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FANTASY FOOTBALL IN-SEASON FEATURES

Free Agent Forecast: Week 1
Paul Sandy
September 6, 2011
 
SYMBOL LEGEND
Rockstar Rock Star Free Agent
Injury Injury Replacement
Worth a Look Worth a Look
1 Week Plug & Play 1 Week Plug & Play
Sleeper Sleeper

Welcome to another season of the Free Agent Forecast. This weekly column is published every Tuesday morning and aims to identify free agents who will improve your chances of hoisting your league’s trophy at year end.

Given the diverse scoring systems and sizes of fantasy leagues, producing a weekly list of free agents that satisfies the masses can be challenging. For the most part, the column will hone in on players who are available in at least 35% of all fantasy leagues. If you play in a small league (8 teams), chances are there may be better players to pick up than you see listed here. If you play in a large league (16 teams), the majority of the players highlighted may already be on a squad; however, expect to find hidden gems, as well. In addition to scouting rock star free agents who had breakout performances in the previous week, the Forecast will dig deep to identify players who may surface as relevant fantasy players a week or two down the line because of injuries, favorable matchups or other factors.   

QUARTERBACKS

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bills
Worth a LookIn the 13 games he played last season, Fitzpatrick threw for 23 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards. In all but one of those outings, he tallied at least one touchdown pass. Give credit where credit is due. Fitzpatrick is a consistent fantasy QB. With Chan Gailey calling the plays in Buffalo this year, Fitzpatrick’s arrow continues to point up. Gailey has a reputation as an offensive guru who loves to feature the passing game. Consider Fitzpatrick as the ideal backup QB, who could be used as a regular starter if you’re desperate.

Availability: Owned in ~53% of leagues.
Forecast guidance: Fitzpatrick is worth a look as a high-end QB2 or low-end QB1.

Matt Hasselbeck, Titans
1 Week Plug & PlayWith Peyton Manning likely out for Week 1, many fantasy owners may need to implement a Plan B for their quarterback position. If you didn’t back up Manning or if you’re not thrilled with the guy you landed, give Matt Hasselbeck a look. The crusty veteran will be under center for the Titans on Sunday. I don’t like him as a long-term fantasy option but for one week, against a poor defense . . . yeah, he’s worth a flier. Hasselbeck has enough weapons around him to make some plays and post a modest 220 yards and a pair of scores this week against a Jaguars defense that allowed the seventh most fantasy points to QBs last year.

Availability: Owned in ~19% of leagues.
Forecast: Owners who take a flier on Hasselbeck in Week 1 will be rewarded with useful stats.

RUNNING BACKS

Derrick Ward, Texans
Injury ReplacementThe popular opinion in fantasy circles is if Arian Foster can’t play in Week 1, Ben Tate becomes the fallback plan. I can understand the logic. Tate looked like a world beater in the preaseason, averaging 7.4 yards per carry. If the RB position were purely about rushing, then yeah, Tate is the clear winner. However, the Texans are more comfortable with Derrick Ward’s abilities in pass protection. With Dwight Freeney a constant cause for concern, Ward figures to be on the field for at least 50% of Houston’s offensive snaps. I like his chances of netting 80 all-purpose yards with a touchdown against a Colts defense that yielded the eighth most fantasy points to RBs last season. 

Availability: Owned in ~18% of leagues.
Forecast: Look for Ward to post some healthy numbers in Week 1 if Arian Foster rests.

Deji Karim, Jaguars
Injury ReplacementThe Jaguars placed RB Rashad Jennings on injured reserve, ending his season. The transaction caused Deji Karim to slide up one slot on the depth chart. He will back up Maurice Jones Drew, who underwent knee surgery during the offseason and did little during the preseason. Prior to moving Jennings to IR, the Jaguars had talked about lightening MJD’s load this year. If the plan holds true, Karim could get 8-10 touches per game. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry last season in limited action. Karim is a quick, explosive player, who could become a fantasy dynamo if he’s pressed into action.

Availability: Owned in ~14% of leagues.
Forecast: The Forecast loves Karim’s potential to emerge as a legit fantasy option at some point this season.

Roy Helu, Redskins
SleeperTim Hightower ran away with the competition for the starting RB job in Washington. He was one of the fastest fantasy risers during the preseason. I don’t think Hightower will fall flat on his face but there are a couple concerns. First, he’s a notorious fumbling machine. He coughed the ball up five times last year despite carrying the ball just 153 times. Second, he fizzled out in previous stints as a starter. Finally, head coach Mike Shanahan has had an itchy trigger finger when it comes to RBs in recent years. If Hightower isn’t moving the chains, Shanahan will likely make a quick move to rookie Roy Helu, who is No. 2 on the depth chart. Helu is a good fit for Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme and could be a factor by Week 5.

