2011 NFL Fantasy Watch: Top 25 Risk/Reward Players Who Could Pay Out Big

John DurstCorrespondent IMay 15, 2011

2011 NFL Fantasy Watch: Top 25 Risk/Reward Players Who Could Pay Out Big

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    Last year, fantasy football players got D-Bowed by the surprise players of the season, Dwayne Bowe and Michael Vick. The year before, it was Chris Johnson that took the world by storm. The point is that there are always guys who surprise us by going from good to great or catching fire for a significant stretch of the season.

    The hard part is figuring out what risks to take for ultimate reward achievement. I'm going to try to help you out with that as I give you my list of the top 25 hit or miss picks of the 2011 season. All of these guys are well known players, but whether or not they remain—or return to form—as household names is yet to be seen.

    You won't see the Tom Bradys, Adrian Petersons or Andre Johnsons in this piece. What you will see is good players who you might want to reach for just a little bit because doing so might just pay out in the ultimate fantasy football prize: a league championship.

25. Marques Colston: Will He Return to Form as Drew Brees' Go to Guy in 2011?

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    Colston still had a pretty good year in 2010, but you never knew which Saints receiver was going to have a good day from week to week. This fact and his lack of TD catches made Colston an iffy start. He was good to have in PPR leagues, but his overall performance was spotty at best.

    He only had five weeks of over 80 yards receiving, and he only scored a TD in five games as well. When he was good, he was really good. When he wasn't though, and that was most of the season from a fantasy standpoint, he was just another receiver.

    If he can score with any consistency, he'll be a good guy to have on your roster. If Drew Brees decides to make him the guy again, he'll be a great guy to have in your starting lineup.

24. Steve Smith (Carolina) Says He Still Has Something Left in the Tank

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    Steve Smith was an afterthought at best last season due mostly to injuries, but he's only two years removed from being one of the top WRs in the NFL. In 2008, he had 78 catches for over 1,400 yards and six TDs to boot.

    Smith has also made it clear that he wants out of Carolina, and it looks like the organization is prepared to oblige him. If the rumors are true and he ends up in San Diego, this guy could see pay dirt early and often with Philip Rivers throwing him the ball. There are ties there with former Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera being the new head coach in Carolina.

    Still, all signs say that he's going to end up somewhere other than Carolina, and that's great news for fantasy owners. Keep an eye out to see where this guy ends up landing. He could fly under the radar all the way up until draft time.

23. Frank Gore Is Still a Horse, and He Has an Offensive Minded Coach Now

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    Frank Gore only played in 11 games due to injury last season, but in those games, he managed to gain over 1,000 all purpose yards and score five TDs, catching 43 passes to go with it. In PPR leagues, he's going to be a very productive back to have around.

    If he can stay healthy, he'll get around 100 more carries in 2011 than he had in 2010. That's a great thing, since his stock has dropped a bit after a disappointing 2010 campaign. Gore could return to top-five RB status if all goes well.

    He's not a sure thing, but no one on this list is. He's definitely worth going after though, especially if you can pick him up in the second round.

22. Brandon Lloyd Was a Top Pass Catcher in 2010, but That Was Then

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    Brandon Lloyd's career has been riddled with inconsistency, but there's no questioning the fact that 2010 was his best season as a pro by leaps and bounds. He hauled in over 1,400 yards and 11 TD passes, but it looks like his QB from 2010 isn't going to be his QB in 2011.

    The Broncos are probably going to start Tim Tebow this year, which could mean that Lloyd's production takes a hit this year. Tebow has the support of Broncos great and Hall of Fame QB John Elway, which is high praise, but he still has to prove that he can get the ball to his weapons in the game.

    Lloyd will certainly go higher than he ever has in this year's fantasy drafts, but there is a big question mark as to whether he'll be worth the risk.

21. Dez Bryant Had a Nice Rookie Year, but Romo Is Coming Back

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    Dez Bryant was anything but a "go to" receiver in 2010, but he did pick up steam as the year wore on. He even got a couple of starts, and between Weeks 6 and 11, he caught all six of his TD catches. He was really starting to become a part of the Cowboys' offense before injury sidelined him for the last four games of the season.

