If you happened to read my last commentary, you would know my feelings about Vincent Jackson and what he brings to the table for fantasy footballers (TL:DR? I despise him). However, that being said, despite all the frustration and 2-point performances, Vincent Jackson was the WR to own in San Diego the past 2 seasons. His big play ability was undeniable and Phillip Rivers often looked to the massive Jackson downfield. Those days are gone, however, and owners are left scrambling trying to fill that huge void at WR. Rivers is going to put up numbers; he has proven that even in Jackson's absence in the past, but who looks to benefit the most? Questions abound about the once dominant pass offense; I will attempt to rank, in terms of fantasy production, the top-receiving candidates in San Diego for 2012.
Rightfully so, many would argue Gates has always been Rivers' top target, but injuries the past 2 seasons have forced the Charger QB to look elsewhere. However, with Jackson off to Tampa and reports of a revitalized Gates, Rivers and fantasy owners should both be looking to the uber-talented tight end for production in 2012. There is no doubt the plantar fascia has done its part in limiting the once dominant TE, coupled with the wear and tear of 10 years in the NFL. Given the departure of Jackson and the uncertainty of the rest of the WR corps, Gates is in line (if he can stay on the field) for one last hurrah in San Diego. Gates has missed 9 games in the past 2 seasons, but in the 23 he has appeared in, he's averaged 5 catches, 68 yards and .74 TDs a game. Over a 16 game season that is 80 catches, 1088 yards and 12 TDs, which would have placed Gates at #3 for TEs in 2011, only trailing Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. Obviously health is Gates' kryptonite and he is not getting any younger, but when talent and situation coalesce like it will for Gates in 2012, I am willing to take that risk. When Gates is on the field, 16 games or not, he will be Rivers' top target.
Probably not the most popular pick (especially considering reports of Malcom Floyd being the WR1 going into training camp), but I am putting my faith in Meachem becoming the WR1 for the Chargers in 2012. Most, myself included, expected Meachem to explode after his 9 TD performance in 2009 (especially in that offense), but too many weapons and a QB who excelled at finding all of them prevented that. Meachem never averaged less that 14.5 yards a catch during his time in New Orleans, which will transition nicely to the west coast, complimenting one of Rivers' strengths as a passer. Meachem has proven getting behind defenses is one of his strengths and Rivers has never shied from testing defensive backs deep. With a healthy Gates controlling the middle and demanding safety help over the top, Meachem will often face single coverage and be given ample opportunity to avoid safety help over the top. While in New Orleans, Meachem averaged 1.7 points per target and while many will argue those numbers will not maintain in the less explosive offense while having to face tougher defenses; Meachem should see an increase in targets, helping to compensate in a drop in points per target. Vincent Jackson was targeted 114 times in 2011 and he will not be taking those with him to Tampa in 2012. If Meachem maintains at least a 1.6 point per target clip and receives at least 100 targets (both possible given talent and situation), he will be right on par with Jackson's 162 points in 2011. Health is not a concern for Meachem either, as he has not missed a game since his first official season in the NFL in 2008 (which cannot be said for most of the Charger offensive weapons).
3. Ryan Mathews
I will not spend much time on Mathews here (I was looking more at TE and WR), but I do think he will have an impact on the passing game in 2012. Mike Tolbert is gone and Mathews has proven himself more than able of catching the ball out of the backfield. He will be on the field (assuming he can stay healthy) for most 3rd downs and will push the 70 reception mark. PPR owners will love what Mathews brings to the table in 2012.
4. Malcom Floyd
If only the speedy, and very long wide out could stay on the field. Floyd has only made it through an entire season once, really missing an opportunity to solidify a number 1 role when Jackson was suspended in 2010 for a majority of the season. Floyd will be 31 by the time the 2012 season kicks off and while I never like to predict/assume injury, it is hard to not take into account Floyd's health concerns and history. If I was more comfortable with Floyd's potential to make it through a full season, I could easily catapult him above Meachem, as his rapport with Rivers is undeniable. Floyd is loaded with big play potential (averaging 17+ yards a catch since 2008), but his inability to stay on the field and aging has me slightly concerned. Floyd may have the highest ceiling of all the WRs, but it is his floor that has me placing him at #4 on the list.
The rookie really raised some eyebrows in 2011, both with his crisp route running and his ability to go up and attack the ball with fearlessness. In week 10, Brown was one replay overturn away from nearly 150 yards receiving and 2 TDs. Once Floyd returned from injury, however, Brown was relegated to 4 and 5 WR sets and was not able to make a comparable impact the rest of the season. However, Brown's impact on Rivers cannot be understated, as he impressed the QB when he did get on the field. Brown's role will undoubtedly increase in 2012 and if the 2nd year WR is able to build some early confidence, he may be someone to stash in deeper/dynasty leagues and worth monitoring on your waiver wire. Brown flashed serious skills in 2011, but opportunity was lacking. 2012 will provide plenty of opportunity, now Brown just needs to build on his rookie season.
6. Eddie Royal
Perhaps the most talked about WR in early OTAs for the Chargers is Eddie Royal. The Bronco castoff burst out in his rookie season, catching 91 balls, but really struggled the following seasons (never topping 59). When Josh McDaniels arrived, there were some (myself included) who hoped Royal could assume a Welker-esqe role, but Jay Cutler was promptly shipped away and Royal never recovered. It will be interesting to see what all the Norv Turner love will translate to for Royal and if he will truly be the weapon on offense Turner has been hinting at this off-season. If the OTA work translates, Royal could fill numerous spots on the field (slot, coming out of the backfield, etc) and see a resurgence in San Diego. Many see a limited offensive role, with more emphasis on special teams for Royal, which has me tempering (for now) expectations for Royal.