Fantasy Football Sleepers 2012
Mock Drafts for the upcoming fantasy football season started somewhere between 10 and 15 seconds after Eli hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, but if you haven’t dived in yet, don’t worry—we’ve got you covered. Using Average Draft Position (ADP) data collected from MyFantasyLeague, I’ve identified a handful of surfacing trends that I feel are misguided. In our first of this two-part series, I’ll touch on players who are being wrongfully overlooked by fantasy drafters.
Michael Vick (51 ADP, QB6) – Last season we viewed Michael Vick through the lens of a mid-first rounder, and from that perspective he was a complete bust. However, he still finished sixth among quarterbacks in standard fantasy PPG, and several factors suggest that he’s primed for a rebound.
DeSean Jackson’s disinterest and Jeremy Maclin’s mystery illness have been cured—Vick’s two top dogs are happy and healthy heading into 2012. Vick also battled bad luck on the ground in 2011. Despite running 76 times for an impressive 7.8 YPC, he managed just one touchdown (1.3% touchdown rate). In his previous eight seasons, Vick scored on 4.9% of his carries, so expect his paltry 2011 touchdown total to correct itself in 2012.
Injury risk rightfully lands Vick outside the top five signal callers, but he still has as much weekly upside as anyone, and strong positional depth means insurance can be secured cheaply. Considering that Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford are all going inside the top 20 picks, Vick’s fifth-round ADP presents sparkling draft day value.
Josh Freeman (128 ADP, QB18) – After posting an outstanding 25:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his sophomore season, Josh Freeman got fat and happy en route to a sluggish third year. While his mid-level yardage numbers remained consistent, he managed just 16 touchdown passes, and his interception total ballooned to 22. There’s reason for optimism, however. The 24-year old has dropped 20 pounds, and Greg Schiano’s run-heavy offense should result in much more efficient quarterbacking.
The Bucs fortified their line with Carl Nicks, and Freeman now has a legitimate deep threat (Vincent Jackson) and check-down option (Doug Martin). Improved passing numbers are imminent, and Freeman’s rushing totals should push him into low-end QB1 contention.
Carson Palmer (160 ADP, QB22) – Contrary to popular belief, Carson Palmer is not a card carrying AARP member. In fact, the 32-year is actually right in the sweet spot of the typical quarterback production window.
Pulled from his couch and thrown into a foreign situation last October, Palmer fared better than expected. In his nine starts he averaged 293 yards and totaled 14 touchdowns against 13 interceptions. He also showed plenty of arm strength, as his average target and completion depths were among the highest in the league.
Finally afforded time to gel with his emerging arsenal of Denarius Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford, Juron Criner and Darren McFadden, Palmer should be a very strong fantasy QB2 this season.
Isaac Redman (96 ADP, RB31) – After tearing his ACL in January, the uninspiring Rashard Mendenhall will likely spend somewhere between six weeks (PUP list) and the entire 2012 season slaving away on a stationary bike. Enter Isaac Redman, a determined, underrated bruiser who should step right into Mendenhall’s numbers.
As a one-dimensional back who’s best between the tackles, Redman is stylistically similar to Mendenhall. In Pittsburgh’s final two games of last season, he turned 41 touches into 252 combo yards and a score. In a featured role, Redman could approach baselines of 250 touches and 1,200 total yards, with double-digit touchdown potential.
Considering that Mendenhall was a top-10 pick in 2011, the equally capable Redman is being badly undervalued in early mocks.
Willis McGahee (111ADP, RB 36) – After spending the previous three seasons spelling Ray Rice in Baltimore, Willis McGahee hit the ground running in Denver. The 30-year old looked fresh, carrying 249 times for 1,199 yards (4.8 YPC) and five total touchdowns despite Tim Tebow inviting defenses to stack the box. Moreover, Tebow broke the eighth commandment by stealing six rushing touchdowns (all inside the red zone) from McGahee, who scored on just 1.9% of his touches (down from his previous 3.4% career rate).
