Conventional wisdom often provides a good road map in fantasy football. It guides owners to stockpiling depth at running back and wide receiver, grabbing two quarterbacks for the long haul and waiting until the final two rounds to select a kicker and a defense. Conventional wisdom gives us Adrian Peterson first overall. It steers us away from taking too many risks or loading up on players from the same team. Every team needs a healthy dose of conventional wisdom.
It can also lead an owner down a path of being too safe.
For all the good that conventional wisdom can do, taking a risk or going against the grain motivates an owner to take a late-round flier on Michael Vick in 2010. Sometimes, it's those unconventional moves that result in championships. Sometimes, you have to zig when everyone else in your league would zag.
That's exactly what we'll do in this space every week this season. We'll explore ways to go against conventional wisdom to uncover undervalued assets, untapped strategies and the unlimited potential of zigging in a zag world. And what better way to start than by making six predictions for the 2011 season that turn unconventional wisdom on its head.
1. Tony Romo will be fantasy's top-scoring quarterback
Those of you who have been following my football columns might swear I'm a Cowboys fan. I'm not (Chicago born and raised. And I believe in Jay Cutler.). I am a rational person, however, and what I see in Dallas is a quarterback who was on pace for 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns before fracturing his clavicle last year. That would have been Romo's third 4,200-yard season in four years, and his third straight in which he started all 16 games. With Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Felix Jones at his disposal, he has one of the most dangerous arsenals in the league.
He has plenty of competition at the top from Aaron Rodgers, Michael Vick, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees, but four months from now it will be Romo whose name rises above the rest. And it will be he and the Cowboys, not Vick and the Eagles, who win the NFC East.
2. Ray Rice will be the fantasy MVP
Before Arian Foster's murky hamstring situation clouded his draft status, Rice was no higher than three on most anyone's draft board. Plenty of pundits also had him behind one or both of Chris Johnson and Jamaal Charles, too.
I say this with all due respect. They're fools.
At 24 years old and entering his fourth year in the NFL, Rice is primed for the best year of his career. And this is a guy who has totaled 3,818 yards from scrimmage the last two years.
With Willis McGahee finally off his back, Rice will have every opportunity to secure goal-line duties in Baltimore. That alone should add a minimum of four or five touchdowns this season. With an improving passing game that added deep threat Lee Evans, a very good offensive line, and a team that figures to win its fair share of games and require him to run clock in the fourth quarter, the sky is the limit for Rice. This is the year he yields 2,000-plus yards from scrimmage and 12-plus touchdowns, making him fantasy gold.
3. Brandon Lloyd will come crashing back to earth
Lloyd was one of the most pleasant surprises in the NFL last year, proving that if you work hard and stick around, good things can happen. After seven non-descript seasons, Lloyd exploded for 77 receptions, a league-leading 1,448 yards and 11 touchdowns.
While he was fantasy's No. 1 receiver last year, those numbers represent 32 percent of his career catches, 37.9 percent of his career yards and 42.3 percent of his career touchdowns. Either he's the Jose Bautista of football, a late-bloomer who went from mediocre to elite, or he had one season in the sun that will stand out as an anomaly on the back of his card when his career is over. I'm betting on the latter.
Perhaps exacerbating Lloyd's downfall, if the Broncos falter through the early and middle stages of the season, there may be pressure on John Fox to turn to Tim Tebow, a move that would torpedo any of Lloyd's fantasy value. Fox has always been a run-first coach, and he has two backs to feed in Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee. After leading the world in receiving in 2010, Lloyd will find himself just outside the top 20 this year.
4. Beanie Wells will knock on the door of the top 10 running backs
With the mess in Columbus and the subsequent NFL suspensions of Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel, it hasn't been a great offseason for the Buckeyes. While Luke Fickell and company try to get the focus back on football in Ohio, one former Buckeye will do his part in the desert to make his university proud.
The stage was set for Wells to become a true feature back once Ryan Williams ruptured his Achilles in Arizona's second preseason game. Even though the Cardinals signed Chester Taylor, Wells will receive the vast majority of the carries, as well as goal-line duties. The opportunity will be there.
Opportunity, of course, isn't everything. Wells has to prove he is capable of cashing in on that opportunity. It might be a matter of faith, but I believe he will do that this season. He looked the part in preseason games two and three, racking up 107 yards on 21 carries. He has talked the part, too, saying he has a chip on his shoulder after his doubters' vocal criticism of him the past few years. All that's left is for him to prove he deserves the part, something he will do all season long.
5. Lance Kendricks will be a consensus starting fantasy tight end
I've been aggressively targeting Jermichael Finley this draft season, but if I miss out on him, I've been biding my time and grabbing Kendricks late. This is a high-upside tight end with top 10 written all over him in what will be an under-the-radar passing attack in St. Louis.
The rookie from Wisconsin caught 11 passes in four preseason games for 155 yards and three touchdowns. With young gun Sam Bradford at the helm, workhorse Steven Jackson in the backfield, and Mike Sims-Walker, Danario Alexander, Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson out wide, St. Louis has assembled an offense that is getting a bit overlooked. The Rams have had Kendricks lined up all over the field this year, and his size, speed and agility make him a great red-zone target. He may not be a household name anywhere besides Madison and St. Louis right now, but he will be by season's end.
6. Vincent Jackson will threaten the established top tier of wide receivers
A consensus top five has developed at wide receiver this draft season, with every expert agreeing that Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Roddy White and Hakeem Nicks comprise the upper echelon of receivers. Jackson and I would beg to differ.
Jackson is a physical specimen no one this side of the Johnson boys can match. At 6-5, 230 pounds, he is deadly at any spot on the field. He also happens to play in one of the league's best passing attacks with an elite quarterback and a home environment perfectly suited to throwing the football. Despite holding out and playing just five games last year, he had a respectable 248 yards and three touchdowns.
He looked like his dominant self this preseason, catching 10 passes for 181 yards. The Chargers once again look like the class of the AFC West, and it's thanks to their aerial attack. Unfortunately for opposing defenses, they can't load up on stopping just one receiver when Philip Rivers also has Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd spread out wide. Moreover, Jackson proved last year and during the lockout that a new contract will be a motivating factor for him, and that's something he's playing for this year. He'll knock Roddy White out of the top five on his way to that new contract.
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