You don’t need to see a mock draft to know that Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Cam Newton, Drew Brees, Arian Foster, Ray Rice and Calvin Johnson will be drafted within the first 15 picks in 2012 fantasy football leagues.
But what about the players fantasy owners used to love whose shine lost its luster last year or the unheralded unknowns whom everyone forgets to list on their cheat sheets?
Here are five under-the-radar players everyone is forgetting about in fantasy football:
Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles (QB)
Vick is so 36 seconds ago. Why would you want Vick? The guy is ancient at age 31. He is half the size of Cam Newton and scores one-tenth of the rushing touchdowns. Heck, Tim Tebow was a much better running quarterback than Vick last season.
This is the likely thinking of many fantasy owners. Coming off a season where Vick threw for 18 touchdowns and ran for only one, which was 13 total touchdowns fewer than Mark Sanchez had, Vick’s fantasy value could not be any lower unless he was caught up in another dog-fighting fiasco.
But last season was a disaster on many levels for Philadelphia, and much of it was why Vick had such an off year. His receivers had more problems than most soap-opera families. DeSean Jackson’s contract troubles and his tendency to short-arm passes made him a shell of his former self. Jeremy Maclin’s illness and injuries cost him games and steps.
Philly will rebound in 2012, and so will Vick. Yes, he will miss two to four games due to injury. But we all know he will not run for just one TD again. With Jackson and Maclin healthy and happy again, Vick’s passing totals should be on the rise. Even though he probably will not be one of the Top 10 QBs drafted in your league, look for Vick to throw for 3,500 yards, rush for 650 more and account for 30 touchdowns.
Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams (QB)
There is no doubt in my mind that rookie phenoms Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III will be taken before Bradford this August and September when fantasy drafts occur. Fantasy football is like that. Just look at the aforementioned Vick. He went from being one of the top quarterbacks to own in fantasy to maybe the 12th-best in just one year.
Bradford, just like Luck, was drafted No. 1 overall in the NFL draft. He has talent—wagons full of it. This is a guy who threw for 3,512 yards and 18 touchdowns during his rookie campaign when there was a Cleveland Cavaliers-like amount of talent surrounding him.
Sure, 2011 was a nightmare for Bradford and his fantasy owners. He was inconsistent throwing the ball, dealt with a nagging high-ankle sprain throughout the season and had a porous offensive line and a below-below-average receiving crew that offered no help. He ended up with a half dozen touchdown tosses, the equivalent of what Matt Flynn tossed in just one game last year.
Bradford is now 100 percent healthy, has a new head coach who knows what he is doing in Jeff Fisher and has some new pieces around him on offense. Fantasy owners would have been happier if the Rams had drafted top WR prospect Justin Blackmon instead of taking Brian Quick at the start of the second round or if the Rams signed one of the top-level free-agent WR available during the offseason, but hopefully some of St. Louis’s draft picks pan out.
Bradford should bounce back and have the first 20-touchdown season of his short career. He will especially be valuable in keeper and dynasty leagues where he can be held onto for multiple years. His fantasy stock will never be lower, and he will never fly lower under the radar, so draft him in the right round and have him on your roster while he improves the next couple seasons.
Peyton Hillis, Kansas City Chiefs (RB)
Hillis ranks right up there with Greece, Wall Street and Mel Gibson for the winner of “Who had the worst 2011?” Willis went from Madden ‘12 cover boy to a whiny, injury-prone, me-me-me player whose fantasy value dropped like Warren Sapp was tied to it.
But let’s not have short memories with Hillis. This is the same man who rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns and added 477 receiving yards and a couple TD receptions in 2010. He has the ability to be a dominant fullback-halfback hybrid who can have over 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns when his mind is right and the situation he is in is right.
Hillis will not be drafted in the early rounds this year, not after coming off a season where he had so many on-field and off-field issues and failed to break the 600-yard barrier, and not when he is slated to be Jamaal Charles’s backup in Kansas City.
But Charles is returning from a shredded ACL, so KC will probably be careful with his carry totals. Hillis could be the main red-zone rusher when the Chiefs get near the end zone. Hillis should be a good get in the middle-to-late rounds of fantasy drafts.
Doug Baldwin, Seattle Seahawks (WR)
Baldwin came out of nowhere to catch 51 passes for 788 yards and finish fourth among rookies in receiving yards last season. Pretty impressive considering he was an undrafted free agent, and downright startling considering Tarvaris Jackson was his quarterback most of the time.
Baldwin’s numbers might not bowl over fantasy owners, but when you think how much he could improve in his second season and how he will probably have Matt Flynn throwing to him instead of the infamous Jackson, a 60-reception, 900-yard, 6-touchdown output is not far-fetched. He could be a late-round steal for fantasy owners, especially if Sidney Rice’s shoulder surgeries and concussions keep him out of Baldwin’s way.
Mike Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (WR)
Williams is another walking example of the dreaded sophomore slump. He was one of the best rookie receivers around in 2010, piling up 964 yards and 11 touchdowns. Williams and Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman looked like they were on the verge of becoming the next Jerry Rice and Joe Montana, or at least Haywood Jeffires and Warren Moon.
Yet, last season, even though Williams caught the same amount of passes (65), he only ended up with 771 yards and three touchdowns. Williams had trouble separating from cornerbacks downfield and inside the red zone while Freeman was wilder with his throws than a pitcher on hallucinogenic mushrooms.
With Tampa Bay signing WR Vincent Jackson and TE Dallas Clark to contracts, though, defenses will no longer be able to put their best corners on Williams. Couple that with Freeman learning from his mistakes and turning into the franchise quarterback he should and Williams could be a 1,000-yard receiver again. He will not be scooped up in the high rounds like he was during 2011 drafts, so make him your No. 3 or No. 4 WR and be pleasantly surprised when he outperforms your No. 2 dude.