Dual threats for 2013
Cam Newton , Panthers: Fantasy owners are hoping a strong finish to 2012 will put Newton in prime position to dominate in 2013. After a lousy start last season Newton had multiple touchdowns in seven of his final nine contests, boosting his Fantasy production from 17.0 Fantasy points per game to 25.3 points per game. A few tweaks in offensive philosophy and a reliance on the short-area passing game (and a good schedule) helped turn things around for Newton, but more tweaks are in store this offseason after the team lost offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski to Cleveland's head coaching job. Mike Shula will take over the Panthers' offense, which Newton is happy with, but his track record as an offensive coordinator and head coach is not very good. The plan in Carolina is to stick with what worked late in 2012. Luckily, Newton is a freak of nature and stands to continue putting up huge numbers even though they did little this offseason to improve the offense. Factor in Newton's goal-line prowess and there's not necessarily a lot to fear with Newton so long as he's taken with a pick after elite quarterbacks like Drew Brees , Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning are taken. That could happen after the 30th overall pick.
Robert Griffin III , Redskins: RG3 is starting to look better as the preseason goes on as he appears on track to be ready for Week 1 against the Eagles. He had surgery to repair a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus in January and as a result is on a limited workout schedule through the month of August. He's not expected to participate in any preseason games but he's been practicing on a regular basis. There's no denying how awesome Griffin was last season, tallying 344 Fantasy points (seventh best among QBs) and averaging 22.9 Fantasy points per week. There is no indication the Redskins will alter their playbook and make RG3 a statuesque pocket passer, meaning it's very possible he remains as productive as he was in 2012. But he also could get hurt again, something Fantasy owners have to consider given what happened to him as a rookie. Your best bet is to consider him a solid No. 1 Fantasy quarterback worth a pick starting in Round 6. If you get him, aim to back him up with a capable passer a few rounds later. That's pretty much all the insurance you'll need to feel safe about owning Griffin in Fantasy play
Colin Kaepernick , 49ers: Kaepernick lost his No. 1 receiver in Michael Crabtree (Achilles) before the season started, but that doesn't mean his Fantasy value is sunk. Kaepernick should still play at a high level, and hopefully what he did last year in a small sample size will carry over to a big performance. He had five games with at least 18 Fantasy points in seven starts in the regular season, and he carried the 49ers to the Super Bowl with two standout playoff games. If you project Kaepernick's regular-season stats over a full 16-game season he would have finished with 4,146 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions and 948 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. That's pretty awesome. He takes a hit with Crabtree out, but Kaepernick has the look of a No. 1 Fantasy quarterback, and we like him with a pick beginning in Round 6 in the majority of leagues. Since he's unproven, you'll still want to pair him with a quality backup option later (think anyone from Eli Manning to Jay Cutler , but Kaepernick should still be able to hold his own with a revamped receiving corps led by Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin . Remember, there aren't many quarterbacks who can run like Kaepernick, and that rushing prowess makes him a unique Fantasy commodity.
Russell Wilson , Seahawks: Wilson came out of nowhere to surprise Seattle fans and Fantasy owners with a dynamic performance in his rookie campaign in 2012. He should continue to play at a high level in 2013 but the loss of prized offseason acquisition Percy Harvin for much of the regular season harpoons any upside he had coming into the year. Wilson managed to do just fine without Harvin a season ago, finishing as the No. 9 Fantasy quarterback in standard leagues with at least 19 Fantasy points in nine of his final 11 games, including at least 27 points in his final three outings. That was helped by amassing surprising rushing totals, something that he might have to do again this season even though he said this offseason he doesn't like to run. Figure Wilson to be among the last starting Fantasy passers you'll see taken between Rounds 7 and 9 this season as owners shy away from him knowing he won't have Harvin around to enhance his stats further. You'll want to pair Wilson with a quality No. 2 Fantasy quarterback (think anyone from Eli Manning to Ben Roethlisberger to Andy Dalton , but until he proves you wrong he should be considered a starter from Week 1 at Carolina.
Ray Rice , Ravens: Rice should be in the conversation as a Top-10 pick, but not necessarily a Top-5 pick. True, he had another excellent season in 2012 when he totaled over 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns and scored double-digit Fantasy points in 11 games. But toward the end of last year we saw Rice split reps with Bernard Pierce , so there's a little concern they could share a little more than we're used to seeing in 2013. Rice also didn't produce the huge numbers he did before the Ravens made a coordinator change as Joe Flacco sort of took over the direction of the offense. We wouldn't be as worried about those things as we would a hangover from the Super Bowl -- running backs tend to struggle posting big numbers in the season following a title game run. Rice had 331 carries and 69 catches over 20 games, which is a lot of work but nothing to get completely alarmed about (he had 411 total touches in 2010 and was fine in 2011). Roster shakeups due of injuries or salary cap issues have thinned out the talent Flacco will throw to as well, so there could be added emphasis on the run game week after week. Is he still one of the best players in Fantasy? Sure, but he's got a lot more company at the top of the running back heap than he did a year ago. We'd aim for Rice no higher than sixth overall in drafts.
