Fantasy Football 2011: Which Late-Round Draft Picks Have Been the Best?

Mark JonesSenior Analyst INovember 17, 2011

Fantasy Football 2011: Which Late-Round Draft Picks Have Been the Best?

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    Anyone can win a few games of fantasy football by picking the stars.

    Defending champ Aaron Rodgers has, as expected, dominated the quarterbacks field. Detroit speedster Calvin Johnson has been as explosive as ever in the wide receiver category. And relying on Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy or Adrian Peterson to carry your team of RBs works night in and night out.

    But real fantasy champions are determined by who can find the late-round sleepers that transform into every-week starters. These flier picks may not carry much risk—or reward—when they're chosen, but drafting a dark horse with your 12th or 13th round pick can make a world of difference.

    So, when looking back at your always-crucial fantasy draft from a late-season perspective, identifying the long-shot players who blossomed into top scorers is a great way to paint a picture of which teams are at the top of the standings—and what your squad needs to do to reach that level next year.

    These 10 players, in particular, have proven themselves as brilliant under-the-radar picks that gave a few men the keys to success while the rest of the league was twiddling their thumbs; all of them had average draft positions (ADP's) in the 10th round or later.

    Whether they play for a Super Bowl contender or a Suck for Luck bottom-dweller, no one gave these budding stars the credit they deserved back in August...and, now, all 10 of them are making the ignorant fantasy managers of the country pay for it.

    Notes: Fantasy Points-Per-Game based on Yahoo! default scoring; fantasy draft ADP taken from preseason 10-team, 15-round mock draft data at FantasyFootballCalculator.com. To read last season's edition of this article, click here.

Honorable Mention: Cam Newton

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    Average Draft Position: N/A

    Fantasy PPG: 26.9

    Cam Newton has had a rookie season beyond any expert's wildest dreams.

    Although his untimely turnovers have played a large role in the Panthers' misfortune of suffering a plethora of tight losses, Newton has proven himself as an improving passer, legitimate runner and excellent cool-cat game manager.

    The rookie out of Auburn has thrown for 11 touchdowns and rushed for eight more, the key focal points of his average PPG that ranks third among all quarterbacks. Performances in the mid-30's for three of his first four weeks launched Newton into the top tier of players at the position, and he's remained a strong option since.

    There's one reason why Newton isn't approaching the top of this list, though: he didn't have an ADP. Certainly there were some suitors, but obviously not enough to crack the rankings.

    On the other hand, Newton's unexpectedly impressive season and 13th-round ADP in 12-team leagues cement his argument as a deserving player for our list.

A.J. Green

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    Average Draft Position: 10th round, 8th pick

    Fantasy PPG: 11.2

    The "Cincinnati Duo" of fellow rookies Andy Dalton, quarterback, and A.J. Green, wide receiver, are fast approaching the NFL record for most yards in a rookie-to-rookie combination, and Green's fantasy value has benefited greatly from that chemistry.

    Despite an injury scare last week in Pittsburgh, Green has already reached the 100-point plateau and ranks eighth among fantasy WRs. It's consistency that has carried him this far; the high-flying youngster has a touchdown in six of nine games and has scored fewer than eight points only once.

    Mixed feelings about this potential-laden player were abundant back in the summer, causing his draft stock to slip into the late-round-sleeper range, but Green has proven all of the doubters wrong.

Ben Tate

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    Average Draft Position: 11th round, 9th pick

    Fantasy PPG: 8.7

    Few anticipated much of a season, at least fantasy-wise, from still-developing Ben Tate while he remained stuck behind Texans' superstar Arian Foster. And, indeed, Tate might not've been on here if not for lucky break.

    But that lucky break was huge—the opportunity to be a feature back for three weeks due to Foster's injury problems—and it allowed him to show what he's capable of doing.

    Tate was a popular handcuff pick for Foster owners in late rounds, and an even more popular waiver wire pickup in the early weeks, as he accumulated 301 rushing yards (including a touchdown) on 66 carries and 40 receiving yards on four catches from Week One to Three.

    The re-emergence of Foster temporarily knocked him back off the map, but double-digit totals in three of his last four games, with touchdowns in two in a row, has rocketed Tate back into many starting lineups.

Darren Sproles

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    Average Draft Position: 11th round, 6th pick

    Fantasy PPG: 11.6

    Speedster Darren Sproles established an identity as a change-of-pace back in San Diego, but he had never been a reliable fantasy option until his move to New Orleans this past summer.

    Now, Sproles has blossomed as an explosive running back and also a capable short-route receiver. As with many of his fellow fantasy leaders on this list, a jaw-dropping early month—from Week One to Four, Sproles racked up games of 14.2, 12.0, 14.5 and 13.1 points—established his star status.

    Since then, Sproles' has been less consistent, but has, conversely, totaled his two best performances of the year with 107 multi-purpose yards and two touchdowns in Week Seven and 99 yards and one touchdown in Week Nine.

    Those efforts have propelled him to ninth among RBs; a far cry from his ADP that ranked 44th at the position.

Eli Manning

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    Average Draft Position: 10th round, 8th pick

    Fantasy PPG: 21.8

    Every August, Eli Manning is flat-out undervalued by the fantasy world; for many, his interceptions place a shadow on the hidden value of the Giants offense.

    However, Eli has been a viable fantasy starter for several seasons in a row, and he's never shown more point-scoring potential than he has here in 2011.

    Despite being a common name to see still available as the last teams claimed their backups in the draft, Manning has grabbed the family spotlight with 2,688 yards, 17 touchdowns and just eight picks to date.

