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Fantasy Football: 2015 wide receiver sleepers and busts

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Fantasy Football: 2015 wide receiver sleepers and busts

Wide receivers across the NFL are #blessed because of the way the league is trending towards chucking the pigskin all over the place.

While quality running backs may be hard to find, impact receivers are not. The group is so deep and filled with many options that can help you turn in to cash money.

Rookies stole the show in 2014 with guys like Kelvin Benjamin, Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans and Brandin Cooks standing out (and that's just to name a few). Can this year's crop of rookies put on a repeat performance? Will the sophomore slump stink up the league? 

Outside of the stud muffins at the top (Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, etc) who should you be putting in your draft queue?

[MORE - Fantasy Football: 2015 Quarterback sleepers and busts]

So many options and so much to get to. Here are our top targets, sleepers and busts for the 2015 season.

Top Targets

DeAndre Hopkins, HOU: Putting him in this category has more to do with where he’s going in drafts right now than his new stardom on Hard Knocks. His swagger is fun to watch on HBO and despite his quarterback situation, he’s going in the early 30s with the potential to be a WR1. Knowing Hopkins could be there with my third pick allows me to feel comfortable potentially passing on receivers with both my first and second round picks. He will get the majority of targets in the passing game and that’s all you can ask for in a WR1. There aren’t a lot of quality receiver for the Texans who could threaten Hopkins’ workload. Sure, Brian Hoyer’s inability to throw a good deep ball worries me, but Bill O’Brien won’t let that hamper Hopkins and the offense. Don’t panic if Hopkins ends up being the first receiver on your team. You’re still in good shape. - John "The Professor" Paschall

Alshon Jeffery, CHI: Jeffery was already a Top 10 wide receiver before Kevin White went down and now with the rookie lost for possibly the entire season, it is officially the Jeffery show in Chicago. Now, there is some concern with his calf injury and anytime Jay Cutler is your quarterback, there is plenty of risk of bad games or bad weeks. But you also know Cutler is going to go downfield and throw into double or triple coverage to get to Jeffery, clearly his No. 1 guy. Let somebody else worry about Cutler's interceptions, just reap the benefits of Alshon coming down with some of those deeps balls and double-covered passes every now and then. - Tony Andracki

[PODCAST: Bears Insider John 'Moon' Mullin previews Bears season]

Brandin Cooks, NO: Cooks missed out on all of the rookie wide receiver fun last season, which only means he's going to make up for it in a big way in 2015. The second-year speedster out of Oregon State is currently projected to be drafted in the mid 30s. Sure, you can saddle yourself with a Julian Edelman or Keenan Allen in that range, but if you want to win your fantasy league you better shoot for the stars with a guy who’s capable of producing WR1 numbers like Cooks. We all know that Brees likes to sling it, and two of his favorite targets (Jimmy Graham and Kenny Still) were traded in the offseason. Cooks is the perfect type of receiver for the Saints offense with his ability to stretch the field vertically, use his speed to get open in the slot and take an end-around for six. Even Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said he's glad that his team doesn't have to play Cooks twice in the regular season - Cooks burned New England with four receptions for 117 yards and a touchdown last weekend. You'll be sharing the same sentiment as Belichick if you don't draft Cooks in your fantasy league. - Scott Krinch

Mike Evans, TB: If you read our quarterbacks preview on Wednesday you’re aware I love Jameis Winston. If you read our running backs preview on Thursday you’re aware I love Doug Martin. So, yes, today I’m touting Mike Evans as a guy who could wind up reaching WR1 status early in the year. Vincent Jackson is still a worthwhile fantasy receiver, but there’s no doubt as to who the top dog is in Winston’s arsenal. Evans caught six touchdowns in the final four weeks of the season, and that was with Josh McCown slinging the rock. Tampa Bay will be trailing a lot this year, which means Winston will be logging plenty of volume in the second half. The main recipient will be Evans, who is going to take another step toward stardom in his second year. - Mark Strotman 

[MORE: Fantasy sleepers and busts at running back in 2015]

Sleepers

Nelson Agholor, PHI: Perhaps it’s because of last season’s insane rookie wide receiver production, but I’ll try and get Agholor on every one of my fantasy teams this year. It helps that the speedster is taking over for Jeremy Maclin in Chip Kelly’s offense, and Kelly didn’t select Agholor in the first round of the draft to keep him on the pine. Jordan Matthews is still the No. 1 receiver in Philadelphia, but in Kelly’s offense there’s enough room for everyone to eat. His ADP of 82.4 is laughable; I’ll glady take him somewhere in the 6th or 7th round and have my flex shored up for the entire season. All aboard the Agholor train. - MS

