Look for the Headstone marked Paula Schultz...
Tavon Austin, Doug Baldwin, Emmanuel Sanders and Travis Benjamin are WR2s in most fantasy leagues this year. It wasn't long ago that--if they had any value on the open market--they were throw-ins for bigger deals to sweeten the pot.
Most of you would have been insulted to receive a pot-sweetener by the name of Austin, Baldwin or Benjamin during the past two years. Your eyes probably saw those names buried in cobwebs in the unswept corners of your league-mates' rosters or you blankly scanned past their names while searching for flavors of the week to add from the waiver wire.
There are a lot of (former) Marqise Lee owners who can remember thinking this "Allen Hurns thing" isn't going to last more than a season. A year later, Lee is still collecting dust while Hurns, fantasy football's No.12 receiver, needs duct tape and WD-40 to see the field each week. At this point, Lee is the guy most fantasy owners are scanning past blankly when looking for prospects to mine from other rosters and the free agent pool.
It's not any different at running back. Devonta Freeman was a "bust" by impatient owners who don't separate the talent of the back from the talent of his offensive line. Freeman earned four carries per game last year and he often looked like the player I saw at FSU despite the wealth of revisionist history that states otherwise. Even after sitting out this weekend's game, Freeman still has a two-point edge on Adrian Peterson as fantasy football's No.1 RB.
The No.3-No.4 backs were pot-sweeteners (if that) during the past 2-3 seasons. Doug Martin was in a grave labeled 'Paula Schultz' when I had to dig him up this summer and explain that his RB1 ability and opportunity was still very much alive.
If anyone wants to contest the validity of a person floating over their body and floating towards the tunnel with the bright light before returning to consciousness, point them to the NFL career of Mark Ingram II.
And as good as the Carolina Panthers have been this year the fact that the 28-year-old Stewart and 32-year-old Williams are the No.9 and No.11 fantasy RBs this year is the cherry on top of the dump truck-sized pile of evidence that this organization should be brought up on charges of Crimes Against Fantasy.
You get the point: Injuries, mismanagement of usage, lackluster talent evaluation, and player immaturity are all factors that can disappoint fantasy owners one year and exceed expectations the next. We all hit and miss on players, having a consistent philosophy for how you evaluate them is important. Mine is rooted in three things: athletic talent, football skills, and team fit.
These three things don't look at age, production, or a one-time reading of workout metrics that encourages players to learn for the test rather than learn for the field. If you still have athletic talent, football skills, and potential to fit well in a system, it doesn't matter how old you the player is, whether he dealt with an injury that kept him off the field, or if his production metrics don't fit the engineered box of acceptability.
I'll use data to help clarify what I'm seeing, but as most true analytics professionals in this game will tell you (if they weren't too busy working for teams--because most of them aren't the ones selling subscriptions to football consumers), the data is the icing, not the cake.
This week's Gut Check is devoted to players with talent and football skills who could potentially thrive if they find a team fit. Whether you're acquiring options for a stretch run and you're seeking pot-sweeteners that could help you later or you're searching for developmental gems, you've come to the right place. In parenthesis you'll find notes where I encourage you to add now or monitor (until reason to add).
on the Fringes of Society
These players aren't worth adding, but learn their names. They are in the CFL or training for another shot with the NFL. If they truly make it, they'll be the exceptions to the rule (aren't most exceptional players?). I know a lot of fantasy analysts write off these types of players. They tell you not to waste your time learning about fringe players.
Hogwash. Your job isn't to remember them, I'm not writing this stuff to quiz you on your memory three years from now. I'm giving you an introduction to them because it's my job to spot talent. For some fantasy analysts, it's outside their realm to do this, which is totally understandable. But if you're reading someone for their takes on talent, don't you want that writer to keep tabs on fringe guys?
I would...Spencer Ware was one of these guys until a month ago.
All of these players are fantasy options to monitor until there's a reason to add, such as a signing with an NFL team and the likelihood of a spot on the active depth chart.
RB Malcolm Brown, UDFA: The former 5-star recruit of the Texas Longhorns flashed his skills during the preseason, but he had a long climb to make a roster stocked with Todd Gurley, Tre Mason, and reliable third-down/special teamer Benny Cunningham. Brown played on a horrific Longhorn's offensive line in 2014, but the film displayed the lateral agility, burst, strength, and versatility of a NFL player. If he still wants it, he'll be in a camp next summer for another opportunity.
RB Shakir Bell, Edmonton: The former Indiana State starter has feet, agility, vision, and balance reminiscent of Ahmad Bradshaw. He has to learn to pass protect and maturity was a big issue for the undersized runner. The NFL does not treat the CFL as a developmental league. In fact, there's a greater sentiment among NFL personnel management that the CFL is a place where has-beens and never-were's go. There are always exceptional cases. Bell has the talent to be one of them, but he's a major long shot.
