Fantasy Football 2012: 10 Under-the-Radar Studs You Should Get to Know

Dan KuklaCorrespondent IIIMay 30, 2012

Fantasy Football 2012: 10 Under-the-Radar Studs You Should Get to Know

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    Don't waste your fantasy football offseason.

    Whatever you do, don't spend it wondering if taking a quarterback in the first round is now the way to go or if you should stick with the suddenly old-school routine of grabbing running backs early and often. Trust me, whether you end up with the likes of Aaron Rodgers/Drew Brees/Tom Brady or opt for Arian Foster/Ray Rice/LeSean McCoy, your team will be just fine.

    We've all heard it before so let's say it again, all together now, "You can't win your league in the first round, but you can lose it."

    Stop worrying for a moment about all the ways to lose a league (which more often than not includes an unpredictable injury to a stud) and focus on a very natural follow up question to that old adage: so how do you win a fantasy football league anyway?

    Value. Last year anyone that drafted Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham in the late rounds did quite nicely. Drafting those exact same players this year, however, won't produce nearly the same impact no matter how well they perform because it will cost you one of your first three picks. The key is to find the next set of breakout players you can acquire on the cheap and in volume. If you pay attention, you don't always have to look far.

Aaron Hernandez, TE, New England Patriots

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    The next Rob Gronkowski might actually be his teammate. When New England drafted Aaron Hernandez two rounds after Gronk in 2010, many fantasy analysts projected him to put up similar if not better numbers. They were supposed to be a dynamic duo with Hernandez possessing the better down-field skills and Gronkowski making a better red-zone target. Fantasy owners were left to split the difference, which didn't look to be much once the numbers were all said and done.

    While Gronkowski turned into a catches (90), touchdown (17) and yards (1,327) monster last year, let's not forget that these two put up essentially identical stat lines during their rookie campaigns, with Hernandez actually leading slightly by three catches and 17 yards but trailing by four TDs. And it's not like his 79 catches for 910 yards and seven scores were anything to scoff at last year.

    I'm not saying Hernandez is poised to match Gronkowski's 2011 stat line but I highly doubt Gronk will get back there either. Prior to his 17-touchdown scoring spree, the most trips to the end zone made by any other tight end in the history of the league was 13 by Antonio Gates and Vernon Davis. Defenses are gawking at those numbers just like fantasy owners so you can bet he won't come out of nowhere to surprise either this time around. That could, however, leave room for a just as talented teammate to do exactly that.

    Bill Belichick and the Patriots thrive on exploiting coverages with under rated players not given the proper attention. Expect some drop off from Gronkowski. Expect some of that production to swing Hernandez's way. Don't be completely shocked if they put up similar numbers to each other once again.

    Extras: Brandon Lloyd again followed his favorite offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels this off season and now comes to New England as one more mouth for Tom Brady to feed. If Hernandez doesn't take full advantage of all the coverage Gronk is sure to draw then Lloyd stands a great chance to do so himself.

    His numbers from 2011 may make his breakout 2010 look like a fluke but remember that Lloyd was by far Sam Bradford's best (only?) target in St. Louis so he saw more than his fair share of coverage there. Now in an elite offense with an elite quarterback and still that same play caller he loves so much, dreaming of Lloyd repeating his 2010 production isn't just a fantasy.

Jared Cook, TE, Tennessee Titans

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    Jared Cook is the epitome of a post-hype player. His finish to the 2010 season left many in Fantasyland predicting a breakout 2011 but the large, athletic down-field target failed to come anywhere close to those expectations outside of an 80-yard TD catch against Cleveland.

    But guess what—Cook again closed the season on an upswing and this time he showed more than just promise. A combined stat line of 17 catches for 272 yards and a touchdown against Indianapolis and Jacksonville proved that Cook can still deliver on all those lofty projections. It just may come a season later than expected. Don't let last year's shortcomings allow you to forget about a draft-day darling from just a season ago. He's no less athletic but all the more experienced. Sometimes the best meals just take time to fully cook.

    Side Dish: It remains to be seen how Kenny Britt recovers from his season-ending injury. If his health problems linger or even limit his performance, both Cook and Nate Washington will benefit. Washington was sneaky good in Britt's absence, posting season totals of 74 catches for 1,023 yards and seven scores. Be aware, however, that the Titans drafted Baylor wideout Kendall Wright in April, which could make the receiving pecking order in Nashville less clear.

Fred Davis, TE, Washington Redskins

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    Just to completely drive home the point that the world will not end if you miss out on all the sexy top-tier tight ends, here's one more talent slipping down draft boards that you can now snag late. Fred Davis missed the last four games of 2011 due to a suspension for violating the league's substance policy. While that capped his end-of-the-year totals, it doesn't in any way diminish what he did on a per-game basis.

