BY DAVID KOMER
Beanie Wells: Peter Read Miller/SI
Fishing through the discount music bins growing up, sometimes you'd come out with "War" by U2 as the best thing in there and sometimes you'd end up with Air Supply's "Greatest Hits." The difference with fantasy football bargains is sometimes the best effort to end up with an overlooked rock classic ends up turning into soft-rock syrup through no fault of our own.
The following are projections for who will be this year's breakout fantasy football stars. Not all are sleepers, with some being decently high picks, but nearly everyone on this list I project to score much higher than their current mock-draft and magazine ADP (average draft position), and dare I say, could be close to foolproof -- or at least closer to U2 than Air Supply, at least.
Kevin Kolb, Eagles: Critics will point to the poor Kansas City defense in Week 3's big performance, but his first start against the Saints one week earlier, he passed for nearly 400 yards. Plus, he's had three years to soak up the Eagles' complex system and has plenty of offensive support around him.
Alex Smith, 49ers: Smith Version 2.0 was a nothing short of a revelation last year, starting 10 games and ending up with 2,350 yards and 18 TD passes. After coming off the scrap heap, Smith is still only 26 and is at the controls of a potent offense (with an upgraded line and WR core) ready to explode. A quality fantasy back up on draft day who could replace your drafted mid-round starter by year's end.
Chad Henne, Dolphins: The University of Michigan's all-time leading passer didn't get a lot of chances to show his arm off last season (2,878 yards, 12 TDs, 14 INTs), but settled in late last year with 300-yard games in three of his last five outings. Now entering his third year, a season of starts under his belt and with new blue-chip WR Brandon Marshall, Henne is another draft day backup who will come cheap and pay dividends.
Beanie Wells, Cardinals: After fighting off some early season injuries, Wells finished 2009 with six TDs in his last eight games. The powerful Wells is a great late third to early fifth-round pick who will make a fine RB2 this season as the goal-line back in AZ, with more every-down upside than fellow back Tim Hightower has to offer. With the passing game likely regressing, coach Ken Whisenhunt should return to his pound the ball, Steelers roots.
Ryan Mathews, Chargers: Picked as high in mocks as mid-way through the second round, Mathews should be worth it. Rookies can be tough to gauge, but he's entering the best possible setup from day one. Mathews has a top-notch passing game to take the pressure off, has a solid offensive line and a capable backup in Darren Sproles. And unlike most first-round fantasy rookies, he doesn't have to be the savior on a bad team. Mathews makes for a great RB2 and a decent RB1 for those who like to roll the dice. An easy preseason target for Rookie of the Year.
LeSean McCoy, Eagles: A better fit as an every down back than Brian Westbrook was with more size (5-11, 210), McCoy can also catch the ball (40 grabs as a rookie). He'll be the lead back for the Eagles with an uninspiring cast of Mike Bell, Leonard Weaver and Charles Scott posing as an unthreatening group of backups should coach Andy Reid try the committee approach. McCoy will be a value in the fourth to early sixth round and would make for a fine RB2 in a starting lineup.
Jahvid Best, Lions: Because of injury concerns and the sad-sack team that drafted him, Best could go as late as the sixth round but will make a good RB2 and great RB3 in any fantasy lineup. The Lions will be sure to get him the ball as much as possible in an emerging offense with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Incumbent Kevin Smith was uninspiring even before his ACL injury last year and is not a threat. Best might have just given the Lions their "triplets."
Laurence Maroney, Patriots: A still young (25) tailback coming off a nine-touchdown season (off starting only part-time due to injury) on a potential juggernaut offense? Yes, please. Oh, and the best part is he'll be blue-light special cheap in the sixth to eighth rounds with no serious in-team competition (Sammy Morris, ha!). Undervalued because of his fantasy-tease history, but it's now or never for Maroney and he showed signs last season that the light might finally have turned on for good.
Michael Crabtree, 49ers: In only 11 games following a lengthy holdout, Crabtree grabbed 48 passes for 625 yards and two scores essentially coming in cold off the street. Imagine what he could do with a whole offseason under his belt. Now with a reliable running mate in Ted Ginn Jr. (better suited in San Fran as a No. 2), a good running game and one of the best young tight ends in the game with Vernon Davis, the 49ers are on the rise. Also, did I mention what poses as passable defense in the NFC West? Not much, which means plenty of fantasy scoring within the division. A fourth or fifth-rounder who would make a nice WR2 or great WR3 in your lineup.
