I've been doing this annual "Flag-Planted Players" column for ESPN for a while now. In fact, it feels like it's been long enough that as we scroll back through the years, we should see references to ancient dance crazes (" like Los del Rio doing the Macarena, Steve Young should continue boogying through opposing defenses ") and increasingly outdated hairstyles in my author photo.
Nevertheless, here we are again: My annual impersonation of a value-seeking missile. Because I write all of ESPN's player profiles and devise our initial rankings (which are subsequently mulled over and changed by our fantasy sports crew), I can sometimes be guilty of taking too broad a view of the fantasy football field. So when someone asks me for a receiver I really like this year, I might rattle off 20 names. If an interviewer wants a couple of sleepers, I've got a bushel's worth. But that's too easy.
That's why this column initially developed, as a way to cut through vague feelings about a lot of players, and focus on strong feelings about a few players. My task here is to isolate 10 guys I'm most excited about for 2012. Let's be clear: I'm not saying these will be the best players at their respective positions, nor am I saying that you should plan on taking any of them at the tippety-top of your draft. My contention is merely that given the risk each of these men embody (as manifested by the spot where you'll have to select them in your fantasy draft), the rewards are enticing.
So these aren't "sleepers" in the traditional sense. They aren't merely "high-upside" or "safe" plays. And in most cases, they haven't already been fantasy stars in previous seasons. I'm projecting and extrapolating here, looking for value sometimes at the expense of certainty, which means I will absolutely, positively not bat 1.000 with this list. However, in the past this column has been fortunate enough to forecast breakout years for Jamaal Charles, Mike Wallace and Matthew Stafford, among others. And sometimes even when I've missed on a particular player, I've at least alerted you to a potentially valuable situation, as I did last year in assessing the Pittsburgh Steelers WR corps and deciding Emmanuel Sanders was a good late-round pick (the point was valid, but Antonio Brown was the correct player).
Anyway, I can promise that several of the players listed below will wind up on my various fantasy teams. So here goes nothing. Here are my flag-planted players for 2012 in alphabetical order. After each player, I give out a rating of flags to signify how strongly I feel about him, with five being the strongest:
Percy Harvin, WR, Minnesota Vikings: In '11, Harvin finished eighth in fantasy points among WRs, squarely between the redoubtable fantasy tandem of Roddy White and Vincent Jackson, yet in our group receiving ranks for this season, he comes in 20th. I'm at a loss to explain why, because I think the actuarial tables are now actually more in Harvin's favor. Whatever you believe about Adrian Peterson's prospects, it's hard to proclaim they're better than last year's. Christian Ponder doesn't have to worry about Donovan McNabb being ahead of him on the depth chart, presumptive No. 2 wideout Jerome Simpson will begin the year suspended for three games and the Vikings have made noises about having Harvin on the field for more than the 58 percent of their offensive snaps they used him last season. The great thing about owning Harvin is that you'll also get credit for his rushing skills (he had a career-high 52 carries for 345 yards and three scores in '11) and his kickoff-return TDs (he's got at least one in each of his three pro seasons). I'm sympathetic to the argument that Harvin should be inside our top 10 WRs, and he's barely in our top 20? He showed last season that he doesn't need a 1,000-yard receiving campaign to be deadly in fantasy. If you can finagle him to be your No. 2 fantasy wideout, you'll be in great shape. And don't buy the notion that he's a fragile player: Despite well-publicized migraine troubles, Harvin has missed three games in three seasons. Rating: 4.5 flags (out of 5).
Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Oakland Raiders: DHB had an objectively weird season in '11, but that doesn't obscure the fact he finally started to "get it" on the field. (He also was arrested for DUI this winter, so whether he "gets it" off the field is an open question.) His route-running and his hands -- previously among the league's worst -- improved, especially late in the season. It's fair to question how much Carson Palmer likes throwing to Heyward-Bey; DHB's serious midseason downturn coincided with Palmer arriving in Oakland, and Heyward-Bey really only picked it up again late after Denarius Moore missed time. Nevertheless, DHB's December was one to behold: 29 catches, 456 yards and three TDs. I do like Moore a bit more than DHB, but I view each guy as a top-35 fantasy WR this season, and whereas Moore's average draft position (ADP) is currently 95, Heyward-Bey's is 131. Both of these Raiders receivers are burners, but Moore gets sent down the field more (in '11 his average yards at the catch was 14.3, fourth highest among qualifying receivers, while DHB's was 10.7, putting him at 27th). So while I think Moore is a better bet to lead this WR corps in fantasy points, you may actually get better week-to-week consistency out of DHB. I think he makes a nice bench stash in any size league. Rating: 2.5 flags (out of 5).