    For the first 12 games of the season, Davis served as one of the more reliable fantasy options at his position while catching 59 balls for 796 yards and three scores. His real value was consistency, as Davis scored at least nine points (one point for every 10 yards, six points for every TD) in seven of those 12 games and scored three points or less only three times. RG3 takes over under center for the 'Skins this season so it remains to be seen how that will affect Davis' value going forward, but they say "a tight end is a rookie quarterback's best friend" for a reason.

Denarius Moore, WR, Oakland Raiders

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    After catching many eyes as a rookie in last year's shortened training camps, Denarius Moore quickly delivered on all him promise by catching five balls in Week 2 for 146 yards and a touchdown with a 25-yard run in there as a bonus. After that, however, he became one many frustrating boom-or-bust players at his position, with fantasy owners never knowing if they were starting a star or a scrub from week to week. He caught just two passes for 13 yards over a three-week span but just when managers were ready to cut bait he broke out again with another five-catch performance for 123 yards and two scores.

    With Oakland also featuring Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford and Louis Murphy at receiver and an aging Carson Palmer at quarterback, the roller coaster ride is likely to continue into 2012. If Moore establishes himself as top dog in that crowd, however, he will quickly become a fantasy gold mine. Be ready to raid once your draft hits the double-digit rounds.

Eric Decker, WR, Denver Broncos

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    Eric Decker doesn't need Demaryius Thomas to tell him that swapping Tim Tebow for Peyton Manning will improve his production. But if he is still unsure then he can just ask Dallas Clark, Jacob Tamme, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez and all the other overachieving pass-catchers Manning turned into fantasy gold with a single touch. Or rather, just look at those player's stats (er, uh, lack there of) without him. Decker is the type of receiver that has seen wild success with Manning in the past so it's not just an act of faith to assume he will flourish too.

    But Manning's arrival isn't the only reason to jump on Decker. Catches were hard to come by in Tebow's option offense—even on the rare occasion he did throw—but Decker converted eight of his 44 grabs into scores, with all eight coming in the season's first 11 games. If Denver threw 100 more passes with Manning than it did with Tebow the Broncos would still rank in the bottom half of the league in attempts per game. Decker's nose for the end zone will make that added volume—and accuracy—count.

    Neck Notes: John Elway was confident enough in Manning's health to run Denver's (the world's?) most popular athlete out of town. That should be more than enough for fantasy owners to stick their own necks out too and invest in the Bronco's passing attack.

Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Usually a pro bowler hardly qualifies as "under the radar" but for some reason fantasy owners are still letting the shadow of Mike Wallace darken their outlook on Antonio Brown. Sure, Wallace possess the electrifying, over-the-top speed and is clearly the more valuable fantasy asset, but that's no reason to write off Brown. In fact, Wallace's presence actually helps Brown as it pulls extra coverage away. That being said, Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Wallace's contract issues will likely linger. If this turns into a situation similar to the one seen in San Diego with Vincent Jackson, Brown becomes top dog in the Steeler passing game.

    Even with only two trips to the end zone last season Brown still managed to score at least six fantasy points (one point for every 10 yards, six points per TD) in 12-of-16 games last season. He went over 100 yards three times, totaled 90 once and finished in the 80's twice. The touchdowns will come and yardage consistency like that is coveted at the always volatile receiver position. It's may still be Pittsburgh but these days Big Ben and the Steelers are throwing the ball more than enough to support two fantasy studs through the air. With Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporting that Rashard Mendenhall likely to start the season on the PUP list, that aerial assault will continue and may even increase. That's just the logistics of the situation so it's time to see what Brown can do for you.

    Big Time: As for Ben Roethlisberger, he is slipping into some serious value after being crowded out of the top of a loaded quarterback board. He followed up a big 2010 with a disappointing 2011 fantasy wise (4,077 yards, 21 TDs) and he's always prone to injuries. But all of that only serves to drive his draft-day value down. His skills, however, remain unchanged and Brown's emergence only gives him another toy to play with.

    A return to his 2010 line of 3,000+ yards and a touchdown total in the mid 20's is not out of the question, especially if all these off season issues work out in his favor. Big Ben is one of several reasons that if you miss out on the elite tier of gunslingers you can wait a long time and still land a valuable starter. More on that later.

Isaac Redman, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Speaking of Rashard Mendenhall's likely appearance on the PUP list to start the season, let's take a closer look at the man who would inherit the lion's share of carries in that situation. Isaac Redman averaged 4.4 yards per carry last season with 110 touches. Detractors may point to his limited role but Redman averaged more than 4.8 yards per carry in two of the three games he totaled double digit carries including a 97-yard performance with a score against Cleveland in the regular-season finale.

