QB sleeper: David Garrard, Jaguars
If you read last week’s Scope, you’re probably thinking, “This dude likes the Jacksonville offense way too much.” That’s not the case. There might be several individuals I like better than many others do, but I’m not hosting pep rallies for the Jacksonville passing offense. I am, however, pointing out that it’s ridiculous to see Garrard being drafted after players such as Sam Bradford, Jason Campbell and Mark Sanchez. At least he has passed Tim Tebow, I guess.
Let’s start simply: In his two full seasons as a starter, 2009 and 2008, Garrard has finished 12th and ninth among fantasy quarterbacks, according to RapidDraft scoring. (That includes three-point passing touchdowns. Increase that to the more typical four, and he ranked 15th in 2009.) That’s fantasy-starter range, or at least a solid platoon candidate. The tiny touchdown-pass totals — just 15 each of the past two years, 18 the year before — likely scare off many owners, but what they fail to realize is the rushing upside. Garrard led his position in carries last year and tied for first the year before. He was the only quarterback to reach 300 yards in both seasons. His combined five rushing touchdowns over the last two seasons place well without separating him from the crowd, but the whole rushing package pushes him ahead of plenty of guys with 20-plus scoring throws.
Garrard also ranks second among active quarterbacks behind only Aaron Rodgers in lowest interception rate (percentage of pass attempts that have been picked). That means relative safety from your backup, which is about the best thing many of us can ask for at that position. How comfortable do you feel that Matthew Stafford, Matt Leinart or even Jay Cutler, for that matter, won’t serve up a three-INT game in a given week? Factor in the 2010 upside that comes from Garrard rededicating to his preparation and finally seeing improvement in his receiving options, and I see a guy who I’m starting to realize I haven’t drafted enough.
Going too early: Philip Rivers, Chargers
It’s hard to argue with drafting a quarterback who has thrown about 2.4 touchdowns for every interception as a starter and only once been worse than 2:1 with that ratio, but it’s boring to take on only easy arguments.
Antonio Gates led the team with 114 targets last year, just seven more than Vincent Jackson — who led the Chargers in receiving yards and touchdown catches. LaDainian Tomlinson saw just 30 targets last year but garnered 77 the year before and 86 in 2007. My point: Tomlinson is gone, and Jackson very well might be. At the least, we know Jackson will miss the first three games, and there is precedent for a disgruntled receiver carrying through on his threat to sit out through regular-season weeks. (San Diego itself picked up Keenan McCardell in trade in 2004 after he skipped the Bucs’ first nine games during a similar contract squabble.) Breakout favorite Malcom Floyd, meanwhile, has been around for six years (one on IR) and only once reached 30 catches and never scored more than four times.
Running back Ryan Mathews has folks optimistic, but the bottom line in the passing game is that there’s much more uncertainty than I’d like with a late-fourth or early-fifth-round quarterback — especially when I can wait two to three more rounds and get Brett Favre, whom I’ll take over Rivers straight up this season.
RB sleeper: Bernard Scott, Bengals
When you consider that Cedric Benson was one of just six NFL runners to reach 300 carries last season, it might be easy to forget that he did so despite missing three regular-season games. Although one of those came in Week 17 as a post-clinching rest, the other two continued an all-too-familiar trend.
In five pro seasons, Benson has missed 20 total games. Now, my abacus just broke, so I’ll have to guess, but I’m pretty sure that averages out to four a year. With that in mind, I don’t think it takes a whole lot more to explain Scott’s sleeper value. After Round 10 or so, you’re basically drafting backup running backs who won’t realize regular value without an injury to or bust performance from the guy ahead of them. Otherwise, you’re getting a part-timer who at best sees inconsistent use.
Scott’s long speed and quickness make him a dangerous offensive weapon that will be used some even when Benson is in there. Benson’s past makes Scott a good bet for at least a couple of starts. A starting Bernard Scott looks better to me than a starting Darren Sproles.
Going too early: Jonathan Stewart, Panthers
Stewart enjoyed an excellent finish to 2009, putting up four big games over the final five weeks after DeAngelo Williams went down with an ankle injury. However, opponents in these outings included a Tampa defense that struggled against the run all year, a Giants team that had packed it in and a Saints squad resting starters in Week 17. It’s also well worth noting that before Williams’ injury, he was actually on pace to increase his carries over 2008, while Stewart was on track for the opposite.
