It’s July, and we stand on the precipice of another fantasy football season. Drafts are less than two months away, and already the fantasy nutjobs like me are doing the mock drafts and preparing the lists of sleepers and busts. Rather than doing a traditional sleeper/bust list, I’m going to look at the overall team structure and choose four teams that underperformed last year that I’m high on this year, as well as four teams that performed very well last year that I’m low on this year. After all, the performances of the individual players are with the team’s success first and foremost of their desires, and any fantasy goodness is simply a byproduct of that desire.
Some teams’ performance from last year seems to be reflected in their players’ rankings this year. A few teams that didn’t make the playoffs currently have their players slotted too low on draft boards, and are ripe for reaping serious value. On the flip side, some playoff teams are yielding players that are being drafted too high, and have regression written all over them. I looked at the playoff teams and non-playoff teams from the 2012 season and found four teams from each category to take a closer look while I try to find my sleepers and busts for 2013.
To choose the teams that I’m high and low on this year, I looked at last year’s playoff teams to use as my barometer. One of the many great things about the NFL is its parity. Over the past 11 years, almost 48% of all playoff teams the season prior did not make the playoffs the next year, including five defending Super Bowl Champions. That’s nearly half of the teams! It should be noted that last year only three of the 12 playoff teams were new, but last year seems to be an anomaly. The historical trend dictates that we’ll see new faces in the playoffs this year, which means that some of the teams that were successful last year are going to disappoint. And if the teams are disappointing, there’s a pretty good chance the players are disappointing as well.
Let’s start on the optimistic side and look at four teams that I’m extremely high on this year.
Note that when I list players, I’m going to give them their ESPN ranking as of July 7. Obviously, with training camp and preseason games coming up, some pictures will be made clearer. I’m only working with the information that I have at this point in time.
It pains me as a Giants fan to admit this, but I think the Eagles are due for a serious bounce-back year. It can be argued that the team quit on head coach Andy Reid last year, and they should be re-energized under former new head coach Chip Kelly, formerly of the Oregon Ducks, master of the blur offense. With an offensive-minded coach in tow, all offensive options are getting a boost, and due to the general fallacy among drafters that if they were bad last year, they’ll be bad this year, almost every top offensive option in Philly can be had at a slight discount. I’ve done some mock drafts where LeSean McCoy (ESPN ranking RB10, 11th overall) is falling to the second round in 10-team leagues, and I definitely think he can deliver first-round value, possibly outperforming higher-drafted backs like Jamaal Charles and Alfred Morris. Those on the tail-end of draft orders might be able to pick up Shady as an RB2 on the turnaround, which would be fantastic for their team. As much as it pains me to say because I can’t stand the guy personally, DeSean Jackson (WR31, 75th overall) is currently slated too low on cheat sheets, as well as Jeremy Maclin (WR38, 98th overall). While neither are near the WR1 options they were back in 2011, I believe that under this new explosive offensive scheme, they will deliver WR2 value at a WR3 price, especially DeSean. The most intriguing option in the Eagle offense is Michael Vick (QB16, 118th overall). As a QB2 option, you won’t have to break the bank to acquire his services, and his potential upside could lead you to either replace your disappointing QB1 or use him as a trade chip to fill another position of need. And if he fails or gets hurt? At least he won’t cripple your team the way he crippled mine in 2011. Brent Celek (TE27, 263rd overall) will most likely go undrafted, but should warrant Watch List attention for a waiver wire pickup. I’m all-in on the Iggles this year.
Their head coach may be more boring than watching grass grow, but there’s a lot to like about the value you can get with this team. Mike Wallace (WR18, 48th overall) has WR1 value at WR2 price written all over him. I think people are seeing the fact that he has Ryan Tannehill (QB24, 181st overall) throwing to him, but I think people have got it backwards. Tannehill isn’t going to make Wallace worse, Wallace will make Tannehill better. Since his supposed no. 1 wide receiver last year headbutted his wife, Tannehill was left with no real throwing options, and even then, Brian Hartline (WR54, 160th overall) put up decent numbers. With the additions of Wallace and Dustin Keller (TE16, 173rd overall) at tight end, I really like Tannehill as a sneaky QB2 or waiver wire pickup. With Reggie Bush gone and Daniel Thomas underperforming, I really like Lamar Miller (RB26, 60th overall) as an RB2 option. Miller showed flashes of decency last year in the limited amount of reps he received. This offensive scheme pays off dividends for running backs (Bush was serviceable as an RB2 last year), and I think with an increased workload, Miller will be a solid mid-round pick.
