Felix Jones, RB, DAL – I entered the summer somewhat down on Jones but have since joined the ever growing hype train (late to the party, I know). Jones' lack of goal-line work remains a concern (he’s just 1-for-6 there over the past two seasons), but he’s explosive and plays in a potentially extremely high-powered offense. While he scored just two total touchdowns last year, there’s no reason he can’t reach eight or so in 2011 the same way LeSean McCoy can. While Jones saw his YPC drop from 5.9 in 2009 to 4.3 last season, he improved greatly as a pass catcher, racking up 49 receptions for 450 receiving yards after entering with career totals of just 21 and 129, respectively. With Marion Barber out of Dallas, Jones is looking at a career-high workload in 2011, barring injury. He’s never going to be a 325-carry guy, but given his improvement as a receiver, all it would take is 250 rushing attempts (say 15-17 carries a game) for him to be a major fantasy factor. Cowboys coaches have soured on Tashard Choice, and rookie DeMarco Murray continues to battle the injury-prone label, whereas Jones has had a fantastic camp. As the lead back in an offense featuring Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, Jones shouldn’t be overlooked in fantasy leagues.
Hakeem Nicks, WR, NYG – Nicks is something of a risk as a top-five fantasy receiver considering he missed five games over the first two years of his career and was banged up in several others, but he revealed his potential a year ago by picking up 79 receptions for 1,052 yards and 11 touchdowns over just 13 games. At 6-1, 215, Nicks is physical and willing to go over the middle; yet he also possesses good speed, evidenced by his 20 catches for 20-plus yards in 2010. Last year’s 8.2 YPT wasn’t anything special, but it’s worth noting Nicks was one of just eight receivers to see more than 25 percent of his team’s targets, according to Pro Football Focus, a number should only increase with the departure of Steve Smith (Eli Manning relies as much on his X and Z receivers as any quarterback in football). Moreover, Nicks was targeted 12 times inside the 10-yard line last season – the leader was Larry Fitzgerald with 14, and Nicks did that in just 13 games. As a second-round pick, there’s no doubt Nicks carries some risk with his questionable durability and unproven track record, but his per-game stats prorated over a full season would have given him 97 catches, 1,295 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, and it’s safe to expect him to improve further during his third year as a pro. Larry Fitzgerald and Roddy White are safer options, but only Calvin Johnson matches Nicks’ upside from the receiver position.
Chris Wells, RB, ARI – I’ve been burned by Wells each of the past two years, yet still find myself willing to give him another chance this season. I’m not some crazy apologist – he’s clearly injury-prone and was downright awful when on the field in 2010, but during his rookie season, fumbles could be blamed for his lack of carries; and last year’s excuse was a preseason knee injury that lingered throughout and sapped his explosiveness. With Tim Hightower jettisoned, this is seemingly Wells’ make-or-break year. Even with second round pick Ryan Williams in tow, Arizona’s coaching staff is apparently going to give Wells every chance to serve as the team’s feature back in 2011. When healthy, he has the physical tools to take advantage of the opportunity, but at some point, that statement comes off as me saying if I threw 100 mph I’d pitch in the majors, or if my uncle had a sex change he’d be my aunt. Wells still has to prove he can remain on the field. I’m not the biggest Kevin Kolb fan, but there’s little doubt he’ll be an upgrade at QB, and it’s an inherent advantage playing in the weak NFC West. Fool me once, shame on Wells. Fool me twice, shame on me. Is there a third phrase to this?
Stevan Ridley, RB, NE – Ridley totaled 111 yards and scored three touchdowns in his debut with the Patriots, showing both impressive power at the goal line and good receiving ability (seven catches). Ridley played with the backups, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis remains the favorite for carries in New England, but fellow rookie Shane Vereen has been sidelined with a hamstring injury and projects best as a change-of-pace option. The Pats will almost certainly use a running-back-by-committee approach, but there’s at least an argument Ridley is the most talented all-around back on the roster. After his recent performance, even though it came in the preseason, he needs to be rostered in all fantasy leagues.
Tim Hightower, RB, WAS – I’ve never been a big Hightower fan (of course, this probably has everything to do with owning Beanie Wells the past two years), and Pro Football Focus actually graded him the worst running back in the NFL last season. His biggest liabilities are as a pass catcher and blocker, which doesn’t exactly fit the narrative as a great third down back. Regardless, what matters most to fantasy owners is that Mike Shanahan is apparently a big believer, and with the competition dwindling -I like Ryan Torain, but he can’t stay healthy, and while I still consider Roy Helu a nice late round flier, he appears a ways off from contributing - Hightower is seemingly Washington’s feature back. However, it should be noted that his fumbling issued have carried over into practices this year. While I admittedly question Hightower’s talent, he is just one year removed from racking up 63 receptions and put up 4.8 YPC last season playing in a bad offense. Hightower has totaled 23 rushing touchdowns over the past three years despite never seeing more than 153 carries, so if he truly becomes a lead back in Shanahan’s offense, he’s going to make an impact in fantasy leagues.
