It's that time again. Flag time.
If there's one column I write each year that elicits more anticipation than all others, you're reading it. This piece was born six years ago when I realized how easy it is to fall into the trap of being in love with too many players. When you become as familiar with NFL personnel as I get from watching film, you can find something nice to say about lots and lots of players. You can see everyone's upside. And your advice tends to get a little vague. Six years ago, I was doing a radio interview when the host asked me to name a couple of favorite sleepers. I rattled off about 20, and realized I had a problem.
So the "Planting My Flag" column was born to generate discipline.
I'm allowed 10 names here, and 10 names only; the 10 players about whom I'm most excited for 2013. Now, it's important to note that I'm not saying these "Flag Players" will be the best at their respective positions. I'm saying that, given their respective risks, I really like the potential rewards. In other words, I think these 10 players represent the greatest available draft-day value.
Last year's column was a mixed bag. I endorsed C.J. Spiller, Stevan Ridley and Percy Harvin, but I unfortunately also listed Peyton Hillis, Philip Rivers and Titus Young. Oh, Titus! Of course, I still maintain that a player with Young's skills with a different man's maturity level would've thrived in 2012, but alas, that's simply raging against the sky. In the past, this column has also predicted breakout seasons for Jamaal Charles, Mike Wallace and Matthew Stafford, and hopefully I'll knock a few more out of the park below. Without further ado, let's get to the Flag Players:
Danny Amendola, WR, New England Patriots: Let's start out with a controversial selection, shall we? You know the story: Amendola played in 12 of a possible 32 games with the St. Louis Rams over the past two seasons, but he gets a great chance in a Pats offense that lost Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez this offseason. It comes down to this: If Amendola stays healthy, he's dramatically undervalued as a late fifth-round pick in ESPN standard drafts. It's true that rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have been nice stories, and I'm personally of the mind that Rob Gronkowski will miss minimal time in September. But someone has to be Tom Brady's workhorse, and I believe Amendola will be that guy. He can run Welker's slot routes, but he can also play outside, get deep and produce breakaway plays. Listen, taking Amendola is about wagering on his health, but I've come around here a little bit. Remember when Stafford was utterly hands-off because he "always got hurt?" Remember when Frank Gore couldn't stay healthy? That's the question for Amendola: Is he one of those guys, or is he Darren McFadden? Rating: 4 Flags (out of 5).
Martellus Bennett, TE, Chicago Bears: Through four games with the New York Giants last year, Bennett had 16 catches for 187 yards and three TDs, but he hyperextended his left knee in Week 5 and played hurt after that. The Giants didn't want to pay him big money this winter, so he left for Chicago, where he'll rely on the party line: Marc Trestman is going to fix everything that ever ailed Jay Cutler and the Bears' offense! To say the least, I'm skeptical of that; Trestman isn't going to play offensive line. But Bennett is a terrific blocker, and that could help. More importantly, though, he's a value play in the great tight end middle class. I rank 6-foot-6, 270-pound Bennett as my No. 7 TE, and he's being drafted as fantasy's No. 13 TE, but the larger point is that it's basically a wash from No. 6 to No. 14. So, why be the fantasy owner who grabs one of these guys first? Wait, wait and wait some more, then draft Bennett, a player with as much weekly freak-athlete upside as anyone who plays the position. He'll get you 600 yards and six TDs, with the same number of ebbs and flows as tight ends drafted six rounds before him. Rating: 2 Flags (out of 5).
Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals: BenJarvus Green-Ellis is going to lead the Bengals in rushing TDs, and I don't care. Bernard is the player you want to own here. Where "the Law Firm" is plodding, Gio is fast. Where the Law Firm makes nobody miss, Gio is electric. A rookie out of the University of North Carolina, Bernard buckles knees in the style of C.J. Spiller; his collegiate game tape is filled with examples of elite change-of-direction skills and ridiculous acceleration. I'm also heartened to hear that Bernard has started training camp well in pass protection, which can be a rookie rusher's downfall. Listen, his ceiling is firmly capped. He's probably not a top-20 fantasy RB by season's end. But, as a 10th-round pick in standard leagues, he's a steal nonetheless. Feel great about him as a top-end bench player, and watch the highlights come. And if Green-Ellis gets hurt, look out. Rating: 4 Flags (out of 5).
Ryan Broyles, WR, Detroit Lions: Viva Titus! The logic behind drafting Titus Young last year is even stronger in '13, considering Stafford just set the single-season record for pass attempts in a season. The Lions desperately need another wideout to emerge opposite Calvin Johnson, where single coverage should be plentiful. Broyles certainly would've been that man if he hadn't torn his right ACL in December. Amazingly, though, the recovery time for this once career-killing injury keeps getting shorter, and Broyles reportedly looks tremendous in training camp. Nate Burleson has a good pair of hands but can't run well anymore, so I expect Broyles to flirt with 100 targets this season. Of course, he has to stay healthy; he has torn each ACL in the past two years. But, at the price of a very late-round pick (on average in standard leagues, he's been undrafted), Broyles is well worth it. Rating: 3.5 Flags (out of 5).
