Fantasy Football: Finding the Next Jamaal Charles/Miles Austin
Disclaimer: I am not a fortune teller, nor do I play one on the internet. What I'm attempting to do here is pinpoint those scenarios/situations/circumstances that might portend a breakout. This isn't a sleeper list per se; the doors of opportunity have not yet opened for many of the candidates listed below. In most cases, it will take an injury, a suspension, or a serious Twitter faux-pas for these players to have any value. In a word (or 23), those in standard size leagues may not be able to afford the bench spot it takes to invest in these lesser-known commodities.
I'll be honest; Jamaal Charles probably isn't the greatest zero-to-hero example. He was a third-round pick in 2008, he impressed as a part-timer his rookie season (629 total yards, 5.3 yards per carry, 10.1 yards per reception), and he was expected to take on an increased role in 2009. His mid-140s ADP (12th-round) a year ago reflected this.
What we didn't expect -- or at least I didn't expect -- was for Larry Johnson to go Twitter-crazy on former Chiefs head coach Todd Haley, or that he would resort to calling fans and reporters by gay slurs. Even after he was suspended, I don't think anybody expected his outright release. As we all know, these incidents opened up the door for Charles to do his thing, and the rest was history.
Miles Austin was a bit more off the grid than Charles a season ago. He went undrafted as a rookie back in 2006, he'd caught just 18 balls in his three-year career, and he entered camp without a starting job. In other words, his upside was minimal. Even if you assumed Austin would win the starting gig over the more-established Patrick Crayton, he still had to contend with Roy Williams and Jason Witten for catches. Essentially, his ceiling was that of a WR3. Austin never did win that starting job and the few who drafted him quickly dumped him once they caught a glance of his floor: 5-81-1 through the first four weeks, including a bagel in Week 3. It wasn't until Roy Williams missed Week 5 with an injury that Austin would finally get his shot. Ten catches, 250 yards, and two TDs later .. well, you know how the story ends.
In both Charles' and Austin's cases, it took issues beyond each player's control for them to even sniff stardom. But that wasn't enough to make them stars. To join the elite, they had to have the talent to make it happen.
Let's see where the circumstances and skills lead us in 2010. It may take some serious speculation and conjecture to uncover this year's Austin/Charles, but isn't that what this game is all about?
Anthony Dixon (RB, SF)
If Frank Gore were to miss significant time with injury, who here thinks that Brian Westbrook would be able to carry the load without getting hurt himself? That's what I thought. Enter Anthony Dixon, one of the more durable collegiate running backs in the country -- he missed only one game in four years at Mississippi State -- and one of the more punishing RBs in this year's draft class. Standing 6-foot-1, tipping the scales at 235 pounds, his size, brute force, and nifty footwork remind many of a younger, shorter, Brandon Jacobs. He's been a workhorse this preseason, accounting for 220 of the 49ers' 377 yards on the ground. He's also shown his ability to catch passes out of the backfield, with nine grabs in three games. He isn't a burner but there isn't much this kid can't do. All he needs is the opportunity.
Ted Ginn Jr. (WR, SF)
Ginn and Austin share more in common than you think. Like Ginn, Austin was once seen as more of a return man than a reliable wideout. Austin, too, had a reputation for bad hands earlier in his career. Like Austin last season, Ginn takes a backseat to at least three options in his team's passing game -- Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis and Josh Morgan, not to mention Frank Gore's role as a pass-catcher -- and just like Austin, he'll need an injury to at least one of those weapons if he expects to shine. And even then, while there's no doubt Ginn can blow by most defenders in the NFL, he still has to catch the ball. That's a tall order for sure, but not an impossible one. If you're worried about Alex Smith's arm strength, that should be the least of your concerns; Ginn's had huge games with the weak-armed Chad Pennington throwing him the orb (7-175 on 8/26/08; 11-108 on 9/21/09). Those games also serve as proof of Ginn's tremendous talent.
Dexter McCluster (RB/WR, KC)
McCluster is quietly working his way onto people's cheat sheets, due to both his preseason play and his unique WR/RB eligibility in some formats. If the Chiefs truly plan on using him in both those roles during the regular season, he'll have serious value. McCluster's much faster than his combine speed suggests (4.58), he's extremely versatile (hence the dual position eligibility), and he can take it to the house at a moment's notice. His small-ish frame may scare people off, but his potential contributions in the return game, passing game, and running game (along with some possible Wildcat action), simply can't be ignored. If Jamaal Charles were to go down (I hate just typing that), watch out. You could be looking at a Wes Welker/Darren Sproles hybrid. That's just sick.
