2011 Fantasy Football Sleepers: Ryan Grant and 10 Players to Add Late
The late rounds of fantasy drafts will always be my favorite ones. It's the part of the draft process where the craftiest of fantasy football veterans are rewarded with bold and under the radar picks while other owners fall into complacence with their earlier, sexier selections.
Fantasy leagues are almost never won by the performance of one or two lucky picks. It's all about balancing team need and talent available, and drafting the best-valued picks throughout the draft. In many cases, leagues are won and lost in the middle and late rounds of drafts.
First and foremost, don't panic. There are quite a few players that could bail you out and counteract the players you originally had your heart set on. Here are ten that stuck out to me:
1) Ryan Grant, Green Bay Packers
Grant enjoyed a remarkable 2009 campaign, scoring 11 touchdowns and racking up over 1,200 yards rushing, but an ankle injury limited him to just 45 yards on eight carries in 2010
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It's remarkable what a Super Bowl run can do to one's judgment. Though Aaron Rodgers garnered most of our attention, the contributions in the run game by a young James Starks were not lost on us. After Ryan Grant went down in week one, Green Bay rode a carousel of tailbacks, of which Starks eventually emerged the favorite.
However, as recent as that may be, it is a thing of the past now. Green Bay's feature back has returned, and early reports suggest that he is back to the form which got him over 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2009.
While the talent and capabilities of Grant are not exactly a mystery, many owners remain hesitant to chance such a high pick on a runner with a recent injury history. That, coupled with the concern of a crowded Packers' backfield may cause Grant to fall a few rounds deeper, making him an excellent value pick.
He won't be a back who falls to the end of a draft by any means, but must be paid attention to closely regardless. If he begins to fall just a bit too far, he will likely reward you for snatching him up at just the right time. In essence, he is a sleeper that must not be slept on.
2) Victor Cruz, New York Giants
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Remember this guy from Hard Knocks?
Maybe you don't. Perhaps you also didn't watch too many Giants preseason games in 2010, but if you did, you couldn't watch one without hearing the crowd's deafening "CRUUUUUUZ" cheers.
And there was a huge reason for that. Cruz dazzled fans that sought an early glimpse of the 2010 season by posting a preseason line of 15 catches, 297 yards and four touchdowns, highlighted by a three-score performance against their crosstown rival New York Jets.
What could have been a storybook season for the undrafted product out of UMass was cut short by an early-season hamstring injury. It was a different verse of the same song that the Giants were listening to all-season long, as injuries plagued their receiving corps.
But Cruz is back now, and could make a big impact.
The departure of Steve Smith has bumped Mario Manningham up one spot on the depth chart, and thrusts Cruz into an ideal spot as the slot receiver. The trio of Nicks, Manningham and Smith were all capable fantasy starters last season, and Cruz could ease himself right into that same fantasy starter consideration.
3) Tim Hightower, Washington Redskins
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I've never met Mike Shanahan personally, but even at the risk of libel, I feel completely comfortable putting words in his mouth when I say this:
Mike Shanahan hates you and your fantasy team. He loves committee backfields, and he loves them way, way more than your matchup this week against "Somewhere Over Dwayne Bowe."
But let's examine someone who could see an extended time period in Shanny's backfield.
Even with an encouraging 2010 performance by Ryan Torain, and the drafting of Nebraska product Roy Helu, Jr., Hightower could have himself a breakout season despite serviceable competition.
Torain is no stranger to the injury bug. He was sidelined for much of last season with a hamstring injury, and injured his hand during one of the summer's first practices. The starting job is Torain's to lose, but it looks as if he's already in danger of losing it.
Hightower is almost a lock to see playing time in passing situations, despite ineffectiveness in doing so. Why? He's the most experienced option, and Keiland Williams may not have done enough to impress last season to land himself that job exclusively.
And I'm sure you're thinking that blocking has no bearing on fantasy points. You're pretty much correct.
But Hightower is also a pass catching back who will serve as a much-needed checkdown option for the inexperienced John Beck, especially when you take into account how keen at pass-rushing the rest of the NFC East is. His mere presence in passing downs may translate to fantasy points.
The Redskins have to have an answer to the blitz, and Hightower could be their long-awaited counter to that, which could in turn give him plenty of additional value in PPR leagues.
4) Todd Heap, Arizona Cardinals
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If you were a Brent Celek owner last year, then I sympathize with your frustration. Celek's most productive performances were games that Kevin Kolb started, and we all know how that story ended.
Fear not though, because Kolb has a new checkdown option, and despite Todd Heap's age, he is one with plenty still left in the tank. Just ask Eric Berry.
Marred by many recent hamstring and neck injuries, Heap's long-term health was a great concern for Ozzie Newsome and the rest of the Ravens' front office. Despite that, the veteran tight end proved that he still had an elite skill set, displaying an explosiveness and reliability that earned himself a career-high 15 yards per catch average in his 10th season.
The options for Kolb to throw to look very slim outside of Larry Fitzgerald, and Heap could find his number being called early and often, especially in red zone situations. Like last year, tight end is a deep position in fantasy football and Heap could make a very worthwhile late-round pick to someone who wisely spends earlier rounds on valuable backs and receivers.
