Fantasy Football 2013: Top Names to Circle on Your Draft Board

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystAugust 6, 2013

Fantasy Football 2013: Top Names to Circle on Your Draft Board

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    It's the best time of year for fantasy football fanatics.

    Draft season brings with it the anticipation of Christmas morning and a championship dream shared by every owner in the league. There are no losing streaks or torpedoed teams; just visions of holding a trophy aloft or pocketing a few extra bucks.

    You're pumped. No shame in admitting it.

    However, draft season also means that it's time to do some work. Players must be researched, draft strategies must be devised and sleepers must be unearthed.

    That's where this article comes in. Every player on this list should be on draft-day radars for one reason. That reason is only one word, but it's the most important single word in fantasy football besides victory: value.

    The players listed here are all excellent values in fantasy drafts right now. That isn't to say that some don't carry a hefty asking price, but in each case, their potential for production outweighs their asking price.

    So break out that Sharpie, because the players listed here should all be circled as potential fantasy draft targets.

Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions

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    Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was one of a number of passers to receive a big payday this offseason, inking a three-year, $53 million extension last month.

    It's not very hard to see why the Lions wanted to lock Stafford up long-term. They already have a fortune invested in the 25-year-old, who became the youngest player in NFL history to throw for over 12,000 career yards last year.

    Stafford flirted with a second straight 5,000-yard season in 2012, but a precipitous drop-off in touchdown passes (from 41 in 2011 to 20 a season ago) caused Stafford to drop to the bottom of the top 10 in fantasy points at his position.

    That's right about where his average draft position sits right now, and that makes Stafford an interesting draft target.

    As Ken Daube of ESPN pointed out, Stafford's efficiency numbers in the red zone and playing with a lead last year were well below his career averages. Assuming those numbers return to near his career mean, Stafford should be set to rebound in a big way in 2013.

    If you split the difference between Stafford's 2011 touchdown production and last year's, a 30-score campaign would place Stafford's fantasy production near the top five, even if his yardage drops off a bit.

    Stafford is the poster child for why waiting to draft a starter at quarterback is wide this year. There's no point digging a hole at running back or wideout by reaching for Green Bay Packers signal-caller Aaron Rodgers early when Stafford's top-five fantasy upside can be had several rounds later.

Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Until about a week ago, the Russell Wilson fantasy bandwagon was rolling right along. After a hot finish to the 2012 season, many pundits (myself included) saw big things ahead for Wilson in his second season, especially with dynamic wide receiver Percy Harvin now in the fold.

    Then Harvin injured his hip and had surgery that will sideline him for most (if not all) of the season, and Wilson's bandwagon blew a tire.

    However, if skittish fantasy owners see the Harvin injury as a reason to pass on Wilson, that hesitation can be turned to your advantage.

    Yes, losing Harvin hurts, but Wilson was a top-three fantasy quarterback at the helm of one of one of the NFL's highest-scoring offenses last year without Harvin. 

    Wilson still has weapons at his disposal in the passing game, including wide receiver Golden Tate, who will be making an appearance a bit later in this article.

    Injuries to their top wide receivers are now leaving Wilson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, two dual-threat youngsters with considerable fantasy upside, as the 11th and 12th quarterbacks taken in many fantasy drafts.

     

Alex Smith, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    When the topic of the NFL's best quarterback comes up, a number of names are often thrown into the mix. Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos are among the players who have a real claim to the throne.

    And then there's Alex Smith of the Kansas City Chiefs, who offensive coordinator Doug Pederson called the best in the league, according to Randy Covitz of The Kansas City Star. 

    Ultimately, every team has to have a quarterback. I think we have the best in the league. There are a lot of great ones, but over time, Alex has proven he can get it done. He’s a sharp guy, he brings a wealth of knowledge, he’s experienced, he’s a proven winner the last couple of years, and he needs a team to embrace him.

    Now, Pederson's optimism where Smith is concerned may border on lunacy, but there is considerable room for optimism where Smith's fantasy prospects for 2013 are concerned.

    After all, it's not as if Smith was ineffective last year in San Francisco prior to losing the starting job to Colin Kaepernick. He completed over 70 percent of his passes, and his 104.1 passer rating was third in the NFL among signal-callers with more than 100 attempts.

    Andy Reid's West Coast offense is an excellent fit for Smith, who could easily post the best statistical season of his eight-year career.

    However, Smith apparently isn't being expected to do much for fantasy owners, at least if his QB25 average draft position at My Fantasy League is any indication.

