Every year, there are a few unheralded players that turn in strong fantasy performances in the season's inaugural week. Some of these performances are indicative of future success, while others are merely one-game flukes. In 2012, superb outputs by Mark Sanchez, Kevin Smith, Kevin Ogletree and Stephen Hill turned out to be nothing more than a tease. However, Stevan Ridley, Alfred Morris, Cecil Shorts, and Dennis Pitta had strong opening weeks that foreshadowed them becoming reliable fantasy starters.
I want to highlight two young, talented wide receivers whose strong Week 1 performances are likely to be a sign of things to come. Both of these receivers play in pass-first offenses, have excellent quarterbacks, and are currently third on their team's wide receiver depth chart. During kickoff weekend, there were 70 wide receivers with at least 5 targets. Both Rueben Randle (4th) and Kenny Stills (7th) finished in the top seven in Receiving net expected points per target, which measures how many real points - not fantasy ones - a receiver adds to his team’s expected scoring output each time he’s targeted. Due to the inconsistent nature of the wide receiver position, many fantasy owners tend to give up too quickly on sleepers with tremendous upside after a quiet week or two. I'm here to advise you that even if Randle and Stills have some quiet weeks in the near future, you likely shouldn't give up on them. Week 1 has already provided signs that there may be a breakout on the horizon.
Rueben Randle (6 Targets, 5 Catches, 101 Yards in Week 1)
Target 1: 15-yard catch over the middle to move the chains on a 3rd and 10 and put the football at opponent's eight yard line.
Pass thrown behind Randle’s back for an interception. There was a probable miscommunication between quarterback Eli Manning
and Randle on the play.
18-yard catch on a 10-yard hook route. Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne
played way off of Randle, respecting his deep speed and allowing him to pick up another eight yards after the catch.
20-yard completion on a skinny post route, isolated one-on-one with Dallas' best cornerback, Brandon Carr
22-yard completion on a slant route. Randle caught the ball in tight coverage between Claiborne and converging linebacker Bruce Carter
, then escaped for another 12 yards after the catch.
26-yard completion on a post route after beating Claiborne by a step. This was on a 3rd and 5 with 2:14 remaining in the 4th quarter and moved the ball out to midfield from deep in Giants territory with the team down by only six point.
Analysis: Already owned in 84.9 percent of ESPN leagues, Randle was a popular sleeper. If you drafted him, it already looks like a good call. All of Randle’s catches went for between 15 and 26 yards - he has good ability to get open down the field and add yardage after the catch. His two successful third-down conversions show that Manning trusts him when it matters most. We saw signs that Randle may be able to consistently beat tight one-on-one coverage, as he did three times in the 4th quarter.
It's also notable that Cris Collinsworth suggested that Randle has "just as much or more ability" than any Giants wide receiver, because the 2012 Rec NEP per target stats support that assertion. Out of 116 wide receivers with at least 30 targets, Randle finished 30th in the metric, ahead of teammates Victor Cruz (31st) and Hakeem Nicks (81st). The Giants have shown in the past they can have three viable fantasy receivers in one season, and Randle is talented enough to make that a reality even though he's third on the target totem pole. Most defenses will choose to roll their coverage towards Cruz and Nicks, leaving the talented Randle singled up. When he’s not throwing mind-numbing interceptions to defensive linemen, Eli does tend to throw where the coverage dictates. All this adds up to the possibility that Randle may potentially be one of the league's most heavily-targeted number three receivers this year.
Kenny Stills (5 Targets, 2 Catches, 86 Yards)
Target 1: Incompletion 32 yards downfield on the right sideline on the Saints fourth play of the game. Stills had a step on the coverage, but the ball hung up long enough for the cornerback to recover and break it up.
Incompletion on a deep post route 46 yards downfield. Stills again had his man beat, but Drew Brees
again under threw the ball, allowing the defender to make a play. If Brees is on target, its a 66-yard touchdown.
67-yard catch-and-run on a seam route. Stills lined up in the slot, made a great move at the line of scrimmage to beat the coverage, and caught the ball 26 yards downfield. He then raced for another 41 yards before the Falcons were able to get an angle and run him out of bounds.
Incompletion on a 20-yard skinny post route. Stills found an opening in zone coverage, but Brees threw low and the pass did not look to be catchable.
19-yard completion on a skinny post route. Stills sat down in the open spot of a zone.
Analysis: Stills, who ran a lightning-quick 4.32 40-yard dash, is the team's “shot” receiver, and not in a Plaxico Burress kind of way. A "shot" receiver is a receiver the team usually throws to when they take deep "shots" down the field to create big plays. Stills played over half the team's offensive snaps and ran mostly straight-line vertical routes in Week 1, but it's encouraging that he lined up both on the outside and in the slot, and that he got open versus both man and zone coverages.
Brees twice barely missed him on deep throws, and it’s likely the historically elite quarterback won’t continue to misfire. Stills' five targets are obviously a small sample size, but keep in mind he came a hair away from a 3/152/1 stat line. Like most non-primary receivers, his target count will be inconsistent on a weekly basis, but he has value as the vertical receiver an in offense that has thrown for over 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons. Remember, Stills will usually be targeted deep down field and won't need many targets to be a fantasy difference-maker. I believe Stills (owned in only 3.9 percent of ESPN leagues) at his current 80-target pace has upside similar to T.Y.Hilton's rookie 2012 season, when Hilton needed only 90 targets to finish as fantasy's 25th-best wide receiver.