Stewart’s 2009 finish will probably close the gap a bit this year, and I think he’s a fine fourth-rounder in non-PPR formats. He doesn’t, however, make much sense to me in a PPR fourth round. Despite what some will tell you, Stewart isn’t the goal-line back. Williams led the league in touchdown runs in 2008 and actually outperformed Stewart last year in goal-line situations. Stewart also won’t catch too many balls and has been constantly nagged by injuries, even when in the lineup. He has basically not practiced in the pros. That hasn’t been a big issue for his production, but it’s at least worrisome. For what it’s worth, he has appeared in just three exhibition games in three seasons, including none so far this year.
I’ll take Williams as early as late Round 1, but I’m not interested in Stewart until sometime after someone else inevitably has drafted him.
WR sleeper: Bernard Berrian, Vikings
Sometimes it’s good when people aren’t talking about you during training camp. Think of the headlines that Berrian’s more-hyped mates have generated: Sidney Rice is making an impact only by his absence as he tries to work through a hip injury. Percy Harvin has been on the field, just not as much as he’s been off it while dealing with migraines dubbed “debilitating” at times. That leaves Berrian as the position’s only returning starter currently available.
Never mind that Berrian has been targeted just once in each of the first two exhibitions. The only Viking to be targeted more than three times Sunday night was rookie Marquis Hamilton. (Yeah, I had to look him up, too.) Try to look past Berrian’s 2009 as well, which started at a disadvantage thanks to hamstring issues that limited him in camp — thus limiting his time with his late-arriving quarterback — and also included a midseason edition of the minor injury. Berrian didn’t miss any games, but that’s the kind of thing that can easily limit a wideout, especially one so reliant on downfield speed. Thus, it’s no surprise that 2009 featured Berrian’s career low for yards per catch.
In 2010, Berrian is relishing the extra time with his again-late quarterback and is ready to flash the big-play speed that made the Vikings throw free agent money at him in the first place. In 2008, for instance, Berrian scored five of his seven touchdowns from more than 40 yards away. That quarterback of his finished two of the past three seasons with at least 13 throws of 40-plus, a mark matched by five other QBs last year but by no more than three in any other season for which NFL.com has tallied the stat (going back to 1991). Throw that stuff in with the uncertainty surrounding Rice and Harvin, and it’s not hard to see Berrian reaching at least 60 catches, which he has done just once so far. Should he get there, it is hard to imagine fewer than six of those being touchdowns — pretty big numbers for a guy going in Round 13 or later.
Going too early: Anquan Boldin, Ravens
Boldin is a terrific player, but I have to think people are looking at him and still seeing the Boldin in a Cardinals uniform. That’s the only explanation for drafting him in Round 3 as a borderline WR1 across fantasy formats. There are pretty clear reasons not to like him at that level, though.
For starters, Boldin has finished only three of his seven pro seasons at WR1 level: 2003, when the outstanding rookie was all the Cards had going (TE Freddie Jones’ 55 catches ranked second on the team behind Boldin’s 101); 2005, when Arizona attempted 670 passes; and 2008, when the team put it up 630 times. Baltimore is bound to keep increasing its pass attempts, but not by 100-plus. As for competing targets, Derrick Mason has been THE guy through both of Joe Flacco’s pro seasons. Just because the new guy is more talented doesn’t mean he’ll suddenly steal a dominant share of targets.
Another key factor in Boldin’s uneven production has been injuries, which are basically guaranteed to appear. Only twice in seven years has he made it to 16 games. Three times he has played in 12 or fewer. Let someone else take Boldin in Round 3, and then laugh while you’re picking Mason six rounds later.
TE sleeper: Greg Olsen, Bears
The reason to dislike Olsen this year in fantasy seems obvious: Mike Martz. His tight ends have always accomplished little as receivers. Of course, that ignores the fact that outside of Vernon Davis for a year in San Francisco, Martz hasn’t coached a lot of receiving talent at tight end. Even Davis had yet to get the Mike Singletary kick-start in his brief Martz phase. Otherwise, a review of Martz tight ends will return plenty of Ernie Conwells, Dan Campbells and other such luminaries.
Then again, the other side could point out that Martz had plenty of time to get a better receiving tight end with the Rams and never drafted a player at that position earlier than Brandon Manumaleuna in 2001’s fourth round. At the least, everyone must acknowledge that Olsen presents the most ability of any tight end under Martz who has already proven himself as a pro. Now all we need is some actual evidence that he’ll get used.
