Cruz, Nelson top-10 WR options

Updated: July 25, 2012, 5:08 PM ET
By Brian Gramling | ESPN.com

Are 2011 breakouts Victor Cruz and Jordy Nelson candidates to crash back to earth?

Decisions 2012

Barring a major injury to themselves or their Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks, the answer here is a definitive no.

When assessing whether or not a receiver can repeat surprising numbers, the factors most important to consider are age, health, quarterback, fellow WR teammates and offensive system from one year to the next. Both of these players get a high score in all of these categories.

Cruz is 25 with no health concerns and has already established a rapport with Eli Manning, an elite NFL quarterback squarely in his prime at age 31. Cruz and Hakeem Nicks are options 1 and 1A, separated by just two targets in 2012 (Nicks 133, Cruz 131). Kevin Gilbride enters his fifth season as New York's offensive coordinator in a complicated passing system that Manning continues to perfect each season. Both Manning and Gilbride praised Cruz in OTAs and the team plans to also feature the slot man as an outside receiver in two-WR sets with Nicks. Although Cruz has the skill set to thrive on the outside, he's still at his best in the slot. Also, Manning is most comfortable when he has three wideouts to choose from. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Manning attempted 445 passes out of three-WR formations in 2011, the second highest number in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeVictor Cruz
AP Photo/Julio CortezVictor Cruz had at least 74 yards receiving in 12 of 16 games last season.

Although Cruz started last season with two dud games (0 and 17 yards receiving), he finished with a flourish. Manning targeted Cruz 73 times from Weeks 10-17 of the 2011 season, which ranked seventh in the entire league. In his final 10 regular-season games, Cruz racked up 1,138 receiving yards and six touchdowns. One factor that could work against Cruz is the shaky health of Nicks. Although Cruz performed admirably (six receptions, 91 yards) in his one game without him in 2011, it's imperative that Nicks remains healthy, because Cruz is much more comfortable and effective in the slot than he is at split end. Nicks underwent an operation on his broken foot (a non-contact injury while he ran a pass route) in late May, and has suffered significant knee, ankle and toe ailments since donning a Giants uniform in 2009.

Some may look at Cruz's touchdowns as being fluky because only one was fewer than 20 yards, while the others were a tough-to-duplicate 99, 74, 74, 72, 68, 28, 25 and 24 yards. However, a lot of that had to do with Manning's inefficiency in the red zone, as his QB rating was a paltry 75.9, which ranked 27th in the NFL, behind even Blaine Gabbert (76.3). Nicks outscored Cruz 5-1 in the red zone, but caught just two more passes inside the 20 than Cruz did, so it's not like Manning completely ignored Cruz when the Giants approached the end zone.

Yards after the catch (YAC) is another statistic that shows how great Cruz was. His 603 YAC ranked second among all NFL wideouts (Wes Welker had 751), showing that not only can he fly, he can also break tackles and catches balls in stride thanks to a smart and accurate quarterback. Cruz tied for the league lead with 17 receptions of 25-plus yards, and gained an average of 7.3 "extra" yards per grab, with 11.4 yards at the catch (15th in NFL) and 18.7 yards per catch (third in NFL). Cruz is a top-10 fantasy wideout no matter how you slice it, and will be the jewel of keeper-league owners savvy enough to have taken a flier on him in 2011.

In terms of Jordy Nelson, let's again examine the year-to-year factors. Nelson is 27 years old with a durable, rock-solid frame of 6-foot-3, 217 pounds. He catches passes from the league's best signal-caller, 28-year-old Aaron Rodgers, who just had arguably the best quarterback season in the history of the NFL (122.5 rating, 45 TD, 6 INT). Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is an offensive guru whose team has ranked eighth, second, eighth, seventh, fifth and third in passing offense in his six seasons as Green Bay's head coach. Although the team has a new offensive coordinator, that man is Tom Clements, the quarterbacks coach who has worked with Rodgers since 2006 and won't mess with this high-powered offense.

Like Cruz, Nelson is a 1A option with teammate Greg Jennings well established as the No. 1 target of Rodgers. Although Nelson had eight or more targets just twice in 2011 (compared to seven such games for Jennings), Nelson still had seven games of 90-plus yards receiving, while Jennings had a pedestrian four. It is worth noting that Nelson had his two best performances (6-115-2 and 9-162-3) with Jennings sitting out with a knee injury.

While a player who finished tied for 50th in overall targets is hardly ever a top-10 fantasy receiver, Nelson could be the exception. About the only thing new in Green Bay's pass-happy offense is that Nelson will be lined up in a variety of different formations, which can only increase his value. This is especially true in PPR leagues, as Nelson's catches are sure to rise as he lines up more in the slot.

[+] EnlargeJordy Nelson
AP Photo/Morry GashOnly once in 2011 did Jordy Nelson go consecutive games without finding the end zone.

It was remarkable how in sync Nelson became with Rodgers last season. ESPN Stats & Information revealed that the pair connected on 75.6 percent of their pass attempts, which was the third-highest success rate among any QB/WR duo in the league with a minimum of 50 attempts, trailing only Christian Ponder-Percy Harvin (78.7 percent) and Drew Brees-Marques Colston (77.7 percent). What's even more remarkable about Nelson's gaudy percentage is that, according to ESPN Insider KC Joyner, more than half of Nelson's targets were of the vertical variety (10-plus yards downfield), as Nelson led the NFL in yards per vertical target (19.9). To put this number into perspective, only four other players averaged as much as 15 yards per vertical target: Wes Welker 18.9, James Jones 17.0, Victor Cruz 16.1 and Mike Wallace 15.3. Nelson's average reception occurred more than 12 yards down the field, the ninth-highest average in the league.

Fantasy owners look to Nelson's touchdowns and say he can't possibly score 15 more times. I agree with that logic, since only 10 players caught at least 15 TDs in a season from 2000 to 2010. However, seven of those guys caught at least 10 TDs the following season as well, with just Muhsin Muhammad (four in 2005), Braylon Edwards (three in 2008) and Dwayne Bowe (five in 2011) suffering huge drop-offs. Much of this had to do with their multiple subpar quarterbacks chucking the pigskin. Muhammad had Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman in his 2005 huddle, Edwards went through a revolving door of Derek Anderson, Ken Dorsey, Brady Quinn and Bruce Gradkowski in 2008, while Bowe caught passes from Matt Cassel, Tyler Palko and Orton last year. Aaron Rodgers is certainly head and shoulders above any of these signal-callers, and has as much job security as anybody in football.

In addition to Nelson's incredible catch percentage with Rodgers, Nelson plays for a team that led the league in red zone pass frequency, attempting a pass more than 70 percent of the time in goal-to-go situations in 2011. Nelson scored five times in these situations last season. He may not be the fastest receiver out there, but his 18.6 yards per catch (fifth in the NFL) and 418 YAC (eighth in the league) show how tough he is to bring down, and how precisely he runs his routes. His 16 grabs of 25-plus yards were just one shy of the league lead, and were a big reason he finished second among all wide receivers in fantasy points in ESPN standard scoring leagues. Nelson is unlikely to be the second best fantasy wideout for a second straight year, but as is the case with Cruz, he's a top-10 caliber receiver in 2012.

Brian Gramling is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN Fantasy Games.