Watching the NFL playoffs often can make a fantasy football owner feel uneasy. For the three months leading up to the league's championship tournament those who play fantasy are often decidedly non-partisan when it comes to picking the side that they want to win. More important is that their players do well (and, conversely, that their opponent's players do not). But in the playoffs, for a vast majority of those who are serious fantasy participants, that approach isn't relevant. Instead of rooting for a player, it's time to pull for a team. Sure, many still will have a soft spot in their hearts for those who came through in the clutch, but there's a decidedly different feeling when nothing is on the line personally.
However, forward-thinking fantasy owners can use the playoffs as a time to start scouting for next season. Chances are the teams that have made the postseason won't undergo wholesale changes in the spring and summer. Sure, there likely will be a retirement, an assistant coach departure, a free agent defection, etc., but for the most part the framework you see in January and February is what you'll get next year.
In recent seasons some players have taken the playoff opportunities afforded them to establish themselves firmly in their teams' future plans. The list includes the likes of Shonn Greene, who raised his rushing average yards per game from 38.6 during the 2009 regular season to 66.0 during that season's playoffs; Jordy Nelson, who twice set career high in single-game catches during the playoffs following the 2010 season and parlayed a career-best nine catches for 140 yards and a touchdown in Super Bowl XLV against the Steelers into a breakout 2011 campaign; and Demaryius Thomas, who was at the receiving end of this memorable Tebow Time 80-yard score to sink Pittsburgh in the 2011 AFC Wild Card.
setting a record for yards per catch in a playoff game with 51.0 (204 yards on four catches). All three were on the fence in fantasy before but became major contributors the following year.
Here are eight players who should be making that same leap up next year's draft boards based on their 2012-13 postseason exploits:
Shane Vereen, RB, Patriots: Took full advantage of Danny Woodhead's injury by having a career day against the Texans with three scores, including a great diving catch in the corner of the end zone. Vereen often lines up in the backfield, and as a wideout should be a major part of the Patriots offense going forward, an approach that shouldn't necessarily hurt the prospects of Stevan Ridley. Vereen is a mid-round pick at worst in 2013.
Colin Kaepernick, QB, 49ers: Jim Harbaugh's bold offensive change is bearing fruit and his team is one win away from the Super Bowl because of it. Kaepernick was nothing short of spectacular against Green Bay, racking up 444 total yards and three touchdowns. His ability to score through the air and on the ground is right there in a class with Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III in terms of 2013 fantasy value. In fact, with better talent around him and a full offseason working as the true No. 1, there's a chance he exceeds their fantasy values.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks: In a game where putting up points is the bottom line, few have been more masterful than Wilson who accounted for 26 touchdowns over his final 11 combined regular season and playoff games. He's still undersized but the Seahawks have a dynamic offense and will be a force again next season.
Michael Crabtree, WR, 49ers: Since Dec. 1 Crabtree's average of 109.5 receiving yards per game ranks second in the NFL to Calvin Johnson while his six touchdown catches over that span is second to James Jones. Crabtree has two scores in three of his last four games, including the divisional playoff win over the Packers when he caught nine of 11 targets for 119 yards. That was the biggest output for a Niners receiver in the playoffs since Terrell Owens in 2003.
Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, Falcons: Michael Turner was much maligned by Falcons and fantasy fans alike yet he remained Atlanta's lead back for the entirety of the regular season. Rodgers, however, ran for a season-high 64 yards against the tough Seahawks run defense last Sunday and looked more and more like he's ready to take the lead back duties. Turner has one or two more games to go in his current role and then next year it'll be Rodgers turn.
DuJuan Harris, RB, Packers: The former car salesman has scored touchdowns in all four of his starts for the Packers and against Minnesota in the Wild Card round became one of three Packers backs to gain 100 yards from scrimmage in a single game. Of course, a lot can change between now and September, but with Cedric Benson and Ryan Grant heading to free agency and James Starks and Alex Green both major disappointments in 2012, the door is open for Harris.
