Well, what do you know? It's Flag Day.
Last year's "10 must-draft players" column, in which I picked my favorite fantasy draftees for the 2010 season (by "planting a flag" by them), became one of the most identifiable things I've done for ESPN. Since the lockout ended, it's the question I've received most on Facebook and Twitter: "Who are your flag guys this year?"
To further define my flag guys, I'm isolating the 10 players who will most dramatically outperform the current public perception of their fantasy values. These are not guys you should take anywhere near the first round, however.
I had an interesting discussion with my colleague Keith Lipscomb last week about what a good success rate should be for an effort like this. We're mostly choosing from among underappreciated players, so sometimes the opportunity never really presents itself for these players to excel, and sometimes the players turn out to be not very good. Lipscomb contended that if you hit on even half the guys on a list like this, you're doing pretty well.
For sure, last year's group had some hits and some misses. Jamaal Charles was "my guy" for 2010, the player to whom I most emphatically hitched my wagon, and that was a good call. Mike Wallace was another home run. The about-to-be-suspended Santonio Holmes eventually was a solid pick, and Joe Flacco was OK. I'm proud of selecting Johnny Knox, considering most everyone else was all over Devin Aromashodu. Donald Brown and Beanie Wells were disastrously bad calls, while Jacoby Jones, Laurent Robinson and Bernard Scott were later-round sleepers who kept sleeping. The highs were high, and the lows were unimpressive.
But again, the goal here is to use cautious statistical analysis and copious game-tape watching to find the guys other people don't expect to be great. We're deviating from the herd here, trying to forecast the unexpected. So this list won't ever be even close to perfect, but it sure is fun to try. (Quick aside on the actual Flag Day: June 14. It's my sister Stacey's birthday! So this column is dedicated to her.)
Jahvid Best, RB, Detroit Lions. I wish I could say I feel as good about Best this year as I did about Charles last year. I feel great about Best's talent, for sure. When healthy, he runs a 4.35 40 with the quickness and change-of-direction that remind me so much of J-Mail. They're almost exactly the same size, too. But Best rightly inspires panic in fantasy owners because of his injury history. At Cal, he needed surgeries on his elbow, shoulder and hip, and missed the final four games of his collegiate career with a concussion. As a rookie in Detroit, he suffered dual turf-toe injuries that didn't cause him to miss time (he played in 16 games), but greatly limited his effectiveness. He's stayed healthy so far during this summer's training camp, but naturally that means very little. I'm betting into a trend here: The smart money says Best gets hurt again. But, oh, if he doesn't. There's Charles-like upside here, and in fact, Charles' 2010 usage is a good guideline. When the Lions drafted Mikel Leshoure, they did it in part with an eye toward keeping Best healthy, and now that Leshoure is out for the year with a torn Achilles tendon, Jerome Harrison will fill that role. With the Kansas City Chiefs last year, Charles averaged 14.4 carries and 17.2 touches per game. Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan will use Harrison enough to keep Best near those same numbers (perhaps a bit higher on the receptions). Plus, realize that while Leshoure would've clearly gotten first crack at goal-line opportunities, Harrison isn't any better-suited for that role than Best is, so high-single-digit TDs isn't out of the question. I'm choosing to swallow the health risks, and go all-in on Best's talent. He's No. 15 on my personal running back list right now.
Austin Collie, WR, Indianapolis Colts. It doesn't take a guru to locate the concern with Collie for 2011. He suffered three concussions last season, which caused him to miss most of eight of the Colts' final 10 games. For all the chipper talk about how good Collie feels eight months later, all it will take is one wrong hit to send him back to the sidelines. But once again, it's a risk I'm willing to take. Collie has scored 15 TDs in 25 games as a professional. Last year, he caught by far the highest percentage of passes thrown his way among the league's 100 most targeted wideouts (nearly 82 percent, with no one else above 72). He'll line up almost exclusively out of the slot, meaning he's regularly matched up on nickelbacks or linebackers, and defenses have to account for him third or fourth in that high-octane Indy offense. I know you might feel a bit squeamish about selecting an NFL team's No. 3 or 4 receiving target to be your No. 2 or 3 fantasy receiver, but Peyton Manning threw an ungodly 679 attempts last year. That's more than 42 per game. There's plenty of room for Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and even Pierre Garcon to get theirs, and still leave tons of work for Collie, provided he's healthy. That's why I have Collie at No. 19 on my personal receiver list right now.
