Last year, it was possible to compile a championship-caliber team simply by making the right waiver claims. To illustrate, check this team out:
QB: Michael Vick
RB: Arian Foster, Peyton Hillis
WR: Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Lloyd
Flex: Darren McFadden
TE: Marcedes Lewis
In the past few weeks, I've become a bit obsessed with trying to predict what the 2011 version of this roster will look like. I mean, if I'm writing this article, shouldn't I be able to identify the waiver-wire scrubs who will turn into fantasy gold this season?
Obviously there's no way for anyone to identify these players with any certainty - so much of it turns on injuries, fate, and the twists and turns that are an NFL season. That said, my goal in creating this week's column, the final one before the season, was to give everyone one list and say "included among those players on this list are the ones who will emerge as fantasy starters in 2011."
Again, I don't know which ones, it's admittedly a long list, and I'm certainly not saying all of these players will break through.
Heck, probably two-thirds of these players won't be fantasy relevant all season.
However, I'm relatively confident that 2011's breakthrough stars are somewhere on this column.
So stash as many of these players on your bench as you can until you need to change around your lineups for the bye weeks.
Or, at minimum, keep these players in the back of your mind, so you'll be ready to pounce if an injury happens to an established star.
Kevin Kolb, QB, Cardinals: Kolb has the best chance of anyone outside the top-12 of becoming an every-week fantasy starter. The Cardinals defense will be worse than people realize, Larry Fitzgerald is elite and Kolb plays in a bad division with his home games in the desert.
Matt Flynn, QB, Packers: The downgrade from Rodgers would be huge, but I've seen enough of Flynn to think he'd be a borderline fantasy starter if an injury befell Rodgers.
Vince Young, QB, Eagles: Vick will get hurt, it's just a question of how badly and how soon.
Tim Tebow, QB, Broncos: Can easily be a top-10 fantasy QB on a per-week basis if Orton gets hurt or benched.
Jason Snelling, WR, Falcons: Snelling might be a better all-around back than Michael Turner already. A serious injury to Turner would make Snelling a top-10 fantasy RB. There's probably not a backup in the entire NFL with more upside.
Ronnie Brown, RB, Eagles: Ideal situation if LeSean McCoy's smallish frame breaks down.
Jerome Harrison, RB, Lions: Oft-injured Jahvid Best the only thing between Harrison and a starting gig on an emerging offense. Unlike Maurice Morris, who is also in the picture, Harrison proved he could be a fantasy stud in Cleveland, albeit briefly.
Derrick Ward, Ben Tate, Steve Slaton, RB, Texans: I've seen Ward and Tate profiled as sleepers, but who's to say Slaton can't have 1,500 all-purpose yards and 10 TDs like he did in 2008 if things break right? He's behind Arian Foster, Ward, and Tate in the pecking order, but crazier things have happened in the NFL.
Delone Carter, RB, Colts: The most upside of all the Colts running backs.
DeMarco Murray and Tashard Choice, RB, Cowboys: Felix Jones isn't known for his durability, and the Cowboys offense has a chance to be elite. I think Murray will be Rookie of the Year if Jones tears his ACL in Week 1.
Montario Hardesty and Armond Smith, RB, Browns: I prefer backups on good offenses, as they provide the upside necessary to become a fantasy star. However, Peyton Hillis proved last year that fantasy darlings can emerge on bad teams. Plus, if you believe in the Madden curse, then a Hillis injury is imminent. Hardesty has the pedigree, but he, too, is oft-injured, and Armond Smith may be a no-name, but he had a good preseason.
Isaac Redman, RB, Steelers: One play (a Mendenhall injury) from a feature role on a good offense.
Earnest Graham, RB, Bucs: 10-TD upside if LaGarrette Blount gets hurt or has sophomore struggles. Blount is certainly less established than other RBs and he'll take a lot of hits given his bruising running style.
Johnny Knox, WR, Bears: If Knox isn't starting by Week 3 (ahead of Roy Williams), Bears fans should boycott the stadium.
Robert Meachem, Lance Moore, and Adrian Arrington, WR, Saints: All Saints WRs have 10-TD upside, particularly if injuries befall the others.
Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, and Jerricho Cotchery, WR, Steelers: Hines Ward is aging and wasn't a burner to begin with. This situation is similar to that in Green Bay in 2010, when James Jones and Jordy Nelson emerged as relevant fantasy options in deeper leagues while Donald Driver struggled.
James Jones and Jordy Nelson, WR, Packers: More expensive than last year, so they may not be on waivers, but imagine if Greg Jennings gets hurt. We know Aaron Rodgers is gonna get his.
Vincent Brown and Patrick Crayton, WR, Chargers: Philip Rivers made no-name Seyi Ajirotutu fantasy-relevant last season, so his top wideout will be a fantasy stud. Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd are fine now, but they've had injury issues in the past. Crayton is a re-tread; Brown is the rookie with greater upside. If possible, definitely stash Brown in dynasty leagues (Rivers isn't going anywhere, but Vincent Jackson is in a one-year contract).
Andre Roberts and Early Doucet, WR, Cardinals: If Larry Fitzgerald gets as much coverage as he should, and Kevin Kolb plays as well as the Cardinals hope, some other receiver is going to emerge.
Anthony Gonzalez and Blair White, WR, Colts: Gonzalez is a dog, but Peyton Manning's brilliance makes fantasy studs out of mediocre players. White will be worth starting in deeper formats if Austin Collie's injury issues re-emerge.
Brent Celek, TE, Eagles: If defenses don't force Vick to throw to Celek more this season (taking away the speedsters on the outside), I will be stunned. Plus, an injury to DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin probably helps Celek more than it would any other receiver.
Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots: An injury to one makes the other a sure-fire fantasy starter in any format.
Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Lions: Pettigrew is a first-round talent, entering year 3. Has Pro Bowl upside if Stafford is healthy, especially with coverage rolling to Calvin Johnson.
Jacob Tamme, TE, Colts: Probably not worth rostering in any format, but will be a top waiver claim if Dallas Clark gets hurt again.