RB Chad Spann, Saskatchewan: The former NIU star has had several small cups of coffee with the Colts, Buccaneers, Steelers, Jets, and Texans. Two of those four opportunities ended because of minor injuries after impressing enough to earn preseason playing time beyond special teams duty. The other three ended after the teams changed coordinators and/or coaches and the scheme change meant Spann was no longer on their radar. Spann was on the Roughriders' practice squad this fall. He played well enough that the team traded its starter (the CFL's leading rusher at the time) to promote Spann as its future starter). On the second play of his opportunity, he tore his Achilles. The team expects him back and capable of competing for the starting job. Achilles' tears aren't as bad as they used to be--see Demaryius Thomas' and Michael Crabtree's careers. Spann is an extreme long shot for the NFL at this point. That said, I heard from a source that the Packers also had him on speed dial this summer because they were impressed with his speed and receiving skills.
TE A.J. Derby, New England: The former Iowa linebacker who transferred to Arkansas and became its starting tight end is on New England's IR. He's a fluid athlete with good hands. Scott Chandler isn't in New England to replace Rob Gronkowski beyond the short-term. If Derby can make a full recovery from his undisclosed injury and impress next year, he has the athletic skill and burgeoning football skills at tight end to become Gronkowski's understudy.
TE Joe Don Duncan, Brooklyn Bolts: If you've been reading my work for a couple of years, you know I'm a believer in Duncan's talent as a receiver. Cecil Lammey got indication this summer that Duncan was well-liked by the coaching staff and if they could find a way to keep him on the team that they would do so. It didn't work out, but even Duncan had the impression that he'd remain in the team's thoughts for next year. Currently playing with the FXFL's Bolts, Duncan could earn interest next year--especially if he's working with Brock Osweiler and the purest form of the Gary Kubiak scheme where his hands, skill after the catch, and blocking ability will hold greater value.
QB Keith Wenning, Cincinnati: On the Bengals' practice squad, Wenning has the prototypical size and arm. He also possesses excellent anticipation and accuracy in the vertical game. The Ball State product had an uphill climb to secure a roster spot because he was a small school player. Andy Dalton seems entrenched as the Bengals' starter, but injuries can turn careers upside down in an instant.
QB Nick Marshall, Jacksonville: The former Auburn quarterback is a return specialist and defensive back for the Jaguars. He also succumbed to the intense pressure to change positions. I think Marshall would be an heir-apparent starter for a CFL franchise if he stuck to his guns at quarterback, which is essentially a death knee for his NF prospects. But stranger things have happened in professional football than a coaching staff deciding that they should give a player a shot to play his old position. I think Marshall possesses a lot skills that we see from Tyrod Taylor. Marshall has much better deep accuracy and an even stronger arm. His arm strength is rare.
QB Rakeem Cato, Montreal: The Marshall sensation is smaller than Jeff Garcia, which will always work against him. He also made a great first impression with the Alouettes. He's an exciting passer with good pocket mobility and accuracy. He's a big-time long shot.
WR Dezmin Lewis, Buffalo: The Bills added Lewis to its practice squad after training camp. He's a rangy athlete with skill after the catch and an excellent catch radius. He needs to become an NFL-caliber route runner. If this happens, Lewis could earn playing time.
WR Tyrell Williams, San Diego: A small-school player with excellent size and great acceleration and stop-start quickness, his story has the potential to parallel that of Charles Johnson (if this year in Minnesota proves to be a speed bump rather than a mountainous barrier). San Diego promoted the not-ready-for-prime-time prospect from its practice squad due a slew of injuries. If he makes noise in next spring, be ready to pounce.
WR Jeremy Gallon, UDFA: I still believe he's a much greater talent than most think. But when a player has a UDFA status, extreme size limitations, and an injury history on his resume, opportunities will remain slim. The Raiders cut Gallon due to injuries this spring. If he earns a shot with another team next spring, keep an eye on him.
Stuck at the Kiddie Table
Remember being too old and sophisticated to sit at the kids' table on Thanksgiving, but too young for the family to find room for you with the adults? These players are at this awkward stage of their careers where they just need a real chance to fit in, but the opportunity--for any number of reasons--hasn't been there. Guys like Dorial Green-Beckham, DeVante Parker, Breshad Perriman and Kevin White don't count--no one has forgotten them yet. These guys may need another 2-3 seasons for a significant opportunity, but don't be surprised if they have a sudden emergence with an unexpected opportunity. Dion Lewis, Joique Bell, Tyrod Taylor and Gary Barnidge are all recent graduates of the kiddie table.
If the note preceding the player is (Add Now/Deep) it's for deeper leagues with rosters of at least 25 players.
(Add Now) WR Cody Latimer, Denver: Yes, I'm going to keep shoving Latimer in my reader's faces just like I did with C.J. Anderson as a rookie when, based on opportunity, there was little reason to do so. The second-year option is a great example of a player who does not fit with the Broncos' bastardized Manning-Kubiak compromise of an offensive scheme. He's best used outside and in the vertical game, but there's a glut of that talent with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders ahead of him. The past two weeks that Brock Osweiler has been starting, the Kubiak offense has been allowed to work as designed and Latimer has earned more time. He was even made a captain against the Patriots. His time is coming.When it does, don't be surprised if he's a top-25 fantasy receiver once he becomes an every-week contributor.
