We asked the staff for two sleepers and two busts. The criteria were simple: a sleeper is anyone who is likely to outperform his draft slot; a bust, any top-10 QB or top-20 RB/WR likely to disappoint.
Dalton Del Don
QB - BRONCOS
It remains unclear whether Tebow can make it as an NFL starter, but because of his rushing ability, he can be plenty useful in fantasy leagues. While his completion rate (49.4%) was ugly and his YPA (8.0) impressive over his three starts during his rookie campaign, his legs are what make Tebow intriguing. If you prorate his ground stats over his three starts for a full season, you'd get 1,061 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, which is essentially equivalent to about 2,800 passing yards and 24 touchdowns. Maybe he can't keep that type of pace up without getting hurt, and the loss of Josh McDaniels hurts, but Tebow is a beast at the goal line and should only improve as a passer. Moreover, 15-20 quarterbacks are likely to go off the board before him during drafts.
RB - REDSKINS
Ryan Torain actually played extremely well last season, but he's a huge injury risk, and considering what Washington gave up in trade to draft Helu, the rookie likely will be given a legitimate chance to win the starting RB job. Helu's combine numbers were terrific, and Mike Shanahan covets his breakaway speed. Helu is the type of late pick who can win your league for you.
RB - BROWNS
Hillis was fantastic in all aspects besides fumbling last season, but he wore down badly over the second half of the year, as his YPC fell from 4.8 to 3.9. Maybe he'll be better prepared to be a lead back in the NFL in 2011, but realize his fade came last season on
a modest 270 rushing attempts, so it makes sense that Cleveland is planning on a committee in the backfield this year. It's possible Montario Hardesty gets hurt again, but if not, he's going to be a big part of the Browns' rushing attack, which is hardly ideal for owners who spend a second-round pick on Hillis.
WR - COLTS
Wayne set a career-high with 111 receptions last season, and his 1,355 receiving yards were the second highest total of his career, as well. His 176 targets were the second most in football, so his floor remains high. But his yards-per-catch dropped for the fourth
straight season, to a career-low 12.2. He's also averaged a modest 7.3 touchdowns the last three years, as he's never been a huge TD source. Wayne will turn 33 this season, and if Austin Collie and Dallas Clark stay healthy, combined with the continued maturation of Pierre Garcon, the targets should be spread out more in 2011. Wayne is a safe pick and
not really a "bust" candidate, but don't be surprised if owners are left disappointed.
QB - LIONS
Stafford figures to enter the season healthy, and if he can stay that way, big numbers are on tap, given the supporting cast the Lions have assembled. Talented rookie Titus Young, an electric player who can stretch the field, bolsters a wideout corps led by superstar Calvin Johnson and veteran Nate Burleson. Tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler are no slouches as pass-catchers, and a backfield featuring Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure rounds out what looks like a balanced and dynamic offense. As long as the Lions offensive line protects him adequately, Stafford - who should go cheaply due to his shoulder problems - is poised for a breakout.
QB - FALCONS
Ryan checked in with 3,705 passing yards last season, good for ninth in the league. His 28:9 TD:INT ratio wasn't too shabby, either. Already featuring a tough and effective lead back in Michael Turner, prolific wideout Roddy White and reliable veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons coughed up five drafts picks to move up 21 spots to take Julio Jones No. 6 overall. The move displays a commitment to revitalizing a passing attack that was sorely lacking in big plays last season. The addition of Jones should change that immediately, with Ryan's pedestrian 6.5 YPA the last two seasons likely to rebound closer to his rookie mark of 7.9.
RB - BROWNS
Since the pounding Hillis averages a bruise (either to opponents or himself) per carry, staying in one piece is going to be a challenge after racking up 270 carries last season.
To that end, look for the Browns to identify a back or two to take some heat off Hillis, ideally Montario Hardesty. Figuring out who "this year's Hillis" might be and getting him, either as a late-round dart or a savvy early-season pickup, is a more promising strategy than over-drafting last year's fantasy darling.
