I have 10 chances to find greatness. Ten NFL skill-position players who will outperform current expectations. Ten men who will deliver the greatest draft-day value.
Welcome to my annual "Planting My Flag" column. Rather than succumb to the understandable temptation to rattle off a list of dozens of players with potential upside, and then point to that monstrous list as evidence of my sagacity, I get only 10 cracks at it. This column dates back to a radio interview I did seven years ago, when the host asked me to name a couple of favorite sleepers. I gave him about 20, and realized I had a problem.
So every year (in this column, anyway) discipline is my watchword. I'm allowed just 10 names. I'm not saying these guys will be the best at their respective positions. I just love their value relative to where they're being drafted in ESPN leagues. (I realize that other sites have different ranks, which might make these players look somewhat less tasty. ESPN is my home, so it's ESPN numbers I'll use.)
Here we go:
Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos
Current ESPN ADP: 26th overall. My rank: 12th overall.
Ball's appendectomy may give you a buying opportunity. I'm just not worried about it. It's fair to wonder whether Ball's pass blocking has progressed to a point where he's trustworthy in front of Peyton Manning, but with Knowshon Moreno gone, Ball is going to get a ton of chances to prove himself. Yes, the AFC West has to face the rough-and-tumble defenses of the NFC West, which could cause Denver's offense to appear slower than the 2013 edition. But they'll still play fast and move the ball, and the Broncos' lead back should be a top-10 fantasy RB. Period. Rating: 4 Flags (out of 5).
Michael Crabtree, WR, San Francisco 49ers
Current ESPN ADP: 55th overall. My rank: 36th overall.
The objection to Crabtree as a must-start fantasy option hinges on the Niners' offense. The team had the fewest pass attempts in the NFL last year, and the second-highest run/pass ratio (behind only the Seattle Seahawks). Does that make the margin of error for players like Crabtree and Percy Harvin smaller? It does. Does it scare me off them? It doesn't. I don't even bother looking at Crabtree's '13 film, because he was still recovering from a torn Achilles. When I go back and look at '12, I see a super-elite route-runner, one of the best in the game. Crabtree isn't going to pop the top off a defense, but he's open all the time. I'm willing to take a chance that the 49ers will run a more diverse playbook with Colin Kaepernick this year, and that Crabtree will benefit more than anyone. Rating: 3.5 Flags (out of 5).
Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona Cardinals
Current ESPN ADP: 52nd overall. My rank: 31st overall.
I think Ellington is the first player to graduate from my "Super-Deep Sleeper" list to my Flag list in one season. I absolutely do not believe Bruce Arians when he says he's going to give Ellington 20-plus touches per game; it sounds like Stepfan Taylor is in line for short-yardage work over Jonathan Dwyer, which could wind up limiting Ellington's TD total. But so what? Isn't that the same thing we expect from Giovani Bernard? In fact, Ellington and Bernard are strikingly similar players, yet Bernard is going 23 picks earlier in ESPN leagues. Each guy carries enough usage risk to keep them out of the RB top 10, but each is talented enough to dominate in a given week. Rating: 4.5 Flags (out of 5).
Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles
Current ESPN ADP: 154th overall. My rank: 119th overall.
From Weeks 1 to 8 last year, Chip Kelly's offense used two-TE formations about 16 percent of the time, but Ertz improved late in the year and from Week 9 forward, that number jumped to 39 percent. Brent Celek proved he's ready to be a prime blocking TE, while Ertz scored five TDs in his final nine games, including the playoffs, and looks like a beastly red zone threat. He's my No. 12 TE, which puts him in the middle class at the position. He's a lovely high-upside target if you choose to wait at TE. Rating: 3.5 Flags (out of 5).
Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons
Current ESPN ADP: 171st overall. My rank: 134th overall.