(Add Now/Deep) WR DeAndre Smelter, San Francisco: Big, strong, and skilled at winning the rebound, Smelter should be ready to contribute after rehabbing a knee injury since late last fall. He has the potential to develop into an Anquan Boldin-like player. Those who drafted Smelter are unlikely to lose patience with him, but there's a chance they look at Colin Kaepernick on the bench and Blaine Gabbert starting and decide they want to part with shares of developmental 49ers as fast as they can.
(Add Now/Deep) WR Tre McBride, Tennessee: It was McBride's first opportunity on the active roster last week and he delivered a 31-yard kick return that impressed beat writers like Paul Kuharsky. It's a dramatic statement, but I said pre-draft that if some folks smarter than Tonya Harding and Jeff Gilooly kidnapped Amari Cooper from Tuscaloosa last year and Nick Saban had McBride on hand to be the substitute go-to receiver posing as Cooper, no one would be the wiser. Think I'm nutty? Even big-corporate draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah was shocked that McBride fell past the first three rounds of the draft. I won't be at all shocked if McBride becomes a starter in the NFL by the time he reaches the end of his first contract.
(Add Now) WR Kenny Bell, Tampa Bay: My 2016 draft fave was making strides in Tampa Bay and competing for the slot role before he got hurt and placed on IR. Jameis Winston's summer roommate has the speed, toughness, and skill after the catch to develop into Vincent Jackson's eventual replacement. Bell drops some passes, but NFL teams can live with drops when a player consistently redeems himself and makes even tougher catches within the same contest. If he sneaks onto any waiver wire in my dynasty leagues, you can be certain that I'm stealing him.
(Add Now/Deep) WR Jared Abbrederis, Green Bay: Now that Green Bay has messed around with great athletes that can't run the full complement of routes or drop tough throws, it might discover that its best long-term option is former Wisconsin starter who spanked Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby in college. Abbrederis failed to stay healthy a rookie and spent most of the year rehabbing an injury. He had 4 catches for 57 yards against the Lions before suffering rib and chest injuries that will put him on the shelf for several weeks. Abbrederis' issue is staying healthy. If he can do so, he has the skills that could put him ahead of more heralded options currently on the depth chart.
(Monitor) WR Michael Campanaro, Baltimore: Another guy who hasn't stayed healthy, Campanaro is more of a slot option than Abbrederis, but he has the quickness to get deep. Think of Campanaro as the player that New England would jump on as its next Wes Welker-Julian Edelman-Danny Amendola if the Ravens give up on him. He was the best zone route runner I saw from that 2014 class.
(Monitor) WR Marqise Lee, Jacksonville: I won't be adding Lee, because I don't believe in players who at least don't have mixed results holding onto the ball when targeted in tight, physical coverage. He rarely caught the ball in these situations at USC. But I'd be a fool if I wrote off Lee's potential against zone coverage in the right system. If you can get him cheap, he's worth a flier.
(Monitor) WR Bruce Ellington, San Francisco: I dislike the situation and I wonder how much he's really learning there, but I love the versatility and athletic skills. Put him with a great quarterback and skilled offensive coordinator and Ellington could develop into a prim-o, high-volume slot receiver.
(Monitor) WR Brandon Coleman, New Orleans: Players like Coleman--when they do achieve success--often develop in fits and starts. Coleman earned praise this summer, but failed to translate it to the regular season. Considering what little he had to offer in practice the year prior, his second off-season was a success. If he can become a contributor in 2016, there will be reason for continued optimism.
(Monitor) WR Quinton Patton, San Francisco: Another raw prospect who is making strides--or at least earning opportunities on the field--with an organization where there's doubts that he's getting the type of development that will make him a long-term contributor. I'm still keeping an open mind.
(Monitor) WR Taylor Gabriel, Cleveland: The preseason hype on Gabriel from teammate Dwayne Bowe as that Gabriel had the talent to become a star in the league. Although he couldn't maintain this level of performance long-term, Bowe has been on the precipice of stardom so you can't instantly dismiss hs statement.
(Add Now/Deep) RB Mike Davis, San Francisco: Reggie Bush is likely done and whether Jarryd Hayne becomes a full-fledged NFL runner is a speculative deal based on the lack of carries we've seen (more below). What I do know is that a healthy Mike Davis is good enough to become a good NFL starter (translation: a top-36 fantasy option with top-15 upside on a talented team). He can catch, run for power, and he has deceptive burst.
(Monitor) RB Jarryd Hayne, San Francisco: It's hard not to love what Hayne has shown as a runner. His rugby experience gives him experience at defeating defender angles and running with balance. He knows how to finish. What we don't know is how well-versed he can become in a variety of schemes as a runner, receiver, and blocker. If he proves a quick learner, he could surprise as a future starter--and a good one. The more realistic best-case expectation is that he develops into a contributor in the offense, but never the main starter. After all, he's a 26-year-old rookie and the NFL's ageist tendencies are often in full effect at the RB position.
