Matt Stafford, QB, Lions
There’s plenty of buzz around Stafford, so it’s tough to call him a sleeper. Consider this more of a reminder of his massive upside. The former 1st-overall pick has a cannon for an arm and underrated football IQ. Talent isn’t a concern. But durability is. Stafford has missed a whopping 19 games through 2 seasons. It was a bum shoulder that knocked him out last year. Stafford underwent surgery in January, but his recovery was reportedly “off-the-charts.” He was medically-cleared back in March and has been a full participant in training camp. The best part: doctors believe that, after undergoing surgery, Stafford’s shoulder problems should be behind him. While he still needs to be considered an injury-risk moving forward, the reward definitely outweighs the risk here. Stafford will be piloting an offense with immense potential. Although he missed all but 3 games last year, Lions QBs still managed to rack up 3,810 yards and 26 TDs. Those numbers would have ranked among the top-12 fantasy QBs. That seems like Stafford’s floor this year if he can stay on the field. And the ceiling is much, much higher. Not only is Stafford oodles and oodles more talented than last year’s duo of Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton, but he’ll also have another weapon to work with this year in rookie WR Titus Young. He’s a burner who will stretch defenses vertically. With the inhuman Calvin Johnson and super-explosive Jahvid Best still in the mix, this offense is chock-full of playmakers. We got a glimpse of the potential in the preseason opener, when Stafford tossed for 71 yards and 2 scores in just 2 possessions. 4,000 passing yards and 30 TDs are within reach for Stafford this year.
Sam Bradford, QB, Rams
Bradford went out last year and posted one of the best rookie seasons by a QB in NFL history. On his way to capturing Rookie of the Year honors, he set rookie record for completions (354) and passing yards (3,512). He ranked just 20th among QBs in fantasy points, but there are plenty of reasons to expect a big climb in 2011. The addition of OC Josh McDaniels should spark this passing game. He was a part of QB Tom Brady’s biggest seasons in New England, and then helped Broncos QB Kyle Orton post his 2 best campaigns these past 2 years. Pairing an offensive guru like McDaniels with a supremely-talented QB like Bradford has the potential to be fantasy magic. On top of that, Bradford will have a handful of new weapons to work with this year. The Rams spent 2nd, 3rd, and 4th-round picks on TE Lance Kendricks, WR Austin Pettis, and WR Greg Salas this past April. Pettis and Salas aren’t being counted on to contribute much this year, but Kendricks is capable of making an immediate impact as a seam-stretching TE. The Rams also went out and nabbed WR Mike Sims-Walker in free-agency. When healthy, he has the size and skill-set of a legitimate #1 WR. Bradford will throw more this year, and he’ll be more effective when he does it. He has top-10 upside and can be had in the 9th or 10th-round of your draft.
Felix Jones, RB, Cowboys
Ok, the guy is an injury risk. Let’s get that out of the way – since his ADP is at 5.03, that's gotta be the only real reason Jones is lasting his long. Make no mistake, if he can stay on the field for a full season, he’s going to be a RB1 in every league. Here’s a guy who played all 16 games last year at a bulked-up 220 pounds. That netted him 800 yards rushing and 450 more through the air – while splitting touches with Marion Barber and Tashard Choice. This year is a different story. Marion Barber has gone to Chi-town to vulture carries from Matt Forte… thus leaving Felix as the undisputed feature back for a potent Cowboys offense in 2011. The word out of Dallas is that Felix has had a great camp, showing the same burst from his first 2 years in the league. “He looks quick, he looks fast, I think he’s become a more complete back,” said HC Jason Garrett last week. Garrett has also said that he won’t pigeon-hole Felix as a 14-15 touch RB. A healthy Felix Jones who can get 18-20 touches per game? Look out fantasy nation. This guy could be a stud. And he’s certainly worth a gamble in the 5th-round.
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seahawks
The numbers are ugly. Lynch has never topped 4.1 yards per carry in a season and sports a 3.9 career mark. But numbers can lie. And Lynch’s would have Pinocchio begging for a chainsaw. This is one talented dude. Casual observers got a taste of Lynch’s ability on this run. But anyone who has watched Lynch extensively knows that he often picks up more yards than the blocking in front of him would dictate. And in the end, that’s really all you can ask of a RB. Lynch’s problem through 4 NFL seasons has been the offensive line play in front of him. Get this: according to Football Outsiders, the 5 lines Lynch has run behind – 4 in Buffalo and 1 in Seattle – have ranked 24th, 13th, 12th, 20th, and 28th in run-blocking efficiency. That’s some tough sledding. Seattle’s o-line last year was actually the worst unit Lynch has worked with. Fortunately, the Seahawks have made big upgrades this offseason. They added OT James Carpenter and OG John Moffit – a couple mauling run-blockers – with their first 2 picks in this past April’s draft. Then they went out and signed free-agent OG Robert Gallery. This suddenly looks like a talented unit that could open some big holes in the ground game. And the addition of Tom Cable as offensive line coach should help the group reach its potential. Good news for Lynch. But the better news is that he’ll return to Seattle as the undisputed lead back. RBs Justin Forsett and Leon Washington will mix in for change-of-pace and 3rd-down touches, but it’s Lynch’s rock on early-downs. In 12 games as a Seahawk last year, he averaged 14 carries and 2 catches per contest. That equates to 256 touches over a 16-game slate. And Lynch could even top that number this year considering Seattle’s passing attack will be led by some combination of Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst. The ineptitude there could hurt Lynch’s TD production, but the fact remains that this is a workhorse back that can be had in the 6th or 7th-round of 12-team drafts.
