Evan Silva

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Jumping off the Page

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

6. Lions running back Kevin Smith

The Money Quote: "We have a lot of confidence in him. He's made a lot of plays for us. If he's out there, we know he can make plays." -- Lions head coach Jim Schwartz.

Smith's durability will be a concern until he proves capable of staying healthy for an extended stretch, but at the moment he's the only healthy, decent back in Lions training camp. And, for now at least, that counts for something. Mikel Leshoure can't shake the lingering effects of his 2011 Achilles' tendon tear, and Jahvid Best (concussion) can't get clearance to resume playing ball.

There are three Detroit media outlets that closely follow the Lions. They've all called Smith the favorite to start in Week 1. Here's the Detroit News calling Smith the "frontrunner" to start on Opening Day. And MLive.com deeming Smith "likely" to break camp as the Lions' starter. Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press tweeted Sunday that Smith should be "the guy ... if you (have) got a fantasy draft today."

And ESPN NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert is on board, too.

Smith's Average Draft Position is rising. It was the 13th round over the weekend, and is already up to the latter portion of the 11th. Consider Smith a fantasy value pick anywhere in the double digits.

7. Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph

The Money Quote: "Kyle Rudolph was pretty much option Nos. 1, 3 and 5 today. Looked more athletic than last year, when slowed by the hamstring injury. Getting downfield a little faster now. Smooth coming out of breaks." -- Friday's St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The tight end position looks shallow and top heavy in fantasy this season. Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham are clearly the cream of the crop. They tilt weekly scoring because they produce so much more than everyone else. Behind Graham and Gronk, Antonio Gates, Aaron Hernandez, Vernon Davis, and Jermichael Finley can keep you competitive. Then, there's a drop off. Fred Davis, Jason Witten, Jacob Tamme, and Tony Gonzalez are nice names, but you're at a weekly disadvantage if one of them is your starter, and you're going against Graham or Gronkowski. Behind those ten tight ends, the likes of Dustin Keller, Brent Celek, and Jared Cook are not TE1s. Brandon Pettigrew is a borderline starter in PPR leagues. He is a poor option in standard scoring.

Rudolph's ADP is undrafted, and he has the potential to be Minnesota's No. 2 pass option, behind Percy Harvin. If early camp is any indication, Vikings OC Bill Musgrave will use Rudolph all over the formation, creating mismatches as a catch-first weapon. Rudolph also blocks well enough to be an every-down player. If Christian Ponder makes second-year strides, it's not crazy to think Rudolph could push for third-tier tight end statistics in the range of Witten, Tamme, and Gonzo.

8. Rams running back Steven Jackson

The Money Quote: "Yeah. I actually see him being a backup. If it's the way I want it ... I will continue to be the workhorse. He can relieve me at times during the game, or when we need a change of pace against the defense. ... I'm looking at 25 to 30, plus touches a game." -- Jackson on PFT Live, discussing Rams second-round pick Isaiah Pead.

Just as Jackson reported to camp, he tweeted that he's down to 234.8 pounds and 5.1 percent body fat. Entering his age-29 season as the NFL's active leader in rushing attempts, Jackson shed 10 pounds from last year, intent on maintaining his every-down back role. S-Jax dropped the weight by removing eggs, salmon, broccoli, pork, vanilla, and guacamole from his diet. "My energy feels up," Jackson says. "I feel alive."

The Rams began practices on Sunday, and camp observer Mike Sando -- ESPN's NFC West blogger -- noted that Jackson's "quickness was apparent" on the first day of drills. "We should expect the Rams to continue feeding Jackson at a high rate," Sando wrote, days earlier. "... I would think Jackson, with two seasons remaining on his contract, should be able to carry a heavy load in 2012."

New Rams coach Jeff Fisher has never been afraid to overwork running backs, regardless of age. He did it most recently with Chris Johnson. Before that, Eddie George. And George gives us a bit of a datapoint. In his own age-29 campaign with Fisher as head coach, George ran the football 343 times and caught 36 passes. He scored 14 touchdowns.

9. Titans quarterback Jake Locker

The Money Quote: "Both quarterbacks looked sharp tonight, but I was really impressed with Jake Locker, who finished 10-of-14 in team drills. Showed poise and zip on (the) ball." -- Jim Wyatt of the Nashville Tennessean.

The Titans didn't hold their first media-access practice until Sunday night. It was Locker earning high marks out of the gate by outperforming Matt Hasselbeck in drills. While Hasselbeck and Locker will split practice reps down the middle all camp, Locker's performance appeared to earn him the first-team nod on Monday. Locker began the second open practice as the Titans' starter.

Through two practices conducted with media members allowed, Locker has completed 17 of his 25 pass attempts on the first-team offense. Hasselbeck is 11-of-22 with a pair of interceptions. Training camp passing stats are essentially worthless, but they do reflect that Locker is throwing the football well. We already knew he was a big-time athlete with unwavering pocket presence and a rocket arm.

Coach Mike Munchak plans to name a starter before the third preseason game (Aug. 23). While spring speculation almost universally sided with Hasselbeck, the talent differential between the upstart youngster and in-decline veteran is tremendous. I am convinced that Locker will be given every opportunity to play on Opening Day. And his hot start to camp can only help his chances.

10. Chargers tight end Antonio Gates

The Money Quote: "Antonio Gates running with no limp after a 2011 season spent with constant foot pain, and smiling almost every time he took his helmet off, and saying afterward, I appreciate my health so much now that I've got it back.'" -- MMQB.

Camp reports from SI's Peter King, the Union-Tribune San Diego, and the North County Times have all indicated Gates is as "healthy as ever" and has overcome his 2010-2011 feet problems. Battling a plantar fascia tear, Gates missed nine games over those two seasons and was often ineffective when he was in the lineup. But I am buying the notion that Gates is past that.

I saw it with my own eyes.

During my offseason re-watching of Darrius Heyward-Bey's 2011 games, the Chargers' Week 17 matchup with the Raiders stood out. Gates was nothing short of terrific. He moved as fluidly as ever and didn't favor the foot. He was healthy then, and he's healthy now. Gates' rear end is as big as ever, but that might help him, boxing out linebackers and safeties like a power forward.

Gates will be Philip Rivers' No. 1 pass option this year, and I think he will score enough to rank third among fantasy tight ends, behind Graham and Gronk. I'd draft Gates early in the fifth round.

Honorable Mentions: Bucs receiver Vincent Jackson, Browns receiver Josh Gordon, Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders, Cardinals running back Ryan Williams, Saints receiver Adrian Arrington, Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery, Jets running back Bilal Powell, Seahawks receiver Golden Tate, Redskins receiver Leonard Hankerson, Chiefs receiver Jonathan Baldwin.

Evan Silva is a senior football editor for Rotoworld.com. He can be found on Twitter .
Email :Evan Silva

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