I’ve spent the last couple of weeks discussing
some of the more notable names in the NFL, attempting to identify—as
precisely as one can at this point—the league’s elite
fantasy performers for 2012. Most of your pre-draft energy, after
all, is spent making sure those first several picks aren’t
squandered on players who could potentially sink your fantasy ship.
Nevertheless, there comes a time in every draft when the sure things
are long gone and it’s time to engage in some speculation.
Accordingly, I’d like to shift gears and focus attention this
week on those who have yet to make a name for themselves at the
professional level, players who won’t even necessarily be
called on draft day (depending on your league’s size and depth)
but who, nevertheless, could end up factoring into the overall fantasy
equation should opportunity come knocking. They won’t all
end up being relevant by year’s end (I’m not that good),
but I think the following players stand a better chance than most
of gaining fantasy market share in 2012.
Editor’s Note: Jake
Locker was initially included in this article, which was submitted
just prior to him being named the starting quarterback in Tennessee.
Locker was removed from this piece but should be on your fantasy
radar as solid QB2 with QB1 upside.
Kaepernick, SF: Speaking of legs, this guy’s got ’em
for days. Did you happen to catch his 78-yard touchdown jaunt in
the Niners’ first preseason game against Minnesota? 78 yards! That
would be the longest touchdown scamper by a quarterback since “Slash”
Stewart motored 80 yards for the Steelers almost 20 years ago. There
simply aren’t many signal callers in the NFL who have that kind
of rushing ability. In fact, I can think of three. Also, this just
in: I’m a complete sucker for quarterbacks who can scoot.
Now, time for a little reality check. Kaepernick tallied that six-pointer
running a zone read option, an unusual play by staid NFL standards.
In fact, he spent most of the night running shotgun sets and rolling
out of the pocket (where he doesn’t look at all comfortable).
Clearly, the Frisco brain trust has decided he won’t thrive
in a traditional pro-set offense and has built up an alternate,
somewhat gimmicky scheme in which he might. That could be interpreted
as disheartening news for a first-round pick in just his second
season. Or, we could go glass half full on this and say the Niners
felt highly enough of his skill set to broaden their offensive horizons
and build the game plan around his unique abilities. However you
look at it, the former Nevada star is close to securing the No.
2 spot behind Alex Smith. If Smith goes down—he suffered a
league-high 44 sacks in 2011 and has only played 16 games in two
of his six seasons—you can bet your sweet bippy Kaepernick
is going to become a very hot commodity on the waiver wire. Pick
him up before the season starts, why don’t you?
Hill, DET or Kyle
Orton, DAL: Neither of these two vets have anywhere near
the athletic prowess or general upside of the aforementioned youngsters.
They’re aging. They’re boring. They’re backups. In other words,
they’re perfectly ignorable in most fantasy drafts. What they do
have (and have in common) are boatloads of career starts under their
respective belts. Hill has tallied 26 career starts in six or so
full seasons (he also spent time in NFL Europe), a pretty good sample
size for an NFL field general. His completion percentage is over
60 and his passer rating is north of 80. Orton, on the other hand,
has started 69 games, completing about 58 percent of his throws
and maintaining a passer rating just barely under 80. Simply put,
these guys are the very definition of “serviceable.”
Serviceable doesn’t cut it, though, when you’re contemplating
late-round fliers, does it? You want potential! You want sexy! OK,
how’s this for potentially sexy? If either of the men in front
of them go down (and one of them is named Matt Stafford), Hill and
Orton stand to inherit two of the league’s most explosive
offenses. Here’s the potential formula: Lots of NFL experience
+ freakishly talented receivers + aggressive offensive schemes =
cha-ching! I don’t care who throws footballs to Calvin Johnson.
He’s going to catch them and, more often than not, do wonderful
things with them. The same can be said, albeit on a slightly more
modest scale, about Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. Hill and Orton,
though currently cruising toward retirement as members of the clipboard
and ball cap crew, aren’t incapable. If things break just
so (poor choice of words, I realize), they could be fantasy factors
in a real hurry.
Wilson, NYG: NFL teams, even defending Super Bowl champs,
don’t typically select projects in the first round of the draft.
The first round is for procuring immediate help. Despite their recent
success, New York certainly needs it at the running back position.
Gone is their longtime bruiser, Brandon
Jacobs, whom the G-Men jettisoned after a very lackluster 2011
campaign. Left behind are Ahmad
Bradshaw, the talented but oft-injured meal ticket, and D.J.
Ware, a seldom utilized backup with decent size but hardly compelling
ability. And it’s not exactly like this particular trio was setting
the world on fire to begin with. Conversely, they comprised the
league’s very worst rushing attack last season.
Enter David Wilson, a potential game-changer from Virginia Tech,
who Coach Coughlin and company are hoping will help rectify that
lowly ranking. Wilson is certainly an intriguing specimen. Though
seemingly typecast as a “speed back” (he’s absolutely
speedy), most seem to overlook the fact he was a workhorse in college.
