It’s never too early to get a jump on your fantasy football league. Last year at this time, even as the players and owners squabbled over money, Huddlers were being clued in to the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick (ADP in Round 12, 22nd QB; ranked 11th among QBs in fantasy points), Malcom Floyd (ADP in Round 9, 41st WR; ranked 21st among WRs in fantasy points per game), and Dustin Keller (ADP in Round 11, 15th TE; ranked 9th among TEs in fantasy points). So whether your league actually drafts in June or you’re just getting a head start on August preparations, you’ll want to check out this year’s early picks to click.
Josh Freeman was a fantasy disappointment last year despite having essentially the same season as he did in 2010. Actually, the disappointment came because he repeated those 2010 numbers when bigger things were expected. One year later, there are plenty of reasons to anticipate this is the year Freeman steps up from adequate contributor to legitimate fantasy helper.
The biggest reason is new Bucs’ offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, who joins the team fresh off a Super Bowl win with the Giants. Sullivan spent the last two seasons mentoring Eli Manning, who saw his career yardage and touchdowns jump 25% from pre-Sullivan levels. Apply similar improvements to Freeman’s numbers and you’re looking at 4,500 passing yards and north of 20 touchdowns.
Also note that the 6-6, 240-pound Freeman added rushing touchdowns to his repertoire last season, in no small part because LeGarrette Blount wasn’t getting the job done at the stripe. Rookie back Doug Martin is versatile and should supplant Blount in the Bucs’ backfield, but there is still room for Freeman to pad his fantasy line with a couple of six-pointers on his own.
And lest you think the addition of Martin means a more run-centric approach in Tampa, consider that the Bucs lost their final four games of 2011 by an average—an average—of 24 points. Freeman is bound to find himself playing from behind, which means an increase over last season’s career-high 553 passing attempts.
Finally, Tampa Bay upgraded its receiving corps with the addition of Vincent Jackson—who helped Philip Rivers post very nice fantasy numbers in San Diego—and the subtraction of Kellen Winslow—who Freeman found himself forcing the ball to, resulting in a spike in his INTs. Jackson’s ability to make plays in the vertical passing game dovetails nicely with Freeman’s Ben Roethlisberger-like capacity for continuing to look downfield in the face of an oncoming pass rush and should lead to more big plays. That translates into more yardage and more touchdowns, which is exactly what fantasy owners are looking for.
The big news in Denver is the arrival of Peyton Manning, but the marriage between he and Broncos coach John Fox is a curious one. Over the course of Fox’s career his teams have run the ball on average 50 more times per season than the Colts did under Manning; over Manning’s last three active seasons that number is a whopping 109 more rushing attempts for Fox teams. And that doesn’t even include his first go-around with the Broncos, which saw more rushing attempts—and more productivity, both in total yards and in per-carry average—than any of Fox’s Carolina clubs.
In other words, while Manning will get all the attention fantasy owners shouldn’t forget about Willis McGahee. And yet that’s exactly what is happening, as you need to go 10 rounds and 37 backs deep into the average fantasy draft to find McGahee’s name.
McGahee comes off a solid season in which he ranked on the fringe of the top 20 fantasy backs while sharing carries with Tim Tebow and posting his best numbers since 2007. And he’ll be the lead dog again as Knowshon Moreno is no lock to make the team while the likes of Lance Ball, Mario Fannin, and rookie Ronnie Hillman battle for complementary roles in the backfield.
Here’s another Manning-related nugget: despite his passing prowess, Manning’s teams have produced double-digit rushing touchdowns each of his last 12 active seasons. And with Tebow no longer vulturing goal-line looks, McGahee is in line for the bulk of those opportunities. Add a handful more touchdowns to a workload similar to—if not expanded from—last season and McGahee could outperform that RB37 ADP by 15-20 spots.
The NFL is a league of copycats; if something works, guaranteed more than a few teams will try to replicate that system or scheme or personnel package the following season. So it was no surprise that after Darren Sproles put up 1,313 combo yards as the Saints “change of pace” back last year, teams like the 49ers snapped up speedy yet diminutive backs like LaMichael James in hopes of adding a similar weapon to their arsenal.
Fortunately for the Falcons they already have such a player on their roster in Jacquizz Rodgers. Last year Atlanta test-drove the rookie to the tune of 78 touches for 395 combo yards and a couple touchdowns; no need to strain your brain, that’s a solid five yards per touch. Meanwhile Michael Turner logged another 300-carry season, his third in four years—though it’s worth noting that his carries per game are trending downward from 23.5 in his first year in Atlanta to 20.8 in 2010 to 18.8 last year.
With Turner on the wrong side of 30 for a running back and the Falcons transitioning to more of a throwing team anyway, Rodgers is in line for an uptick in workload. New OC Dirk Koetter comes to Atlanta from the Jaguars, where he threw frequently to Maurice Jones-Drew, and he’s made it know his Falcons offense will include more screens; given that Turner’s 17 catches last season was a career high, it’s safe to assume that Rodgers will be on the business end of the majority of those screens.