    This year, QB Tony Romo is returning, and I'm sure he's going to be looking for another option to compliment Miles Austin. Dez might not be the best option to start every week, and there is a great deal of risk that goes with picking him. Still, his upside could bring amazing reward for fantasy owners.

20. Vincent Jackson Is Back in San Diego, but at What Capacity?

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    Vincent Jackson missed out on most of the 2010 season by choice. He wasn't happy being in San Diego anymore, and it cost him the first 10 games of the season. He didn't even have a catch until Week 14, and he only had one game that was worth anything to fantasy owners.

    Still, he's not far removed from being a top point getter in fantasy leagues. He says he's happy to play one more year in San Diego now, but who knows how that's going to pan out? When he's on board, he's great to have. When he's disgruntled though, he just takes up space.

    There's really no way to know how this season will pan out for this WR, but the possible reward for picking him up is monstrous.

19. Matt Ryan Is Coming into His Own, but What Does That Mean for You?

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    Matt Ryan led the Atlanta Falcons to a 13-3 record in 2010, and his No.1 target, Roddy White, was the top pass catcher last season. Still, he's not quite the fantasy prospect that you'd want as a starting QB on your roster, yet.

    The Falcons gave up four draft picks to move up and take Julio Jones with the No. 6 overall pick in this year's draft. It sounds like they're dedicated to getting more weapons in the fold for the young QB Matt Ryan.

    If Jones pans out, with Ryan's accuracy and clutch passing skills he could jump into the upper tier of fantasy passers in 2011. What's great about that is there are still at least five QBs (P. Manning, Brees, Brady, Rivers, Rodgers) who will definitely go before Ryan in most drafts. He's worth grabbing late.

18. Matt Forte Is Still Looking to Break Out. Could 2011 Be the Year?

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    Matt Forte was really supposed to break out and do some fantasy damage in 2010, but he ended up putting up rather pedestrian stats. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry though—which is above the league average—and caught 51 passes to net over 1,500 yards on the year with nine total TDs.

    On the surface, these are pretty good numbers, but for a fantasy team where the running back is supposed to be the anchor, it's just not that impressive. Still, Forte is really the only offensive weapon on the Bears' roster, so he should get a bigger portion of the workload in 2011.

    If he can get his carries up from 237 and closer to the 300 mark, he'll be a regular point wrangler. He'll just need a little more help from his offensive line, and he might just explode.

17. Peyton Hillis Ran Away with the 2010 Season, but Can He Do It Again?

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    In 2010, Peyton Hillis played well enough to land himself on the cover of the new Madden football video game coming out this fall. Hillis came on strong and seemingly out of nowhere as a waiver claim in almost every league, scoring at least one TD in all but one of the Browns' first 11 games.

    However, after that he didn't score again. His production fell off hard in the final stretch of the season. The organization is still going forward with Hillis remaining the starting RB, but the addition of a healthy Hardesty may force a decline in Hillis' touches in 2011.

    Hillis is still a load though, so he may pan out again for fantasy owners. Lightning might strike twice in the case of Peyton Hillis.

16. Jay Cutler, the Chicago Bears' Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde

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    Jay Cutler is one of the most frustrating cases in the NFL today. When he's on, he's going to get you a lot of points, but when he's having a bad day, so is anyone who starts him. His good and bad performances are like night and day.

    When 2010 was all said and done, Cutler had a modest 23-16 TD to interception ratio, but during the year he had a game with four TDs to zero picks to go with a one TD four-pick performance. That's just one example, but his whole career has been like that.

    The Bears don't really have a No.1 WR on the roster right now, but Cutler makes it work some days. Others he just looks awful. Proceed with caution when considering drafting Cutler, but know that if he can ever get some consistency, he'll be a risk worth taking.

