Hours upon hours are spent studying for fantasy drafts. Owners pour over rankings, sweating out who to take with their first, second, and third round picks. Long nights spent in mock draft lobbies, bottomless cups of coffee consumed to prop the eyelids open and scour the web for sleeper lists to score that amazing late-round steal. It doesn't matter what the significant others say, we know it's all worth it when show time comes. Success is when preparation meets opportunity. I do all the homework too, and then some, but as I was browsing through a magazine looking back at the year that was in 2011, a couple guys caught my eye. And like always, it got me thinking.
The beginning and the end of the draft get their due, but all too often the middle rounds are overlooked. The majority of the player pool gets lumped into larger tiers with little effort expended to try and decipher the slight potential differences in value. As the saying goes, you can't win your league in the first few rounds, but you sure can lose it. And everyone likes that magical sleeper, so these extremes occupy much of our energy. Many times, however, those difference-makers of picks come smack in the middle. While perusing my magazine this particular time, the guys who caught my eye were all well-known players. They had put up substantial stats in the past, but owners had given up on them. They'd been tossed to curb, passed over by each and every owner in drafts multiple times. But they weren't dead, not yet. There was still some fight in them, and they bolted back to life and delivered those crafty (or lucky) owners who signed them up big rewards.
Outside of his one-game season in 2004, Steve Smith posted his lowest totals in receptions, yards, and touchdowns since his rookie year in 2010. Nobody wanted to draft him. His time had come, the inevitable downward spiral cascading away into the twilight of his career. Then his organization drafted Colossus to play quarterback and Smith returned to Nightcrawler form, vanishing through defenses and teleporting his way to 79 catches, 1,394 yards, and seven scores.
Heading into last season it had been three years since Marshawn Lynch rushed for 1,000 yards. He was buried on the depth chart in Buffalo and shipped out mid-season in 2010 to Seattle where he managed to find pay dirt six times, but was far from the emerging stud he appeared to be in his rookie and sophomore campaigns. Maybe worth a mid-to-late round flier in 2011, but that Seattle offense was so repulsive. Well, out rolled the now-famous "Beast Mode". Though he looked more like Juggernaut, a helmeted ball of fury barreling through anything bold and dumb enough to get in his way, helpless to slow him as he stampeded to 1,416 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns.
Willis McGahee's career was tragic. We all watched in pain as the dynamic superstar from the University of Miami suffered a horrific injury, questioning everything in this young man's bright future. But he battled back, valiantly realizing his dream and posting four very solid NFL seasons. The life of the running back is short-lived though, and he was fading away, toiling as a part-time specialist in Baltimore, barely registering a whimper of a blip on the fantasy radar. I don't have a cool, X-Men reference that fits for Willis, but in 2012 he Stormed back (sorry, couldn't help myself), signed by Denver, Knowshon Moreno goes down, Tim Tebow ascends, the option is reborn, and here we are, 1,199 rushing yards and five total touchdowns later.
These guys, for all intents and purposes, were left for dead, but they weren't. It's not over 'til it's over.
Today's list isn't sure-fire producers, wondrous sleepers, or gotta-have selections. By inclusion here, they're players who the general public has just about given up on. My point, is you may want to think twice when those middle rounds roll around and you're contemplating that no. 3 wideout, or the upside rookie or second-year guy with potential, and maybe take a shot on the once-productive veteran who's been down on his luck for one reason or another. Here are my five, creeping from the grave.
5. Kevin Smith - RB - Detroit Lions
Smith is a talented runner. In his junior year at Central Florida he rushed for 2,567 yards, just 61 short of the all-time record held by the great Barry Sanders, and scored 30 touchdowns. His first two seasons in the league were a success, not roaring, but still, he averaged 1,212 yards from scrimmage including 40 receptions per year, and 6.5 scores. Then he blew out his knee, Detroit drafted Jahvid Best to be his replacement, and the dirt started piling over him. Best has since fallen on hard times himself as serious concussion issues that started in college resurfaced in 2011, and second-rounder from a year ago Mikel Leshoure lost his rookie season to an Achilles injury and has subsequently been in constant trouble with the law, and the league, and will serve a two-game suspension to start the year. Smith's return to action last season in Week 10 was timely for the Lions, and his production relatively impressive on an offense that threw more passes than any other. He averaged 4.9 YPC, hauled in 22 catches, and totaled 535 yards and seven touchdowns in seven games. It's a committee in Motown to be sure, but while other owners will be quick to snatch up the younger and more appealing Best and Leshoure, it's not too hard to imagine a scenario where Smith ends up as the guy. He was re-signed in the offseason, and beyond that, what's telling to me in regard to the team's confidence in him, is even with Best's potentially career-threatening head issues, and Leshoure's blatant immaturity, no moves were made to address the position.
