The New York Jets are serious.
They traded for potential-laden drop machine Braylon Edwards during the 2009 season. They jettisoned stalwart rusher Thomas Jones but signed aging Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson this winter. And now they've dealt for a speed receiver in his prime who comes with more baggage than a Southwest Airlines commercial, Santonio Holmes.
I've been working on the Fantasy Football Preview issue of ESPN The Magazine over the past month, in which I write a paragraph about every player, and I've rewritten Holmes like three times. Early in the winter, I was bullish on him; he got approximately the same number of targets Hines Ward did in '09, including inside an opponent's 10, which is usually Ward's near-exclusive domain. Holmes caught 57 percent of the passes thrown his way last season, compared with 48 percent in '08, and he produced three 100-yard games, as opposed to zero in '08. On ability and opportunity, I had Holmes rated above Ward and ensconced within my top 15 wideouts.
Then the behavioral troubles reared their head. He was sued by a woman who claimed he assaulted her, he started posting on Twitter about marijuana habits and, most importantly, rumors began circulating that he was going to be suspended for as many as four games for allegedly violating the NFL's drug policy. (ESPN's Adam Schefter reports that Holmes will indeed be suspended four games.) Clearly, if Holmes was going to be out a month, he wasn't going to be worth taking among the top 20 fantasy receivers, and who knew what might happen in the season's first month, when presumably Mike Wallace would be starting alongside Ward. Would Holmes even get his starting gig back?
Now, Holmes is gone from the Pittsburgh Steelers, who tired of his act and dealt him for just a fifth-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. He lands in a significantly less pass-oriented offense on a team that already has an elite deep threat, as well as a young quarterback who has yet to prove he can complete even 55 percent of his passes. That, friends, is a serious downgrade.
The Jets boasted pro football's most run-oriented offense in 2009; they ran it 60.7 percent of the time, compared to passing it 39.3 percent. By contrast, the Steelers ran it 44.4 percent and passed it 55.6 percent. The Jets certainly now have the aerial weapons to change that run-heavy ratio, but one wonders whether they truly have the will. With the league's premier road-grading offensive line and potential star Shonn Greene starting in the backfield (to say nothing of Tomlinson, who seems likely to work into the short-yardage mix), if it ain't broke, why fix it? Aggressive defense and conservative offense got the Jets to the AFC title game this past season. It's difficult to imagine they suddenly will go Air Coryell on anyone.
What this does is put another very good target into a situation in which he'll be fighting for scraps. With the Steelers in '09, Holmes had 139 targets in 16 games. By contrast, with the Jets in '09, Edwards had 94 targets in 12 games, and Jerricho Cotchery had 97 targets in 14 games. If all three of these guys are in the game plan every Sunday, I'm having a hard time seeing how anyone winds up with more than 100 targets for the season, which would instantly put all three of these guys -- Holmes, Edwards and Cotchery -- outside the top 20 (and probably the top 25) in wide receiver looks. Yes, Holmes can run as well as Edwards and has significantly better hands. But if they're both playing, it's possible neither is a fantasy starter, and you have to wonder whether Cotchery's specialty, Sanchez's short passes, might have to be split up, too. As of right now, assuming Holmes' suspension is a possibility, I can't see any of these Jets inside the top 30 fantasy wideouts. I lowered Holmes to No. 32, Cotchery to No. 34 and Edwards to No. 38. I also bumped Mark Sanchez up my quarterback ladder two spots, to No. 23.
In Pittsburgh, the clearest beneficiary is Wallace, a second-year man who lit the NFL scouting combine ablaze in '09 with a 4.33-second 40-yard dash time at 200 pounds. Last season, Wallace led all NFL wide receivers in yards per catch, with 19.4; he's not really much of a route-runner yet, but he sure can run. Ward is Ben Roethlisberger's unquestioned No. 1 receiver again and is a strong bet to lead the team in receiving touchdowns, but Wallace will do more on a per-catch basis and submit a few monster weeks for his fantasy owners. I've got Ward No. 16 on my receiver list and Wallace No. 20, making them both fantasy starters. The third-receiver gig now figures to fall to Antwaan Randle El, the prodigal son who's back from D.C. and who caught 50 passes for the Washington Redskins in each of the past three seasons. He's not a fantasy starter, but he's on the radar screen again. And remember that Limas Sweed (who battled personal problems in '09) and Arnaz Battle are also on this Steelers roster, and could be heard from in the '10 season.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.