Think about what's fun about Fantasy Football. The draft, the roster management, the trades, the trash talking. It's all good and we love all of it, but perhaps one of the underrated aspects of Fantasy is uncovering a gem off waivers.
How many of us plucked Jordy Nelson, Victor Cruz or Cam Newton off waivers last season and made the playoffs because of it? Sure, we could have also picked up busts like Dexter McCluster, Maurice Morris or Rex Grossman and lived to regret it, but that's the allure of waivers. It's almost like drafting all over again, one week and one player at a time.
So before the 2012 season gets down to business, we thought we'd take one last look at the breakout players from 2011 and figure out whether they'll keep it up or disappoint. We've omitted mortal locks Jimmy Graham, A.J. Green and Julio Jones from our observations.
Cam Newton, Panthers
Before 2011: A darling at Auburn and the top pick of the NFL Draft, Newton underwhelmed in the preseason with 300 passing yards on 24-of-47 passing (42.1 comp. pct.) with a touchdown to go with 86 rushing yards and a rushing score. Expectations were low heading into the regular season.
In 2011: Newton is the poster boy for why the preseason doesn't mean much. After slumping through four games, he put up back-to-back 400-yard games against the Cardinals and Packers before hanging 374 yards on the Bears two weeks later. Newton totaled two or more touchdowns in 11 of 16 games and finished with an NFL rookie record 4,051 yards with 21 touchdowns and a ridiculous 706 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.
One-year wonder? Tough to imagine defenses finding a way to routinely slow him down. While there's a regression expected from Newton as a rusher, he should develop even more as a passer. He's young, strong, big, fast and just a dominant stat producer. The fact that he can be had at a second-round price tag is pretty amazing considering just how good his numbers should be, even if he scores half as many rushing touchdowns.
Matthew Stafford, Lions
Before 2011: Stafford was loaded with potential but saddled with injuries. Shoulder problems primarily kept him off the field for 13 of his first 32 games. He completed less than 60 percent of his passes for just 19 touchdowns vs. 21 interceptions and had one career 300-yard game and four games with two-plus touchdowns.
In 2011: Stafford exceeded expectations by tossing for 5,038 yards and a ridiculous 41 touchdowns vs. 16 interceptions. He completed well over 60 percent of his passes and averaged a personal-best 7.6 yards per toss with 663 attempts. He threw for over 300 yards eight times and had at least two passing scores in all but four games.
One-year wonder? C'mon. Though there is a chance the Lions find a running back and lean on the ground game more than the 407 times they did last season, Stafford should help carry Detroit on their second consecutive playoff push. Throwing to Calvin Johnson has its obvious statistical advantages but the rest of his receiving corps is enough to challenge defenses even without Megatron. His offensive line is a little better too. Unless he gets hurt, and he had quite a scare this preseason when he busted a blood vessel in his non-throwing hand, Stafford should be a cinch to produce big numbers in Fantasy.
DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
Before 2011: Murray was a beast at Oklahoma, rushing for 3,685 yards on 759 carries and catching 157 passes for 1,571 yards with 63 total touchdowns over four years. So why did the Cowboys find themselves so lucky to get Murray in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft? Injuries -- a dislocated kneecap, a hamstring strain and a knee problem kept him out to end three of his four seasons in college, including his last two. Durability was a major concern.
In 2011: Murray bided his time after opening training camp with a hamstring injury, totaling 24 carries for 71 yards in his first five games with no rush good for more than eight yards. Given a chance to play more against the Rams in Week 7, he blasted off for 253 yards on 25 carries including a 91-yard touchdown run on his first carry. He had four more games with at least 20 carries before he -- surprise -- got hurt. A broken ankle that included a sprain ended his season prematurely, but not before collecting 1,080 total yards and a pair of touchdowns in seven starts.
One-year wonder? Murray has little competition for touches and is healthy to begin 2012. Judging by last season, Jason Garrett is willing to trust him with the bulk of the rushing workload as Murray was the first back on Garrett's watch as a play caller to have as many as five 20-carry games. But only once in college did he last beyond 179 carries (he had 282 carries as a senior) and hurt his ankle after 164 carries last season. If it wasn't for his pesky injury history, especially as his seasons wind down, he'd be considered a Top 5 pick. As it stands, he's worth a pick between eighth and 15th overall based on the production he'll get early on -- plus he could always surprise and make it through the rest of the season and deliver amazing totals.
C.J. Spiller, Bills
Before 2011: Spiller might have been the most explosive backup running back in football, though you wouldn't have known it. From his first pro game in 2010 through Week 11 last year, Spiller totaled 398 yards on 95 carries (4.2 average) and a touchdown with 239 yards and a score on 39 catches. Nothing to get too excited about, mainly because Fred Jackson was the ball hog in the Buffalo backfield.
In 2011: Jackson broke his leg in Week 11 and in Week 12, Spiller finally got a chance to be a feature back. He did amazing, dwarfing the numbers he totaled in his first 24 games and finishing with 67 carries for 391 yards (5.6 average) and three touchdowns and 21 catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns over that span.
One-year wonder? While Spiller's totals at the end of last year were remarkable, they're in a vacuum. Without Jackson the Bills had no choice but to lean on Spiller. With Jackson, they have a choice, and they'll seemingly stick with Jackson after giving him a contract extension last spring. While Spiller won't be reduced to small potatoes, he's unlikely to average the 18.3 touches he had in the last six weeks of 2011. That means his numbers will be down so long as Jackson is around.