Peyton Hillis, RB, Kansas City Chiefs: Along with Michael Vick, Hillis was a poster child for my All-Overrated team heading into '11; there was no way either guy could exceed the marvels they achieved in '10, and fantasy drafters who took them at the peak of their values were asking for trouble. But the pendulum does swing. Now Vick's ADP is a more reasonable 34, a price at which I think he's a bargain (with obvious health caveats), and Hillis has fallen off the map, all the way down to No. 89. (On average, he was the No. 26 player taken in '11.) Now, that's understandable. He toils for the Chiefs, who have a superstar named Jamaal Charles in their backfield. But three things factor in Hillis' favor for '12. First, J-Mail is coming off a torn ACL. He's looked fine so far, but history teaches us that RBs rarely recoup all their abilities in the first year after ACL surgery. Second, Charles' best season came in '10, when he had 230 carries to Thomas Jones' 245. Third, the Chiefs have quietly assembled what could be a run-mashing offensive line. Right tackle Eric Winston was a key in Arian Foster's emergence in Houston, Jon Asamoah was terrific last year at left guard and new center Rodney Hudson is promising; in addition, KC should have nice line depth, having drafted highly-regarded Jeff Allen (a collegiate tackle converting to guard) in the second round of April's draft and project tackle Donald Stephenson in the third round. The Chiefs know who they are. They're a QB-challenged team that needs to control the clock and play defense. Hillis will be a huge part of that. Yes, of course I'd prefer Charles to Hillis, but Charles' ADP is 24. I say Hillis stays healthier with a less-than-full workload (he was bothered by a hamstring problem for much of '11), that he becomes the goal-line sledgehammer and catches enough passes to keep defenses honest, and he winds up inside the top 30 fantasy RBs this season. Rating: 4 flags (out of 5).
Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars: OK, I admit this is totally cheating. MJD has nothing to prove. Still, I'm giving him a full-throated value endorsement: Jones-Drew should be a first-round pick in all formats; I have him as my No. 6 player overall and my No. 4 RB. Last year, we were all legitimately concerned about MJD because he missed the final two games of '10 with a knee injury, and was reportedly still experiencing discomfort last summer. He wound up with an ADP of 13, which was probably still generous, and proceeded to win his first rushing title, finishing No. 3 among fantasy rushers and No. 5 overall in VBD terms. But here we go again. Now it's not MJD's health that's freaking everyone out, but rather his contract holdout. Predictably, the media is offering up words from each side in this financial stalemate, making it seem as though Armageddon is close at hand. But how likely is it, really, that Jones-Drew holds out into Week 1? I view it as unlikely. The Jaguars know that without MJD, they'd have a hard time posting a winning record in the SEC. And Jones-Drew knows that unless he's prepared to hold out until Week 10 and submarine his team's season, his leverage is minimal. Please don't tell me MJD's burst is waning; he averaged 5.8 yards per carry from Dec. 1 forward last year. And don't tell me Rashad Jennings -- who I think is a nice player -- is any kind of substitute for a guy who's failed to exceed nine TDs in a season once in six years, and who's averaged 1,795 yards from scrimmage in the three seasons since Fred Taylor left Jacksonville. Tough talk will continue, and you should ignore it. Nor am I concerned that MJD, a legit workout warrior, will eventually report to the Jags in Chris Johnson shape. Listen, I know I'm not exactly unearthing a hidden gem here, and I promise not to take crazy credit if and when Jones-Drew reports and plays well. But if you're picking at the end of your first round, and the cowards in front of you shy away from MJD, swoop in. Rating: 3 flags (out of 5).
