Well, we finally made it. Another NFL season is here and I, for one, am ecstatic. No more talking about Nick Toon and Terrance Ganaway. No more pretending we care who wins the fifth receiver job in Dallas. We're back to caring about Megatron and Jimmy Graham. In other words, the fantasy season has finally arrived.
Before we kick things off I just wanted to take a second to say the 14th season of The Fire Sale will be my last. After careful consideration I feel it's time to step away and pursue other career options. I wanted to thank those of you who have supported me over the years. I don't know where I would be without the 12 of you demanding I be heard. Probably where I am right now which is basically nowhere. I guess thanks for trying.
I'm turning 40 in April and this seems like a good time to put The Fire Sale to bed. Don't worry, though, I still have enough juice for a few more good calls before I hang it up. I don't know if I can ever top Priest Holmes but I'll give it my best shot. Hopefully, I don't go the other way and top Cade McNown.
Again, thanks for all the support over the years. I've always tried to be a man of the people and not some fake fantasy expert. I hope I came across that way and you got some of the sarcasm. I try not to take myself too seriously because at the end of the day it's just fantasy football. If I'm wrong about Eric Decker no one dies. At least I don't think they do. Maybe me if you find out where I live.
Anyway, thanks for everything and let's have one final great season before I never have to talk to any of you again.
I was asked to do a column before Week 1, but to be honest, I feel like it's all been said. So instead of being the 10,000th person to point out the obvious fact that Julio Jones is going to have a big year, I decided to take a look at a few guys who may not have fantasy value right now but could at some point during the season.
The Fire Sale's regular format is always which players are going up and coming down, and I'll go back to that next week. However, just this once I'm switching it up and giving you five guys to watch for the 2012 season. Hey, I'm retiring so I can write whatever I want.
Now, on with The Fire Sale...
Ronnie Hillman, RB Broncos -- Hillman being on the list isn't all that shocking considering I staked the future of this column on his success back in May. I guess now it really doesn't matter if Hillman stinks considering the column won't be around anyway. Boy, I really weaseled my way out of that one.
People who have followed me over the years know I have one flaw. Actually, that's not accurate. I have many flaws but one of them is that because I love of college football I try and deliver players before anyone else and I tend to be a year too early on guys.
Take Stevan Ridley last year. I really was the first fantasy writer on the planet to say Ridley would be a stud the second after he was drafted. Remember, most people complained that was a bad pick because New England had just selected Shane Vereen, but I loved Ridley and thought he was the most underrated player in college football.
While Ridley didn't do much as a rookie, he's now the Patriots starting running back in his second season, so at the end of the day I was right. Perhaps Hillman is going to Ridley me and waits until 2013 to emerge, but he has a shot to have a role in the Broncos offense this season.
The Broncos may be the perfect fit for his skill set. I believed as long as Hillman stayed healthy in training camp he would be Willis McGahee's backup and have a big role in Denver's offense. Then came the hamstring injury.
Forget about John Fox not wanting to play young running backs. Peyton Manning's offense is so complicated it's tough for a rookie back to miss three weeks of camp, two preseason games and still be expected to know all the blocking assignments. He just fell too far behind in training camp and now Hillman is playing catch-up.
Having said all that Hillman still can do things for the Broncos offense that no other running back on the roster can. I mentioned after the draft that my NFL contact told me Manning was infatuated with how the Saints used Darren Sproles last season and that's how he envisioned Denver using Hillman. We all know Peyton is a student of the game and he studies what other offenses are doing around the league, so I imagine the information I got was pretty accurate.
So while Hillman is behind a little bit, now that he's healthy he'll start getting implemented more into the passing game. Is Hillman going to be the next Sproles in Week 1? No way. McGahee is the undisputed leader for touches in the Broncos backfield right now.
However, should something happen to McGahee say a month or so into the season, Hillman has the talent to come in and get the most playing time, especially as a receiver out of the backfield. The Broncos kept Knowshon Moreno, too, but I think that has more to do with Hillman being a little bit behind and not fully recovered from his hamstring injury heading into Week 1.
Moreno gives the Broncos solid insurance should McGahee get hurt and Hillman's hamstring act up again. It's not the best scenario for fantasy owners but it's a smart move for Denver in terms of running an NFL franchise.
Hillman doesn't have a lot of fantasy value right now but that could all change down the line if McGahee gets hurt. As for Ridley, mark him down as a low-end RB1 this year. You can take that to the bank.
Robert Turbin, RB Seahawks -- There are some players I see a few times and just say, "He's got it." Antonio Brown was one of those players. Watching Brown play at Central Michigan last summer, it was clear he had that something special. I feel the same way about Turbin. This kid just has it.