Mike Wallace, Steelers: Ready to ascend into the lead receiver role thanks to Santonio Holmes being shipped out this offseason. Wallace impressed as a rookie with 756 yards and six scores, averaging almost 20 yards a catch, and that was as a third wheel. Now in the starting lineup and with the venerable Hines Ward showing him the ropes, Wallace should be a good WR3 for any lineup despite being had in the sixth to eighth rounds.
Devin Hester, Bears: Still a work in progress, Hester should emerge from a crowded receiver stable to finally be the fantasy star he's always shown flashes of. New offensive mastermind Mike Martz will have the Bears throwing early and often and by all accounts, loves Hester's big-play potential. The Bears' leading receiver from 2009 should thrive in Martz's offense and will come cheap on draft day in the ninth round or lower filling the WR3 or 4 role in your lineup.
Devin Thomas, Redskins: Since fellow receiver Santana Moss has done nothing but break fantasy hearts in his post-Jets career, the third-year Thomas has a chance to be the lead receiver in D.C. by year's end. At 6-2, 215, he has size and speed and gets to catch passes from perennial all-pro Donovan McNabb in new coach and offensive whiz Mike Shanahan's West Coast (how about Beltway) offense. Thomas will be dirt cheap in the double-digit rounds and makes for a nice flier thanks to his upgraded coach, quarterback and offensive system.
Jermichael Finley, Packers: Once he grabbed the starting spot last season mid-way through the year, he never let go. Entering his third season, Finley grabbed 55 passes for 676 and 5 TDs last fall. Playing in an explosive passing game led by Aaron Rodgers and a cadre of good receivers with a solid running attack as well, the upside is massive for Finley.
There are some big names who are being mock drafted (and projected) a bit high for my taste, and bearing in mind their circumstances, it might be wise to slightly adjust your personal draft boards. It's not that I'm an overly conservative fantasy GM constantly looking out for falling pianos on draft day, but it's hard to not consider the downside and/or risk with the following players. This isn't to say I don't like them or won't draft them, but their ADP in online mock drafts and in magazine rankings has me asking questions.
QB Joe Flacco, Ravens: Until I see otherwise, a top-20 QB from a year ago is not yet QB1 material.
QB Matt Ryan, Falcons: Sophomore slump aside, still would not consider him a solid fantasy starter.
QB Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: Tough to forecast stepping in and lighting it up after suspension.
RB Ray Rice, Ravens: Is asking for goal line carries from the No. 5 to 7 player overall asking too much?
RB Steven Jackson, Rams: Terrible team, rookie quarterback, injury history, still a surefire 1st-rounder?
RB Shonn Greene, Jets: Has potential, but a nearly blank resume with ankle, rib and fumble issues in '09.
RB Jamaal Charles, Chiefs: Love him, hate his new possible spotlight-stealing backup Thomas Jones.
RB Ronnie Brown, Dolphins: May never stay healthy. Singlehandedly resurrected Ricky Williams' career.
WR Reggie Wayne, Colts: As Clicks head honcho Jay Clemons astutely wrote last week, in no way a 1st rounder.
WR Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals: The QB position unsettled, Fitz will still be a stud but numbers may dip.
WR Anquan Boldin, Ravens: Hate to pick on B-more, but a shaky fantasy WR2 in a heavy-running offense.
WR Percy Harvin, Vikings: Love his potential, but a real-life No. 3 WR is not a startable fantasy option.
WR Lee Evans, Bills: Not if he was the last WR on the board! Seriously though, who's throwing to him?
Despite my fervent fantasy support of Justin Forsett in Seahawks-land following the dishonorable discharge of LenDale White a few weeks ago, some new trade rumors have me geeked up.
Long speculated by the likes of profootballtalk.com earlier this spring and confirmed by NFL.com recently, it looks like Seattle is interested in disgruntled Bills' tailback Marshawn Lynch.
Lynch, if committed to re-establishing his flagging career, would be a dynamic fit in Pete Carroll's offense and would push the undersized Forsett into a more natural third-down back type of role. In fantasy-land, it would be a big boost for Lynch's stock, transforming him into as high as a late fourth round pick. If the deal does go down, my best sight-unseen bet, is that he'd be a soft RB2 and great RB3 for any fantasy lineup