You guys, this fantasy stuff can be tricky. It's no simple thing to forecast individual performance in the NFL, a league where injuries, arrests, contract disputes, suspensions, meteorological phenomena, Kardashians, and a thousand other variables can disrupt your fantasy plans. That's why they hire experts to sort it all out.
Just for the record, the Yahoo! fantasy team has a pretty stellar track record when it comes to rankings accuracy — both in-season and pre-draft. In all likelihood, we've been demonstrably better at evaluating the player pool than whatever other source(s) you might have used over the years. And why is that? Well, it's no fluke. We've all trained at the elite European fantasy academies, we've all apprenticed with the finest fantasy-smiths. If you can trust anybody in this racket, it's us. And it's all free.
In any case, today's primary mission isn't to pitch you on the full suite of Yahoo! fantasy services. Instead, the objective is to assemble a complete roster with the best value picks at each position, based on recent drafts and mocks. The key word there (which you probably noticed, what with the italics) is "value." Today, we're discussing projected return on investment. I'm not putting together some sort of dream team here — you won't find Foster or Megatron or Rice or Rodgers — but rather a roster full of upside players, usually available at reasonable cost.
At this point in draft season, I've patched together a significant number of teams, and these guys keep finding their way onto my rosters (particularly this first dude) ...
QB Matt Ryan, Atlanta — Ryan is really the most under-appreciated name in the player pool. Fantasy experts have spent the past month trying to one-up each other with bullish statements about Julio Jones, Jacquizz Rodgers, the potential of the Atlanta offense generally ... and yet no one seems to have embraced the team's quarterback. I can't fully explain why this is, but I know a bargain when I see one. If we're right about the potential of all these Falcons' skill players, then, by extension, Ryan is in line for a huge season.
Just take a quick look at the industry-wide consensus wide receiver ranks. Fantasy analysts have actually placed two Atlanta wideouts in the top-seven at their position, plus we've got Tony Gonzalez slotted ninth among the tight ends. Yet somehow, we think Ryan is going to be outscored by nine different QBs. His average draft position is 67.4. The guy finished eighth at his position last year (4,177 yards, 29 TDs), so we apparently expect him to take a small step back, while both of his starting wide receivers rank with the elite.
That ain't gonna happen. I'm buying the Falcons offense, so I'm absolutely buying shares of Ryan. Of course he's no sleeper — that's not what this list is all about — so here's a name from further down the ranks...
Deeper league value play: QB Andrew Luck, Indianapolis — RGIII is getting all the fantasy hype, but Luck has a full skill-set and a much friendlier price tag (ADP 133.7). Check the preseason tape. The Colts will likely be playing catch-up all season, given their defensive shortcomings, so there's a great chance Luck will lead the rookie class in pass attempts. You'll like his final line. Doubt you'll mind the production from Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie (ADP 156.8), either.
RB Jonathan Stewart, Carolina — Fantasy owners tend to veer away from uncertainty wherever they perceive it (even though it exists everywhere in the NFL), so they routinely ignore the Carolina running game until the mid-to-late rounds. If you can't learn to find the value in committee backfields, you're going to hate managing in the years ahead. Stewart is coming off a season in which he gained 1,174 scrimmage yards, averaged 5.4 yards per carry, and caught 47 passes. He's an excellent option in point-per-reception leagues — we know he's the Panthers' primary pass-catching back — and we have to expect his quarterback to cede a few goal line carries this season. Stewart is nonetheless the 36th running back selected in an average draft, beyond pick No. 80. There's little risk at that point. And if Stewart somehow falls into a full workload, he'll be a fantasy monster. We've seen it happen in Carolina in prior seasons.
RB Willis McGahee, Denver — No one ever seems to target the dull production that McGahee can deliver, so he's usually available for you in Round 5 or 6, outside the top-50 picks. He gave us seven 100-yard performances last season, he's the unrivaled top back on the depth chart, and his team's offensive outlook is much better with Peyton Manning at the controls. Still, all the cool kids are lining up to grab Ronnie Hillman in the late rounds instead of Willis in the middle. If you think head coach John Fox is anxious to lean on a rookie back in 2012, then ... well, you probably didn't own a fantasy team during the DeShaun-DeAngelo era.
Deeper values: RB David Wilson, New York and RB Ryan Williams, Arizona — Both of these backs will open the season in committees, but they're sharing workloads with oft-injured vets. It's not difficult to imagine either guy inheriting a larger-than-projected workload, thereby emerging as reliable fantasy assets. Hopefully the Virginia Tech people appreciated this blurb, short though it may be.