5) Kendall Hunter, San Francisco 49ers
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After a season-ending injury to Frank Gore in 2010, San Francisco did the right thing by drafting Kendall Hunter, to add depth to the running-back position.
Anyone who has ever seen a 49ers game since 2005 will tell you that Gore's injury was inevitable. As one of the most physical and hard-nosed runners in the game, the amount of wear and tear was bound to catch up to his eye-popping style of play eventually.
Brian Westbrook and Anthony Dixon were both called upon to fill the hulking Gore-shaped void in the 49ers' backfield last season, but did an underwhelming job. Westbrook is no longer employed, and Dixon's 3.4 yard per carry average warranted the acquisition of Hunter in the fourth round of this year's draft.
It remains unquestioned that the backfield in San Francisco is still Gore's, but with Hunter being drafted in just 46 percent of leagues, he is absolutely worth taking a late-round chance on.
6) Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo Bills
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I play in a league with someone who had the philosophy of taking chances on the waiver wire with receivers on terrible teams. His reasoning was that because their respective teams were always behind, they would open up the passing game a bit more to play catchup.
Well, he never racked-up the garbage stats like he anticipated, but he still had an interesting theory which may better correlate to quarterbacks.
Enter Ryan Fitzpatrick. He showed flashes of ability in many losing efforts amidst another tumultuous season for Bills fans. His arguable best performances came in games where Buffalo came up short, including a four touchdown performance against Baltimore, and a 121.5 quarterback rating in a losing effort to Jacksonville.
Losing is not an unfamiliar topic for the multitude of distraught fans crammed into Orchard Park, and even with the backfield of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, Fitzpatrick will be no stranger to airing the ball out-- especially with another season with an offense loaded with playmakers such as Stevie Johnson and Roscoe Parrish at wide receiver.
It is a gamble to put your money on Fitzpatrick on an every-week basis, but with the growing philosophy of drafting two quarterbacks and weighing their weekly matchups, Fitzpatrick could very well deepen your options under center.
7) Mike Thomas, Jacksonville Jaguars
It's hard to peg someone who showed the world his big play ability in 2010 as a sleeper, but it seems that Mike Thomas is traveling well-under the radar in fantasy leagues so far.
Thomas emerged as a viable fantasy option last season, racking up over 800 yards on 66 catches. That all came despite playing second-fiddle to Mike Sims-Walker.
Now, with his former superior out of town, Thomas has a chance to emerge as a true number one and could be a star in the making.
With an average draft position coming in the eighth round in 10-team leagues, Thomas could reward many owners who rightfully chose to draft him at the right time.
8) Bilal Powell, New York Jets
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Here's another rookie running back who could make an immediate impact.
It's a crowded backfield in New York again, with the veteran LaDainian Tomlinson boasting seniority and the young bruiser Shonn Greene appearing ready to take the starting job by the horns. Bilal Powell is not a name that should be slept on, even while paying regard to this.
The Jets ran the ball 534 times last season. I'll say it again-- 534 times. That is 33 times per game, and was done so despite the dependable primary receiving unit comprised of Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Jerricho Cotchery.
The jury is still out on whether or not the new group of wide-outs can be as effective as last seasons, but even with the maturation of Mark Sanchez, Rex Ryan will not likely deviate from his run-first philosophy.
There are plenty of carries to go around in New York, and with Tomlinson's age concerns and the possibility of Greene's failure, it may be useful to take a flier on Powell later on in hopes of his role being expanded.
9) Fred Davis, Washington Redskins
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Davis has had his chances, and has proved he can play. The question is, will he?
It would be an uphill battle to dethrone Chris Cooley in Washington, but when the fan-favorite has been sidelined by injury, Davis has stepped up and contributed.
Redskins practice reports reveal that Cooley is still hampered by knee problems, and is coming off of arthroscopic knee surgery which took place in January. Cooley is expected to start on week one, but it remains to be seen if he will be able to sustain the punishment of an entire season.
We saw this before in 2009. With Cooley sidelined, Davis emerged and caught 6 touchdowns and accumulated over 500 yards receiving in 10 games started.
Davis will likely go undrafted in most leagues, but owners of teams in leagues with deep rosters should make a point to snatch him up before anyone else does.
10) Arrelious Benn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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To say that the start of Arrelious Benn's professional career was underwhelming would be a bit of an understatement.
In his first eight games, the University of Illinois product recorded just nine catches. His second half showed encouraging signs of life though, including an explosive 122-yard performance against the Redskins in week 14.
Unfortunately, a torn ACL soon after in week 16 sidelined him for the remainder of an unimpressive season. We may be read a different story in 2011, though.
In an offense that will force defenses to pay special attention to Mike Williams and Kellen Winslow, Benn could find himself in plenty of opportune situations for big plays. Josh Freeman is continuing to show promise as a passer, and Benn could emerge as the biggest benefactor because of it.
Benn has the size, strength, and run-after-catch ability to become a reliable target, and his position on the depth chart suggests he could have a breakout year.