Imagine if you had a roster like this in fantasy football last year:
QB: Michael Vick
RB: Arian Foster, Peyton Hillis
WR: Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Lloyd
Flex: Darren McFadden
TE: Marcedes Lewis
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 (or, in Foster's case, during the preseason). 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? I sure do.
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* they 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 (or any other big, fat, major league baseball player participating in the Home Run Derby). Accept that not all of your claims are going to pan out - you're not going to hit everything over the fence. I'll swing and miss, 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 Michael Vick or Peyton Hillis - 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. Foster's emergence, for instance, shouldn't have been surprising - he got the starting role on a team with an elite WR (Andre Johnson) and a QB1 (Matt Schaub).
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.
Kevin Kolb, QB, Cardinals (Undrafted in 43% of drafts on Mockdraftcentral.com): I think I've profiled a Cardinals QB in the first week of this article every year I've written Working the Wire. The past couple of years, those picks haven't panned out, as Matt Leinart never lived up to his first-round draft status. However, Kurt Warner made plenty of fantasy owners giddy with a terrific 2008 after going into training camp as Leinart's backup. Will Kolb be this year's Warner, emerging in Arizona to be an every-week fantasy starter? It's certainly possible. Yes, Kolb is unproven, and he might stink more than my socks after working all day. But the upside here is terrific. The Cardinals play in a terrible division, and their defense should be awful (with Rodgers-Cromartie gone and Adrian Wilson having just torn his bicep), which won't hurt Kolb's garbage stats. Factor in Larry Fitzgerald and that they play their home games in the desert, and the pieces are in place for Kolb to emerge. If you're looking for someone outside the top-12 with the upside to become a QB1, look no further.
Tim Tebow, QB, Broncos (Undrafted in 88% of leagues): If the Broncos are as bad as I expect, there will be a lot of pressure for Tebow to play. His rushing ability gives him upside that's worth stashing in deeper leagues. But don't pick Tebow unless you're willing/able to be patient - he's not going to begin the year as the starter, so don't pick him unless you're willing/able to stash him on your bench for several weeks. In other words, don't be one of those people who drafts a guy like Tebow and then cuts him after Week 1 - know your league's depth and only stash him if your league size justifies it.
Tashard Choice, RB, Cowboys (Undrafted in 7% of leagues): With Marion Barber out of town and Felix Jones injury-prone, I can't escape the feeling that Choice has 1,200 yard, 12-TD potential. I'm not saying that's going to happen (He's reportedly in Jason Garrett's dog house early in camp), of course, but it could - and that's why he should be owned in virtually all formats.
All Saints RBs except Darren Sproles: As the season begins, the running back situation in New Orleans is a mess. Mark Ingram has a Heisman and first-round pedigree, but I'm convinced a healthy Pierre Thomas is a better player. Chris Ivory is in the picture, too, and he showed flashes last year when given a chance. Darren Sproles will take away value from all three, without getting enough touches to give himself fantasy value in his own right. So where does that leave Ingram, Thomas and Ivory? On your bench, at least for now, but not on waivers. If one emerges, or others get injured, any of these three could become a weekly fantasy starter. Just don't frustrate yourself trying to figure out which one - Sean Payton's running back rotations are as maddening as anyone's other than Mike Shanahan.
Jason Snelling, RB, Falcons: Michael Turner has been a bit slow/injury-prone in recent years, and Snelling is the clear-cut backup in Atlanta. I saw enough from Snelling last year to opine he's one play (a Turner injury) away from being a top-15 fantasy RB. In other words, as far as backups go, Snelling is as valuable as it gets.
Lance Moore, WR, Saints (Undrafted in 68% of leagues): I realize the Saints have a lot of weapons and that Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Jimmy Graham, and perhaps even Darren Sproles will eat into Moore's production. But waiver claims aren't about what could go wrong - they're about what could go right. If others around him get hurt, Moore has 10-TD potential on a high-octane Saints offense. If that sounds crazy, remember - Moore had 10 TDs in 2008 and 8 more in 2010. Moore isn't worth starting as things currently exist, but he'd be quite appealing with an injury or two to a teammate.
Andre Roberts and Early Doucet, WR, Cardinals: Steve Breaston's departure leaves the door open for a second WR to emerge in Arizona, particularly if Larry Fitzgerald sees constant double-teams, as he should. If Kolb breaks through, see above, then somebody is going to catch some balls besides Fitz.
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, TE, Patriots (undrafted in 50% and 75%, respectively, of leagues): If one of them gets hurt, the other will be a top-five fantasy tight end. If you disagree, look at what Gronkowski did in the final two weeks of 2010, with Hernandez sidelined - 156 yards and 3 TDs. In deeper leagues, I'd be fine with owning both (perhaps even starting both) and hoping one gets hurt.
Brent Celek, TE, Eagles (undrafted in 65% of leagues): Celek was treated as a TE1 in 2010 drafts, yet had a disappointing season, particularly when you consider the emergence of Michael Vick. I cannot help but think, though, that defenses will try to take away what worked so well for Vick in 2010 - the big play to DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin - and force him to work the middle of the field. If that's how it plays out in 2011, Celek should far exceed his value. Plus, all else equal, I always like taking players on teams with high-scoring offenses, and the Eagles fit the bill.
Dead to Me:
It's easy to write an article that discusses only those players to target. As I did last year, I will also try to discuss players who I'd avoid, even in light of the "hit or miss" nature of waiver wire picks. Of course, as things change, I reserve the right to revive any such players from the dead.
Donovan McNabb, QB, Vikings: I'll concede that in leagues that start two QBs, somebody has to roster McNabb. Absent that, though, he has zero appeal to me. After all, he's learning a new system (again), on a run-first team, and the Vikings just lost their best receiver, Sidney Rice, to free agency. At his age, McNabb has very limited upside, too. Basically, McNabb is one of those guys who will be decent enough that you notice him (since barring a total collapse or injury, he'll start all year), yet he'll be bad enough that you never want to play him (except maybe on bye weeks, but even then you can pick up him or someone similar for that week alone without wasting the roster spot). Look elsewhere.
Bye-week K, TE, D: At this point in the season, don't waste a roster spot for a bye-week fill-in. Too much changes in today's NFL on a week-to-week basis. I'll revisit that, of course, once the bye weeks begin.