Brandon LaFell, WR, Carolina Panthers: I liked LaFell when he came out of LSU; he has terrific leaping ability, a sturdy frame (6-foot-2, 211 pounds) and enough giddyup to make a play in the open field. Alas, his rookie season ('10) was an utter bust, and heading into last season he looked like Carolina's fourth WR. Then David Gettis tore an ACL and Legedu Naanee underperformed, and this winter suddenly the starting gig alongside Steve Smith was available once again. Smitty will always be the home run threat in the Panthers' offense, with LaFell often relegated to underneath routes, but in the red zone LaFell has a chance to be astounding. A few times last season, he made acrobatic grabs in close quarters that could presage a TD-scoring breakout. Plus, while I'm not at all certain that the Panthers will throw enough to make Cam Newton a 4,000-yard passer again, 3,500 seems possible, and LaFell might be a major part of that. From Week 5 on last season, Newton averaged 6.0 yards at the catch per completion, which was 20th in the NFL; in other words, he's not just a rainbow-launching gunner. There will be a possession element to his game in '12, and LaFell will get a bunch of singled-up looks as defenses pay attention to Smith. Certainly, you shouldn't draft LaFell to be a Week 1 fantasy starter, and just as certainly, for as long as Smith is healthy, LaFell's weekly ceiling is relatively capped. But I see eight-TD upside for this guy. He's another player I think makes an interesting bench acquisition late in drafts. Rating: 2 flags (out of 5).
Stevan Ridley, RB, New England Patriots: First comes the requisite disclaimer about Bill Belichick's running backs. The Pats' coach doesn't have a sentimental bone in his body, and he believes in fairly extreme swings in game plan depending on his opponents. I've tried to discern why he chooses his backfield workloads against certain defenses, and haven't discovered a pattern. But the one reliable fact of the past couple of seasons is that BenJarvus Green-Ellis was Belichick's goal-line back: BJGE had 50 carries inside an opponent's 10 over the past two years, while Tom Brady was second with 14 and Danny Woodhead was third with 10. There's no reason to believe Ridley, who outweighs the Law Firm by 10 pounds, won't inherit that role over the likes of Woodhead and Shane Vereen. While that job by itself wouldn't instantly launch Ridley into the fantasy stratosphere, BJGE did generate 19 TDs out of those 50 carries. It's a start. I can't sell you Ridley as a game-breaker, because he's probably not. He might be slightly more elusive and slightly more powerful than Green-Ellis, but they're in the same neighborhood. Vereen has a legit chance to be the home run hitter here, and as a gadget Woodhead can definitely get in the way of weekly fantasy production. Ridley will have some maddening game-to-game variability. But I feel good about projecting him for 200-plus carries and borderline double-digit TDs. He's knocking on the door of my top 20 fantasy RBs, and I'd select him before Green-Ellis as a Bengal. Rating: 3.5 flags (out of 5).
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers: Is this another MJD-style cheat on my part? After all, Rivers has submitted top-five fantasy QB seasons in two of the past four campaigns, and his "terrible" work last year still earned him the No. 9 spot. I'll admit predicting a bounce back for Rivers isn't exactly the boldest pick in the world. And there's residual worry that Rivers' deep ball wasn't its typical pretty self last season, which might've been related to an unpublicized (and much-denied) elbow or shoulder injury. But the dude still threw for 4,624 yards and 27 TDs! His 20 INTs were dreadful, but if that's the bottom of the barrel for Rivers, sign me up. I'm not arguing that you should run out and spend your third-rounder on Rivers. I'm arguing that you don't have to. I would be eminently comfortable waiting to draft my signal-caller, and taking Rivers at the end of the sixth or beginning of the seventh. Will there be a difference between him and, say, Tom Brady, another pure pocket passer? Sure. But is that difference enough to justify a 53-pick gap between them on draft day, as the current ADP would have it? I think not. Those ready to proclaim the Chargers a "rushing offense" need look no further than Ryan Mathews' glass bones. And yes, losing Vincent Jackson hurts, but Rivers will take his shots anyway. Norv Turner is an old-time believer in the vertical passing game, and Malcom Floyd and Robert Meachem have size and can scoot. During the past four seasons, no QB in the NFL has as impressive a combination of average yards at the catch (6.8, tied with Aaron Rodgers for eighth in the league) and average yards after the catch (6.2, tied with Brady for tops in the league). Rating: 3 flags (out of 5).