Well, the closest thing we have so far is the breakdown of Jay Cutler’s training camp targets recently released by Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times. According to that article, Olsen saw nine more passes than anyone else through training camp. In addition to that came the report of red zone drills that produced five touchdown grabs for Olsen in a single afternoon.
I’m not grasping at that stuff and telling you to draft Olsen as you would have last year (or based on his top-10 fantasy numbers of 2009). I am saying that it makes plenty of sense to give him a shot when you can draft Olsen in the middle of backup range. At worst, the Martz fears come true and you easily dump your second tight end for a more worthwhile player. At best, you get a guy with potential to score eight to 10 touchdowns and be at least a flex option.
Going too early: Owen Daniels, Texans
I understand. Daniels was performing as a top-three fantasy tight end when he tore an ACL in the middle of last season. He returns to an obviously potent offense still without a clear second receiving option behind Andre Johnson. Still, a draft spot among the top eight at his position for a guy who still hasn’t gotten on the field since Nov. 1?
While he has been out, good things have been said in Houston about fellow tight ends James Casey and Garrett Graham. Arian Foster has seemed to emerge as a go-to runner. Perhaps the final piece to WR Jacoby Jones breaking through (maturity) has arrived. Also, just behind Daniels in ADP lists sit fairly safe PPR options such as Kellen Winslow and Oakland’s Zach Miller — each likely to be his quarterback’s top option or close to it — and a decently safe pick with upside in John Carlson.
If his knee is good by Week 1 and Daniels picks up where he left off, those drafting him will look very good. I’m just not taking the chance in the range at which I can still pull starters at receiver, running back or quarterback.
D/ST Sleeper: Atlanta
DE Kroy Biermann has been awesome through two exhibition games. That might mean absolutely nothing to you, but it could also be the key to this defense realizing some fantasy value.
The Falcons tied for just 26th in sacks last year, but that belies a team with much more pass-rush potential. DE John Abraham continued to bring the kind of pressure last season that resulted in 16.5 sacks in 2008, but with no other real, consistent threat on the line, potential sacks instead showed up as mere pressures or QB hits. Those still help a defense but won’t do anything for the stats.
If Biermann can build on the promise he showed last year and continue with the play he has displayed this exhibition season, he’ll prove plenty threatening from his left end spot. DT Jonathan Babineaux can push the pocket inside as well, and the team plans to have 2009 first-round pick DT Peria Jerry ready for the regular season as well. All of that could mean 40 sacks or more for a team that dipped from 34 sacks to 28 last year. Behind that promising group of pass rushers sits some playmaking potential in the form of rising safety Thomas DeCoud and CB Dunta Robinson, who at least improves on what the team had at the position. LB Curtis Lofton also made some coverage plays back in college, and rookie LB Sean Weatherspoon is athletic enough to make an impact if he can find a starting spot. Atlanta will also be helped by a schedule not as lethal as the 2009 version that followed a playoff berth — as well as an improving offense that should score enough to pressure opposing offenses.
Don’t draft the Falcons as your top unit, but keep an eye on Atlanta as a matchup play and a defense that could emerge in 2010. Having Eric Weems returning kicks — he finished eighth in kick-return yards and 12th on punts last year — doesn’t hurt the special teams, either.
Going too early: Baltimore
At this point, it makes sense to look at the Baltimore defense and see a safe fantasy play. When I look at the 2010 version, however, I see danger.
Would it surprise you to hear that over the past three seasons, Baltimore has tied for 19th, 11th and 18th in sacks? That’s not too big a deal when you combine it with a strong scoring defense and playmaking secondary, but it’ll be a lot tougher to count on those things in 2010. Domonique Foxworth and Lardarius Webb would form the team’s best corner duo, but Foxworth tore an ACL in camp and is done for the year, while Webb is returning from a 2009 ACL tear — meaning we shouldn’t count on 100 percent from him this year. Webb, at least, is in better shape than All-Pro safety Ed Reed. The veteran has yet to practice since camp began and remains a question mark for Week 1 with a hip injury. That following a season in which Reed was hampered by a significant shoulder injury even when he did play, also a season in which six opponents topped 20 points against the Ravens.
Baltimore’s defense has earned the benefit of the doubt over time, staying relevant as coordinator after coordinator moved on to a head coaching gig. There’s plenty to dislike right now, though, and plenty of potential in the units going in the few rounds after the Ravens’ average position. Draft your defense on potential rather than reputation.
Matt Schauf is the senior football writer for RapidDraft.com.