C.J. Spiller, RB, Bills
No doubt that the 2009 ACC Player of the Year was a huge rookie disappointment for the Bills. They thought they were getting the guy who had 21 TDs of 50+ yards at Clemson. Instead, they got a kid who had trouble fumbling, struggled running between the tackles, and didn’t pass protect very well. Spiller finished his rookie year entrenched behind starter Fred Jackson – with a putrid 7 offensive touches per game. So what’s different in 2011? Well, he’s still behind Jackson on the team’s depth chart. But the reality is that the two will more evenly split touches this year. HC Chan Gailey has publicly compared Spiller to the likes of Reggie Bush and Jamaal Charles. And he’s also publicly committed to getting last year’s #9 pick more touches in space. That means we’re going to see a lot of swing passes and screens which could rate Spiller as a PPR stud. At bottom, the coach who picked him that high is going to give this dynamo every chance to prove himself. We watched Spiller enough in college to realize that his ankle breaking cuts and “wow!” factor are for real. Last summer, Spiller’s ADP was 5.10. This year, he offers more tons more value at his current ADP of 8.11. If everything were to break his way, Spiller could roll up 500 rushing yards and add 50-60 catches – plus a handful of long TDs. This young playmaker is worth a shot at the end of the 8th-round, especially in PPR leagues.
Roy Helu, RB, Redskins
Helu’s post-draft shimmer has worn off. Washington added RB Tim Hightower to the mix at the end of July, and he’s looking like the favorite to enter Week 1 as the lead back. Helu has reportedly been struggling with pass protection in camp. Blitz pickup was cited as one of his weaknesses coming out of college, and he’ll need to improve in a hurry if he wants to see extensive playing time this season. But at a sturdy 6’0 and 219 pounds, Helu is plenty capable of excelling in that facet of the game. Most importantly, he’s still the most talented back on Washington’s roster. Hightower is a glorified 3rd-down back with ball-security issues, and Ryan Torain is slow-footed and injury-prone. Helu, on the other hand, possesses a tasty size-speed combination. And his plant-and-go running style is a perfect fit in HC Mike Shanahan’s scheme. Helu’s ADP is at 9.06 and falling. That’s a pretty low-risk gamble that could pay off big time in the 2nd half of the season.
Shane Vereen, RB, Patriots
Every passing day makes it harder to get excited about Vereen, but that might only enhance his sleeper status. The rookie hasn’t practiced since August 3rd because of a hamstring injury. We don’t know anything about it being serious yet, but hammy troubles can tend to recur. Even when he returns, we’ll have to keep an eye on Vereen’s health. Of course, the other development was Stevan Ridley’s Thursday night coming out party. That one performance shouldn’t be enough to install Ridley ahead of Vereen on the depth chart. However, it is a heck of a lot easier to trust a guy with more time. Beyond the gloom, though, is a guy the Patriots drafted earlier than they usually treat the position. As a 2nd-round pick, Vereen became just the 3rd RB that Bill Belichick has drafted before Round 4 in New England. (Ridley, a 3rd-rounder, became the 4th.) In 2000, 1st-round pick J.R. Redmond joined a backfield that had counted Terry Allen as its leading rusher the prior year. Kevin Faulk garnered the most carries in 2000, but Redmond rushed 125 times and caught 20 passes in just 12 games. In 2006, Laurence Maroney joined a Corey Dillon-led backfield and drew 197 touches in 14 games (175 carries, 22 catches). BenJarvus Green-Ellis is definitely better than Allen and probably better than Dillon was in his last NFL season. He’s also no stud. What BJGE did accomplish in 2010 was draw 50% of the team’s rush attempts. No Pats RB had done that since Dillon in 2004. Belichick’s draft choices suggest that won’t happen again, leaving plenty of touches up for grabs in an unpredictable backfield. Vereen might be the best total package among the RBs on hand. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry for his college career at Cal. He ran for 25 TDs over his final 2 years and scored 5 more receiving. Other Patriots RBs fit particular roles well, but Vereen might be the best fit for a feature role. He was already available fairly late into drafts before the injury. There surely won’t be many chasing him now. Why not take a chance with one of your final picks?
Rashad Jennings, RB, Jaguars
Jennings is part handcuff and part sleeper. Jacksonville’s backfield still belongs to Maurice Jones-Drew. The 5’7, 208-pound bowling ball has strung together 2 straight 1,300-yard rushing seasons. And he’s scored 23 total TDs over that span. But offseason knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus has his 2011 fantasy outlook on shaky ground. That injury – plus his 698 touches over the past 2 years – makes him a red-flag injury-risk this year. Enter Jennings. The former 7th-round pick out of Liberty has been impressive through 2 pro seasons, averaging 5.4 yards per carry and 7.7 yards per catch. And in 2 starts in place of MJD last year, Jennings racked up 140 rushing yards, 73 receiving, and a score. This guy is clearly deserving of a bigger offensive role. And the Jags would be wise to give it to him considering Jones-Drew’s knee issues. We’re expecting Jennings to spell MJD for 8-10 touches per game. That could give him value as a bye-week fill-in. But the real potential here comes on the possibility of Jones-Drew missing more time this season. If that knee starts acting up again, Jennings would step in as Jacksonville’s clear lead back. That’d mean 20 touches per game and definite RB2 value. That upside makes him well worth a pick in the middle rounds of fantasy drafts -- regardless of whether or not you take the plunge with MJD.
