I have written a few columns this preseason about draft strategy, and offered up my annual Players to Avoid list. But I received a few requests from members wanting to know what specific players I am targeting this season. While these are probably just covert operations carried out by my league-mates, I have decided to “give it up” and give you all a peek inside my rapidly balding head. This is not a complete list, obviously I would love to draft the “big four” running backs that are the first players off the board in most drafts. But you certainly don’t need me to tell you Ray Rice is a stud this year, or that they should be the first four players drafted in most formats. Some of these picks would fit particular situations and strategies better than others. I play only PPR so as always this list is slanted towards players in that format. Without further ado, the list.
Peyton Manning: I am not a “take a QB early guy” generally speaking, but if you are so inclined, Manning is going in the 3rd round of some drafts, and if there is a “value“ in drafting a top tier QB, Manning would be it. I don‘t see enough separation between Manning/ Rogers / Brees to be all that picky about which one you take. Manning can take top honors in any given year, and even if he ends up third out of these three, I think you will be far ahead taking two studs from other positions before taking the QB plunge this year. In other words, I don’t think Manning is a necessarily a particular value. But relative to Rodgers and Brees and their loftier ADPs? Yes.
Jamaal Charles: Charles is focus of the hottest debate in fantasy circles for 2010. I’m a big buyer. Patience. Vision. Speed. Potentially lethal. His per-game average was nearly on par with Chris Johnson during the final 10 weeks last year. And that was on a team that was “grid-iron challenged.” The addition of Thomas Jones is not nearly as worrisome to me as it is to some. Jones trudged behind one of the very best offensive lines in the league last year, while Charles performed miracles behind the Chiefs very offensive offensive line. What? Now a year older Jones is suddenly going to spike up his production on a team inferior to the one he just left? Come on. Don’t over-think this.
The Chiefs have a fairly easy schedule, and they have a competent coaching staff in place. I think Charles should produce top ten RB numbers in PPR leagues, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he ends up the best RB option outside the “big four.” Yeah, I said it.
Rashard Mendenhall: Some say he is being drafted too high. I wonder if he isn’t being drafted too low. The Steelers are one of the harder teams to get a handle on in 2010, what with the suspension of Big Bender for the first four games. But I don’t see that as necessarily detrimental to Mendenhall’s value. There are few running backs in the league that figure to garner the majority of carries for their team, and Mendenhall showed he was up to the task last season. He was the 9th ranked running back from weeks 4-16. I think Mendenhall and Jamaal Charles will both end up in the second tier just below the “big four. “ Let them slide to the guys that drafted the “chosen ones” at your own peril.
Cedric Benson: Benson is not a “sexy” draft pick, especially in PPR format. But I think he is a solid one. He is one among many players with wildly varying ADPs. I’ve seen him go late second to early 4th. I think the latter is bargain territory. Here is why. Benson missed two games mid-season last year. That dropped him down to the 20th ranked RB in PPR leagues. Otherwise he was solid. His average per games played would have put him top ten at the position. I don’t see any reason why Benson can’t repeat his performance. And he is one of few running backs that has a legitimate handcuff in Bernard Scott. If you draft this duo, I think you can expect dependable top ten performance from the position.
Roddy White: White has been on the fringes of stud receiver status since Matt Ryan came to town. I think this is the year he goes all the way. You have to love the development of Ryan, now in his third year. You have to love the Falcons friendly schedule. You have to love the fact that there may be a vacuum at the top of the receiver rankings this year, and White is perfectly positioned to take his place among the elite. He falls to the middle of the 2nd round in most drafts, so while he may not be a particular value, he is a safe pick in a position that looks more precarious than in years past.
Miles Austin: Many consider Austin risky, what with the arrival of Dez Bryant, and the fact that he will no longer be sneaking up on anybody. Or maybe some people just haven’t watched this guy play much. Some point to the slide in his YPC average in the latter stages of his breakout season as evidence that teams were catching on to him. Geez, I should hope so! The guy was a beast. You hear the term “eyeball test” thrown around a lot. And I am a big proponent. I’m sure a lot of people will tag this guy as a one year wonder. But Austin had to work his way up to this point. He wasn’t handed anything. He shoved Owens out of the way, and he shoved Jerry’s multi-million dollar mistake Roy Williams out of the way. Hell, he even shoved Romo’s best buddy Witten out of the way to take the lead role in this offense. My eyeballs tell me he won’t be relinquishing what he has earned anytime soon. I will be way more surprised if doesn’t end up a top ten WR, than if he ends up fantasy‘s best receiver.
