Week 1: Player Upgrades
The 2011 NFL regular season kicks off Thursday night with the New Orleans Saints taking on the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. Its the most wonderful time of the year. If you're anything like me, you are sick of pre-season football, Chris Johnson holdout talk and Peyton Manning injury drama; it's time to put the pads on and play some games that matter.
Player Upgrades is for the hardcore fantasy owners who are looking for an edge every single week of the season that will ultimately lead them to a fantasy championship. Fantasy football isn't just as simple as showing up for the draft, picking a team, and then clearing off the trophy case to make room for the hardware at the end of the season. No matter how great (or disastrous) the team you drafted is heading into the season, fantasy owners who proactively scour the wavier wire, manage their weekly lineups to consistently make the right calls, and manage to wheel and deal at the correct times will ultimately find themselves in a position to dominate their fantasy league from Week 1 to Week 16 or 17.
If you're a hardcore fantasy junkie then you know all the basics already and you are here for one reason: looking for that extra edge that will help you win a fantasy title. This Week 1 edition of Player Upgrades takes a look at a 12-pack of players who have seen their stock rise during the pre-season and have the potential to carry your team to a fantasy title.
When it comes to rookie quarterbacks, you can tell right away whether or not they have what it takes to succeed at the NFL level. In a small sample size from last season, Colt McCoy showed that he has what it takes. The numbers from McCoy's rookie season (1,576 yards, six touchdowns and nine interceptions) aren't going to blow anyone away and the Browns went just 2-6 in his eight starts. Once again the win-loss record doesn't stand out, but four of the six losses came in games decided by fewer than 10 points. The bottom line is that McCoy always seemed to come up with a play when his offense needed it and showed great leadership for a rookie quarterback last season.
We all heard about the infamous coaching session McCoy had with retired NFL legend Brett Favre in Mississippi this summer and it appears to have paid dividends for the up-and-coming gunslinger. McCoy threw for 320 yards with four touchdowns and only one interception in three games this pre-season and appears primed for a breakout in just his second season. McCoy won't be a top ten fantasy quarterback, but he has the potential to take the next step in his development and become a serviceable fantasy option worthy of a roster spot and a spot start as a bye week fill-in this season.
Delone Carter is starting to generate some buzz as a potential sleeper and rightly so. Carter is a physical specimen at 5-foot-9, 225 pounds and a runner who's downhill, four yards and a cloud of dust style should translate into a short yardage/goal-line role immediately this season. Factoring in Joseph Addai's injury issues and Donald Browns ineffectiveness and it appears that Carter will get an opportunity to showcase his talents this season.
Carter has flown under the radar with Peyton Manning's neck injury dominating the twitterverse and four letter network's coverage of the Colts this pre-season. Carter rushed for 92 yards on 22 carries this pre-season and appears to have the edge over Brown for the number two job entering the season. Indianapolis isn't a great running team, they were near the bottom of the league in both rushing yards per game (92.7, 29th) and yards per carry (3.8, T-25th) last season.
Carter has the potential to change that trend this season should Addai miss any time due to injury. Fantasy owners looking for a smart handcuff with tremendous upside should acquire Carter via trade or the free agent wire.
Tim Hightower has been mentioned in this Player Upgrades column more than any other player not named Pierre Thomas over the past five years. After a disappointing 2010 season with the Arizona Cardinals (in which his numbers experienced a precipitous decline across the board), Hightower was jettisoned to the Washington Redskins at the start of training camp.
At the time of the trade it was widely accepted that he would be a part of a Mike Shanahan backfield committee along with injury prone veteran Ryan Torain and popular rookie sleeper Roy Helu. Basically the Redskins backfield situation was shaping up like something out of a fantasy owner's worst nightmare. Instead, Hightower rose to the occasion and thanks to his performance has established himself as the Redskins' unquestioned starting running back. It is entirely possible that no other player's value has risen as much this pre-season as Hightower's, who appears to be a "natural fit" for the Redskins offensive scheme. Did I mention he's a very capable receiver out of the backfield for those in point-per-reception leagues?
It is entirely possible that Hightower could stumble out of the gates, Rex Grossman could easily tank as the Redskins' starting quarterback and either Torain or Helu take over the starting role, but until that happens Hightower's fantasy stock will continue to rise. Sometimes all you need is a change of scenery to reach your potential. Lets hope that continues to be the case for Hightower.
This will be the defining year for the Dallas Cowboys and their starting running back Felix Jones. With Marion Barber finally out of the picture and only rookie DeMarco Murray and veteran Tashard Choice (who barely made the Cowboys final roster) left, Jones will be Dallas' unquestioned starter this season. The fantasy community has salivated over Jones' potential for years and finally this will be the year it is realized.
Jones has always had the electrifying speed, but now he has complemented it with a more powerful running style this pre-season. There isn't much left to say, Jones looks like the complete package on the precipice of fantasy stardom. Jones also has the potential to be an absolute beast in point-per-reception formats this season with his ability as a receiver out of the backfield making him a dual threat.
This is the last chance for fantasy owners to attempt to make a trade for Jones. Much like his former college teammate at Arkansas, Darren McFadden, did last year, Jones is poised to make the jump into the elite class of fantasy running backs as long as he stays healthy.
Quick trivia question. You never want to read too much into pre-season stats, but who led the NFL in receptions this pre-season? The answer is Aaron Hernandez, who is mentioned later in this column, but a close second is Dexter McCluster. McCluster, who is entering his second year in the league, caught 14 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown this pre-season and has been one of my favorite dark horse sleepers since he entered the league.
McCluster is no longer the Kansas City Chiefs' slot receiver of the future. He's been moved back to his natural position in the backfield this pre-season and has taken on a larger role in the offense as a result. The 5-foot-8, 170 pound McCluster is a shifty receiver out of the backfield who could carve out a larger role in the offense as a third down back this season complementing Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones. It is worth noting that the Chiefs led the league in rushing yards per game (164.2) and were tied for fourth in yards per carry (4.7) last season. If injuries were to decimate the Chiefs backfield, McCluster would be in a very desirable situation.
At the very least, it is worth noting that McCluster's stock is on the rise after a solid pre-season and he should be on fantasy owners' radar as we enter the regular season.
The Denver Broncos new head coach -- Jon Fox -- likes to run the ball, a lot. Fox was the architect of some of the league's best rushing attacks over the past decade. The backfield tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart (and prior to that Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster) were the central pieces of outstanding ground attacks Fox directed during his nine-year tenure at the helm for the Carolina Panthers.
The bottom line with McGahee is that he has already carved out a role in the Denver offense as a short yardage specialist, an area he has excelled at in previous stops in his career. McGahee scored, or should I say vultured nine touchdowns in 2009 as a complementary back to Ray Rice in Baltimore. McGahee will have the same effect of Knowshon Moreno with the Broncos. McGahee can be acquired for next to nothing at this point and could see his stock rise significantly in the coming weeks due to his increased role in the Denver offense.