WR - BRONCOS
Lloyd has always had the body-control and hands to make highlight-reel catches, but given his past statistical mediocrity, no one on the planet called him leading the league,
or even his team, in receiving yards last season. Congrats to those who scooped him up,
but forget about an encore. In 2011, his dollar's worth of production is bound to cost his
owners a Euro. Coach Josh McDaniels' replacement John Fox is less inclined to wing it, and Tim Tebow is likely to quarterback the Broncos, so count on fewer targets for Lloyd, especially if Demaryius Thomas resurfaces (healthy) as the season progresses.
WR - VIKINGS
With Brett Favre and quite possibly Sidney Rice gone, Minnesota likely will revert to a heavy ground attack this year, driving down the price of anyone in its passing game. But unlike most receivers, Harvin creates his own shot, so to speak, catching short passes and gaining yards on his own after the catch (his 459 YAC were second in the league, despite just 109 targets), i.e., he's not all that dependent on the precise timing and accuracy of his quarterback, so even if rookie Christian Ponder opens the year under center, it's not going to affect Harvin all that much. Harvin will also get 100-plus yards rushing - maybe more if the team has to resort to more deception - and quite possibly a rushing touchdown or two. And he's also capable of bringing a kick back to the house. The chronic migraines are a risk, but Harvin's not going to cost you an early pick, so the reward more than justifies it.
QB - BEARS
It remains to be seen whether the team upgrades its decidedly mediocre receiving corps via free agency, but it already improved its substandard offensive line during the draft. Cutler remains an elite physical talent with a cannon for an arm and above-average scrambling ability (232 rushing yards last year). Even in a down season, Cutler threw 23 touchdown passes and managed a 7.6 YPA in essentially 14 games. With Cutler getting more comfortable in Mike Martz's system this year, don't be surprised if he's a top-seven QB, especially if the Bears bring in a playmaker on the outside.
WR - COLTS
Now that the Colts don't force feed Wayne near the goal line (seven targets inside the 10,
tied for 30th), he's essentially your garden variety possession receiver who happens to be in a good system. Don't get us wrong, if he sees another 176 targets from Peyton Manning, he'll produce by default. But now that Austin Collie and Dallas Clark are slated to be back, it's hard to see that happening again.
WR - PATRIOTS
Welker's speedy recovery from a torn ACL was a great story, and he deserves credit for working hard to come back so quickly. Nonetheless, even a healthy Welker lacks red-zone size and deep speed, so he's never a good bet to score many touchdowns. And he averages so few yards per target and catch that he needs huge volume just to approach 1,000 yards. The only thing left is for him is receptions - which are great in a PPR format. But in a standard league, he's typically over-drafted.
WR - COWBOYS
In the games he's played with Tony Romo since landing in the starting lineup in Week 5 of the 2009 season, Austin has been as productive as almost any receiver in the league. In those 17 regular season games he's totaled 112 catches for 1,763 yards and 12 touchdowns. It's not likely he'll be able to maintain that rarefied level, but he can afford to lose some of that productivity and still rank as a top-three fantasy receiver.
QB - RAMS
If accuracy is the most important trait for a passer, then not many have brighter futures than Bradford. And considering what offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has done with offenses in New England and Denver, you have to like Bradford's situation. With two good tackles, a steady running game and an underrated group of receivers (rookies Austin Pettis and Greg Salas are perfect fits for Bradford), there's no reason why a player
as talented as Bradford can't flourish under McDaniels' watch.
RB - BUCCANEERS
Blount deserves a lot of credit for making the most of his opportunity in Tampa Bay, but the undrafted 2010 rookie still hasn't entirely proven himself as a viable NFL starter. None of his big performances from last year were against legitimately good defenses - the teams he ran for 100 yards or more against (Arizona, Atlanta, Detroit and Seattle) ranked an average of 20th in the league in rushing average allowed. Also, don't underestimate the effect of Blount having no workload to start the year - even Julius Jones looked vicious as a rookie when he showed up well rested late in the year.
