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My Five: Early Risers

Throughout the preseason I'll be posting lists of five across the fantasy landscape. Today I'm going to start with players whose value is on the rise. Things change fast in the NFL. Past success isn't always an indication of future performance, and vice versa. With the influx of new talent from the college draft, and the vast movement of players in free agency, the look of a team can differ drastically from one year to the next. My focus in this selection of players is to highlight guys who have a lot of room to grow, and have gotten some help to get there.

5. Eric Decker - WR - Denver Broncos

With Peyton Manning in town, Decker and Demaryius Thomas are going to be hot commodities this fall. There are reasons to like each guy, but Thomas' strong finish and monster playoff performance against Pittsburgh are likely to drive his price too high for my taste. Decker, on the other hand, faded badly down the stretch, registering a meager seven receptions for 85 yards and no scores the final five weeks. Those numbers should scare enough owners away on draft day to keep his value in a comfortable spot. In his best eight games through Week 12 (he had three duds and a bye week), Decker hauled in 33 catches for 510 yards and eight touchdowns. Not bad. Now he has "The Sheriff" throwing to him, and the experience of a full season, in which he admittedly wore down, to motivate him to get better and be more prepared in 2012. Decker got right to work after the signing to build a rapport with his new quarterback, which should serve him well considering the importance Manning places on practice and timing.

Projection Finish at Position-Notable names ranked ahead of:

Top 30 - Anquan Boldin, Mike Williams, Brandon Lloyd, Mario Manningham, Torrey Smith

4. Jay Cutler - QB - Chicago Bears

Cutler has failed to meet expectations during his tenure in the Windy City, but you can't make chicken salad out of...well, you know the rest. In his three years with the Bears, running back Matt Forte has led the team in receptions twice, and tight end Greg Olsen did it once. Devin Hester's 57 catches in 2009 were the most recorded by a receiver over that span. Yikes. This offseason the organization finally took steps to provide Cutler with a viable supporting cast. First was the controversial trade reuniting him with Brandon Marshall, and then Chicago traded up in the second round to draft Alshon Jeffery. The last time he and Marshall were paired up in Denver in 2008, Cutler threw for 4,526 yards and 25 scores. Jeffery's speed and work ethic have been called into question, but at 6'4'' and 220-plus pounds, he should be a dangerous weapon in the red zone. Johnny Knox, Hester, and Forte round out an impressive weaponry Cutler will be loaded with to get back to his gun-slinging ways.

Projection Finish at Position-Notable names ranked ahead of:

Top 15 - Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Carson Palmer, Robert Griffin III

3. Sidney Rice - WR - Seattle Seahawks

Rice has disappointed many a fantasy owner the past two seasons. The fact he enters this summer with just 49 catches, 764 yards, and four touchdowns since his breakout in 2009, and he's recovering from a concussion and surgeries on both of his shoulders will surely steer most owners clear, but that one magical season (83 catches for 1,312 yards and eight scores) showed the upside of his talent, and he got a nice present in March when the Seahawks signed Matt Flynn. Brett Favre was Rice's quarterback in '09, and while injuries have played a major part in his struggles since, the subsequent seasons were engineered by the likes of Tarvaris Jackson, Joe Webb, and Charlie Whitehurst. The hope is that Flynn can return Rice to the elite level. He is unproven, but he studied under perhaps the league's best at the position, and he posted quite the audition, chewing up the Lions for 480 yards and six touchdowns in his Week 17 start. Rice is expected to be healthy by training camp, and with a strong running game and some complementary pieces to draw off coverage, he could be a big bounce back guy in 2012.

Projection Finish at Position-Notable names ranked ahead of:

Top 25 - Pierre Garcon, Santonio Holmes, Reggie Wayne, Laurent Robinson, Antonio Brown

2. Josh Freeman - QB - Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Freeman ended 2011 with an NFL-second-worst 22 interceptions, and his quarterback rating took a precipitous fall, dropping 21.3 points down to 74.6, placing him 31st among guys who attempted at least 100 passes. But this is a new year, and Tampa's offseason overhaul has gained raved reviews across the league. Vincent Jackson gives Freeman a go-to guy, and is a legitimate deep threat. Boise State running back Doug Martin should be a weapon out of the backfield, and Carl Nicks will offer improved protection, and could be a mammoth body to tuck behind should any goalline sneak opportunities arise. Freeman possesses all the tools to be an elite passer, but his running capabilities should not be understated. Cam Newton showed us how valuable those stats can be, and while Freeman is certainly not on his level, he stands behind only Newton, Tim Tebow, Michael Vick, and Aaron Rodgers in quarterback rushing yards over the past two years. He punched in four scores on the ground last season and has reportedly slimmed down in an effort to be more elusive and mobile in 2012. The NFC South was the second-highest scoring division in football last season, so for Tampa to get back to being competitive, the Bucs and Freeman will have to power up the attack.

Projection Finish at Position-Notable names ranked ahead of:

Top 12 - Philip Rivers, Matt Schaub, Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler, Andrew Luck

1. Ryan Mathews - RB - San Diego Chargers

Mathews' production has been impressive for a young player, but his problems with ball security and injuries have left fantasy owners wondering what if. The first issue cost him goalline duties early in his rookie campaign, and the second has cost him six games in his first two seasons. He has dealt with injuries to virtually every part of his lower body; groin, knee, calf, ankle, toe, and has earned himself that ugly stigma in this tough-guy sport. The knocks against Mathews won't subside until he plays out a full season, and stops putting the ball on the turf, but 2012 is lining up to be a great opportunity for him to go nuts. First and foremost, Mike Tolbert and his 19 rushing touchdowns from the last two years signed with Carolina. Jackson also bolted town, and Antonio Gates isn't getting any younger, meaning an even larger role (50 catches, 455 yards in '11) could be placed upon Mathews in the passing game. With their Pro Bowl deep threat gone, Rivers struggling with turnovers, and the team missing the playoffs for two straight years, it's very possible the Chargers will return to the ground-oriented attack that was so successful in the LaDainian Tomlinson era, with Mathews as the bell cow.

Projection Finish at Position-Notable names ranked ahead of:

Top 6 - Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Marshawn Lynch, Michael Turner, Jamaal Charles