We've seen each team play at least two preseason games and closely monitored camp reports on every skill-position player in the NFL. The recommendations in this column are inherently negative (see title), but based on the facts we've gleaned, represent an informed and reasoned projection.
This isn't a list of undervalued players, necessarily, or projected busts. Those can be found in the 2013 Fantasy Football Draft Guide. This is a list of players I think you should consider scratching off your cheatsheets altogether. Guys you should draft around.
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1. Texans RB Arian Foster -- It's not just the injuries. Back and calf woes have shelved Foster since May OTAs, but there are additional signs of breakdown in his performance. His yards-per-carry average has experienced significant dips in each of the past two seasons, and last year Foster set a career low in yards per reception. The tape shows Foster's big-play ability is fading. This all isn't surprising, as the Texans have given him the most all-purpose touches in the league over the past three seasons, and in 2012 let Foster lead the NFL in rushing attempts. In the first round, I’d just draft someone else.
2. Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew -- I'd like Jones-Drew a lot better as a bounce-back candidate if his price wasn't so high. MJD will be 28 1/2 when the season starts, is coming off a severe foot injury, has 1,862 career touches on his tires, and plays in a bottom-five offense. And people are taking him in the top 20. I wouldn't even consider MJD before the late third round.
3. Raiders RB Darren McFadden -- If the Jags have a bottom-five offense, the Raiders make them look like the 2007 Patriots. Starting Alex Barron, Andre Gurode, and Khalif Barnes up front, Oakland's line resembles a UFL team's. The Raiders' switch back to power blocking is supposed to rejuvenate McFadden's career, but it's all irrelevant if the linemen can't block anyone without drawing a holding call. Not only will McFadden's team play from behind all year, he'll lack running lanes in rare competitive instances. And we never even got to his injury history.
4. Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe -- New Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith is an inside-the-numbers passer who has a limiting effect on perimeter receivers. Bowe plays "X" in Kansas City's offense, running sideline routes while Jamaal Charles, Anthony Fasano, and Dexter McCluster operate underneath. Just like Michael Crabtree in San Francisco, Bowe will struggle for consistent weekly targets due to Smith's unwillingness to pull the trigger on tight-window downfield throws. Through two preseason games, Smith has 14 completions. 12 have been good to tight ends and running backs, and McCluster has the two receiver receptions. Bowe's lone target fell incomplete.
5. Chargers RB Ryan Mathews -- Mathews has looked sharp in August (5.33 YPC), but running talent has never been his defect. In addition to poor durability, Mathews must contend with league-worst line play on one of the NFL's worst teams. The Chargers will play from behind often this season -- that means they'll be passing -- and the coaching staff has stripped Mathews of passing-down duties. Don't be surprised if Danny Woodhead leads this backfield in snaps.
6. Giants WR Hakeem Nicks -- Since entering the NFL, Nicks has missed time with two hyperextended knees, a concussion, bruised ribs, groin tightness, a left foot sprain, a hip flexor, a broken big toe on his right foot, and six hamstring strains. He's undergone surgeries on his toe, right wrist, the metatarsal on his right foot, and his left knee. In 2010, he was diagnosed with compartment syndrome in his right leg. Nicks looked sluggish and as if he'd lost a step in last week's preseason debut. Let someone else gamble an early-round pick that Nicks stays healthy.
7. Dolphins WR Mike Wallace -- I don't mind Wallace at his sixth-round ADP, and believe he has a chance to benefit from Dustin Keller's year-ending knee injury. But I expect Wallace to struggle for consistency in OC Mike Sherman's conservative West Coast offense, where Wallace will have to become a precise route runner after excelling as a freelancer his first few years in Pittsburgh. Miami's pass protection woes also won't help Ryan Tannehill's chances of delivering balls downfield with regularity. Wallace projects as a boom-or-bust week-to-week fantasy scorer.