RB - FALCONS
Although the bruiser is only 29 years old, Turner still is a prime candidate to slow down
badly in 2011. His 4.1-yard rushing average last year was a career low, and Turner has taken a lot of hits since college. In addition to 1,150 touches from scrimmage (including
911 in his last 43 games) and 44 kick returns at the NFL level, Turner had another 983 touches from scrimmage and 22 kick returns at Northern Illinois. But it isn't just declining skills you need to worry about with Turner - durability is also a concern after he missed time with groin and ankle injuries in 2010 and 2009, respectively.
RB - BENGALS
At 5-10 and just 197 pounds, Scott doesn't have the frame to bruise the opposition with a physical running style, but he's shifty and playing behind a fading veteran in Cedric Benson (back-to-back 300-carry seasons, 3.5 YPC in 2010). Remember, it was off-the-field issues that kept Scott away from Division I programs in college, and that's ultimately how the Bengals were able to land him in the sixth round of the 2009 draft. The expected transition from Carson Palmer to rookie Andy Dalton at quarterback should lead to a very ground-heavy game plan, which will afford Scott more touches even if Benson remains in the fold as the starter.
WR - GIANTS
Manningham took full advantage of his opportunity for a larger role last season while Steve Smith was sidelined by injuries and made his case to remain the starter opposite
Hakeem Nicks with three consecutive 100-yard performances down the stretch. Manningham hauled in 65 percent of the targets thrown his way and ranked third in fantasy points per target last season - behind only Mike Wallace and Kenny Britt (min. 50 targets). Quarterback Eli Manning had his second straight 4,000-yard season, and the
Giants' offense isn't showing any signs of changing the balance of its attack. With Smith returning from microfracture surgery, the window for Manningham to lock down a
starting job remains open.
RB - 49ERS
It's easy to look at Gore's first six years in the NFL and wonder what might have been had he stayed healthy for more than one complete 16-game season. Since tearing his ACL during his time at the University of Miami, Gore has been unable to shake the "injury prone" label. To make matters worse, his 2010 season ended with a fractured hip,
and Gore's workload has fallen in each of the last four seasons due to various ailments.
While new coach Jim Harbaugh might be planning on a run-heavy attack, there's nothing to suggest Gore can stay healthy enough to reach the 300-carry threshold for the first
time since 2006.
WR - FALCONS
White is a good No. 1 wideout, but he is wrongly being treated by owners as the top player on the board at his position. While he rebounded from a precipitous drop in his
per-target efficiency in 2009 (from 7.0 to 7.8 last season), White is leaning on target volumes that most top wideouts can only dream about. A drop from the 165 and 179 targets he's recorded in each of the last two seasons is imminent following the Falcons' decision to trade up and select Julio Jones at sixth overall. White is safe - he hasn't missed a game in six NFL seasons - but 2011 might be the first season since 2007 where he doesn't finish as a top-10 receiver.
WR - RAIDERS
One of these speedy wide receivers has to work out for Oakland at some point, right?
The Raiders finally started using Ford on offense over the second half, and he immediately paid dividends. Over the final eight games, he had 433 receiving yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 107 yards and two more scores. And, according to coach Hue Jackson, the Raiders plan on giving him more touches this season. Don't forget Ford ran a 4.28 40 at the NFL Combine and has even more value in leagues that count return yards.
TE - SAINTS
After releasing Jeremy Shockey, the Saints appear sold on Graham as their starter at
tight end. He's another player who converted to football after playing college basketball, which says a lot about how his athleticism. At 6-6, 260, Graham makes for a huge target in the red zone. Graham was utilized there frequently last season, catching five of his 31 receptions in the end zone. Tennessee tight end Jared Cook also deserves consideration, but Graham's situation in a passing offense with an elite quarterback gives him the nod.
RB - BROWNS
Probably the biggest surprise in fantasy football last season, Hillis struggled as the season wound down, likely due to his contact-seeking and upright running style. Hillis had only one 100-yard rushing game over his final five games, and that was against the league's worst run defense: Buffalo. Montario Hardesty should be 100 percent healthy and could steal touches from Hillis, especially if the latter continues his fumbling ways (a league-high eight last year).