Shonn Greene, RB, New York Jets. At our rankings summit back in May, there was a high degree of nausea associated with Greene. I pushed for him to be included well inside our top 25 running backs and was met with a brick wall of hatred. Those who'd fought for Greene last year (I was most decidedly not among them; he made my list of potential busts for '10) felt suitably chastened after he ran for only 766 yards and scored exactly two TDs. And while the stories out of Jets camp this August have been encouraging -- indicating that Greene will finally take a clearer full-time role over LaDainian Tomlinson -- I'm trying not to get carried away because (let's face it) NFL coaches don't have tons of professional incentive to be 100 percent honest. But if you look at the way the rushing results changed in '10, I think you'll see a pattern:
Not only did the workload begin to even out after the Jets' Week 7 bye, but LDT's results tanked. By the playoffs, Greene was clearly the more effective player. Now, I'm not trying to tell you Tomlinson won't be a drain. Used in smaller doses, he probably won't wear down as much. Plus, he's one of the greatest goal-line rushers in NFL history, and last year he out-carried Greene inside the 5-yard line by a whopping 11-3. That's why I'm not instantly calling Greene a 10-team-league starter. But I do think he's going to morph into a superior flex option.
Rashad Jennings, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars. As I mentioned earlier, I included Bernard Scott on last year's version of this list, and Cedric Benson kept the Cincy running job all year. Picking Jennings invokes the same risk. Maurice Jones-Drew is one of the NFL's best players when he's right, so no matter how talented Jennings is (and he's talented), there won't be many carries for him provided MJD stays healthy. But I'll go on record here saying that Jennings isn't only handcuff material this season. He's worth a lottery ticket for all teams. This is a 228-pound back who runs right around a 4.5 40. Skills-wise, Jennings -- the last rusher taken in the '09 draft -- is a poor man's Beanie Wells, but without those pesky injury worries. Scouts initially questioned whether Jennings had between-the-tackles toughness enough to take advantage of his size, but his NFL play over two seasons has quieted that noise. In Week 14 last year against the Oakland Raiders, Jennings became the sixth player in the last 50 years to run the ball at least five times and average more than 20 yards per carry, and he mustered 45 touches in Weeks 16 and 17 with MJD hurt. Now, obviously, as long as Jones-Drew is upright, Jennings will be limited to spot duty; before those final two games last season, Jennings topped out at 10 carries in a single contest. But with Jones-Drew's knee a real uncertainty -- he had meniscus surgery this winter, and has been treated with kid gloves so far in training camp -- you could do much worse than throw a speculative pick Jennings' way.
Mario Manningham, WR, New York Giants. I think most folks believe in Manningham to a certain extent simply by dint of opportunity. Steve Smith was never going to be ready to start the season for the Giants, and now that he's in Philly there's precious little proven wideout experience on the Giants' roster. But look at Manningham's game log down the stretch last year:
Granted, Hakeem Nicks missed Week 17, but he was present for the other two games (and performed quite well himself, scoring a TD in each game). The larger point is that Manningham is quite a deep threat. Eight of his nine scores in 2010 were 25 yards or longer, and three were 50 or longer. He's nowhere near Nicks' size (Manningham is 5-11 and 183 pounds; Nicks is 6-1, 215) but is faster, running a 40-yard dash in the mid-4.4s. For all of coach Tom Coughlin's gruff ways and the Giants' lingering reputation for being a run-centric team, Eli Manning finished in the top five among QBs last year in pass attempts that traveled between 21 and 40 yards in the air. Yes, sometimes those passes will go to Nicks, who, if he stays healthy, has a shot to be fantasy's No. 1 wideout. No, Manningham almost certainly doesn't have a similar shot. He has hands questions, to be sure, and finished only tied for 40th in targets among wideouts in '10. But with the likes of Domenik Hixon and Victor Cruz the only threat to his playing time, Manningham looks like a high-risk No. 2 or rock-solid No. 3 fantasy receiver in 10-team leagues, the kind of up-and-down player you can pair with, say, rock-steady Roddy White or Greg Jennings to maximize value.