Kenny Britt, WR, Titans
We discussed Britt at length in our 2011 Breakout article. Check that out for the full explanation of why we’re targeting him in all of our leagues. But here’s the basic gist: Britt is a big, fast, talented WR capable of posting top-10 numbers this year. And top-10 is cautious. Over a 5-week span last season, Britt racked up a ridiculous 393 yards and 7 TDs. No WR scored more fantasy points during that stretch. That’s the kind of upside this guy possesses. A hamstring injury knocked him out for the next 5 games, but Britt returned to compile 341 yards and 2 TDs in the season’s final 4 contests. Only 9 WRs scored more fantasy points per game last year. And with Matt Hasselbeck bringing stability to the QB position, Britt could be even better in 2011. Of course, there’s plenty of risk here too. Durability and off-field behavior are major issues. He’s already missed some camp time with a bum hammy, and a suspension could still be forthcoming for his numerous off-field antics. Those concerns are priced into his late-6th-round ADP though. You won’t find anyone with this much upside at that point of your draft. Roll the dice on greatness.
Mario Manningham, WR, Giants
The rest of Fantasy Nation is finally starting to wake up to Manningham’s upside. He became even less “sleepy” when the Eagles signed WR Steve Smith away from the Giants. Manningham’s ADP is at 7.01 and rising. But we’re willing to pull the trigger at that price – and even a full round higher. Is it just us, or did Manningham’s studly 2nd half of 2010 go largely unnoticed? With Smith out for the majority of the season’s final 8 games, Manningham beasted for 559 yards and 6 TDs on 35 catches. Only 4 WRs scored more fantasy points over that span. He was especially impressive in the final 3 games of the year. Manningham topped 100 yards and scored at least 1 TD in all 3 contests. And that big finish could very well carry over to 2011. In addition to Smith, TE Kevin Boss also bolted from the Big Apple this offseason. Those losses open up tons of targets. Manningham figures to be the beneficiary. He finished as fantasy football’s 17th-best WR last year despite only seeing 92 targets. That’s incredible efficiency. In fact, if we look at fantasy points per pass target, only Mike Wallace and Kenny Britt were better in 2010. That portends big things for Manningham if he sees the healthy bump in targets we’re expecting this year. There’s no question he has the talent to excel as New York’s full-time #2 WR. A big-play waiting to happen, Manningham has averaged 14.8 yards per catch through 3 NFL seasons. Last year, he had 19 plays of 20+ yards and 4 gains of 40+ yards. Both marks ranked in the top-11 in the league – pretty impressive considering his limited action in the season’s 1st half. Manningham also possesses ultra-reliable hands. He dropped just 3 of 63 catchable balls last year. That 4.8% drop rate was 7th-best in the NFL among WRs who had at least 50 targets. We say it all the time: fantasy football is all about talent + opportunity. Manningham has plenty of both this year.
Robert Meachem, WR, Saints
There are 2 big reasons to like Meachem’s sleeper stock. First, the guy already had a 9-TD season in 2009. Second, he says this is the healthiest he’s even entered an NFL season. Players say things like that a lot. You always have to be a little wary. At the same time, it’s valid reason for optimism. Injury has always put a significant lag on Meachem’s production. Last year, foot/ankle issues never seemed to get out of the way. Post-season surgery could have been a red flag. Instead, the flag looks green. (He came away from the exhibition opener with a lower-back strain, but it appears minor.) For many fantasy folks, each year is a matter of finding a reason to like Meachem. This time around, ESPN.com NFC South blogger Pat Yasinkas says Meachem is “having an excellent camp” and “has caught just about every pass thrown his way and seems to be moving much better than a year ago.” That’s outside opinion agreeing with Meachem’s assertion of health. Marques Colston, meanwhile, has missed significant time with knee swelling after offseason microfracture surgery. Devery Henderson continues to be Devery Henderson. He’s around, he’ll catch some balls, but his ceiling isn’t tremendously high. That brings us back to Meachem’s 9-TD season. He reached that number on just 45 catches. He caught 1 fewer last year. We can’t reasonably expect a repeat of that TD rate. But Meachem posted impressive catch rates of 70% and 67% in those seasons. QB Drew Brees has always said good things of Meachem’s ability. We need that to translate into more targets, though. With Colston ailing, Reggie Bush gone, and Meachem healthy and in a contract year, this seems the best chance yet. And all it will take to reap the potential benefits in most leagues is a pick in Round 10 or 11.
Lance Moore, WR, Saints
Two sleeper WRs from the same team? Sure, when you’re talking about a team that finished 3 of the past 4 seasons among the top-2 in pass attempts. It’s understandable why many will skip Meachem. He’s burned plenty of folks as a “sleeper” before and never reached 50 catches. Moore’s ADP, on the other hand, seems a bit mysterious. One of Drew Brees’ most trusted targets, Moore broke out in 2008. He turned 113 targets into team-highs in catches (79), receiving yards (928), and TDs (10). Aided by injuries to Reggie Bush and Marques Colston, Moore finished that season as a top-14 fantasy WR. Then he basically lost 2009 to injury. In 2010, though, only Colston drew more targets among Saints. Next closest behind Moore’s 95 was Meachem with 66. Moore converted those looks into a 66-763-8 line. That made him a top-25 WR across fantasy formats. Perhaps certain circumstances will bring Moore’s ADP up from its current level. But as it stands now, he’s going as the 57th WR in non-PPR leagues, 60th in PPR. That’s insane given the same circumstances we mentioned for Meachem. Moore is a safer play than Meachem, too. Perhaps TE Jimmy Graham’s emergence cuts into Moore’s red-zone TDs. The extra targets that could come from Colston’s shakiness, though, make it worth the shot.