(Add Now/Deep) RB Zach Zenner, Detroit: Before rib injuries derailed his rookie season, Zenner was the "surprise" late-round option (translation: we didn't believe the film we saw was valid because he didn't play the likes of Nebraska every week.) who got a chance to sub for the still-rehabbing Joique Bell earlier this year. Look for Zenner to compete for a committee role in Detroit next year if the Jim Caldwell stays with the Lions or the new coaching staff doesn't summarily turn over the bottom of the depth chart because it can. Zenner runs for power, has the burst and agility that many wrote off due to dumb biases, and he's patient. Think Donald Brown with size and power (what kept Brown from becoming the player the Colts hoped he'd be).
(Add Now) RB David Cobb, Tennessee: No matter what Cobb does this year, consider it a wash. The Titans already said this summer that they felt he had a lot to learn about becoming a good professional. Give him a full off-season to get it together and stay healthy.
(Monitor) RB Rod Smith, Dallas: This is Smith's second team in one year as a UDFA after getting bounced from Ohio State for repeated disicplinary issues. His head has to be swimming. If there's a veteran player who can offer him strong mentoring between now and next June--and Dallas lacks that kind of option on its RB depth chart--Smith has the athletic profile and skills to surprise. The Buckeyes will tell you that in many respects he was an NFL talent.
(Monitor) RB Trey Williams, Dallas: If he learns how to pass protect and gets good at it, Williams could become one of the more exciting backs in the league.
(Add Now/Deep) RB Orleans Darkwa, New York: When a NFL team's coaching staff tells its successful, but fuddy-duddy, coach to give a player a shot, it's time to take notice. Darkwa is one of those Joique Bell types who has looked good in the limited opportunities he earned bouncing around the league looking for a shot to stick to a roster. He can catch, run with patience and power, and at 23, he's still young. Shane Vereen can't stay healthy, Andre Williams is a limited runner in terms of skill sets, and Rashad Jenning's is a band-aid for this ground game. Darkwa is likely a fresh band-aid, at best, but at least he's a fresh one.
(Add Now/Deep) RB Ka'Deem Carey, Chicago: Buried beneath the Jeremy Langford hype (and it was deserved hype for the rookie) were two points worth remembering for the future. Carey earned the start in Week 9 and from Weeks 9-11 he had 30 carries for 116 yards. The Bears had him on the practice squad because he didn't play special teams, but they clearly valued him as a runner if they kept him on the team despite lacking that dimension of skill. Carey will remain an option to monitor whether he sticks in Chicago as Langford's backup in 2016 or has to seek employment elsewhere.
(Add Now/Deep) TE James O'Shaughnessy, Kansas City: I've had several analysts tell me that they saw O'Shaughnessy's targets early this season and mistook him for Travis Kelce. It's why I liked O'Shaughnessy so much. If your league places a premium on tight end play, he'll remain a roster stash.
(Add Now/Deep) TE Jesse James, Pittsburgh: He's fluid and sure-handed in tight coverage. If he can get a little more agile and develop more burst, he could become a productive starter as a high-volume, dump-off target and red zone threat--like Heath Miller.
(Add Now/Deep) TE Tyler Kroft, Cincinnati: The Bengals like Kroft's potential as an all-around threat at the position. Given Tyler Eifert's injury history, Kroft is worth a stash in tight end-premium leagues. Think of him as a Brent Celek-Gary Barnidge like player: Fluid enough to do damage in the intermediate zone, but not a stud mismatch that becomes an essential part of the gameplan every week.
(Add Now) TE Blake Bell, San Francisco: The "Bell Dozer" left the garage this weekend against Arizona and gave fans a taste of what's to come. The former goal line quarterback has good hands and he can run after the catch. Now that Vernon Davis is gone, Bell should be considered the favorite to enter next season as the starter. Although not as talented an athlete or route runner as Travis Kelce, I think Bell has the talent to develop as a middle class equivalent to the Chiefs tight end in the same way that one might parallel Gary Barnidge to Greg Olsen. It means, I think Bell can become a top-10 fantasy tight end with potential for top-5 seasons in a good offense.
(Add Now/Deep) TE Cameron Brate, Tampa Bay: The former Ivy League star has proven that his athletic ability is of NFL stock. I haven't seen him block yet, so I can't tell you if he's a future starter. Brate has always demonstrated fluid skill to adjust to the ball. He's a player of necessity for the Buccaneers right now, but a Jacob Tamme-like role long-term is definitely a possibility.
(Add Now/Deep) TE MyCole Pruitt, Minnesota: The Vikings are feeding Pruitt playing time in small doses. If he can make that leap that many future starters do between their rookie year and second season, Pruitt could add a highly flexible dimension to this offense as a big-play H-Back.
(Add Now) QB Brett Hundley, Green Bay: The biggest criticisms on Hundley that dropped his draft status from first-round prospect mentioned in the same breath as Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota in August 2014 to a Day 2 afterthought was that he was more athlete than tactician at the position. Much of this stemmed from a bad offensive line and staff that put Hundley in an offense that was predictable and inflexible at the line of scrimmage. Hundley was told to be an athlete first, second, and third while leaving the strategic adjustments to the coaches. Hundley began Packers' training camp behind the curve in the mental aspects of quarterbacking. He ended the preseason as a the top-ranked passer in the NFL and impressed Mike McCarthy, a renowned developer of QBs, with his preparation and retention of the mental side of the game. I still believe Hundley has the skills to be one of the three best quarterbacks in this draft class--and based on the good we've seen from Winston and Mariota, that's quite a statement.