Roscoe Parrish (WR, BUF)
If you've played fantasy football at all the last five years, you've owned Roscoe Parrish at one time or another. The former second-rounder has made his mark in the NFL primarily as a return man, but has never really gotten a fair shake at wide receiver. Last season, his production hit rock bottom. He was benched for four games and stripped of his return duties, and Terrell Owens' presence rendered him irrelevant in the team's passing game (three catches, 37 yards). Fast forward to 2010, no T.O., and the offensive-minded Chan Gailey running the ship, and Parrish figures to play a much larger role in the offense. With his strong preseason, Parrish will enter the 2010 campaign as the team's primary slot receiver. It's the perfect setup for a guy who has excellent speed and quickness, and who isn't afraid to make plays over the middle. We already know he can do damage via the deep ball, the only question is whether Trent Edwards can get it to him. If he and Edwards can build a rapport, Parrish might very well usurp the one-dimensional Lee Evans as the Bills' No. 1 receiver.
Mike Hart (RB, IND)
Let see: Joseph Addai is getting older, he's been injury-prone throughout his career, and he's already suffered a concussion this preseason. Donald Brown wasn't very good as a runner when given a heavier workload last year (3.6 YPC) and has failed to impress in exhibition play. Mike Hart, too, has been injury prone his first two years in the league, and hasn't done much with limited touches, but if Addai or Brown go down, just imagine the damage he could do in the Colts offense. I know college isn't the NFL, but he was a star running back at a huge program (Michigan) just two years ago. He may not be the biggest or the fastest but kid's got skills.
James Jones (WR, GB)
This one's almost too obvious, yet for some reason, I haven't seen Jones taken in either of the two leagues I've drafted in (ADP: 155.5). To put it simply, I would be shocked if Donald Driver made it through all of 2010 without missing games (notice use of the plural). He's coming off surgery to both of his knees, he's already missed a preseason game with a related calf issue, and he's closer to 36 than 35. As for Jones, he appears to have won the No. 3 job over Jordy Nelson to start the year, but he would move to the outside if/when Driver goes down. Even better, he's also Greg Jennings' backup. When a guy is backup at both the split end and flanker positions for one of the more potent aerial attacks in the league, who isn't taking those odds? Don't forget, Jones put together an impressive rookie campaign three years ago (47-676-2). He's also got all the physical tools -- great hands, great size, and superb athleticism -- to be a star. Just imagine what he'd be able to accomplish as Aaron Rodgers' No. 1 or No. 2 option. It's almost scary.
David Clowney (WR, NYJ)
Clowney is a freakishly gifted athlete. I personally have seen him make plays very few players in the NFL are capable of making (full disclosure: those plays were made in preseason games the last couple years). Unfortunately, he's stuck behind three wide receivers on the Jets depth chart. He also hasn't caught a single pass this preseason and word on the street says he's on the roster bubble because of his lackluster play on special teams. So what? I told you I was going to dig deep for a diamond in the rough, didn't I? The good news is that Clowney's third in the wide receiver pecking order while Santonio Holmes serves his four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. He's also the backup to Braylon Edwards, who is known as much for his off-field incidents as he is for his perpetual case of the dropsies. Edwards isn't quite in LJ's neighborhood when it comes to the off-field stuff, but then again, neither was LJ before he stumbled upon Twitter. So here's what we're hoping for if we're a David Clowney owner: Santonio Holmes does something to stupid while on suspension to piss off Roger Goodell, and/or Braylon Edwards decides to punch another one of LeBron James' buddies in face. Those scenarios aren't that far-fetched, right? Not as far-fetched as someone telling you Miles Austin would catch 81 balls for 1,320 yards and 11 TDs last season, that's for sure.
Other potential candidates...
Bernard Scott (RB, CIN)
Lance Moore (WR, NO)
Javon Ringer (RB, TEN)
Julian Edelman (WR, NE)
Lance Ball (RB, DEN)
Louis Murphy (WR, OAK)
Danny Ware (RB, NYG)
Brandon Jackson (RB, GB)