Zach Miller, TE, Seahawks: The lost man in the Seattle offense during the regular season, Russell Wilson found him to the tune of eight catches for 142 yards and a touchdown in Atlanta, tying Philadelphia's Keith Jackson for the seventh-best receiving day for a tight end in postseason history. Once a fantasy-worthy starter as a Raider, mark my words -- he'll be more involved in 2013 for Seattle.
Ronnie Hillman, RB, Broncos: Knowshon Moreno's fragility reared its ugly head against the Ravens, leaving Hillman as the Broncos main backfield option. The rookie responded with 103 yards on 23 touches, the best day of his young career. Willis McGahee turns 32 in October and has a hefty payday coming, so he's not a lock to be back, and if he is, it's likely to be in a significantly reduced role. With just the injury-prone Moreno in his way, Hillman should be able to carve out a nice role for the 2013 Broncos.
Fantasy basketball clicks
? Quantifying your decisions: One often-overlooked aspect of fantasy basketball team management is the schedule. Yes, every fantasy owner in weekly and daily leagues checks how many games their players have that week, who the opponents are, where the games are played, etc., but many don't keep tabs on the most macro of all schedule questions: How many games are left to play? This year the NBA's schedule has been a bit quirky with some teams going four and five days between games while others have played four games in five nights. The Denver Nuggets have played seven more games on the road than in the friendly mile-high confines of the Pepsi Center. And Thursday's contest between the Knicks and Pistons in London has set up the rarest of all scheduling occurrences, the one game week, a killer for owners of Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and J.R. Smith.
These schedule quirks have set up a situation where some teams have a significant number of more games left to play than others. While you'd rather have the best players on your team active, sometimes it's better to simply have those who are playing the most, a rule of thumb that helps you make decisions on free agents and trades for the remainder of the season. As of Monday night the Cavs, Jazz, Spurs and Suns have played 40 games this season, one game shy of the half-way point. On the other end of the spectrum, the Timberwolves and Wizards have suited up just 35 times. So when choosing between two players with identical per-game stats from this point on, those who play for Minnesota and Washington are 14 percent more valuable than those for the aforementioned quartet.
Thanks to basketball-reference.com, here's a list of games played through Monday night's contests.
? Serging forward: Second in the league in blocked shots per game, Serge Ibaka has tortured his fantasy owners the past few days by missing the past two games with a chest contusion suffered against the Lakers. One of the leading candidates for the Most Improved Player award, Ibaka has drawn the attention of Men's Journal, which found Ibaka as stylish as he is effective on the stats sheet.
? Pickup of the week: Although they're not playing well and would miss the playoffs if the season were to end today, the Lakers have a star-studded roster oozing with fantasy talent. That's what makes the recent ascent of journeyman Earl Clark all the more surprising. The former Louisville star has bounced from the Suns to the Magic and now to Los Angeles, leaving a trail of 115 DNPs in his wake. Recently, though, Clark was forced into the lineup to fill in for the injured trio of Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Jordan Hill (the latter who's lost for the season) and he's been putting up All-Star numbers, averaging 15 points, 10.7 boards and two blocks per game (which are actually better than Gasol's season averages). The 6-foot-10, 225-pound forward is playing with a youthful energy that's been missing on a team much maligned for their old, plodding offense -- a fact that should keep him in the starting lineup until Gasol returns from his concussion and make him a fixture on the second unit beyond then.
? Center of attention: Speaking of the Lakers, big men and injuries, Andrew Bynum is actually working out, targeting the All-Star break for a return to the court. We'll believe it when we see it.
? ICYMI: This could be the most incredible shot you will ever see:
Fantasy baseball clicks
? Beware the WBC: In only a few weeks, teams will start gathering to participate in the World Baseball Classic, a curious tournament like no other that pits the "best" players in the world by nation against each other, and where Dream Teams sometimes lose (see the Dominican Republic). The WBC has allowed the mainstream fantasy baseball community to get a glimpse of international talents like Yu Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes, who will become future major league stars. Though it is a great scouting tool for fantasy futures, the event does not come without risk. I was there for the exhibition game on March 3, 2009 between the Dominican Republic and the Florida Marlins when Alex Rodriguez first suffered a hip injury that's sapped the slugger of the near invincibility he enjoyed before. So if your players are participating this year (and many notable stars from all nations are not) keep your fingers crossed.