Vincent Jackson, WR, SD – After Jackson’s impressive, albeit brief, performance on national TV recently, he likely shot up draft boards, and rightfully so. VJax has never reached 70 receptions, 1,200 receiving yards or double-digit touchdowns in a season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he reached all three in 2011. As a deep threat, he loses some value in PPR formats, but at 6-5, 230, there’s no reason he can’t reach a dozen touchdowns, especially with Antonio Gates continuing to battle foot problems. Once again playing for a big contract, Jackson will be highly motivated and will again benefit from one of the best quarterbacks in football throwing to him as the team’s clear WR1. After missing the first 14 weeks of last season thanks to a holdout and calf injury, Jackson promptly racked up 112 yards and three touchdowns in his second game, revealing the kind of upside matched only by a handful of other receivers. One year after Jackson put up a whopping 11.8 YPT (the highest mark since the yards-per-target stat was tracked) on a ridiculous 69 percent catch rate, Jackson averaged 10.3 YPT in brief action last season, so even a modest increase in looks would make him an easy top-five WR. I’d certainly prefer Jackson over Dwayne Bowe.
Jeremy Maclin, WR, PHI – While the initial instinct may have been to downgrade Maclin because of his recent cancer scare, the latest news about this condition is certainly a relief (upgrade?). Maclin has reportedly been cleared to play after months of tests for Lymphoma. Early reports suggested Maclin was still dealing with problems from mononucleosis, but it was later revealed that he was dealing with a more serious issue. That said, the good news is cancer has been totally ruled out after a recent examination by doctors. Apparently an inflammatory virus was to blame, and while it’s still unclear how long it will take for Maclin to regain full strength, his once sketchy long-term prognosis now looks positive. Nevertheless, he has clearly been dealing with some serious health issues for some time and has yet to be cleared for practice while still dealing with inflammation after lymph-node surgery. Maclin could return within 7-to-10 days if he suffers no setbacks, but his availability for Week 1 remains in doubt.
Chris Johnson, RB, TEN – Despite general Manager Mike Reinfeldt's comments regarding Johnson's contract status last week, the two sides are no closer to a deal than they were at the beginning. The Titans will not make an offer until Johnson honors his original deal and comes to camp, and Johnson will not come to camp until a new deal gets done. Johnson wants at least $30 million in guaranteed money – more than any running back in NFL history – so this is officially a major problem. Options like Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy are now no-brainer alternatives, but the real risk/reward question will not be answered until later.
Arian Foster, RB, HOU – I wouldn’t fault anyone for taking Foster No. 1, but there’s some risk taking him there with little track record (and pedigree). Foster is dealing with a hamstring injury as well, but the real reason I’m downgrading him is the fact Ben Tate, Derrick Ward and Steve Slaton are all battling injuries. No clear backup hurts prospective Foster owners, because there won’t be a true fallback option if needed. It would also be nice if Foster proves his recent hamstring problem won’t be a lingering issue considering he’s being taken with the top pick in many leagues.
Chris Cooley, TE, WAS – Cooley has been dealing with a knee injury for quite some time. In fact, it was still bothering him after an offseason of rest, which resulted in a recent trip to Dr. James Andrews, who recommended rest and rehab. While that’s obviously better than surgery, he’s still no guarantee to stay healthy, and Mike Shanahan recently admitted he doesn’t know whether or not Cooley will be ready for Week 1. As a result, Fred Davis becomes a viable late-round flier. After Cooley was lost for the season in 2009, Davis produced 41 catches, 464 yards and six touchdowns over 10 games as a raw sophomore. He would be an easy weekly starter if Cooley is out.
Jonathan Stewart, RB, CAR – Stewart was held out of Wednesday's practice with Achilles soreness. Here we go again. This is related to the same area of the foot that has given Stewart problems since his college days in Oregon. It’s probably not overly serious, but it’s also frustrating that this injury still lingers. Stewart is a top-10 talent at running back, but he’s clearly behind an equally skilled DeAngelo Williams on Carolina’s depth chart. It will take an injury for him to be fantasy relevant in standard leagues.