Koetter is also known for a more aggressive style—consider his lineage, which includes stints with Dan Henning and Andy Reid and as head coach at Boise State when they began their rise to prominence—so maybe 15 cloud-of-dust carries for Turner will be enough. And even with Matt Ryan going deep to Julio Jones and Roddy White, that still leaves enough opportunities for Rodgers to have significant upside as a Turner complement. Factor in the added bonus of being the understudy to a high-mileage 30-year-old back and it’s borderline larceny if you can really get Rodgers as the 50th running back off the board, which his ADP in the 13th round suggests.
Somewhere Al Davis is having the last laugh. While many (especially fantasy owners) can’t get past the bust label, Darrius Heyward-Bey has quietly turned into a legitimate NFL wide receiver—and more importantly, a steady fantasy contributor. Last season he saw at least five targets and caught at least four balls in every game from Week 11 on—essentially, after Carson Palmer settled in as the Oakland quarterback. And with DHB it’s notable that it’s not just targets, as the knock on him was an inability to hang on to the pigskin.
Moreover, Heyward-Bey turned those catches into productivity with four straight 70-yard efforts (including two 100-yard games) in the final month of the season. He ranked a shocking 10th among fantasy wideouts over the last five weeks of the year, nestled in between Larry Fitzgerald and Hakeem Nicks.
And while Fitz and Nicks will go off the fantasy draft board among the first half-dozen receivers, DHB is currently on average the 42nd wide receiver selected. Even teammate Denarius Moore, who couldn’t stay healthy during his rookie campaign and outperformed Heyward-Bey twice over the last half of the season, is picked on average four rounds and 41 picks (11 wide receivers) earlier.
Calling Heyward-Bey’s name on draft day is sure to bring hoots from your leaguemates, but if they’re letting Oakland’s WR1 slide to you in the 11th round it’s they who are dropping the ball.
As noted above, last season we tipped you off on Malcom Floyd; those who listened were rewarded with four 100-yard games and a run through the fantasy playoffs that included 455 yards and four TDs in the final five weeks. Those numbers ranked Floyd eighth among all fantasy wideouts over that span, making him a better playoff play than Larry Fitzgerald, Hakeem Nicks, Wes Welker, and a host of others drafted well before Floyd’s name was called.
This time around the Chargers have replaced the departed Vincent Jackson with free agent Robert Meachem, who is going off fantasy boards an average of three rounds, 40 picks, and 11 wide receivers before Floyd. And yet despite playing fewer games, with an offense that wasn’t quite as pass-happy as the Drew Brees-led Saints, Floyd has outperformed Meachem—both in overall fantasy points and especially in fantasy points per game, where he’s been a third better than the former first-rounder.
Let the less informed chase Meachem off the board in the eighth or ninth round; you go ahead and grab the guy who’ll pick up the bulk of Jackson’s slack—and outperform Meachem in the process—three or four rounds later, then laugh all the way to a fantasy title.
Since I’ve already duplicated Malcom Floyd from last year’s list I won’t give you Dustin Keller again this year. But I’d be derelict in my duty if I didn’t point out that a top-10 tight end from last season is currently tracking in the 14th round, the 18th TE off the fantasy draft board. So let’s talk about the tight end with an average draft position of 19, Carolina’s Greg Olsen.
With tight end guru Rob Chudzinski in charge of the Carolina offense, the position is clearly a focas. Last year Panthers tight ends ranked fifth in the NFL in touchdowns and seventh in fantasy scoring—ahead of such notables as the Chargers and Packers. Of course last year Olsen had to share that workload with Jeremy Shockey, yet he still ranked 18th among tight ends with 45 catches, 540 yards, and five TDs.
The Panthers didn’t exactly break the bank upgrading their wide receiving corps this offseason—fourth-round pick Joe Adams is the only addition of note—so once again Cam Newton will be looking to his tight end for significant contributions in the passing game. Olsen is the unchallenged TE1, and this year’s backups Gary Barnidge and Ben Hartsock are clearly no Shockeys. Even if you conservatively plan on Olsen picking up half of Shockey’s 37-455-4 from a year ago, the resulting numbers would approximate what Vernon Davis (67-792-6) and Antonio Gates (64-778-7) produced last year. And while Davis (the #4 TE according to ADP) and Gates (#7 according to ADP) are going off the board in the fifth and sixth round, respectively, Olsen’s ADP places him seven or eight rounds later.
Let that sink in: similar production, as much as eight rounds later. Think of the talent at other positions you could stockpile for eight rounds before stealing Olsen in the 14th. That’s what sleepers are all about, and that’s how you win fantasy championships.