July 19, 2012

I limit myself to three fantasy football leagues each season. Any more than that, and it feels like I'm cheering for and against every single player in the league. Of the three I allocate myself, two are mainstays. The first one my friends and I started back in 1998 and is still going strong. I joined the other a few years later, and that one, too, has had plenty of continuity. In addition to bragging rights with old friends, and a pretty sizable entry fee creating a very sizable pot, I like the two leagues because they're different. One is 10 teams, the other is 12. One has divisions, the other doesn't. While it's fun to be in leagues with different parameters, those two features don't change the way I value players too much. A third difference between the leagues, however, does, and that's the fact that one league is PPR, and the other is not.

Just because a league awards points per receptions doesn't mean it will alter a player's value. After all, Arian Foster should be a consensus No. 1 in either format, and Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy also retain their relative value. On the flip side, there are players that are far more valuable when they start earning points each time they catch the ball. Most rankings available to fantasy football owners are based on non-PPR leagues, which could do owners in PPR leagues a disservice. Luckily, we have plenty of time to properly value these PPR superstars.

Let's take a look at the players who deserve a significant bump up cheat sheets in PPR leagues.

Matt Forte, Bears -- Fresh off his four-year deal reportedly worth a little more than $18 million in guaranteed money, Forte finally gets what he really wants: a spot in this column. Forte has caught at least 50 passes in all four years of his career, including 52 for 490 yards and a touchdown last year in 12 games before a knee injury ended his season. Michael Bush will cut into his workload and might steal goal-line touches, but there's a reason the typically spendthrift Bears opened the wallet for Forte. The Bears undoubtedly see him as a workhorse outside the red zone, and his pass-catching ability makes him an asset, not a liability, on third down. With the Bears' revamped passing attack featuring Brandon Marshall and rookie Alshon Jeffery, teams will not be able to load up against Forte the way they once did. And despite his reputation, Jay Cutler has never been shy about taking a check-down. In a non-PPR league, Forte is ninth on my board at running back. In PPR leagues, he jumps up to sixth ahead of Chris Johnson, Trent Richardson and Darren McFadden.

Darren Sproles, Saints -- Once a gimmicky change-of-pace back and deadly punt returner, Sproles became an integral part of one of the best offenses in the league last year, largely because of his exploits catching the ball out of the backfield. While he's always going to post gaudy yards-per-carry numbers -- he racked up 603 yards on 87 carries last year, good for a 6.9 YPC -- Sproles makes his fantasy owners money in the air. Last year he caught a ridiculous 86 passes for 710 yards and seven touchdowns.

Sean Payton is a mad offensive genius who had a lot to do with Sproles' career year in 2011, but the talent has always been there, and last we checked he still has Drew Brees throwing him passes. Moreover, the Saints' ground game doesn't figure to improve much, and deploying Sproles as a receiver is essentially their version of running the football. Even though he had 86 catches last year, seven receiving touchdowns seems like a fluke. After all, Ray Rice has caught 78, 63, and 76 passes the last three years, and he has a total of five receiving touchdowns in that span. However, it's likely a repeatable feat for Sproles given his home-run ability and the play design that gets him the ball in space. He's just barely inside my top-20 in a non-PPR league, but I've got him all the way up at 10 in PPR leagues.

C.J. Spiller, Bills -- After seemingly forgetting they had Spiller his entire rookie year and the first half of last year, the Bills finally started using the ninth overall pick in the 2010 draft once Fred Jackson broke his leg, and it paid huge dividends, especially for those who had him stashed all year. While Jackson remains the primary ball-carrier in Buffalo, Spiller will play a much larger role this season, and he'll do plenty of damage through the air. Spiller caught at least three passes in six games last year, including five of the six he started. He caught 24 balls in those six games for 187 yards and two scores. With more time on the field will come more receptions, and it's not a stretch to consider him a near-lock for 50-plus catches this year. Spiller sits just outside my top-30 in non-PPR leagues, but I've got him at 25 in PPR, vaulting in front of Shonn Greene, James Starks, DeAngelo Williams, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Beanie Wells.

Wes Welker, Patriots -- Ah, Wes Welker. The apple of every PPR owner's eye. Welker has topped 100 receptions in four of his five years in New England, and it's not like he just barely cracked the century mark in any of those seasons. He caught 112 passes in 2007, 111 in 2008, 123 in 2009 and 122 last year. We're not quite sure what happened in 2010 when he only caught 86 passes, but we're willing to give him a pass. Because of the way he's used in the Patriots' offense, he's unlikely to rack up huge touchdown numbers, though he did find the end zone nine times last year, thanks to a ton of red zone targets. Still, if you could ever call someone a lock for 110 receptions, Welker is that guy.

Tom Brady has always had a reputation as a guy who's going to spread the ball around. Rob Gronkowski is his big-play target, and he'll have a new weapon out wide in Brandon Lloyd, but there's no denying that Welker is his guy, especially on third down. If you're playing in a non-PPR league, I'd recommend making Welker the ninth receiver off the board. In PPR leagues, I have him fourth, behind just Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Brandon Marshall.

Percy Harvin, Vikings -- Unlike the guys listed above, we're counting more on projections and less on track record with Harvin in this spot. His track record does suggest that his best year is ahead. Harvin has caught more passes for more yards in each successive year of his career, starting out at 60 and 790 in his rookie year, moving up to 71 and 868 in 2010 before jumping to 87 and 967 last season. While that portends well for the upcoming season, so does, at least in PPR leagues, the fact that there's no one else on this team who presents the sort of threat Harvin does. Couple that with Adrian Peterson's still murky return from injury, and Harvin should see the most targets of any year in his NFL career. I mean, seriously, the other pass-catchers on this team are Devin Aromashodu, Michael Jenkins, Jerome Simpson and John Carlson. Christian Ponder is going to have to throw about 20 balls in Harvin's direction every game if the Vikings have any chance of scoring this year. Given the fact that Minnesota figures to be trailing more often than not, they should be throwing the ball a ton. Vikings fans may not benefit from it all that much, but Harvin's owners, especially in PPR leagues, certainly will. In non-PPR, I've got him 22nd among receivers. In PPR leagues, I've got him up at 13.

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