(Add Now/Deep) QB Sean Renfree, Atlanta: In two years time, the former Blue Devils star has quietly earned the job as Matt Ryan's backup. He's a disciple of David Cutcliffe's coaching and he has grasp of pro style concepts. I like his accuracy under pressure and skill with the play action game. As it stands today, Atlanta's offense is not a great environment for Renfree to make a name for himself if Ryan gets hurt. But give Atlanta one more quality receiver and put Renfree in for a few games and I think teams could come calling.
(Monitor) QB Garrett Grayson, New Orleans: The Saints' rookie entered the NFL with arm limitations and difficulties delivering accurate passes in the middle of the field. But he's in a great situation to develop as long as Drew Brees and Sean Payton remain on staff.
(Monitor) QB Aaron Murray, Kansas City: If you combined Tyler Bray's arm talent and Murray's mind and athletic ability, you'd have a top prospect. Andy Reid gets a lot of flak, but the Philadelphia Eagles were once one of the more enduring contenders in the league. Chiefs backup Chase Daniel is not a future long-term starter, but if Murray develops a deep ball the former UGA starter has a shot.
(Add Now/Deep) QB Jimmy Garoppolo, New England: I don't believe in Garoppolo, but there are colleagues I respect who do. Where I had reservations with Derek Carr's pocket presence, but ultimately believed it wouldn't be a major impediment, I can't say the same for Garoppolo. Until I see extended time on the field in the regular season where he performs under heavy pressure, I can't endorse him. That said, until the Patriots dump him, I can't exclude him from the list, either.
(Monitor) QB David Fales, Chicago: The only issue I had with Fales is arm strength. I loved his pocket presence, skill at reading the field, and aggressive nature at San Jose State. Jimmy Clausen is not a future starter. Fales is a guy to add to your dynasty roster immediately if you read anything credible about his arm talent improving and earning Chicago's backup role.
Young players that might be had cheap because fantasy owners are disappointed and prefer to write off that player than stay patient and feel like a fool. Most of these players will continue to perpetuate this foolish feeling for having them on your rosters, but you're never foolish for divorcing your disappointment in them long enough to consider if they're worth a low-risk investment. Ronnie Hillman may still be a role player, but he's a good example of a player written off by most until this year. That said, most of these players will need a career-near-death experience to rebound.
(Monitor) QB Blaine Gabbert, San Francisco: One of my biggest mistakes as an evaluator was my favorable evaluation of Gabbert. It taught me to break down specific mechanics and concepts of pocket presence and assign it value that can change the overall outlook of a scouting report regardless of the other talents that are present in the player. If I were to evaluate Gabbert in hindsight, I bet I would have cited his potential but forewarned that he needed time to sit, watch, and develop better pocket skills. He's a prime example of a player who got the flash-fry QB development treatment. I haven't formally broken down Gabbert's performances this month, but I have seen enough to say that he has performed competently. Given his market value, it wouldn't hurt to acquire him for next to nothing.
(Add Now) QB Johnny Manziel, Cleveland: Listen, Manziel is still immature. Newsflash, if you expected Manziel's transition from the Alfred E. Neuman of quarterbacks to go smoothly then you've never trained or developed a brash, arrogant, competitive, and stubborn charmer. They're difficult to students, but their return on investment can be amazing. It's why I compared Manziel to Brett Favre. Jerry Glanville had good reason to write off Favre early. The former Falcon reinforced Glanville's perspective when he routinely arrived to practice hung over. Imagine that happening in today's NFL and tell me the PR Factor wouldn't have greater influence on the Packers acquiring Favre? The three-time MVP gave Mike Holmgren fits during his developmental years with the Packers. Manziel isn't that kind of prospect, but he's not the noodle-armed, football idiot that many characterize him to be. I'm also keeping him stashed on my rosters until he proves he won't mature enough to salvage his career. He's treading that line now, but he's still worth stashing from the waiver wire if someone else in your league has grown tired of his act. I think the Browns see 2014's debacle as a write-off year and know they have 2-3 years of bumps to ride out with Manziel. This is counter to the football-media party line of flash-fry QB development, but you don't take a boy-king like Manziel and expect him to figure out how to be a man along the same timetable as Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, or other corporate-style button-up types.
(Add Now) QB Robert Griffin, Washington: He may need to sit a year or two and he'll need to prove that either A) the maturity of the Washington coaching staff-ownership was a bigger issue than his immaturity or B) Griffin has matured. If these conditions happen, the talent is undeniable--yes, even as a future pocket passer.