In his one season as a full-time starter at that level, he carried
the ball almost 300 times. He’s also, unlike most change-of-pace
guys, not at all afraid to mix it up. In fact, he tallied more yards
after contact than any back in the entire NCAA in 2011. That includes
Trent Richardson, by the way. Wilson won’t be asked to carry
the load in Gotham, but he probably could if necessary.
Oh, and it’s not at all hard to imagine it being necessary,
by the way. Ahmad Bradshaw, a similarly sized and talented (though
somewhat slower) ground-gainer, has only made it unscathed through
one of his five seasons. Should Wilson be pressed into full-time
duty, I believe he would offer near total replacement value from
a fantasy perspective. Even if Bradshaw remains healthy, Wilson
probably gets enough work to merit bye-week replacement status in
this, his rookie season.
Rodgers, ATL: This guy was a workhorse in college, as
well, though he hardly fits the profile. He’s barely taller than
my sisters and weighs several Big Macs shy of two bills. Nevertheless,
he finished no lower than 20th nationally for rushing attempts in
each of his three seasons at Oregon State. How did such a compact
guy withstand so much punishment? His low center of gravity, surprisingly
powerful legs, and uncommon shiftiness and maneuverability made
for a pretty lethal combination in Corvallis, especially against
the somewhat “indulgent” defenses of the former Pac-10.
Backup running back Jacquizz Rodgers is
an ideal RB4 in PPR leagues.
Quizz is running with the big boys now and probably can’t,
unlike Wilson, carry a full-time load should something happen to
Michael Turner. Of course, the best way to ensure nothing does happen
to Mr. Turner is to lighten his load and get the youngster some
legitimate reps. Will the Falcons actually commit to giving The
Burner an occasional breather this year, as they’ve promised
in years past? They’d better, because he isn’t getting
any younger, faster, or more dynamic. Rodgers may not be capable
of carrying a full load but that doesn’t mean he can’t
play all three downs. He’s sturdy, does his best running between
the tackles, and could certainly handle 5-10 carries per game and
several more targets in the passing game.
Oh, almost forgot the best part: Quizz is an outstanding pass receiver
out of the backfield. He tallied 21 receptions in limited time last
year but could easily triple that output if given enough opportunities.
In fact, he notched 78 receptions back in 2009 for the Beavers,
surpassed only by his even smaller brother, James (also a Falcon,
incidentally). You wish Atlanta weren’t so conventional—they’ve
never been lower than 11th in total rushing attempts since Mike
Smith took the job—but the pressure is on to reach the next
level, and I’ve gotta think that’s going to translate
into a more dynamic scheme in 2012. Rodgers will be an integral
part of that scheme, it appears, and for that reason, I won’t
hesitate to nab him as my third or fourth RB come draft day.
Jennings, JAX: The way things are looking right now,
Rashad Jennings might end up being more than just an “integral part”
of the Jaguars’ backfield by the time September rolls around. He
could be the show. Though Jennings is nominally still the backup
in Jacksonville, Maurice
Jones-Drew’s protracted holdout makes it more likely, with every
passing day, that Jennings will be the opening day starter. Even
if the main man returns before the games begin (likely), I’ve a
hunch Jennings won’t fade into oblivion.
Truth be told, he was on my super-secret sleeper list for 2011—the
one I only share with imaginary friends and real ones who don’t
give a hoot about fantasy football. Coming off a 2010 season in
which he tallied almost 500 rushing yards, a shade over 200 receiving
yards, and four scores as MJD’s fill-in, I thought the Jags’
brain trust might opt to lade his broad shoulders with even more
responsibility last year. They indeed might have, too, had he not
wrecked his knee in the preseason and missed the entire slate. Ugh.
Tough to get behind a guy when he’s coming off a washed-out
season, has never been a full-time starter, and is backing up the
league’s reigning rushing champ, but....
Jennings has ideal size (6’1”, 230 pounds), a muscular
build, quick feet, and a second gear when he reaches the second
level. Moreover, though he hasn’t carried the ball a ton at
the NFL level, he does sport a mighty impressive 5.4 yards-per-carry
average. In other words, he’s proven to be a capable ball
carrier already. Finally, Jennings is a refreshingly independent
individual who possesses an unusual work ethic and a reputation
above reproach. Though hard work and good character may not get
you far in the NFL, the lack of either (or worse, both) will certainly
buy you a ticket to the unemployment line in pretty short order
(see: Ochocinco, Chad). I’m grabbing this good guy because
he also happens to be a talented individual who may be available
for the right price late.
Cobb, GB: The proliferation of three-, four-, and five-wide
sets in modern NFL offenses makes defining the word “backup,” as
it pertains to receivers at least, pretty danged subjective. Fair
enough. Let’s limit this discussion to the No. 3, 4, and 5 receivers
on NFL depth charts and see if we can come up with some potential
gems. Sound like fun?