Availability: Owned in ~36% of leagues.
Forecast: Helu is a terrific high-upside pickup to have on your bench.

Kendall Hunter, 49ers
SleeperSan Francisco starting RB Frank Gore hasn’t played a full 16-game season in five years. It’s no longer a matter of if Gore will get hurt but when. The 49ers recognized Gore’s inability to make it through a full NFL season and addressed the need in the draft. They selected Oklahoma State RB Kendall Hunter with the 115th pick of the 2011 draft. While you never want to read too much into the preseason, Hunter looked like a stud in the making during the month of August. He led all NFL rushers with 231 preseason rushing yards and cemented the No. 2 spot on the RB depth chart. If you’re a Gore owner, you owe it to yourself to grab Hunter. And if you don’t own Gore, go ahead and fire a shot over the bow of the owner who does and acquire Hunter as a prospect.

Availability: Owned in ~17% of leagues.
Forecast: Hunter is worth squirreling away on your bench due to Gore’s injury history.

Ryan Williams, Cardinals
SleeperIf you’re in a keeper league that allows you to place players on injured reserve, why not grab the Cardinals rookie RB and move him to IR? Chances are he went undrafted in your league. Prior to blowing out his knee, Williams looked like a legit NFL RB. The 2011 season might be Beanie Wells’ last chance to prove he can be a featured RB. If you believe, as I do, that Wells will squander the opportunity, Williams is a savvy pickup. There’s a good chance he enters the 2012 season at the top of the Arizona depth chart.

Availability: Owned in ~6% of leagues.
Forecast guidance: Grab and stash Williams in keeper/dynasty leagues only.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Antonio Brown, Steelers
Rock StarBrown had plenty of sleeper buzz in fantasy drafts this year but surprisingly many owners hit the snooze button. The speedster wideout is available in roughly 45% of fantasy leagues. In case you missed it, Brown led all catchers in receiving yardage during the preseason. He displayed electric speed, snagging a few bombs from QB Ben Roethlisberger. If Brown’s name wasn’t called in your league, do yourself a favor and grab him. He has the potential to post numbers that will remind fantasy owners of DeSean Jackson.

Availability: Owned in ~56% of leagues.
Forecast: Brown should be owned in all leagues based on his preseason fireworks.

Nate Burleson, Lions
Worth a LookQB Matthew Stafford and WR Nate Burleson played just three games together last year. During that brief stretch when both players were healthy, the duo showed flashes of brilliant chemistry. Burleson twice caught seven passes from Stafford in those three weeks. Look for Burleson to again be one of Stafford’s go-to weapons. With Calvin Johnson drawing most of the attention of opposing defenses, Burleson should benefit from single coverage each week. If he can stay on the field, the stats should follow. Give him a look this week against Tampa if you don’t like your alternatives.

Availability: Owned in ~63% of leagues.
Forecast: Burleson will prove to be a useful fantasy wideout this year if he can stay healthy.

Greg Little, Browns
SleeperThe Browns have a new playmaker in their passing offense. Cleveland chose Greg Little in the second round of this year’s draft. With Mohamed Massoquoi slow to recover from a foot injury, Little is likely to be the team’s top wideout. Although he doesn’t have blinding speed, Little can be a homerun hitter. He is a converted RB and runs like one when he has the ball in his hands. Given the lack of talent at WR on the Browns depth chart, it would not be at all surprising if QB Colt McCoy force fed Little the ball all year.

Availability: Owned in ~30% of leagues.
Forecast: Little is worth a speculative pickup in any league.
 
Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones, Packers
1 Week Plug & PlayThe Vegas oddsmakers say Thursday night’s tilt between the Packers and Saints will be the highest scoring game of the week. It’s hard to argue with their logic since Green Bay and New Orleans feature two of the best QBs and offenses in the league. If your current WR corps is sickly looking, get a piece of this action. Green Bay’s Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones were roundly ignored in many leagues. While there are plenty of mouths to feed in cheesehead land, no one is better at dishing it out than Aaron Rodgers. Roll the dice with Driver, Nelson or Jones and hope for a long score. Personally, I favor Nelson but they’re all worth a look.

Availability: Owned in ~60%, ~43% and ~46% of leagues respectively.
Forecast guidance: Take a flier on one of Green Bay’s many receivers.
 
