The criteria is simple – a bargain is a player you believe the market undervalues, while a bust is a top-10 QB or top 20 RB/WR who you believe is overvalued. Eight well-known experts weighed in with their picks.
Christopher Liss, RotoWire
Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots – Brady’s still going to be expensive on draft day, but with Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning likely going ahead of him – and Philip Rivers, Tony Romo and Matt Schaub also in the mix – Brady could be the best value of the lot. Consider that Brady was rusty last season after a year off and an offseason of rehabbing his surgically repaired knee, so even with Randy Moss in the fold, he mustered just 28 touchdowns and a 7.8 YPA, numbers in line with his pre-Moss seasons of 2004-05. The Patriots did nothing to upgrade their running game this offseason, and we can expect them to be among the passing attempt leaders once again.
Beanie Wells, RB, Arizona Cardinals – Wells had a big second half, showing his impressive power and burst, and with Kurt Warner gone, the Cardinals need to maximize Wells’ talents in the running game. His competition for carries, Tim Hightower, showed his usefulness as a pass catcher, but he’s simply not close to the runner Wells is. Expect Ken Whisenhunt to run the ball more in the post-Warner era and Wells to get the lion’s share of the carries. That the Cardinals play in the NFC West doesn’t hurt, either.
Michael Crabtree, WR, San Francisco 49ers – It’s not like Crabtree will come cheap – other owners are aware of his pedigree, skill set and solid performance as a rookie despite missing all of training camp and half the season. But it’s worth paying retail in this case for a player who could very well be a perennial top-10 wideout for the next half decade. Moreover, quarterback Alex Smith made strides in 2009, and the 49ers upgraded their offensive line significantly, which should allow for more downfield looks and red-zone trips.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs – Charles was huge down the stretch last year, but the team signed veteran Thomas Jones this offseason, and that could severely cut into his short-yardage and goalline work. Moreover, the Chiefs offense is likely to be below average, meaning fewer trips to the red zone and fewer lead-protecting carries against worn-down defenses. While Charles’ talent might ordinarily cause one to overlook these negatives, it’s hard to do so while seeing him routinely drafted late in the first round.
Chad Ochocinco, WR, Cincinnati Bengals – Ochocinco had a nice bounce-back year in 2009, but he’s not the same player he was in the Chad Johnson days, averaging fewer yards per catch and targets than in his prime. Now 32, Johnson’s never been a burner or a red-zone threat, and so his nine scores likely represent his ceiling. Finally, the additions of the more physical Antonio Bryant and rookie Jermaine Gresham give Carson Palmer two more targets, especially from in close.
Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis Colts – Peyton Manning’s favorite target has a nice floor, but 2009 was probably his current ceiling. He scored 10 touchdowns but needed a league-leading 15 targets inside the 10 and 10 targets inside the five to make it happen. That’s because Wayne isn’t much of a downfield threat these days – just one catch of 40 or more yards on 149 targets. With Pierre Garcon emerging as a playmaker and Austin Collie and Dallas Clark proving to be reliable red-zone threats, Wayne could be relegated to more of a garden-variety possession role in 2010.
Scott Pianowski, Yahoo! Sports
Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots – It’s a mistake to say he’s a full Wes Welker clone, but even an 80-percent replica might catch 65 passes in the New England offense, especially if Welker has a slow recovery from his MCL and ACL injuries. Tom Brady’s deep throws to Randy Moss make all the highlight shows, but the Patriots offense at its core is a short-passing attack, and that fits into Edelman’s skill set perfectly.
Shonn Greene, RB, New York Jets – His upside is basically Michael Turner, a dominant inside back with enough speed to make breakaway runs. And yes, the line and the team provide a nice backdrop for a featured back. But before you take Greene in the first round, remember a few things – he’s unlikely to do anything as a receiver, he might lose some (if not most) of the short rushing touchdowns to LaDainian Tomlinson, and he’s only had one dominant season since high school, his final year at Iowa. There’s a time and a place in your draft where Greene makes sense, but I would not take him in the top 15 picks, where he’s going in many spring mocks.