Consider this a vote against Steven Jackson. Coming off a season ruined by a right hamstring injury, Jackson pulled his left hammy early in camp and may miss the entire preseason. I know the Falcons have expressed reservations about Freeman in pass protection lately, but he came into the league with a reputation for being solid in that department, so I'm hoping the rookie will prove himself soon. And yes, Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith played ahead of him Week 1 of the preseason, but please don't tell me you're ready to be fooled by either of those guys again. Freeman probably isn't a future true feature back, but he's a nice sleeper in all leagues, and not just a handcuff to Jackson. Rating: 2.5 Flags (out of 5).
T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts
Current ESPN ADP: 65th overall. My rank: 44th overall.
Hilton has a lot of DeSean Jackson in him, which is why I ranked Hilton just three WR spots behind Jackson. Are these guys you feel great about as stable week-to-week producers? Probably not. But they're super-elite playmakers who'll go bananas five or six times per season. Match them with a steady No. 1 wideout, and you're onto something. Hilton is little dude who because of his speed is just unmanageable when he gets a defender's hands off of him. The Colts want to run, but Andrew Luck is continuing to develop toward greatness. He's going to use his best weapon. Rating: 3.5 Flags (out of 5).
Lamar Miller, RB, Miami Dolphins
Current ESPN ADP: 110th overall. My rank: 55th overall.
I admit I didn't love Miller's tape in '13. He's a sprinter who never seems to break anything big, with only four of 177 carries going for 20-plus yards. But part of the problem was now-departed coordinator Mike Sherman's dreadful calls, and part was that decimated Dolphins line. Mostly this flag pick is a contention that Miller should be drafted as if he's a starting NFL RB, because I think he is. Knowshon Moreno was awesome last season, but he's already coming off a knee scope, adding to his litany of lower-leg issues. If there's risk of a committee here, I think it's a relatively small one. Miller is no LeSean McCoy, but new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor will seek to get him in space like he did Shady. At the very least, I expect Miller to double his career-high of 26 catches. Rating: 3 Flags (out of 5).
Rueben Randle, WR, New York Giants
Current ESPN ADP: 167th overall. My rank: 108th overall.
Speaking of new offensive systems, the Giants are going West Coast. Eli Manning won't be asked to stand in overlong and get pummeled in exchange for deep shots; rather, we're going to see more quick hitters and timing plays that emphasize chemistry. To be honest, it's possible that that bodes poorly for Randle, who made many mental mistakes in '13. But what excites me here is that Randle possesses something the Giants' other WRs don't: size. And there's also no reliable TE on this roster. That should lead to red zone work. Randle may not eclipse 1,000 yards, but it would be no shock to see him threaten double-digit TDs. Rating: 4 Flags (out of 5).
Bishop Sankey, RB, Tennessee Titans
Current ESPN ADP: 79th overall. My rank: 53rd overall.
I'll admit this is a player on whom our ADP just seems way out of whack. On most other sites, the presumptive top rookie rusher is rated as a borderline top-50 entity. But if you're playing in an ESPN league and using ESPN ranks, there's value here. My hesitation ranking Sankey this spring was the thought that surely the Titans would go out and get someone other than Shonn Greene. And they got ... Dexter McCluster? In other words: I'm not exactly sure what Sankey is, but I know all his alternatives can't make it as big offensive pieces. Sankey is an explosive athlete who at least in theory should do everything better than Greene, save perhaps pass blocking. Do I buy Sankey as a must-start in 10-team leagues? Not quite. But you can get him as a fourth/fifth-rounder to supplement your superstars. You don't necessarily need him to be one. Rating: 3 Flags (out of 5).
Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Current ESPN ADP: 191st overall. My rank: 130th overall.
It's easy to forget the flavor of last year. Before there was Brandin Cooks coming out of Oregon State, there was Wheaton. He might not quite have Cooks' straight-ahead jets, but he's just about as quick. The Steelers will go Smurf outside, starting WRs who are borderline unchuckable at the line, and use Todd Haley's quick-hitting offense to get Wheaton and Antonio Brown in space. With the Steelers in '13, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery combined for 113 catches, 1,342 yards and 16 TDs, and now they're gone. Wheaton won't replace that production all by himself, but Pittsburgh believes he'll be the biggest replacement piece. I do, too. Rating: 2.5 Flags (out of 5).