WR - COLTS
Wayne arguably had one of his best seasons in 2010, recording a career-high 111 catches
for 1,355 yards (second most in his career). However, some signs of decline have started
to surface. First, he recorded a career-low 7.7 yards per target, down from his previous
low by almost a full yard. His longest catch of the season was for only 50 yards after recording 65, 65 and 64 the previous three years. This suggests he may be losing a
step, not a surprise considering he'll be 33 in November. Peyton Manning attempted 679
passes, the most in his career by 108. This led to Wayne seeing a whopping 176 targets,
20 more than his previous best. How did this happen? The Colts went to the air due to the
lack of a running game; their 1,483 rushing yards were 29th in the league. That should
change this year with rookie Delone Carter and a healthy Joseph Addai. An improved
running game with a healthy receiving corps (Dallas Clark and Austin Collie will be back) means the days of Wayne as a top-10 wide receiver are through.
RB - JETS
Like Ryan Mathews (who also deserves consideration here), Greene's a "Last Year's
Bum," who has all of the previous positives going for him, but with a year more experience and a lower price tag. Plus, LaDainian Tomlinson is a year older, and the Jets offensive line is still really good. Greene has the upside of a top-10 RB, and he should come at a fraction of last year's price.
WR - GIANTS
Only Calvin Johnson has more upside among receivers than Nicks, who enters the magical third season for an NFL wide receiver. If Nicks plays all 16 games, he could approach 20 touchdowns. His floor is lower than one would like for a WR1 given the injury issues, but Nicks is the type of player who can win your fantasy league.
QB - EAGLES
Owning Vick in an eight-team league would be fantastic. Upside is key there, and serviceable quarterbacks will be available on waivers. In deeper leagues, though, where decent quarterbacks can't easily be found, drafting Vick is like playing Russian Roulette - you know you're going to get killed, via a Vick injury, at some point in the season - it's just a matter of when. There's just no way Vick's going to play 16 games in 2011. Considering Vick's likely to be one of the top 2-3 quarterbacks off the board, I'd rather wait and get Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger.
WR - CHIEFS
Just like Larry Fitzgerald last year, Bowe enters 2011 without a top-tier quarterback
throwing him the ball. Yes, there are about 12-14 NFL teams who wouldn't mind having
Matt Cassel as their starting signal-caller. But Cassel's not in that "elite" category,
either, and that makes Bowe's floor lower than that of other top wide receivers. Draft
Mike Wallace instead.
WR - BRONCOS
Lloyd is the NFL version of Jose Bautista - a mid-career breakout player whose emergence has enduring value. In previous years he has fallen short of expectations, but look at the rate stats, and you can see he has always been explosive. Even though he had more than 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns, many will bet against a repeat season. Witness the magazine mock draft, where he fell to 45th overall pick. The transition to Tim Tebow at quarterback shouldn't hurt - he had 23 targets in the final two games of the season. Lloyd's not under the radar, just under-appreciated.
TE - LIONS
Pettigrew quietly was third in NFL among tight ends in both catches (71) and targets (111) last season, despite the Lions going through three quarterbacks. Pettigrew did this while returning from the torn ACL that ended his rookie season. He wasn't targeted in the red zone as often as other tight ends, but those targets can vary from year-to-year. Presumably the Lions will have some semblance of continuity at quarterback this year, which only bodes well for Pettigrew.
RB - FALCONS
Fading Turner isn't as easy as it might sound, because he will get the vast majority of the redzone touches on a team that should visit the red zone frequently. But Turner averaged a career low 4.1 yards per carry last year, reaching 4.0 YPC just once in his last six games. He also dealt with nagging groin injuries last year and ankle injuries the year before that. Plus, he still doesn't catch passes, and the drafting of Jacquizz Rodgers should continue that trend.
RB - BROWNS
The inclusion of Hillis here has nothing to do with a video game cover jinx. Hillis will face sterner competition this year with the return of Montario Hardesty, who missed the 2010 season with a knee injury. Hillis topped 100 yards just once in his last five games and twice in his last eight. Moreover, he fumbled eight times, losing five. He mitigates some of these negatives with his receiving skills, but a repeat of his breakout 2010 season seems unlikely.