Fantasy Football Draft 2012: Whose Stock Is Rising?

Dan KuklaCorrespondent IIIJune 14, 2012

Fantasy Football Draft 2012: Whose Stock Is Rising?

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    Fantasy football draft season comes just as quickly as summer break ends, so let's evaluate which players' stocks are on the rise.

    Minicamps are already here. OTA's are already in the rear-view mirror. The NFL season that never sleeps rages on.

    Don't get left in the dust.

    News at this point in the season may seem trivial. It's not.

    Important positional battles start now, as playing time is won and lost over the summer. Impact trades have already taken place, so if you don't stay up to date, draft day will hit you like a pop final exam.

    Here is a list of players whose fantasy value has changed more recently than you might think.

Josh Freeman, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Players like Josh Freeman, overvalued and overly hyped last season, routinely make for draft-day steals.

    Remember when Freeman was advertised as all that and a bag of potato chips during the offseason last year? He's still got the same tools, but now this value meal comes with bigger and better extras.

    Mike Williams already proved his ability as a dominant downfield target in 2010, but his numbers slipped last year. That can be blamed on the much deserved extra attention he drew from opposing defenses.

    Now Vincent Jackson joins Tampa Bay's attack. This gives Freeman an even better top target. It should also free up Williams, allowing him to return to top form.

    Dallas Clark is likely an upgrade at tight end over Kellen Winslow, although his past performances now seem to be inflated by Peyton Manning's awesomeness.

    LeGarrette Blount will share carries with rookie running back Doug Martin, and the 31st overall pick is a better blocker and pass catcher than Blount. He stabilizes the ground game and the rotation will keep everyone's legs fresh, meaning that the rushing attack is even more dangerous and warrants plenty of attention itself.

    In addition, Martin's presence means that Freeman will receive better backfield protection in obvious throwing situations, and he'll also have a more reliable check-down target if that protection breaks down.

    Don't let Freeman's failure to live up to last year's hype keep you from investing in him this season. He comes with more toys to play with in 2012 at an even bigger bargain.

    Quarterback is an extremely deep position now, especially after Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton staked their claim among fantasy's elite last season. Philip Rivers somehow finds himself barely able to rank inside the position's Top 10. ESPN's Christopher Harris doesn't even rank Matt Ryan as a starter for his company's standard leagues.

    Current Value: Consider Freeman as a solid fantasy backup with plenty of upside, especially for the owners of injury prone signal callers like Stafford and Michael Vick.

Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago Bears

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    Jay Cutler doesn't inspire much confidence on draft day. Calling his name will probably even draw laughter from your opponents.

    True, he may be lacking that killer instinct we see in so many of the game's best field generals. At times he looks disinterested in playing at all, much less winning and some Bears fans still haven't forgiven him for allegedly quitting on his team during the 2010 NFC Championship.

    Luckily for fantasy owners, there are no locker rooms in fantasy football, and team chemistry does not show up in a box score.

    Debate all you want about whether Cutler is completely there or not upstairs. Regardless, his talent is still there everywhere else. The only difference now is that he has some new friends to help him use it.

    Jay Cutler, meet Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.

    True talent at wide receiver finally blew into the Windy City, even though these two new wideouts have their own share of character issues and question marks. They also possess enormous amounts of talent. Cutler loves throwing to big targets, and he now has two to chose from on every play.

    Current Value: Like Josh Freeman, Cutler doesn't move up to starter's status just because of Chicago's flashy acquisitions. However, he does become an appealing reserve with upside.

Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers

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    Enough with the sleepers. Ryan Mathews can be drafted as a stud.

    Mathews never stood a chance at playing up to the hype he received as a rookie. Fantasy gurus went completely gaga over a single quote in which head coach Norv Turner projected 250 carries and 40 catches for his first-round draft pick in 2010.

    His sophomore slump was influenced by Mike Tolbert's prowess at the goal line.

    Don't be deceived by Mathew's totals from either season.

    The former 12th overall pick rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 14 games last year. More importantly, the touchdown vulture that sucked away much of his value is now playing on the other side of the country in a different league all together. Now, the San Diego backfield belongs completely to Mathews.

    Don't think for a second that Curtis Brinkley and his 112 career rushing yards will challenge Mathews for red-zone touches the way Tolbert did. CBS Sports reports that the recently signed Ronnie Brown won't limit his workload either. According to the report, Turner still expects Mathews to enjoy a "dramatically expanded" role in the offense.

    Drafters may pause at investing in Mathews as a No. 1 running back because of his checkered injury history. He is worth the risk in a year when nearly every top-tier workhorse comes with with at least one major question mark.

    Mathews may not inherit all 10 of Tolbert's touchdowns from 2011. He should, however, finish 2012 with much more than six. The yardage totals will increase with more work as well.

