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PPR Hidden Gems

By Jared Smola 8:59pm EDT 7/1/13

Wes Welker, Darren Sproles, Jason Witten.

These guys are reception monsters who are prime targets in PPR fantasy leagues.

Everyone knows it, though.  Guys like Welker, Sproles and Witten routinely go a round or 3 earlier in PPR drafts than they do in standard formats.

How about some lesser-known guys who get a pop in PPR formats? Players who may not rack up big yardage or TD numbers but will haul in enough balls to serve as injury replacements, bye-week fill-ins or maybe even starters for your PPR team.

Here's a look at 9 hidden gems in PPR leagues:

Shane Vereen, RB, Patriots

Bill Belichick likes getting his RBs involved in the passing game.  Since he took over as HC in 2000, the Pats have had a RB haul in at least 30 balls in 10 of 13 years.  Six of those seasons have seen the team-leading RB snag at least 40 balls.  In total, Belichick's pass-catching backs have averaged 38 catches per year. 

Kevin Faulk was the man from 2000-2009.  More recently, it was Danny Woodhead.  The former undrafted free agent reeled in 34 balls in 2010 and 40 this past year.  (He managed just 18 in 2011, when Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez all topped 100 targets). 

Woodhead bolted for San Diego in free agency, though, leaving Vereen to step into the pass-catching role. 

This guy is a better pure talent than Woodhead.  A 2011 2nd-round pick, Vereen racked up 2,834 rushing yards and 29 TDs on a 5.1-yard average in 3 seasons at Cal.  Just as impressive were his receiving numbers: 74 catches, 674 yards, 6 TDs and 9.1 yards per catch. 

Vereen's NFL playing time has been limited by injuries and competition for touches, but he's impressed when given the opportunity.  He averaged 4.35 yards per carry over the 2nd half of last season.  That stretch also included an 83-yard receiving TD. 

Then Vereen broke out in New England's playoff opener against the Texans.  That outing featured a 1-yard TD run and receiving scores of 8 and 33 yards.  Vereen finished with 41 yards and a score on the ground, plus 5 catches for 83 yards and 2 TDs.

Regular and postseason included, Vereen averaged a juicy 16.9 yards per catch in 2012.  That's obviously unsustainable.  But this kid has impressive open-field ability and some serious wheels.  He's plenty capable of besting the 10.7 yards per catch Woodhead averaged over the past 3 seasons.  And as New England's primary pass-catching RB, Vereen is a virtual lock for at least 30 grabs, with the upside for 50+. 

He's sitting 28th among RBs in our PPR rankings.  Consider that a conservative placement.  He's capable of posting a top-20 fantasy finish.  Vereen is currently coming off the board 34th among RBs in PPR drafts.

Pierre Thomas, RB, Saints

Thomas is criminally underrated every year.  Especially in PPR fantasy leagues.

He's hauled in 31+ balls in each of his last 4 healthy seasons.  The other, 2010, had him on pace for a 77-catch campaign.  His 188 total receptions since 2008 rank 9th among all RBs (despite the fact that he missed 14 games over that span). 

Thomas is plenty efficient, too.  He's averaged 8.4 yards per catch for his career.  He's sunk below 8.5 just twice in 6 seasons.  His 9.1-yard average last year was the 2nd-best mark of his career.

Thomas also owns a sterling 84.5% career catch rate.  That's significantly higher than teammate Darren Sproles' 74.9% mark in 2 seasons with the Saints.  Thomas has posted a catch rate of 82.5% or better in 5 of 6 seasons, including a 100% (29-for-29) in 2010.

Playing with Drew Brees certainly helps.  But Thomas also possesses one of the surest pairs of hands in the game.  He wasn't charged with a single drop by Pro Football Focus last year.  He had 3 in 2011 but just 1 total from 2008 through 2010.

You get the point: Thomas is an elite receiving back.  And despite playing in a loaded pass-catching corps, he's been a valuable asset in PPR leagues.  Thomas has finished among the top 32 PPR RBs in each of his last 4 healthy seasons.  He was 19th in both 2008 and 2009.  And that injury-shortened 2010 season had him 16th in fantasy points per game at the position.

So we're looking at a guy with a floor at RB3/flex level with the proven potential to finish in low-end RB2 territory.  Yet Thomas is essentially ignored in PPR drafts.  He's going 54th among RBs in early drafts.  That's a RB5 price tag.  Barring an injury, Thomas is a lock to give you an excellent return on that investment.

Marcel Reece, RB, Raiders

Bet you didn't realize that this guy finished tied for 5th among all RBs with 52 catches last year.  OK, maybe you did.  But only if you heeded our advice and snagged Reece with one of your final few picks last summer.

