Two weeks ago I compiled a list of 20 players I wouldn’t be drafting in any of my leagues. I’ve been in hiding ever since, having become the subject of a fatwa declared by the usually mild-mannered members of the Matt Ryan Fan Club.
On the bright side, life in the bunker has given me a lot of time to prep for an upcoming onslaught of fantasy drafts. Here are 20 players I’m likely to own in multiple leagues:
Peyton Manning — It’s impossible for us to know what sort of risks Peyton Manning’s neck issues pose. But look at it this way: Peyton’s older brother Cooper was a promising Ole Miss recruit who walked away from football when he was diagnosed with a narrowing of the spinal canal. In light of what happened with his brother, do you think a thoughtful, well-adjusted guy like Peyton would keep playing if there was an undue risk of a single hit knocking him into a permanent state of disability? Because of concerns about Manning’s health, his arm strength and his ability to play effectively outside the comfort of a domed stadium, there have been drafts in which 10 or more quarterbacks are coming off the board before Manning. It might be unrealistic to expect Peyton to reach the same level of statistical productivity that he established during his peak years with the Colts, but it shouldn’t be completely ruled out, either. I’m quite comfortable “gambling” on Peyton Manning.
Joe Flacco — A paragon of predictability, Flacco has thrown for 3,613, 3,622 and 3,610 yards over the past three seasons, with 21, 25 and 20 TD passes each season over that span. So, we can pencil him in for more of the same, right? Well, the Ravens plan to ratchet up their offensive tempo this season. Flacco and his colleagues have been going no-huddle throughout the preseason, and the faster pace seems to suit the fifth-year quarterback. A faster tempo means more offensive snaps and a likely increase in completions and yardage. Plus, Flacco is only 27 years old, so it’s not a stretch to think that he could have a season in which he significantly exceeds his established level of production.
Tim Tebow — Look, I’m not going to go all Skip Bayless on you. I do not worship at the altar of Tebow. I agree that he’s a crappy passer, and I don’t believe that he can "will" an NFL team to success over the long haul. But I do believe the Jets have a better chance to win with Tebow than they do with Mark Sanchez, and I believe Tebow will get to prove that before the end of September. His running ability makes him a very viable fantasy quarterback (maybe even a notch above viable), and yet Tebow can be had late in fantasy drafts. I’ll gladly take him as my third-string quarterback.
Marshawn Lynch — A number of analysts with legal backgrounds have speculated that Lynch is unlikely to be suspended for a July arrest that resulted in DUI charges. His average draft position fell after the arrest and has never fully recovered, and recent back spasms will further inhibit an ADP recovery. In a year when high-volume running backs are scarce, I’m delighted that Lynch, who had more than 20 carries per game over the second half of last season (and who’s still only 26, by the way), can be had at such a deep discount. I’d be happy to take him late in the first round and thrilled to take him anywhere in the second.
DeAngelo Williams — The time-share situation with Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton’s ball-hogging near the endzone are turn-offs to potential D-Will buyers. But Williams remains an elite talent, and all it would take is a minor shift in circumstances to dramatically boost his value. Stewart has become the preferred back among fantasy owners, but Stewart is currently dealing with a sprained ankle. Williams isn’t going to duplicate his epic 2008 season as long as Stewart is in the picture, but with an ADP in the 30s at his position, D-Will is a terrific value.
Ben Tate — He’s Mick Taylor; Arian Foster is Keith Richards. When Taylor was with the Rolling Stones, Keef was always king of the roost, but Taylor was a bloody great guitarist in his own right. (If there are any doubts about this, listen to Taylor’s solo at the end of the song “Sway.”) Taylor was destined to remain second fiddle to Keef, and so Taylor eventually left the band. Tate eventually might need to leave the Texans to get his chance to shine. Meanwhile, he’s still going to have his “Sway” moments. And if anything happens to Foster, well …
David Wilson — Ahmad Bradshaw received injections in his foot during the offseason because he didn’t want to undergo yet another surgery after years of foot problems. Does that sound like a player who’s ready to handle a heavy workload over a full season? The Giants clearly aren’t optimistic that Bradshaw can pull that sort of freight. They spent a first-round draft pick on a running back, bypassing the chance to upgrade an aging, deteriorating offensive line. And yet the Giants have been further disguising Wilson’s value by having him run with the third team behind the pedestrian D.J. Ware. (Thanks, guys.) If you saw Wilson play at Virginia Tech, you know what an explosive runner he is. At worst, he’s going to get about 30 percent of the RB workload for a strong offense as the Giants try to preserve Bradshaw. But if — or, more likely, when — Bradshaw blows a tire, Wilson will be there with a spare and a jack.
