The 2014 NFL season kicks off Thursday, so now that the majority of fantasy drafts have happened, there is some waiver-wire gold to be had before Week 1 commences.
It's so early on in the year that it's difficult to gauge the diamonds in the rough. All 32 teams and fanbases have at least some optimism at the dawn of the new season, and any number of currently unknown players have breakout potential.
Preseason evaluation makes this trickier. Not only is it hard to judge how teams will fare in the real games based on what happens in the exhibition contests, but it's also a challenge to distinguish the best from the rest with an amalgamation of starters, backups and those on the roster bubble on the field.
With that as the backdrop, here is a look at a couple of gems that warrant consideration as fantasy free agents, along with some players who were likely drafted but are already worth dropping.
|Rank||Top Pickup QBs||Top Drop QBs|
|1||Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders||Eli Manning, New York Giants|
|2||Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs||EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills|
|3||Geno Smith, New York Jets||Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns|
|Rank||Top Pickup RBs||Top Drop RBs|
|1||Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers||James Starks, Green Bay Packers|
|2||LeGarrette Blount, Pittsburgh Steelers||Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders|
|3||Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers||Bernard Pierce, Baltimore Ravens|
|Rank||Top Pickup WRs||Top Drop WRs|
|1||Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers||Tavon Austin, St. Louis Rams|
|2||John Brown, Arizona Cardinals||Rueben Randle, New York Giants|
|3||James Jones, Oakland Raiders||Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs|
|Rank||Top Pickup TEs||Top Drop TEs|
|1||Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis Colts||Tim Wright, New England Patriots|
|2||Charles Clay, Miami Dolphins||Delanie Walker, Tennessee Titans|
|3||Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs||Andrew Quarless, Green Bay Packers|
Rankings are opinion
Pickup: Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders
News surfaced Monday that Derek Carr would get the starting nod over waning veteran Matt Schaub, per Fox Sports insider Jay Glazer:
Breaking: Raiders players have been informed that the team is making the switch at QB and starting Derek Carr over Matt Schaub— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) September 1, 2014
Carr has had a terrific preseason. Players were informed earlier today of the switch— Jay Glazer (@JayGlazer) September 1, 2014
This comes as little surprise, as the changing of the guard happened in organic fashion.
Schaub was unimpressive as the anointed starter, and then was nursing a sore elbow in the preseason finale. In a game usually serving little consequence, Carr came out firing for three touchdowns against the Seattle Seahawks.
ESPN Stats & Info highlighted the disparity in efficiency between Schaub and Carr:
Derek Carr named Raiders starting QB ... he completed 67% of passes in preseason. Matt Schaub completed only 51%— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 1, 2014
There is no question that Carr has the superior arm talent, and had the most of it among the top QBs in this year's draft class. While the other rookies sit, Carr has a chance to establish himself as the future under center in Oakland.
What makes Carr such a fantasy commodity, at least for Week 1, is that he is playing a New York Jets defense that is super thin in the secondary.
Jets coach Rex Ryan remarked on the availability of cornerback Dee Milliner for the season opener, via Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News:
Rex Ryan says "it's too early to tell" if Dee Milliner (high ankle) will play vs Raiders .... (Feeling is he won't be ready). #nyj— Manish Mehta (@MMehtaNYDN) September 1, 2014
Carr may also have a beat on the stopgap options the Jets have been forced to use to fill their defensive backfield, as John Middlekauff of Comcast SportsNet hints at:
Both the #NYJets new CBs Derek Carr has thrown TD passes on: Phillip Adams last week & Leon McFadden multiple times in college— John Middlekauff (@JohnMiddlekauff) September 1, 2014
Leon McFadden, a 2013 third-round pick of the Cleveland Browns, was released and then picked up by the Jets. This stat from ESPN's Rich Cimini offers some idea of what the Jets are getting:
A little note on new Jets CB Leon McFadden: He was called for a league-high 8 penalties in the preseason, according to NFL stats. #nyj— Rich Cimini (@RichCimini) September 1, 2014
For all the fanfare that Browns backup Johnny Manziel has garnered for his improvisational and scrambling skills, he actually ran a near-identical 40-yard dash (4.68) to Carr (4.69) at the NFL Scouting Combine. If the play breaks down, Carr has more than enough wheels to turn a positive gain with his legs—or keep it alive and fire a deep strike downfield.
People may not trust the Raiders based on their prolonged struggles, but Carr has all the looks of a franchise quarterback. Even with a brilliant defensive mind in Ryan scheming against him, there is reason to pick up Carr. If not in a spot-start role, it's worth it for fantasy owners to see what Carr does in Week 1.
Right now, the bargain it would take to acquire Carr in fantasy is as good as it will probably ever be. Even on the road in his debut, he warrants some consideration for a spot start for fantasy teams with uncertain QB situations.
Drop: Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants
Red flags all over the place, which is surprising to say for a quarterback in Manning who has led the Giants to two Super Bowls.
Manning is coming off a 2013 campaign that saw him throw 27 interceptions. Now he is adapting to a new offense for the first time in his starting tenure in the Big Apple.
