Imagine if you had a roster like this in fantasy football last year:
QB: Matt Schaub
RB: Rashard Mendenhall, Jamaal Charles
WR: Miles Austin, Sidney Rice
Flex: Cedric Benson
TE: Vernon Davis
Bench: Brett Favre, Jonathan Stewart, Robert Meachem, Percy Harvin
Seem to good to be true? It's not. In fact, last year you could have compiled this roster even if every player you drafted went on Injured Reserve, as every player on this "team" was available on waivers in most leagues at some point in the season. Imagine if you had claimed 2-3 of these players and paired them with early-round studs - you think those owners won their fantasy leagues?
More gems will emerge this year as well. That may seem impossible (if you've already drafted and you're poring over the available free agents), but it happens every year. If you want these gems, you need to get them now, *before* those players break out. That's easy to say, but how do you do it? Easy. Target upside. Every year, when I write this initial article, I use the same baseball analogy. When you're making waiver claims, pretend you're Ryan Howard. Accept that not all of your claims are going to pan out - you're going to strike out over and over again, just like Howard does. I will, you will, we all will. But every once in a while, upside plays pan out and you hit a home run. And that's your goal - to knock it out of the park. To find this year's Miles Austin or Sidney Rice - a waiver claim who turns into a weekly fantasy starter.
How do you target "upside"? Easy. Backups on good offenses. Or ask yourself this - "is there any scenario, e.g. an injury, where this player could be a fantasy starter?" If the answer is yes, that's who you want. If the answer is "no," then find someone else. The players listed above reveal some trends in this regard, particularly at WR, where Austin, Rice, and Meachem all emerged as studs in the third/fourth years of their career, with the help of an elite QB throwing to them. Anyway, throughout the season, that's the question I will emphasize in this article - "is there a scenario, e.g. an injury, where this player could be a fantasy starter?" As the season unfolds, and we start to deal with bye weeks, I'll also target players in favorable matchups. For now, though, ignore bye weeks - we can worry about them as they arrive. Too much changes in the NFL on a week-to-week basis for you to be storing a backup K, TE, or D merely because your starter at that position has a Week 6 bye. You can worry about that later - for now, let's try to find the next diamond in the rough.
With these thoughts in mind, here are my suggested waiver pickups as of early August.
Matt Leinart, QB, Cardinals: This year more than ever, I'm of the opinion that drafting an elite quarterback is important. The drop-off from the established stars to the QBs with question marks is enormous, and it's becoming less and less frequent that fantasy darlings emerge from waivers at the QB position. Look at last season. Yes, Matt Schaub emerged and Brett Favre surpassed expectations, but everybody knows Favre, and Schaub has always had the talent (and the YPA), he just hadn't been able to stay on the field. Outside of those two, though, there was nobody else. I have the same sort of feeling about this year's waiver-wire QBs - it's hard for me to see a scenario (there I am, using that phrase again) where any of them emerge as every-week fantasy starters. My best bet is Leinart. He has the first-round pedigree, a stud WR to whom to throw, and when other teams are battling bad weather in the winter, he gets his home games in the desert. Leinart also has a division of bad defenses. I'd much prefer stashing Leinart's upside (ADP: 292) on my bench over earlier selections like Kyle Orton (ADP: 167) or Byron Leftwich (ADP: 287).
Tashard Choice, RB, Cowboys: Choice may be behind Marion Barber and Felix Jones on the Cowboys depth chart, but there's a ton of potential here. Barber and Jones are both injury-prone, and the Cowboys offense is among the league's best. A season-ending injury to Barber or Jones would make Choice a top-10 fantasy RB. And I'm not so sure it will take an injury - there were times last season when I thought Choice was the best RB on the Cowboys roster. I'd much rather stick Choice (ADP: 211) on my bench than some of the RBs going before him, e.g. Marshawn Lynch (ADP: 158, third on the depth chart and no upside on a Bills team with the worst offensive line in football).
Lynell Hamilton, RB, Saints: Loyal readers from 2009 will recall how frustrating it was for me and several fellow RW writers to watch Sean Payton limit the carries of his best running back, Pierre Thomas, in favor of retreads like Hamilton and Mike Bell. That tendency, though, inures to Hamilton's benefit in 2010, especially since Bell moved on to Philadelphia. More importantly, if oft-injured Pierre Thomas were to get hurt, Hamilton would be the lead back on a high-scoring Saints offense. There's no excuse for Hamilton to be drafted at 297, behind no-upside guys like James Davis (ADP: 296, third on the depth chart in Cleveland) and Glen Coffee (ADP: 235, why handcuff him to Gore when Coffee did nothing last year even when Gore was hurt?).
James Jones and Jordy Nelson, WR, Packers: Jones and Nelson are the epitome of upside - the perfect examples of the type of player you should be targeting in waivers. I mean, what's not to love here? Aaron Rodgers is a stud, loves to spread the ball around, and Donald Driver isn't getting any younger. Whoever wins the third receiver job, between Jones and Nelson, has enormous upside for a Robert Meachem-like season or, dare I say it, even a Miles Austin type season. Find a way to stash Jones and/or Nelson on your roster, certainly before WRs like Damian Williams (ADP: 282, little upside on the run-first Titans) and Nate Washington (ADP: 236).
Legedu Naanee, WR, Chargers: If I'm taking a late-round or waiver-wire flyer, give me a fourth-year WR getting his first chance to start (with Vincent Jackson suspended) and an elite QB like Philip Rivers throwing him the ball.
Jacoby Jones, WR, Texans: What's the difference between Jones and Kevin Walter, other than their ADP (290 for Jones, 134 for Walter)? I'd actually prefer Jones, who's faster and has far more upside, as seen by his 6 TDs last season in limited action. Entering his fourth year in the league, Jones has the potential to earn huge fantasy profits by taking advantage of the single coverage he's bound to face due to Andre Johnson's presence. Stash Jones on your bench before Jabar Gaffney (ADP: 282) or Golden Tate (ADP: 203).