Jarvis Landry, MIA: The Dolphins' second-year player is going as the 28th receiver off the board in drafts. But he's a rising star with an ascending quarterback in a highly-underrated offense. From Week 9 on last season, Landry had at least five catches in every single game. He's a PPR monster, sort of like a poor man's Antonio Brown. Look for Landry to build off last season's performance and scoot into the Top 20 WRs, especially in PPR leagues. - TA

[PODCAST: Previewing the Jets, AFC East]

Eddie Royal, CHI: Not very often is a surefire No. 2 wide receiver sitting around in either the 12th or 13th round of your perspective fantasy draft. But for some reason, people seem to be sleeping on Bears wideout Eddie Royal. The veteran went into training camp without much fanfare, but with rookie first-rounder Kevin White going down with a shin fracture, Royal will be asked to carrier a bigger burden in the Bears offense. The 29-year-old is coming off a solid season in which he hauled in 62 catches for 778 yards and seven touchdowns with the Chargers. Now Royal reunites with Jay Cutler (the duo connected 91 times for 980 yards and five touchdowns in 2008) and will be working primarily out of the slot in Chicago. With opposing teams likely to focus on Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte, expect Royal to put up sneaky good numbers at an extremely cheap price tag. - SK

Steve Smith Sr., BAL: He’s going to go out in style. Mark it down. I’m sad Smith is leaving football because he’s been so fun to watch. He now also inherits a similar situation to Hopkins where he finds himself as the only legitimate threat in the Ravens’ passing attack. Outside of Smith, Joe Flacco is surrounded by rookies such as Breshad Perriman and Maxx Williams. Will Michael Campanaro or Marlon Brown really put a dent in Smith’s value? Probably not. As everyone in Chicago saw last year, Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman loves to throw the ball. Expect Smith’s target numbers to go up in his final year. - JP

Busts

Odell Beckham Jr., NYG: This just comes down to where he's being drafted (16th overall). That would pit him as a possible first-round pick and he'd most definitely be gone by the end of the second round. Which would mean, in order for you to take him over one of the Top 10 running backs or some of the other first/second-round talent (Rob Gronkowski, Dez Bryant, Andrew Luck/Aaron Rodgers, Demaryius Thomas, Antonio Brown), you would need exactly the same kind of production from the Giants stud wide receiver as last season. But that's so tough to sustain. What if he has a sophomore slump? We don't yet know how Victor Cruz coming back will affect ODB's production. We know the rest of the league has heard of Beckham and will be keying on him every game this season, making sure somebody else beats them. It's just too much risk for that high of a draft pick. - TA

Julian Edelman, NE: Edelman's ADP of 50 screams "buyer beware" to me. The former Kent State quarterback has been Tom Brady's favorite target, other than Gronk, the past two seasons. But with Brady set to serve a four-game suspension for his involvement in Deflategate, Edelman's value will take a major hit. Without Brady until mid-October I can’t see Edelman reaching the 100-reception plateau for the second time in three seasons, and the fact that he won't score too much (11 total touchdowns since 2013), means you should be aiming for much-higher with your fourth/fifth round pick. - SK

[PODCAST: Previewing Raiders, AFC West]

Jeremy Maclin, KC: The wildest statistic of 2014 was the Chiefs wide receivers failing to catch a touchdown all year. That’ll change with Maclin heading to Arrowhead Stadium, but I’m still not in love with his prospects. He was in fantasy heaven playing in Chip Kelly’s offense, and even in that situation he faded heavily in the season’s second half. He’s Alex Smith’s No. 1 target on the outside, but realistically that No. 1 tag will fall on screens to Jamaal Charles. I like Maclin as a potential WR3, but he’s being selected in the 7th round range and I’d much rather have a guy like Mike Wallace, Jarvis Landry or Nelson Agholor, all of whom have stable quarterbacks tossing them the ball. If the price is right Maclin is fine. But more than likely, someone will grab him far too early. - MS

