Gap between Boldin, Mason not large
The Ravens should be fun this year.
There's all sorts of fantasy intrigue swirling around this club. I've already made my case for Joe Flacco as a breakout star. Ray Rice is a consensus top-four pick, but may still have to fend off Willis McGahee when the team gets close to the goal line, and McGahee himself is in a contract year. Todd Heap is still on hand, but the team drafted two tight ends in April's draft, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson. Left tackle Jared Gaither has a bad back and probably won't play at all in the preseason. And the back four of the Baltimore defense looks like a mess, with Ed Reed perhaps missing the beginning of the season, Domonique Foxworth out with a torn ACL, and both Lardarius Webb and Fabian Washington coming back from torn ACLs of their own.
But no place on this team is more interesting than wide receiver.
This winter, the Ravens traded third- and fourth-round draft picks for Anquan Boldin, whom they subsequently signed to a four-year, $28 million contract with $10 million guaranteed. Earning that kind of money makes Boldin the primary suspect to be Flacco's favorite target, but remember that Boldin has missed time in each of the past three seasons because of injuries. He's such a physical player and lacks deep speed, which means he often finds himself barreling over the middle and getting his clock cleaned. This is a guy who was ninth in scoring among fantasy receivers in 2005, as he amassed 1,398 receiving yards and seven scores for the Cardinals. But in three of the subsequent four seasons, he failed to finish above 17th among wideouts even in the high-flying Cardinals' attack, at least in part because he couldn't stay healthy.
WR Ranks, Since 2006
In fact, Boldin detractors have a nice little piece of ammunition this year, and his name is Derrick Mason. Now, Mason is 36 years old, so there's no guarantee he keeps up his level of production of the past few seasons. (Boldin turns 30 in October.) But glance to the right to see where these two guys finished among receivers in fantasy the past four seasons.
Does Boldin win this comparison? Yes. Does he slaughter Mason? I should say not.
Now that these two are on the same team, the presumption has been that Boldin will be the No. 1 receiver and maintain his status as an every-week fantasy starter and that Mason will slide into the background. I admit that my current receiver rankings reflect this notion: I have Boldin No. 14 among wideouts and Mason No. 39. But now that I look at it, I have to ask myself: What evidence have I seen during the past four seasons that makes such a wide spread between these players likely?
Receiving Yards, Since 2006
Well, listen. In Boldin, we're talking about a younger, bigger player who's making twice the money, plus bringing excitement to Charm City with a little Kurt Warner magic dust sprinkled on him. I get that. Boldin's the No. 1, and Mason has said as much this summer. The safe player evaluation (and the player evaluation I've done in my ranks) says to value the new guy highly and take some stats away from the old guy. But again, I'm not so sure. Mason hasn't missed a game in seven seasons; Boldin has missed 17 in that span. Again, at the right, I've included their respective yardage totals of late.
Granted, in that span Boldin had a 28-19 touchdown advantage. Still, again I'm underwhelmed by the supposed massive difference between these players. They're both possession receivers; during the past four seasons, Boldin averages 12.6 yards per catch and Mason averages 12.0. Boldin catches 65 percent of his targets; Mason catches 61 percent. Boldin has been targeted on passes that have traveled more than 20 yards in the air just 42 times (in four years!) and caught 11 of them; Mason's numbers on those deeper throws are 64 and 13, respectively. My eyes tell me that Boldin is the guy who bowls you over and takes your lunch money, and Mason softly finds an empty spot and quietly kills you. But in terms of where you throw it to them on the field, they're awfully similar.
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No, I'm still not ready to reshuffle the deck and bump Boldin down and Mason up, though it's tempting. But I have to say Mason looks more like a sleeper to me than I gave him credit for. Surely his ceiling is very low, whereas in the past we've seen a healthy Boldin eclipse 1,400 yards and double-digit touchdowns. But heck, if Mason were to give you another 1,000-yard, seven-score season like he did in '09 (when he out-fantasy-pointed Boldin), you'd be interested, wouldn't you?
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy and follow him at www.twitter.com/writerboyESPN.
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