Robert Meachem, WR, New Orleans Saints. Four seasons down, still waiting. Meachem was a first-round pick in 2007 but a pre-existing knee injury required surgery the summer after he was drafted, and he never saw the field in his rookie campaign. In the three seasons since, he hasn't topped 45 catches, and while he nabbed nine TDs in '09, Meachem dipped back down to five in '10. In a Saints offense that spreads around the love, why should you believe this year will be any different? Well, Meachem's efforts last season were limited by ankle problems, but he toughed it out and then had surgery this past winter. Now he's reportedly healthy and running as quickly as ever, and this is a guy who ran a 4.39 40 at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds at his draft combine. But for me, I think the deciding factor in Meachem's favor is the state of Marques Colston's knees. Colston had yet another knee procedure this offseason, a microfracture operation no less. That means each of Colston's knees has had microfracture surgery, and overall he's had three surgical procedures in the past 12 months. Not only that, but when Colston tried to run at camp, he immediately felt swelling and needed a week-and-a-half off from practice. I know how good Colston's hands are, and how reliable he is in the end zone. But he just scares the bejeezus out of me this year. It was frustrating as hell to watch Meachem alternate with the speedy-but-shaky-handed Devery Henderson for much of last season, but I give Meachem a big edge in that battle for '11. I know I won't be getting Colston in any draft this year, because I wouldn't take him until, say, No. 19 or 20 among wideouts. Meachem? He's already landed on many of my mock-draft squads, sometimes as early as the 10th round.
Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers. Boy, I was really ready to be in love with Sanders as a deep sleeper this year. He showed flashes out of three- and four-receiver sets as his rookie year wound down, with 11 grabs for 132 yards in Pittsburgh's final two meaningful games of the 2010 regular season. He was a bit scarce in September and October but started dominating snaps later in the year, shoving Antwaan Randle El and Antonio Brown to the wayside. Alas, Sanders broke a bone in his foot during the Steelers' Super Bowl loss and required two surgeries, then needed another procedure at the beginning of training camp. That puts a damper on things, but I'm still going out on a limb here: I think Sanders is going to be ownable even in 10-team leagues. Why do I feel so emboldened? Part of it is the decline of Hines Ward. Check out this comparison between Ward and Sanders from Week 10 forward last year:
Ward is, to put it gently, an old 35. With 954 career grabs and countless more crashing hits, his body doesn't seem likely to stay intact all year. (In particular, he's had leg issues in several recent seasons.) The Steelers' offense looked more dynamic when Sanders added his in-space quickness to Mike Wallace's deep speed. Now, Wallace is the definitive first guy to get fed in this pass attack, so there's a cap to how good Sanders can be even if he's healthy. And QB Ben Roethlisberger has talked up Brown this summer, too. But in a best-case scenario, Sanders gets healthy and eats into Ward's No. 2 wideout touches, then takes advantage if and when Hines gets hurt to become a viable fantasy flex.
Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions. I vividly recall our 2009 rankings summit. I could get no traction for Matt Schaub. I pushed for him as our No. 6 fantasy quarterback because he looked awfully good when he was healthy, and while he missed big chunks of '08 and '09, I wasn't going to accuse the guy of lacking toughness. It wasn't a case of his being brittle; he took shots. Anyway, Schaub wound up outside our group top 10, but subsequently led the NFL in passing yards, completions and attempts in '09. Stafford's ceiling isn't that high. Whereas Schaub's yards-per-attempt average in his injury-shortened '08 was a whopping 8.0, Stafford's two-year career mark sits at a pedestrian 5.9. And whereas Schaub was 28 years old entering the '09 season and had served a three-year apprenticeship in Atlanta, Stafford is only 23. Still, the similarities are noteworthy. There's no questioning either man's arm strength. Each guy has a half-man / half-machine as his top wideout (Andre Johnson and Calvin Johnson). Each team has shown a willingness to pick up cheap yards by throwing it to running backs. And each man missed parts of two seasons after suffering hellacious hits. Stafford has played only 13 of a possible 32 games and needed shoulder surgery after two big hits last year: First, a Week 1 sack by Julius Peppers that caused him to miss five games, then a reinjury on a wallop from the Jets' Bryan Thomas that put him out for the rest of '10. But team doctors have told the media that Stafford has no greater risk of hurting his throwing shoulder after surgery, and while the Lions' offensive line hasn't made huge strides -- especially at left tackle, where Jeff Backus looked old and creaky last year and tore a pectoral muscle this summer -- the team simply must know that keeping Stafford upright is priority one, two and three. There's a negative overreaction to past injuries brewing here, and that means Stafford has great value potential. I view him as a high-upside No. 2 signal-caller in 10-team leagues; pair him with Ben Roethlisberger or Josh Freeman and then smile.
C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills. I guess 2011 is my "Draft Running Back Skills!" season. Like Best, Spiller is an amazing athlete, so while Fred Jackson is the unquestioned Week 1 starter in Buffalo, Spiller has the same kind of Jamaal Charles-style upside that makes fantasy mouths water. Of course, whereas Best is a good bet to lead his team in touches if he stays healthy, Spiller is no such thing. He spent his rookie campaign fumbling, pass blocking poorly and getting hurt, and he'd need Jackson to go down before he'd be anything close to an every-week fantasy play. Hey, this guy has been a tease for a while. Spiller came out of Clemson with a reputation for highlight-reel plays twinned with a distinct lack of toughness. But that 4.37 speed and open-field quickness are so rare. I mentioned Spiller's sleeper potential to my cousin Josh, and Josh proclaimed that he sees a ton of Reggie Bush in the Bills rusher, and he didn't mean that in a good way. I understand the comparison. Bush, too, brought speed and quickness to the NFL -- and in a slightly bigger package -- and has found precious little success as an inside runner. But I'm not yet willing to paint Spiller with the same yellow brush that paints Bush. I want to see Spiller get 100 inside carries before I'm willing to do that. No, Buffalo's offensive line isn't good. And yes, Jackson is tough and should undoubtedly be drafted before Spiller. But if I'm in the mid-to-late rounds of a draft and I have to choose between so-so veterans like Willis McGahee and LaDainian Tomlinson? I'll take Spiller: The guy with a non-zero percent chance of busting the NFL wide open.
Pierre Thomas, RB, New Orleans Saints. I understand the Mark Ingram hype, I do. He's a Heisman winner. He won a national championship. He has a compelling back story. And he jumps into an enticing NFL offense. But haven't we seen enough rookie rushers disappoint the past couple of seasons? I mean, Ryan Mathews? Spiller? Ben Tate and Montario Hardesty? Donald Brown? Knowshon Moreno? Beanie Wells? Do people really think Ingram is a much better player than those other rookies were? He's 5-9 and 215 pounds, so he's not a true plow horse. He doesn't have breakaway speed or insane quickness. He has great vision, is very elusive in the box and has a mean streak. I like the kid's career prospects. But isn't he the guy who had a controversial knee injury just last year? And isn't this the same Saints offense that, since Sean Payton has been head coach, has featured zero rushers who've been given more than 230 total touches in a season, and only one rusher who's exceeded 186 (Bush in 2007)? I've seen folks proclaiming Ingram as a clear starter. I just don't see it. Here's what I know about Thomas. He hurt his ankle and played in only six games last year, and he's never had more than 147 carries in a season. But in '07 and '08, in the same kind of time-share role he'll likely have this year, Frenchy averaged more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 10 TDs. And people really believe Darren Sproles is the reason Thomas can't do that again? I'm not sure there's a mock draft where I haven't pounced on Thomas. No, he doesn't have every-down-back upside, but he doesn't need it. Payton will use him a ton, because he uses everyone a ton. You can get Thomas in the eighth round of a 10-team draft, so you won't need to rely on him as a fantasy starter, but history shows there's a pretty good chance he'll perform like one. And that sounds like value to me.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.