Steve Smith (NYG): Steve Smith caught over a hundred passes last year as the lead receiver for the Giants, and while he may not repeat that total, I think one can safely presume he will lead his team in receptions again. Nicks is the presumed “stud of the future”, but right now Smith is the “trusted possession receiver” of quarterback Eli Manning, now in the sweet spot of his career. Smith sure looks to be in a safe situation to me, whether Nicks joins him in prosperity this season or not.
Antonio Gates: Dallas Clark comes off the boards as the first TE in most drafts. And he is a fine pick. But if you stand back and look at the big picture, we have Clark coming off a career year on a crowded team chock-full of receiving options, while we see Gates faced with the prospect of being “the guy” like he was pre-Vincent Jackson. What drafters fail to see is that Gates is in kind of the same position as Clark was in last year. Gates will likely be leaned on during Jackson’s absence, just as Clark was last year during the transition from Gonzalez to Garcon. I think it may be Gates turn to catch 100 passes this year, while Clark slides back to the 80 range. Drafters may have this one backwards. Silly back-ass-ward drafters.
Jerome Harrison: I am feeling lonelier and lonelier in my affection for Harrison. He looks like fool’s gold to many after grudgingly being given the keys to the car for the Browns late last year. And I understand that line of thinking. His coach gave him the ball only as a last resort. Carving up the Chiefs hapless defense wasn’t exactly akin to walking on water. His team drafted a running back in the draft. It is the opinion of many that the Browns coaching staff just is not sold on him. So why should I be? Maybe I shouldn’t. But I just can’t help it. I think the fantasy community at large is whiffing on this one.
Look, the Browns just don’t have a hell of a lot going on. They may not be wild about Harrison, but what else do they have? Where is their offense coming from? They are going to want to run the ball this season, a lot. But Hardesty is already injured, and has an injury history in college. Harrison is anything but a sure bet , that is why he lingering in drafts. People aren’t real enthused about tying their fantasy fortunes to a player with such a flimsy resume, on a lousy team. But with public sentiment so down on this guy (who has never done anything but produce at almost every opportunity) that he is now falling into the 9th round or later in some PPR drafts. Harrison may not set the world on fire, but he should provide enough flame to keep your RB3 spot burning bright. I mean, you have to like the company he is keeping with that single game rushing mark. Adrian Peterson 296 yards, Jamal Lewis 295, Jerome Harrison 286 and Jim Brown 235.
Tim Hightower: If you think like I do, that the Cardinals will try to lean on ball control this season, maybe you see what I see. Beanie Wells is getting all the love from the fantasy community, and with a name like Beanie, who could blame you? But I see Hightower as the better value. And I say that particularly to PPR players. In non PPR leagues, Wells touchdown total could make him substantially more valuable than Hightower. But in PPR leagues, I think Wells and Hightower will end up very close in total points. Hightower is a superior pass-catching and pass-blocking back who is used frequently in that capacity. One would imagine that the switch to Leinart may actually lead to more check-downs this season than last, and an even bigger importance on pass-blocking. I don’t see Wells pushing Hightower out of the way this season. He is one of my favorite value picks.
Ricky Williams: Ricky is getting up in years, but he is a “young” 33. Remember, he took a mid-career break from the NFL to go cook the chronic and find himself in the clouds of his exhale. While he has been part of a tandem for the last few years in Miami, the other part of the tandem Ronnie Brown seems to end up injured a lot. People don’t get real excited about old running backs on RBBC teams, but at his current price (late 6th round or later) I think this situation is much like the Arizona situation. Brown is probably fairly valued, maybe overvalued with his injury history. But his counterpart is undervalued, particularly in PPR leagues. Williams pass catching ability makes him a reasonable PPR option despite his time-share situation. Ricky might be older, but he seems to keep himself in fantastic shape, and I think we can squeeze one more surprisingly productive season from him at a decent price. While neither Williams nor Brown are in the kind of situation you would prefer, if one is likely to benefit from the misfortunes of the other, Williams would be the likeliest candidate.