    Current Value: Budget in a few missed games for Mathews and still draft him with confidence as your first running back. You can still turn a profit on that early in the second round or later. If he gives you a full season, then you may be selecting the year's fantasy MVP.

Donald Brown, RB, Indianapolis Colts

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    Take a guess at where Donald Brown ranked among NFL rushers in yards per attempt last year.

    Did you even come close to 16th at 4.8 yards per carry?

    He only totaled 645 yards with 134 attempts. That workload, however, is due to increase.

    Joseph Addai left Indy for New England, boosting Brown to the top of the depth chart. Only Delone Carter and fifth-round rookie Vick Ballard are behind him.

    ESPN's Paul Kuharsky tabbed Brown as an upside guy to watch this fall in the AFC South. Not all of his commentary was uplifting, but he did provide helpful insight to Brown's role in the Colts backfield.

    "Brown will need to show offensive coordinator Bruce Arians that he can reliably pick up a blitzer and contribute in pass protection," Kuharsky writes. "But Chuck Pagano is going to be a coach who’s more reliant on the run, and I suspect he’ll give Brown a significant chance to show the Colts he can be decisive, which will maximize his chances to break off big runs and be the team’s lead back."

    Current Value: Keep Brown on your short list for when you hit the mid-to-late rounds and start digging for upside reserves. Running backs drop like flies seemingly every week, so keeping a back like Brown on the bench could save your season.

James Starks, RB, Green Bay Packers

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    James Starks checks in as a third running back that will benefit from the exit of a former competitor for touches.

    Free agent Ryan Grant can no longer give fantasy owners splitting headaches by splitting carries with him. The guessing game is over, and Starks is the lead back in Green Bay and instantly inherits full-time carries.

    The Packers don't run enough to make Starks a top-end option. However, like Donald Brown, his performance in a limited role gives plenty of reason for optimism now that the workload for this small but shifty back increases.

    Starks averaged 4.3 yards per carry on 133 touches last year. He and Grant only combined to score three touchdowns, and there isn't much more upside than that in Green Bay's passing-dominant attack.

    Starks does catch passes himself, though. That creates big upside with Aaron Rodgers behind center, and offers a way for him to increase those frequent flier miles to the end zone.

    Current Value: Consider Starks a reliable reserve with less upside than Brown. That's not as sexy, but consistency still matters on fantasy teams.

Isaac Redman, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Isaac Redman doesn't gain value from a teammate's departure, but Rashard Mendenhall's injury certainly helps.

    Josh Katzowitz reports for CBS Sports that Mendenhall, who is recovering from ACL surgery, is still poised to start the regular season on the physically unable to perform list. He will be forced to sit out the first six games if that happens.

    Redman averaged 4.4 yards per carry last season on 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 in which he totaled double digit carries. This includes a 97-yard performance with a score against Cleveland in the regular-season finale.

    None of that includes his monster playoff game in Denver when he went off for 121 yards on 17 carries, while adding 21 yards on two catches.

    He stays low to the ground and keeps his legs moving at all times, only losing 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. There's still a chance the Steelers could add a veteran via free agency or a trade, but either way, this is a guy you want on your team with or without Mendenhall in action.

    Current Value: Redman's value is dependent on Mendenhall's availability at the beginning of the regular season. If Mendenhall lands on the PUP list, Redman then becomes a flex player or better. If Mendenhall is starting, Redmand is still worthy of a roster stash. Monitor this situation closely.

Brandon Lloyd, WR, New England Patriots

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    Brandon Lloyd made some big gains this offseason, as his move from St. Louis to New England comes with a long list of upgrades to both his real-life situation and fantasy value.

    Lloyd stays with his biggest supporter, as his former coach from his days in Denver, Josh McDaniels, took over as offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in New England. He will also now catch passes from Tom Brady, and with a vastly superior receiving crew around him, all of those double coverages he saw as a Bronco and Ram will disappear.

    In order to fully appreciate the opportunity Lloyd now has as a Patriot, first consider what he accomplished elsewhere over the past two seasons.

    He caught five touchdowns in 11 games for the Rams while totaling 683 yards. While those numbers don't look like anything that special at face value, don't forget to factor in that A.J. Feeley and Kellen Clemens started at quarterback in more of those games than Sam Bradford did. He still led the Rams in receiving in all but two of those games despite receiving nearly all of the attention from opposing secondaries.

    In Denver, Lloyd only led the entire NFL in receiving while catching passes from another pair of backup signal callers in Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow.

    Current Value: Yes, there are more mouths to feed in New England, and Lloyd loses much of his PPR value from this move. However, in standard scoring formats, Lloyd holds huge potential, and less coverage combined elite accuracy from his quarterback will maximize his big-play ability. Consider him as an elite WR3 or a low-end WR2.