Here are a few guys that I’m looking for bounce-back years or targeting later in my drafts because the upside is great in relation to where they’re being ranked in the FantasyFootballNerd.com index.
Chris Johnson, RB-TEN
I'm doing my best to forget 2011. After holding out and then signing his big contract, CJ2K was a major disappointment to fantasy owners who many drafted with their first pick. He's ranked 6th among running backs going into this year's fantasy drafts and he should bounce back nicely producing Top 10 numbers by the time everything is said and done. Johnson will likely go at the tail end of the 1st round or perhaps early in the 2nd. I'm hoping a few owners won't be able to forget last season and will pass on him. I think CJ2K would be a major coup if he could fall to me in the second round. I have no hesitations grabbing him as my 1st or 2nd RB.
Ryan Mathews, RB-SD
Ryan Mathews is ranked 4th among RB's and 6th overall. With Mike Tolbert moving to Carolina, Mathews should see an uptick in production as he becomes the workhorse in that backfield. His schedule is one of the easiest of the top-rated fantasy running backs. He has to face a tough Jets defense during fantasy Super Bowl Week 16, but the rest of his schedule is so conducive to fantasy relevance that hitting Top 5 numbers this season is easily within reach. He should be PPR gold and will most certainly go early to mid-first round.
Torrey Smith, WR-BAL
Smith is one of those players who seemed to be boom or bust last season. His explosiveness was evident anytime Flacco took a shot downfield. He has the ability to put up gaudy fantasy numbers like he did against St Louis (34/std 39/ppr) and Cincy (22/std 28/ppr) last season but can come back down to Earth the next week with single digits. As he has grown in that offense, his production should improve. In what is a very deep skilled position, Smith is ranked 28th among WR's and 72nd overall. He's going to be taken in later rounds and is one of those guys that I think I can target and still get great value for my pick.
Robert Griffin III, QB-WAS
When was the last time we saw this much hype and excitement leading into a Redskins season? RG3 is going to struggle a bit as he gets used to the rhythm of being an NFL quarterback, but his receiving corp is ready to help him put up very decent rookie numbers. Combine a clean Fred Davis with the talents of Santana Moss, Pierre Garcon, and Josh Morgan and he's going to have plenty of options downfield. RG3 is currently ranked 15th among QB's and 99th overall on FFN. I'm not expecting a Cam Newton-type of rookie performance from him, but I would be more than happy to have him as my backup.
Antonio Brown, WR-PIT
As a general rule of thumb, third year receivers tend to see a nice uptick in their production. Brown is ranked one spot ahead of Torrey Smith, both in the positional rank (27th) and the overall rank (71st) for good reason. Future HOF'er Hines Ward is out of the mix and Rashard Mendenhall's durability is a question mark. Brown and Mike Wallace will continue to spread the field in what has become a pass heavy offense. Defenses will have to account for Sanders, Cotchery, and Miller which means fewer double teams. There's no need to reach for him, but Brown should easily surpass his numbers from last year and is a great one to target in this year's draft.
Caution Ahead - Players To Think Twice About
Here are a few guys that I know other fantasy owners will reach on. I'm comfortable passing on these guys if need be, and so should you.
Adrian Peterson, RB-MIN
My how the mighty have fallen. A perennial first rounder, Peterson has dropped to 13th among RB's and 24th overall in the FantasyFootballNerd.com draft rankings. His health is such a question mark that when we combine it with a tough schedule (particularly the second half of the season), it's tough to get excited about All Day. I think it speaks volumes about the industry's collective opinion of him when I see rookie Trent Richardson and Jamaal Charles ranked just ahead of him. The Charles pick (another player I don't feel confident about) is surprising because of the health question and Peyton Hillis vulturing. Don't get me wrong, if Purple Jesus fell to me, I'd take him, however I think most owners are going to reach for him. According to my friends at Mock Draft Central, Peterson is being drafted 12th overall which is either the end of the 1st round or beginning of the 2nd round in most drafts. As with Jamaal Charles, I'm just not comfortable drafting him with my first pick considering the question marks and the importance of consistency with the first pick.
Frank Gore, RB-SF
The story about Brandon Jacobs and the 6-year old NYG fan was touching to read, however Jacob's arrival in San Francisco is less than exciting for Gore owners. In 12-team leagues, he's being drafted at the tail end of the 2nd round. That's too high for me. The FFN index has him at 19th among running backs and 44th overall. That's more in line than his ADP of 23rd overall. When I look at Gore's health and the increasingly crowded backfield (Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James, and Kendall Hunter), I'm more inclined to pass on him for a more consistent, higher-upside option. Other fantasy owners will draft him which is great because that means that they've passed on someone else to take him.
Peyton Manning, QB-DEN
Boy, this is a tough one. Peyton Manning has helped me win fantasy championships and his talents are undeniable. It wasn't that long ago that it wouldn't have been out of the ordinary for him to turn in nearly 30 fantasy points each week. I want to see Manning come back from his neck surgery in a big way, but fantasy championships are not won by reaching. He's ranked 10th among QB's (#68 overall) which means that he's going to be a QB1 for 10-team leagues and deeper. I wouldn't feel comfortable with Manning as my #1 unless I had a QB1 for a backup which is not likely to happen. The QB position has become so important in a pass-happy NFL that if Manning goes down, a fantasy season could go down with him. There are too many questions surrounding Manning's neck and the progress of the receiving corp for me to get excited about him as my QB1. Seriously, what should we expect to see when we hear that the receivers have to actually learn routes now?
Vincent Jackson, WR-TB
When Vincent Jackson was on...he was on! I'll never forget the amazing 3-TD performance against Green Bay last year, but a short memory might serve me best when deciding where to put VJAX on my target list. Jackson was terrific with Philip Rivers. Can he be terrific with Josh Freeman? I don't think so. I've been listening to the Josh-Freeman-is-on-the-verge-of-breaking-out rhetoric for the past two seasons. Even if Freeman has a better-than-average season, there's simply no debating the fact that he's no Philip Rivers. Jackson got his money and he'll wear the Bucs colors this year, but he's no longer a WR1, even with one of the easier WR-schedules this year. His #20 ranking among wide receivers on FFN (49th overall) is indicative of his status as a WR2/3. Reaching out to my friends at Mock Draft Central one more time, it's good news for owners like me to see Vincent Jackson being drafted one spot ahead of Jordy Nelson. You take Jackson - I'd be thrilled to have Nelson instead.
Brandon Lloyd, WR-NE
Another guy that seems to be drafted much earlier than I'd consider taking him is Brandon Lloyd. The last thing the Patriots need is another receiver, and unless your name is Welker, Gronkowski, Hernandez, or Branch, you're not going to be a focal point for Tom Brady. Lloyd's schedule is tough this year and following OC Josh McDaniels to New England isn't going to make any of this any easier. Lloyd is being drafted in the 6th and 7th rounds of most drafts, but the problem is that he's not going to post the kind of numbers that we'd expect from a receiver being drafted in those rounds. FFN ranks him 25th among WR's and 65th overall. The fantasy depth at wide receiver this year is incredible. Lloyd becomes a borderline WR2 this year with WR3 being the most likely position in which he belongs. Let someone else reach for him.