Dalton Del Don, RotoWire
Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens – Flacco’s numbers won’t jump off the page, but a 63.1 completion percentage, 7.2 YPA and 21 touchdowns are all solid for a second-year starter. He also played through significant injuries to his hip and leg over the final six weeks of the year, which is pretty impressive considering he posted a 7:1 TD:INT ratio with a 7.9 YPA mark over the final four games. At 6-6, 230 and with a cannon arm, Flacco is the whole package, but the biggest news of all is the addition of Anquan Boldin, who gives the signal caller an elite target for the first time ever. Don’t be surprised when Flacco is a top-10 fantasy quarterback in 2010.
Ben Tate, RB, Houston Texans – After last year’s struggles running the football (team YPC of 3.5 was tied for second lowest in NFL), adding a RB was priority No. 1 for the Texans, so it came as no surprise when they traded up to draft Tate in the second round. Steve Slaton has plenty of talent and is fully capable of rebounding, but theres also no guarantee he makes a full recovery after undergoing surgery on his neck – a serious procedure called “cervical fusion.” The Texans’ coaching staff loves Tate, and Houston’s offense is one of the best in the NFL, so any ballcarrier who emerges as a workhorse in this system has top-five upside. Tate looks like the favorite.
Devin Aromashodu, WR, Chicago Bears – Aromashodu was nowhere to be found over the first 13 weeks last season, but he finished the year by compiling 22 catches for 282 yards with four scores in the final four games. It’s a small sample, but it’s also hard to deny the rapport he showed with Jay Cutler. At 6-2, 200, Aromashodu is fast enough to be a downfield threat while also big enough to be a weapon in the red zone. Cutler may throw too many picks, but he’s a gunslinger capable of putting up big stats, and with OC Mike Martz joining Chicago, there’s a recipe for huge production in 2010. If Aromashodu secures the WR1 role (right now he’s third on the depth chart behind Devin Hester and Johnny Knox, but that could easily change during training camp), top-15 WR upside would follow.
Donovan McNabb, QB, Washington Redskins – This is a bit of a cop out since I don’t have McNabb ranked as a top-12 QB, but I imagine in some circles he’ll still get treated like a top-10 option. It’s just that none of the dozen I have above McNabb screams “bust,” as it looks like a strong year to draft quarterbacks. As for McNabb, he remains a big injury risk, even more so at age 33, and he’s also switching to a far more conservative offensive system in Washington. He’s also going to deal with a significant downgrade in offensive weapons. McNabb is a shaky QB1 at this point.
Steven Jackson, RB, St. Louis Rams – There’s no doubting Jackson’s on-field talents – he’s the total package, possessing size, speed, vision and terrific receiving skills, but he’s played in 16 games just once during his six-year career and underwent back surgery during the offseason, which is a major red flag for a RB who invites so much contact. He’s still just 27 years old, but with 1,548 rushing attempts over six years (with 12 games missed over that span), he’s been worked as hard as any RB in football. Playing for a bad Rams team with a poor offensive line that produces few goal-line opportunities doesn’t help, either.
Marques Colston, WR, New Orleans Saints – As the No. 1 receiver in the league’s best offense, Colston is hardly a bad fantasy option – it’s just that he’s often treated as a top-10 WR, when he’s more like a borderline top-20 asset. Colston may be the Saints’ WR1 nominally, but Drew Brees is like Suns point guard Steve Nash – he distributes the ball equally. Colston has topped 70 catches just once in his four-year career, and 17 receivers had more yards than him last season in what were ideal conditions – staying healthy for 16 games and playing in the NFL’s No. 1 offense. He remains a fine red-zone target, but if Robert Meachem continues to emerge, Colston’s piece of the pie will shrink.
Brandon Funston, Yahoo! Sports
Michael Bush, RB, Oakland Raiders – I’ll be drafting Bush this summer as if he’s the Oakland featured back. Honestly, don’t we already know that it can’t be 2008 fourth overall pick Darren McFadden? Run-DMC can’t run between the tackles, his long, slender build and upright style have made him a higher injury risk than the average back, and he has ball-security issues (three fumbles lost in ‘09). Bush is much more suited for a heavy workload. And let’s not forget he was once considered the second-best back of the ‘07 draft class, behind Adrian Peterson, before a broken leg submarined his draft stock.