8. Cardinals RB Rashard Mendenhall -- Bruce Arians essentially got tossed out of Pittsburgh for throwing the ball too often, and his 2012 Colts ranked sixth in the NFL in pass attempts. Arians is a pass-first thinker, which fits in Arizona because the Cards' best talent is in the pass game. Behind a bottom-five offensive line, look for Arizona to rank near the league's basement in both rushing attempts and yards per carry. With Mendenhall, Stepfan Taylor, Andre Ellington, and perhaps Ryan Williams all vying for work, this backfield will be a fantasy quagmire.
9. Bills WR Stevie Johnson -- Johnson is a good football player and I like his fit as the Bills' new slot receiver, but he's not going to be the featured piece of Buffalo's offense anymore. Under run-heavy rookie coach Doug Marrone, that distinction will go to C.J. Spiller. The Bills will pass less and call fewer plays for Johnson, limiting his targets. He's a pedestrian fantasy WR3.
10. Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph -- Rudolph is a fine player, and might be an annual top-five tight end if he played on another team. But Christian Ponder is a huge drain on Rudolph's ceiling and weekly consistency. Although Rudolph finished as a top-ten fantasy tight end in 2012, his scoring was extremely touchdown dependent and he caught three or fewer passes in 10-of-17 games, including the playoffs. Rudolph's eighth-round Average Draft Position is a reach when you can get Greg Olsen or Jordan Cameron a round later. Both could easily outscore Rudolph.
11. Cowboys WR Miles Austin -- A fading, 29-year-old possession receiver entering his last season in Dallas, Austin has a head-scratching seventh-round Average Draft Position despite offering little to no chance of providing difference-making fantasy impact. Greg Jennings, Josh Gordon, Golden Tate, and Chris Givens are superior fantasy bets, and all can be had later on.
12. Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart -- Painfully slow to recover from offseason surgery on both ankles, Stewart looks headed for reserve/PUP to open the season, costing him at least the first six games. Stewart appeared a step slow when he played in 2012, and his once-impressive burst and lateral agility may be gone for good. DeAngelo Williams' outlook is quietly on the rise.
13. Saints RB Mark Ingram -- Sean Payton is back from suspension and talking a good game about his 2013 rushing plans, but his club isn't positioned to run the ball. This will be a shootout team again. Already short on defensive talent, the Saints have lost critical pieces Victor Butler and Kenyon Coleman to year-ending injuries, and Jonathan Vilma is out indefinitely. An early-down back only, Ingram is a misfit on a passing team. He's not worth his eighth-round ADP.
14. Jaguars WR Justin Blackmon -- A certified knucklehead, Blackmon had already been suspended four games when he started a sideline skirmish with Dolphins CB Nolan Carroll in the preseason opener. Teammate Jason Babin told Blackmon to shut up -- he wasn't even playing -- so Blackmon started in on Babin. We're still waiting for Blackmon to "get it." Meanwhile, he'll likely end up on most fantasy league waiver wires early in the season. Don't bother wasting a draft pick.
15. Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell -- This one's obvious following Bell's Lisfranc diagnosis, but it would look weird if the list didn't include him. Bell is out 6-8 weeks at minimum, and may be placed on injured reserve/designated for return, costing him the first eight games. Bell will hit the waiver wire in fantasy leagues early in the season. Perhaps he'll be worth picking up a month or so into the year, but he's not worth a fantasy pick unless your league has injured reserve spots.
16. Titans WR Kendall Wright -- Beat writers claimed Wright was the best wideout at Titans camp, but the coaching staff never rewarded him. He played sparingly with the first-team offense in preseason games before spraining his right knee on August 17. Already "competing" for targets in a muddled receiver corps within Tennessee's low-percentage passing offense, Wright stands little to no chance of breaking out this year. It'll happen eventually. Just not in '13.
17. Colts TE Coby Fleener -- Particularly after Dwayne Allen's foot injury, the Colts gave Fleener every opportunity to succeed in a tight end-friendly passing game under old Stanford OC Pep Hamilton. Fleener responded with two drops, a lost fumble, a knee sprain, and a concussion in the first two preseason games. Fleener shies from contact and plays timidly in traffic. His athleticism is enticing, but don't be surprised if Fleener's role is scaled back when Allen returns.
