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Run 'N' Shoot: Players on the Rise

Mark Stopa

Mark Stopa

Mark Stopa has been sharing his fantasy insights for Rotowire since 2007. Mark is the 2010 and 2012 Staff Picks champion (eat your heart out, Chris Liss) and won Rotowire's 14-team Staff League II in consecutive seasons. He roots for the Bills and has season tickets on the second row, press level to the Rays.

Life has greater joys than an auction with 11 other competitive, smart owners ... but not many. Drafts are fun, don't get me wrong. But in an auction, you're hanging on every player, every bid, every decision. When you auction for 3.5 hours, it's basically the most fun you can have in a non-horizontal position. Here were my random thoughts in the days leading up to, during, and after my auction in Stopa Law Firm League on Thursday night, taking place with several of the Rotowire guys and Yahoo! crew ...

Jonathan Stewart hasn't practiced all preseason due to his chronically weak ankles, and those ankles limited him to 3.6 YPC last year. The longer Stewart sits, the better DeAngelo Williams looks. Williams has been in a timeshare with Stewart the past few seasons, but the last time he got 200 carries, he went for 1,100 yards and 7 TDs. And the time before that? 1,500 yards and 18 TDs! Look at the Panthers depth chart and you tell me - what other running back is going to prevent Williams from getting 200 carries this year? No answer? Exactly my point. Williams lacks 18-TD upside now with Cam Newton around, but with 200 carries, a 1,300 yard, 10-TD season is possible here. Move Williams up at least 5-10 spots in your rankings.

Do you subscribe to the theory that NFL players perform better in contract years? I'm not sure I do, but here's a list I've compiled:

QB: Jay Cutler, Josh Freeman, Michael Vick
RB: Darren McFadden, Maurice Jones-Drew, Rashard Mendenhall, Andre Brown
WR: Hakeem Nicks, Eric Decker, Kenny Britt, Golden Tate, James Jones, Brandon LaFell, Anquan Boldin, Darrius Heyward-Bey
TE: Jimmy Graham, Jermichael Finley, Brandon Pettigrew, Fred Davis

From this list, I really like Finley. Reports from Green Bay have been positive, and Finley strikes me as the kind of guy who is super-motivated by money. Aaron Rodgers helped create two unexpected 10-plus TD seasons the past two years - Jordy Nelson in 2011 and James Jones last year. Finley could easily be that guy in 2013. Fantasy football has a clear top-five (Graham, Davis, Gronk, Witten, and Gonzalez) and a glut of similarly-valued tight ends after that, but nobody has more upside after the top five than Finley. In fact, if we're looking at ceiling only and ignoring floor, I'd put Finley before Witten and Gonzalez.

It's nit-picking, perhaps, but with Bryan Bulaga out for the year, Drew Brees is atop my quarterback rankings, not Aaron Rodgers. I'm worried the Packers will run a bit more with Rodgers' blind-side protector sidelined, and with two rookies in the fold, we really don't know what the Packers running game will look like - it could be better than we think. If Eddie Lacy is good in the red zone, he could steal 3-5 TDs that would have gone to Rodgers in years past, particularly since Mike McCarthy lacks Sean Payton's aggressive style. Plus, I'm virtually certain the Saints defense will be awful, ensuring Brees' volume, but I'm not so sure about the Packers defense. Rodgers is still number 2, but I like Brees better in fantasy.

I said it in my article on auction strategies, but it's worth repeating. Before your auction, get computerized dollar values for each player based on Rotowire's Custom Value Chart. As the auction begins, the most important thing you can do is figure out if fellow owners are overpaying for the studs or underpaying. If the studs are underpriced, then you have to get in on the action. But if the studs are all going 5-6 dollars over value, then resist the temptation to join the parade - your opponents will be short on money later on and bargains will be there. This takes discipline, but it helped me compile this roster in a 12-team league (2-QB, 2-TE, 3-WR) even though the 11 other guys are all freakishly good. (I realize you don't care about my team, nor should you. But it shows the type of team you'll get if stud RBs are all being overpriced and you resist the urge to join):

QB: Brees ($48), Kaepernick ($33)
RB: Lacy ($17), Ingram ($6)
WR: Torrey Smith ($18), Jordy Nelson ($14), Antonio Brown ($10)
TE: Graham ($38), Fred Davis ($1)
Flex: Steve Smith ($5)
D: 49ers
Bench: Andre Brown ($6), Miles Austin ($3), Vincent Brown ($2), Heyward-Bey ($1), Fred Jackson ($1), Moreno ($1)

If you play in a two-QB league (which I highly recommend - deeper rosters = more challenging = more fun), quarterbacks are as important as running backs, if not more so. Sleeper running backs will emerge over the course of the year as injuries strike, so if you're short there, at least you have the potential to get better during the year. At quarterback, though, there's much less potential for injury or for sleepers. In two-QB leagues, get your studs while you can. Oh, and if your league lets you start a quarterback at flex, you MUST do it. Quarterbacks - even mediocre ones - outscore other positions by a wide margin.

I listed Philip Rivers as a sleeper for the Rotowire magazine several months ago. The closer we get to the season, though, the more I'm backpedaling. Danario Alexander is done for the year, Malcom Floyd isn't reliable, Ryan Mathews looks like a bust and Antonio Gates is a shell of his former self. I'd like to think Rivers can return to his stud ways of 2008-2010, where his worst YPA was 8.4 and his highest INT total was 13, but I fear those seasons were a product of having Gates in his prime, Vincent Jackson and Darren Sproles in the fold. Right now, Rivers is my choice to lead the NFL in turnovers in 2013. He's had 47 the last two seasons, a staggering total that puts him into Mark Sanchez territory (52). Unfortunately for Rivers, though, Sanchez won't play enough to surpass Rivers' 2013 total. At this point, I'm more likely to think the Chargers will be drafting in the top five - and considering whether to take a quarterback - than I am to think San Diego will make the playoffs.