Reece was one of our favorite deep sleepers in 2012.  And he came through with a 31st-place finish in PPR formats.  His 271 scoreless yards on the ground weren't much of a help.  But Reece took his 52 grabs for 496 yards - an impressive 9.5-yard average - and 1 TD.  Darren Sproles was the only RB to finish with more receiving yards.  And among backs with at least 30 catches, only 3 averaged more yards per.

Reece did a large chunk of his damage with Darren McFadden sidelined.  He went for 8 grabs after McFadden left in Week 9.  Reece hauled in 7 more the following Sunday.  And he totaled 13 the next 3 games with McFadden still out. 

In the other 10 games (Reece missed 1), he compiled 24 receptions.  That type of production won't be enough to earn him a starting spot in your PPR lineup.  But Reece has upside beyond that - and he could reach it in new OC Greg Olson's offense.

"He's got such a unique set of skills for a fullback," Olson said of Reece back in February.  "He's a college wide receiver.  He'll present some matchup issues.  To see him get out of the backfield and to spread out in some of the one-back sets and empty sets and look at the matchups you can get with him was exciting as well.  He does have tremendous speed.  He has very good hands.  He has loose hips.  He can run some of those option, choice routes that are matchup nightmares for defensive players."

Reece certainly is unique.  He's built like a FB at 6'3 and 240 pounds.  But he possesses 4.4 speed and has averaged 10.8 yards per catch for his career.  He has 16 grabs of 20+ yards, including 56- and 73-yarders.

It remains to be seen exactly how Oakland will deploy Reece in the new offense.  The backfield is crowded with McFadden and newcomers Rashad Jennings and Latavius Murray.

Reece's intriguing skill set at least makes him worth stashing in deeper PPR leagues, though, until we see how he'll be used.  He proved ultra-valuable last year when McFadden was out, ranking 13th among RBs in fantasy points over that 4-game stretch. 

It won't cost you much to roll the dice on Reece, either.  He's been the 70th RB off the board in early PPR drafts.

Mike Goodson, RB, Jets

Goodson has a couple of hurdles to clear before he can help your PPR fantasy team.

He still has a May arrest for marijuana and gun possession hanging over his head.  But he hasn't actually been charged yet, and it sounds like that won't happen until this fall.  If Goodson is going to be suspended by the league, it might not be until 2014.  There's also still a chance that the Jets release him.  But we think they would have already done so if they were planning on it.

If Goodson does make it to training camp on the Jets roster, he'll battle Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell for touches out of the backfield.  Ivory is a strong bet to win the starting job.  Goodson shouldn't have much trouble locking up the #2 spot, though.  Powell is hardly an NFL-caliber RB.  The 2011 4th-round pick is a plodder who has averaged just 3.7 yards per carry across his first 2 seasons.

There are a couple of significant "ifs" there, but we like Goodson's chances of entering the 2013 season as New York's change-of-pace back.  That might not yield more than a handful of carries per game.  But the passing-game action could be substantial.

Ivory appears to be a strict 2-down back.  He's totaled just 3 catches on 5 targets in 3 NFL seasons.  He managed just 15 grabs in college.

Goodson isn't exactly proven as a pass-catcher either.  He caught just 16 balls as a backup in Oakland last year.  But those came on 16 targets.  And he averaged a sizzling 12.2 yards per catch. 

Goodson also has a 40-catch campaign to his name.  That came in 2010 in Carolina.  Injuries to Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams opened the door for Goodson that year.  He responded by hauling in at least 2 balls in 11 of 16 games.  His 40 catches and 310 receiving yards both ranked among the top 22 RBs. 

The Jets don't have much at WR and TE.  Noodle-armed Mark Sanchez and rookie Geno Smith are both apt to look to their check-down options plenty this season.  New York's pass-catching back should be busy.  And Goodson has the ability to capitalize. 

We'll see what comes of the gun and drug charges.  And we'll keep our eyes on the division of labor in the Jets backfield.  But Goodson looks like a potential bye-week fill-in for your PPR squad.  Ivory's extensive injury history only adds to Goodson's upside.

Kendall Wright, WR, Titans

Wright drew plenty of hype last summer.  Perhaps that's why his 2012 season felt a tad disappointing.

Looking back on it, though, it was an excellent start to his NFL career.  Wright hauled in 64 balls.  That ranked 27th among all WRs and tied Justin Blackmon for tops among rookies.  He had at least 5 catches in 7 of his 15 outings.

Wright's 104 targets ranked 35th at the position.  His 67.4% catch rate led the team's top 4 WRs, topping both Kenny Britt and Nate Washington by 13+ percentage points.  Pro Football Focus charged Wright with 7 drops, and only 2 of those came after Week 6.

