate contributor for Colt McCoy in his first full season under center. He’s eager to make up for the lost year and get back on the path to stardom that was interrupted.

Jason Avant, Philadelphia


Avant inked a long-term extension prior to 2010. He proceeded to catch a career-high 51 passes for 573 yards. Avant caught multiple passes in 13 games last season, including a season-high eight receptions against Chicago in Week 12. He also logged seven receptions for 93 yards and a touchdown in the Eagles’ playoff loss to Green Bay. Avant is a solid third option for Michael Vick as teams scheme to slow DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.

Jerome Simpson, Cincinnati

Simpson closed out the 2010 season with a bang as the Bengals started to look to the future. The 6-foot-2 wideout from Coastal Carolina caught 18 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns in the Bengals’ final two games. He teams with Andre Caldwell, rookie A.J. Green and behemoth tight end Jermaine Gresham to establish the new world order for Andy Dalton.

The Bengals will be forced to make decisions about longtime stars Chad Ochocinco and Carson Palmer once the lockout ends.

David Gettis and Brandon LaFell, Carolina

Gettis made a couple blips on the fantasy radar as a rookie for the inept Carolina offense in 2010. He compiled a total of 37 receptions, including an eight-reception, two-touchdown game against San Francisco in Week 7 (125 receiving yards). Gettis logged multiple receptions in 12 games.

Fellow second-year receiver Brandon LaFell is also on the radar. LaFell nearly matched Gettis’ overall production and started to break through following the Panthers’ Week 6 bye. He caught six passes in the Week 7 win over San Francisco and posted 33 of his 38 receptions in the Panthers’ final 11 games.

We’ll get a chance to see who Cam Newton favors and how the pecking order is determined once camp opens and a decision is made on Steve Smith.

Plaxico Burress, Free agent

I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the likelihood of Burress returning to the field for the 2011 season. He’s slated to be released from prison on June 6. Commissioner Roger Goodell has already spoken of Burress’ freedom to sign following his release.

Burress turns 34 in August, so a return to dominance certainly isn’t likely. However, he could represent a fantastic red zone option and secondary target for the right team. Burress’ return is certainly far more likely to occur than that of his former teammate, Tiki Barber.