4. Sidney Rice - WR - Seattle Seahawks
I wrote about Rice once already this season in my Early Risers column, but to be clear, I'm not gung-ho and completely sold on a rebound. His specialty is getting deep and Matt Flynn's arm strength and ability is still in question, the Seahawks figure to lean on the run and Lynch again this season, there's the obvious injury history, and there are some young talented guys hungry to get their own. It is, however, for all these same reasons, Rice could be an absolute steal in drafts. It was only three seasons, but it feels like a lifetime ago, when he notched 1,312 yards and eight scores. When you look at the elite guys at the position, with a few exceptions (Smith, Victor Cruz, Wes Welker, DeSean Jackson), the vast majority of them have incredible physical tools and bigger builds like Rice. To be fair, the players mentioned in the intro who turned things back around in 2011 were down more as a result of a lack of opportunity or a competent supporting cast than injury, and that makes Rice one of the riskiest picks in 2012. If, however, he can get and stay healthy, and Flynn turns out to be more Drew Brees than Kevin Kolb, admittedly each sizable "if's", he could be paying serious bank to owners this fall while coming for the price of a WR3 or WR4.
3. DeAngelo Williams - RB - Carolina Panthers
I know, I know what you're thinking. Stay away from the Carolina backfield! It was bad enough when you had to pick between Williams and Jonathan Stewart, now you've got Cam Newton the unstoppable force, and they signed bulldozing Mike Tolbert. That's a lot of mouths. All very real, and true, but it pushes the price on Williams dirt cheap. Remember, today's list isn't guys you expect to do great things, but guys who you can envision a possible scenario where it works. Newton will score less on the ground in 2012, probably, maybe. He might be the last guy in the NFL I'd want to try and tackle, but based purely on the law of averages. Trades almost never happen in the NFL, which I must say is one of the most disappointing aspects of an almost-perfect league, but Stewart has to be one of the most perfect candidates ever. He's talented, young, an impending free-agent-to-be, and just not needed. Ron Rivera is familiar with Tolbert from their time in San Diego so you'd think there's a motive there, but he claims that purpose is at fullback and I have no reason to believe otherwise. Lastly, even if non of these scenarios transpire, and you get Williams at the price of a third or fourth running back or as one of several flex options, he can still get it done within his limited role. In fact, in his monster 2008 (1,515 yards and 18 TDs) Stewart had 184 carries, 836 yards and 10 scores. The following year they both went for 1,000-plus, and last year the team ranked third in rushing yardage and first in touchdowns. This offense knows how to run it. Williams' totals from a year ago were 971 yards from scrimmage, a healthy 5.4 YPC, and seven scores, not amazing, not horrible, useful, and just maybe...
2. Randy Moss - WR - San Francisco 49ers
The last time we saw Moss, it wasn't pretty. After getting jettisoned from New England, his fall from grace was rapid, and ugly. He seems like an extremely prideful guy to me, however, and despite what the common commentary suggests, I don't think he's back solely for the paycheck. He has a legacy to restore, and it's a historical one at that. I'm not sure Alex Smith, and his small hands, can sling it deep enough to capitalize on Moss' bread and butter on a regular or consistent basis, but Jim Harbaugh is a smart guy who has already proven himself as a capable coach in one year, and I think he finds a way to both motivate and utilize Moss. The offense took big strides with Smith last year and this time around they get a full offseason to learn the system. You can be successful in today's NFL as a tough, run-based team (proven by the 49ers and Texans in 2011), but to win it all, you have to be able to do it all. This fact doesn't appear to be lost on the San Francisco brass, as the team brought in Mario Manningham and drafted A.J. Jenkins in the first round to go along with Moss and the incumbent Michael Crabtree. Harbaugh's success with tight ends at Stanford and the extra talent on the outside defenses will now have to account for make Vernon Davis my favorite of the 49ers weapons for 2012, but Moss' value is insanely low for the potential return, even if he's, as Scott Weiland would say, half the man he used to be.
1. Reggie Wayne - WR - Indianapolis Colts
The great thing about the lead-up to draft day is you can change your mind. A month ago, I had Wayne way down my draft board. The Colts blindingly putrid offensive performance of 2011 was fresh in my mind, and like most others, I perceived the perennial Pro Bowler had lost a step. While that may be true, as I contemplated this article, it made me reconsider my evaluation. Playing with perhaps the worst quarterbacks ever assembled to orchestrate a professional team, he managed 75 receptions, 960 yards, and four touchdowns. He also pulled in 12 20-plus yarders and had three 100-yard games. If his name was Ryan Culson and you picked him up off waivers, you'd be thrilled with that. Of course Wayne won't be slipping that far, but for a guy who is only one year removed from being a top-5 wide receiver and back-to-back 100-reception campaigns, and is being drafted around the seventh or eighth round, you could do a whole lot worse. All we've been hearing for the last two years is Andrew Luck is the next Peyton Manning. Well, now he has the chance to be just that, with the same connection-mate. It won't all be there in Year One, but if Andy Dalton can throw for 3,398 and 20 scores in the AFC North, I feel pretty confident Luck will at minimum be a significant upgrade from the Curtis Painter/Kerry Collins/Dan Orlovsky triumvirate of wretchedness.
Tell me how much you love/hate these selections. Who is your favorite veteran rebound candidate? Comment below.