    With a 15th-round ADP, Smith is essentially a no-risk investment as a fantasy reserve. It may be unreasonable to expect the sort of elite performance that Pederson foresees, but a top-12 fantasy finish isn't at all out of the realm of reason.

    Even top-15 numbers would make Smith a value given where he's being picked. Toss in that Smith's bye week (10) is different from every quarterback in the top 12 except Brady, and Smith is a great late-draft option as a fantasy backup.

LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Two years ago, Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy scored 20 total touchdowns and finished as the runner-up at his position in fantasy football leagues that award a point for receptions.

    However, last year, a concussion cost the 25-year-old four games, his touchdowns plummeted to five and McCoy failed to gain 1,000 yards on the ground for the first time since his rookie season.

    Those factors have combined to drop McCoy into the second half of the first round of most fantasy drafts, and savvy fantasy owners should be ready to pounce on McCoy if given the chance.

    For starters, although McCoy fell short of 1,600 total yards last year for the first time since 2009, he still managed over 1,200, and McCoy has now averaged 9.5 scores a season over his career.

    Second, new head coach Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense at Oregon leaned heavily on the run. The 2012 Ducks averaged well over 50 carries and 300 rushing yards a game.

    Even with Bryce Brown in the mix, McCoy is going to see plenty of work on the ground in 2013. The fifth-year veteran is also an excellent receiver who has averaged 55 catches a season in the NFL, and McCoy recently told Bob Gratz of the Delaware County Times that he wants to be known as a multi-faceted offensive weapon.

    You can find a lot of guys who just run the ball. I don’t want to be that. I want to be a guy that’s different. I think when Brian (Westbrook) played he was different. He could catch, he could run. I want to be the same, where I’m always the threat.

    McCoy will have every opportunity to be that player in Kelly's offense—1,500 total yards, 10 touchdowns and 60 receptions aren't at all unrealistic expectations, and that production would be good for a top-five fantasy campaign.

    If McCoy's numbers are even better than that, he could easily challenge to be fantasy football's top ball-carrier in 2013, and it isn't often that teams drafting late in Round 1 have the opportunity to draft a player with that sort of upside. 

Shane Vereen, RB, New England Patriots

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    It's been something of an eventful offseason for the New England Patriots, especially where the passing game is concerned.

    Wide receiver Wes Welker is now in Denver catching passes from Peyton Manning. Danny Woodhead is sunning himself with the San Diego Chargers. Tight end Aaron Hernandez sits in jail, awaiting trial for murder while being investigated for two more. Fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski is a candidate to open the regular season on the PUP list after back surgery in June.

    Those developments have left a great deal of uncertainty swirling around the Patriots' aerial attack, but those losses may end up being a blessing in disguise for fantasy owners of running back Shane Vereen.

    That hasn't been lost on Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald, who called Vereen the player "who has the best potential to be a breakout performer this season."

    During camp, we’ve seen Brady utilize Vereen as he would have Kevin Faulk or Woodhead in the past. If he doesn’t see anyone open, he’ll hit Vereen with an outlet pass. Or, he’ll simply swing it to Vereen and let him take off and do his thing.

    Vereen, who barely played as a rookie, now appears to be one of Brady’s safety valves during passing situations along with Amendola. But there’s more. Vereen’s versatility allows him to not only line up in the backfield, but also in different wide receiver spots.

    Vereen's performance in camp also hasn't been lost on fantasy owners, especially those in leagues that award a point for receptions.

    The third-year pro's draft stock has been rising in recent weeks. He is now being taken as the 30th running back off the board in the seventh round of 12-team drafts, according to the average draft position data at My Fantasy League.

    By weight of comparison, Woodhead finished inside the top 25 running backs in PPR leagues in 2012, and given all that's happened in the past several months, it's hardly unreasonable to expect Vereen to do better than that.

    Long story short, if you're playing in a PPR format and can draft Vereen as an RB3 in the seventh round or later, then it's a pick you won't regret.

Pierre Thomas, RB, New Orleans Saints

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    Just as the Hall of Fame Game is an annual rite of passage that signifies the beginning of the preseason, it's the same in fantasy football for New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas to be undervalued in drafts.

    Thomas hasn't had 1,000 total yards since the 2009 season, but it appears that dry spell may be about to end. Saints head coach Sean Payton has emphasized that the team needs to improve running the ball, and Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com feels this will lead to an increased workload for Thomas.

    The first thing coach Sean Payton told his team behind closed doors this offseason: They are going to run the football more this season. Thomas, not Ingram, lined up as the Saints' starter throughout OTAs. This is a change from the recent past when Ingram had been the starter.