Hines Ward: Ward was top fifteen receiver last year. Just like the season before. And if it weren’t for missing two games in both ‘06 and ‘07 that streak would likely extend over the last 5 years. Let me reiterate: On a per game basis, Ward has been a top 15 fantasy WR performer over the last 5 seasons. He is currently the 29th WR off the board in PPR mock drafts. So, I guess this is the season he falls off a cliff? I’m going to try to squeeze just one more season out of him. Just one more. Hang on Hines! And while you are at it, could you keep an eye on Big Bender for us? Boy’s got issues…
Mike Wallace: Okay, he was the 40th ranked WR as a rookie last year. He takes over Santonio Holmes starting role. He is being drafted as the 27th WR off the board. And some think he is overrated as a fantasy option in ’10? Personally, I think Wallace is better than Holmes, and is in fact going to be a relative bargain. I see lots of upside. Maybe 70/1000/7 or so. Top twenty? Yeah, I think he’s that good.
Jeremy Maclin: After a successful rookie season, Maclin looks to grab a bigger piece of the Eagles offensive pie this year. While I think Maclin is a slam-dunk as a player, there is the concern that there are just too many weapons on his team for anybody to stand out. Yet, DeSean Jackson is about the 10th wide receiver off the board. Maclin and Jackson were targeted an almost identical amount of times last season once Maclin got his feet on the ground. He was the 35th ranked WR in his first season, and he is being drafted as the 30th WR in his second year? Not much improvement expected it seems. Okay, you are forcing me to draft him.
Tony Gonzalez: Nobody wants the old guy anymore. Well, they do want him, but they will wait until the 6th round to take him now. I think that represents a fantastic value. Gonzo and Roddy White are the recipients of all of Matt Ryan’s love, and they will both be recipients of an easier schedule this year. Gonzo is often the 7th TE off the board and offers serious top 5 potential at a bargain price.
Matt Ryan: I have already sung the praises of Ryan’s cohorts, so it would stand to reason that I like him as a quarterback selection as well. Well, not as much as I like his two viable receiving options, but I still like him. Obviously you probably don’t want to be drafting all those teammates in head to head leagues. Too much vulnerability. But if you wait on a quarterback, or must have a top-notch back-up, I think Ryan presents decent value, I have seen him go as late as the 10th-11th round in 12 team leagues. Several acceptable QB options down in this range, but Ryan has to be the safest of the bunch, with the upside you love thrown in for good measure.
Matt Cassel: Last year I included Cassel on my Players to Avoid list because I felt the fantasy community was giving him respect that was not due considering his situation. And that turned out to be the case. Boy, does the fantasy community ever hold a grudge. Cassel is now drafted as a lower end QB2. But I think he could surprise. Charlie Weis has a way of making quarterbacks think they are better than they actually are. That leads to quarterbacks playing better than they actually are. Add that to some personnel improvements, a relatively easy schedule, and a defense that is not likely to decrease the need for Chiefs offensive production, and I think what you have is an undervalued player that certainly has enough upside to merit consideration.
Ben Roethlisberger: Big Bender presents a unique opportunity in fantasy drafts. He usually goes 10th-12th round or later, so his 4 game suspension is somewhat priced in. If you are inclined to wait until the bitter end to draft a QB, why not pair Roethlisberger up with another cheap QB from the double digit rounds? If you can slide by the first 5 weeks with another QB from the bargain bin, you will be golden when Roethlisberger returns. This is almost a tailor made situation for the late QB drafter, assuming you are willing to assume a certain amount of risk, that risk being that you go 2-4 while Ben is serving, because your other quarterback sucks.
Darren Sproles: Fantasy players that spend a high draft pick on Ryan Matthews are the most likely to be keen on Sproles, as an insurance policy on their pricey rookie. And I see that as a prudent move. Not all rookie phenoms pan out, and even the ones that do tend to fade a bit late in their rookie season. And one would imagine that even if Matthews is all that, his coaches will not want to run him into the ground. I don’t have any illusions that Sproles will be starter material for your team barring injury, but he should still catch a lot of passes, and as an RB4 for your PPR team? I like him just fine.
