Adam Levitan

Draft Analysis

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Favorite Fliers

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

One day around this time last year, an owner in your league called out Mike Williams, WR, Tampa Bay in Round 11. Everyone brushed it off and got back to drafting their defenses, kickers and washed up veterans. Big mistake.

Far too often, the final rounds of drafts are wasted simply because we don't have a purpose. The idea is not to aimlessly flail for a familiar name, which often turns out to be a dustball. The goal should be to acquire talented players that could be fantasy starters -- or even studs -- if a couple breaks go their way. Merely securing a "get me by," low-upside option is for the weak.

Let's define a flier as a position player taken after starters and quality depth has been established. In a 16-round draft, it's the guys between Rounds 11 and 14. That's four chances to spin the wheel and hope we hit something big, like Williams or Marcedes Lewis from a year ago. Because we are investing so little in these fliers, we can swing for the fences and cut bait at any time if it doesn't work out.

Before we get to the list, let's go over the ground rules. These players must have an average draft position of 110.0 or higher. If you think Mario Manningham or Matthew Stafford or Beanie Wells is a flier, I want an invite to your league.

Players such as Lance Moore, Danny Amendola, Brandon Jacobs and Mike Sims-Walker just missed the cut due to their rising ADPs. I also left off a lot of handcuffs I mentioned in this column last week. Javon Ringer and Rashad Jennings made the list as players with standalone value. But if I own Darren McFadden or Ray Rice, you can be sure I am grabbing their handcuffs just before the flier range.

There are also some guys that have found their way off my flier list. There's a good chance Roy Williams simply isn't that good. Danario Alexander's knees are a mess, Shane Vereen is buried on the depth chart and Jerome Simpson has no quarterback.

So, here are the top-15 guys I'm targeting as my fliers. They are ranked in order of how intensely I fantasize about them on my squad:

1. Jared Cook, TE, Titans - ADP 147.5
Cook continues to fly under the radar because no one seems to know who he is. But Matt Hasselbeck certainly does: "I watched Cook run by this guy, just run by him, and I was like, 'OK Cook can run.' It's nice to know what your tight ends can do. I think the eight ends are really the focal point of any offense." New offensive coordinator Chris Palmer has made similarly raving comments. With uncanny athleticism and two years of experience now under his belt, Cook is a strong bet to have TE1 value before the dust settles. Ace beat writer Jim Wyatt believes Cook will lead the Titans in receptions.

Editor's Note: For constantly updating rankings, projections, exclusive columns, ADP reports, mock drafts and much more, check out the 2011 Draft Guide!

2. Robert Meachem, WR, Saints - ADP 134.7
The wildly inconsistent Meachem is finally stringing together health after offseason surgery on his troublesome left ankle. Meanwhile, No. 1 receiver Marques Colston has injury red flags all around him thanks to yet another knee surgery. And with Devery Henderson possibly not making the roster, Meachem stands to at least pick up extra snaps this season. In a best-case scenario, he takes over for Colston and capitalizes on his first-round talent.

3. Johnny Knox, WR, Bears - ADP 119.8
The Bears inexplicably handed Knox's starting split end job to Roy Williams. Somewhat predictably, Williams has crashed and burned. But in the meantime, Knox's stock has slipped way under the radar. He added 10 pounds of muscle this offseason and is having a strong camp by all accounts. Once he snags his job back from Williams, Knox will be a steal for savvy owners that have followed the roller coaster.

4. Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Steelers - ADP 165.0
The foot woes Sanders is dealing with yields a double-edged sword. The bad news is he hasn't been able to establish himself as the No. 3 receiver. The good news is his ADP has sunk to low-flier levels. Even though Antonio Brown has handled himself well with the opportunity, he isn't on the same talent level as Sanders. And Jerricho Cotchery is in the decline phase of an unspectacular career. If and when Hines Ward cliffdives to unplayable levels, Sanders will be the one the Steelers want on the field.

5. Javon Ringer, RB, Titans - ADP 146.8
At this point, we are all well aware of Chris Johnson's holdout. Not only is he in danger of missing Week 1, but he could also be more susceptible to muscle strains and pulls upon his return. Ringer has averaged 4.9 yards per carry as a pro. There is standalone value here, even for non-CJ2K owners. Rookie Jamie Harper projects as the mere passing-down back.