Danny Amendola, WR, Rams
He could easily be mistaken for a recent high school grad. Amendola is generously listed at 5’11 and 186 pounds (they measured him with a cinderblock in each cleat). But this guy plays large. Coming out of Texas Tech in 2008, Amendola went undrafted. He spent that season on Dallas’ practice squad before eventually latching with the Rams in ’09. That year, the diminutive slot man reeled in 43 balls for 326 yards and 1 TD. He doubled that production last season, quickly emerging as QB Sam Bradford’s most trusted target. Seeing a team-high 123 looks, Amendola racked up 85 receptions, 689 yards, and 3 scores. The 8.1 yards-per-catch average and measly TD production are unimpressive. So is his final rank of 49th among WRs in standard-scoring formats. But switch over to PPR and Amendola becomes a top-30 guy. We think he could finish even higher this year. Bradford seems primed to emerge as an elite QB – possibly as soon as this season. Despite the additions of guys like WR Mike Sims-Walker and rookie TE Lance Kendricks, there’s no reason to believe Amendola won’t pace this squad in targets again this year. He and Bradford clearly have some serious chemistry, connecting on 69% of their attempts in 2010. But more important for Amendola’s fantasy outlook this year is the arrival of OC Josh McDaniels. That’s the same Josh McDaniels who helped WR Wes Welker post back-to-back 112-catch campaigns in his first 2 seasons in New England. Amendola is the new Welker – a quick, shifty slot guy capable of dominating the middle of the field. We’ll stop short of prediction a 100-catch season for Amendola, but he could easily improve on last year’s numbers. He’s a valuable bench guy in standard leagues, and a rock-solid WR3 in PPR formats.
Mike Sims-Walker, WR, Rams
We’re doubling up on Rams WRs. And like we mentioned with Amendola, a lot of it has to do with QB Sam Bradford and OC Josh McDaniels. Pairing an up-and-coming QB with an offensive mastermind has the potential to create some major fantasy production. Sims-Walker could be a big part of that this year. We’ve always loved this guy’s size and skill-set. He goes 6’2, 214 pounds with big hops and legit 4.3 speed. But injuries have prevented him from ever getting into a real rhythm at the NFL level. His rookie season in 2007 was completely washed-out by a preseason knee injury that landed him on the I.R. His knee problems continued in 2008, forcing him to miss 7 games. And this past year, a high ankle sprain suffered in Week 10 forced him to miss 2 games and limited his ability in the rest. 2009 was his one healthy season. And that year he busted out for 869 yards and 7 TDs on 63 catches. While Sims-Walker has undoubtedly earned the “injury-prone” tag, there’s big-time upside here if he can stay on the field. Signed by the Rams to a 1-year, $3.7 million deal in late-July, MSW immediately becomes the team’s most dangerous playmaker on the outside. St. Louis figures to air it out plenty this year with pass-happy McDaniels calling the shots. And if Bradford continues to progress, this could be a top-10 passing game. There’s a lot of “ifs” here, but Sims-Walker has top-20 upside if things break right. That makes him worth the gamble at his current 9th-round ADP.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Steelers
We’ve loved Sanders for a while around here. Then he had to go and leave camp to get another foot surgery -- his 3rd since the end of last season. So maybe we started seeing some other people. But the fire never went out on this guy. In Sanders you get a 2nd-year WR who matched Hines Ward’s 45 targets over the final 8 regular-season games last year. You get another young speedster who fits well with a big-armed QB that likes to hold on to the ball longer than he probably should. You get a guy who ranked 2nd on the team in yards per catch last year. Sure, you get 2 worrisome feet as well, but you can also grab Sanders at virtually a no-risk level. His ADP is in the late 12th-round and dropping. Sanders may no longer be the potential rotating fantasy starter that he looked like a month ago, but he’s still a high-upside late-round flier.
Andre Roberts, WR, Cardinals
Everything broke Roberts’ way this offseason. His biggest competition – Steve Breaston – left town for Kansas City. That leaves only Early Doucet in Roberts' way for the #2 gig opposite Larry Fitzgerald. And Roberts has the early edge. The 2010 3rd-rounder caught just 1 ball for 9 yards in Arizona’s first preseason game. But the key is that he got the start over Doucet. And we think he’s there to stay. While Doucet has stayed healthy thus far in camp, history suggests that’ll soon change. Since entering the league in 2008, he’s missed at least 6 games per season with a variety of injuries. Roberts, meanwhile, enjoyed a consistent, injury-free career at the Citadel. Sure, the Citadel doesn’t play against elite competition. But Roberts brings to the table a skill-set we believe will transfer to the NFL. Although he's a bit undersized at 5’11 and 195 pounds, Roberts possesses 4.4 speed coupled with an ability to catch everything in sight. The 23-year-old gave us a glimpse of what he’s capable of in a Week 16 matchup with the Cowboys last season. Roberts reeled in 5 balls for 110 yards and a score in that contest, despite catching passes from raw, then-rookie QB John Skelton. Now, with a massive upgrade at QB in the form of Kevin Kolb, Roberts will benefit from far more consistent play. And with Larry Fitz attracting most of the defense’s attention, Roberts will be in prime position to post sneaky fantasy numbers.
Jared Cook, TE, Titans
This guy has the look of Vernon Davis V2.0. Like Davis, Cook has the ability to get downfield in a hurry. His 4.5 40-yard dash time at the 2009 NFL Combine was the 2nd-fastest for a TE this decade, behind only VD. And like Davis, Cook hasn’t been able to fully translate his superhuman athleticism to the football field after a couple of NFL seasons. He’s shown glimpses of brilliance though, including a crowd-pleasing string of games to conclude the 2010 season. From Week 15 on, Cook notched 15 grabs for 196 yards and a score, displaying his game-changing potential. So while VD broke out in his 4th season, we think Cook is in position to truly shine in year 3. While past offseason reports have pegged Cook as a poor blocker and route runner, this offseason has been just the opposite. In fact, the Titans – thin at WR depth – have frequently lined him up out wide in training camp. And at 6’5 and 250 pounds, with speed to burn, that’s a scary proposition. Without a doubt, new OC Chris Palmer has big things planned for his uber-talented TE. And his offseason chatter has us downright giddy about Cook’s fantasy prospects. “He knows we are counting on him," Palmer said. “My main concern is I'm going to ask him to do too many things because he is so athletic." Music to our ears. Throw in an upgrade at QB with the signing of Matt Hasselbeck, and you have a solid blend of talent, opportunity, and supporting cast. Look for the 24-year-old Cook to see a boat load of targets on his way to a rock-solid fantasy season.
