Carson Palmer Was Looking Good Even Before T.O.

Everyone wants to be the guy who can look back on his league’s draft and say, “See, I told you about that guy.” What’s even better than winning your league is flashing your drafting prowess by spending mid-round and late-round picks on breakout performers. Just ask the guy who selected a Rice (Ray or Sidney) last year.

Although some like to reach for upside from the earliest rounds, it’s that middle-to-late portion that can really pay off. Waiting mitigates the risk in case (heaven forbid) you’re wrong about a player, and value can always be found. Over the next few weeks, I’ll put forth a guy at each position who could be that breakout performer to propel your team to a title.

QB: Carson Palmer, Bengals

This week’s Terrell Owens spotlight — and the near-certainty that Bengals talk will be in our faces now through the end of the year — will probably start bumping Palmer’s average draft placement up. For now, though, you can get one of the league’s more accomplished quarterbacks among the first half of backups.

Through his first three full seasons as the starter, Palmer averaged 29 touchdown passes and just 15 interceptions — numbers that just happen to match the totals of last year’s breakthrough fantasy passer, Matt Schaub. Palmer faced a short, rough 2008 as he tried to pretend his throwing arm was fine before packing it in about a quarter of the way through the season. Last year, he returned to a team suddenly dangerously short on receiving options and an offense satisfied to lean on a solid running game. Palmer didn’t inspire confidence, either, looking less steady in the pocket and completing a lower percentage of his throws than he did as a first-time starter in 2004 (60.5 percent vs. 60.9).

Now, though, the team has brought in Owens, Antonio Bryant (at least for now) and rookies Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham. The Bengals went from a receiving corps of Ocho mas nada to a group with so many attractive options that it might be tough to keep everyone happy. All of the additions — plus Cedric Benson’s injury history — also indicate that Cincinnati will throw the ball more this year. Palmer seems like a good bet to get back to 25 touchdowns, with upside beyond that. He’s an argument in favor of waiting through the early QB rush in your draft and grabbing a starter after loading the other positions. Just make sure you draft insurance a bit before you would behind, say, Peyton Manning.

RB: Montario Hardesty, Browns

The early word is that Hardesty will be competing for the starting job, but that might just be the public version. Hardesty has been the guy impressing coaches ever since he started practicing with the Browns, and he’s the guy the team moved up in Round 2 to grab.

Hardesty looks like a one-year college wonder because of injury limitations earlier in his career at Tennessee, and one should be aware of that history when drafting him. That said, Frank Gore had a pretty full history of college injuries and has fared all right in the pros.

In Cleveland, Hardesty lands behind a solid offensive line in an offense with little upside in the passing game. The Browns attempted the sixth-most rushes in the league last year despite tying for the sixth-fewest total offensive snaps, and that was with a Jamal Lewis-shaped cadaver as the primary option for much of the season. Jerome Harrison has some explosive ability and fared well late last year, but he hasn’t curried favor this offseason amid contract squabbles. He also seems more fit for a complementary role that capitalizes on his speed and versatility while not putting too many hits on a smallish body.

There should be enough work for both, with Hardesty looking like the better bet to surpass 200 carries (as long as he’s healthy). His size also makes him the better goal line bet, and an average draft position in the ninth round in 12-team leagues makes him a shot worth taking.

WR: Jacoby Jones, Texans

Some guys you classify as trending upward. Some are clearly boom-bust propositions. Jones fits squarely in that second category.

There’s certainly reason to like where Jones is heading. He entered 2009 with zero professional touchdown catches and exited with six among just 27 total receptions, and the only guy between him and more playing time is a solid-but-pedestrian Kevin Walter. Jones has also served as a good punt returner in his three seasons, but Houston’s draft selection of return specialist Trindon Holliday indicates to me that they’d like to lessen Jones’ responsibilities there.

The reason to dislike Jones is that he has lugged the sleeper label around since his first training camp without ever waking up. Before 2009, he had more DUI arrests than touchdown catches. That said, his head coach has praised his improved maturity this summer, and it’s clear the team’s hopes are rising. Jones can be had well into the double-digit rounds, which makes him almost a no-risk fantasy proposition. If he busts, you drop him for someone else. If he booms — in one of the league’s more prolific passing offenses — you could find this year’s Pierre Garcon.

TE: John Carlson, Seahawks

For starters, it’s a good thing when your quarterback calls you “this year’s fantasy sleeper” on Twitter. Of course, we have a bit more than that to go on.

Through two seasons, Carlson has looked like a beacon on a bad offense. He led the Seahawks as a rookie with 55 catches (eight more than anyone else). In 2009, offensive line injuries required him to block much more often and limited him to 51 receptions. Still, he grabbed seven touchdown passes for a team on which no one else caught more than three.

A top-10 pick spent on tackle Russell Okung should help free Carlson up for more pass-catching action, and a still-questionable receiver group should keep him a top option. Sixty catches looks like his floor to me this season, with 70 well within reach. That wouldn’t be bad for a guy going among the final starters or first backups at his position.

D/ST: N.Y. Giants

What have you done for me lately? We all know that cliché as the mindset around the NFL, and the answer in this case would be “greatly disappoint anyone who drafted this unit in fantasy in 2009.”

The Giants suffered big injury issues last year, losing top safety Kenny Phillips for almost the whole season, middle linebacker Antonio Pierce for about half and various defensive line pieces for various lengths of time. Even top end Justin Tuck, who didn’t miss a game, was severely limited after Week 2 by a shoulder injury.

The defensive line is healthier and loaded (no matter what Osi Umenyiora provides). Keith Bulluck has been added to a linebacker group with young talent at both outside spots. Antrel Rolle has been signed to play safety, perhaps alongside Phillips if his knee is OK. All in all, the Giants — just a season removed from ranking sixth in sacks, and first the year before that — present plenty of reason for optimism on defense and a potential fantasy steal after the rest of your leaguemates have gone with another team.

Matt Schauf is the senior football writer

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