By Russell Shaffer (@RussellShaffer)
It couldn’t go on forever, right?
Josh Gordon proved to be a colossal disappointment in Week 14 for fantasy owners who were banking on him extending his record-setting streak of 200-yard receiving games to three. Instead, the New England secondary was able to neutralize Gordon – limiting him to just 151 yards receiving and a TD. Gordon couldn’t even be depended upon for 200 all-purpose yards as his lone rushing attempt – a 34-yard reverse – only brought his total scrimmage yards to a paltry 185.
Just when fantasy players were beginning to trust Gordon as matchup proof, he goes and has a clunker like this. I jest of course, as Gordon – with his 649 receiving yards – has compiled the most productive three-game arc for any WR in NFL history. So we’ll ask the question again…
Is Gordon fantasy’s best WR? Moreover, is he the NFL’s best receiver?
This question would’ve seemed absurd at the start of the season as Gordon was a second-year WR coming off a good but not great rookie campaign on a lousy team with serious QB concerns. What’s more, Gordon was forced to watch the season’s first two games from the sidelines for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, and he wasn’t going to get paid for the next two contests, either.
But I think it’s safe to say Gordon has earned all his money – and then some – since returning to the field.
Consider that Gordon’s 151 yards on Sunday gave him an even 1,400 receiving yards for the season through just 11 games. That vaulted him past Calvin Johnson (who has 1,348 yards in 12 games) for the league lead. The total also earned Gordon the Browns franchise record for receiving yards in a season – in just 11 games! I know Cleveland doesn’t exactly have a pedigree for producing elite WRs, but that’s impressive regardless of the circumstances.
What’s equally impressive about Gordon is that he does his damage in a variety of ways. On Sunday against New England he torched CB Aqib Talib – one of the league’s best shutdown corners – for an 80-yard TD on a simple slant route. Gordon caught the pass, shed a tackle from Talib using a fierce stiff arm and then accelerated to top speed in a flash as he raced down the field for a dynamic big play. A week earlier Gordon victimized Jacksonville for a 95-yard scoring strike off an otherwise pedestrian in route. He’s equally capable of getting behind coverage for a bomb or taking a short completion to the house with some serious yards after the catch. It’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that Gordon ranks second in the NFL in yards per catch at 19.7 – just .1 yards behind New Orleans’ Kenny Stills despite having nearly three times as many receptions as Stills (71 to 25).
But he’s more than a boom or bust big play threat who’s been on a roll – he’s a volume play who is incredibly consistent. Gordon has logged seven 100+ yard games this season and has been held below 70 yards receiving just twice with his season low of 21 yards coming in an all-around poor performance by Cleveland against Green Bay. And while you might not immediately think of him this way, Gordon is even more valuable in PPR formats. Despite the two-game suspension, Gordon’s 71 catches are good for a tie for 13th in the NFL (just behind teammate and fellow breakout star Jordan Cameron). That averages out to 6.5 catches per game and projects out to 104 receptions over 16 games.
The final proof point I’ll offer in support of Gordon’s brilliance is his nose for the end zone. He’s scored 8 TDs this season which is good for a tie for 8th among WRs.
Most incredibly, Gordon has done all of this with three different QBs – Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell – throwing him the ball. None of those guys are going to be confused for Peyton Manning. Or even Eli Manning for that matter. Some weeks it’s been unclear until late in the week (as was the case in Week 14) who the starter would be, and injuries have forced multiple in-game QB changes. In any given week none of Cleveland’s starters would be considered among the 20 best QBs in the league. Yet the constant QB carousel and lack of an elite passer doesn’t seem to matter. Gordon just keeps getting it done no matter who is throwing him the ball.
All this brings us back to that pesky initial question – is Gordon the game’s best WR…fantasy or otherwise? It’s a question I saw raised on Twitter during Sunday’s game, and Gordon has certainly earned his way into the conversation.
But for now I’ve still got to give that nod to Johnson. If I were ranking WRs for the purpose of keeper leagues or 2014 re-draft formats, I’d pencil Megatron into his customary #1 slot. He’s still a beast and has done nothing to lose the top spot.
But what about #2? That’s where it gets Fuzzy. Julio Jones looked like he was cementing himself into that slot until his season-ending injury. Given the uncertainty right now about his recovery timetable, I’d be hard-pressed to value him ahead of Gordon. Brandon Marshall? He’s great, but the emergence of Alshon Jeffery as a legitimate #1-A in Chicago and the fact Marshall will turn 30 in March find me ranking him behind the 22-year-old Gordon.
What about Dez Bryant? He’s certainly a superb talent, but while he’s yet to miss any time over the last two seasons there have been a lot of concerns raised about his long-term health and durability. I also find Bryant to be a little too TD dependent – a premise underscored by the fact Bryant’s 69 yards per game is barely more than half of Gordon’s 127. Demaryius Thomas is an electrifying WR, but he has to share the ball with a slew of gifted WRs and TEs in Denver. Percy Harvin has the talent, but nobody is going to take his high risk proposition over Gordon.
So that just leaves A.J. Green. If we’re looking at this season’s production, Green has a slight edge in receptions with Gordon on top in yardage and both players deadlocked with 8 TD. Like Johnson, in my mind Green has done nothing to lose ground as one of the game’s premier pass catchers. If for no reason other than a longer track record of success, I’d opt for Green over Gordon. The presence of a more stable QB in Cincinnati helps, as does the looming potential for another suspension for Gordon. But if you were willing to roll the dice on Gordon over Green in a keeper league – largely because Gordon is three years younger – I’d have no qualms with that.
So the bottom line is, in just one season Josh Gordon has emerged as arguably the second or third best WR in football. Not too shabby for a guy you probably took in the 9th or 10th round of your draft and maybe even found on waivers in the season’s infancy. But I can safely say he won’t come that cheaply next season – he should be among the top 20 players kept or drafted in every league next season.
And Megatron? If you’re hearing footsteps, that’s not a strong safety measuring up to lay the lumber. It’s Gordon nipping at your heels for the NFL’s top WR status. You’ve been warned.
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