The advent of fantasy football season marks the beginning of prognostication, second guessing, and endless games of "could've, should've and would've."
Every fantasy league manager is looking for sleepers and trying to exploit any arbitrage in the market.
While none of the following players are exactly sleepers, they aren't going in the first couple of rounds either. Here is a player at each major position to think about going out and grabbing a round earlier than everyone else might.
Andy Dalton surprised many during his outstanding rookie campaign. Teaming up with fellow rookie A.J. Green, the former TCU star helped lead the Bengals to an unexpected playoff berth.
Looking at last year's passing stats, Dalton was 16th in the league in yards (3,398) and 13th in TDs (20), good for 202 total fantasy points and ranking him 18th overall among quarterbacks in production.
Fantasypros.com's average draft position aggregator indicates that, among quarterbacks, Dalton's average selection slot is 24th in Yahoo! leagues and 20th in CBS leagues.
Compare that with his production from last season, and it is clear that many fantasy owners are expecting Dalton to endure the growing pains of a sophomore slump in the 2012 season.
The 2011 season saw Dalton start hot, only posting fewer than 10 fantasy points in two games (both of which came in his first three starts), before cooling off in weeks 13,14 and 15, only to finish the season strong with 18- and 10-point efforts in his last two games, respectively.
While he likely won't finish as one of the top 10 QBs in fantasy production, Dalton is a viable option if the elite passers are off the board.
Mike Tolbert is a touchdown vulture. Simple as that.
He posted fewer than 500 rushing yards this past season and still finished with 137 fantasy points, mainly because of his eight rushing touchdowns.
While Tolbert is no longer paired up with workhorse Ryan Matthews, his production should taper off this season in Carolina. With DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton already on the Panthers, the rushing attack is in place.
Tolbert's role in Carolina will be exactly what it was in San Diego—short-yardage and goal-line carries. Carolina head coach Ron Rivera explained to NBC Sports:
"Everybody keeps saying he’s a tailback. But he’s a fullback to us. Because again, we saw how we had used him in San Diego. We just thought this is a guy we’d love to have. . . If you can put an athletic, play-making fullback there, I think it helps you."
For fantasy purposes, Tolbert isn't lead back material, but he could be valuable in three-back or flex position leagues.
Knowing any receiver is paired up with Aaron Rogers is almost reason enough to take him.
Fantasy owners seem scared that the 2011 season was an aberration and that Nelson won't continue to post these kinds of numbers while sharing the field with Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley.
Because Nelson shares the field with so many weapons, his scoring can be inconsistent. Last season, he had five games with five fantasy points or fewer and seven games with over 15 points.
ESPN's current projections predict Nelson will post roughly 1,100 yards and six touchdowns—modest expectations given his 2011 production. According to the FantasyPros.com average draft position calculations, Nelson averages being the 15th WR off the board in Yahoo! leagues and the 14th in CBS leagues.
With the NFL's tight ends, in terms of production, there is Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and then everybody else.
Dustin Keller finished the 2011 season ranked 10th among tight ends in total fantasy production with 105 points. In his three seasons with the Jets, Keller has shown he is a true receiving tight end, leading all Jets players in receiving yards and receptions.
There doesn't appear to be a clear consensus on the outlook for Keller's 2012 season. FantasyPros.com TE average draft position has him 21st in Yahoo! leagues and fifth in CBS leagues.
Depending on the league, Keller could be a late-round steal this season.
Years ago, the Patriots defense was one of the first teams off the draft board.
As of late, they've declined, in part due to age and injuries.
This season, ESPN has the Patriots as the 20th-ranked defense for fantasy. Last year, while managing an onslaught of injuries,they finished 19th among defense/special teams units with 96 fantasy points.
Some are frightened by the Pats "worst defense in the league" reputation in 2011, but total yards allowed is a misleading statistic when it comes to fantasy football.
With the healthy returns of their starters and a draft that added defensive talents like Dont'a Hightower and Chandler Jones, the Patriots defense should return stronger this year.