First of all, Turbin's arms have to be about 25 inches thick. He makes Thomas Jones look like the skinny nerd in gym class. The guy is an absolute hulk.
But if you're a running back and you want me as a fan you need to have two things above any other: vision and patience.
Some running backs have blazing speed, others have tremendous power, but all of them, the great ones, have vision and patience. Turbin not only possesses these two qualities, he has them to the extent that I believe he should have been a borderline firs- round draft pick. I'm dead serious.
There isn't much to take from from the preseason, but watching the way Turbin set up his blocks and knew when to accelerate through the hole was remarkable. A lot of times he looked like Marshawn Lynch back there. All in all, Turbin was the most impressive of any player I saw in the preseason. Last year that honor went to Brown and he turned out pretty good.
Lynch is still the man in Seattle but the Seahawks have a future stud in Turbin. If Lynch goes down or gets in trouble off the field again, Turbin will be a fantasy monster.
(Update: I wrote my analysis about Turbin on Monday and now Lynch is questionable to play in Week 1 because of back spasms. Turbin, obviously, has much more immediate fantasy value if Lynch can't play. Lynch better be a quick healer or Turbin is going to Wally Pipp his butt right out of Seattle. Believe it.)
Ryan Broyles, WR Lions -- I've been beating the drum for Broyles since last September and I'm going to continue doing so because I think he will be a fantasy stud. And not only in dynasty leagues, but for this season as well.
Of all the receivers in this year's draft class, Broyles will be the most productive fantasy player. Part of it is talent and part of it is opportunity.
There wasn't a smoother receiver in college football over the last few years. It's a pleasure to watch Broyles run routes. The way he gets in and out of his breaks and turns defenders around is a thing of beauty.
Broyles brings to mind Wes Welker and the Broyles' working the slot in that Lions offense is bad news for NFL defenses and great news for fantasy owners.
That leads me to opportunity. In my opinion, the most deadly passing attack in the NFL right now resides in Detroit. I own Matthew Stafford in all four of my fantasy leagues. He's my No. 1 overall fantasy player heading into the season, edging out Aaron Rodgers (based on projected points scored).
Broyles joins a group that includes the incomparable Calvin Johnson, an improving Titus Young, the steady Nate Burleson and tight end Brandon Pettigrew. I know what you're saying. You're saying there aren't enough balls to go around for all those guys to be productive. I disagree.
The Lions can't run the football. Besides, all the backs they have are always hurt. I guarantee you this team will throw the ball more than any other in the NFL. Plus, Detroit likes to use short passes as a substitute for its lack of a run game.
Well, guess who's going to be catching a bunch of those short passes? Broyles will eat up receptions over the middle of the field while defenses are focused on stopping all of the Lion's other weapons. In other words, Broyles will be the Lions running game.
Right now Broyles is an afterthought in re-draft leagues because he's coming off a knee injury but he looks fully recovered to me. Currently, Broyles is only owned in about 2 percent of fantasy leagues, but I own him in all of mine. It won't take long for Broyles to become a big fantasy factor at all. I won't even be surprised if "not long" is Week 1.
However, you can probably wait on him a little bit if you don't have an open roster spot at the moment. Just don't want you to wait too long. If Broyles catches 10 balls for 120 yards one week do you really need me or any other idiot fantasy writer telling you to pick him up? The key is to get these guys first before everyone else knows about them.
I predict by October that Broyles will be a hot waiver wire pickup in fantasy leagues, so you'll want to be ahead of the curve on him.
Damaris Johnson, WR Eagles -- In my last Fire Sale I mentioned I covered Tulsa football during Charles Clay's college career. Well, the same thing goes for the dynamic Johnson.
Two months ago I told my Twitter followers to keep an eye on Johnson. During time at Tulsa, Johnson was a spectacular return man. He's actually one of the top return men in college football history, so I was certain he would make the Eagles roster based solely on what Johnson provides on special teams.
No matter where Johnson lines up, and no matter against whom, he'll make plays. This preseason, Brown looked like a guy who belonged in the NFL. There's a key difference between guys who are just hoping to make a roster spot and those who act like they belong in the NFL. Antonio Brown acted that way last year. So did Victor Cruz. And now Johnson is, too.
Look at the Eagles receivers. Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson are locked in as the starters. Jason Avant is a solid veteran and dependable third receive as a possession man.
The Eagles have very little after those three. Riley Cooper? Sorry if I'm not jumping on that bandwagon. I believe Johnson is already the Eagles No. 4 receiver. That may not seem like much, but if Maclin or Jackson gets hurt (a distinct possibility) Avant's role won't change much. He's not going to provide a lot of big plays. If Philadelphia has an injury to one of its top two receivers, it's Johnson who will step in and have the most fantasy value.
