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Faceoff: Most Likely To Join the Elite

August 4th

Clayton Gray: Every year, there are players that make the jump into the ranks of the elite. Are there some players that you expect to make this move in 2011?

Chris Smith: This is a great question. I have a few individuals I believe are poised to become elite fantasy stars. The first one I will point out is QB Matt Ryan. I currently only have him ninth in my rankings but I am definitely considering moving him up. He has an elite receiver already in Roddy White and the team sacrificed their draft in bringing in WR Julio Jones who has exceptional potential. I believe those two will join veteran TE Tony Gonzales and allow Ryan to truly break off the restraints this season and have his first monster fantasy season. I would not be surprised to see a rookie Randy Moss type of impact for Jones as Ryan throws for 4000 yards and 30+ touchdowns

The next player is RB Darren McFadden of the Raiders who enjoyed a breakout season last year. He always did possess sick natural ability but appeared to be devoid of confidence as an NFL player. Last year however he rediscovered his swagger and put up sick numbers. He missed three games last year and still rushed for 1157 yards, caught 47 passes and scored 10 touchdowns, good enough for 6th best fantasy running back. This year he may crack the top three. He is that good.

Finally, WR Mike Williams of the Buccaneers. Last year he became a rookie sensation with almost 1000 receiving yards and 11 touchdown grabs. He finished as the 11th best fantasy receiver. He has great size and quickness and developed wonderful chemistry with young signal caller Josh Freeman. As Freeman gets experience, he'll only get better as well Mike Williams. I expect 1100 yards and at least 10 touchdowns for him once again in 2011.

Jeff Haseley: The first person that comes to mind is Saints TE Jimmy Graham. New Orleans has averaged 100 catches by TEs over the last three years. With Jeremy Shockey now in Carolina, the TE duties fall squarely on Jimmy Graham and David Thomas. Graham started to emerge at the end of the 2010 season, catching 11 passes and 4 TDs in the last three games. David Thomas has shown he can be a good receiver, but Graham has more athleticism and ultimately will be the team's primary target at the position. If the trend of 100 catches by TEs continues, I can see a 65-35 edge in receptions for Graham over Thomas and whoever is next in line at TE for the Saints. It could very easily translate to 60+ receptions, 700+ yards and 7-9 TDs.

I would not be surprised to see guys like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jason Campbell improve in 2011, but one QB that I can see becoming an elite player at the position is Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman. When I examine QBs, I look at how efficient they are when it counts. What results have they shown on 3rd down in passing situations. These are generally stats where Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger have excelled, but Freeman is inching his way into that company. For Example, Freeman led all QBs with 39 completions on 3rd down and 10+ last year, plus he had zero interceptions on 137 3rd down pass attempts. He has the size, speed, strength and mind to be a standout at the position. He also has an excellent WR in Mike Williams, who is on the verge of stardom in his own right. The two combined could form quite a tandem that catapults them both into elite status. Freeman needs to become more aggressive in the red zone, but I believe that will come with more experience. This may be the year he puts it all together.

Matt Waldman: If you're talking elite as in top 12 at a player's position I have three. If you define elite as top 2-3 at their position then I probably only have one and that's the guy at the top of my list. The other two are players I expect to have a chance to become top 12 at their position.

Austin Collie "heads" my list - pun intended. He's regarded as the WR22 in the top 300 list and if it weren't for the three concussions in 2010 his production was WR1 if not "fantasy player No.1." Collie has great hands, strong route skills, and a great rapport with Peyton Manning because he has the same thirst to work his tail off - something he exhibited at BYU with Max Hall when they used to practice after dinner every night.

Rightfully so, the media and medical industry have sounded the alarm about head injuries in organized football. However, I think Collie is a case of a player who fantasy owners are overreacting to the current climate of fear surrounding head injuries. As he noted in an interview with NBC sports, "I've known players who play with nine or ten concussions and who have lived on to have successful careers and haven't had any symptoms later on in life, so again everyone is different."

The league, the fans, and doctors are still learning a lot about head injuries in this game. What I do know is that long before this became an issue, players were sustaining concussions and continuing to play and not suffer the effects we're hearing about. I'm not saying more care shouldn't be taken. Player safety is a vital issue, but I'm not writing off Austin Collie's career because he had one season with three concussions.

In fact, he's what I consider a good receiver with an elite quarterback in an elite offense capable of using his skills to propel him into elite fantasy production.

Matt Waldman: Dez Bryant is another player I believe has elite potential. Sure, he's immature and he was nearly arrested this year for having his "Pants on the Ground." Yes, his mom was arrested for dealing drugs. No, he wouldn't carry Roy Williams' pads.