Jacoby Jones, WR, Houston Texans – If you’re looking for the next best Robert Meachem candidate, the freakishly athletic Jones is your man. The Texans are expected to relieve him of his return duties so he can concentrate more on receiving. Houston has one of the top passing offenses in the league, and Jones should be more prominent in three-receiver sets with Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter. He may not be able to do much better than the six TDs he scored in ‘09, but he could double his catch and yardage totals (27/437).
Ryan Grant, RB, Green Bay Packers – The last time I played an injury hunch on a player that had never previously had any injury issues was Rudi Johnson in ‘07, when the bottom dropped out on him after three consecutive 300-carry campaigns. I’m getting that same nagging feeling again, this time with Grant. After carrying a featured role for the Pack the past 45 straight games (postseason included), health issues will finally enter the equation in ‘09. The former Golden Domer runs too upright and would never be accused of being stout in stature.
Mike Doria, RotoWire
Julian Edelman/Wes Welker, WR, New England Patriots – It’s too early to say exactly when we can expect to see Welker back, but it wouldn’t surprise us if he started the season limited and/or on the PUP list. At the same time, don’t bet against him getting half a season’s worth of quality fantasy production in, assuming his quickness and cutting ability are intact following his recovery from knee surgery. Until then, it’s Edelman, not veteran Torry Holt, who is most suited to be the Patriots’ slot machine. He’s obviously not as polished as Welker, but the folks over at the Boston Globe put it well when they said the two share the “same frenetic quickness after the catch.”
Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago Bears – This year’s bounce-back special. Cutler was hardly the franchise savior in 2009 the Bears envisioned when they traded for him last April. An NFL-high 26 picks highlighted his spotty season, but the fact remains Cutler has the arm and playmaking ability to make all the throws necessary in this league. Some might argue his skill set is less than ideal for Mike Martz’s system, but his new (and highly-decorated) offensive coordinator has been gushing about the QB’s smarts, and Cutler has reportedly (and wisely) reached out to Kurt Warner, who excelled under Martz’s tutelage.
Marion Barber, RB, Dallas Cowboys – Barber can still be a punishing runner and is dangerous around the goal line, but teammate Felix Jones is too electric not to turn loose, and this is the year Barber takes a back seat to him. If the duo’s workload flip-flops as many project, then Barber could end up being more miss than hit in games where he doesn’t cross the goal line. The bottom line is while he still has value, especially in TD-heavy leagues, Barber is going to be hard to count on for weekly production as long as Jones stays healthy.
Mark Stopa, RotoWire
AFC North QBs – Except for Cleveland, I see significant profit potential in drafting any AFC North QB. The Bengals and Ravens both surrounded their QBs with more weapons – Antonio Bryant and Jermaine Gresham for Carson Palmer and Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth for Joe Flacco. The potential for Palmer and Flacco to improve with these new weapons should not be underestimated. Also, no matter what you think of Ben Roethlisberger’s personal life, he remains an elite NFL quarterback. I realize he’ll miss at least the first four games, but so does everyone else – that’s why he could be a bargain for fantasy owners, as he should return in Week 6, after the Steelers’ bye, and start putting up top-tier stats again. If you don’t get one of the elite QBs early in your draft, I’d gladly wait and pair two of the QBs from this division – chances are at least one will perform at a level worthy of a fantasy starter.
Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers – Has any NFL rookie ever fallen into a better situation from a fantasy perspective than Mathews in 2010? We may have to go back to Edgerrin James’ rookie year in 1999, when he joined Peyton Manning and the Colts, to find anything comparable. The Chargers have Philip Rivers, elite receivers, a high-scoring offense and nobody besides Mathews to run between the tackles. The Chargers obviously like Mathews – they traded up in Round 1 to get him – and they play in a division of bad run defenses. Perhaps best of all, Norv Turner loves to run inside the 10 – that’s how LaDainian Tomlinson posted 12 TDs in 2009 despite just 3.3 YPC. If a declining LT can do that, what can a Round 1 RB with fresh legs do? Yes, there’s risk here since Mathews is not established at the NFL level, but Mathews can easily post 1,300 yards and 15 TDs and become a top-five fantasy player.
Pierre Garcon, WR, Indianapolis Colts – What’s the difference between Garcon and Reggie Wayne, other than their acquisition costs? Not much in 2010. As Garcon enters his third year in the league, with an elite QB throwing to him, expect his stats to compare favorably to Wayne’s, as they started to do midway through the 2009 season and the playoffs.
Donovan McNabb, QB, Washington Redskins – Andy Reid’s willingness to trade McNabb to a division rival tells me all I need to know about McNabb’s prospects. It’s a bit reminiscent of the Patriots trading Drew Bledsoe to the Bills several years ago. Add in that the Redskins have far less talent than the Eagles, especially at receiver, and that McNabb will have to learn a new offense, and I’ll let somebody else take McNabb as a top-10 QB. He may be drafted that way, but I doubt he finishes the year as a top-10 fantasy QB.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals – What did the top fantasy WRs from 2009 have in common? They all had top-tier QBs throwing to them. Randy Moss had Tom Brady. Andre Johnson had Matt Schaub. Miles Austin had Tony Romo. DeSean Jackson had Donovan McNabb. Vincent Jackson had Phillip Rivers. Roddy White had Matt Ryan. Marques Colston had Drew Brees. Sidney Rice had Brett Favre. Fitzgerald had Warner. OK, you get the point. Contrast that to elite WRs like Steve Smith and Calvin Johnson, who both had subpar QBs under center and failed to exceed 1,000 yards. See a trend here? I do. That’s why I’m not going to draft a WR early unless I trust the QB who’s throwing to him. In Fitzgerald’s case, I don’t trust Leinart, so I’m not willing to pay the price it would cost to get Fitzgerald, regardless of how talented he is.
Mike Salfino,Wall Street Journal
Johnny Knox, WR, Chicago Bears – He’s a prototypical Mike Martz receiver – lean and speedy and able to jump the safety in the blink of an eye. His floor in this system is Az-Zahir Hakim, and his ceiling is Isaac Bruce/Torry Holt. That’s a pretty nice range to settle in when you’re a late-round pocket pick. Those discounting Knox’s upside should consider again those non-Martz rookie stats – 45 catches and five scores. The 11.7 yards per catch is disappointing and completely meaningless now that the Mad Hatter is in Chicago.
Matt Cassel, QB, Kansas City Chiefs – I hated him last year because he was being drafted as a plausible No. 1 QB, which was a joke given the Chiefs’ offensive woes. But now the setup is better with Charlie Weis calling the shots and Cassel available at a backup price. Like Martz, Weis is the genius coordinator who rose to his level of incompetence when given the full reins. Weis in either role consistently developed QBs, however. The skill talent in KC is at least as good as any cast Weis had in New England when Tom Brady was regularly throwing mid-20s TD passes. Expect that from Cassel, who isn’t nearly as good but who will be called upon to throw much more often.
Shonn Greene, RB, New York Jets – I love the War Machine. But LaDainian Tomlinson wasn’t brought in to sit on the sidelines. And his role is very unlikely to be limited only to third downs. Odds are, he’ll ghoul the lion’s share of goal-line carries from Greene. Yes,Greene is the better fit for that, but the Jets’ line is so good Tomlinson will easily convert most times. That’s the respect you get when you’re a first-ballot future HOFer. Remember, too, that this is not high-leverage for them (only for us). Sean Payton last year ignored his best option on the goal line every week and even in the Super Bowl and still came away with a ring.