You know a lot of fantasy writers spend money on math books and developing complicated formulas to tell you who will have fantasy success. I go about it a different way. I spend my money on the NFL Sunday Ticket, The Red Zone Channel, the DirecTV sports package and I watch as much college and pro football as humanly possible. I have three TVs and four DVR boxes. I watch football during the season and all throughout the summer. Then I go with my gut on who I think can and can't play. That's how I do things.
Well, my gut tells me Johnson is going to be a productive receiver in the NFL. My gut isn't always right but you can either trust a guy who puts in the time to actually watch football or trust the guy who uses long division to tell you why Jordy Nelson's production will decline in 2012. It's your call.
Dennis Pitta, TE Ravens -- Pitta came on at the end of last season when Ed Dickson was struggling with drops, but people have forgotten about him because he's spent most of the summer recovering from hand surgery.
Pitta is expected to be back for Week 1 and fantasy owners are going to want to get reacquainted with quickly. Dickson is still the better fantasy option right now but that may not be the case at the end of the year. Dickson has talent but again he struggled with inconsistency and mental lapses last season. Plus, Dickson is returning from a shoulder injury himself.
Dickson caught 54 passes for 528 yards and five touchdowns in 2011. Pitta came in with 40 receptions for 405 yards and three scores. However, if you look at the last four games, Pitta caught 13 passes for 142 yards and two scores, compared to Dickson's eight catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns. While neither guy set the world on fire, it was Pitta who was the more productive tight end at the end of the year.
Even though I'm not a big Cam Cameron fan (Is anyone?) the Ravens are expected to open up the offense more in 2012 and not run the ball up the middle on every first down in every big game they play. That will be a refreshing change. Remember, no team ran more two tight end sets last year than the Ravens -- not even New England -- so Pitta will have plenty of opportunities as long as he stays healthy.
Pitta caught 40 balls last year but didn't really come on until the second half of the season. Joe Flacco is going to throw more and Anquan Boldin is another year older. Add it all up and would you be totally shocked if Pitta caught 60 passes this season in the Ravens offense? Would you be totally shocked if Pitta produced better fantasy numbers than Dickson? I sure wouldn't.
As a bonus, here's a guy who has fantasy value right now but more than many think:
Jacquizz Rodgers, RB Falcons -- Astute owners know Rodgers has more fantasy value long-term than the declining, plodding, slowing Michael Turner.
However, apparently not all fantasy owners are astute because Rodgers is still available in almost half of all fantasy leagues. That needs to end and it needs to end at once. If you play in a PPR league and Rodgers is on the waiver wire, I don't care what you have to do to get him, just get him.
I don't know if you've seen the new Falcons offense this preseason but that offense isn't built for Turner. It's built for Darren Sproles. Since the Falcons don't have Sproles, they'll just have to use the next best thing, which is Rodgers. I'm telling you right now Rodgers is going to have a big fantasy season in PPR formats. He's not going to have a decent fantasy season; he's going to have a big one.
You see, there's perception and reality. Let's take a guy like 49ers rookie running back LaMichael James. The perception is James spent most of his time at Oregon running wide and using his speed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Almost all of James' runs at Oregon came between the tackles and he was arguably the best goal-line runner in the country not named Montee Ball.
Just because James doesn't weigh 250 pounds doesn't mean he isn't a good inside runner and he'll prove that in the NFL. Rodgers is in the same boat. While Rodgers isn't quite as strong as James, he's a lot more than just the pass catching back some fantasy writers are calling him.
Watch when Rodgers runs inside. He's a lot tougher and stronger than people think. Granted, Rodgers wouldn't be successful in the Jets 1950s offense but that's not the kind of stuff the Falcons are running. They're actually running an offense from this century that's going to spread defenses out and make them cover the entire field.
Catching passes has never been a problem for Rodgers, so when you add his abilities as a receiver, Rodgers' underrated toughness between the tackles and the Falcons' switch in offensive philosophy, Turner is the starter in name only. Rodgers is going to see more touches, he's going to catch far more passes and may even score more touchdowns.
So while you've already heard people talking up Rodgers this summer, I felt I needed to mention him before the season started because he's not being talked up enough. I actually missed out on Rodgers in a couple of my drafts but I worked my trading magic and now own him in most of my leagues. Heck, I'm giving up guys like Jonathan Stewart and Jermaine Gresham to get Rodgers, that's how high I am on him. Then again, very few people trade like I do.
Rodgers is a fantasy stud in the making. The fact that Rodgers is still available in roughly half of the fantasy leagues out there is baffling. Please do your part to end this madness.
Follow Thomas Casale on Twitter @ThePigskinGuy.