On the downside, Wright averaged a disappointing 9.8 yards per catch.  He didn't take a reception for more than 38 yards all season.  That was largely a result of how the Titans used him, though.  They simply didn't ask Wright to run downfield.  He was targeted 20+ yards past the line of scrimmage just 9 times all season.  (He caught 3 for 96 yards and a score.)

Wright seems plenty capable of being more of a vertical threat.  He averaged 15.4 yards per catch in his 2011 breakout season at Baylor.  And he ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. 

Wright has spent this offseason working to improve his run-after-the-catch skills.  He averaged 5.2 yards after the catch last year, 29th among WRs.  He's dropped 12-15 pounds this offseason and reportedly looked "more shifty" in spring practices.  We can safely expect Wright to improve his receiving average by at least a couple of yards in 2013.

Of course, PPR leaguers just want to see the receptions continue to pile up.  Despite the poor per-catch average and just 4 TDs last year, Wright finished a respectable 45th among WRs in PPR scoring. 

He'll face more competition for targets this season.  Kenny Britt is healthier, and the team added ultra-talented rookie Justin Hunter.  And the Titans want to lean more heavily on the ground game going forward, which could result in even fewer opportunities for Wright.

At the same time, he should get better QB play.  Tennessee finished among the bottom 11 in completion rate, passing yards and passing TDs last season.  A healthy Jake Locker figures to be better.  And if he's not, backup Ryan Fitzpatrick is a capable passer.

Wright remains a big-time talent who's only getting better.  We'll see how his role shakes out this season, but he could lead this team in targets and catches.  There's certainly WR3 potential here for your PPR squad. 

Jeremy Kerley, WR, Jets

Someone has to catch balls for the Jets. 

Stephen Hill won't get many.  He's still a raw route-runner with inconsistent hands and durability problems. 

We're skeptical about Santonio Holmes, too.  He suffered a severe foot injury last year and might not even be ready for the season-opener.

TEs Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Winslow?  Nah. 

That leaves Kerley, who quietly racked up 56 catches last year.  That led the team - no other Jet had more than 29 - and ranked 39th among all WRs.

Kerley did it with just 95 targets.  That 59% catch rate looks even better when you consider that Jets QBs completed just 54% of their passes to all other players.  The sure-handed Kerley was charged with just 4 drops by Pro Football Focus.  His 6.7% drop rate ranked 20th among WRs with at least 60 targets.

There's some downfield ability here, too.  Kerley averaged 14.8 yards per catch last year, with 5 receptions of 40+ yards.  His 67% catch rate on passes 20+ yards downfield was tops among all WRs with at least 8 chances.  Kerley caught 10 balls 20+ yards past the line of scrimmage.  All other Jets combined for just 9.

Kerley was easily the team's top WR last year.  And his 2012 campaign doesn't look like a fluke.

Of course, he finished just 44th among WRs in PPR scoring last year.  But that was largely due to his 2 TDs.  While a 5'9 WR in a subpar passing game isn't a great bet for scores, Kerley could easily hit pay dirt 4 or 5 times in 2013.  If he does that and just matches last year's catch and yardage totals, we're looking at a WR3 in PPR leagues.  And he could be even better in new OC Marty Mornhinweg's West Coast Offense.  Kerley looks like a perfect fit for that scheme.

We're generally avoiding the Jets passing game in fantasy drafts this summer.  But with an ADP outside the first 15 rounds of 12-team PPR drafts, Kerley is certainly worth targeting.

Rod Streater, WR, Raiders

Streater has the look of a classic possession receiver.  He sports a 6'3, 200-pound frame with a broad catch radius.  He's capable of winning jump balls with a 37.5-inch vertical.  While not a burner, Streater does possess 4.46 speed.

Of course, none of that was enough to get him drafted last year.  He was scooped up as a free agent by the Raiders after the draft.  But an impressive summer - plus injuries to Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford - earned Streater a place in Oakland's Week 1 starting lineup.  He caught 4 balls for 27 yards and a score in that one.

Streater was quiet for the next few months.  But he got hot down the stretch.  Seeing increased playing time over the final 5 weeks, he compiled 18 grabs, 351 yards and a score.  He ranked 28th among WRs in fantasy scoring over that span.

Streater looks like a permanent starter for the Raiders in 2013.  Darrius Heyward-Bey is gone, and the undersized and injury-prone Ford is better off in the slot.

Plus, Streater's possession-style game should mesh well with weak-armed Matt Flynn.  The former Packer and Seahawk figures to have trouble getting the ball downfield to speedsters like Ford and Moore.  A big, short-range target like Streater could quickly become his favorite option.