Once upon a time, the Steelers were a fantasy juggernaut. Now they’re the Rodney Dangerfield of the fantasy world. The departure of Mike Wallace combined with the general temperament of offensive coordinator Todd Haley is scaring drafters away. Not me. I love Ben Roethlisberger (QB14, 97th overall) as a backup QB option, and I think that Antonio Brown (WR24, 62nd overall) has the most upside of the low-end WR2 picks like Eric Decker, Pierre Garcon, James Jones, and Dwayne Bowe. Unfortunately, I wish I knew more about the injury status of Heath Miller (TE30, 278th overall), who was having a transcendent year until he tore his ACL late. He won’t be drafted, but if there’s even a hint of him coming back, I’m going to pick him up from waivers and stash him. A lot of experts are looking at rookie running backs and trying to figure out who will be this year’s Doug Martin. The highest-ranked RB right now is Montee Ball of the Broncos, and some people think it’s going to be Eddie Lacy of the Packers. My vote is to Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell (RB27, 63rd overall). When presented with the opportunity last year in the wake of Rashard Mendenhall’s injury, neither Isaac Redman (RB60, 174th overall) nor Jonathan Dwyer (RB69, 205th overall) could be relied upon. In fact, there was a game last year when ALL THREE running backs (Mendenhall, Redman and Dwyer) fumbled. If Bell can stay healthy this preseason, the starting gig, and the majority of touches, are his. If on draft day, I’m presented with the option of taking either Bell or Lamar Miller as my RB2, I’m going with Bell.
St. Louis Rams
Man, doesn’t it seem like ages ago that the NFC West was the laughingstock of the NFL? Not anymore. The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have risen to the cream of the crop in the NFC, and it’s possibly because of that fact that drafters seem to be scared to draft anybody from the Rams and Arizona Cardinals, since they have to spend a quarter of their season playing the Niners and Seahawks. Me? I feel like living on the wild side. One guy I’m specifically targeting in drafts is Tavon Austin (WR30, 74th Overall). He’s the only WR3 I see that I believe can fetch me WR1 value. It’s risky considering he’s unproven, but when you get to the middle rounds, it’s okay to roll the dice. Former #1 overall pick Sam Bradford (QB17, 128th overall) hasn’t lived up to his hefty real-life price tag so far in his first three seasons with the team, but the Rams decided to trade down in the draft last year rather than getting RG3 because they believe Bradford can be the guy going forward. With Austin, second-year receiver Brian Quick (WR71, 218th overall), and new tight end Jared Cook (TE12, 126th overall), Bradford could very well be in for a big statistical year. The departure of Steven Jackson at running back has opened up the competition between second-year RBs Isaiah Pead (RB38, 99th overall) and Daryl Richardson (RB47, 127th overall), as well as rookie Zac Stacy (RB55, 164th overall). I’ve seen little form Pead last year, and I saw nothing from Stacy in college, but from what little I saw from Richardson, I was impressed. He was electric in the playing time that he got, overtaking Pead on the depth chart. So I’m scratching my head as to why Pead is being slotted ahead of Richardson. No matter, as I’ll be taking Richardson in many drafts as a speculative RB4 or RB5, just before taking my kicker. Call it a hunch, but I think he’ll be the lead dog in St. Louis.
Now it’s time to look at four playoff teams from last year that I feel are due for some regression, and along with that, some disappointing fantasy returns. I’ve covered the Patriots in my article about Aaron Hernandez, and frankly I think the fantasy community is overrating the damage being done to their offense, and it’ll create value picks.
The 2012 Colts were the feel-good story of the NFL last season. Faced with a new head coach suffering from leukemia, the team rallied behind rookie QB Andrew Luck (QB11, 76th overall) to go from a last-place finish the year before to a playoff spot, and did so in part by winning close games late. The Colts’ record in games decided by a touchdown or less was 9-1 last season, an unbelievable statistic that’s near impossible to replicate this year. Regression theories suggest that the Colts will come back down to earth this year. Luck will be drafted as a QB1 for some teams, and I think those teams will be at an immediate disadvantage. For all of his talents, Luck turned the ball over quite a bit last year. I expect some improvement this year, but nothing staggering. A value-pick last year (I picked him up as my WR4 on my championship team), Reggie Wayne (WR16, 43rd overall) is slotted too high this year, ahead of surer picks like Mike Wallace, Steve Smith, and even Cecil Shorts. Another revelation last year was Vick Ballard (RB32, 80th overall), who produced a stellar rookie campaign, but the backfield waters in Indy have been clouded by the signing of former Giant Ahmad Bradshaw (RB28, 66th overall), and now Bradshaw’s going ahead of Ballard in drafts. Frankly I have no idea who will get the rock more this season, and it’s a risk to draft either. You potentially have some value in Ballard if Bradshaw gets hurt, but I rolled the dice on Ben Tate for the same reason last year, and got burned. And the tight end situation is still murky, considering Luck targeted Dwayne Allen (TE20, 200th overall) more than his Stanford teammate Coby Fleener (TE18, 189th overall) last season. I’m not going to spend this season guessing who of the two will get fed, so I’m steering clear. Frankly, I see question marks surrounding all Colts, with the possible exception of T.Y. Hilton (WR34, 85th overall), who seems to be slotted exactly where he should be, as a high-end WR4.