Brent Celek, TE, Eagles
Celek’s in search of a bounce back season after a lost 2010. It wasn’t that his play dipped, or an injury stuck. Rather, he simply became an afterthought in an offense taken over by explosive playmakers like Mike Vick, DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy, and Jeremy Maclin. This season, however, we expect Celek to see more looks in the Eagles’ offense. For starters, he’s been talked up by Vick. “I went back on some of my Atlanta film and how I used Alge [Crumpler],” Vick said. “We’re going to get Brent involved this year – I think he deserves that.” Celek certainly does deserve it after racking up 76 grabs for a whopping 971 yards and 8 scores in ’09. At 6’4 and 255 pounds, he has the size – and a proven track record – of dominating in the red zone. 6 of his 8 scores back in 2009 came inside the red zone, a position the Eagles will find themselves quite a bit considering their vast array of weapons. Celek’s target count could see a nice boost depending on the recovery of WR Jeremy Maclin. His mysterious illness has his Week 1 availability in doubt, and there’s potential there for him to miss even more time. If he’s out for an extended period of time, or fails to regain his game changing form, Celek would be next in line to pick up the slack. With 8+ TD potential, and a more prominent offensive role in hand, Celek looks like a potential bargain in the 10th or 11th-round of fantasy drafts.
Jermaine Gresham, TE, Bengals
The 2010 1st-round pick enters the new season with relatively little hype behind him. And that’s just fine with us. While he finished 2010 tied for the most receptions among AFC rookie pass catchers, his first pro season was considered somewhat of a disappointment. Playing 15 games – missing Week 17 because of a bum knee – Gresham tallied a ho-hum 52-471-4 line. But we like his numbers to rise in 2011. Let’s not forget about Gresham’s injury history, and how that likely impacted him as a rookie. Prior to the first game of his final season at Oklahoma, Gresham tore up his knee and was forced to undergo season-ending surgery. He wasn’t known as a blazing fast TE prior to the injury, and he certainly wasn’t coming off a 2009 that saw him play not a single down of football. A contract holdout is also to blame for his slow start, as he missed the Bengals' first 7 training camp practices before inking a 5-year deal. We hate to make excuses for the guy. But the truth is the truth, and all along, Gresham was facing an uphill battle for fantasy relevance in year 1. While he’ll have a rookie QB chucking him the rock this season, we don’t think that’ll come back to bite his fantasy value. As the old adage goes,TEs are a young QB's best friend. And Andy Dalton, with his accurate, but not overpowering arm, figures to lean on his safety valve as he picks up new OC Jay Gruden’s system. Plus, with a committed ground game, and pass catchers like A.J Green, Jerome Simpson and Jordan Shipley deferring defenses’ attention, Gresham should make his home in the middle of the field this season. He's a valuable TE2 that can be had with one of your last few picks.
It’s understandable if you didn’t realize the gigantic step forward that St. Louis took last season. Most didn’t. Make no mistake, though. It was huge. In the 2 seasons prior, the Rams held just 2 total opponents under 14 points and just 8 under 21 points. In 2010, they held 10 under 21 points and 3 under 14 points. In their 1st year under HC Steve Spagnuolo, the Rams allowed nearly 7 fewer points per game than in 2009. They tallied 18 more sacks. They grabbed 6 more INTs and forced 9 more fumbles. They allowed 17 fewer rushing TDs. (Yeah, seriously.) They yielded 1.5 fewer net yards per pass attempt, which leaped them from 2nd-worst in the league to 7th-best. To sum it up: The defense was a helluva lot better. In fantasy terms, St. Louis went from the #31 defense to #15. That’s probably why the team didn’t gain more notice, because it still fell out of starter range. Add 1st-round pass rusher DE Robert Quinn to the mix, though. OLBs Ben Leber, Brady Poppinga, and Zac Diles help shore up the 2nd level. S Quintin Mikell steps in for the departed O.J. Atogwe. CB Bradley Fletcher now has a full season between him and a rookie-year ACL tear. It’s possible that some of the big-play numbers come back down from last year, but a stronger pass rush and healthier #1 CB and the unsung Leber should help guard against that. Besides, this is a D whose current ADP falls outside the top-24. You don’t even have to draft this sleeper D, which opens against Philly, the Giants, and Baltimore. Don’t be afraid to pounce for the Week 4 visit from Washington. And don’t be surprised if St. Louis gives you more than 1 week of value.