Hey, found one! Cobb came to the Tundra from the University of Kentucky
where he starred as a wide receiver…and as a quarterback…and
as a wide receiver again…and as a punt returner…and
as a…. Selling tickets and handing out programs may have been
the only things Cobb didn’t do during his undergrad days in
Lexington. Such versatility rarely manifests itself at the NFL level,
where specialization (not to mention stodginess) is the order of
the day, but it does speak to overall athleticism and feel for the
game. Cobb has both of those assets in spades and seems to have,
ironically, landed in the perfect spot for a man of his talents.
I say “ironically” because he’s currently listed
as the fifth wide receiver on Green Bay’s depth chart. Typically,
being buried on a team’s depth chart doesn’t scream
“perfect spot,” but this isn’t your typical team.
There are plenty of Aaron Rodgers fastballs to go around in Titletown.
Further, the Pack’s running game is a shambles right now.
Though it may not bode well for their championship hopes, the 40-plus
passing attempts we’re likely to see on a routine basis should
keep those many mouths fed. Cobb is just one of those mouths, sure,
but Donald Driver is getting older and it isn’t a stretch
to envision the youngster eating into the venerable Driver’s
slot receiver looks sooner rather than later.
Randle, NYG: The third wide receiver spot in New York
has been a pretty lucrative one for fantasy GMs the past several
Manningham, and, of course, Victor Cruz have all filled the
role at one point or another before moving up the pecking order.
This year, Nicks and Cruz are the clear 1 and 2, but with Smith
now in St. Louis and Manningham across the continent in San Francisco,
a question’s being asked around camp: Who will step up to become
that critical third option for Eli
Manning this season? As of press time, it’s still pretty much
Randle is mine, you’ve no doubt gathered, but I want to make
one thing perfectly clear: It’s absolutely a guess and I’m
almost certain he won’t start the season in that role. Domenic
Hixon, the most accomplished of the four candidates, is probably
the odds-on favorite to start, but he’s really struggled to
stay healthy (two ACL injuries in two years) and probably can’t
be counted on to last the whole year. Ramses Barden has tantalized
the Giants’ brass for three years but can’t seem to
translate his freakish size into production (just 15 career receptions).
Lastly, Jerrel Jernigan, a third-round selection in 2011, totaled
precisely zero catches in his rookie year and probably makes the
squad only if he brings something to the table on special teams.
That brings us back to Randle, the least experienced of the bunch
but also the guy with the most upside. Though he played in a run-first
offense at LSU, he still managed to post some pretty good numbers
and often showed off the trademark size and athleticism which SEC
studs typically display. Should he land that No. 3 role at some
point, he could become a Manning favorite as opposing defenses go
all-in to shut down Nicks and Cruz, one of the NFL’s most
dynamic and dangerous duos.
Hilton or LaVon
Brazill, IND: The Andrew
Luck era has begun in Indianapolis, and though his primary targets,
Wayne and Austin
Collie, will be holdovers from the previous regime, it’s pretty
much a free-for-all after that. Gone is Pierre
Garcon, off to serve as the new headliner in DC. Gone is the
oft-injured Anthony Gonzalez, currently on the street after getting
cut by New England in May. Gone are reliable tight ends Dallas
Clark, who flew the coop to Tampa, and Jacob
Tamme, who followed Peyton
Manning to Denver. The Colts were obviously down and mostly
out last year, but that’s still 123 receptions that just walked
out the door (176 more if you go back to the 2010 season).
Hilton and Brazill, two strikingly similar rookies, are in the mix
to fill the void at receiver, along with some other assorted cast-offs
(Donnie Avery, Quan Cosby) and undrafted free agent types (Griff
Whalen, Kris Adams). Though both are a tad undersized (neither is
6’), each possesses elite playmaking ability and an electricity
that will be sorely needed in the revamped Indy attack, not to mention
on special teams. Each, in fact, could probably claim to have been
the most dangerous athlete in their respective college conferences,
the Sun Belt (Hilton) and the MAC( Brazill). For the cost of a late
third-rounder and a sixth-rounder, I think the Colts got a couple
of pretty good prospects.
Of course, the franchise spent their second and an earlier third-round
pick on a couple of pass-catching tight ends, Coby
Fleener and Dwayne
Allen, who will also be counted upon to fill the vacuum created
by mass defection of Peyton’s old playmates. Are there really enough
balls to go around at Lucas Oil Stadium? Here’s the final reason
I like either Hilton or Brazill (or both) to be relevant sooner
rather than later: Bruce Arians. Yup, the guy who transformed the
Steel Curtain from a traditional ground-and-pound outfit to one
of the league’s most pass-happy under Ben
Roethlisberger has brought his five-wide sets to Naptown. The
2011 season may indeed have been a snoozer for Colts fans, but 2012
is shaping up to be anything but.