15. Eli Manning Is Another Up and Down QB, but That Might Change in 2011

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    If it wouldn't have been for his WRs literally handing the ball to the defense on at least 10 of Eli's 25 picks, 2010 would have probably been Eli Manning's best season as a pro. He still managed to throw for 31 TDs and 4,000 yards with a QB rating of 85.3—a mark that would have been much higher if not for the aforementioned drop-picks.

    Manning's receivers were constantly hurt last season as well, and he rarely seemed to have the same crop of guys on the field from week to week. All that should change this season, and that quite possibly makes Eli a top commodity in 2011.

    If you don't get one of the top five QBs, It might not be a bad idea to build the rest of your team and hold off for Eli in a later round this season.

14. A.J. Green Could Be One of the Last WRs Standing in Cincinnati

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    A.J. Green, the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft, is the only rookie that I included on this list. He's a Cincinnati Bengals WR now, and with Chad Ochocinco Johnson and T.O. on the roster, he wouldn't get many looks. However, it appears that possibly neither one of them will be there this season.

    If QB Carson Palmer truly does get traded or sit out the season, then it's going to be a whole new day for this franchise, and A.J. Green will be a huge part of that in 2011. With tight end Jermain Gresham and WR Jordan Shipley already in place, the passing game is set up for A.J. Green to succeed right away.

    All of this depends on who stays and who goes, but keep an eye on this developing situation when NFL functions resume. If A.J. ends up getting the No. 1 spot right away, get him.

13. Steve Johnson Is Helping to Lead the Bill out of the NFL Cellar

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    Buffalo Bills WR Steve Johnson is really turning into one of the feel good stories in the NFL. As a seventh-round pick in the 2008 draft, there weren't any high expectations to be met or battles for a starting spot on the horizon for this young WR, but 2010 changed all of that.

    He had a breakout year in 2010. After starting in just one game in the previous two years, he quickly worked his way into the lineup and ended up starting 13 games, catching 82 passes and 10 TDs, and produced 1,073 receiving yards.

    Coming into 2011, he'll be the No. 1 receiver on a Buffalo Bills team that is finally competing week in and week out, even if their win/loss record doesn't reflect that. Johnson might be worth taking a strong look at during your fantasy draft this year.

12. Kenny Britt Found His Niche in Tennessee Last Season

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    Kenny Britt was another waiver claim that netted huge dividends in the limited action that he saw on the field. In the five games from Weeks 3 to 7, he scored seven TDs and never went scoreless in that stretch. He was on fire until an injury in week eight sidelined him until Week 14.

    Britt was still productive after returning from his injury as well, catching 15 balls in his last three games for a total of 302 yards and two TDs. He's big, fast, and sure-handed. He's also the new No. 1 option at WR in Tennessee coming into the 2011 season.

    The Tennessee Titans are going through a great deal of transition right now, but it's going to be up to Britt and RB Chris Johnson to take them into the next generation. Britt will have his chance to shine in 2011, and if he can pull it off he'll be a great pickup for fantasy owners.

11. Ray Rice Had an Average 2010 Season, but 2011 Is a New Year

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    Ray Rice was a top-five pick in may fantasy drafts last season, but he didn't quite live up to the expectations. He had a good year, but it just wasn't quite what it was supposed to be. Rice managed to rush for over 1,200 yards, but he only scored six TDs all year.

    1,200 yards and 63 catches is a good year, but the lack of scoring power really hurt fantasy owners that were relying on him for superstar numbers. Rice had a great year for a second- or third-round pick, but he didn't justify going in the first round.

    In 2011, he'll surely go early again, but this might be the year to jump on him, especially if you can get him in the second round. He has so much scoring potential, and toward the end of 2010 the Ravens seemed to start using him more. If that carries over into 2011, he'll definitely be worth the high pick.

10. Mike Wallace Is Starting to Make a Name for Himself in Pittsburgh

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    Mike Wallace is an all or nothing WR that goes deep and comes up big, but he only caught 60 passes last season. He still managed to rack up over 1,200 yards though due to a 21 yards per catch average to go with 10 TD receptions. All in all the season was success, but it was up and down for his fantasy owners.