Bold prediction: Wade Phillips will make this a better fantasy D in 2011. The Texans really can’t get much worse after bringing up the league’s rear in 2010. Houston really wasn’t good at much of anything on defense. The best we can say is that the team ranked 11th in the league in rushing yards allowed per carry. That number was bolstered by the first 6 games, ahead of LB DeMeco Ryans’ injury. The good news: Phillips is a defensive guru. In 2004, he arrived in San Diego and helped shave 8 points off the Chargers’ defensive scoring average. His D yielded 17 fewer TD passes than the previous year’s version. In 2007, he moved to Dallas as the HC. That Cowboys team collected 12 more sacks than the 2006 edition and allowed 25 fewer points. In Houston, he has already overseen big changes. Primarily, the Texans go from a 4-3 base front to Phillips’ favored 3-4. The problem with many teams that make such a transition is making the switch without matching personnel. Not so in this case. DE Antonio Smith spent early-career time in Arizona’s 3-4 and will be paired with 1st-rounder DE J.J. Watt. Ryans and LB Brian Cushing are new to the scheme but are also multi-talented playmakers. The OLBs could be in great shape. Mario Williams will either be out of position there or dominate. Frankly, even if he’s not a perfect fit, he’ll still have to come away with some sacks. Conor Barwin is a high-upside pass rusher at the other OLB spot who lost his 2nd pro season to injury. Brooks Reed arrived in Round 2 as insurance behind both. The Texans moved their best CB from last year, Glover Quin, to safety and signed S Danieal Manning. The former Bear finally came into his own as a coverage player last season and graded out as one of the league’s best cover safeties on ProFootballFocus.com. CB Johnathan Joseph also arrived from Cincinnati via free agency. Joseph picked at least 3 passes in 3 of his 4 seasons with the Bengals (and missed half the games in the other). He grabbed 6 INTs in 2009 and 3 in just 12 games last year. No Texan has surpassed 4 INTs since 2004, and only 3 players have reached that number since. Let’s just say the INT potential has improved. Joseph also returned an INT for a TD in each of those 3 aforementioned seasons. Manning brings return upside as well. He returned kickoffs for the Bears. As for the front 7, Houston’s 30 sacks last year marked a 3-season high. The team hasn’t surpassed 31 since Dom Capers left town. Look for that area to improve. This unit has a ways to go to reach regular-starter territory in fantasy. There’s certainly matchup upside in 2011, though.
Deep Sleepers (for consideration with your last few picks in leagues of 12+ teams)
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
Rushing yards by QBs are extremely underrated in fantasy circles. Take Michael Vick, for instance. He finished as the #1 fantasy QB on a points-per-game basis by a wide margin last year. But take away his 676 rushing yards and 9 TDs and he drops out of the top-10. That’s an extreme example, though, so let’s take a look at Aaron Rodgers. He was 2nd in fantasy points per game thanks in large part to his 356 yards and 4 scores on the ground. Omit those numbers and he drops to #8. The point here is that rushing yards can turn a good fantasy QB into a great one, or a fantasy afterthought into a sneaky QB2 option. The latter could be the case with Newton. He’s an extremely raw passer with a sub-par group of pass-catchers to work with. His passing numbers figure to be unimpressive this year. But he has the size and athleticism to rack up some monster rushing numbers. The dude ran for a ridiculous 1,473 yards and 20 scores against rough-and-tough SEC competition last year. His 6’5, 248-pound frame and 4.5 speed make him a nightmare for opposing defenders. And the Panthers seem ready to take full advantage of this facet of Newton’s game. “That’s a special talent that he has,” OC Rob Chudzinski said of Newton's rushing prowess. “He brings that to the table and hopefully he’ll be able to do that a lot.” Newton could easily run for 500+ yards with a handful of scores this season. And that’d make him an intriguing bye-week fill-in option that you can nab with one of your last few picks.
Joe McKnight, RB, Jets
The 2nd-year Jets back isn’t likely to find a ton of fantasy value on his own. It’ll take a bit of help. Of course, McKnight isn’t sitting behind the surest things in the NFL. Starter Shonn Greene is expected to be the workhorse, and we like him to step up. He floundered last year, though. Nothing’s guaranteed. LaDainian Tomlinson looked awesome to start 2010, but his production took a vacation in the season’s 2nd half. HC Rex Ryan has said that McKnight will find a bigger role this year, especially after his 32-carry, 158-yard Week 17 outing against Buffalo. At the least, McKnight should take some of the change-of-pace touches away from the aging Tomlinson. Rumor has it he’ll also see Wildcat QB duty. McKnight wasn’t a college QB, so that’s a move you make because you want to get a certain player onto the field. Obviously, any injury that befalls LT or Greene would instantly upgrade McKnight. The former USC Trojan isn’t even getting drafted in most leagues right now. That makes him a terrific fit for the last-round, why-not, lottery-ticket role.
Bernard Scott, RB, Bengals
We just can’t quit him! Scott continues to be ignored by the Bengals’ coaching staff. And honestly, there’s little reason to expect that to change this year. New OC Jay Gruden praised RB Cedric Benson for his workhorse qualities all offseason. It sounds like they’re ready to saddle him up again, leaving Scott with the scraps. It’d take a Benson injury for Scott to gain any real fantasy value. That’s something we’re willing to bet on though. Ced-Ben has carried a ridiculous 622 times in his last 29 games. That’s a monster workload. And remember that Benson hadn’t made it through a full 16-game season prior to last year. We doubt he’ll make it 2 in a row. And that gives Scott potential as a spot-starter in fantasy. With Benson out for a 3-game stretch in 2009, Scott compiled 239 rushing yards and 53 receiving. He was the 24th-best fantasy back over that span. We know this guy can get the job done. He’s averaging a stellar 4.7 yards per carry and 7.9 yards per catch for his career. But we’re done assuming the Bengals know what they’re doing – Scott won’t see a sizeable offensive role if Benson is healthy. But there’s big-time upside here if the injury-prone starter goes down. That makes Scott worth a spot at the end of your bench.