C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills: I don't hate Fred Jackson. Not at all. Jackson is 31 now and coming off a broken leg, but I have confidence that he'll lead the Bills in carries this season, and probably be the team's goal-line back. But I still see big things from Spiller. The only repeat player from last year's Flag list, Spiller was looking like a pretty dumb pick for much of '11, as he averaged 3.1 offensive touches per game before Jackson's injury. But the young man woke up in time for the fantasy playoffs, scoring a TD in four of the season's final six weeks while averaging 18.3 offensive touches and 105.5 yards from scrimmage per game. I believe the Bills will use both of their RBs at the same time quite a lot, including splitting Spiller out wide while Jackson mans the backfield. At this point in his young career, Spiller is a perimeter player with sprinter's speed, and the more frequently Chan Gailey can get him the ball in space, the better this offense is going to look. Gailey knows he's got an arm-challenged QB in Ryan Fitzpatrick and an uninspiring receiving corps after Steve Johnson, so he'll continue to go four- and five-wide as much as any NFL squad (Fitzpatrick had more attempts with four-plus WRs on the field -- 398 -- than any QB in the league last season) and rely on mismatches against Spiller. I set Spiller's floor at 50 catches for '12, which of course means his value is enhanced in point-per-reception leagues. But I find Spiller eminently draftable in all leagues. He's currently my No. 27 RB, and is a passable flex in 12-team leagues. Plus if Jackson gets hurt again, we could be looking at a top-10 kind of season for the game-breaking Spiller. Rating: 3.5 flags (out of 5).
Daniel Thomas, RB, Miami Dolphins: Though Thomas was the fifth RB selected in the '11 draft, he seemed like a fair bet to be the rookie runner with the biggest fantasy impact, simply because the Dolphins didn't appear to have many other options. Then Reggie Bush decided to forget his five relatively mediocre years in New Orleans, and play like a star. But let's not pretend some of Bush's breakout wasn't related to Thomas performing badly. After two standout games as Miami's starter in Weeks 1 and 2, Thomas reinjured a hamstring that had bothered him in the offseason, and was never the same. After those two contests (in which he carried it 41 times for 202 yards), he averaged 3.1 yards per tote. But I'm operating under the assumption that his crummy play was injury-related. The tentative, unpowerful runner who regularly showed up in a Dolphins uniform after Week 2 bore little resemblance to the versatile mauler Thomas was at Kansas State. I admit it's possible that this is simply who Thomas is, and that his collegiate power-back skills won't translate. The good thing is that you no longer have to pay a premium to find out. Thomas' ADP is currently 132, which makes him worth a late-round flier (he's No. 89 overall on my list). If this guy starts wielding his 230 pounds like a hammer, he can still take over that Dolphins starting gig. After all, Bush isn't traditionally the picture of health himself, plus he's entering a contract season for a rebuilding team that doesn't figure to break the bank to re-sign him. Because Thomas' value pendulum has swung so far in the other direction (his ADP was 84 last year), he's now a sleeper worth taking. Rating: 2.5 flags (out of 5).
Titus Young, WR, Detroit Lions: I believe I'm saving my favorite for last. I heart Titus Young. Granted, he doesn't have the size typically associated with a great fantasy receiver: He's 5-11 and 174 pounds. Plus there's this guy they call Megatron who plays the same position for the Lions. But I say there's more than enough WR work for two guys to become studs in Detroit; after all, Matthew Stafford led the NFL with 663 attempts last season, including a league-high 473 attempts that traveled 10 yards or fewer in the air. That last fact is significant for Young: His quickness makes him deadly in space, and he can line up all over a formation to find mismatches on shorter routes. Plus while Young isn't an elite burner (a 4.43 40 is solid, of course), his average yards at the catch was a strong 9.6 (36th among qualified WRs) while teammate Nate Burleson's was 4.5 (80th out of 81 qualified WRs). Yes, Burleson is still around, but given their respective skills I find it hard to believe that Burleson won't be the slot guy much of time, while Young shifts outside. The fact is, of course, that the Lions go three-wide more than any team in the league (in '11, Stafford had 553 attempts with three-plus receivers on the field, tops in the NFL), so regardless of his position on the depth chart, Young will be out there a ton. He has maturity questions (he found his coaches' doghouse during his rookie year because of a stupid personal foul, and got into a fight with Louis Delmas during this spring's minicamp), plus the best he can do is be fed second after Calvin Johnson. But a 60-catch, 900-yard, eight-TD season is easily in this guy's range. That kind of year would put him well within the top 20 fantasy WRs. Rating: 5 flags (out of 5).