Fantasy football owners are wise to draft players on the upswing - for instance, those who are settling into a regular role, coming off a successful late-season stretch or joining a more favorable offense.
Most of these might become the next generation of elite players; some of their value spikes may be temporary. Either way, these commodities have room to stretch their statistical legs.
Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Matty Ice looked like a veteran signal caller at times during his rookie campaign. Sure, he had tailback Michael Turner to lean on, but he was efficient in completing 61.1 percent of his 434 tosses. While you can be skeptical of the Falcons' overachieving O-line, the acquisition of tight end Tony Gonzalez will help the offense in all facets. Wideout Roddy White, Ryan's favorite last year, is on his way up as well.
The Falcons may also try to conserve Turner with more aerial strikes, which should help Ryan surpass 16 red zone strikes. He straddles the line between a No. 1 and No. 2 option, but he performed as a No. 1 at times last year and is on a swift track to doing so on a more frequent basis.
Caution: If they take some focus off Turner, will Ryan be as dynamic? Remember, just because he's on the upswing doesn't make him worth a drastic reach while ignoring more proven talent as your top quarterback.
David Garrard, Jacksonville Jaguars
A victim of the overvaluation cult last year, Garrard still managed 3,620 passing yards (a career high) in a run-first system. Negatives: He was sacked 42 times, threw just 15 touchdowns and his 13 picks didn't fall under his carefulness mantra. This season, he'll have some help.
Jax inked veteran wideout Torry Holt to give Garrard a possession target and mentor their other receivers. This lot features a healthy Mike Walker, a physically gifted talent who can give them a deep presence. Though the rest of the pass catchers inspire yawns, the reliable Holt's presence may prevent a few picks, and the Jags still boast multifaceted tailback Maurice Jones-Drew. You'll be able to wait on him as a low-end No. 2 option.
Ronnie Brown, Miami Dolphins
Ronnie Brown is returning to form
In his first season back from anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction - in a split backfield - Brown ran off 916 yards (4.3 per tote) with 33 receptions and 10 touchdowns. This bested the typical pace for regaining strength in a knee after such a procedure; the bulldozer (6-foot, 230 pounds) may be at his physical peak.
Caution: A five-touchdown affair (one passing) last year skewed his stats. The Dolphins' zany playbook and the presence of No. 2 back Ricky Williams may still stunt his fantasy growth, but Brown has the receiving skills to be an every-down back. Williams is the clear No. 2. The hogs in front of Brown are growing along with him. He's essentially in a contract year since he can opt out after the season. What is there to keep you from making him a mid-tier No. 2 back?
Kevin Smith, Detroit Lions
Motown's unquestioned feature back averaged 21 carries per contest in their last eight games, proving the Lions could've used him in the first eight, too. They need someone to take pressure off wideout Calvin Johnson and whoever lines up under center (Daunte Culpepper or rook Matthew Stafford). Head coach Jim Schwartz has made it clear the Lions will utilize a power-running system.
The Lions may have trouble keeping a consistent running attack because they'll probably fall behind early and often, but that didn't stop Smith from coming into his own in the second half of last year. He's no physical slouch (6-foot-1, 211 pounds), and the Lions probably won't hesitate to increase his workload. Smith could easily outperform his high-end No. 2 fantasy rank.
Pierre Thomas, New Orleans Saints
He totaled 252 yards in his rookie season (2007) on 52 totes. When Saints mainstay Deuce McAllister crashed in '08, as well as Reggie Bush, Thomas picked up the pieces on his way to a 12-touchdown season (nine rushing), including nine in his final six contests along with 475 rushing yards and 19 catches. He helped balance a pass-heavy attack with a 4.8 yards-per-carry average.
The 5-foot-11, 215-pound bowling ball is a dual threat (31 catches in '08) primed for more goal line touches. The dynamic Bush will be the slasher, not the grinder. To firm his role even more, Thomas packed on 10 pounds of muscle while on vacation. He's more shifty than speedy, and he's relatively unproven; still, it helps that he's finally the main rusher, even in this offense. Make him your No. 2 back; he could become your No. 1-A.