(Add Now/Deep) QB Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco: The former 49ers starter never had the pocket presence and field-reading potential of Griffin. But Kaepernick proved that he can perform on the biggest stage in the right system with surrounding talent. The problem is the requirements for sustained success from Kaepernick require a niche system and NFL organizations don't want to spend a lot of money on that kind of figurehead.
(Monitor) QB Geno Smith, New York: Getting punched out by a teammate when you're the presumptive starter is a baaaad sign. But he's young, the skills are there, and if signs of maturity show up, you never know.
(Monitor) WR Justin Hunter, Tennessee: Great talent, vastly immature. If he ever develops the passion, focus, and consistency, he could take over games with his skills.
(Add Now) TE Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis: The Colts' TE is a major exception to the characterization of most of the players on this list. He's a mature professional by all accounts I've heard. He's injured a lot and stuck on a team that doesn't use him to his ability. He'd be a potential Pro Bowl starter in Atlanta. He'd be a top-12 fantasy starter most anywhere he isn't asked to split time in a division-of-labor offense like Indianapolis and Philadelphia.
Emmanuel Sanders and Danny Woodhead are players that had supporting roles in offenses and then transitioned to go-to options with every-week fantasy value. These players have earned enough of a shot to know something about what they bring to the field, but we might be deceived into thinking that all we've seen is the limits of what they can offer.
(Add Now) QB Brock Osweiler, Denver: You have to be encouraged by what we've seen of Osweiler thus far. Cecil Lammey has done an excellent job covering the Broncos for years and he foretold Osweiler's potential. Is he a long-term starter? We don't know yet, but we do know that he has passed the first step of not fouling up his assignments. He does enough to put the team in position to make plays. That's a good first step. The rest comes with experience and the lessons learned from being on the field.
(Add Now) QB Kirk Cousins, Washington: I've been a vocal critic of Cousins' potential long-term. I'm still not sold, but I'd be wrong if I didn't concede that Cousins has shown improvement. He still has to learn not to attempt throws while facing down the pass rush that are beyond his arm talent's pay grade. This is a fatal flaw of his game that often shows up when the defense gets him into trouble or he's forced into moments were franchise-caliber talents, lacking surrounding talent can put the offense on his back. If he can resolve this tendency--and I'm skeptical that he can--he might follow in the footsteps of Andy Dalton. If not, we're looking at a player closer to Ryan Fitzpatrick. Not a horrible thing, but not someone you invest a lot in.
(Add Now/Deep) QB Zach Mettenberger, Tennessee: I still see Mettenberger as a young Kerry Collins. With a good team, he can be better than we've seen. I doubt he ever becomes a major contributor, but you might find he's a buy-low, sell-high option.
(Add Now) RB Jeremy Langford, Chicago: Langford's decision-making has been better than what I projected for him while he was at Michigan State. One of the lessons that I'm learning as an evaluator is not to undervalue running backs lacking great zone scheme conceptual skills if they have speed and balance. The difficult part with that lesson is that it still requires trust that a team will make good strategic choices to maximize his talent. When it comes to Langford, so far, so good.
(Add Now) RB Khiry Robinson, New Orleans: Look what Chris Ivory has done for the Jets and consider that Bill Parcels thought Robinson's style, and in some part his talent, earned a comparison to Curtis Martin. Mark Ingram II has been a top-five back, you don't bump that train off the track to give Robinson more carries. At the same time, don't be surprised if Robinson earns a shot elsewhere and thrives like Ivory. His contract expires at the end of this year.
(Add Now) RB Jerick McKinnon, Minnesota: He'll never live up to Adrian Peterson's standard and that dynamic could unfairly dog him for the length of his career. But if this doesn't weigh him down, his talents remind me a bit of Charlie Garner. In the right offense and with added maturation, he can become a productive cog at a cheap price if you have room to acquire him now as Peterson's handcuff.
(Add Now) RB Charles Sims, Tampa Bay: If you listened to the Buccaneers off season narrative, Sims was the immediate future. If you listen to some of the current narratives, he's not that good. I think a better perspective is this: Doug Martin was an excellent back who got hurt, didn't return in top shape, lost the trust of the coaching staff, and regained it with a renewed focus on his conditioning. None of this has to do with Sims, who is the same talent he was at Houston and West Virginia. He's quick, usually makes sound choices with the blocking scheme, and he's an excellent receiver. He lacks Doug Martin's kind of agility, creativity, and tackle-breaking, but not many backs have Martin's combo of skills. Don't ditch Sims and if you can get him as a pot-sweetener you've done well--RBs fortunes change with one play more often than most positions in football.
(Add Now) WR Markus Wheaton, Pittsburgh: The popular narrative with Markus Wheaton has been that he's not a good wide receiver. The more accurate narrative is that Wheaton's style is somewhat redundant to Antonio Brown. He's not nearly as good after the catch, nor is he has sudden as a route runner, but his ideal role would fit more with what the Steelers seek from Brown in the offense. One thing I've noticed for the past two years is the Steelers' tendency to target Wheaton on sideline routes where Ben Roethilsberger consistently overshoots a wide-open Wheaton. Imagine a significant portion of your targets being routes that your quarterback is the least accurate at throwing and welcome to Wheaton's reality. What works for Wheaton are routes with harder breaks, crossing routes, or vertical routes that don't fade to the sideline. But when these are routes reserved for Martvis Bryant and Antonio Brown--and before that, Mike Wallace--you take what you can get.