"I think the guy's got talent," HC Dennis Allen said of Streater back in March.  "I think he's a good route-runner.  I think he's got good ball skills.  I think he'll go up and attack the ball.  I think he's a tough kid.  I think he believes in a lot of the things I'm looking for in a football player."

Oakland wants to lean on RB Darren McFadden when they have the ball, but they'll probably find themselves in catch-up mode often this season.  That means plenty of passing - and plenty of action for Streater.  He's capable of leading the 2013 Raiders in receptions.

Julian Edelman, WR, Patriots

As we mentioned in last week's Patriots Offense Blog, Edelman could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Aaron Hernandez's release. 

Hernandez was part WR, part TE for New England.  About half of his snaps and targets came split out wide or in the slot. 

Edelman has the skill set to replace that production.  A 5'10, 197-pounder with sneaky speed and quickness, Edelman is a prototypical slot guy.  He finished last year with 21 catches and 235 yards - his best marks since 2009.  His 3 receiving TDs set a new career high.

Edelman's production was spotty but promising.  He opened the season in a significant role, playing 59% of the offensive snaps and racking up 15 targets, 10 catches, 85 yards and a TD in the first 3 games.  A hand injury cost him the next 3 contests, and he returned to a reduced role. 

There were flashes late in the year, though.  He posted 5 catches, 58 yards and a score, plus a 47-yard run, in Week 11.  He broke off a 56-yard TD catch the following week.

Edelman is no world-class talent.  There's a reason he was a 7th-round pick and has totaled just 69 catches in 4 seasons.  Durability has also been a problem.  Edelman has missed 16 of his first 64 games with foot, ankle, arm, hand, back and concussion problems.

The Patriots have made a habit of turning subpar talents into valuable producers, though (see: David Patten, David Givens, Reche Caldwell).  There's no reason that Edelman can't be next in line.

Before the whole Aaron Hernandez fiasco, it was tough to find targets or playing time for Edelman.  He looked like a strict backup to starting slot receiver, Danny Amendola.  Now it's possible that we see Edelman and Amendola on the field together. 

The Pats have lost 4 of last year's top 5 pass-catchers (Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Hernandez and Danny Woodhead).  The other, Rob Gronkowski, is questionable for the start of the season.  Edelman is the leading returning WR.

That experience alone gives him an advantage over rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce and veterans Michael Jenkins and Donald Jones.  Edelman's improved versatility will help, too.  He actually ran 76% of his routes from outside the numbers last year.  19 of his 22 grabs came when he was lined up outside.  The ability to play both outside and in the slot can only help his quest for playing time.

No one knows exactly what New England's offense will look like without Hernandez.  But it wouldn't be a shock to see Edelman elevated.  He's worth rolling the dice on near the end of your PPR draft.

Rob Housler, TE, Cardinals

You'll hear plenty about Housler over the next couple months.  He's our favorite sleeper at TE.  And PPR leagues are the best place to grab him. 

After tallying just 12 catches in his 2011 rookie campaign, Housler racked up 45 this past year.  That tied for 3rd among Cardinals and 22nd among all TEs. 

Still, Housler finished just 31st at the position in PPR leagues.  He averaged 9.3 yards per catch to finish with just 417 total.  And he didn't score a TD all season.

If you know anything about the law of averages, you know that's bound to change in 2013.  But the new HC and QB have us most excited about Housler's 2013 prospects.

Offensive guru Bruce Arians replaces Ken Whisenhunt as Arizona's HC.  Arians likes chucking the ball downfield.  More importantly, he likes chucking it to his TEs.

In Arians' 5 years as Pittsburgh's OC, TE Heath Miller averaged 53 catches, 602 yards and 4 TDs per season.  He finished as a top-8 fantasy TE twice. 

With Arians calling the plays in Indy this past year, TEs Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener combined for 71 catches, 802 yards and 5 scores.

It sounds like Arians has big plans for Housler this season.  Arians revealed that he actually considered drafting Housler and turning him into a big WR when he was with the Steelers.  "I think the sky is the limit as far as where he can get talent-wise," Arians added.

Improved QB play should also help Housler's stat line.  The Cards finished among the bottom 5 last year in passing yards, TDs, INTs and yards per attempt.  We don't need any fancy analysis to convince you that Carson Palmer is an upgrade over last year's quartet of Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer.

Housler managed 45 catches in spite of that group.  He shouldn't have much trouble topping that mark in 2013 even if he doesn't improve as a player.  But he should.  Housler is still only 25 years old and entering his 3rd NFL season.  He had 7- and 8-catch performances late last year.  Those look like signs of things to come.

TE is deep in fantasy this year, but Housler has the talent and opportunity to crack the top 12.  You can get him with one of the last few picks of your PPR draft.

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