Many analysts, myself included, have been quick to assume the Ravens defense will fall off after losing Ray Lewis to retirement and Ed Reed to the Texans. After looking at their depth chart, though, I'm reconsidering. Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs will be a force on the outside (with Suggs now more than a year post-injury), Haloti Ngata is a beast on the line, and I like Ladarius Webb at corner. That's at least one stud on all three levels. Lewis and Reed were big names, but their losses may be felt more in the locker room than on the field. If the Ravens defense is better than everyone is saying, that bodes well for Bernard Pierce. Ray Rice is better than Pierce in the passing game, but if the Ravens defense ensures they don't have to abandon the run, I like Pierce's chances of stealing some of Rice's carries. Rice is the big name and will likely never be outright benched (not this year, anyway), but Pierce, like Ben Tate in Houston, is one of the higher-upside backups in the NFL.

Four receivers who are available late in auctions, or even on FAAB, who could emerge at this stage of their careers: Brandon LaFell, Alshon Jeffery, Jon Baldwin, Stephen Hill. What's the common denominator here? These guys are big, tall, and fast, were first or second round draft picks and have done little so far in their young careers. It's time for at least one to break out.

Here's a fascinating stat from Green Bay: 2012 snaps, James Jones 1,149, Randall Cobb 733 (h/t Mike Salfino). Think about that for a minute.

I agree with Peter Schoenke. If your league lets you draft an extra bench spot instead of a starting kicker or even a starting defense (like Yahoo's auction software currently does), then take advantage. You can cut that extra player before the season and get your kicker then. But if injuries strike before the season starts, that extra bench player might be more valuable than he looks right now. That's why I took Fred Jackson and Knowshon Moreno, above, instead of a kicker. LaMichael James, Ben Tate, Bryce Brown, Christine Michael, Knile Davis and Bilal Powell are others who would have big roles if a starter were hurt in the third preseason game.

The fantasy community talks a lot about upside, but in terms of scoring in your league, it's week-to-week consistency you want. That's why I drafted both Brees and Mark Ingram. In deeper formats, I like starting the quarterback and running back from the same team. After all, if Brees didn't throw for a TD, there's a fair chance it's because Ingram ran it in. I suspect that's why Dalton Del Don took Tom Brady and Stevan Ridley, and I know Mike Salfino liked pairing Cam Newton and DeAngelo Williams.

Speaking of pairs, I'd be fine drafting David Wilson and Andre Brown - and planning to start both - in deeper formats. If Wilson becomes the feature guy, then he'll be huge, and you can start someone else in Brown's place. If they split carries, or if Brown is the guy in the red zone, then both will have starter value. Feel free to disagree for shallower formats.

The Patriots cutting Michael Jenkins was a good sign for the young New England wideouts. We're all kind of guessing, but I'd rank them Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce. Thompkins has been getting buzz in camp, but he was undrafted, is slower than Dobson and has little yardage despite decent targets through two preseason games. In fact, I'm closer to having Thompkins behind Boyce than I am ahead of Dobson. Keep watching this situation, as Tom Brady will help at least one of these guys be a fantasy star, especially if Danny Amendola gets hurt. Regardless of who you like, the prices are right for all of these guys.

Other than DeAngelo Williams, here are some players who I've been moving up or down my Top 200 so far this preseason:

UP: EJ Manuel (is far ahead of Kevin Kolb in the starting QB battle, has top-15 upside), Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard, Daryl Richardson (chances increasing each will be starter), Bilal Powell (Christopher Ivory off to slow start, been hurt), Stephen Hill (breakout potential, Santonio Holmes isn't healthy), Nick Toon and Kenny Stills (these are the downfield threats with Joseph Morgan out, not Steve Breaston), Zach Sudfeld (just scored a TD and a two-pointer, and Scott Pianowski drafted him before that game, so that's good enough for me), Rueben Randle (the script may be written for him to get more work and Hakeem Nicks to walk in free agency after the year - remember, even if Nicks is healthy, Victor Cruz works best out of the slot, which frees up a spot outside), Ryan Broyles (someone has to emerge opposite Calvin Johnson, and Broyles is getting the hype), Vincent Brown (is anyone left standing in San Diego?), DeAndre Hopkins (looks good so far, could be top target if Andre Johnson suffers his annual injury), Jordan Cameron (a two-TD game in preseason moves the needle)

DOWN: Geno Smith (it looks like Sanchez will open the year as the starter), Santonio Holmes (PUP candidate), Jonathan Stewart (still hasn't practiced, may not play), Johnathan Franklin (appears well behind Lacy), Rob Gronkowski (maybe I'm overreacting, but concerned I haven't heard anything good), Philip Rivers (personal change of opinion; I'm just not feeling it any more),

With all of these tight end sleepers, why don't more fantasy leagues start two tight ends? If I could change one thing about the industry, it would be that - every league starts two QBs (or one, with the option of starting another at flex) and two TEs.

Little is settled in the Broncos backfield. Be ready to pounce on the guy who starts the third preseason game, whether it's Montee Ball or Ronnie Hillman. It's not just Denver, either - the third preseason game clarifies depth charts more than anything the coaches tell the media.