18. Raiders WR Denarius Moore -- Moore can run like the wind, but has been plagued by inconsistency during coach Dennis Allen's tenure and was even benched late last year. Noodle-armed Matt Flynn is now Oakland's quarterback, which is bad news for deep threat Moore. Look for Rod Streater to lead the team in catches while Moore endures another up-and-down season.
19. Patriots WR Aaron Dobson -- Once a popular sleeper, second-round pick Dobson has been lapped by undrafted Kenbrell Thompkins in New England's "X" receiver derby. Dobson also looks to be behind fourth-round pick Josh Boyce. Barring an unlikely faceplant by Thompkins, Dobson will open the season as a situational wideout. He'll be dropped quickly in most leagues.
20. Broncos RB Ronnie Hillman -- Although Hillman has improved in pass protection and offers modest change-of-pace back skills, he's not a serious contender for Denver's lead-back job. He runs soft between the tackles and frequently gets swallowed at the line of scrimmage. Hillman also lost a goal-line fumble in the second preseason game, drawing a noticeable sideline eyeroll from Peyton Manning. Montee Ball and Knowshon Moreno are both better fantasy picks.
21. Saints WR Lance Moore -- Moore finished 2012 as a top-20 wideout scorer, but only topped 70 receiving yards in 4-of-15 fantasy relevant weeks and had an increased role due to Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham's injuries. Sproles and Graham are healthy now, relegating Moore to the No. 4 option in New Orleans' passing attack. Moore is merely a bye-week WR3.
22. Bears WR Alshon Jeffery -- Jeffery will struggle to fulfill breakout hopes as the No. 4 option in Chicago's passing offense behind Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, and Martellus Bennett -- without even mentioning slot receiver Earl Bennett. Jeffery has an intriguing skill set as a 6-foot-3, 216-pound wideout capable of making contested catches, but doesn't separate from coverage and is penalty prone. There's little chance Marc Trestman makes Jeffery a passing-game priority.
23. Chargers TE Antonio Gates -- There is a case to be made for Gates as a bounce-back candidate in San Diego's new quick-drop, receiver-thin passing game, but the odds remain long he'll reemerge as a serious fantasy threat. Second-year tight end Ladarius Green is coming on strong to poach targets down the seam, and wideout Vincent Brown is another effective underneath presence. Gates is 33 years old, and line woes may force him into frequent blocking assignments, limiting Gates' volume of pass patterns. His ceiling is a low-end TE1.
24. Bengals RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- The Bengals want to play faster in 2013, using more uptempo-oriented personnel groupings that don't include two-down plodders like Green-Ellis. Giovani Bernard's between-the-tackles limitations will ensure Law Firm retains a situational role, but he's going to be phased out of a feature back job. Bernard will lead the team in touches, and by quite a bit.
25. Rams TE Jared Cook -- Cook was a better real-life than fantasy player in Tennessee, and that will remain the case in St. Louis. The Rams have a ton of mouths to feed in the passing offense, and Cook's inability to move efficiently in short areas will always prevent him from becoming a high-volume receiver. He has big-play ability, but is a lock for fantasy inconsistency.
26. Seahawks WR Sidney Rice -- We saw Rice's ceiling in Seattle's run-based offense last year, when he scored seven touchdowns but only caught 50 balls and finished as the No. 30 fantasy receiver. While contract-year teammate Golden Tate's outlook is ascending following the Percy Harvin injury, Rice's is flatlining or falling. Target Tate. And let someone else draft Rice.
27. Packers RB Johnathan Franklin -- Franklin has struggled in practice and preseason games, getting consistently outplayed by fellow rookie Eddie Lacy. DuJuan Harris is also ahead of Franklin in the backfield pecking order. Franklin will open the season no higher than third string.
28. Giants RB Andre Brown -- Brown's Average Draft Position has crept into round seven, which defies logic for a talent-deficient back with durability woes behind an exceptionally more skilled starter. The Giants like Brown as a third-down back, but people aren't blowing mid-round picks on Danny Woodhead. In all likelihood, David Wilson will run away with the Giants' feature back job. The only chance Brown stands of being worth his ADP would be if Wilson got hurt.
