We all wish we had drafted Olandis Gary in 1999. But nobody can predict a future that, even when it becomes the past, still seems completely ridiculous.
Plenty of players break into standard fantasy football discussions each year. Some are smaller, like Todd Heap in 2002, while others are massive, like Brandon Lloyd in 2010. And some are genuinely predictable.
You’ll end up killing yourself, however, if you really are searching for an undrafted player that can become a fantasy football stud. There are going to be names thrown out there by fantasy football magazines, bloggers and writers – names that make you say “who?” – that may end up outperforming all expectations. But to take that name and put him on your bench? I’ll pass.
Instead, draft some of these guys. They’re players that should have value (injuries aside), as well as sincere opportunities for big seasons. They’re safer than dudes like Baron Batch and Taiwan Jones. They’re players that have floors above the basement and ceilings higher than the tallest skyscraper in whatever city you live in.
They’re guys you can, and should, draft.
1. Titus Young, WR, Detroit Lions
Many tend to fall victim to the third-year receiver breakout philosophy. It’s not true. It may have been in 1997, but in 2012, it’s an irrelevant theory. In actuality, second-year receivers have recently been the ones that have come out of nowhere to take the league by storm.
While Julio Jones and AJ Green are two second-year guys that clearly will post big numbers, don’t overlook the wideout opposite of Calvin Johnson. Last season, Titus Young finished his fantasy season with 4 touchdowns in his final four games, securing over four catches per game. While that doesn’t seem phenomenal, consider this: Young was the number three receiver, and number four option, during a rookie season with no off-season. Imagine what he can do as the second or third option with a full training camp.
Outlook: He’ll put up a ranking similar to a 2001 Isaac Bruce.
2. Greg Olsen, TE, Carolina Panthers
Olsen wasn’t the only tight end grabbing looks from quarterback Cam Newton last year. In 2012, he looks to be “the guy” at tight end with the departure of the always-overrated Jeremy Shockey.
His upside rests in the fact that Cam Newton targeted his tight ends a fair amount of times last season. Shockey was able to post 37 receptions for 455 yards and 4 touchdowns, being targeted 62 times. Olsen had 45 receptions for 540 yards and 5 touchdowns of his own, and was thrown to 90 times. The two players combined for 82 receptions, 995 receiving yards, 9 touchdowns and 152 targets.
Now, clearly we shouldn’t expect those numbers from Olsen in 2012. But even if half of Shockey’s targets go Olsen’s way, he’s looking at a potential 120-target season. That’s about as many as Rob Gronkowski received last year.
Outlook: He’ll put up a ranking similar to a 1994 Brent Jones.
3. Pierre Garcon, WR, Washington Redskins
Since entering the league in 2008, Garcon has steadily increased his production in nearly every statistical category. Last season, with a rotation of quarterbacks that shouldn’t be rated higher than 50 in Madden, Garcon was able to haul in 70 passes for almost 1,000 yards.
Now, in Washington, Pierre has an opportunity to shine with rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. The Redskins aren’t (and shouldn’t be) known for passing the rock, but last year, the Shanahan-led Skins were fifth in the NFL in passing. It allowed Jabar Gaffney to post a career high season in receptions, yards and touchdowns. Gaffney ranked as a top-30 wide receiver.
Gaffney is clearly not the kind of receiver Garcon can be. And Gaffney did that with Rex Grossman. If the Redskins keep up the number of passes in that offense, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Garcon soar.
Outlook: He’ll put up a ranking similar to a 2008 Bernard Berrian.
4. Ryan Williams, RB, Arizona Cardinals
The unfortunate injury suffered in the pre-season last year created a rookie season for Ryan Williams on crutches. This year, on a fairly miserable offense, Williams is hoping he can leapfrog the inconsistent Beanie Wells into a starting job.
That’s the key in this breakout choice: Beanie Wells. Do you realize how bad Beanie is at the running back position? He was 14th among running backs in carries last season, and he scored double-digit touchdowns. That’s a recipe for fantasy football dominance. And yet, somehow, Beanie Wells was the 15th ranked running back in fantasy.
It’s not as though that’s a poor ranking, but when you look even deeper into his numbers, it gets worse. He played 15 games and received 10 or more carries in each of them. He reached 100 yards in – wait for it – 2 of the 15 games. One of the 100-plus anomalies was a 138-yard performance. The other, against the Rams, Beanie rushed for 228 yards. Aside from that, Wells was nothing better than you and me. He averaged under 4 yards per carry in 9 of his 15 games, and caught just 10 passes.
Look, I get that I’m being hard on Beanie. After all, the Cardinals’ offensive line provides very little support. But that’s why Williams is attractive from a fantasy standpoint. He’s more talented than the troubled Wells, and is in an offense that he can grow with. The Cardinals can precisely see and compare the kind of running backs they have given Beanie’s mediocre 2011 campaign.
To me, the situation with Ryan Williams isn’t so much that he’ll be a top-10 running back. There’s certainly a case to be made for him to finish as a top-20 one, though.
Outlook: He’ll put up a ranking similar to a 1998 Corey Dillon.
5. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
All abord the Matt Ryan train! His rise in ADP is why he won’t be on any of my fantasy teams, but he has a shot to put up elite-like numbers in 2012.
And we all know why. Roddy White has been one of the – if not the – most consistent wide receiver in the NFL over the past few seasons. Add in veteran Tony Gonzalez, a running game that looks to have a little edge with Jacquizz Rodgers and an absolute beast in Julio Jones, and you’ve got yourself a good old-fashioned opportunity.
