This time of year, fantasy enthusiasts tend to obsess over their first-round draft pick. Do you go with Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson with the top pick? What about Arian Foster? Is the middle of the round too early for Aaron Rodgers? Should you grab an elite receiver at the end?
While these decisions are important, you’d be better served expending more mental energy on the middle rounds, where championship fantasy rosters are built. After all, while it’s interesting to debate whether Foster merits a top three pick this year, many of those who stole him in the fifth round or later last season rode him all the way to a title.
Fantasy veterans know the secret to great drafting is not simply selecting the best players available, but taking them no earlier than necessary. You may share my belief that Jacoby Ford is on the verge of a breakout season; but you’re hurting yourself – and, worse yet, begging for ridicule from your opponents – if you pull the trigger too early.
Who are this year’s hidden gems? Let’s take a look at my Sleeper Picks of 2011, broken down by position.
(Note: ADP means “average draft position,” and indicates where the player is typically selected in standard leagues, according to mock draft web sites. Compare this to their value in my Top 100 rankings, where applicable.)
Josh Freeman, Buccaneers (ADP: 70, Top 100: 33). There should be nothing sleepy about last year’s seventh-best fantasy quarterback, but Freeman is still flying under the radar in many circles. With a sterling TD:INT ratio, and a talented group of young receivers, the third-year passer has elite status in his sights.
Kyle Orton, Broncos (ADP: 148, Top 100: 66). First he was headed to Miami, then to the bench in favor of Tim Tebow. Now he’s locked into the starting job that made him a fantasy stud over the first half of last season. Though John Fox will run a more conservative offense, Orton should be money early on again, if not all season.
LeGarrette Blount, Buccaneers (ADP: 33, Top 100: 15). He had a breakout rookie season, but Blount still represents excellent value at his current draft position. He faces virtually no competition for touches now that Cadillac Williams is a Ram, and he’s a bruising runner who should find the end zone nearly every week.
C.J. Spiller, Bills (ADP: 105, Top 100: 92). He disappointed a lot of owners who wasted an early pick on him after his sensational preseason run last year. But with only Fred Jackson standing in the way, the Bills’ 2010 first-round draft selection will get every chance to earn a full committee share, if not a starting job.
Bernard Scott, Bengals (ADP: 210, Top 100: N/A). Cedric Benson is not the runner he once was, and his understudy has been assured more touches this season. A changing-of-the-guard is underway in Cincinnati, so Scott is more than just a handcuff. He’s the future.
Austin Collie, WR, Colts (ADP: 67, Top 100: 27). He was sitting atop the 2010 WR rankings when he was concussed in Week 6. The threat of another blow to the head has depressed Collie’s value significantly, but those who take the risk could be rewarded with an elite wideout.
Mario Manningham, Giants (ADP: 73, Top 100: 58). With Steve Smith wearing an Eagles jersey, Manningham ascends to the No. 2 job in a passing attack that has consistently produced valuable fantasy receivers.
Mike Sims-Walker, Rams (ADP: 113, Top 100: 69). With the dearth of talent and experience amongst St. Louis receivers, Sims-Walker can easily become Sam Bradford’s go-to guy. Given the young gunslinger’s potential, that could be a lucrative job.
Plaxico Burress, Jets (ADP: 122, Top 100: 78). He is the presumed starter opposite Santonio Holmes, and he could quickly become the team’s most prolific red-zone target. Burress should make an immediate impact in this offense.
Lance Moore, Saints (ADP: 118, Top 100: 79). While your competitors may be locked in on Robert Meachem, Moore is positioned to be the true No. 2 wideout in New Orleans. Marques Colston’s gimpy knee could even give Moore a shot at the lead role on occasion.
Jacoby Ford, Raiders (ADP: 112, Top 100: 84). Ford showed flashes of brilliance last season, and he is the only Oakland receiver worth drafting. If he gets decent quarterback play, he could vault up the ranks.
Owen Daniels, Texans (ADP: 77, Top 100: 40). Returning from his third torn ACL, the risk is obvious. But a healthy Daniels is clearly Matt Schaub’s second-favorite target, giving him perhaps the most upside among second-tier tight ends.
Brandon Pettigrew, Lions (ADP: 126, Top 100: 82). If Matt Stafford could just stay on the field, he and his young tight end could put up great numbers together. Pettigrew has all the tools to be an elite tight end.
Alex Henery, Eagles (ADP: 196, Top 100: N/A). When perennial fantasy star David Akers became a 49er, he left his plum job to a rookie who set the NCAA record for career field-goal accuracy (89.5%) at Nebraska.
Dan Bailey, Cowboys (ADP: N/A). He hasn't seized the job from David Buehler yet; but if he does, he'll be kicking for a high-octane offense.
Next week: The original, oft-imitated, always-controversial Perfect Draft.