In fact, I'm a little sick of hearing that Markus Wheaton is a bad receiver. A bad receiver doesn't get open and catch the football. Wheaton gets open plenty, but he's never been one of the top-two options in this offense for an extended period of time and when you have arguably two of the best big-play receiving threats in football you're more likely to force the ball to these players than by-pass them for someone else. When you do, that player is usually wide open as a third option in a progression with limited time to make a great throw. As far as catching the ball, Wheaton's drop rate in 2014 was 2.3 percent--among the best rates in the NFL last year. Wheaton's contract expires at the top of 2017, I'll be acquiring Wheaton as a throw-in where I can.
(Add Now/Deep) WR Marquess Wilson, Chicago: Alshon Jeffery is the present, Kevin White is the future, and Wilson is that awkward present. He'll be sought after in 2017 when his contract with the Bears expires. He'll be 25 and if he continues to make strides like he has, he'll offer a lot more to his second team (and probably consistent WR3 production to fantasy owners) than he did his first one.
(Add Now) WR Robert Woods, Buffalo: A polished, well-rounded option who would be a 1,000-yard receiver with a half-dozen touchdowns in a passing game that heavily targets the intermediate range of the field. The Falcons would die to have a player like Woods this year to complement Julio Jones. So would the Packers, Chargers, Patriots, Vikings, Chiefs, and Panthers. He and Wheaton should be cheap pot-sweeteners with potential for a much higher return on investment.
(Add Now/Deep) WR Charles Johnson, Minnesota: Stefon Diggs stole Johnson's thunder and considering that the deep passing game is practically non-existent with this offensive line, it's a wasted year for the fourth-year option. It's reasonable to downgrade expectations compared to this time last year, but I wouldn't write him off. He's a cheap throw-in who plays a team that should have a better offensive line next year.
(Monitor) TE Ryan Griffin, Houston: Fluid, sure-handed, and skilled at adjusting to the ball at the boundary, Griffin strikes me as a late fantasy bloomer because he was Gary Kubiak's prospect caught in the Bill O'Brien changeover that included the drafting of C.J. Fiedorowicz. Griffin is the better receiver, but not the physical prospect. You don't have to add him, but monitor his progress and if he gets a new team in 2017 with a viable opportunity, add him.
(Monitor) TE Dion Sims, Miami: Like Griffin, I think Sims has potential to become a second-contract starter with a new team. He's a good blocker and a fluid pass catcher. Think of him as a less talented Dwayne Allen.
(Monitor) TE Crockett Gillmore, Baltimore: Maxx Williams is the future, but Gillmore's improvement has been notable. I think he'll play in the league for a long time. With the right landing spot down the line, he could repeat the top-12 production he's had thus far.
Name an era of fantasy football and there's a list of players that everything thinks they have figured out. Carson Palmer was never the same after his knee injury and would never fulfill the potential of his youth in Cincinnati. LeGarrette Blount is a boneheaded brute who will always be a backup. These narratives exist with several players in their mid-to-late 20s. Be especially mindful of this when considering quarterbacks.
(Add Now) QB Matthew Stafford, Detroit: When you're drafted No.1 overall the expectation for the team is that you'll be an elite player. Based on the actual results, we need to downgrade this annual expectation. Stafford is not a superstar and if that's the standard you expect from him then he's likely a failure in your eyes. If you have more realistic expectations, then Stafford is a young player just beginning to enter the prime of his career.
Quarterbacks often play into their late 30s. Stafford is 27. He arguably has another decade left in the NFL. For all the criticism Stafford has earned, he has been the No.5, No.9, and No.4 fantasy quarterback during three of the five full seasons that he's completed (and one of those five seasons is his rookie year where you never expect fantasy starter production, even if you get it) despite a rotating cast of coaches and schemes and a poor offensive line.
Calvin Johnson is always the counter argument. Let me pose this to you: DeAndre Hopkins is the No.1 fantasy receiver, but Brian Hoyer hasn't been a top-15 fantasy quarterback despite him having the extreme luxury of feeding the top-producing receiver in football--even when you factor out the time he spent on the bench. Julio Jones is the No.2 fantasy receiver, but Matt Ryan isn't a top-15 fantasy quarterback.
Johnson is the No.8 fantasy receiver. The next best receivers for the Lions are Golden Tate and Theo Riddick--and neither are top-35 options at their positions. But Stafford is still the No.12 fantasy quarterback after 12 weeks and completing 64.9 percent of his passes with a 20-12 TD/INT ratio.
Fantasy production does not offer a direct correlation to quarterback prowess, but the idea that Stafford's skills are an illusion propped up by Calvin Johnson is a fallacy. If you can acquire Stafford in exchange for a player like Ryan Tannehill or Matt Ryan, I'd consider it. The Stafford-to-Dallas may be a fan-fueled rumor, but it's not a far-fetched possibility.
