Last year, two wide receivers came out of virtually nowhere to post two of the best seasons a receiver has ever had in the NFL.
Jordy Nelson, a fourth-year receiver from Kansas State, almost doubled his career receiving yards total last year posting 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns, which tied him for the 19th most receiving touchdowns in a single season in NFL history. Victor Cruz, an undrafted free agent out of Massachusetts in 2010, lit the NFL world on fire last year with several long and miraculous touchdown catches. His 1,536 receiving yards from last year are a New York Giants record and the 24th most in a single season in NFL history.
Both receivers are very good and highly athletic - just watch a highlight clip of either one from last year - and they should be able to be valuable fantasy contributors again this year. But they won’t be nearly as valuable, considering you’ll have to spend an early-round pick on both - Nelson’s ADP from ESPN and Fantasy Football Calculator is 37, while Cruz’s is 32 - instead of plucking them off your waiver wire. Also, neither will put up numbers comparable to what they did last year.
Since 1998, and not including Nelson’s or Rob Gronkowski’s 17-touchdown 2011, there have been seven times where a receiver has caught at least 15 touchdown passes in a single season. That in itself shows how rare a 15-touchdown season is - it happens once every other year. In those seven seasons the 15-TD receivers - Randy Moss four times, Terrell Owens, Muhsin Muhammad and Dwayne Bowe - averaged 17 touchdown receptions. The following year none of those receivers grabbed 15 touchdowns again, and those receivers averaged 9.6 touchdowns, which equals a drop of 7.4 touchdowns or just over 44 fantasy points.
Another factor going against Nelson is that he isn’t even his team’s No. 1 wide receiver. That would be Greg Jennings. Jennings led the Packers in targets last year, with 101, five more than Nelson, even though Jennings missed three games. In two of the games Jennings missed, Nelson shined. In Weeks 16 and 17, the latter of which was a shockingly good impersonation of an Arena League game, Nelson accrued 277 yards and five touchdowns. If Jennings would’ve been healthy those weeks, and Nelson gained his yardage and touchdown average from the 14 other 2011 games, Jordy would’ve only had 140 yards and 1.4 touchdowns combined in those two games, which would’ve set his 2011 totals at 1,126 yards and roughly 12 touchdowns.
Nelson has certainly solidified himself as a stud in fantasy and reality, but don’t expect him to repeat his numbers from last year. The same can be said for Victor Cruz, the salsa-dancing acrobat of a wide receiver.
Cruz isn’t his team’s No. 1 receiver either; that’s Hakeem Nicks, who should be playing Week 1 after he broke his foot back in May. Nicks has back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and even though he played in two more games last year, he scored four fewer touchdowns than he did in 2010 - just another example of receiving touchdown regression. Despite playing one fewer game than Cruz last year, Nicks had two more total targets and three more red zone targets, the latter of which should stay the same since Nicks is bigger than Cruz.
Since 1999 there have been nine instances where a receiver has gained over 1,500 yards and led the league in receiving. And while Cruz finished third among wide receivers in yardage last year, with 1,536 yards, I think the comparison here is good enough. Out of those nine times, only once has a receiver repeated a 1,500-yard campaign - Andre Johnson in 2009. After each receiver’s respective 1,500-yard season the receivers saw an average drop in yardage from 1,614 yards to 1,225 yards the year after, or 389 yards. That would put Cruz’s 2012 yardage total at 1,147 yards.
That 2012 number and comparison to other seasons is backed up by video tape. While Cruz is fast and can take any catch to the house, it’s unlikely he’ll do it as often as he did last year. Last year in Week 3 Cruz had a 74-yard touchdown against the Eagles. He caught the ball eight yards from the line of scrimmage, broke what was a poor attempt of a tackle immediately after the catch, and then broke two more poor tackle attempts at the 50 as he was on his way to the end zone. Against Seattle in Week 5 Cruz scored a 68-yard TD on an out-and-up route from the Giants’ 32-yard-line. The ball was tipped by a Seattle defender at the Seattle 30 - Cruz was double covered - and as Cruz turned toward the end zone the ball fell into his hands. If the ball was a foot farther in front of him or had been tipped behind him, no touchdown.
There are at least four more examples of what can be viewed as lucky or unrepeatable touchdowns, including Week 12 against the Saints where no defender was within 15 yards of him when the ball was released and no one was within five yards when he caught the ball on his way to a 72-yard TD. Or in Week 16 when he scored a 99-yard TD against the Jets when he caught the pass 10 yards from the line of scrimmage and was able to run for days because two Jets defenders who were covering him fell down right after Cruz caught the ball.
Cruz should be able to grab 80 catches again because he’s the clear No. 2 target for Eli Manning, and his yardage total should easily stay north of 1,000 due to his speed and playmaking ability. But his chances of repeating his 2011 numbers are slim just by the degree of difficulty of a lot of his catches from last year. Cruz was highly reliant on the big play to score last year, which isn’t a good way of sustaining success.
Both Nelson and Cruz should put up good numbers again and be worthy of being your No. 2 fantasy receiver. But don’t think they’ll improve on or match their 2011 numbers. Repeating those numbers is just too difficult.
Written by Andrew Miller exclusively for TheFantasyFix.com. For more great fantasy football advice, follow Andrew on Twitter @44AMiller.