WR Percy Harvin, Minnesota — Harvin was actually the seventh highest-scoring fantasy receiver last year, and he led his position in total touches (139). Remember, the Vikes gave him 52 carries, which he converted into 345 yards and two scores. I see no reason to think he won't take a similar number of hand-offs this year, with Adrian Peterson recovering from injury. But for whatever reason, Harvin is the No. 18 wideout selected in a typical draft. There's too great a gap between his 2011 value and his 2012 draft spot.
WR Pierre Garcon, Washington — I didn't actually realize how optimistic I was about Garcon until I'd drafted 4-5 teams, and he was on 'em all. I've continued to take this guy in nearly every league and mock, often at crazy-low prices. I'm not sure he'll ever be worth the $42.5 million deal Washington handed him back in March, but he's the closest thing this team has to a difference-maker at receiver. Garcon is coming from the best possible developmental environment (Indianapolis, during the Manning years), and the guy has always delivered in the biggest games. Check his playoff game log for details. If you had any doubts about his rapport with RGIII, they were presumably erased in the preseason opener. Garcon is getting drafted this season as merely a low-end third receiver (ADP 73.8, WR29); I'm thinking he'll be more expensive in 2013.
WR Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia — There's a small discount on Maclin this year, because he's coming off a season in which he was a bit of a mess physically. You'll recall the preseason mystery illness, then the hamstring issues. Maclin is back at full capacity now, however, and he finds himself still in a high-yield offense, tied to a terrific quarterback. This guy has clear 90-1200-10 potential, but we're drafting him outside the top-20 receivers.
Go-routes: WR Vincent Brown, San Diego; WR Titus Young, Detroit; WR Jonathan Baldwin, Kansas City — Those first two guys are talented receivers attached to productive offenses, players who've already put a few highlights on tape in the NFL. Brown simply abused the Packers' junior varsity in preseason action on Thursday. Baldwin is huge receiver (6-foot-4) with mutant-level athleticism, a former first-rounder who's been one of the buzziest names during the off-season for KC. He should make a substantial value leap in 2012, his second year in the league. All three of these guys are selected beyond pick No. 90, with both Brown and Baldwin available after pick No. 120.
TE Vernon Davis, San Francisco — Davis usually remains on the board beyond the first five rounds in 12-team drafts (ADP 65.3), yet he has the skill-set to match the top-tier players at his position. The Niners added a pair of brand-name receivers to the mix this year (Randy Moss, Mario Manningham), which may worry some of you. There are plenty of mouths to feed in San Francisco suddenly, and the same old uninteresting quarterback doing the feeding. ("Mouths to feed." Gross expression. So sorry. Nobody needs to imagine Alex Smith as a mama bird. My bad). But the new additions at receiver should ultimately benefit Davis, drawing coverage, opening the field. Davis binged over his final three games last season, playoffs included, catching 18 balls for 410 yards and four scores. He's now perfectly at home in Jim Harbaugh's offense. This is a guy to target if you don't nab Graham or Gronk at the top.
For the 16-teams-and-over crowd: TE Kyle Rudolph, Minnesota — He only caught 26 balls in his rookie season, true, but a few of those grabs were ridiculous. Rudolph was a second-round pick out of Notre Dame in 2011, so it's not like expectations were modest. The camp buzz has been persistent this year, but Rudolph's ADP is still low (152.8, TE19). He could be a filthy steal.
DEF Buffalo Bills — If you're in a smallish league, let's say 10 or 12 teams, you'll probably want to simply stream defenses week-to-week, picking on friendly match-ups. But if you're playing in a larger format, you'll need to tie yourself to a specific D for the long haul. I've been targeting Buffalo in the end-game, for reasons we detailed a few weeks ago. This defense has talent at every level, a potentially deadly pass rush, and a schedule that looks plenty friendly (Miami and the Jets twice, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Arizona, St. Louis).
You don't seriously want a kicker here, right? — Of course you don't. With this position, you want someone tied to a high-scoring offense, preferably (but not necessarily) a guy who will do his home kicking in favorable conditions. Maybe in a dome, maybe in Cali. But don't spend more than a buck on your kicker in fantasy auctions, and don't take one before the final round. (Unless maybe you have a Sea Bass fetish and your league awards yardage bonuses. Then I'll look the other way. I have a weakness for that guy, too).
Let's go one more position, just for the flex people...
FLEX Ben Tate, Houston — I needed to find a way to toss Tate's name into the discussion, because he's more than a fantasy handcuff. I've taken this guy in plenty of leagues, even when I didn't get Arian Foster at the top. If Tate were the lead back in the Texans' backfield, we'd all rank him as a first-round fantasy asset — possibly as a top-five option. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry last season, rushed for 942 yards, and starred when Foster was sidelined. Tate is a lottery ticket, with reasonably good odds.
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