I randomly posted this on Twitter (@MarkStopa) the other day: "Most under-valued fantasy RB right now ... Jonathan Dwyer. Available for nothing, good offense, Redman hurt and no lock to keep the job." In response, a friend of mine asked if he should cut Mike Williams, the last guy on his bench, in favor of Dwyer. My answer? "Absolutely."
Folks, this is exactly ... exactly ... the type of move you should be making right now.
This is what waivers in fantasy football is all about.
Look ... I have nothing against Mike Williams. By all accounts, he should rebound from his disappointing 2011. However, as the second receiver on a mediocre, run-first offense, Williams' ceiling is limited. Sure, he might post 700-800 yards and 5-6 TDs ... but that's not going to win your fantasy league. To win your fantasy league, you need to get Victor Cruz or Cam Newton, circa 2011. No matter what happens in Tampa this year, Mike Williams won't be this year's Victor Cruz.
Jonathan Dwyer, on the other hand ... he might win your league for you. Yes, he might not. Rashard Mendenhall could return from his ACL injury sooner than we think, or Isaac Redman might take the starting job and run with it. However, waiver claims in fantasy football aren't about what could go wrong ... they're about what could go right. When you're stashing players on the end of your bench before the bye weeks, your first question should be "what could go right with this player?" Or ... "can I envision any scenario, e.g. an injury, where this player emerges as a fantasy starter?"
What could go right with Dwyer? A lot. He's in a good offense with a top-10 quarterback. Mendenhall might not be productive less than a year after an ACL tear; heck, Mendenhall might not return at all. The only other running back in the fold, Isaac Redman, is currently nursing an injury and has never proven himself over a 16-game season. Plus, the Steelers like to run inside the 10, as both starting receivers are small, and Ben Roethlisberger doesn't steal goal line carries. Add it all up and if everything breaks right for Dwyer, he could post 1,200 yards and 10-12 TDs and be this year's Victor Cruz.
I'm not running to Vegas to bet my life savings on Dwyer, of course. A lot would have to go right for Dwyer to be a fantasy stud. But it could go right, and since there's a chance it could, you need Dwyer on your bench ... and as many guys like Dwyer as possible, particularly before we enter the bye weeks. After all, you want this year's Victor Cruz before he becomes Victor Cruz.
You may be poring over the free agents in your league and think it's impossible to find this year's Victor Cruz. How can you possibly know who might have a similar breakout in 2012? Easy. Target upside. Consider Cruz. Yes, his emergence in 2011 came out of nowhere. But is it really that shocking that a receiver with an elite quarterback emerged as a fantasy darling? It's not like Cruz posted those stats with Blaine Gabbert throwing to him.
If that doesn't make sense, or you're still stuck in baseball mode, let's use a baseball analogy. When you're making waiver claims, pretend you're Adam Dunn (or any other three-outcome slugger). Accept that not all of your claims are going to pan out. I'll swing and miss, you will ... we all will. Heck, Adam Dunn is hitting .205 and has 190 strikeouts, but he's my analogy for this article because he's leading the majors in home runs. That's what we want for waiver claims - a willingness to hit .200 if it means we knock the ball out of the park every so often. If I'm wrong about Dwyer, who cares? The acquisition cost is minimal, so I'll keep trying to get guys like him and eventually a few of them will pan out.
As the season unfolds, and we start to deal with bye weeks, I'll profile bye-week fill-ins, i.e. players in favorable matchups for that week. 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 - the players I'd be stashing on my last few bench spots in standard formats.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks (owned in 38% of Yahoo! leagues): A year ago, nobody thought a rookie quarterback could emerge as a fantasy stud. Now, after Cam Newton changed everything we know about rookie QBs, everyone and their brother is predicting big things from Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin, so much so that Luck and Griffin are owned in most formats. But what about Wilson? Can he reach the same level as Luck and Griffin in 2012? Absolutely - Wilson's upside is just as high. His floor is much lower, as Wilson will be given a much shorter leash than his more heralded first-year starters, particularly with highly-paid Matt Flynn breathing down his neck. But if Wilson can keep the job for all 16 games, his stats will look similar to those of Luck and Griffin. I don't think Wilson can do it, but that's why he's unowned in more than half of Yahoo! leagues.
