Fantasy Football Draft Strategy: Top 10 Surging Stocks from Preseason

Dan Israeli Contributor IIISeptember 2, 2011

Fantasy Football Draft Strategy: Top 10 Surging Stocks from Preseason

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    The NFL preseason is not a time to evaluate Aaron Rodgers for fantasy purposes.

    For what it’s worth, Rodgers killed it in three games of limited action, just like he did last preseason. He’s going to be a fantasy monster this year, and none of his owners need a strong showing in exhibition play to reassure that.

    The same goes for all of fantasy’s top guns. It’s likely Jamaal Charles owners are happy the RB was limited to 16 carries this preseason, and there probably aren’t too many Mike Wallace owners worried with his meager four-game total (three catches for 19 yards).

    It’s the mid-to-late round guys you want to keep an eye on; specifically the players with something to prove. Those players that are fighting for bigger roles in the offense, or trying to get integrated on new teams (including rookies, of course), are the ones that can greatly improve their draft stock by dazzling in the games that don’t count.

    And it’s not just preseason games. Early training camp reports and any other positive sound bites from a coach or (gasp) member of the sports media, can all do wonders for the hype of a prospective fantasy breakout player.

    The players on this list have all advanced their draft status (and regular season outlook) in some way this preseason—some in more ways than one. Soon it will be determined whether they meet their new lofty expectations, or if the hype bubble fizzles out at some point this season.

    Before we get to the top 10, here are some surging rookies that aren’t starting lineup material just yet, but could have value on someone’s fantasy bench.

    —When a beat reporter describes you as the “best player, period” on the field, you must be doing something right. This is the case with Raiders WR Denarius Moore, who is drawing rave reviews in practice. Moore has the speed Oakland loves, but is also catching everything in sight. With Darrius Heyward-Bust in front of him on the depth chart, Moore has a strong chance to emerge as a starter this season.

    Colt McCoy has been one of the hottest QBs this preseason, and WR Greg Little has a good chance to emerge as his top receiver. Reports from camp/practice have been mixed, but Little has produced nicely in three preseason games (seven catches, 68 yards, TD) and is the perfect fit for Cleveland’s new West Coast Offense.

    —In San Francisco, RB Kendall Hunter has led the preseason in rushing, and is looking like a fourth-round steal for the 49ers with his impressive combo of power and speed. The undersized back from Oklahoma State hasn’t surpassed Anthony Dixon on the depth chart just yet, but looks like a better handcuff for the oft-injured Frank Gore.

    —While BenJarvus Green-Ellis has done nothing to change his role as the Patriots short-yardage/goal line back, RB Stevan Ridley has been just as impressive as Hunter, racking up 222 yards from scrimmage and three TD in just two games. He was held out of the final two games with an undisclosed injury, but looks to have a bright future in New England’s rushing attack, and as early as this season if the “Law Firm” were to falter. 

10. Lee Evans, WR, Baltimore Ravens

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    Evans was more of a name than a proven fantasy commodity during his tenure with the Bills, but a trade to the Ravens presents a new career opportunity for the 30-year-old deep threat.

    Lining up across from one of the game’s best possession receivers in Anquan Boldin, Evans gives QB Joe Flacco the vertical option he’s been lacking during his three years in the league. The two have gotten off to a great start this preseason, hooking up for six catches and 126 yards in two games, including a 35-yard TD.

    While Evans is dealing with a foot injury (and was seen in a walking boot), the injury isn’t believed to be serious. It’s hard to believe in Evans “the useful fantasy WR” at this stage in his career, but for those willing to take a shot, strong WR3 returns are possible. 

9. Lance Kendricks, TE, St. Louis Rams

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    Last year Rams rookie QB Sam Bradford loved targeting the TE, throwing seven of his 18 TD to a variety of options at the position. The problem was there wasn’t one guy you could trust as a consistent week-to-week fantasy option from the group. Enter rookie Lance Kendricks.

    Few players have been as impressive as Kendricks this preseason, who finishes with a four-game line of 11 catches, 155 yards and three TD. Head Coach Josh McDaniels has been using the 6'3" target as a receiver in the slot, and while his role as a starter hasn’t officially been cemented, the rookie is looking like a force in the passing game.