    The Saints never will give Thomas the ball 300 times, but his usage still could rise significantly. Perhaps Thomas isn't the best "big play" back in the league because of his long speed, but he should get more chances.

    In fact, even if all Thomas did was repeat last year's 32nd-place finish in point-per-reception fantasy leagues, the 28-year-old would be a bargain given his RB51 average draft position at My Fantasy League.

    If a bump in touches nudges Thomas into low-end RB2 territory, he'll be one of the biggest steals of fantasy drafts in 2013.

Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals

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    The 2012 season was an absolute nightmare for Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

    Abysmal quarterback play led to some of the worst numbers of Fitzgerald's career. His 11.2 yards per catch and four touchdown grabs were the lowest in his nine years in the NFL, and his 798 receiving yards were his fewest since his rookie year.

    Fitzgerald's 33rd-place fantasy finish in leagues that award a point for receptions was also the worst of his career, but there are a couple of reasons to expect Fitzgerald to bounce back in a big way in 2013.

    The first, and biggest, is new quarterback Carson Palmer. Granted, at 33 years old, Palmer may not be the passer he once was, but he's easily the best signal-caller Fitzgerald has worked with since Kurt Warner hung them up.

    Also, much like he did with Reggie Wayne (with great success) in Indianapolis last year, new head coach Bruce Arians is moving Fitzgerald around in the formation this season.

    There were some initial bumps in the road, but Fitzgerald didn't have too much trouble taking to the new role, according to Darren Urban of the Cardinals' website.

    I would just say it is different. It’s different when you’ve played one position your entire career. But it would be different if it was a coach that I knew didn’t have success throwing the football. You put BA’s stats against any offensive coordinator the last 10 years … it’s right up there. It’s not like we’ve got some guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

    Add in the improved play of second-year pro Michael Floyd across from him and a very reasonable asking price in fantasy drafts, and Fitzgerald is an excellent target for teams towards the front of the draft that select running backs with their first two picks.

    Starting off with Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin, Tennessee Titans tailback Chris Johnson and Fitzgerald isn't a bad way to kick off a draft.

Miles Austin, WR, Dallas Cowboys

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    It wasn't that long ago that Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin was considered a top-20 fantasy option at his position, but it feels like an eternity.

    The reason for Austin's free-fall on draft boards is simple. Since topping 1,000 yards in both 2009 and 2010, he has a hard time staying on the field. Injuries (mainly to his hamstring) have cost the 29-year-old six games over the past two seasons and limited him in any number of others.

    Toss is the ascension of Dez Bryant last year, and the shovels are out where Austin's fantasy value is concerned. An average draft position of WR39 at My Fantasy League bears that out.

    As a WR4, Austin is a huge bargain for a number of reasons.

    First, even though he failed to hit the 1,000-yard mark last year, he had 66 catches for 943 yards and six touchdowns, good for a top-25 finish in fantasy leagues that award a point for catches. In other words, even a repeat of last season would make Austin a bargain, but there's cause to hope he can do even more this year.

    The biggest reason for that hope is that he finally appears to have put his hamstring issues in the past, and as Tim MacMahon of ESPN pointed out from Cowboys' camp, a healthy Austin has been reminding the team what he can do.

    Austin took three red zone reps against top cornerback Brandon Carr and got the best of him each time. Austin scored twice on fade routes, including a pretty leaping catch to begin the drills, and got wide open on a slant.

    The slant was a perfect example of a healthy Austin’s change-of-direction burst, which is rare for a receiver his size (6-foot-2, 216 pounds). He looked like a shooting guard executing an ankle-breaking crossover dribble, taking two steps to sell an outside release before planting his right foot and cutting across the middle of the field. Carr, who had turned his hips toward the sideline, had no hope of getting back in position to contest the catch.

    Finally, the presence of Bryant and tight end Jason Witten makes it very hard for opposing defenses to double Austin, and MacMahon just demonstrated what Austin is capable of in single coverage.

    A player with WR2 upside who can be drafted as low-end WR3, or even as a WR4, is the kind of middle-round fantasy pick that can make the difference between a good draft and a great one.

Greg Little, WR, Cleveland Browns

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    In fantasy football, it's not the first and second-round picks that put teams over the top. Those players, after all, are expected to be good. It's the late-round gems who emerge as impact players that help a fantasy team stand out. This year, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Greg Little is one of those players.

    Stop laughing. I'm serious.

    Granted, Little's first two NFL seasons have been disappointing, largely due to the 23 dropped passes that he racked up over that span.

