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).

Michael Crabtree
This guy needs a QB and a stable offensive system for a few seasons and he’ll be a star. His yards per catch (13.6) and percentage of targets that result in a reception were comparable to Terrell Owens, but T.O. got 139 targets through W15 while Crabtree had just 95. Why draft a WR in the first round if you’re not going to utilize him? Crabtree showed what he could do against the Rams in W16, catching six passes for 122 yards and a TD despite playing with both Troy Smith and Alex Smith. If the 49ers can get a good offensive mind in at O.C. (and/or head coach) and can acquire a serviceable QB (think Donovan McNabb), then Crabtree could be a 5th-6th round talent again. If we have more of the same, then he’ll be going in the late-middle rounds, which would be a shame given his talent.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead
I don’t have W16 final numbers yet, but heading into Sunday’s action, BGE was RB16 and Woody was RB31 in standard leagues (they were RB21 and RB26, respectively, in PPR formats). Considering that neither player saw much action until the third game, their stats are a little depressed. The Pats locked up Woody for a few years, but BGE is a free agent after the season. If New England brings him back, the duo should be able to form a fantasy-relevant RBBC. The Patriots are so productive offensively that they can support two fantasy RBs, especially in PPR leagues where Woodhead really shines. If everything stays the same, I’d expect the Law Firm to be a good value as a third- or fourth-round pick and Woody to be one of those middle round RBs that will make a good RB3 or flex on most fantasy rosters.

Kenny Britt
He’s obviously a wonderful talent, but there are a couple of things that could depress Britt’s ADP next August: 1) His (lack of a) work ethic and 2) his QB. He showed up to summer activities out of shape and had to work his way out of Jeff Fisher’s doghouse early in the season, resulting in just 10 catches in the first four games. The Titans may be in transition at QB with Vince Young potentially on the outs. If this situation sorts itself out and Britt shows up to camp like a professional, I could see him go in the 4th or 5th round in standard leagues (and maybe the 3rd round in PPR formats). This guy has a TON of upside.

Jahvid Best
Best exploded out of the gates with five TDs and 268 yards in his first two games, but has been hampered by a toe injury for much of the season and has seen his production decline as a result. Best has the potential to be a Brian Westbrook-type weapon out of the backfield, but the Lions are going to have to find an inside runner to handle some of the between-the-tackles duties and limit the number of hits Best is going to take. Given his fragility this season, I expect Best will be a 4th or 5th round RB who could finish in the top 10 (especially in PPR leagues) if he can stay healthy. Hopefully he takes a page from LeSean McCoy’s book this summer and finds a way to beef up without losing any speed.

Tim Tebow
Tebow’s debut against the Raiders was quite good from a fantasy perspective. He threw for 138 yards and rushed for 78 more, and accounted for two TDs (one rush and one pass). Those rushing yards and rush TDs are going to make him a fantasy weapon in years to come, but Tebow showed against the Texans that he can take advantage of a bad secondary, throwing for 308 yards while accounting for two more TDs. I bet Tebow will be a middle (7th-10th) fantasy draft pick next summer which will make him an interesting prospect for those of us who play QBBC.

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