    Despite his amazing audition, Kendricks is still going way beyond the top 100 in drafts, and can easily be had as a backup TE. I have him on the bench in both my leagues, and there are few players I’m more excited about heading into the season. 

8. Plaxico Burress, WR, New York Jets

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    All Burress had to do this preseason to raise his draft stock was take the field, as many were wondering whether the 34-year-old veteran's 33 month lay-off from the game would hinder his abilities.

    Plax silenced his critics with a three catch, 66-yard performance against the Bengals in Week 2, including a vintage over the shoulder, diving TD grab. The fact that Burress immediately made the play that was his bread-and-butter in the league for years was as good a sign as any that his return is legit.

    Of course, the wideout’s preseason hasn’t all been positive, as he posted a goose egg against the Giants in Week 3, and has dealt with both a sprained left ankle and lower back soreness. He became a flashy pick off the strength of one game, but expectations should be tempered a little for the risky (yet TD-friendly) WR3. 

7. Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints

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    I wasn't the biggest believer of Graham originally, and even went as far to say he wasn't worth his ADP in my 50 Riskiest Players list. However, after watching his performance against the Raiders this past Sunday, I’m now singing a very different tune.

    Graham was targeted eight times in the first half with a racking of five catches for 73 yards. I witnessed all of them, and Brees wasn’t simply force-feeding him the ball; Graham was abusing his defenders. At 6'6" with speed, the former basketball player from the U is being used in passing formations like JerMichael Finley of the Packers, and unlike Finley, Graham has avoided the injury bug so far in his career.

    The second-year TE is also a red zone specialist due to his size. While QB Drew Brees is known for spreading the wealth, all signs point to Graham being his favorite weapon when you consider that WR Marques Colston is coming off his second microfracture surgery (right knee).

    The sky is the limit for Graham—a dark horse candidate to become the No. 1 TE in fantasy this season. 

6. Beanie Wells, RB, Arizona Cardinals

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    "Opportunity, knocking at your door." 

    Yes, we are all very annoyed by that NFL commercial. Still, the words ring true in the world of fantasy football, and this preseason, no one's had opportunity come a knocking quite like RB Beanie Wells. First it was the Tim Hightower to Washington trade, and then rookie Ryan Williams suffered a catastrophic knee injury that ended his season.

    As a result, Wells, who struggled mightily last season, will not struggle for carries this year in Arizona. The clear-cut early down and goal line back, Wells has the “opportunity” to put up strong numbers in Arizona’s improving offense. He has 27 carries for 129 rushing yards over three preseason games.

    Wells will remain (close to) a non-factor in the passing game, but entering only his third year in the league, the once promising prospect has a huge chance to shed the bust cloud hanging over his head. Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt said Wells is running with the same confidence he showed at the end of his rookie season. Fantasy owners should share the confidence in Beanie as a RB3 with RB2 upside this season. 

5. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons

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    When the Falcons traded a total of five picks (including two first rounders) to move up in the draft for Jones, it was obvious the team had grandiose plans for the passing game. After that, everyone was just eager to see the kid get on the field.

    This preseason, Jones has done nothing to negate Atlanta’s big move to acquire his services. The rookie has shown amazing after-the-catch ability, turning short passes into big gains with his razor sharp cuts across the field. At 6'3", 220 lbs, Jones has the perfect size to complement smaller WR Roddy White across the field. Defending the two will be a nightmare for opposing teams, as you simply can’t roll coverage one way or the other, without potentially getting burned big time.

    Jones was a popular name heading into the preseason, and now has fantasy owners thinking even bigger after his impressive display (nine catches for 132 yards through the first three games). While expectations need to be tempered for a rookie that is the team’s No. 2 option, Jones is simply too exciting to turn down this season, and could return strong WR2 totals in what could be a prolific Falcons passing attack. 

4. Reggie Bush, RB, Miami Dolphins

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    Even when Bush was rumored to end up in Miami, nobody expected him to be anything more than a change-of-pace scatback, specializing in passing situations. After arriving via trade on July 28, however, everything has gone in the former Heisman winner’s favor, as he is set to inherit the biggest workload of his career.