Delone Carter, RB, Colts
Looking to boost efficiency in short-yardage situations, the Colts went out and drafted a true downhill runner in Syracuse’s Delone Carter. At 5’9 and 224 pounds, he has size to run between the tackles, and brings newfound power to a backfield severely lacking punch. “He’s a slam-bang kind of runner," GM Bill Polian said after the draft. “He brings, we think, a much-needed skill set that we've been lacking.” The opportunity is there for the taking in Indianapolis, where unimpressive backs Joseph Addai and Donald Brown currently reside. Addai missed 8 games last season with an injury to his shoulder and neck, and hasn’t posted a yards-per-carry average north of 3.9 since 2007. Brown, a 2009 1st-round pick, has looked the part of a bust, failing to stay healthy and establish himself as an NFL caliber RB. Carter’s NFL story has yet to be written, but we believe the present – and future – is bright. It starts this season, likely with a short-yardage and goal line role in hand. Carter’s main competition comes from Addai, as Brown is the furthest thing from a physical runner. But we give the edge to Carter, a far more physical and punishing force. And if he can carry over the same type of vice grip ball security he had in college – he was fumble-less over his last 242 carries – it’ll only boost his standing in the Colts backfield pecking order. Don’t fret the chatter of Colts owner Jim Irsay, who announced undrafted free agent Darren Evans will “push” Carter for the short yardage role. Our hunch is that Irsay is just trying to light a fire under his more-talented rookie. It shouldn't take Carter long to emerge as Indy's #2 RB. And with 8-10 TD upside, he’s well worth a look in the later rounds of your draft.
Roscoe Parrish, WR, Bills
Anyone else notice this guy’s productive 1st half last year? In the season’s first 8 games, Parrish racked up 33 catches for 400 yards and 2 scores. That had him sitting 42nd among WRs in standard-scoring and 40th in PPR formats. Not too shabby. Unfortunately, a fractured wrist suffered in Week 9 ended his season. That seems to have Parrish flying under the radar this summer. An undersized but laterally-explosive slot receiver, Parrish is an excellent fit in HC Chan Gailey’s spread attack. He excels at running short routes and picking up chunks of yardage after the catch. And Parrish clearly has QB Ryan Fitzpatrick’s confidence. Prior to going down last year, he ranked 2nd on the team in catches and receiving yards behind only Stevie Johnson. He was 3rd in targets behind Johnson and Lee Evans. The latter was dealt to Baltimore this past week, opening up even more targets for Parrish. With names like Donald Jones, David Nelson, and Marcus Easley behind him on the depth chart, Parrish is locked-in as Buffalo’s #2 WR. This isn’t an explosive passing game, but Fitzpatrick proved capable of getting the ball into his playmakers’ hands last year. Parrish will never be a big TD guy, but he could reel in 60+ balls working the underneath stuff. He’s worth highlighting on your MVP board as a late-round target in PPR formats.
Eric Decker, WR, Broncos
Decker was pretty much invisible in his rookie campaign last year. He saw just 8 targets all season, hauling in 6 for 106 yards. There's a reason Denver nabbed this guy in the 3rd-round back in 2010 though. Decker was a standout at the University of Minnesota. He broke out his sophomore year with 68 grabs for 909 yards and 9 scores. He was even better his junior season, posting a line of 84-1,074-7. Decker was on his way to another big season in 2009 until he suffered a season-ending foot injury in late-October. He'd re-injure the foot early on in training camp last year, which contributed to his disappointing rookie season. Decker is healthy now, though, and his role in Denver's offense is slated to grow. WR Jabar Gaffney was dealt to Washington, and WR Demaryius Thomas is likely out until sometime around midseason with a torn Achilles. That leaves Decker and Royal to battle for the starting spot opposite Brandon Lloyd. While Royal is more seasoned, Decker has the edge in the size and talent departments. A sturdy 6'3 and 220 pounds, Decker plays a physical, possession-type game. He's tough over the middle, runs good routes, and has sticky hands. He's an underrated athlete too. Decker was a 2-sport athlete at Minnesota and was drafted in the 27th-round of the MLB draft in 2009. We're expecting him eventually beat out Royal for that #2 spot. Granted, that still doesn't give Decker a whole lot of upside on the Broncos' run-heavy attack. Then again, you can't be too picky with your last few draft picks. Decker is worthy of a spot on your bench as a potential bye-week fill-in.
Jacoby Jones, WR, Texans
It’s OK, we know what you’re thinking: No thanks. I bought that ticket last year and watched it fail to pay. Fair enough. Jones’ 3 TDs stunk, and even Andre Johnson missing time couldn’t propel him to relevance. We’re not regurgitating last year’s hype. Jones will not turn into your WR3. Check this out, though: He did nearly double his receptions (27 to 51) from 2009 to 2010. He also nearly doubled his targets (40 to 78). Jones plays with one of the league’s most accurate QBs and has caught at least 65% of his targets each of the past 2 years. Let’s say he catches 50 balls in 2011. That’s a reachable number. His 51 catches tied for just 3rd on the team last season. Let’s split the difference between Jones’ receiving averages from the past 2 seasons. That would put him at about 13.5 yards per catch. Another very reasonable number. (TE Joel Dreessen, by comparison, averaged 14.4 a catch last year.) It wouldn’t take much for Jones to get back to the 6 TDs of 2009 either, especially if you assume QB Matt Schaub throws more than the 24 he did in 2010. (Closer to the 29 of 2009, in only 9 more pass attempts.) That would give Jones a line of 50-675-6, good for 103.5 points in standard-scoring formats. That would have ranked him 40th among WRs last year. Jones’ current ADP is WR91. That means he’s rarely getting drafted. That means you risk nothing at the position you draft Jones this year. If he lets you down again, oh well.
