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Who Comes After Megatron in Fantasy Football Drafts?

Detroit Lions
Detroit Lions

Dec. 16, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA: Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson following the game against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There are things in life that are full proof guarantees. Death, taxes, and that Calvin Johnson will be the first wide receiver selected in fantasy drafts this season.

Which wideout comes off the board after Megatron, however, is very much up for debate. If you’re an owner who prefers the security of having a top flight pass catcher early, and Johnson is gone, how do you choose between A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall, and Dez Bryant?

FINAL 2012 TOTALS

REC

YARDS

TD

ST. PTS

PPR PTS

MARSHALL

118

1508

11

216.6

334.6

BRYANT

92

1382

12

207.7

299.7

GREEN

97

1350

11

202.8

299.8

At first appearance, it looks like this competition is a complete wash. Although he’s not completely a wolf in sheep’s clothing, one of these guys is not like the others.

That player is Dez Bryant.

Through eight weeks of the fantasy season, Bryant was the 31st ranked receiver in scoring and 29th in points per game (taking into account that the Cowboys bye was Week 5). As big of a monster that Johnson was in the second half of the season, Bryant matched him nearly point for point. He was the second highest scoring WR weeks 9-16, finishing only 3.6 overall points behind Johnson.

Bryant’s numbers were largely inflated due to how poor the real Cowboys defense played over the second half of last season. During the first half of 2012, when Bryant wasn’t posting nearly the gaudy numbers he compiled in the second half, Dallas was passing the ball just 61 percent of the time, right in line with the league average.

During weeks 9-16, the Cowboys trailed by double-digit points in five of their eight games, which resulted in them passing the ball 68 percent of the time (also leading to Tony Romo exceeding his career high number of attempts by 98 passes).

Bryant was the beneficiary of that increased unbalance, scoring 38 percent (31/547/4) of his fantasy points as the Cowboys trailed by two or more scores. For comparison in the context of this post, Green had only 16 percent and Marshall only 14 percent of their fantasy output come from similar scenarios.

In fantasy, points scored are the end game. Owners want as many points as they can get, and then some more on top of those to rub in the faces of their league mates. But it is important to know how those points are being scored, and the unpredictability of game flow can skew just how good a player was in normal (neutral) game situations, effecting probability for a repeat outcome.

Those points that Bryant scored in 2012 were great for owners last season, but can you count on Dallas being behind as much as they were coming into 2013?

Entering this season, Jerry Jones has promoted Bill Callahan to call the offensive plays. He already intends to bring much more balance to a team that finished 31st in the league in rushing, and that has never finished above 15th in rushing over Jason Garrett‘s tenure as head coach. The Cowboys also welcome back the return of Sean Lee defensively, as their second half slide on defense coincided right when he was forced to miss the rest of the season with a toe injury.

PLAYER

ROUTES

RANK

ROUTE/TGT

RANK

ROUTE/REC

RANK

MARSHALL

546

22

3.02

1

4.63

2

GREEN

583

15

3.69

7

6.01

9

BRYANT

650

4

4.74

29

7.07

21

*data used from Pro Football Focus

With 100 more snaps in route, Bryant still couldn’t best Marshall in scoring, and barely edged Green. On a per play performance he doesn’t come close to matching the importance each of the other’s teams placed on forcing him the ball. Marshall was targeted 10 or more times in 12 separate games, Green 10 times, while Bryant only six.

It’s not that Bryant isn’t a talented player, and that he won’t be a top wideout, just that coming into this season he belongs more in the tier with Julio Jones and Demaryius Thomas than among the super elite.

This leaves us with two men standing, and the fact the Green is already in this conversation after only two seasons is remarkable. Coming off a 1,000 yard, seven touchdown rookie season, Green increased his fantasy output by 26 percent in 2012. See how Green’s first two seasons compare to those of Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald.

PLAYER

REC

YDS

TD

Green ’11

65

1057

7

Green ’12

97

1350

11

Johnson ’07

48

756

4

Johnson ’08

78

1331

12

Fitzgerald ’04

58

780

8

Fitzgerald ’05

103

1409

10

Green’s jump in production didn’t spike as high as Johnson’s did in year two, but he’s right in line with Fitz. Green is already far outpacing Johnson from a PPR perspective, just like Fitzgerald, as Johnson didn’t even top his 78 second year receptions until his fifth year in the league.

Johnson is an athletic anomaly, the NFL version of Lebron James. If Green can follow the career arc of Larry Fitzgerald (avoiding 2012), he’ll be supremely planted as the second best wide receiver in football going forward.

As big as Green’s career arc is heading towards, I still have to endorse Marshall over him for the 2013 campaign. He was finally reunited with his football soul mate Jay Cutler last season, and when the two are together, they make sweet fantasy music.

MARSHALL/CUTLER COMBO   (STARTS ONLY)

YEAR

GS

REC

YDS

TD

2006

1

4

65

0

2007

16

102

1325

7

2008

15

104

1265

6

2012

15

116

1487

10

Marshall has started in 47 career games with Cutler as his quarterback, and in those games he averages 6.9 receptions, 88.1 yards receiving and .49 scores per contest. Extrapolate those juicy numbers over 16 games and you finish with a robust 110/1410/8 line. Tack on the fact that Marshall has had 32 games of 6 or more receptions and 10 games with double-digit receptions over those 47 starts and you have a weekly PPR dynamo.

In case you haven’t heard, the Bears have hired Marc Trestman as their new head coach, and they plan on throwing it a lot (you can check out C.D. Carter’s article on the fantasy impact Trestman could have in Chicago here). While it’s unrealistic to expect Marshall to catch 41 percent of the Bears receptions again in 2013, the increased number of pass attempts should leave plenty of targets left over for him to reach his career numbers (if not exceed) what he’s had with Cutler.

An underrated aspect to Marshall’s game is how effective he is with the ball in his hands. He forced 17 missed tackles last season, second most out of all wide receivers, behind only Percy Harvin. Shorter completions in the West Coast offense can give him the opportunity to use this ability even more so going forward. 2013 has the potential of being the best of Marshall’s career, and that’s saying a lot.

*Stats provided by ProFootballFocus , Pro-Football-reference.com, NFL.com

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