6. Michael Crabtree, WR, 49ers - ADP 117.5
For the third straight preseason, Crabtree is not participating. This time, it's due to a left foot injury. Combine that with an apparent lack of chemistry with Alex Smith and we have a well-known, extremely talented guy in the flier zone. It's a chance to take a low-risk gamble on a player that has significant upside if the light switch ever turns on.

7. Jacoby Ford, WR, Raiders - ADP 125.7
Ford shredded the Chiefs for 148 yards in Week 9 last season and then put 108 yards and a touchdown on the Dolphins in Week 12. Now he has the backing of new head coach Hue Jackson as he is listed as a starting wideout. With world-class speed and a few return touchdowns thrown in, the ceiling here is high.

8. Rashad Jennings, RB, Jaguars - ADP 127.2
The concerns over Maurice Jones-Drew's knee have been well documented throughout the offseason. If MJD does go down, Jennings would immediately become an every-down back staring at 18-25 touches per game. He has the talent to do a lot of damage with that kind of workload.

9. Jordy Nelson, WR, Packers - ADP 116.0 AND 10. James Jones, WR, Packers - ADP 150.9
Nelson gets the slight nod over Jones because he is listed directly behind Donald Driver on the official depth chart. Jones is listed behind the younger, better Greg Jennings. Nelson also finished ahead of Jones last season thanks to the latter's brutal drops in big spots. Either way, these two will need an injury to be consistent fantasy plays, especially with Jermichael Finley healthy. That said, Driver's steep decline makes both moderately appealing fliers.

11. Stevan Ridley, RB, Patriots - ADP 157.9
Ridley's impressive preseason has him on the radar. In two games, the third-round rookie has racked up 148 rushing yards on 30 carries to go with 10 catches and three total touchdowns. He is way ahead of fellow rookie Shane Vereen and it could be argued that Ridley is simply more talented than starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

12. Roy Helu, RB, Redskins - ADP 127.1
Tim Hightower is screaming up draft boards right now as the Redskins' clear starter. But Helu is quietly holding his own, racking up 101 rushing yards on 14 carries and four catches in the second preseason game. Hightower's inability to make people miss and Ryan Torain's frail body should eventually lead to starts for Helu at some point this season.

13. Aaron Hernandez, TE, Patriots - ADP 143.3
A uniquely talented pass-catcher with Tom Brady as his quarterback should never be going this late. While Rob Gronkowski is the obvious red-zone option, the five-round gap between the two tight ends' ADP is stunning. Hernandez averaged 54.5 yards a day through the first eight games of last season and won't be 22 years old until November. Nice upside.

14. Greg Olsen, TE, Panthers - ADP 144.0
The Panthers have no legit No. 2 receiver, which is just fine by them. That's because new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski loves to feature the tight end in the passing game and they acquired Olsen after the lockout. While the raw skills of Cam Newton caps Olsen's upside, he still is a strong bet to reach 60 catches.

15. Greg Little, WR, Browns - ADP 148.1
Little isn't officially listed as a starting wideout yet, but that will come sooner rather than later. Brian Robiskie is among the least productive players in the league and Josh Cribbs is not a receiver. Little was drafted to be the physical, run-after-catch receiver that Colt McCoy's weak arm needs in the West Coast offense. His target count figures to grow as the year goes on.

* Denarius Moore, WR, Raiders - Making big waves at Raiders camp. If they ever bail on Darrius Heyward-Bey like they should, Moore looks like a player.

* Arrelious Benn, WR, Bucs - Dezmon Briscoe is impressing as Benn continues his recovery from a torn ACL. These two could be battling for reps and targets into the season.

* Jacoby Jones, WR, Texans - He can't beat out Kevin Walter, so he'll need an injury to be relevant.

* Tony Moeaki, TE, Chiefs - Excellent pass-catcher, but the Chiefs' run-first offense quiets major buzz.

* Lance Kendricks, TE, Rams - One of the biggest standouts at Rams camp, Kendricks is being used all over the field in a variety of roles. Exciting prospect.

Follow Adam Levitan on Twitter.

Adam Levitan is in his seventh season covering football and basketball for Rotoworld. He won the Fantasy Sports Writers Association award for Best Series in 2011 and 2009, and ESPN's overall fantasy football title in 2000. Find him on Twitter.
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