    However, as Terry Pluto of The Cleveland Plain Dealer points out, only three of those drops came in the final 11 games of the 2012 season. Little has been working very hard in the offseason to ensure that the dropsies do not return.

    My goal is to gain the ultimate trust of my quarterback. The more he sees of me, the more he knows me. The more he throws to me and the more plays I make, the more he'll keep throwing to me.

    With Josh Gordon suspended for the first two games of the 2013 season, Little will have an opportunity to put his money where his mouth is, as he'll effectively be the team's top wideout while Gordon is out.

    So, what we have here is a big, athletic receiver entering his mythical third season on a team that will push the ball vertically. Said player made strides last year and has apparently carried that momentum into training camp.

    Throw in a 14th-round asking price, according to My Fantasy League, and Greg Little is just the sort of upside player that smart fantasy owners target late in their drafts.

Greg Olsen, TE, Carolina Panthers

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    The release of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski's back injury haven't just cast a pall over the New England Patriots. It was a big hit to the depth available to fantasy owners at the tight end position as well.

    That, in turn, has driven up the draft-day price tag for "elite" options such as Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints and Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys.

    However, if the asking price for those players makes you swoon or you miss out on Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons, hope is not lost. You can thank Greg Olsen of the Carolina Panthers for that.

    Olsen had the best year of his six seasons in 2012, setting personal bests in yardage and catches while reeling in a team-leading five touchdown passes. That performance placed him seventh among tight ends in fantasy points last year in PPR scoring systems.

    Some pundits believe that Olsen could be set for even bigger and better things in 2013, including Michael Beller of Sports Illustrated.

    [Olsen] clearly enjoys playing with Cam Newton, as they've hooked up 114 times for 1,383 yards and 10 scores in their two years together. The pairing is one year stronger, and while the Panthers didn't really add any significant weapons this offseason, that could work in Olsen's favor.

    Beller is spot on, and fantasy owners who miss out on the top tight ends should absolutely target Olsen in the middle rounds.

Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals

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    You can often tell the difference between the sharks and the guppies in a fantasy draft pretty easily.

    The guppies have an outdated fantasy magazine in their hands, using a cheat sheet that's two or three months old as a guide when selecting their team.

    Those magazines contain some great strategy articles and are a good summer read, but the sharks stay abreast of the latest news and know how that news affects player values.

    Those sharks also know that the fantasy value of Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert is trending up in a big way.

    With wide receiver A.J. Green sitting with a knee injury, Eifert and quarterback Andy Dalton have been connecting on a regular basis, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer.

    During the first week of camp, the rookie tight end has pulled down 10 or more catches a day from Andy Dalton in 11-on-11 drills while also showing improvement as a run blocker. With A.J. Green out for all but one practice, the first-round draft pick is definitely Dalton's favorite target.

    "I just try to be in the right spot, do my job and try to get open. Just try to understand the offense and really just take care of my responsibility."

    Granted, the presence of Jermaine Gresham makes it hard to view Eifert as a viable every-week starter, but the potential is there for the first-round pick to quickly become one.

    That potential is more than worth the late pick necessary to obtain Eifert's services.

Dustin Keller, TE, Miami Dolphins

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    It was lost in all the hoopla surrounding the arrival of wide receiver Mike Wallace in Miami, but he wasn't the only new weapon in the passing game that the Dolphins added in 2013.

    The team also signed free-agent tight end Dustin Keller, who played his first five seasons with the New York Jets.

    The signing hasn't made much more noise in fantasy football than in the NFL, with Keller coming off draft boards in the 15th round as the 25th tight end selected, according to My Fantasy League.

    That's due in large part to an injury-marred 2012, but as Michael Beller of Sports Illustrated reports, there are reasons to believe that Keller could be a steal in this spot.

    [Keller] had 120 receptions, 1,502 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2010 and 2011 combined. He'll benefit from getting away from the Jets, an offense that is on the short list to be the worst in the league. With the tight end pool deeper than it once was, Keller isn't likely to break into the first or second tier at the position. However, he has a track record fantasy owners can trust, and he can be a lot more reliable than some flashier choices at the position.

    Let's be honest. Keller doesn't have a tremendous amount of fantasy upside. What he does have, however, is a history of steady production, and with Wallace stretching defenses, Keller should find room to do some damage underneath.

    At the very least, Keller is a low-risk pick with a different bye week than all the higher-end tight ends except Tony Gonzalez, making him a solid late pick as depth or a bye-week fill-in.

    At most, Keller will emerge as a serviceable fantasy starter, and it's not inconceivable that he could sneak into the back end of the top 10.