Jonathan Dwyer — Cryptologists are obsessed with cracking Mike Shanahan’s RB code, but why mess with the inscrutable situation in Washington (or the similarly confounding situation in Detroit) when the opaque RB situation in Pittsburgh offers far greater rewards to whoever can cut through the smoke? Isaac Redman is the starter for now, and Rashard Mendenhall will try to reclaim his old job once he returns from a knee injury, but I prefer to make a late-round investment in Dwyer, the dark horse, who has looked good in the preseason.
Vick Ballard — It appears that Ballard is going to be the primary backup to starter Donald Brown in Indianapolis. The Brown-Ballard combo can be secured rather cheaply. But considering Brown’s past struggles, Ballard makes sense as a late-round à la carte purchase, too.
Bernard Scott — Because I’ve been betting on him for so long that I don’t dare stop now, lest he have his breakout season in a year when I haven’t invested in him. I’m Linus, and Bernard Scott is my Great Pumpkin.
Victor Cruz — Some people point to the number of long touchdowns Cruz had last season as reason to expect a drop-off in 2012. Fine, maybe Cruz doesn’t go for 1,500 yards again, but I like his chances to hit 1,200 and score at least seven or eight TDs. Cruz plays with a top-flight quarterback, and fellow WR Hakeem Nicks keeps the double-teams away. I see another strong season ahead.
Jordy Nelson — As with Cruz, people seem reluctant to believe that Nelson can sustain the altitude he reached in 2011. Nelson isn’t going to score 15 TDs again. Still, it’s not as if Nelson is some scrub who owes all of his success to Aaron Rodgers. Nelson is a tremendous athlete who has worked hard to hone his craft. He’s worthy of his prominent place in what’s arguably the best passing attack in football.
Jeremy Maclin — The young receiver was due for lift-off last season, but a preseason health scare (there were even cancer rumors flying around last August) put Maclin’s claim to stardom on hold. I think he gets there this season. People tend to forget what an absolute TD machine this guy was during his college career at Missouri, and his first few years in the NFL have offered hints of greatness. With Maclin’s ADP still modest, this is a fantastic time to buy in.
Eric Decker — The cat might be out of the bag on this one. Decker caught a couple of TD passes in the Broncos’ third preseason game. Even before that, the chemistry between Decker and Peyton Manning was obvious. I’m willing to reach a little bit for Decker. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if he wound up catching 90 or more balls this season.
Anquan Boldin — This accomplished vet simply isn’t getting his due. Go ahead and take a trendy receiver like Darrius Heyward-Bey; I’ll roll with ’Quan. And by the way, that no-huddle thing I mentioned in connection with Joe Flacco? That applies to Boldin, too.
Justin Blackmon — In college, opponents threw everything but the kitchen sink at Blackmon. No matter how much attention defenses paid him, he still got his. Forget about his timed speed. This dude is plenty fast in pads. He’s going to catch a ton of balls as Blaine Gabbert’s security blanket. He might only gain 12 or 13 yards per catch, but I could see him threatening the rookie reception record of 101 catches, held by the aforementioned Anquan Boldin.
Eddie Royal — A leg/groin injury has kept him out of the preseason and off the radar. But the Chargers are plotting a prominent slot-man role for Royal, and he reportedly clicked immediately with QB Philip Rivers during OTAs. Royal could be a gem in PPR leagues.
Aaron Hernandez — Most people rank Hernandez somewhere from third to fifth among tight ends, behind Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski. I rate Hernandez third, and I don’t think he’s as far behind Graham and Gronk as most people perceive. Hernandez probably won’t score as many touchdowns as Gronk, but it wouldn’t be shocking if Hernandez had more catches and receiving yards than his free-spirited teammate. A fat new contract demonstrates just how highly the Patriots think of Hernandez.
Greg Olsen — The ex-Bear is a big target who stands to benefit from the continued development of QB Cam Newton and the Panthers’ lack of depth at wide receiver. Olsen was never fully utilized during his days with the Bears, and while he had his moments with Carolina last season, a weak finish kept his final numbers modest. There’s considerable room for growth here.
Lance Kendricks — I’ll admit to a pro-Wisconsin bias. In fact, I might have a hard time prying Kendricks away from some of the other Badgers backers in my drafts. But I truly believe that Kendricks has handsome sleeper potential. He was hyped last August, then flopped badly when the curtain went up on the regular season. Kendricks still possesses abundant talent, and Sam Bradford is desperate for credible pass catchers to step up. At this year’s reduced price, Kendricks could be a tidy value.