    He's a home run hitter, that's for sure, but he's going to be in high demand. You'll have to weigh the options of using such a high pick for a guy who hits a long ball or strikes out all the time. He seems to get tons of points one week and then just a few the next.

    He's not a strong resource in PPR leagues because he doesn't catch a lot of balls, but it isn't a bad idea to go out and get a guy who is capable of a big play on virtually every down he's on the field.

9. Ryan Grant Is Back, and so Is the Pack

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    Ryan Grant was knocked out for the season in the Packers' first game of the 2010 season, and as a result the Pack had one of the league's worst rushing attacks. It was virtually non-existent. However, in 2009 he rushed for nearly 1,300 yards and scored 11 rushing TDs.

    With a passing game that spreads the field like the Packers do, it's going to open up holes for a decent RB. Ryan Grant has proven to be that in the past, but now he has to prove it again coming off of a season in which he didn't participate.

    He's going to be on the board probably into the second round at least, but it is a risk on a guy who hasn''t been on the field for that long. Still the chance that he could return to form has to turn some heads.

8. Anquan Boldin Looks to Take the Next Step in Baltimore

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    Anquan Boldin was supposed to help take the Ravens' offense to the next level, but in 2010 he could only manage 64 catches for 837 yards. He started out the year playing pretty well, but after the bye-week he had only one game with more than 50 yards receiving and none with more than five catches.

    He also scored five of his seven TDs before the break, getting three of them in one game. What was looking like it was going to be his coming out of Arizona party turned into a season of disappointment. He just never really looked like he fit into the offense after the break.

    Boldin might not have had the kind of year that he had hoped to last season, but he's still one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL. If he gets going early again in 2011, he should be able to keep it up this time.

7. Brandon Marshall: The Hardest Working Man in Miami

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    Brandon Marshall was one of the top WRs in the NFL while he was in Denver, but his first year in Miami was filled with some growing pains. He caught 86 balls in 2010, but it was the first time since 2006 that didn't catch at least 101 passes in a single season. He was also in double digits in the drop category.

    It was definitely an off year by Marshall's lofty standards. His three TD's were one more than the two he had in his rookie year when he started only one game. His next lowest TD total for a season is six, double his total from 2010.

    That being said, 2011 is another year, and Marshall is still only 27. I believe there are bigger things to come from this forgotten WR this season. I know he's coming off of his worst full season as a pro, but the risk reward factor with this guy is off the charts.

6. Dwayne Bowe Finally Realized His Potential in 2010

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    Dwayne Bowe finally fit into the Chiefs' offense in 2010, but it was a very strange year for fantasy owners who hung onto the young WR. He had a total of 72 catches for 1,162 yards and 15 TD catches—which led the NFL for TDs—but it certainly wasn't stretched out over the course of the entire season.

    Bowe played and started in every game in 2010, yet he had 13 of his TDs, 49 of his catches, and over 750 of his receiving yards in the seven games between Weeks 6 to 12. Apart from that he had only one game with over 70 yards out of the other nine games he played in.

    Early in 2010, he didn't look comfortable, and late in the year opposing teams seemed to key in on him and spend a great deal of energy just shutting him down. In 2011, he'll have help from rookie WR Jonathan Baldwin and sophomore TE Tony Moeaki, so the upside for the risky pick is a big one.

5. Reggie Wayne Isn't Getting Any Younger, but He Still Looks Good

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    Reggie Wayne has taken the place of Marvin Harrison as Peyton Manning's greatest weapon since he's been the QB in Indy, and on the surface Wayne looks to be a lock of a WR pick. However, Wayne turns 33 this November and Peyton seems to have a different favorite target every week.

    What I'm getting at is that Wayne is still going to have great season stats, and he's going to have a few great games this year, but if you draft him it will become your task to guess which games those will be. In 2010, Wayne had a total of just over 800 yards in only six combined games, but he only caught six TDs all season.

    Pierre Garcon, the ever-injured Anthony Gonzalez and newcomer Austin Collie are all going to have some great games as well, so there are going to be some days when the aging Reggie Wayne isn't going to give you much. However, the payout when he does could be worth the bad games.