Tim Tebow, QB, Jets (owned in 18% of Yahoo! leagues): Let's put aside the absurd hype for a minute (or, ideally, forever) and evaluate this situation objectively. The Jets offense is bad. If you ignore the quarterback position, it's perhaps the worst offense in the NFL. Do you know what you get when you combine a bad offense with a great defense, insane media coverage, and the pressure cooker of New York? A strong likelihood that Tebow gets the starting job at some point. If/when that happens, we can all argue endlessly about the merits of Tebow as an NFL quarterback, but make no mistake - his rushing ability makes him a solid fantasy option. In a sense, we're in the same position right now that we were with Tebow at this time last year, when he was backing up Kyle Orton in Denver and everyone knew he would get the job at some point. We saw how that turned out - with Tebow as a viable QB1 after he got the job - and I see no reason it can't happen again.
Jonathan Dwyer, RB, Steelers (owned in 15% of Yahoo! leagues): I think I explained my thoughts on Dwyer as thoroughly as you care to read, above. Let's move on.
Robert Turbin, RB, Seahawks (owned in 11% of Yahoo! leagues): Marshawn Lynch has a bruising running style that lends itself to injury and, prior to last year, had hardly distinguished himself as an NFL starter. Plus, Lynch is hardly a model citizen, as a suspension for a DUI is possible in 2012 (though more likely in 2013). Hence, Turbin is one heartbeat away from getting thrust into the starter's role. Plus, unlike other backup running backs in the NFL, Turbin's hold on the backup spot in Seattle is quite firm - Leon Washington and Kregg Lumpkin aren't going to take the job, so Turbin is the clear backup. Turbin isn't worth starting so long as Lynch is playing, but a strong preseason showed Turbin would be a solid RB2 if Lynch were injured. Stash him.
Toby Gerhart, RB, Vikings (owned in 50% of Yahoo! leagues): Until I see Adrian Peterson playing like his normal self, I'll gladly make Gerhart my top waiver claim and start him as a flex in Week 1. At worst, it's worth putting Gerhart on your bench and seeing what type of workload, if any, Peterson is able to handle. Gerhart isn't sexy by any means, but he performed admirably when Peterson was out last year - certainly deserving of more than a 50% ownership rate.
Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, Falcons (owned in 51% of Yahoo! leagues): I really don't want to profile Rodgers, but I'm doing so to put some of the other guys I've listed here in perspective. Rodgers is backing up Michael Turner in Atlanta, and he's battling Jason Snelling for touches. By all accounts, Snelling would probably be the third-down back, meaning Rodgers wouldn't be a full-time guy even if Turner got hurt. Yet Rodgers is owned in half of Yahoo! leagues. Understanding why is fairly easy - Rodgers has been hyped as a sleeper in nearly every article I read. But is he really that much better than any of the other backs I've profiled on this list? I'd say no. I'd much rather own Toby Gerhart, who has a similar ownership rate but is far more likely to get meaningful carries early in the year.
Montario Hardesty, RB, Browns (owned in 7% of Yahoo! leagues): typically, fantasy owners aren't looking for one-week plug-ins for Week 1, as the byes haven't started yet. This year, though, Ryan Mathews is likely sidelined in Week 1 and it's unclear if Trent Richardson and Adrian Peterson will play. That's three expensive running backs who you may not be able to use in Week 1. If you're in this situation, take a look at Hardesty. Yes, he missed all of 2010 with a torn ACL and battled more injuries last season, but I'd think Hardesty will get starter's touches for so long as Richardson is sidelined. He was drafted in the second round, too, so there's some talent here, albeit on a bad team.
Taiwan Jones and Mike Goodson, RB, Raiders (owned in 5% and 6% of Yahoo! leagues, respectively): I'm contractually obligated to talk about the Raiders' backup running backs, since Darren McFadden is so notoriously injury-prone. Unfortunately, unlike Seattle, where Robert Turbin is the clear-cut backup, Jones and Goodson seem to be neck-and-neck in their battle for touches after McFadden. Obviously, this dilutes the value of both, making both mediocre handcuffs. That said, if I'm rostering one of these guys, it's Jones. Goodson has been around the league enough for me to feel confident that his upside is limited, even if McFadden were to get hurt. Jones, on the other hand, is explosive enough to have RB2 upside if McFadden suffers his annual leg ailment.
Ronnie Brown and Jackie Battle, RB, Chargers (owned in 24% and 1% of Yahoo! leagues, respectively): The situation here is quite similar to that in Oakland, as there's no clear-cut backup behind the injury-prone starter. With Ryan Mathews rehabbing a broken collarbone, it looks like Ronnie Brown will start for the Chargers in Week 1. But Brown has been a bad NFL player the past couple of years and seems to be on his last legs. Hence, I'd say Battle has more long-term upside. But Le'Ron McClain and Curtis Brinkley are also in the fold, and while neither is worth profiling, both could dilute the value of anyone not named Ryan Mathews. Unless Brown plays better than I anticipate in Week 1, the situation in San Diego looks to me like a mess.
