Paper or plastic? Debit or credit? AP or CJ2K?
I’ve confronted each of these conundrums in the past week, and I’m pleased to say the answers came easily. Paper is better for the environment, debit is better for your finances and Chris Johnson is more likely to lead you to a fantasy title than last year’s top choice, Adrian Peterson.
But the decisions get tougher when you don’t have the first overall pick in your fantasy draft, and even more difficult as you move down the rounds. That’s when it’s essential to identify a handful of players that are poised to significantly out-perform their draft position.
Fantasy veterans know the secret to great drafting is not simply selecting the best players available, but taking them no earlier than necessary. You may share my belief that Jacoby Jones is on the verge of a breakout season; but you’re hurting yourself – and, worse yet, begging for ridicule from your opponents – if you pull the trigger too early.
It’s nearly impossible to field a dominating team without nabbing at least a couple of undervalued players. Last year, mid- to late-round selections of Matt Schaub, Brett Favre, Ray Rice, Cedric Benson, Miles Austin, Sidney Rice and Vernon Davis, to name just a few, made their owners look like geniuses – and champions.
Who are this year’s hidden gems? Let’s take a look at my Sleeper Picks of 2010, broken down by position.
(Note: ADP means “average draft position,” and indicates where the player is typically selected in standard leagues, according to mock draft web sites. Compare this to their value in my Top 100 rankings, where applicable.)
Chad Henne, Dolphins (ADP: 120, Top 100: 65). Henne topped 300 yards in three of his last five games in 2009, and he was rewarded with one of the league’s most prolific receivers, Brandon Marshall, in the offseason. Blessed with excellent ground support as well, Henne has tremendous upside, and can be secured at a bargain price.
Mark Sanchez, Jets (ADP: 132, Top 100: 68). Aided by one of the NFL's best rushing attacks and an improved receiving corps, Sanchez has the potential to make a giant leap in his sophomore season. If he can handle the pressure tied to his team’s Super Bowl aspirations, Sanchez could be an excellent backup fantasy passer.
Alex Smith, 49ers (ADP: 136, Top 100: 91). Written off as a bust this time last season, Smith finally showed flashes of the talent that made him the first overall draft pick of 2005. He has explosive weapons in Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis, and he should benefit from a schedule loaded with suspect pass defenses.
C.J. Spiller, Bills (ADP: 71, Top 100: 53). Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch couldn’t have picked a worse time to get injured. Buffalo’s first-rounder has been given the keys to the ground game, and I’d be shocked if he gives them back. He’s flying up draft boards, but still holds extra value at his current ADP.
Arian Foster, Texans (ADP: 106, Top 100: 54). The season-ending injury to rookie Ben Tate gives Foster a clear shot at the workhorse role in this prolific offense. The second-year tailback has drawn frequent praise in camp, while Steve Slaton's persistent fumbling problems – and kick-return duties – should keep the competition for carries to a minimum.
Ahmad Bradshaw, Giants (ADP: 84, Top 100: 57). He is being drafted roughly 30 picks behind his backfield mate; but I expect Bradshaw to supplant Brandon Jacobs as the Giants' more productive back, if not outright as the starter. Chronic foot problems are Bradshaw’s primary bugaboo, but Jacobs is even more injury-prone.
Larry Johnson, Redskins (ADP: 167, Top 100: 73). He was awful in his first preseason start Saturday, which will undoubtedly cause him to drop down the rankings. That’s good for those of us who still believe he will replace Clinton Portis as the Redskins' starter, either when Portis inevitably breaks down, or when Johnson out-plays him.
Chester Taylor, Bears (ADP: 119, Top 100: N/A). If you gamble on Matt Forte returning to his rookie form, do yourself a favor and handcuff Taylor to him. Taylor is arguably a better fit for Mike Martz's offense, so the backup could become the starter if Forte gets off to another rocky start.
Robert Meachem, Saints (ADP: 99, Top 100: 55). Meachem equaled Marques Colston's nine touchdown catches in 2009, on 25 fewer receptions. If he can stay healthy, the big-play wideout could rival Colston as Drew Brees' go-to guy.