Peyton Manning will instantly create more running room for McGahee, who has a bit more left in the tank than most 30-year olds due to light usage from 2008-2010. He’s a low-end RB2 being drafted as a low-end RB3.
James Starks (129 ADP, RB43) – I’m not a big fan of James Starks. Nobody is. He’s like an orange Starburst—he’s alright, but he’d never be your first or second choice.
With that said, Ryan Grant is gone, and Starks is firmly entrenched atop the depth chart in a high-scoring offense. He’s just an ordinary talent, but he has enough versatility to cobble together useful Flex/RB3 production most weeks.
Isaiah Pead (145 ADP, RB 47) – When a workhorse goes down, a full-fledged committee typically ensues, but that won’t be the case if Steven Jackson’s excessive usage finally catches up to him in his Age 29 season. Behind Jackson on the depth chart is his heir apparent—second-round rookie Isaiah Pead—and a handful of grocery baggers.
Elusive and explosive, consider Pead a deep sleeper and an ideal late-round flier with upside.
Steve Smith (53 ADP, WR23) – Most in the fantasy community, myself included, are expecting Cam Newton to make big strides as a passer in his second season. So why is his primary target being ignored?
Sure, Steve Smith is 33, but he looked as feisty as ever last season when he returned to superstar form with 79 catches for 1,394 yards and seven scores. His averages of 8.0 targets/game and 17.7 YPC certainly don’t reflect those of a guy who’s slowing down. Still more than capable of fantasy WR1 production, draft the dynamo with confidence.
Demaryius Thomas (43 ADP, WR17) and Eric Decker (74 ADP, WR29) – As a passer, Tim Tebow is closer to Cooper Manning than he is Peyton, so the 2011 accomplishments of Denver’s talented receiving tandem are nothing short of a miracle.
A genetic freak, Demaryius Thomas closed out the final seven games of the season by collecting 35 catches for 745 yards (106 YPG) and four touchdowns. Counterpart Eric Decker displayed his impressive combination of size and athleticism, from both the slot and out wide, scoring eight times in 10 games from Weeks 2-12.
Reports of Manning’s progress have been glowing, and if they hold true, both of his physical targets should easily outperform their draft positions.
Reggie Wayne (91.13 ADP, WR33) – Last season Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon essentially split the Colts’ wide receiver production right down the middle, and with Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins combining for 14 touchdowns and a 72.2 QB rating, there wasn’t exactly a lot to go around. Not surprisingly, the 33-year old’s numbers (75/960/4) slumped, causing his 2012 draft stock to plummet.
Wayne’s fantasy WR1 days are over, but there’s reason for hope. Garcon has left town, and the three-headed quarterback circus has been replaced by one of the most pro-ready rookies in league history. Wayne hasn’t missed a game in 10 years, and over the last five seasons he’s ranked 7th, 13th, 7th, 2nd and 11th in targets. He’ll be Andrew Luck’s security blanket, and should approach WR2 production by sheer volume alone.
Fred Davis (88 ADP, TE9) – Fred Davis was breaking out in 2011… and then he got high. He was averaging an outstanding 13.5 YPC, and was on pace for 1,061 yards (which would have trailed only Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham) before a four-game suspension ended his season early.
The playmaking tight end should be the centerpiece of Washington’s revamped passing game, and a favorite of rookie Robert Griffin III in Mike Shanahan’s West Coast Offense. He has as much upside as anyone this side of Gronk and Graham.
Tony Gonzalez (127 ADP, TE14) – Despite turning 36 last season, Tony Gonzalez’ 875 yards and seven touchdowns were his best marks since 2008. He’s expected to retire after this season, but the future Hall of Famer is a fitness fanatic who looked like a spring chicken in 2011.
Gonzo hasn’t missed a game in five years, and has averaged 78/799/7 in three seasons as a Falcon. With Matt Ryan continuing to improve on a yearly basis, there’s no reason the ever-steady veteran can’t give us one more season of mid- to low-end TE1 production.