Former NFL star Shannon Sharpe offered his strong opinion on ESPN's First Take:
ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck also doesn't trust Manning much, per the NFL on ESPN:
"If you look at Eli Manning and that Giants offense as a whole, I think you need to be legitimately concerned." - Tim Hasselbeck— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) August 27, 2014
The offseason departure of Hakeem Nicks led New York to draft Odell Beckham Jr. in the first round. The problem is that Beckham has not been on the field enough to establish a strong rapport with Manning.
Coach Tom Coughlin provided an update on Beckham Monday, via ESPN.com's Dan Graziano:
Let's just let this kid get better. I went to him yesterday to say, 'Let's just not have any more setbacks.' Because it's every day the same question over and over. He's not ready to play. He may be a couple or three weeks away. I'll let you know when he's ready.
Beyond dynamic slot receiver Victor Cruz and the inconsistent Rueben Randle, Manning has few other options to target.
Rashad Jennings is a capable receiver out of the backfield, but he must prove he can carry a feature back workload for the first time in his NFL career.
The G-Men don't have a reliable, pass-catching tight end for Manning to target, so it falls on him to execute this new system even though he was terrible in the preseason. Just how bad? Check out this from Pro Football Focus' Adam Levitan:
PFF's worst 5 starting QBs this preseason: Eli Manning 90th, Alex Smith 82nd, RG3 81st, Kaepernick 68, Schaub 67.— Adam Levitan (@adamlevitan) August 27, 2014
It's hard to like Manning's chances to be a fantasy stud. It feels like New York is teetering on the edge of imploding, and may finally see the Coughlin era coming to a close.
New York's offensive line is also full of question marks and faces the Detroit Lions' ferocious defensive front on Monday night in Week 1. That could be disastrous for Manning and his confidence as he tries to bounce back from a horrible year.
Pickup: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers
This is out of a lack of alternatives at the Panthers' disposal. Rookie receivers often struggle to adjust in their maiden pro seasons. Look no further than last year's No. 1-drafted wideout, St. Louis Rams spark plug Tavon Austin.
It would be one thing to say Benjamin's size will inevitably make him a great red-zone target. You could get by on that assumption without much proof. But according to NFL.com, he made the second-best catch of the entire preseason in just that scenario:
Owned in just 51.4 percent of ESPN.com leagues, Benjamin is an excellent pickup at the moment. That percentage figures to go way up following the season opener, so jumping on the Benjamin bandwagon now is a sage fantasy move.
Yahoo Sports expert Eric Edholm believes Benjamin will exceed expectations:
ESPN fantasy projecting Kelvin Benjamin to go for 4 touchdowns as rookie. Sorry, but I'll take the way-over.— Eric Edholm (@Eric_Edholm) August 28, 2014
Benjamin is uniquely gifted and has ascended all the way to the top of the depth chart. With how raw he was viewed as a prospect coming out of Florida State, it appears Benjamin is ahead of the NFL learning curve and ready to be a No. 1 option already.
The Panthers have a road trip to face Tampa Bay, which is in the midst of a massive transition under coach Lovie Smith. There may be some bumps in the installation of the Bucs' new defense, leading to lapses in coverage and big plays for Benjamin and Carolina's passing attack.
Drop: James Starks, RB, Green Bay Packers
Reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy is the starter. The bruising ball-carrier is capable of catching the ball, can run over anyone and has enough quickness and speed to break off big gains.
Which waiver-wire candidate will have the best overall season?
Starks is owned in 54.4 percent of ESPN.com leagues, yet he has never ran for more than 578 yards in a single season. Entering his fifth year in the NFL, the Packers speedster is 28 years old and has battled injuries in the past, be it turf toe, ankle or knee issues, per KFFL.com.
The West Coast offense and Rodgers will continue to be the foundation of the offense, and Lacy's emergence in 2013 entrenches him as the starter.
This following testimony from a personnel man and a scout suggests Starks may not even be the No. 2 running back in Green Bay. Rather, DuJuan Harris could take that role, per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Bob McGinn:
"(Harris) is their No. 2," one personnel man said. "To me, he's the real deal. He's always going forward. Tough guy who gains yards. If something happened to Lacy I would think they'd play him."
[...] "Harris can make you miss," one scout said. "Starks is an upright guy who really can't take it wide. He has a hard time once he goes wide making anybody miss."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Stark from two people who know more about football than yours truly could ever hope to know. It's also a nice tipoff for fantasy football owners, the majority of whom have bought into the hype surrounding Starks for whatever reason.
There's a chance Starks could prove to be the solid No. 2 and that Lacy's style and the shortened shelf life of modern NFL running backs could vault Starks into a starter's role. As much parity that exists in the NFL, the fluidity of the running back position also creates an element of unpredictability.
A lot of fantasy leagues are built around star ball-carriers, yet even the best in the NFL are in an increased amount of timeshares. The emphasis on illegal contact penalties should only lead to more passing, thus reducing the vitality of running backs in the NFL and in fantasy football.
So if Starks happens to fare well, don't be surprised. Based on how the situation in Green Bay is trending, though, he has a fat chance to be a steady option. Facing the elite, Super Bowl defense of the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1 on the road doesn't help Starks' immediate stock, either.