Mikel Leshoure, RB, Lions (owned in 36% of Yahoo! leagues): I like Kevin Smith more than just about anyone I know, as in top-10 upside. The problem, of course, is that Smith's ankles get broken more than those guys who defended Allen Iverson in his prime. Once Leshoure comes back from a two-game suspension, and Smith suffers the seemingly inevitable injury, Leshoure may well take the job and run with it. Detroit won't throw as much this year, and the Lions drafted Leshoure in the second round in 2011 for a reason. There's nice upside here for a player unowned in the majority of Yahoo! leagues.
Isaiah Pead, RB, Rams (owned in 18% of Yahoo! leagues): Pead is second-string behind aging and oft-injured Steven Jackson in St. Louis. Need I say more?
All Saints WRs: You don't need me to tell you that Drew Brees is pretty good or that Robert Meachem departed for San Diego. So why are the Saints receivers, after Marques Colston, all being treated like the red-haired stepchild in fantasy leagues? Lance Moore has scored at least 8 TDs in three of the past four years, yet he's unowned in 25% of Yahoo! leagues. Unowned! That's nuts. It's hard to get too excited about Devery Henderson, as he's too old and mediocre to have a lot of upside, but he should be owned in more than 9% of Yahoo! leagues. A deep sleeper I like is Adrian Arrington. I could easily see him emerging, particularly if Henderson struggles. Arrington has good size and athleticism and is entering his third year in the league (fourth if you count the first year he spent on IR) - often a magical one for receivers. Nick Toon going onto injured reserve helps Arrington, too.
Randall Cobb and James Jones, WR, Packers (owned in 44% and 22% of Yahoo! leagues, respectively): Aaron Rodgers has proven, time and time again, that he's not partial to any particular receiver - he'll throw it to whoever is open. Cobb and Jones aren't starting, obviously, but Greg Jennings has a history of concussion issues and who's to say Jordy Nelson can't get hurt - this is the NFL. if injuries strike in Green Bay, the upside of Cobb and Jones (in that order) is undeniable, as they'd have the NFL's best player as their quarterback. Heck, Jones had 7 TDs last year in limited action, and Cobb should only get better in his second year in the league.
Backup receivers on the Giants and Cowboys: When you're enjoying the start of the NFL season on Wednesday night, take a minute and think about the backup receivers on both teams. The Giants and Cowboys each have top quarterbacks and two fantasy studs at receiver, but I'm convinced someone else can emerge. Just last year, Laurent Robinson had long stretches where he looked like the Cowboys best receiver, amassing 11 TDs in limited action. Of course, Robinson was able to do so because oft-injured Miles Austin was shelved with hamstring problems - an issue that has plagued Austin throughout his career. Robinson is now in Jacksonville, so the door is very much open for someone else to emerge in Dallas, where Dez Bryant isn't exactly the epitome of stability, either. Meanwhile, in New York, Victor Cruz proved last year that a no-name receiver can emerge from the Big Apple as a fantasy stud. Remember, the Giants run a lot of plays out of three-receiver formations, and Victor Cruz is probably best utilized out of the slot, which would require another receiver to start opposite Hakeem Nicks. Add this all up and I see a lot of upside for a third receiver on both Dallas and New York. The problem, unfortunately, is identifying who that third receiver might be, as, so far, nobody from either team has really stood out. Right now, I'd be hardpressed to own any of them except in deep leagues, but keep an eye on, in this order, Rueben Randle, Dwayne Harris, Kevin Ogletree, and Domenik Hixon.
Earl Bennett, WR, Bears (owned in 3% of Yahoo! leagues): Bennett has always had chemistry with Jay Cutler, going back to their days together in Vanderbilt. We only saw it last year for a three-game stretch, as Bennett was hurt the first half of the year and Cutler the latter part. However, for those three games, Bennett had more than 75 yards receiving in each, which undoubtedly goes a long way in explaining Bennett's four year contract extension this offseason. As defenses roll coverage to Brandon Marshall, expect Bennett to have some solid outings out of the slot, especially in PPR formats.
Martellus Bennett, TE, Giants (owned in 21% of Yahoo! leagues): I've already explained how there's room for someone to emerge in the Giants passing game. Perhaps instead of their third receiver, it will be their new, starting tight end. Until this year, Bennett has always backed up Jason Witten in Dallas, so we don't really know how good he can be. With a top-tier quarterback throwing to him, Bennett has higher upside than many other tight ends with higher ownership rates.
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.
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.