    A big reason for Bush’s increased role lays in the failure of rookie RB Daniel Thomas, who has done little to impress Miami’s coaching staff. What was looking like a 50/50 split at best now projects as a much different scenario—Bush will be the team’s every down back, but will likely have to earn his chances at the goal line.

    Bush shined in Week 2 of the preseason against Carolina (eight carries for 48 rushing yards, two catches for 33 receiving yards), but struggled to get anything going against Tampa Bay the following week (five carries for -1 yard). Nonetheless, Head Coach Tony Sparano is a big believer in his ability to carry the load, and if Bush can stay healthy, a breakout season may finally come in his sixth year in the league. 

3. Felix Jones, RB, Dallas Cowboys

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    The hype train for Jones is probably bigger than anyone else in the fantasy football landscape heading into this season. With Marion Barber finally out of Dallas, Jones has a clear shot at every-down work in perhaps the league's most loaded offense. Now the only question is whether the once-brittle back can sustain a whole season as a starter, and upwards of 250 to 300 carries. 

    Jones has looked great this preseason, amassing 99 rushing yards on just 15 carries. The former Razorback has always had the wheels to break off big runs, but has been working on his strength and conditioning this offseason to become a more physical, complete RB. He has already shown signs of improved between-the-tackles ability this preseason, and if the small sample size can translate over a full season, Jones can vault himself into the fantasy elite. 

    The situation is more than ideal for Jones to succeed, as the Cowboys will constantly force defenses to spread coverage, giving Jones room to operate behind an improved offensive line. Health seems like the only thing in Jones' way, and while he has the stigma of an injury-prone player, he is coming off a full 16 game campaign. I don't own Jones in either of my leagues, and I'm still kicking myself over it. 

2. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons

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    Forty-two pass attempts. 

    It’s a high volume for any NFL QB, and an amount Ryan reached or exceeded only four times last season. In Week 3 of the preseason, Ryan notched 42 pass attempts—in a single half. It’s almost unfathomable to comprehend, but the Falcons let their third-year QB ride shotgun for a large majority of plays, resulting in 22 completions for 220 yards, a TD and an interception.

    Granted, the completion percentage was not pretty, but the real takeaway from Ryan’s outing is that Atlanta is no longer a run-first team. They may not even be a run-second team. Ryan was sixth in the league in pass attempts last season, and can easily contend with Drew Brees and (if healthy) Peyton Manning for the league lead this season.

    While simply racking up the attempts doesn’t guarantee fantasy stardom (Sam Bradford and Carson Palmer ranked third and fourth in the category last season), Ryan’s maturity as a QB (28:9 TD:INT ratio last year) along with his top shelf options in the passing game, give him a chance to crash the Top Five of the position in 2011. It’s still very unlikely considering the competition in front of him, but Ryan’s first 4,000 yard, 30 TD campaign almost seems like a lock heading into the season. 

1. Tim Hightower, RB, Washington Redskins

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    No one changed his draft value and regular season outlook this preseason as much as Hightower, who went from committee backfield member in Arizona to, in all likelihood, the Week 1 starter in Washington.

    Not to mention Hightower possesses the skills to be a true every-down back, with goal line carries to boot. The opportunity was the first thing to present itself to Hightower and work in his favor. The three-year veteran then took the opportunity and ran with it, literally, by rushing for 126 yards and two TD on 15 carries, during his two-week preseason stint with the Redskins.

    Both Head Coach Mike Shanahan and Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan have gotten behind their new acquisition, praising his all-around game. Yes, Hightower needs to work on the fumbles (he wisely didn’t put the ball on the ground in his two preseason games). Yes, Mike Shanahan is extremely unpredictable with his running backs, and Ryan Torain was solid in Washington’s preseason finale, returning from a broken hand.

    Heading into the season, however, I’m responding to the Hightower detractors with tunnel vision. The Redskins offensive line is opening big running lanes via the zone-blocking scheme, and Hightower has illustrated the quickness to burst through those holes. Throw in his receiving skills in the games where Washington will be trailing (there should be a few of those) and Hightower is a Top 20 RB this season. Book it.