Reggie Bush , Lions: Bush left the Dolphins this offseason to sign with the Lions, and we're excited for his opportunity in Detroit. He has played well since coming to the Dolphins in 2011 when he got a chance to be an every-down back. In 2011, Bush had a career season with 216 carries for 1,086 yards and six touchdowns and 43 catches for 296 yards and a score. He followed that up with a career-high 227 carries for 986 yards and six touchdowns and 35 catches for 292 yards and two touchdowns. Now, Bush goes to a Lions team that should involve him more as a receiver, even promising a potential 70 catches. He has at least 43 catches in five of his seven years, and the Lions will use him as a three-down back. We view Bush as a No. 2 Fantasy running back with upside, and he could total 1,500 yards with about six touchdowns. He is worth drafting in all formats in Round 3 with the potential to be drafted in Round 2 in PPR leagues. This could be a big year for Bush in Motown.
Darren Sproles , Saints: If you draft Sproles in 2013, you're banking on him coming through as a pass catcher rather than as a rusher. Sproles' run duties did little to supplement what he did as a receiver, which was actually slightly better on a per-game basis than what he did in 2011. His catches per game went up from 5.4 to 5.8, his receiving average jumped from 8.3 yards to 8.9 yards per catch and his receiving touchdowns stayed at seven. But his rush game, despite a nifty 5.1 yard average, practically disappeared. He had all of 48 carries thanks to four games of no handoffs and seven with five or fewer. That makes Sproles a risk as a top-20 running back but not quite as a low-end No. 2 option in a standard league. Obviously, the receptions he's expected to handle push him up in PPR formats to a very solid No. 2 option. He's worth a late fourth-round pick in standard leagues and a third-round pick in PPR formats this summer.
Shane Vereen , Patriots: Vereen should be considered a sleeper coming into this season based on his expected role with the Patriots with Danny Woodhead gone. Last year, Vereen was inactive for the first three games of the season, but he finished the year with 73 carries for 308 yards and four touchdowns and 15 catches for 254 yards and three touchdowns, including the playoffs. With Woodhead gone, Vereen's value will rise, especially in PPR leagues where he could complement Stevan Ridley . Woodhead had 76 carries for 301 yards and four touchdowns and 40 catches for 446 yards and three touchdowns with one lost fumble last year, and Vereen should pick up the majority of that production. He should be considered a No. 3 Fantasy running back in standard leagues and a potential No. 2 option in deep PPR formats. He's worth a mid-round pick, and Vereen has breakout written all over him.
Randall Cobb , Packers: Cobb blossomed into a solid Fantasy receiver last season and the hope is he continues his progress in 2013. It took a few weeks but once the Packers were in a pinch with their run game they utilized Cobb more and his numbers took off. Starting in Week 5, when Cedric Benson got hurt, Cobb posted 10-plus Fantasy points in five of his next six games (with a TD or 100 total yards in each game). Cobb slowed down toward end the season, scoring once and posting two games with 100 yards in his final seven games including the playoffs. He finished by leading the Packers in catches (80), targets (104 for an incredible 77 pct. conversion rate), receiving yards (954) and total yards (1,086), throwing in eight touchdowns along the way. Already, the Packers have said they're going to take Cobb off of special teams and focus on using him more on offense, so chances are he will be in a position to put up better stats in 2013. Even with the Packers improving their run game this offseason, Cobb looks like a contender for big stats, particularly in the wake of a Jordy Nelson knee injury that could open Cobb up for a hot start. Cobb sizes up as the Packers' most explosive receiver worth a pick starting around 30th overall in standard leagues and 25th overall in PPR formats. He's a great low-end No. 1/high-end No. 2 Fantasy option.
Tavon Austin , Rams: The Rams drafted Austin in the first round of the NFL Draft out of West Virginia, and he's expected to contribute right away. In fact, he might be the best rookie this season since he has the size (5-foot-9) and playmaking skills of Percy Harvin . He has excellent speed (4.29 in the 40-yard dash). Austin posted back-to-back 100-catch seasons with the Mountaineers, totaling over 11 yards per catch along the way while upping his rushing workload as a senior (72 carries for 643 yards including a school-record 344 rush yards against the Oklahoma Sooners). He will likely play in the slot for the Rams, but he also can play outside. Consider Austin a potential No. 3 Fantasy receiver in standard leagues with a mid-round pick (yep, that high), but in rookie-only drafts he's a first-round selection.