    Those numbers place Manning seventh among QBs in scoring, outshining typical early-round choices like Michael Vick, Matt Schaub, Philip Rivers and Matt Ryan. Manning's best value has undeniably been his consistency, with 20-plus points in six of his last seven appearances.

    In fact, even losses fail to dampen his production: Eli has 18.6, 28.5 and 21.95 in New York's three defeats so far. 

Jordy Nelson

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    Average Draft Position: 12th round, 8th pick

    Fantasy PPG: 11.7

    The Green Bay Packers can't lose any more. Apparently, neither can their entire passing game.

    Regardless over quarterback Aaron Rodgers spread-the-ball-around passing tactics, the Packers have averaged an eye-opening 306.9 passing yards per game, and that's opening the hole for Jordy Nelson to finally find his niche in the limelight.

    Although he still trails No. 1 receiver Greg Jennings by 122 yards for the team lead, Nelson stands seventh among WRs with 34 receptions for 633 yards and seven touchdowns (last year, he had just two). The fantasy stat line is highlighted with six performances over 13 points, and his production has only improved as winter approaches.

    Coming out of Green Bay's bye week, Nelson had five catches, 105 yards and one TD on Nov. 6 in San Diego and five catches, 63 yards and two TDs (his first career multi-touchdown game) on Nov. 14 against Minnesota.

    That's a large resume from a player who, three months ago, was lucky to be picked in even the 12th round.

Michael Bush

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    Average Draft Position: 11th round, 7th pick

    Fantasy PPG: 11.3

    In a 32-team NFL, one team with two different running backs in the league's top 15 is a concept that's hard to grasp. When the fact that the team hasn't made the postseason for eight consecutive seasons is taken in consideration, that statistic becomes even more shocking.

    Nonetheless, the Oakland Raiders have done it. Talent-laden feature back Darren McFadden has suffered injury troubles, opening the gate for Michael Bush, always one of the better backups around, to flaunt his skills.

    Bush had two double-digit fantasy performances even before McFadden went down three weeks ago, but he's bombshelled for 352 yards, including 5.3 per game, and one score since.

    Last week's chart-topping mark of 30.2 points on Thursday night was one of the hot stories of the weekend, and Bush won't be overlooked by anyone anymore—but to think that he wasn't even owned in half of all Yahoo! leagues a month ago is incredible.

Steve Smith

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    Average Draft Position: 10th round, 5th pick

    Fantasy PPG: 13.2

    The Carolina Panthers' record may not seem any better than last year, but at least the franchise has turned the corner in one regard: fantasy value. If Newton has put up numbers like a Rookie of the Year at QB, his veteran sidekick, Steve Smith, has put up numbers like a Comeback Player of the Year at WR.

    Ex-Giant and current Eagles receiver Steve Smith had almost passed Carolina's star in ADP when the 2011 fantasy draft rolled around, but this Smith has quickly eliminated any critics comparing him to his namesake.

    Totals of 951 receiving yards—and 18 rushing—currently stand beside his name, trailing only Wes Welker for the NFL lead. Combine that with four touchdowns in nine games, and Smith falls into line fourth among all fantasy wideouts.

    A total of 29.8 points in the season opener got the ball rolling for No. 89, who's had four more eye-opening weeks between 13 and 19 points since, as well.

    And, in case you're wondering, the other Steve Smith has only 10 catches for 110 total yards in his first nine appearances. Hopefully, you didn't draft him instead.

Willis McGahee

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    Average Draft Position: 12th round, 8th pick

    Fantasy PPG: 10.3

    The fantasy world is keeping a keen eye on McGahee's ongoing health issues.

    "Why?" you ask. "Hasn't he been a dead-and-gone former star for a couple seasons now?"

    Well, actually, he has. But not anymore. A little fresh air—and a fresh opportunity, too—was all that was needed to jumpstart McGahee's career again in Denver. He's overcome an ADP in the late 12th round to compile 640 rushing yards (with a 5.0 YPC), 49 receiving yards and four total touchdowns this fall.

    Double-digit games for four weeks in a row after a disappointing Week 1 performance rapidly vaulted McGahee from a fantasy benchwarmer to a stalwart RB1 option as the season kicked off, a rise that has most recently been capitalized by a 163-yard, two-touchdown domination of the Broncos' Week 9 visit to Oakland (seen at left).

    McGahee's 92.9 fantasy points rank 19th at the position and put him on pace for arguably his best year since 2007.

Rob Gronkowski

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    Average Draft Position: 11th round, 6th pick

    Fantasy PPG: 13.2

    Tight ends are undeniably the toughest position for any fantasy football owner, young or old, to predict, and nowhere was the position questioned more at the start of the season than in New England. The Patriot passing attack and red zone opportunities was a vast resource to cultivate, but which TE was the better choice: Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez?

    That question has been resolutely answered. It's Rob Gronkowski.

    Gronkowski began the year with an ADP in the mid-11th round, 10th among all fantasy options at his position but still a solid round ahead of his teammate Hernandez. And, while Hernandez's 65.6 points still place him seventh, Gronkowski has blown him away by impressively scoring eight TDs in just over half the season.

    The year began with the Pats' 2010 second-round pick grabbing five touchdowns in three games, accumulating fantasy totals of 14.6, 20.6 and 22.9 points. The next month was slightly cooler, but Gronkowski has caught fire again after his week off with 16 catches for 214 yards and three scores combined in back-to-back games.

    In the midst of a neck-and-neck race to be the top TE with New Orleans' Jimmy Graham (Gronkowski currently trails by a little over four points, but Graham is on bye this weekend), Gronkowski has hit 97 percent ownership in fantasy leagues—for good reason.

    And anyone who doesn't believe that Gronkowski has what it takes to be the NFL's next Tony Gonzalez just needs to watch the next Pats game to be convinced.