Top fantasy prospects: Wide receivers

Top fantasy prospects: Wide receivers

Published Apr. 13, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

Fantasy owners know well the highs and lows of hitching their fortunes to young receivers. Some players are able to translate their college skills to the NFL immediately, but most take several seasons to work into a system or refine a portion of their game.

This year, there are several wide receivers who have NFL personnel and their quarterbacks (think about the options currently on your favorite team’s roster) salivating. The top player on the board this draft season has drawn many comparisons to Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson, who has been nothing short of dominant in his NFL career to date.

1. A.J. Green, Georgia

Put simply, there’s nothing that Green can’t do. The biggest question concerning Green’s game is that he may need to get stronger in the face of jams at the line of scrimmage. That’s fine. Green will stutter-step and sprint past defenders.

At 6-foot-4, Green has the size to go up and over defenders and can dominate in the red zone. He gets off the line quickly and has great vision after the catch. When you see descriptions of Green, the words “length” and “wingspan” will appear frequently. He’s got exceptional hands and will be an immediate impact player. Forget about his suspension for selling a jersey during his Georgia tenure. He’s a play-maker and instant star at the next level.

2. Julio Jones, Alabama

Green’s speed sets him apart as the No. 1 option on the board. Jones rates No. 2. Football fans saw Jones in nationally televised games on a weekly basis. They know that he has the strength to create space and can make defenders miss after the catch. Jones knows how to sit down over the middle, make the catch and move the chains.

He stands apart because of his willingness to make catches in traffic and for being an exceptional blocker. Jones did make the occasional drop in games, but any lapses in concentration were short-lived.

The biggest issue facing Jones is his thick medical file. Jones underwent multiple surgeries during his college career, including a foot surgery immediately after the NFL Combine. He ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash just before undergoing the procedure.

3. Jon Baldwin, Pittsburgh

Just look at the stats. Baldwin stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 230 pounds. He’s a physical receiver who will outmuscle defenders at the line of scrimmage and can create space in traffic. Baldwin averaged 18.3 yards per catch and scored 16 touchdowns for the Panthers. Baldwin knows how to make adjustments, but his route-running stands as his biggest on-field detriment.

Off the field, there have been questions about his work ethic and attitude, including criticism of coaches and teammates at Pitt. His answers to those questions will determine whether he’s a first-round choice.

4. Torrey Smith, Maryland

Smith topped 60 receptions in back-to-back seasons and exploded for 12 touchdown catches as a junior. He’s a phenomenal deep threat who is still refining his route-running skills. Smith has a good first step, has solid size at nearly 6-foot-2 and demonstrates a willingness to block.

He excelled as a returner (24.3 yards per return) at Maryland, and most note Smith’s work ethic and character just after his speed.

5. Greg Little, North Carolina

The former running back transitioned to life as a receiver in 2009 and generated 62 receptions. He was then suspended for the 2010 season for accepting improper benefits. That transgression may impact Little’s status on some draft boards, but his aptitude as a receiver over the middle and running back toughness after the catch will serve some NFL team well.

Little excelled in the intermediate passing game and demonstrated superior route-running skills with a good burst off the line. He was still adapting to life as a full-fledged receiver at the time of his suspension, so there will be some concern related to his extended layoff.

6. Leonard Hankerson, Miami

Hankerson produced a tremendous final season in Miami despite inconsistency at the quarterback position. Just put it on his hands and let him make a play. He has good size (6-foot-2 and 205 pounds) and definitely has game-changing speed (4.4-second 40-yard dash). Hankerson gets off the line quickly and knows how to create space over the middle.

7. Tandon Doss, Indiana

Doss posted strong back-to-back seasons for the Hoosiers in his final two seasons. He caught 77 passes in 2009 and became a more complete receiver in 2010 despite a slight downturn in production. Doss has great size at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds with an ability to get up for jump balls and possesses great field vision. Most importantly, he’ll work over the middle and has great hands.

8. Jeremy Kerley, TCU

Kerley produced fantastic numbers as a slot receiver for the Horned Frogs last season, generating 56 receptions for 575 yards with 10 touchdowns. He has an explosive first step off of the line, a willingness to work across the middle and good field vision after the catch. Kerley may make an immediate impact as a return man, but should eventually become a solid possession option.

9. Randall Cobb, Kentucky

Cobb was a versatile playmaker for the Wildcats, serving as a runner, receiver and occasionally as a signal-caller. In Cobb’s final season at Kentucky, he showcased his talents as a solid route-runner and big-play threat. He recorded 84 receptions in 2010, a dramatic up-tick in production from his 39-catch effort from 2009. Cobb also rushed for 424 yards with five touchdowns.

I suspect that he translates to a slot receiver and return specialist. Cobb is willing to operate over the middle and demonstrated good field vision as a receiver and runner at Kentucky.

10. Titus Young, Boise State

Young is an elite deep threat who knows how to find space in a zone. He averaged 17.1 yards per catch in his final season at Boise State with nine touchdowns. The big question about how Young’s game will translate to the next level is his size (5-foot-11, but just 175 pounds). He likely makes an early impact in the NFL as a returner and deep threat, but may become a solid No. 2 option as he refines his game.

11. Vincent Brown, San Diego State

Brown missed extensive time as a junior because of an injury. He posted a monster senior season for the Aztecs, producing 69 receptions for 1,352 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s willing to catch the ball in traffic and has tremendous field presence. Brown is a good route runner and does not shy away from contact.

12. Jerrel Jernigan, Troy

Jernigan’s size limits the types of routes that he’ll run at the next level, but there’s no question about his ability to make people miss after the catch. He explodes off the line, demonstrates great hands and doesn’t let his size deter him from working over the middle. Jernigan will need to work on the precision of his route-running to become a true playmaker on those quick-hit plays in the NFL.

13. Terrence Toliver, LSU

Toliver stands as a high-risk/high-reward prospect. He stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 210 pounds, offering an enticing downfield threat and the potential to become a red-zone beast (had 41 receptions and 579 yards with five touchdowns last season). The physical skills are immense, but there have been questions about his concentration and maturity. On the field, Toliver had lapses in concentration, though LSU quarterbacks may have contributed to those issues.

14. Edmond Gates, Abilene Christian

Gates’ 40-yard dash time is his calling card (4.37 seconds). He’s still raw as a receiver, but has tremendous breakaway speed to turn a short pass into a huge gain. Gates caught 62 passes for 1,182 yards with 13 touchdowns as a senior.

He is undersized (six feet tall and 190 pounds), which may limit how he can be integrated into an offense. Gates may initially make an impact as a deep-threat specialist and returner while his overall game is refined.

15. Ronald Johnson, USC

Johnson developed into a solid route-runner with good quickness off the line. He finished his USC career with a fantastic 64-reception, eight-touchdown campaign and was a second team All-Pac 10 selection. He has the potential to become a strong downfield option, but needs to build strength to fight off jams and create space. The biggest concern about Johnson is his durability. The 5-foot-11 wideout has experienced knee, wrist and shoulder injuries during his career.