Vincent Jackson, San Diego Chargers
Though he'll again battle for attention with healthier versions of running back LaDainian Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates, V-Jax flashed his savvy deep-play ability last season. Among receivers with at least 50 grabs, Jackson posted the top yards-per-reception average (18.6). Another athletic big body that creates matchup problems in the secondary, Jackson (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) has added a grin-inducing dimension to head honcho Norv Turner's passing attack. Quarterback Philip Rivers isn't shy about chucking the pigskin, either.
Don't get us wrong, it may be a lot of hit-or-miss when it comes to his weekly production, meaning he takes a slight hit in his PPR stock. Still, you shouldn't be upset if you can make him your No. 2 receiver.
Santana Moss, Washington Redskins
A 30-year-old receiver on the rise? Believe it. This past season Moss regained his 2005 form with 79 receptions for 1,044 yards and six touchdowns. Now, he'll have his second go-round in a scheme that should include more air raids this year with developing but careful quarterback Jason Campbell. Moss finished 2008 strong, hauling in at least four passes in each of his last seven games despite erratic yardage totals.
He overcame seemingly huge odds for staying healthy the entire season; his injury risk remains high. He matched his '07 yards-per-catch average, halting a post-2004 slide; Moss still has a hint of explosiveness. Some may reach for him as a No. 2; in non-PPR especially, it's best to be happy with his No. 2 potential from your No. 3 slot.
Ted Ginn Jr., Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins need a top wideout. This could be Ginn, who took a giant step forward in his second NFL season with 56 catches and 790 yards. Miami's run-first offense once again limited him to two touchdowns, but the big growth for Ginn was his average in yards per reception (12.4 to 14.1), which stayed true to the big-play ability he showed at THE Ohio State University.
While many think the Dolphins passing game is as pretentious as that school's self-awarded title, Chad Pennington is no slouch at quarterback. Sure, he doesn't have the arm, but he has the smarts to at least give Ginn something to work with. Greg Camarillo (knee) still needs to prove he's healthy, and tight ends Anthony Fasano and David Martin don't excite. Taking a chance on Ginn as a midrange fourth receiver provides some more justifiable thrill.
Greg Olsen, Chicago Bears
Quarterback Kyle Orton favored Chicago tight ends before he went to the Denver Broncos. While Jay Cutler may incorporate the receivers more, he didn't exactly ignore Tony Scheffler in Denver. Even so, Olsen is pretty much the No. 1 receiver when you break it down. A 54-catch, 574-yard, five-touchdown year cemented the University of Miami alum as one of the rising studs at the position. Desmond Clark will be there to take tight end looks away, but the younger half can stretch the field, which Cutler will help oblige.
We think his career 10.4 yards-per-grab average was more because of Chicago's offense and quarterbacks than his own doing. His week-to-week performance can be spotty, but we know how athletic tight ends can dominate once they blossom. While you shouldn't overpay, there's good reason to wait past the elite class and make Olsen a midrange or low-end No. 1 option.
Owen Daniels, Houston Texans
Though Daniels has only grabbed five touchdowns in the last two seasons, the Houston offense is just starting to blossom. Daniels rewarded his owners with 133 catches and 1,630 air-landing yards since 2006. He had the fifth most targets (101) among tight ends last year.
Even if quarterback Matt Schaub can't stay healthy in the high-powered attack, Daniels would benefit by being the crutch of backup quarterbacks Dan Orlovsky and Rex Grossman. Don't hope for that, but know he has a safe place in the offense regardless of who's under center. Daniels was a midrange sleeper last year but won't have the same distinction this year. He's a midrange No. 1 option and could be even better in PPR games.
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum competes in Tout Wars and LABR and has won several industry leagues in both baseball and football.
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