DeSean Jackson, WR, Philadelphia Eagles – He’s saying he won’t miss Donovan McNabb, but I’m not so sure. Kevin Kolb’s strength is not the long ball. Jackson’s long scores were not a product of run after catch as much as long, pin-point throws. Additionally, you always bet against the little guy like Jackson who makes his living from a distance. Go through football history and see how many blazers posted back-to-back double-digit TD seasons. Cliff Branch had 13, nine and 12 scores three straight years. Wesley Walker, Stanley Morgan, James Jett, Michael Haynes and Roger Carr were all among the many who disappointed. Plus these sprinters are always injuries waiting to happen.
Derek VanRiper, RotoWire
Steve Slaton, RB, Houston Texans – The Texans’ addition of Ben Tate has led many fantasy owners to drop Slaton’s stock significantly during the offseason. Fumbling issues and an overall ineffectiveness (3.3 YPC) led to his eventual replacement in the starting lineup late last season. After an impressive rookie campaign in 2008 – including 1,659 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns – Slaton bulked up to better prepare himself for a heavier workload as the team’s primary ball carrier. The extra weight cost him the burst that made him such an effective runner, but now that he can slim down again and potentially share the job with Tate, there’s reason to believe his pass-catching skills and home-run ability could make him a top-15 back again.
Hakeem Nicks, WR, New York Giants – Playing with a broken toe suffered in the season opener, Nicks was one of the league’s most explosive receivers as a rookie last season, averaging an elite 10.7 yards per target. He should continue to benefit from the Giants having an excellent possession option in Steve Smith, since opposing defenses will have other weapons to worry about and will be unable to deploy double teams against him. Assuming Nicks returns to health as expected this summer, a full 16-game slate with a growing role could lead to something in the neighborhood of 70 catches, 1,100 yards and double-digit touchdowns.
Cedric Benson, RB, Cincinnati Bengals – Kudos to Benson for seizing an opportunity to resurrect his career with the Bengals last season. He averaged 4.2 YPC but only found pay dirt six times, and his inability to catch passes left him tied for 11th in running back fantasy points in 2009 despite having the Bengals backfield almost exclusively to himself. Even though the Bengals haven’t made any significant changes to their running back situation at press time, Benson’s too risky to be a first or early second-round pick on draft day.
DeSean Jackson, WR, Philadelphia Eagles – Jackson’s placement as the league’s third-ranked fantasy receiver during the last five weeks of the 2009 season has vaulted him into the top five at his position on some cheat sheets. His greatest asset is speed, which allows him to exploit mismatches and get downfield for large chunks of yardage and long TDs. New starting quarterback Kevin Kolb will not only need to prove he has thearm strength necessary to connect with Jackson on long plays, but he’ll also have to buy extra time with his feet against opposing pass rushes, something Donovan McNabb did very well.
Jeff Erickson, RotoWire
Chad Henne, QB, Miami Dolphins – You won’t have to draft him among your top 12 quarterbacks, but I suspect he’ll be there by midseason, if not sooner. Chad Pennington’s return threatens his role as a starter, which should further tamp down Henne’s draft day cost. But Henne threw for more than 7.0 yards per attempt in three of his last four starts as the Dolphins opened up their passing game late in the season, and further committed to throwing more by trading for Brandon Marshall. Look for the Dolphins to use far less of the Wildcat formation this year. At press time, Henne’s ADP was 26th among quarterbacks and 208th overall. If you play the wait-on-the-quarterbacks game, often you should draft a second QB earlier than most, but with Henne you won’t have to.
Steven Jackson, RB, St. Louis Rams – Jackson had surgery to repair a herniated disc in April, and while he’s expected to be ready for the start of the season, he’s entering a phase of his career where the cumulative weight of the hits he’s absorbed could take its toll. Furthermore, he’ll be running behind a suspect offensive line – there’s talent there in Jason Smith and Rodger Saffold, but they’re inexperienced – and with a rookie quarterback in Sam Bradford. Expect Jackson to face a lot of eight-man fronts. Jackson’s potential decline might not show up in the stats (he averaged 4.4 yards per carry last year), but the circumstances suggest a decline might be near. I won’t pay the going rate (mid-to-late first-round pick) for him.