    None of that includes his monster playoff game in Denver where he went off for 121 yards on 17 carries while adding 21 yards on two catches. He is low to the ground and keeps his legs moving at all times. He only lost two fumbles all season, both of which came in Week 17. Pittsburgh seemed to give Redman a vote of confidence by not drafting a running back but there's still a chance they could add a veteran via free agency or a trade. Either way, this is a guy you want on your team even after Mendenhall returns to action.

    Packing List: With Ryan Grant no longer in Green Bay, James Starks is another back poised to inherit full-time carries. The Packers don't run enough to make Starks a top-end option but like Redman his performance in a limited role gives plenty of reason for optimism now that the workload for this small but shifty back increases. His 4.3 yards per carry on 133 touches are equally solid, although the offense he plays in makes it less likely that his two-touchdown total on the ground will rise like Redman's can. What Starks does much better, however, is catch passes. With Aaron Rodgers behind center that creates big upside and offers a way he can increase those frequent flier miles to the end zone.

Ben Tate, RB, Houston Texans

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    If you think Ben Tate's fantasy value is purely based on Arian Foster's health (or lack there of) you better check your facts. Sure, he broke out for 341 yards and a score in the first three weeks of last season while Foster worked through a leg injury, but check out his numbers against Tennessee (104 yards on 15 carries), Cleveland (115 yards and a TD on 12 carries), Tampa Bay (63 yards and a TD on 13 carries) and Cincinnati (97 total yards on 11 touches)—all games in which Foster started and touched the ball at least 19 times. There is plenty of production to go around in Houston's backfield and it has everything to do with the talent of both running backs, not just one.

    Remember that when Tate was drafted in the second round of the 2012 draft he was expected to take over as lead, every-down back for the Texans. That's the type of player we are talking about here. He, of course, went on to suffer a season-ending injury and Foster broke out for a fantasy MVP campaign and everyone forgot about Tate. Let last season be your reminder that value and talent can still be found in the mid to late rounds of your draft. And don't think for a moment the tables can't immediately turn back in Tate's favor if Foster's not-so-durable self suffers an injury similar to the one to Tate that helped him earn his top-dog status in the first place. Running backs go down more and more these days. The Texans have their back up plan. Do you?

    Diamond in the Desert: Ryan Williams suffered a similar fate to Tate in his own rookie season after he too was drafted in the second round (2011) and also quickly saw his rookie campaign ended by injury before it ever really began. But Williams is back now and should brittle Beanie Wells go down at any point, Williams will be a hot pick up for fantasy owners.

    He hasn't played a down in the NFL yet so it may be best to pass him over on draft day and keep him on your radar, but considering the injury history of the man playing ahead of him, Williams could be well worth the roster stash if you can afford it. Odds are it will save you a high waiver priority pick or tons of FAAB mid season while making you look like genius.

Matt Schaub, QB, Houston Texans

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    Fantasyland is suddenly clamoring for the elite quarterbacks in the first and second round but if you miss out on the top guns—or simply want to stick to more traditional drafting strategies—you can wait a long time and still land a more-than-serviceable starter. Matt Schaub used to come off draft boards just after those high-priced arms but a run-heavy and injury-plagued 2011 in Houston caused major problems for his fantasy stock.

    If I'm not mistaken, however, he is still the same player that threw for more than 4,370 yards and 24 TDs in consecutive seasons. He is also still throwing the ball to Andre Johnson, one of the game's most dominant receivers. Yes, the Texans run the ball more than they used to but will only help open up the passing game and give AJ at least a little break in coverage—not that he needs it.

    If you're worried about lingering effects from Schaub's injury at the end of last season, Nate Griffin for CBS Houston reports that he is showing signs of full health and could play if the season started Sunday. But it's only the end of May so he still has plenty of time to further heal. Any questions? This isn't stump the Schaub. Just draft him.

Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons

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    We already identified Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Schaub as great late targets for fantasy owners miss out on the elite QB options either by choice or scarcity. Matt Ryan also falls into this category but his good history of health provides a third scenario in which he becomes a savvy pick. Anyone who drafts Michael Vick immediately enters the market for landing his league's best backup signal caller.

    While Big Ben and Matt Schaub both make great candidates, they each have their own share of health concerns and may not put those Vick owners at any more ease. Ryan has yet to play up to the hype (from a fantasy perspective) surrounding him coming out of college but that doesn't mean he can't or won't. Throwing to Roddy White never hurts but now Matty Ice has two elite targets at his disposal with the emergence of Julio Jones. Atlanta sold the farm for Jones and he quickly delivered the goods in his rookie season.

    With defenses now forced to chose which weapon they want to double cover, the former Alabama stud may be just what Ryan needs to finally break out in a big way. The quarterback rankings seem more loaded than ever this year with the likes of Cam Newton, Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford pushing guys like Ryan, Roethlisberger and Schaub out of the Top 10. It just means more late-round value for any owner choosing or forced to wait.