Mark Ingram, RB, NO – Ingram has made a strong impression while taking reps with the first-team offense early in camp. He is going to lose some receptions to Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, but as the favorite to dominate early down and goal-line work on a high-powered Saints offense, only head coach Sean Payton’s unpredictable playcalling prevents Ingram from being a mid-second round fantasy pick. Of course, Ingram likely won’t cost anything close to that, especially after fantasy owners were burnt by last year’s top rookie, Ryan Mathews. Ingram’s current ADP suggests he’s a mid-sixth round pick, but fantasy owners looking for upside will likely take the plunge a couple of rounds earlier.
Roy Williams, WR, CHI – I talked briefly about Williams last week but wanted to take a more in-depth look at his situation. Williams has averaged just 518.6 receiving yards over the past three seasons and has looked downright sluggish at times. He has eclipsed 900 receiving yards just once during his seven-year career and will almost certainly go down as something of a bust as a former No. 7 pick. Still, Williams is only 29 years old, and he is a relevant fantasy player again following the move to Chicago. Not only does Williams no longer have to compete with Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten for targets, he’ll also rejoin offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who during his lone season in Detroit helped Williams have his best season as a pro - 1,310 receiving yards and seven scores. Martz’s hyperbole aside – he recently referred to Williams as “elite” – it’s good to know he remains a believer; and it looks like Williams is going to get a chance to lead the Bears in targets and be the top option in the red zone. With Martz and QB Jay Cutler on his side, Williams should enjoy a career resurgence in 2011. That is, if he’s not already done at age 29.
Jahvid Best, RB, DET – While Best is unlikely to ever be a 20-25 carry per game guy, the season-ending Achilles injury suffered by Mikel LeShoure boosts to his fantasy value a bit. Best is an injury risk, and he’ll share the work with newcomers Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell, but goal-line carries are up for grabs, and his competition is certainly less talented now with LeShoure out of the picture. Even as a rookie, while playing with two bad cases of turf toe that slowed him down tremendously, Best’s 58 catches ranked sixth among all running backs. In addition, his 487 receiving yards ranked seventh, and that’s with the injuries costing him a game and limiting him in several others. Best is something of a boom-or-bust pick, but he is in position to get a lot of touches if he proves he can handle them.
Owen Daniels, TE, HOU – Daniels’ recovery from November ’09 knee surgery spilled into last season, and thanks to a separate hamstring injury that bothered him for several weeks, he was a non-factor for most of the year. However, after missing Weeks 9-13 with the touchy hamstring, Daniels returned and totaled 22 receptions, 271 yards, and two scores over the Texans’ final four games. Daniels felt fully healthy coming in to camp this year, and given the way he finished last season and the lack of a true number two receiver on the Texans’ roster, it’s not a stretch to say he will be the second option in the Houston passing game behind Andre Johnson. Among tight ends, Daniels can be taken any time after “the big-five” are off the board (although obviously much later).
Alex Smith, QB, SF - After last season ended it was almost certain Smith would move on, but new coach Jim Harbaugh liked what he saw on game film and convinced Smith to return even though the 49ers drafted Colin Kaepernick in the second round. The move actually makes sense considering Kaepernick is extremely raw, and the 49ers provide Smith the best chance to remain a starter. This may be Smith’s last chance in San Francisco, so he better make the most of it. If the 49ers get off a slow start, the team may have no choice but to turn to Kaepernick to give him a shot and see where they stand in 2012. Smith will likely go undrafted in many fantasy leagues, but he’s the unquestioned starter in the best system, with the most weapons (including the addition of Braylon Edwards), he has had at any point in his career. Smith, who averaged 8.2 YPA and posted an 11:4 TD:INT ratio over five games at home last season, now has Edwards, Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and QB guru Harbaugh at his disposal. Smith could surprise; crazier things have happened.
Kevin Boss, TE, OAK – It’s tough to predict how a new receiver (or in this case tight end) will perform in a new system, especially in year one, but it’s a good bet Boss is asked to block less in Oakland than he was in New York, especially since the Raiders lost Zach Miller in free agency. A decent option in the red zone, Boss is a late-round sleeper likely to set career-highs in receptions and yardage with his new team.
Ryan Mathews, RB, SD – It’s becoming tougher and tougher to back Mathews at this point. Not only is he likely to miss the Chargers’ preseason opener with some sort of leg/toe problem, head coach Norv Turner recently stated he plans to implement a two-back system in San Diego this year. I still like Mathews, and maybe all this news curtails the hype and allows him to come at a true discount, but Mike Tolbert is the favorite to dominate work on passing downs and at the goal line, even when Mathews suits up.
Jeremy Maclin, WR, PHI – The Eagles insist Maclin will be ready for Week 1, but it’s concerning that he has still yet to be cleared for action. In fact, further testing has been ordered for Maclin, who is currently sidelined by an “undisclosed illness” that reportedly cost him a good amount of weight during the offseason. This is a situation that should not be taken lightly.
Montario Hardesty, RB, CLE – Always a health risk, Hardesty has been slow to recover from a knee injury he suffered a full year ago. The addition of Brandon Jackson reveals the Browns are concerned as well. Hardesty hasn’t shown the ability to stay on the field, let alone produce when on it, so he’s become nothing more than a late round flier. Maybe Peyton Hillis won’t lose as many touches this season after all.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB, NE – It’s possible Green-Ellis retains the role he held last season and reaches double-digit touchdowns playing in a terrific New England offense. But he’s a zero in the passing game and now has much more competition with rookies Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley (along with Danny Woodhead) now on the roster. Green-Ellis is also a true matchup play, as he can at times completely disappear if the Patriots are playing from behind. Despite Green-Ellis’ fourth-round ADP, there’s way too much downside here for him to be a true RB2.
Steve Smith, WR, CAR – After averaging 1,288 receiving yards over a four-year stretch from 2005-2008, Smith failed to reach 1,000 in each of the past two seasons, including a dreadful campaign last year in which he had just 46 receptions for 554 yards and two touchdowns over 14 games. He shouldn’t be written off at age 32, and could make for something of a last-year’s-bum type bounce back candidate, but Smith’s fantasy value likely would have received a boost had he left Carolina, a move that looked inevitable during the offseason. Instead, he remains with the Panthers, who will continue to go run-heavy after re-signing DeAngelo Williams. Moreover, having Jimmy Clausen, Cam Newton and Derek Anderson on the QB depth chart is ugly. Smith is also currently dealing with a finger injury that could sideline him 7-to-10 days.
Marques Colston, WR, NO – Colston has missed the last week of practice with a sore knee. While the hope is the team is just being cautious and this is nothing to worry about long-term, it should be noted that Colston underwent microfracture knee surgery during the offseason, the fifth knee procedure of his career. With Robert Meachem now at full strength, which he never was in 2010, Colston is no longer a lock to lead the Saints in targets. There’s some risk here.