Victor Cruz, WR, Giants
Don’t look now, but the darling of last year’s preseason is back. And with the way the chips have fallen in New York, he’s squarely on the fantasy radar. But let’s first recant his magical run in the 2010 preseason. Cruz made waves right out of the gate, posting an insane 145 yards and 3 TDs in the Giants first preseason game. What followed were a pedestrian 152 yards and 1 TD over the next 3 games. But he had already made his mark. While he went on to catch 0 balls in the regular season – he was placed on IR prior to Week 6 with a hamstring injury – 2011 could be a much different story. The departure of WR Steve Smith – and to a lesser degree TE Kevin Boss – opens up a void in the middle of the G-Men’s passing game. And that’s where Cruz comes in. With perfect size and speed for the slot, he's capable of picking up the slack. For the second straight summer, Cruz is turning plenty of heads in training camp. From GM Jerry Reese, to HC Tom Coughlin, to DE Justin Tuck, Cruz is making headlines almost daily. He’s not lacking confidence, either. “I think I can build a lot [from last season],” Cruz said. “I’m a lot more comfortable now... I feel like I can do a lot in this offense. I’m really comfortable, I know my stuff and I’m ready.” Cruz has everything you look for in a late-round flier, but most importantly, the upside to post numbers close to Steve Smith’s circa 2009.
Lance Kendricks, TE, Rams
We thought the hype on Kendricks was becoming too much. It's been going on since he was drafted in the 2nd-round back in April. The next day, Rams HC Steve Spagnuolo praised Kendrick' athleticism, hands, and smarts. Rams insider Tony Softli was next. Watching the team's player-organized workouts back in May, Softli noted that "Kendricks ran around like a man possessed, catching everything in his area. He displayed the size-speed combination that safeties will struggle with covering deep." QB Sam Bradford chimed in just a few weeks ago: "Whether he is at 'Y' (in-line), he's at 'F' (slot), he's playing wide receiver some. I think he's done a great job, he's physical." We love to hear the glowing reports, but we were still skeptical that a rookie would make such a big impact in an offense led by Josh McDaniels, who notoriously ignores TEs in the passing game. Then Kendricks went out and nabbed 5 balls for 47 yards and a score in the preseason opener last week. Sure, it's just 1 game. And a preseason game, no less. But Kendricks looked explosive off the line and dangerous with the ball in his hands. And most importantly, he saw 7 targets in just 1 half of action. Yep -- we're drinking the kool-aid. Maybe even gulping it. Kendricks is an undersized but ultra-athletic "move" TE in the mold of guys like Dustin Keller and Aaron Hernandez. In fact, McDaniels plans to utilize his TEs much like the Patriots did last year. That puts Kendricks in the Aaron Hernandez role, with Michael Hoomanawanui playing Rob Gronkowski. Look for Kendricks to be split out wide and into the slot often, running downfield routes. And on a team with a bonafide #1 WR, he should see a healthy number of targets. Consider him a TE2 with plenty of upside.
Travis Beckum, TE, Giants
From a past production standpoint, Beckum has no place on this list. Through 2 NFL seasons, he's totaled just 21 receptions, 171 yards, and 2 TDs. Ugly. But 2011 presents a golden opportunity for the former Wisconsin Badger. The Giants surprisingly lost TE Kevin Boss to Oakland. And TE Ben Patrick -- who was meant to split snaps with Beckum this year -- announced his retirement just a couple weeks ago. That leaves Beckum alone in the spotlight. With guys like Jake Ballard and Daniels Coats behind him on the depth chart, it's safe to say the starting TE job belongs to Beckum. And he has the skill-set to produce. A 3rd-round pick back in 2009, Beckum was ultra-productive in college. He actually arrived at Wisconsin as a DE prospect but was switched over to TE his sophomore year. Good move. Beckum would bust out in 2006 with 61 catches for 903 yards and 5 scores. He'd build on those numbers the following season, racking up 982 yards and 6 TDs on 75 receptions. But his senior season was cut short by a broken leg. That was obviously a concern for NFL teams, as was Beckum's diminutive frame and poor blocking ability. That ultimately caused him to drop into the 3rd-round. The same problems have prevented him from making an impact through 2 pro seasons. But he's being forced into a bigger role this year. And Beckum certainly has the skill-set to do some damage in the passing game. He's explosive off the line with impressive straight-line speed. He also possesses good body control and reliable hands. While his blocking ability is still a concern, it doesn't hurt us fantasy folks as long as Beckum is on the field. And with their pass-catching options dwindling, the G-Men need Beckum to step up. He's certainly worth a flier at the end of your draft.
Kyle Rudolph, TE, Vikings
Here’s a rookie that’s flying under the fantasy radar. Rudolph, selected in the 2nd-round of April’s draft, brings a well-rounded skill set to the Vikes, and will have a chance to contribute right away. Yes, Visanthe Shiancoe still wears purple and gold. But in new OC Bill Musgrave’s system, 2-TE sets are a mainstay. And while both Shiancoe and Rudolph are above average blockers, don’t be surprised if the rookie ends up with more targets. He’s impressed in training camp, and drew glowing remarks after his first preseason showing. “I don't think there is any doubt that he is one of the best athletes the Vikings have drafted,” GM Rick Spielman said. “You are going to see some great tight end plays by this young man.” An understandably excited Spielman isn’t the only one who’s heaped praise on Rudolph. Cards WR Larry Fitzgerald – who hosts annual offseason workouts with some of the game’s premier pass catchers – spoke glowingly of Rudolph after seeing him in action. “He's 270 pounds and he's 6-foot-7,” Fitz said. “He can run. He can move and get out of his breaks. He's got great hands. He can hold the edge when he needs to block. I was teasing him already – I call him Mark Bavaro reincarnated. He's going to be special like that.” Fitz’s endorsement might be a tad over-the-top, but there’s no denying Rudolph's potential. Still just 21 years old having come out of college as a junior, the Notre Dame standout might start off the year in a secondary role. But we’re confident he’ll pick up steam as the season wears on, thanks to new QB Donovan McNabb’s TE-targeting tendencies, and a well balanced offense that’ll allow him to exploit single coverages. Rudolph is worth stashing on your bench as a potential 2nd-half boon.