29. Texans TE Owen Daniels -- Entering his age-31 season, Daniels isn't the seam stretcher he once was and his targets may slip rather dramatically following the addition of first-rounder DeAndre Hopkins. Daniels definitely isn't a TE1, and there are many higher-upside TE2s.
30. Colts RB Vick Ballard -- Have at it if you're drafting Ballard to 'cuff Ahmad Bradshaw; just don't pretend he has a chance to be Indy's starter. Ballard is inferior to Bradshaw in all areas, from running ability to pass protection. Donald Brown has outplayed Ballard in preseason games.
31. Bucs QB Josh Freeman -- Freeman can sling the deep ball with the best of them, but he's a highly inconsistent field general whose fantasy production depends heavily on his wideouts making contested catches. Instead of expecting Freeman to match or exceed last year's top-13 fantasy quarterback finish, look for a reduction in pass attempts as the Buccaneers build their offense around Doug Martin. Freeman will also throw less because Tampa's defense is better.
32. Chargers WR Malcom Floyd -- Floyd is a painfully poor fit for what the Chargers aim to do on offense under Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt. A straight-linish, long-striding vertical receiver, Floyd is a misfit in the shortened-up, quick-throw approach. With Floyd currently shelved by a right knee injury, look for the Chargers to start Vincent Brown and Keenan Allen at receiver.
33. Ravens QB Joe Flacco -- Flacco's late-season 2012 surge following Baltimore's offensive coordinator change resulted in an 18:2 TD-to-INT ratio over the final eight games. Unfortunately, Flacco has lost two major components from that hot stretch in Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta, and the Ravens' best way to compensate is to focus on the run. Expect a smash-mouth, run-heavy offense that takes the air out of the ball. Flacco's stats will suffer.
34. Lions TE Brandon Pettigrew -- Pettigrew has commonly been viewed as a late-round value pick in recent years, without good reason. He's never finished above 11th among fantasy tight ends in his four-year career, and nor has he demonstrated any semblance of big-play ability. Reggie Bush will curtail Pettigrew's usage as a checkdown target. He is not worth drafting.
35. Rams RB Zac Stacy -- Popularly billed as a sleeper immediately after April's draft, Stacy has endured a trying August while falling behind Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead, and perhaps even undrafted rookie Benny Cunningham on St. Louis' depth chart. Stacy has been unable to practice consistently and looks likely to be an early-season non-factor. He's buried.
36. Seahawks RB Robert Turbin -- Clearly an inferior runner to Christine Michael, Turbin's grip on Marshawn Lynch's handcuff role has loosened in the preseason. Michael has been one of the stars of camp, while Turbin missed a large portion of practices with a foot injury. Should Lynch go down, Michael would likely be the run-game banger with Turbin playing only on passing downs.
37. Dolphins RB Daniel Thomas -- Thomas has 256 NFL carries. That's a strong sample size, and we've seen him fumble five times while averaging 3.54 yards per tote. Thomas is a concussion-prone plodder who hurts his team by leaving yards on the field due to poor vision and talent deficiencies. As much as the Fins like to pretend they have two starting-caliber backs, they only have one. And it's Lamar Miller. Thomas would be on the roster bubble for a good team.
38. Lions RB Mikel Leshoure -- Leshoure plodded his way to 3.71 yards per carry in 2012, and has been outplayed by Joique Bell at Lions camp. If Reggie Bush goes down, Bell would be the favorite for touches in Detroit's backfield. Leshoure isn't even worth a fantasy handcuff pick.
39. Eagles WR Riley Cooper -- Cooper appears to have won the Eagles' No. 2 wideout job, but he's a blocking receiver running with the first-team offense only because Chip Kelly plans to run the ball early and often. Cooper stands almost zero chance of helping your fantasy team.
40. Patriots TE Jake Ballard -- Ballard has a big name because he started by default on the 2011 Super Bowl Giants, but he can't run a lick and has been relegated to in-line blocking duties in New England. He'll help Stevan Ridley's fantasy production, but not your fantasy team's.
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- Arian Foster
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- Hakeem Nicks
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