Sammy Watkins, BUF: Who is going to throw him the ball? I get it that he’s by far the Bills best receiving option but the quarterback situation is so bad in Buffalo I can’t feel good about Watkins’ outlook in 2015. Defenses will key on Watkins like crazy and try to take him out of the passing game. A deeper look into his rookie season shows someone who was very inconsistent. Watkins had four games of over 100 yards receiving (caught four touchdowns in those games) but also had six games of 30 yards receiving or less (only caught one touchdown over those games). He’s going somewhere in the fourth or fifth round in most drafts right now and that’s way too rich for me. - JP

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

Chris Emma, Matt Zahn and Gabe Ramirez join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- NBC Sports National NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh joins the panel to discuss the Bulls’ terrible defensive performance as well as Zach LaVine’s impressive season debut.

11:35- Khalil Mack is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. Can the Bears pull off the upset against Tom Brady?

23:50- NBC Sports Boston Patriots insider Tom E. Curran joins Kap to talk about how New England views the Bears and discuss how Matt Nagy’s team can exploit the Patriots’ weaknesses.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.

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Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears in line to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack participated in the Bears’ final practice of the week on Friday, clearing the way for the edge rusher to play Sunday against the New England Patriots. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier Friday that the Bears expected Mack, who hasn’t missed a game in his career, to play after suffering an ankle injury early in Week 6’s 31-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Mack is officially questionable for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. 

Mack had little interest in discussing his ankle with the media on Friday, passing on answering questions about his readiness for New England. Coach Matt Nagy, though, said he thought Mack “looked pretty good” during practice on Friday. 

Mack didn’t record a sack against Miami and was held to just one pressure, per Pro Football Focus. The Dolphins’ gameplan was to commit plenty of resources to stopping Mack, but he wasn’t effective even when he had one-on-one pass rushing opportunities as the game went on. 

“He was (affected),” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I can't put a percentage on it, but he definitely was.”

Having Mack available — even if he’s not full strength — will be critical for the Bears’ defense to have a chance at keeping Tom Brady from lighting up the scoreboard. The key for the Bears will be to generate pressure on the 41-year-old quarterback without blitzing, which is something Fangio’s defense was successful at prior to Sunday’s wacky loss to the Dolphins. 

Brady’s passer rating is 138.4 when he’s blitzed, per Pro Football Focus, while when under pressure his rating is 87.2. That’s still pretty good, but it’s worth noting that all of the six interceptions he’s thrown this year have come when he hasn’t been blitzed. And only one of the eight sacks he’s taken has come when he’s been blitzed. 

The point being: If the Bears feel like they have to start blitzing to generate pressure, they can expect Brady to pick them apart.  

“You could say all of that but ultimately (Brady’s) a gamer,” Mack said. “He’s going to take those hits, and you gotta be able to deliver them but also have coverage over the top. It’s going to be real important for us.” 

The good news for the Bears, perhaps, is that New England’s tackles have struggled at times this year. Left tackle Trent Brown has allowed 17 pressures in 234 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus (about one in every 14 snaps). And starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is out with a concussion, giving way for backup La’Adrian Waddle, who’s allowed eight pressures in 78 pass blocking snaps (about one in every 10). 

So the opportunities will be there for Mack, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ pass rush to affect Brady on Sunday.

A bigger injury concern?

While cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) was a full participant in Friday’s practice and will play Sunday, slot corner Bryce Callahan suffered an ankle injury during Thursday’s practice and did not participate Friday. He’s officially questionable for Sunday. 

Callahan “did his ankle,” Nagy said, toward the end of Thursday’s practice, and he felt worse as the day went on. Nagy characterized Callahan’s absence from Friday’s practice as “precautionary.”

Callahan’s availability may be more of a pressing concern than Mack’s, given how well the Patriots’ offense has played since slot receiver Julian Edelman returned from a four-game suspension to begin the season. While his numbers aren’t eye-popping (11 catches on 16 targets, 111 yards, 1 TD), New England’s offense has scored 38 and 43 points in his two games back. 

“Brady has always had a guy in the slot that he’s comfortable with; whether it be (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola or Edelman,” Fangio said. “It’s a big part of their offense. They haven’t missed a beat, but I really think it’s helped their offense and played a big part in them basically averaging 40 points in the last three weeks. I really appreciate and respect how good of a player he is and has been.”

If Callahan isn’t available, Sherrick McManis could be the next man up at slot corner.