Looking ahead to the 2011 fantasy season

I know, I know, with championship games still hanging in the balance, it may be a little early to start looking forward to next season, but there were a few late-season performances that got me thinking about 2011. After all, it’s never too early to find a few sleepers.

Jonathan Stewart
All right, he doesn’t qualify as a sleeper, but with DeAngelo Williams’ future in Carolina in doubt — he’s a free agent and the Panthers may not want to pony up to keep him — Jonathan Stewart could emerge as a first- or second-round fantasy RB next season. “The Daily Show” was handed the keys in Week 8 and really disappointed fantasy owners with just 30 yards on 14 carries against the Rams. He looked pretty good on just five carries (for 30 yards) against the Saints before being knocked out for two games with a concussion. But after returning in Week 12 against the Browns, he rattled off five quality rushing performances, averaging 106 rushing yards and an eye-popping 5.5 yards per carry over the last five games. Granted, the Seahawks, Browns and Cardinals were all in the bottom third against the run, but the Falcons were 13th and the Steelers were 1st, and Stewart averaged 7.4 and 3.9 ypc, respectively. (The Steelers only gave up 3.0 ypc on the season, so 3.9 is actually impressive.) The fact that Stewart was able to run like this despite zero threat of a passing attack is also encouraging. If the Panthers can find a QB (or the light goes on for Jimmy Clausen), and Williams is elsewhere next season, Stewart could be in for a big 2011.

Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell, Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham
There’s a lot of talk about the Bengals cleaning house this summer, and that includes Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. Both guys can still play, but the spend-a-lot-of-money-on-receivers strategy hasn’t worked in recent years and the franchise might do well to start fresh with Simpson, Caldwell and Shipley, who have all performed well in stints during their short careers. Simpson and Caldwell are both third-year players, while Shipley is a rookie. After getting the start against a good Chargers pass defense, Simpson caught six passes for 124 yards and two TDs. He has great size and could be a solid starter if given the opportunity. Caldwell had a good sophomore season (51-432-3) as the de facto WR2 in 2009, when Laveranues Coles’ production was less than expected. His targets fell off a cliff when Owens came to town. Shipley seems destined for a long career in the slot a la Wes Welker or Danny Amendola. As for Gresham, the rookie has quietly put together a really solid first season. His 52 receptions mark just the seventh time in league history that a rookie TE has caught 50+ passes. The Bengals can save $2.5 million if they cut ties with Ochocinco and T.O. is a free agent, so the Cincinnati receiving corps could look very different next season. Of course, these wideouts aren’t going to have much success if there isn’t a good QB throwing the ball The franchise has to decide what it wants to do with Carson Palmer, who has had his ups and downs this season (but looked awfully good throwing to this crew against the Chargers on Sunday).

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Fantasy Quick-Hitters: Gonzalez, J. Jones, Austin and Crabtree

Anthony Gonzalez not due back in Week 7. This is speculation by the Indianapolis Star, but Gonzalez only recently resumed running. If you’ve hung onto him this long, wait a week or two more and see how this situation develops. He has a lot of upside and he can certainly help in a fantasy championship run. This is good news for owners of Pierre Garcon, but it is Austin Collie that seems to be getting most of Gonzalez’s looks in recent weeks. That run should continue.

Miles Austin usurps Patrick Crayton as starting WR2.
Now it’s time to get excited about Austin, who has gone from potential one-week wonder to bona fide fantasy starter. Austin is the one Dallas WR who has made the most of his opportunities, so it wouldn’t be too surprising if he’s more productive than Roy Williams over the remainder of the season.

James Jones is the new Packers’ WR3. He was splitting snaps with Jordy Nelson, but Nelson is fighting a knee injury and Jones had a nice game against the Lions. Jones is worth rostering in deep (or three-WR) leagues, but will have to battle with Jermichael Finley for targets. Jones’ value would really skyrocket if Greg Jennings or Donald Driver were to go down, so he’s a nice handcuff for either.

Crabtree to replace Morgan as starter? Wow. Morgan was seemingly turning the corner, averaging 3.3-54-0.3 over the last three weeks. That’s a healthy 53-864-5 pace over a 16-game season. It’s not shocking that Crabtree would eventually take over, but that the move would happen so quickly. The rookie is suddenly fantasy viable. He’s not starter-worthy, but he is roster-worthy in 12-team leagues.

Looking at the NFL Draft with a fantasy eye

Fantasy football drafts won’t fire up in earnest for a few more months, but now that the real draft is over, it’s a good time to take a look at the rookie class and try to identify those players that have the best chance to make an impact in 2009.

At any position, a rookie’s value can be estimated with the following equation:

Value = Talent + Opportunity + Readiness

Talent is probably the tougher of the three to judge, but luckily we can leverage the work of those scouts and coaches who just put a ton of time into putting together their draft boards. A first rounder is probably a little better than a second rounder, a second rounder is probably a little better than a third rounder, and so on.

Opportunity is (usually) pretty obvious. If a team has a big hole at running back and they draft one in the first round, the chances are pretty good that he’ll be the team’s leading rusher by the end of the season.

Readiness has more to do with position than anything else. Year in and year out, running back is by far the easiest position for a rookie to excel. The big hurdle is pass blocking, so if they can get that down, they’ll see a lot of playing time. Just hand them the ball and let ‘em run. Rookie wide receivers have a tougher time finding success early on, but there are usually one or two guys each year who crack the top 30. Last year, it was Eddie Royal and Desean Jackson. In 2007, it was Dwayne Bowe. In 2006, it was Marques Colston. Larry Fitzgerald, Lee Evans and Michael Clayton thrived in 2004. The list goes on.

Generally speaking, very few tight ends and quarterbacks make a substantial fantasy impact in their rookie seasons. In 2008, Matt Ryan had the best season for a rookie QB in years, and he finished #16 amongst quarterbacks, making him only a decent backup in most fantasy leagues.

So it’s best to focus on the running backs and wide receivers. Here are a few guys to keep your eye on…

RUNNING BACKS

Knowshon Moreno looks to be the odds on favorite to lead all rookies in rushing, though the Denver backfield is crowded with Correll Buckhalter, LaMonth Jordan, Ryan Torain and Selvin Young fighting for carries. Still, the team burned a first round pick to get him, so they obviously plan to use him. He’s a great all around back and an underrated receiver…Chris “Beanie” Wells joins Tim Hightower in the Arizona backfield. Hightower seems to be more of a short-yardage guy, but don’t rule out the Cards utilizing a RBBC. Wells has had a few nagging injuries throughout his career, but he hasn’t missed much time. His competitiveness has been questioned, though he’s a superb natural runner…Shonn Greene isn’t explosive, but he runs hard and is a patient runner. He has Thomas Jones and Leon Washington ahead of him, but those are two guys that could be overtaken if he plays extremely well in the preseason…Bernard Scott is a sleeper in Cincinnati. Cedric Benson is the starter there and Chris Perry was just cut, so it’s feasible that Scott could overtake Benson if he falters, on or off the field. Scott is a good all around back from a small school (Abilene Christian) who could surprise some people…Most of the other guys drafted early on are going to situations where they’ll likely be unable to overtake the starter unless there’s an injury of some sort. Donald Brown (IND), LeSean McCoy (PHI) and Glen Coffee (SF) fall into this category.

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