Chris Givens, WR, St. Louis Rams: Givens made my "Super-Deep Sleepers" list last season (the '13 version of that column will arrive next week) and rewarded me with a five-game stretch in which he made at least one play of 50-plus yards. That wasn't enough to make him an every-week fantasy starter, but it certainly helped him emerge from a jumbled Rams receiving corps. Now paired with rookie jitterbug Tavon Austin, Givens has a chance to diversify his game, much as Mike Wallace did in his second year. When you have 4.41 wheels like Givens, you're a threat to take one deep every week. But more important is whether he has added precision to his cuts and footwork; early word out of Rams camp indicates he has. It takes a leap of faith to imagine that Sam Bradford is ready to produce two fantasy-relevant WRs, but fortunately Givens comes at the price of a 12th-round reserve. He'll be on my fantasy bench in a whole lot of leagues in '13. Rating: 3.5 Flags (out of 5).
Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco 49ers: Sometimes you look at a player who bursts onto the scene midway through the previous season and say, "I'm not buying high on this guy." Other times you say, "I can still get in on the ground floor." I'm in the latter camp when it comes to Kaepernick. I know seven regular-season starts is a small sample size. I know losing Michael Crabtree has sent the Niners scrambling for solutions opposite Anquan Boldin in their WR corps. And I know the 49ers were the third run-heaviest team in the NFL last season. Plus, I'm in agreement with those who say defenses will begin to catch up with the read-option. But the fact is that the 49ers didn't really even use the read-option much until the playoffs last year, and Kaepernick was still deadly running the ball. I grant that any running QB has injury risk, but Kaepernick is 6-4, 230 pounds. He can approximate Cam Newton with his legs and is already more accurate than Newton as a passer. Doubters ask me why I downgrade Russell Wilson for his so-so receiving corps while letting Kaepernick slide. My answer? One of these guys has the size, power, arm strength and freakish athletic talent to take over a game every time he's on the field. That guy is Kaepernick. Rating: 4.5 Flags (out of 5).
Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers: A second rookie rusher? Oh, boy. There's a danger in loving the new bright shiny players too much, because we haven't seen them fail yet. But Bernard and Lacy were my No. 1 and 2 dynasty league players this spring, and I give them each a chance of contributing as first-year options. Clearly, you'll have to invest more in Lacy than Bernard (they have a 39-pick difference in average draft position), but that reflects Lacy's extreme upside. No, the Packers haven't featured a dominant fantasy rusher in any of the past three seasons, but I don't believe that's because of a systemic disdain for them. Mike McCarthy was the team's head coach from 2006 to 2009 when Ahman Green and then Ryan Grant were top-20 fantasy backs. Lacy is a stud. He's 231 pounds of power with elusiveness that belies his size, and I'd take him before players such as Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles, who on average get drafted 1 1/2 rounds before Lacy. Doubters will contend that, inside an opponent's 5-yard line last year, the Pack threw it 15 times and handed it to RBs just five times. I say that happened because Lacy wasn't on the team yet. Rating: 4 Flags (out of 5).
LeSean McCoy, RB, Philadelphia Eagles: I know. I'm not breaking new ground on Shady. But breaking new ground isn't the point of this column; I'm looking for value. And if I'm picking toward the end of the first round, I think McCoy gives you the kind of value others don't. On average, he's the 13th player getting selected in ESPN drafts, and the 10th rusher. On my board, he's the No. 8 RB, but, more importantly, is also the No. 8 overall player. I'd take McCoy before I'd take Calvin Johnson, Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees (in addition to Trent Richardson and Alfred Morris). I suppose folks feel burned after the final year of the Andy Reid Experience in Philly, in which Shady was on pace for a crummy season even before he got concussed. But there's a new sheriff in town, and Chip Kelly doesn't have Reid's aversion to the run game. (If the Eagles run on only 40 percent of their plays, as they did last season, I'll be shocked.) No, you'll never get the ridiculous 20 total TDs McCoy scored in 2011, but I'm not that worried about Bryce Brown (or, rather, I think Kelly wants to run it so much that there will be plenty of work for McCoy and Brown). Richardson's injury concerns ding him a bit; Morris doesn't play on third down; and RB is so scarce that, as long as there are strong options left on the board, I can't go QB or WR. McCoy is my guy late in the first. Rating: 3 Flags (out of 5).
Rueben Randle, WR, New York Giants: I look at Randle and I see his fellow LSU alum Dwayne Bowe: not an elite speedster, not among the hugest WRs, but a ridiculous leaper who can be a red zone threat even if he's not his team's top wideout. (Randle also has the benefit of better hands than Bowe had at the same age.) Add the fact that Hakeem Nicks is a leg injury waiting to happen and Randle has a legit chance to be more than Eli Manning's No. 3 guy. Obviously, Nicks and Victor Cruz will be drafted an hour before Randle will. But that's the point: Randle is essentially undrafted in ESPN leagues at the moment but absolutely should be taken in all leagues. There are multiple routes to fantasy relevance for him, which means he's the kind of lottery ticket worth scratching. Rating: 3 Flags (out of 5).
Daryl Richardson, RB, St. Louis Rams: This isn't an indication that I've "figured out" how the Rams' backfield is going to go. I'm always highly dubious when beat reporters declare camp battles over in the second week of August, and I'm not invested in reading exhibition-game tea leaves. But what I won't undervalue is the fact that Isaiah Pead, Richardson's primary RB competition, is suspended for Week 1. In my mind, that gives Richardson a chance to put up a strong first game against the Arizona Cardinals and wrest the headliner's job for himself. Certainly, there's a reason Richardson saw time in Pead's stead behind Steven Jackson last year. This is still likely to be some manner of platoon (potentially with rookie Zac Stacy involved, too), but I've changed my mind about which half I like best. And, for a 12th-round pick (Richardson's ADP as of this writing), I'm willing to put Richardson on my bench and hope for great things. Rating: 2.5 Flags (out of 5).