Even though it remains quiet on the NFL front with the lockout still in full force, the chatter is beginning to pick up in fantasy circles. What follows are a few early fantasy rumblings for every NFC team:
Fantasy owners — especially those in keeper leagues where fresh talent isn't always readily available each year — who like to mine for rookie running backs might want to keep an eye on the name Roy Helu. The fourth-round pick of the REDSKINS could turn out to be a sleeper, as scouts say he is a perfect fit in Mike Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme. One caveat: Helu was extremely hot and cold in college, and if that repeats in the pros, it could lead to some tricky fantasy projections. … The EAGLES think WR Jeremy Maclin is on the verge of a tremendous season. We're not knocking his 964 yards or 10 TDs from 2010 — not at all. But the word around the team is that the third-year wideout, who just turned 23, might be ready to join the elite ranks of receivers. … WR Steve Smith is reportedly on schedule to be ready for the start of the season as he recovers from the microfracture surgery that cost him the final three games of last season. A free agent, Smith has said he believes he will be re-signed by the GIANTS once the lockout ends and once again fill a key role in the team's passing attack. Smith caught 107 passes for 1,220 yards and seven TDs in his breakout ’09 season. He had 48-529-3 in nine games last season. … COWBOYS WR Dez Bryant's ankle showed no ill effects as he held his own on a basketball court with NBA stars like LaMarcus Aldridge, Josh Howard and Rashard Lewis in Howard's 5th Annual Celebrity Weekend in Dallas. Bryant, who played in 12 games before suffering a season-ending broken ankle as a rookie, reportedly is in great shape and will be ready for the start of the season.
The BEARS' receiver corps wasn't addressed in the draft, but a free-agent addition is still a possibility, although sources are not expecting the team to make a big splash. Johnny Knox looks like the only Chicago wide receiver worth drafting in most formats. … The VIKINGS plan to use some two-TE packages featuring both Visanthe Shiancoe and rookie Kyle Rudolph, and although it might equate to some nice mismatches from an X's and O's standpoint, it might put a cap on both players' fantasy numbers. The feeling around the team now is that Shiancoe might never touch his 11-TD season of two years ago when he and Brett Favre really established a strong rapport … The word out of Green Bay is that the bursa sack that PACKERS WR Jordy Nelson ruptured in the team's Super Bowl victory is fully healed. After coming on really strong down the stretch last season, Nelson shapes up as the top candidate for the team's No. 2 WR job ahead of both Donald Driver, whose best fantasy days are believed to be way behind him, and free agent James Jones, who remains a 50-50 candidate to be re-signed at this writing. … LIONS QB Matthew Stafford's recovery from right shoulder surgery in January appears to be going well. "You couldn't even tell he had shoulder surgery just a couple months ago," teammate Drew Stanton, who worked out with Stafford this past week, told PFW on June 28. Stafford figures to be targeted as a potential backup or spot starter in 10- or 12-team formats and surely will be a popular sleeper pick of owners who saw the Lions make significant strides at the end of last season even without him in the lineup. Owners should note the Lions play 5-of-6 games indoors from Weeks 11-16 — a key stretch in fantasy leagues.
It appears FALCONS WR Harry Douglas is no longer hindered by 2009 ACL surgery, but can he become a steady producer out of the slot in Atlanta's deep receiver corps? Observers at the Falcons' recent player workouts said Douglas looked more explosive in drills than he did throughout last season, when he seemed to be missing the extra gear he showed as a rookie in '08. Monitor Douglas' play early on — he's going to be behind Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez and possibly Michael Jenkins in the pecking order, but still has potential to be widely owned in deep leagues by midseason. … The PANTHERS' backfield situation is unsettled until free agency begins. RB DeAngelo Williams is expected to hit the open market and RB Mike Goodson's fantasy stock will rise or fall depending on Williams' decision. Jonathan Stewart's carries will be affected a bit if Williams leaves, but Goodson would go from third string to being the top complement to Stewart if Williams moves on. Draft boards will have to be adjusted accordingly. While the Panthers want to re-sign Williams, some expect other teams, including the Dolphins, to make a run at landing him and we hear the Panthers will not get in a bidding war. … SAINTS WR Robert Meachem is believed to be healthy again after undergoing surgery on his left ankle after last season, and this could be his breakout campaign. He played through nagging pain last season and expects to feel much better in 2011. Meachem has the added incentive of playing for a new contract, as he's in the final year of his rookie deal, and he could move past Devery Henderson to become the full-time starter opposite Marques Colston. … Owners who let the first tier of fantasy quarterbacks come off the board before addressing the position on draft day need to consider BUCCANEERS QB Josh Freeman as a No. 1 QB. His 2010 performance — he threw 25 touchdown passes and only six interceptions — might have been underappreciated. Freeman has been organizing workouts with his teammates throughout the offseason and his combination of leadership, smart decision making and physical gifts doesn't hurt his chances of taking another step forward.
While the smart money is on second-round rookie Ryan Williams to emerge from the CARDINALS' logjam at running back as the new No. 1 guy at the position, daily team observers tell us the team has absolutely refused to tip its hand. The party line continues to be that the competition between Williams and holdovers Beanie Wells, Tim Hightower and LaRod Stephens-Howling is an extremely healthy situation that will play itself out. While Williams is believed to have a leg up on the competition, there are many fantasy observers who believe there will be too much time-sharing going on in the backfield for any Cardinals runner to be considered a real fantasy force. … Although RAMS WR Michael Clayton is a free agent, our sources in St. Louis continue to tell us that he is a virtual lock to be re-signed and should be considered the team's most attractive fantasy receiver entering the 2011 campaign. Team insiders continue to marvel at the instant chemistry Clayton developed with QB Sam Bradford after being obtained in a trade with Baltimore early last September. After Clayton suffered a season-ending patellar tendon in the fifth game last season, the Rams' passing game was never the same, with opponents able to key on slot specialist Danny Amendola. But the consensus seems to be that the lockout has helped Clayton in his recovery from the injury, and all indications are that he will be 100 percent in time for training camp, if there is one. New Rams offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has a knack for bringing out the best in his featured receivers (see Brandon Lloyd in Denver last season ), and Clayton appears to have the best shot at following in Lloyd's fantasy footsteps. … Former first-round WR Michael Crabtree has raised his share of fantasy red flags in a pro career that has fallen short of expectations up to now. But we hear there is a growing feeling that the 49ERS' new West Coast offense under Jim Harbaugh, which features more quick, short strikes and is tailored to get the ball into the receivers' hands as quickly as possible, could be much better-suited to Crabtree's natural abilities than the much more vertical offense that preceded it. … With visions of Marshawn Lynch's electrifying 67-yard TD romp in the SEAHAWKS' wild-card victory over the Saints still stuck in their minds, there could be more than a few fantasy players ready to make a potentially fruitful reach for Lynch as a fantasy starter. But it might be worth taking into account the presence of fellow RB Justin Forsett before making any full-fledged commitments to Lynch. Ideally, we hear, Lynch will be a masher between the tackles on early downs, with Forsett providing more of a change of pace in third-down situations. "The thing is, though, Forsett seems to come through more often than not," one daily team observer told PFW. "I think the featured guy between Lynch and Forsett could come on a week-to-week basis, based on the opponent."