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Working the Wire: Who to Target and Avoid

Mark Stopa

Mark Stopa

Mark Stopa has been sharing his fantasy insights for Rotowire since 2007. Mark is the 2010 and 2012 Staff Picks champion (eat your heart out, Chris Liss) and won Rotowire's 14-team Staff League II in consecutive seasons. He roots for the Bills and has season tickets on the second row, press level to the Rays.

In the past several weeks, as I've studied and prepared for Fantasy Football 2010, I've diligently read all of the great articles on Rotowire, particularly the Draft Kit, player outlooks and notes. Occasionally, though, I've found myself perusing other websites, too, mostly to see whether other experts in the industry have different opinions about certain players. For the most part, everyone in the industry has similar views about players. I don't want to sound harsh, but this drives me nuts. How can everyone have such similar views? Before you argue that there are "right" answers for how to value players, look at last year. The experts were wrong time and time again. And not just a little wrong - a lot wrong, about a lot of players. Matt Forte and Brandon Jacobs were highly-ranked running backs who fell on their faces, and not because of injury, either - they were just bad. Meanwhile, Jamaal Charles, Cedric Benson, Miles Austin and Sidney Rice emerged from nowhere to become fantasy darlings.

I could go on and on about players who the industry got wrong. I'm not trying to criticize; it's the nature of the beast. Even the best and brightest get it wrong frequently. So that's not the point. My point is that the industry will be wrong about a ton of players, so why not stick your neck out there a bit and point out some opinions/predictions that stray from the norm? This is what Chris Liss was doing with his recent blog, which he called his "Radical Top 10". I didn't agree with all of his rankings, but I love the concept. In fact, I did the same thing with my first Barometer of the baseball season.

If you want to lambaste me in the comments for some of these predictions, that's fine. I realize I'm straying from the consensus - that's the point.

I'll be back to the standard "Working the Wire" next week. By that point, more time will have passed, so there will be more to talk about (and I won't just rehash the same things I've already said).

Upgrades are guys I like more than the industry. Downgrades are guys I like less.

Upgrades:

Aaron Rodgers, QB, GB: I know what you're thinking; everyone likes Rodgers. True enough. But I'm so confident in Rodgers I'd take him in the middle of the first round, before guys like Frank Gore, Stephen Jackson and, yes, Maurice Jones-Drew. If that sounds nuts, consider my rationale. First, the Packers offense, led by Rodgers, is going to be ridiculously good. Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, Donald Driver, James Jones - how you gonna stop these guys? Second, Rodgers is a big asset with his legs - nine rushing TDs the past two years. That's not a coincidence, either - the Packers routinely call sneaks from the 1-yard line. And since rushing TDs are worth so much (particularly for QBs, who score so much as it is), they're an underrated stat when evaluating fantasy QBs. Third, today's NFL is different than it was 5-10 years ago. There's a lot of certainty with passing offenses nowadays - we know the WRs on teams with elite QBs are going to be valuable, but the same can't be said for most RBs. Highly-touted running backs fall on their faces (Forte and Jacobs from 2009) whereas unknowns emerge from nowhere (Charles, Benson in 2009, Pierre Thomas, Steve Slaton in 2008). This year, for instance, look at Maurice Jones-Drew. Sure, he's really good. But given his current injury issues, which are you more confident about, that MJD will be a top-five back, justifying a first round pick, or that Rodgers will be a top-2 QB? Rodgers took a beating last season and still played all 16 games, leading all players in fantasy points in most formats, and should only be better entering his third year as a starter. In the first round, floor is more important than ceiling, and I'm more comfortable with Rodgers' floor than anyone not named Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice. Draft Rodgers in the middle of the first round and load up on RBs and WRs the next several rounds.

Matt Moore, QB, Panthers: ESPN has Moore ranked 28th among fantasy QBs, which might not mean much to you until you realize there are only 32 teams, and hence 32 starting QBs, in the entire NFL. Moore is even behind Josh Freeman, who's injured and plays on what's sure to be a bad Bucs' offense. I'm not in love with Moore, as he's an unproven QB on a run-first offense, but he showed potential the end of last year, finishing with 8 TDs and zero INTs his last four games. Plus he has an elite WR in Steve Smith to whom to throw, and receivers like Smith can make mediocre QBs look good. Several of the QBs universally ranked before Moore (Jason Campbell, Kyle Orton and Matt Hasselbeck, for instance) are not going to emerge as fantasy starters under any circumstances, yet that could happen for Moore. That sounds crazy, but it wasn't too long ago that Tom Brady and Tony Romo were as unproven as Moore.

Arian Foster, RB, Texans: I don't agree with all the naysayers who think gary Kubiak is fickle with his running backs. Yes, he changed RBs last year as often as Britney Spears changes boyfriends, but that's because the guys who were running for the Texans were not playing well. In 2008, Steve Slaton was an every-down back and racked up nearly 1,700 total yards and 10 total TDs. Foster could easily exceed those numbers in an explosive Texans offense in 2010. With Slaton relegated to kickoff returns, the chances of that are increasing by the day. Make sure you draft Foster before Chris Wells (Tim Hightower is still around to steal goal line TDs and the Cardinals will regress given their QB situation), Pierre Thomas (the Saints split carries too much) and LeSean McCoy (will he get goal line carries?).

Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants: The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that 2009 was not an aberration - Brandon Jacobs is washed up. Jacobs' upright running style lends itself to too much punishment, wearing down his body - hence the frequent, nagging injuries. It won't take long for the Giants to realize Bradshaw is a lite version of Chris Johnson. Consider that the Giants were an awesome running team as recently as 2008, and it's easy to see that Bradshaw is the only guy available in the middle of your draft with the potential to produce like a first-round player. Remember, draft floor early and ceiling in the middle and end of your draft.

James Jones, WR, Packers: I think I've talked about Jones in every article I've written this season, so I won't belabor the point. Let's just put it like this - of the players going undrafted in most leagues, nobody is more likely to have a 1,000 yard season than Jones.

Jermichael Finley, TE, Packers: I'm glad fellow writer Dalton Del Don put Finley first on his TE rankings, because I was starting to think the whole industry is sleeping at the wheel. Let's put it this way. If I went into a coma today and woke up on January 15, 2011, and you told me that an NFL tight end had 1,300 yards and 14 TDs, I'd bet my house it was Finley. There's simply nobody else, including Antonio Gates, with that type of ceiling. Finley is young, athletic, lines up in the slot and has Rodgers throwing to him. Barring injury (to himself or Rodgers), I see 1,000 yards and 8 TDs as Finley's floor in 2010.

Dustin Keller, TE, Jets: When Mark Sanchez improved his play in the playoffs, Keller was at the center of it. I see far more reason to draft Keller, who ESPN ranks as the 17th-best TE, before higher-ranked guys like John Carlson and Heath Miller.

David Akers, K, Eagles: Predicting points for a kicker can be a maddening exercise, and there's no circumstance when you should draft one earlier than the last or second-to-last round, so I'll spare a lengthy explanation. That said, I think the pieces are in place for a huge season from Akers. The Eagles have a lot of talent, but they're a finess offense by any measure - mediocre running game and small receivers. Add a new QB to the mix and it's not hard to see the Eagles struggling a lot in the red zone in 2010. I typically don't put much stock in the preseason, but I can't help but note that the Eagles have struggled in that area already this year.

Downgrades:

Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers: Of all the elite QBs, Rivers is the one who's most likely to disappoint. Vincent Jackson is essentially out of the picture, Antonio Gates is 30, and the other receivers are unproven. The Chargers love to run in the red zone, and unlike last year, where the ghost of LaDainian Tomlinson posted 3.3 yards per carry, Ryan Mathews should be a beast. It doesn't take a genius to realize that better rushing and worse passing means worse stats for Rivers. Also, Rivers throws about 30-40 passes fewer than most of the other elite QBs, which means he must sustain his ridiculous 8.8 YPA to remain an elite option. It could happen - Rivers is just that good - but with an improved running game and Jackson out of the picture, I wouldn't bet on it. Essentially, I see Rivers finishing 2010 with stats more like Eli Manning (around 3,800 yards and 26 TDs) than Tony Romo (around 4,400 yards and 30 TDs).

Donovan McNabb, QB, Redskins: Of everything I've written so far in this column, perhaps the thing I'm most confident about is this - McNabb is going to disappoint you in 2010. He's going to a new system, with far inferior talent at WR, and he's a year older. Perhaps most significantly, though, I just can't get out of my head how the Eagles were willing to trade McNabb to a division rival. Say what you want about Andy Reid's clock-management skills (or lack thereof), he knows his football. So when he's willing to let McNabb go to the Redskins, I'm inclined to say McNabb is on a downward spiral from which he'll never return. It reminds me a bit of how Bill Belichick was willing to let Drew Bledsoe go to the Bills a few years ago, where Bledsoe had a couple of mediocre seasons then faded into retirement. If you're banking on McNabb as a fantasy starter, you better have a solid Plan B.

Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars: I will not draft a running back in the first round when there are as many questions surrounding him as there are with MJD right now. Sure, he might turn out okay and wind up being a bargain at No. 5 or 6 overall. But the first round is about floor, not ceiling, and there's too much risk that MJD isn't going to produce like a first-round RB. Plus, the lack of talent on the Jaguars offense is going to catch up to him eventually. Until you see him producing on the field, draft MJD as a first-round RB at your own peril.

Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions: I'm not blind, so I see the upside here. But for the price to get him - a top-five WR, top-three in many circles, I'll gladly take a more established option. The biggest problem here, for me, isn't that Johnson's injury-prone, which he is. The problem is that he plays on a Lions team that lacks an elite QB. Look at all of the elite fantasy WRs - they all have an elite QB. Moss has Brady. Andre Johnson has Matt Schaub. Miles Austin has Tony Romo. Steve Smith is an elite talent, but he was waiver-wire material last year with Jake Delhomme at QB - until Matt Moore's improved play helped save Smith's season. Matthew Stafford might wind up as an elite QB, but he's entering just his second year in the league and is bound to struggle a bit. Plus, I watched more Lions games last year than I care to admit and vividly recall feeling like Johnson and Stafford had very little chemistry. I think Johnson is a year away from justifying the price it will take to acquire him.