[Warning: tangent alert for next three paragraphs] And yes, Deion Sanders is writing him off, too. Which by the way, I take Sanders now as seriously as I took Sanders back when he was a mustard yellow linen suit-wearing-attention monger claiming his milkshake was spiked with liquor at a suburban Atlanta Bennigan's in 1991 when it wasn't. I know. I was his waiter and I made the shake.

I think Sanders was just upset at the world at the time. Earlier that week, he parked in a fire lane in front of a Kroger and the Duluth police told him to move the car. Allegedly he argued with the officer and the policeman arrested him. It was headline news in town. Honestly, the Duluth police are overzealous now and this event happened 20 years ago.

Funny that Sanders is now "writing off" players he's taken under his wing. He might be the NFL's version of Nene Leakes in that Housewives of Atlanta reality show on Bravo. Yeah, I've watched it. Hard not to when my wife is watching and laughing while she's painting the house. I wouldn't trust Nene any farther than I could throw her and she's a big-boned, sturdy woman. [Tangent over. Resuming scheduled point.]

The point about "character?" Who cares.

I'm not Bryant's babysitter. I'm a fake football GM looking for talent capable of producing elite numbers in 2011. Dez Bryant is a more athletic Michael Irvin. He's fast, powerful, talented, and sure-handed. He can make plays anywhere on the field and he's in an offense loaded with talent that will force opposing defenses to single-cover him. At times last year, the rookie looked like the best offensive player on the Cowboys roster.

Yeah, I expect more bouts of immaturity from Bryant. Just like I did in years when Chad Ochocinco, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Michael Irvin, and all the other preening divas who were elite players at the position and earning prizes for me.

Live with it.

Matt Waldman: Mark Ingram is my third player. This one is the riskiest, because Pierre Thomas and/or Darren Sproles could take away enough touches from Ingram that it delays his ascent to a full-time lead back this year. However, I think Ingram is just what the doctor ordered for the Saints ground game, red zone schemes, and its vertical play action passing game.

I don't like banking on touchdowns as a fantasy stat, but the Saints are capable of getting to the red zone with great frequency. This proficiency fuels my belief that Ingram can be a 12-15 touchdown scorer as a rookie. Tack 1200 total yards to the total and we're looking at top-12 RB stats. If he becomes the lead back, I think he has the ability to earn 1500 total yards and that puts him top-five territory as a runner.

Mark Wimer: Chris mentioned Matt Ryan, and I am also on his bandwagon. Ryan has the skills, experience, and with the fruit of the 2011 draft, the weapons to challenge for a top-three finish at QB if everything breaks right for him this year. I'm targeting him in my redraft leagues this year.

Kansas City head coach Todd Haley has said openly that the team will ask Jamaal Charles to carry the ball more this year, and I think he's a lock for 300+ touches. With less vulturing from Thomas Jones, Charles could vault past the double-digit TD mark during 2011 - well past 10 scores into the mid-teens - and has a legitimate shot at ending the year as the #1 fantasy RB in the league. He's certainly a favorite to land at #1 in PPR leagues.

Is it cheating to say Wes Welker may (re)join the elite? He had an off year coming off an extensive knee injury and a quick comeback, but this year he'll be well over the 1-year mark at which most reconstructed knees really approach 100% healthy. In PPR leagues, Welker could easily shine again with over 100 receptions, though I worry some about his TD totals with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez snarfing up red-zone targets from Tom Brady these days.

The Raiders are going to pay Zach Miller a boatload of cash if they retain him, and he's a young-but-veteran guy who at 25 years old is entering the prime of his career. With constancy at QB in Jason Campbell for a second season - a huge upgrade over the other guys Miller has worked with early in his career - Miller may challenge for 80-90 receptions and 1,000+ yards with high-single-digit TDs. He could easily vault into the top-three at the TE position this year.

Jeff Pasquino: I think one name that's going to surface quickly is Percy Harvin. Sidney Rice is gone, so he now moves up the food chain and will become the de facto WR1 for the Vikings. He's a playmaker for sure, and if McNabb (or Ponder) can find him 5-8 times a game he definitely has Top 10 WR upside (plus he can return kicks, too).

At QB the obvious choice outside of the Top 10 is Matthew Stafford. Between Calvin Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew, Nate Burleson, Tony Scheffler and rookie WR Titus Young (plus Jahvid Best out of the backfield), the Lions could really put up some big passing games.

I'll go against the grain on the Jimmy Graham love. Now that Lance Moore is back in the fold in New Orleans, I think many of the TE targets will now head towards Moore instead, limiting Graham's upside. I cannot see going after Graham when other very viable TEs with better track records should be available later in fantasy drafts (Owen Daniels, Chris Cooley).