4. Sam Bradford Made a Name as the Hot New QB on the Block in 2010

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    Sam Bradford took the Rams from a franchise that won only three games in two seasons to a team that missed out on the playoffs by losing a tiebreaker to the Seattle Seahawks. I say that HE took the Rams because he only threw less than 30 passes three times all season long.

    While he only threw for 18 TDs to 15 picks, he still managed to rack up 3,500-plus yards and completed 60 percent of his passes in what was only his rookie season. He'll also be getting back WR Mark Clayton, who missed nearly the entire season in 2010 due to injury.

    With such a successful rookie campaign, it's only logical to assume that year two will be better yet. With Bradford still trailing the top QBs in popularity, you might be able to steal him in a later round. In point per pass leagues, he's almost a must have, and in regular leagues, he might pay out just as well.

3. Larry Fitzgerald Could Rebound Nicely If Arizona Gets the Right QB

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    Larry Fitzgerald didn't get much attention last season due to his lack of a competent QB and playing for a terrible Arizona Cardinals team, but he still managed to catch 90 passes for over 1,100 yards. The only problem with that was that he had only six TD catches for the first time since 2006.

    In fact, until last season, Fitzgerald hadn't caught less than 10 TD passes since 2006. His fantasy value seemed to take a hit last year, but this season Arizona is rumored to get every QB under the sun with Kevin Kolb looking like the front runner for the job.

    Larry is a stand up guy, so I don't expect him to make any waves in Arizona even though he clearly isn't happy there right now. With the QB uncertainty in Arizona there's no telling just how Fitz will do in 2011. It's risky to take him with a high pick, but he could pay huge dividends.

2. Jamaal Charles Split Time on the Way to Finishing Second in Rushing in 2010

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    Jamaal Charles is clearly emerging as one of the NFL's top running backs, which should make him an automatic first-round pick in any fantasy draft. The problem for fantasy owners is that K.C. coach Todd Haley still seems set on splitting carries in 2011 with Thomas Jones, but for how long is anyone's guess.

    Jamaal had 1,467 yards last season on only 230 carries, but he only managed to score a total of eight TDs all season. With him splitting carries again, it's could be hard to guess which weeks to start Charles in your fantasy league. He'll almost definitely put up good stats, but the question is when.

    He's still going to be in high demand though, and if you want this guy you're going to have to take him in the first round to make sure you get him. Now you just have to ask yourself one question, "Do I feel lucky?"

1. Michael Vick Came Back onto the Scene in a Big Way, but Will It Last?

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    Michael Vick had the best 2010 campaign of any QB with the exception of Tom Brady, and he looked great doing it. Vick seems to have his speed back, his arm strength is still there, and he looks to be more accurate than at any other point in his career. So where's the risk, right?

    The risk is that teams seemed to start catching onto something in his game at the end of the 2010 year: if they forced him to his weak side, his tendency was to tuck the ball and run. Still, with a QB rating over 100 and 21 TD passes to only six picks and nearly 700 rushing yards with nine rushing TDs, Vick was the leading point getter in many fantasy leagues in 2010.

    He's going to go very high in 2011, you can count on that. He could go top five in many drafts, so if you have one of those picks, you have to make a choice. If you think he can do it again, then pull the trigger on this QB gem. Just understand that the risk is just as big as the possible reward.

Honorable Mention Goes To...

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    I'm not going to go in depth with these guys, but there are some late round guys that might work out in a pinch:

    If Kevin Kolb goes to a team with a solid WR corp like the Cardinals, he's a possibility for a second QB as is Matt Cassel with the addition of Jonathan Baldwin in Kansas City.

    New York Giants WR Steve Smith will probably go after teammate Hakeem Nicks and will give you some good weeks. So will Colts WR Pierre Garcon as a second option after Reggie Wayne.

    As far as RBs go, don't forget about the Saints' Pierre-Thomas and Buffalo Bills' RB Fred Jackson.

    That's all for now, but it's never too early to start thinking draft. See you next time.