Carson Palmer had three top-10 fantasy seasons during his first four seasons as a starter. From ages 27-33, Palmer best fantasy year was a No.11 ranking amid seasons where he was no better than No.16 when he started at least 15 games.
Don't write off Stafford because he's not Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. If anything, buy-low. He could be throwing to Dez Bryant or John Brown and Michael Floyd or Odell Beckham or DeAndre Hopkins by 2017. In the meantime, he still has Calvin Johnson and top 12-15 production.
(Add Now/Deep) QB Jay Cutler, Chicago: Much of the same points apply to Cutler as they do Stafford, but the production arguments are less compelling for the Bears quarterback. The carousel of systems and coaches may be more compelling. He's also playing good football this year despite injuries to his surrounding talent that have limited his offense. Since Week 8, Cutler has posted top-10 fantasy production at his position. It's only five weeks, but he's at the age (32) where things tend to slow down for starters. Tom Brady is 38 and he told the NBC broadcast crew that he's just beginning to feel "solid" in every area of quarterbacking and he's had one of the more ideal career scenarios since he became the starter in New England. Steve Young has often mentioned how mental aspect of quarterback development is cruelly in line with a player's slow physical decline. Cutler may have 3-5 years to finish his career on a high note. I'd take the risk, but I understand if you wouldn't.
(Add Now/Deep) RB James Starks, Green Bay: Runners are a dime a dozen, which makes new starters at age 29 a rarity. But Starks has become a complete player. When he gets into a game as the featured runner, he can deliver. If you have the luxury or desperate need for a runner, think of the mindset many had when adding DeAngelo Williams late last year or this summer. It can pay off. If it doesn't, you didn't spend much.
(Add Now/Deep) RB Ryan Mathews, Philadelphia: See above, but increase the talent and bonehead factor.
(Add Now/Deep) RB Andre Ellington, Arizona: But he's always hurt. But he's also capable of top-12 production whenever he starts. But he's always hurt. But he's a versatile player who will get another opportunity when his time in Arizona ends. But he's always hurt. But he'll come cheap like Ryan Mathews, who has been a decent flex-option this year.
(Monitor) RB LaMichael James, Miami: One of two things is going on here: James is an immature bonehead who can't be counted on despite immense talent as a space player with better skills between the tackles than his diminutive size may lead you to believe. Or, James was a poor fit in San Francisco's power scheme and Miami's clusterfudge of an offensive scheme (That a person with connections to the team told me Bill Lazor had a wide variety of out routes in the scheme, but the same terminology that forced you to intuit the various depths of these routes that was ultimately confusing for WRs and QBs alike) and dysfunctional environment couldn't even fathom where to fit James into their plans. I'm sure Lamar Miller and Jay Ajayi fans are grateful this is the case. But James is has skills that could give a team a Darren Sproles-Danny Woodhead element. Keep that in mind if his name comes up in connection with playing time in Miami or somewhere else.
(Add Now/Depth) TE Zach Miller, Chicago: Miller's production might be more of a product of necessity than overwhelming talent, but you haven't watched him on the field if you say it's completely necessity. Miller's contract ends after this season, but he's a cheap specualtive add with high upside for another year or two.
(Add Now) TE Gary Barnidge, Cleveland: The veteran has played too well not to earn another opportunity to start next year. The biggest issue for Barnidge owners long-term is who will be the quarterback and will that quarterback establish the same rapport with the tight end as Josh McCown?
(Add Now/Depth) TE Jordan Cameron, Miami: We've seen the talent, but not the consistent production. There's still time and he's worth a speculative add as a throw-in at a vast discount compared to his arrival in Miami.
(Add Now) TE Vernon Davis, Denver: The veteran's contract expires at season's end. He'll likely get re-signed by Denver. If not, expect a minor bidding war for his services by teams with real quarterback talent, but dire need for a veteran tight end with big-play receiving skill. Atlanta, Arizona, Detroit (yes, Ebron owners), Seattle, New York (either one), and New Orleans are all viable options.
(Monitor) TE Virgil Green, Denver: He's big, fast, can catch, and earn yards after the catch. He's also a good blocker. I don't get it. Maybe Denver finally does post-Manning.
(Add Now) WR Josh Gordon, Cleveland-Restricted Free Agent: Because he hasn't played enough games due to suspensions, Gordon will come off suspension as a restricted free agent. Gordon remains in touch with the Browns and is living in Cleveland during is suspension. When he's not in Cleveland, he's on workout-related trips. It's a sign that Cleveland wants to keep him. If so, they do have the rights to first refusal to any offers from other teams as well as the opportunity to ask for additional compensation as part of the deal. If you can get over whatever moral high ground you want to take about drug usage and violating rules, consider Gordon's youth, and that his placement in the NFL's drug program was accelerated due his positive test in college. No doubt that Gordon has to grow up and avoid further trouble, but there's no doubt that he's capable of being the best wide receiver in football--even after a year off.
I truly apologize to Browns fans everywhere. You guys deserve better.. I'm solely speaking on behalf of my actions. Tough loss. Stay strong.
This is a good start.