My first reaction when I saw that Chad Ochocinco had signed with the Patriots over the weekend was that I loved it. I tend to view Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots differently than most NFL teams, as they form an organization that always knows what it's doing and can rehabilitate lost souls. Hey, it worked once upon a time with Randy Moss, right? Now Albert Haynesworth is aboard. But then I thought about the inconsistent Ochocinco from the past few seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. He deserves an upgrade with Brady now slingin' it to him, but this surely isn't Moss. Motivation and trash-talking can take a guy only so far ... but I still think there's some talent left, too.
Colleague Christopher Harris does a fine job reigning in expectations on Ochocinco, pointing out how he and Moss are not similar in their construction, and how poor No. 85 looked in 2010. I can't argue with those points. Moss was far more of a deep threat, even as he passed 30 years old, and he was able to dominate games seemingly at will. Ochocinco is a strong route-runner, which will surely help, but he and Wes Welker will be sharing a lot of the space. Things don't go well when individuals demand the football.
But here's where I deviate from Mr. Harris a bit on Ochocinco's fantasy value: No. 85 is getting another chance, in a perfect situation, and next to nothing I saw in the Bengals' awful season a year ago seems relevant to me. I think Ochocinco has a lot to prove after getting out of Cincinnati. Carson Palmer didn't seem to want to be there last year (or now). Terrell Owens became Palmer's top option. And they lost, a lot. Ochocinco had a big first week of the season (at New England, coincidentally), with 12 catches, 159 yards and a touchdown, good for a season-best 21 standard fantasy points. Only two more times did he reach double digits in fantasy points after that. But a year prior to that (2009), Ochocinco had actually bounced back from a poor 2008 season, topping 1,000 receiving yards and scoring nine touchdowns. I'm generally the fellow on the ESPN Fantasy staff arguing against players simply losing their ability quickly because of age. Yes, it seems unlikely Ochocinco will reach Pro Bowl-type numbers in New England, but I trust Belichick. I think Ochocinco can and will play better than our last impressions.
Ochocinco caught 67 passes for 831 yards and four touchdowns last season; he finished tied for 36th among wide receivers in standard scoring with Davone Bess of the Miami Dolphins. Well, far more than 36 wide receivers will be drafted in most fantasy leagues. It's more like 50 or so, probably an average of five per team. I'm not buying that Ochocinco is simply done, that this is just a PR move by the Patriots. I think he starts, and I don't underestimate motivation. I think he'll look for contact rather than avoid it. I think he'll have his moxie back on this team. I think he wants to score touchdowns and tell the world about them.
Here are my updated statistical thoughts on the New England wide receivers:
Wes Welker: Generally a bit overrated in non-PPR (point per reception) formats, Welker had a stronger second half of the season, his first after recovering from a torn ACL. But I liked Welker better before the Ochocinco signing. Ochocinco is going to get plenty of looks, too. He's a legit weapon. I'll call Welker a borderline top-20 wide receiver and a safe sixth-round pick, but I'd take the under on 90 receptions, 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns.
Chad Ochocinco: I think we'll see a handful of big games for Ochocinco this season, and a handful of duds. What remains to be seen are the other eight games. Even prior to the 2010 mess, a good portion of his fantasy value was compressed in few games. But again, that was in Cincinnati. I think he'll improve his stats, meaning 70-75 receptions and 900 yards are reachable goals. He nearly did that last year and he missed two games. He's not Welker, but if you can get him after Round 9 or 10, he's a better value. This is a borderline top-30 wide receiver statistically.
Deion Branch: He certainly looked rejuvenated after returning to the Patriots a month into last season, even receiving 17 red-zone targets, but I think Ochocinco really eats into his value. Perhaps Branch's knee issues are a bigger problem than we think. I'd call Branch a top-50 wide receiver, but just barely.
Brandon Tate: Perhaps a sleeper before the Ochocinco signing, I doubt he emerges at this point.
Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't briefly discuss the great Randy Moss announcing his retirement Monday. Jerry Rice is the greatest wide receiver in NFL history, and of the fantasy football era, but I'd place Moss right behind him at No. 2. Certainly Moss had a few seasons in his 13-year career in which he didn't produce -- notably last season and in 2006 -- but Rice is the only wide receiver in history with more touchdowns. Moss was fantasy's top wide receiver four times, starting with his rookie season of 1998 and proving everyone wrong with his record-breaking 2007 season with Brady and the Patriots, when he caught 23 touchdown passes. He carried fantasy owners that year. Yes, the still-active Terrell Owens was probably more consistent over the long haul, but T.O. has never been fantasy's top wide receiver (though he was second four times). Moss made a bigger impact. I can't say he'll necessarily be missed by fantasy owners, because his 2010 campaign with three different franchises was pretty much a joke, but I'll remember the good years. Randy Moss has served us well.