Expect late-round gems to emerge
Last year at this time, there was a certain running back typically drafted in the middle rounds. His average draft position (hat tip Mock Draft Central) ended up at 63, but he steadily climbed cheat sheets all summer. Still, even at his peak he generally went in the third or fourth round and carried those same expectations. Four months later, that back, Arian Foster, was the fantasy football MVP.
Not to be outdone, at least in terms of return on investment, there was another back who, unless your draft went about 300 players deep, didn't have his sticker placed on the draft board. After two nondescript weeks, he put the league on notice with a 144-yard effort against the Ravens. From that point forward, the dual threat out of the backfield was one of the best fantasy backs in the league. Peyton Hillis went from undrafted to a top-10 running back.
This was not just a one-year phenomenon. In 2009, Jonathan Stewart turned a 70.53 ADP into an end-of-season rank into 35 after running for 1,133 yards and 10 touchdowns. A year earlier, then-rookie Matt Forte had 1,238 rushing yards, 477 receiving yards and 12 total touchdowns. Every year, guys strike from the middle and late rounds and end up as some of the most valuable commodities in the game. So who will be this year's Arian Foster? You don't even have to leave the state of Texas to find him.
Even though he has only been in the league three years, Felix Jones seems like he has forever been tantalizing the fantasy community with his talent only to leave his owners with a feeling of buyer's remorse. With him, though, it has always been a question of opportunity, not ability. Had he landed in Chicago instead of fellow 2008 draftee Forte, their names could be flip-flopped in this column. Coincidentally, now that Marion Barber is Forte's teammate and not Jones', the latter's stock has never been higher.
Now the unquestioned man in Dallas' backfield, Jones has made the most of it this preseason, with 99 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries while also catching four passes for 34 yards. He looked particularly explosive against the Vikings over the weekend. We saw Jones' ability as a pass-catcher on full display last season when he caught 48 balls for 450 yards. Don't forget, despite a trio of seemingly underwhelming seasons, this is a guy who has averaged 5.3 yards in 331 career carries. He plays in what figures to one of the league's most talented offenses, and new/old head coach Jason Garrett is firmly in his talented back's corner. I'm drafting him as a top-15 back ahead of certain name brands such as Steven Jackson, Ryan Grant and, yes, Peyton Hillis.
There's that Hillis name again. You can't go too far in a discussion about out-of-nowhere running backs and not hear his name. When looking for this year's Hillis, look no further than his old home: Denver.
Ray Rice's keeper league owners no doubt threw themselves a party when Willis McGahee headed west, and with good reason. McGahee wasn't quite the touchdown vulture he was in 2009 when he hit paydirt 12 times, but he still hogged the goal-line carries, scoring five touchdowns that Rice's owners believed were rightfully his. McGahee is now Knowshon Moreno's problem, but the difference is Moreno doesn't have the ability or track record of Rice. That means McGahee has a great chance to fill more than just a goal-line and third-down role with the Broncos. John Fox found a way to use both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart effectively, so we have to believe McGahee will be involved at least to the tune of 35 percent of the carries. If Moreno struggles early, McGahee just might end up with a larger role than his current draft price of 178.42 projects.
Of course, it wasn't just running backs bursting on to the fantasy scene in 2010. A receiver coming off a strong rookie season had an ADP of 55.33, making him the 19th receiver off the board in an average draft. After a 1,052-yard, 11-touchdown season in just 13 games made Hakeem Nicks the seventh highest scoring receiver in standard scoring leagues last season, and has him firmly among the top five receivers this year.
Like Hillis in Cleveland, unless your draft went 300-plus picks, no one called the next guy's name. All he ended up doing was leading the league in yards with 1,448 to go along with 11 touchdowns, making him the top scoring receiver in standard scoring leagues. In his eighth season in the NFL, Brandon Lloyd finally had one to remember.
Again, like the running backs, this is something we see year after year. The 2009 season gave us Miles Austin and Sidney Rice. In 2008, it was Antonio Bryant piling up 1,248 yards and Lance Moore falling just short of 1,000 yards with 10 touchdowns. With every season comes a wide receiver that goes from afterthought, or sometimes never even thought of in the first place, to the top 10. We have two strong candidates for the medium-range receiver to leap into the top tier this year, one each from two teams who have given us recent winners.
You might be able to tell from my last few columns here on SI.com that I'm high on the Cowboys this season. Dez Bryant is another one of Jerry's Boys I'm targeting in every one of my leagues. We all know about the talent. We know he has a top-flight quarterback in Tony Romo and teammates in Miles Austin, Jason Witten and the aforementioned Felix Jones to keep the pressure at a minimum. Now he just has to cash in on the potential.
Bryant's rookie year, notoriously tough for a receiver to begin with, was essentially lost with Romo's shoulder injury. Still, he looked as though he were putting everything together in a four-game stretch from Week 7 through Week 10 when he caught 23 passes for 328 yards and four scores. His season went south after that, but there's plenty of reason to believe in Bryant in 2011. In Dallas' third preseason game, the dress rehearsal for the regular season, the second-year wideout caught five passes for 67 yards. He's one of the few receivers you can get in the middle rounds who is not only a big, physical target in the red zone, but can also stretch the field. I'll be shocked if he finishes the year outside the list of top-15 receivers. Give me him over Dwayne Bowe and Brandon Lloyd.
I can't let this section go with just one suggestion, because, along with Bryant, Mario Manningham is my favorite wide receiver target this season. Despite being the nominal third receiver in the Giants' offense each of the last two years, the Michigan graduate caught 117 passes for 1,766 yards and 14 touchdowns. With Steve Smith in Philadelphia, Manningham will take on a larger role. In the seven games Smith missed last year, Manningham had 34 catches for 558 yards and six trips to the end zone. He's firmly within my top-20, and I'm taking him ahead of such luminaries as Wes Welker, Stevie Johnson and Lloyd.
Speaking of Lloyd, we'll have to dig much deeper to find his 2011 doppelgänger. But in the late rounds of most drafts, you'll find a veteran getting a much-needed change of scenery, which could help rejuvenate his career. He even went to a Big Ten school, just like Lloyd (gratuitous Big Ten reference).
After three years in the NFL, Lee Evans was one of the most dangerous deep threats in the NFL, catching 19 passes for more than 40 yards on his way to 178 catches, 2,878 yards and 24 touchdowns. The touchdowns slowed the next few years, but he still managed to rack up 1,866 yards despite being stuck in NFL purgatory in Buffalo. The bottom fell out the last two years, but Evans has finally reached the light at the end of the tunnel, landing in Baltimore with, gasp!, talented teammates. Evans' skills are a perfect fit in the Ravens' offense, as they desperately needed a deep-threat for the huge-armed Joe Flacco, as well as a complement to the possession style of Anquan Boldin. Scoop up Evans toward the end of your draft and enjoy the rewards of thrifty shopping.