Davone Bess, Dolphins
1 Week Plug & PlayThe Dolphins play host to New England on Monday night. Anyone care to explain how Miami landed a primetime game this season—and the Monday night kickoff no less? Scheduling absurdity aside, fantasy owners who are already shorthanded at WR can look to Davone Bess as a Band-Aid. Bess is a Patriot slayer. He’s scored in three straight games versus New England, averaging 82.7 yards and seven receptions per game over those three meetings. Miami figures to be playing from behind in this one, so Bess should be a fantasy factor, particularly in PPR leagues.

Availability: Owned in ~60% of leagues.
Forecast guidance: Bess is a passable option this week against a team he’s done well against historically.

Andre Roberts, Cardinals
SleeperLarry Fitzgerald can’t catch all the passes in Arizona. With Steve Breaston out of the picture, second-year wideout Andre Roberts will be the No. 2 receiver in the desert. Roberts is a strong inside route runner who figures to get plenty of single coverage while playing opposite Fitzgerald. He looked sharp in the preseason and works hard after he makes a catch to gain extra yardage. But Roberts isn’t a plodder. The secret is out on his speed after he had a 34-yard touchdown run on an end-around in the preseason. With a capable Kevin Kolb distributing the passes in Arizona, the Forecast likes Robert’s chances of making an immediate impact in PPR leagues.

Availability: Owned in ~14% of leagues.
Forecast: Roberts will provide good WR depth in PPR leagues.

TIGHT ENDS

Lance Kendricks, Rams
1 Week Plug & PlayKendricks made some headlines on the sleeper circuit this year but he was still only drafted in 25% of fantasy leagues. It’s a shame that more owners won’t reap the benefits of a juicy Week 1 matchup against the Eagles. No team in the NFL allowed more fantasy points to TEs in 2010 than Philadelphia. Since the Eagles have one of the best trios of cornerbacks in the NFL, QB Sam Bradford may lean heavily on his rookie TE—rather than force balls to his receivers. There’s a good chance Kendricks ends this contest with six or more receptions and a touchdown.  

Availability: Owned in ~25% of leagues.
Forecast guidance: Kendricks is an excellent Week 1 option at TE.

Jared Cook, Titans
1 Week Plug & PlayIt’s hard not to get excited about Cook, who has drawn comparisons to Jermichael Finley, Antonio Gates and even Calvin Johnson. The 6’5” TE is a physical specimen who will give opposing defenses fits. He closed out the 2010 season with some impressive performances despite poor play at the QB position. With veteran Matt Hasselbeck now in the fold, Cook is poised to become an every week fantasy contributor. If you need TE help, don’t waste any time getting Cook in your lineup. He should feast on a Jacksonville defense that ceded the third most fantasy points to TEs in 2010.

Availability: Owned in ~29% of leagues.
Forecast guidance: Set your expectations for 60 yards and a touchdown this week for Cook.

KICKERS

Alex Henery, Eagles
Rock StarNo team made more high profile roster moves this offseason than the Eagles. However, one move that you may have missed is that they opted not to bring back longtime kicker David Akers. Rookie Alex Henery is now doing the kicking in Philadelphia. The Eagles figure to have little difficulty moving the ball into scoring position so Henery will get plenty of chances. If he went undrafted in your league, he’s probably an upgrade over whoever you chose to fill your kicker position.

Availability: Owned in ~68% of leagues.
Forecast: Henery should be owned in all leagues.

Jay Feely, Cardinals
1 Week Plug & PlayWhen the Cardinals made the move to trade for QB Kevin Kolb, it gave the entire offense a boost of fantasy potential. It also should be beneficial for kicker Jay Feely. Feely was accurate last year making 24 of 27 kicks but he just didn’t get enough opportunities to be relevant for fantasy. That should change this year with more competent play from the QB position and the NFL’s easiest schedule. Snag Feely and start him this week at home against a Panthers defense that was brutal on the road last year.

Availability: Owned in ~26% of leagues.
Forecast: Feely has a good chance to net you double-digit points in Week 1.

DEFENSE / SPECIAL TEAMS

Arizona Cardinals
1 Week Plug & PlaySticking with the Cardinals theme . . . Arizona’s defense will play host to rookie QB Cam Newton in Week 1. Whether or not you believe Newton is NFL-ready, his first start promises to be shaky. Capitalize on the favorable matchup by acquiring the Cards in advance of this matchup. Arizona has enough talent on their defensive line to generate a decent pass rush. New defensive coordiantor Ray Horton is a Dick LeBeau protégé who will blitz, then blitz some more. Look for the Cards to record a few sacks and cause Newton to rush some throws.

Availability: Owned in ~36% of leagues.
Forecast: The Cardinals defense will be a difference-maker for fantasy owners in Week 1 (and possibly beyond).


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