Leon Washington: Fantasy players feel Washington is damaged goods. He is lasting until the 10th round and much longer in many drafts as the preferred Justin Forsett is garnering most of the interest. But truth is, none of us knows exactly how this will shake out. Right now, the word is that Forsett and Julius Jones will be shouldering most of the load. Call me crazy but I am not going to bury Washington when he is sitting behind Forsett, a largely unproven commodity, and Jones a largely proven waste of a roster spot. Yeah, I know, Washington had a nasty broken leg. But he is young, and young bones heal quite well. And the nice part is that where you will draft him, you aren’t counting on getting much from him. An awful cheap price to pay for a guy that could end up being his team’s RB1 by season‘s end.
Tashard Choice: Choice is capable of putting up stud numbers, and only Felix Jones and/or Marion Barber’s health stands in his way. I like his odds. Choice started 4 games last year, and I think it is a fair bet that he will do the same this year. Dynasty owners would be well served to secure Choice at some point this season. Probably not a guy you can afford to stash if your roster is only 16 deep, but he is on my wish-list for any league with 18 man rosters or bigger, or in any league where I get drunk and draft Felix Jones or Marion Barber.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh: Housh was overrated last year as he went to a new team. This year he is underrated because he crashed and burned with his new team. I don’t think he is quite done yet. If he is hanging around in the 8th or 9th round, grab him and expect a moderate rebound.
Steve Breaston: Boldin is gone, and Breaston gets his shot as a starter. If Kurt Warner had stuck around for another season, Breaston would likely be going in the 4th-5th round. But the reality is that Leinart as the starter hurts Breaston. But I think he is being discounted a bit too much. To the fantasy community, his opportunity left with Kurt Warner, but Breaston is no doubt stoked about finally getting his shot as starter, regardless of who is tossing the rock. The guy has proven he can do it in my opinion, and I would think the coaching staff will give him every opportunity to succeed. (well, besides forcing him to try to catch errant passes from -insert Cardinals QB-) When I look around at the WRs available where Breaston is being taken, he looks like the screaming value to me.
Johnny Knox: In the two real drafts I have done so far, Knox has not lasted as deep into the proceeding as I thought he would. He is picking up steam as a “sleeper pick.” Still though, even as he zooms into single digit rounds of the drafts I think he is a decent gamble. The fantasy graveyard is full of the carcasses of fools who gambled on Bears receivers, but if there is one guy on the planet that could somehow make them fantasy relevant, he is now pulling Cutlers strings in Chicago. You almost can’t resist taking your shot, and Knox seems the likeliest of the candidates to shine.
Davone Bess: It might surprise you that Bess caught 76 passes last year, leading the team in receptions. This after a 50 plus catch rookie season as an un-drafted rookie. But there is a new Marshall in town, and Bess is being ignored except in leagues with big rosters. I was very impressed with Bess’ development last year. He isn’t fast but he seems to have football smarts, and a great work ethic. He has a little bit of Welker in him, and in my opinion the arrival of Marshall may only enhance Bess’ role. While it isn’t likely Bess will be leading the team in receptions again, he is being treated by the fantasy community as though he doesn’t exist. But he does exist. And I think he is a better player than most of you think. Bess isn’t likely to save your fantasy season, but as a bye week fill-in, I like him more than a lot of guys that are drafted before him.
Chris Cooley/ Fred Davis: Cooley is back from injury and looked fine in the ‘Skins preseason opener. The Redskins did not trade him as some speculated, so here they are. Stuck with two talented multi-purpose tight ends. Quite a quandary. Well, it would be if it weren’t for the fact that they are probably the best two pass catchers on the team. Shanahan says the ’Skins are going to implement lots of two TE sets. The fantasy community views this situation dimly, because we have no idea what the splits will be. But if you wait and wait on a tight end in your draft, Cooley will likely be one of your last remaining options. You may get burned with a TEBC (tight end by committee) but considering the lack of viable receivers on the roster I think the risk is less than perceived. I’m not sure I have ever handcuffed a tight end before, but if there was ever a situation that warrants it, this is the one. Should one or the other miss playing time you will likely unleash a beast from the fantasy bargain bin.