Pierre Garcon neither sleeper nor bust

Is Pierre Garcon a sleeper or a playoff-hype bust?

There's an inherent problem with applying labels in fantasy football: It can unnecessarily skew the value of the labeled player to the point where, very often, the designation becomes unfair in the first place.

Take the label "sleeper." If you haven't memorized verbatim Merriam-Webster's definition of the term by this point, either you're not reading enough sleeper columns or the columnists you read are misquoting it. Besides, I'm constantly amused by the dictionary's first, misleading definition: "One that sleeps," because you can be sure no one wants to pick a sleeper who actually sleeps.

Mind you, I'm not hinting that Pierre Garcon is about to pull a Ken Griffey Jr. this season, to steal a joke from baseball, but those who chase Garcon down hoping to apply the "big-time sleeper" sticker to his jersey are in danger of allowing labels to overinflate their expectations.

At the same time, it's no more reasonable to saddle Garcon with the label of "playoff-hype bust" because, while he did break out during the AFC Championship Game, those seeds had been sown during a strong finish in the regular season. Not to mention that Garcon's big-stage bust-out coincided with an expanded role in the Indianapolis Colts' offense, a role in which he, clearly, shall remain.

But, to be fair, attempting to label Garcon does prompt us to more closely examine the pros and cons of drafting him, an exercise that's much more important to do with him than with most players entering 2010. While it's true that every player, to varying degrees, comes rife with his own set of pros and cons, it's not difficult to list Peyton Manning's pros and determine they greatly outweigh the cons, while recognizing you can rattle off several "cons" before ever mentioning one of Anthony Gonzalez's pros. (One of Gonzalez's: He totally was a big-time sleeper once!)

Pro-Garcon: He's a big-time sleeper!

It's not difficult to unearth pro-Garcon tidbits, and many such nuggets can be found in our Draft Kit. In Matthew Berry's 100 Facts, he points out that Garcon's 12 catches of 25-plus yards last season tied for fifth-best in the NFL, and were actually five more than the Colts' unquestioned No. 1 wide receiver, Reggie Wayne, had.

Garcon's own player profile speaks volumes regarding his talent: "No wideout on this team has as much speed as Garcon."

In terms of fantasy points -- what matters most to our cause -- Garcon had 96 in his final nine games last season, postseason included, which projects to 171 over a full, 16-game campaign. Only seven wide receivers, incidentally, scored at least that many in 2009. We discuss often on these pages the follies of investing in small samples, but on a per-game basis, Garcon's finish to last season demonstrates the substantial room for future growth he possesses.

Let's talk about Garcon's expanded role in the offense, too, because that's what's most relevant to his case here. The Colts' initial depth chart listed him as the No. 2 wide receiver and starter opposite Reggie Wayne, our projections account for him occupying that role, and there's a very real chance that, barring any significant preseason developments, he'll indeed be the Week 1 split end while the aforementioned Gonzalez is left to fight it out with Austin Collie for the slot role.

Fantasy owners' reaction to that development should be obvious: Garcon should see a lot of single coverage this season, and a player with his speed is bound to break off a comparable number of long plays to last year. This is a game centered upon touchdown production, and big plays mean big touchdown potential.

The whispers that Garcon might be to Wayne what Wayne once was to Marvin Harrison show how much people believe in his upside. It's why he's a clear top-75 talent overall (top 25 at his position), and why he's often regarded as noticeably more valuable than that.

Anti-Garcon: He's a playoff-hype bust!

Unfortunately, the history books are filled with several examples of out-of-nowhere playoff heroes who, in subsequent seasons, disappeared right back into the landscape. Deion Branch is an excellent example from the recent past. A hero in both the 2003 and 2004 playoffs, the former New England Patriot struggled in each of the following campaigns to make good on similarly described "big-time sleeper" potential. In an eight-year career, in fact, Branch has never tallied 1,000 receiving yards in a season, nor hauled in more than five touchdowns.

Branch isn't the only such example: Kevin Curtis, Jabar Gaffney, Jerry Porter and Ike Hilliard are four others who, in the past decade, made headlines during the playoffs yet failed to continue their momentum into future seasons.

I'm not suggesting that Garcon equals Branch; that's a patently unfair comparison. Each player has his own set of talents, his own set of circumstances, and for all the comparisons of this player to that player, no two players wind up identical. The purpose, then, of comparing these playoff heroes to one another is to demonstrate the levels to which their hype takes control. I recall vividly the Branch buzz entering 2004 (and then, to a slightly lesser degree, 2005), and how by the time the season started, the bar had been set so high for him that the people who drafted him couldn't possibly turn a profit.

I recount these examples because the greatest danger with Garcon is that the buzz spirals out of control as we get closer to the season.

To help keep you in check, here are the Garcon-specific cons:

For all the positives about Garcon's speed and big-play potential, the guy caught just 47 passes last season (50th in the NFL), finished 40th in targets (91) and didn't haul in more than six passes in a single regular-season game. In fact, the AFC championship was the only time he did it in the playoffs (he caught 11 that day).

This team's receiving stars are Wayne and Dallas Clark. Wayne gobbled up 149 targets and 100 receptions, Clark 132 and 100. Unless you're a firm believer that one (or both) will decline steeply in production or get hurt, simple mathematics says there's a cap on how many passes Garcon can see in a given week. Considering he's the kind of player who needs one or two big plays to pad his fantasy point total, and that tougher defenses might diminish his chances of doing that, Garcon has quite a bit of weekly-bust potential, too.

Speaking of the Colts' schedule, it's not especially easy, not that it's immensely difficult, either. Their strength of schedule based upon 2009 win-loss records ranks as 10th-least favorable in the league. But if you're going off our defensive team rankings for 2010 -- a somewhat better judge -- while the Colts have a light schedule both early and late, they have their work cut out for them coming out of their Week 7 bye. Their next six opponents all rank in the league's upper half, and three are in the top 10. And if you know the Colts, they're a constant risk to rest players in December, which is when their schedule is softest.

As for Garcon's role, while it's true that he should be a starter and the clear No. 3 in the receiving pecking order, it's not an ironclad guarantee. The Indianapolis Star reported in June that Gonzalez, who battled knee injuries in a miserable 2009 and hamstring issues throughout OTAs, has been promised an opportunity to compete for a starting job (crazy as that sounds). Gonzalez has been medically cleared to play, and could do just enough to cut into Garcon's targets to diminish his appeal. Not to mention that Collie, a capable slot receiver, will get his looks when the Colts inevitably go to three-receiver sets.

In other words, the possibility is there for Garcon to take the next step forward, but there's a definite limit to the extent to which he'd break out. It's for that reason that, even if the reports on him are positive throughout the preseason, you should be careful not to be overzealous and shoot him up your draft board. The truth is, both his upside and downside are less significant than you might think, which is why labels will trap you into believing the answer is one or the other.

The answer to this question is label-free, or if you must apply one to feel comfortable with your assessment, it'd be the infamous gray sticker imprinted with the words: "somewhere in the middle."

Garcon, as of the afternoon of Aug. 12, was being drafted 70th overall (73.3 ADP) in ESPN leagues, 24th among wide receivers. In other words, he's shaping up as a seventh-round selection, and by then most fantasy teams will have rostered at least two apiece at running back and wide receiver and perhaps an elite quarterback or tight end and will be looking at Garcon as a No. 3 receiver or flex.

That sounds just about right.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.