I think it’s a huge mistake to expect Adrian Peterson (RB1, 1st overall) to duplicate what basically was a career year last year. You really think defensive coordinators didn’t notice how he dominated teams last year and won’t come up with some kind of gameplan to try and stop him? Granted, he’s so talented that there’s nothing you can do to stop him, but I would be wary of taking him first overall. I’d consider Arian Foster and even Doug Martin before AD. Ideally I’d love to have the third pick in the draft so I don’t have to worry about who to take…I’ll take the one the other two didn’t pick. The Vikings still have to rely on the as-of-yet-unproven arm of Christian Ponder (QB27, 249th overall), and replaced the dynamic Percy Harvin with the solid-yet-often-injured Greg Jennings (WR29, 72nd overall). Jennings would make a decent WR3 option, and Cordarrelle Patterson (WR65, 195th overall) becomes an interesting flyer option in the late rounds or on the waiver wire, but they have to rely on Ponder getting them the ball. I feel somewhat good about Kyle Rudolph (TE7, 90th overall), but he’ll most likely go when drafters will start making a run on tight ends in the fifth or sixth round, which scares me off a bit.
Whether or not the Redskins can duplicate their success from last year depends entirely on the health of the knee of Robert Griffin III (QB9, 65th overall). RG3 says he’ll be ready to go Week 1, but we just won’t know until he steps on the field. It’s a fallacy to think that simply because Adrian Peterson recovered from his late knee injury that RG3 would be able to do the same. Those that will take a chance on RG3 should definitely invest in some security at QB2 like Roethlisberger or Joe Flacco. Alfred Morris (RB9, 9th overall) is a safe bet for RB1, but it’s such a shame that he’ll fetch such a hefty price tag this year considering guys like me got him off the waiver wire last year and lucked out into a golden lottery ticket. Health will be the key for Pierre Garcon (WR25, 64th overall). He missed a huge chunk of last year, but when he did play, he was prolific. Another big question mark surrounds Fred Davis (TE17, 183rd overall). We keep waiting for him to break out, but injuries and suspensions always seem to derail what could be a promising career.
This is admittedly cheating on my part. I do not think the Broncos will regress. Far from it. I expect the Broncos to be a Superbowl-bound team that improved over a 2012 team that was one blown coverage play away from going to the big game. But I want to focus on the pass-catchers on this team. They’re all ranked way too high. The 2013 Broncos are suffering from a condition of “not enough footballs to go around.” They have so many weapons, it’s going to be near impossible to know who’s going to go off which game. And if I’m drafting a receiver this high, I’d prefer consistency over boom-or-bust plays. This applies to Demariyus Thomas (WR6, 24th overall), Wes Welker (WR13, 38th overall), and Eric Decker (WR22, 56th overall). If it rolls around to my turn in the draft, I’d take Percy Harvin, Roddy White, or Vincent Jackson over DT as a WR1, and they’re all ranked lower than him currently. I’d take Victor Cruz, Marques Colston, and Mike Wallace over Welker as a WR2. And I’d take Dwayne Bowe, Antonio Brown, and Cecil Shorts over Decker as a WR3 at this point. Remember how maddening it was trying to figure out whether to start Jacob Tamme (TE25, 244th overall) or Joel Dreessen (TE32, 289th overall) each week? Imagine that same panic being applied to the WRs this year. I’ll gladly let this be somebody else’s problem and face him the week that they have DT and he goes off than have it be my problem. The only constant in this situation is the guy giving them the ball, Peyton Manning (QB4, 25th overall), who I’m targeting in every third round if he drops to me. I think Peyton will surpass Rodgers, Brees and Brady to be the #1 scoring QB among “stationary” quarterbacks this year. As for the backfield, everybody’s high on Montee Ball (RB19, 37th overall) and it shows with his draft position, but Ronnie Hillman (RB52, 144th overall) is technically number one on the depth chart right now, and there’s always that pesky Knowshown Moreno (RB72, 209th overall) lurking around. I have a feeling the Broncos might use Ball the same way the Buccaneers used Doug Martin for the first few weeks of last season and not know what they have. That’s tough to bank on when you have proven RB2 commodities like Darren Sproles and DeMarco Murray (when healthy) hanging around that level as well.
That’s my team-by-team look at sleepers and busts. I’ll be back at the end of this month with rankings.