Ryan has been overrated as a fantasy quarterback since entering the NFL. I feel like we say “this is his year” every single year. There’s just more reason to believe this year. Julio Jones has to be the biggest factor, but don’t underestimate the change in offensive coordinator, either.
Outlook: He’ll put up a ranking similar to a 2005 Matt Hasselbeck.
6. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
He’s easily my biggest crush this year. I love me some Antonio Brown. And it’s because he’s become Ben Roethlisberger’s go-to target.
To further explain, I’ll use a snippet from my article written in July on Antonio Brown:
“All you need to do is look at the 2011 season. Mike Wallace started the year off with 800 yards over the first 8 games. Antonio Brown, on the other hand, had just 431. It was a huge difference, but when you look at the amount of targets these receivers got, Antonio Brown actually had more (63) than Mike Wallace (58) over the front half of the season.
Why such a yard discrepancy? Because Mike Wallace is a big play receiver. During the first eight games of the regular season last year, Wallace had a 40-plus yard catch in all but two of them. And moreover, he caught one for 81 and one for 95.
So what happens when you remove those big plays? Well, let’s just take a look at the second half of the 2011 season for the Steelers’ receivers.
Over the final eight games, Mike Wallace’s total yardage dropped from 800 to 393. He finished with zero 100-yard games from Week 8 onwards. Why? He caught a pass for 40 or more yards in just one of those games. Antonio Brown not only did this in three of these eight games, but he finished with 677 yards over the second half of the season. He also had 2 100-yard games. Oh, and he continued to see more targets than Wallace (61 vs. 56).”
Outlook: He’ll put up a ranking similar to a 2003 Santana Moss.
7. Aaron Hernandez, TE, New England Patriots
Hernandez was targeted 8.07 times per game last season . Big Gronk’s average per game was 7.75. And, in the red zone, Hernandez had one more target than Gronkwoski in two less games played.
But that’s not why I like this to be Hernandez’s breakout season. There have already been two Boston writers who believe Hernandez is going to be Brady’s number one target this season. He’s had a masterful camp, and with the recent release of Deion Branch, is their only true, legitimate receiver outside of Welker and Lloyd. Moreover, the main reason you have to love Hernandez this year is because of his versatility. They’re planning to use the 22 year-old in many different situations, creating mismatches to get him the ball. I like him more than Gronkowski this year.
Outlook: He’ll put up a ranking similar to a 2002 Tony Gonzalez.
8. Eric Decker, WR, Denver Broncos
There’s no doubt that he and Peyton Manning have created a rapport during camp and the pre-season. Decker is the precise route-running kind of wide receiver that Manning can make into a star.
Before Tim Tebow was crowned quarterback in Denver last season, Decker’s numbers were fairly impressive. He was averaging 5 catches for about 68 yards per game. He also scored 4 times in those 4 games. Subtract Kyle Orton and add Peyton Manning, and you’ve got a shot at becoming a top wide receiver.
I like Decker more than Demaryius Thomas because of the question marks around Manning’s arm strength. Eric Decker will be a nice security blanket 5 to 10 yards downfield, and should be able to get multiple scores from the arm of the future Hall of Famer.
Outlook: He’ll put up a ranking similar to a 1996 Eddie Kennison.
9. Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Oakland Raiders
Carson Palmer’s performance last season was clearly skewed. Yes, he’ll throw his fair share of interceptions, but that’s what Palmer does.
Realistically, Carson wasn’t nearly as bad from a fantasy perspective last year as people make his performance out to be. He was a 15 or so point given in standard leagues each week, and threw a touchdown pass in all but one game.
Because of his performance, and the lack of running game, his receivers benefited. Especially Darrius Heyward-Bey.
One of my favorite ways of looking at wide receiver success is by seeing how they performed down the stretch last season. Percy Harvin and Antonio Brown are both perfect examples of this, and it’s just part of the reason I like both of those guys this year. Heyward-Bey had a great final three games with Carson, hauling in 20 catches for an absurd 355 yards and two scores.
He was targeted 115 times last season, becoming Carson Palmer’s favorite target. I like that to continue this year, even with the arguably more talented Denarius Moore opposite of him. DHB could be a steal in both PPR and standard scoring leagues.
Outlook: He’ll put up a ranking similar to a 2009 Santonio Holmes.
10. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
Alright. Don’t jump on me as much for this one, but I have to do it. Russell Wilson is going to have a breakout season. From a fantasy perspective, at least.
What’s there not to like about this guy? (Don’t answer that, please.) He had an unbelievable pre-season, showing off his decision-making and running abilities. If he were to keep those numbers going into the regular season, you would expect a 20-point output nearly every week from the guy.
While I know that’s not reasonable, the reality is that the weapons around Wilson are immensely underrated. Sidney Rice, when healthy, is one of the more talented receivers in the game. They’re deep at the receiver position, too, with Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, Ben Obomanu and Braylon Edwards. Don’t forget about that bruising running game, either, that can set up the play action nicely for Wilson.
I almost feel an obligation to put Wilson on this list. He’s my highest upside rookie quarterback, and I believe he has a legitimate shot to be a top-12 fantasy play this season because of this upside. Russellmania is real. Believe.
Outlook: He’ll put up a ranking similar to a 1988 Bubby Brister.