Jacoby Jones, Texans (ADP: 187, Top 100: 64). Jones is projected to eventually overtake Kevin Walter as Houston’s No. 2 wideout, and I believe it will be sooner than later. A Top 20 ranking is well within reach for the playmaking speedster who has relinquished his return duties to focus on receiving.
Malcom Floyd, Chargers (ADP: 102, Top 100: 84). With all signs pointing to Vincent Jackson being traded to Seattle (or elsewhere), Floyd will be first in line to fill the void. He’s no lock, however, at the age of 29 and having never ranked among the Top 50 at his position.
Devin Hester, Bears (ADP: 129, Top 100: 89): All the preseason love is going to Devin Aromashodu and Johnny Knox, but Hester is still the most reliable receiver on Chicago’s roster; and, for once, he isn’t the one being over-hyped. The younger guys will have their moments, but the veteran will offer more consistent production this season.
Mike Williams, Buccaneers (ADP: 155, Top 100: N/A). This fourth-round rookie has been the shining star of Tampa Bay’s draft class and training camp. He catches everything in sight, and already seems in sync with his quarterback. As long as Josh Freeman returns quickly from his fractured thumb, Williams has a chance to be special right out of the gates.
Dustin Keller, Jets (ADP: 144, Top 100: 98). Sanchez will have a lot of quality receivers to choose from, but arguably none as reliable as Keller. He’s a big red-zone target, and he will benefit from the attention opposing defenses lavish on his more-heralded teammates on the outside.
Zach Miller, Raiders (ADP: 107, Top 100: N/A). First, make sure you don’t accidentally grab the Jags’ Zach Miller. Second, understand that he plays for Oakland, so his upside is limited. But Miller could prove to be the only player on the Raiders’ roster worth starting, given his talent and Jason Campbell’s affinity for tight ends.
Neil Rackers, Texans (ADP: 209). He hasn’t won the job over Kris Brown yet, but when (not if) he does, he’ll once again be busy as the clean-up guy for one of the NFL’s best offenses.
David Buehler, Cowboys (ADP: 205). He’s done well enough throughout camp and in preseason action to add field goal duties to his role as kickoff specialist. He’ll get plenty of opportunities with Dallas’ offense.
Looking for this year’s Miles Austin, who gets little or no attention on draft day but is destined to be a waiver-wire wonder early in the season? These unheralded guys could fit the bill.
Leon Washington, RB, Seahawks (ADP: 178, Top 100: N/A). Sometimes preseason matters. Like when you're coming back from a severe leg injury and you look like your old slashing, dashing self. A healthy Washington will get plenty of work in Seattle’s backfield, rendering Julius Jones completely irrelevant.
Legedu Naanee, WR, Chargers (ADP: N/A). Like Floyd, he’ll prosper if Jackson departs. Unlike Floyd, Naanee is young and improving. He’s big and fast, with excellent hands and he’s willing to make the tough catch over the middle.
Brian Hartline, WR, Dolphins (ADP: 237). The likely starter opposite Marshall, Hartline will benefit from Henne’s growing maturity and the fact that opposing defenses must double-team his elite counterpart.
Dexter McCluster, WR, Chiefs (ADP: 162). Kansas City’s answer to Percy Harvin will line up at receiver and in the backfield, including as the Chiefs’ Wildcat quarterback. He could see a lot of action as his offense plays catch-up frequently.
Aaron Hernandez, TE, Patriots (ADP: N/A). Given his sterling performance thus far in the preseason (7 catches, 72 yards, 1 TD), the rookie may climb New England’s depth chart even sooner than expected. Hernandez is a terrific red-zone target with outstanding hands who can also line up on the outside. There’s little debate about his long-term potential; only how soon he’ll get the chance to fulfill it.
Next week: The original, oft-imitated, always-controversial Perfect Draft.
Ladd Biro is a syndicated fantasy football columnist and host of Sporting News Radio’s weekly Fantasy Files show (Saturdays, 8-9 am CT). Follow his daily fantasy advice at the Fantasy Fools blog (fantasy-fools.blogspot.com) and via Twitter (@ladd_biro).