Darren Sproles, Saints
Before 2011: Sproles was a special-teams sensation but never quite enough of an offensive threat to warrant regular Fantasy use. In his first six seasons in San Diego he totaled 17 offensive touchdowns and couldn't top 840 total yards. One of those seasons was lost because of a broken leg. He had always had a knack to make plays as a receiver but never had the chance.
In 2011: Sproles effectively replaced Reggie Bush in the Saints offense and did way better than Bush ever did. Drew Brees fell in love with using Sproles, connecting with him for a career-high 86 catches for 710 yards and seven touchdowns. Those numbers alone made him better than most receivers, but he tacked on another 603 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 87 handoffs to push his stats higher than anyone expected.
One-year wonder? Sproles might be 29 but has barely been used throughout his career. A preseason knee injury kept him sidelined but isn't expected to keep him off the field. The return of Mark Ingram could cut into playing time, but Sproles should continue to be the priority in the offense. Sproles is such a dangerous weapon out of the backfield and defenses should still have a hard time defending him. He should continue to produce like a No. 2 running back all year.
Beanie Wells, Cardinals
Before 2011: Wells was underwhelming as a former first-round pick, tallying nine touchdowns and averaging 4.07 yards per carry in two seasons. Wells had the reputation of always playing banged up and had just six career games with at least 15 carries. The Cardinals had drafted running back Ryan Williams with a second-round pick in the 2011 draft to aid Wells, if not overtake him.
In 2011: Williams got hurt in the preseason and forced the Cardinals to lean on Wells, who easily posted career-highs with 1,047 rush yards and 10 touchdowns in 14 games. He had nine games with at least 15 carries and scored in each of his first four games. But he finished out the season with a knee injury that required surgery and extensive rehabilitation.
One-year wonder? Wells has a knack for getting banged up. Between that and the return of Ryan Williams from his own knee injury, his playing time could be limited. As of this writing we believe Williams could end up with better numbers than Wells based on his preseason performance and expectations carried over from last season. But there's no doubt the Cardinals' offense is in a lot of trouble this season between their shaky quarterbacks and offensive line. Wells reproducing his stats from 2011 is a hard sell.
Victor Cruz, Giants
Before 2011: Cruz was known more for his preseason performances than anything else. He had three touchdowns in a 2010 preseason game against the Jets but was mostly quiet otherwise. He didn't have a single catch in 2010 and made the Giants' roster as a reserve receiver to start last season.
In 2011: Cruz's limited opportunities got off to a rocky start when he underwhelmed in Week 2. But he made up for it in Week 3 with two touchdowns on three catches and never looked back. By the time the Giants made Super Bowl XLVI, defenses were keying in on Cruz, trying to keep him under wraps while other Giants receivers enjoyed lesser coverage. He finished his storybook season with an incredible 1,805 yards and 10 touchdowns over 20 games.
One-year wonder? There's a chance Cruz could suffer a dip in stats, but his playing time won't get touched. He's established as a major player in the Giants offense and only adds to the concern of opposing defenses so long as he and Hakeem Nicks are on the field together. The Giants also drafted Rueben Randle and have some other receivers to play the third receiver role which will reduce some pressure on Cruz. You're best off considering him a superstar second receiver than a No. 1 option, however.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders
Before 2011: Was there a bigger representative for how bizarre the Raiders can act on draft day than DHB? The butt of many jokes, Heyward-Bey was considered a reach at seventh overall in the 2009 NFL Draft. In his first two seasons he had a total of 35 catches for 490 yards and two touchdowns over 26 games. Even entering his third year in the league, no one wanted to touch him.
In 2011: DHB's season began innocently enough with five catches for 49 yards in two of the first three Raider games. But he was given an opportunity to play in Week 4 vs. the Patriots and came away with 115 yards and four catches. For the next three weeks he had at least five catches and 80 yards with a touchdown mixed in. A trip to then-coach Hue Jackson's doghouse cost him a couple of games, but he really got his mojo back in the Raiders' final five matchups. With Carson Palmer as his quarterback, DHB totaled 29 catches for 456 yards and three of his four touchdowns. The receptions and receiving yardage totals made up nearly half of his entire 2011 production.
One-year wonder? Forget the talk of Heyward-Bey being a joke -- he's remained a part of Oakland's first team offense and even hung in there battling a shoulder injury. The upgrade at quarterback to Palmer, who went through his first offseason as a Raider, and change in offensive scheme should help DHB remain productive. There are other explosive receivers on the team but Heyward-Bey should stand out again as at least a third receiver in Fantasy. His late-August average draft position of 110th overall is a joke.
Jordy Nelson, Packers
Before 2011: Nelson was known for being speedy but never played much, in part because he struggled with press coverage. His first three seasons were non-descript (100 catches, 1,268 yards and six touchdowns) and didn't exactly have high expectations after getting hurt in Super Bowl XLV.
In 2011: As it turned out, all Nelson needed was an opportunity to prove he could beat any coverage. Nelson throttled opponents who underestimated his deep speed and averaged an incredible 18.6 yards per catch. Not only did he score 15 touchdowns, but he found the end zone in every single home game, a tremendous feat. But perhaps the most amazing stat of all is that Nelson played in fewer snaps than Greg Jennings -- despite Jennings playing in three fewer games -- and he still out-produced him.
One-year wonder? Only Nelson's parents believe he can catch 15 touchdown passes again, but everything else from 2011 can be duplicated, if not exceeded. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said during the offseason he intends to further find ways to use Nelson and give him more opportunities. With Green Bay's offense firmly in pass-first mode, Nelson should remain relevant in Fantasy circles and could even take the mantle from Jennings as the Packers' best receiver for the second season in a row.
Laurent Robinson, Jaguars
Before 2011: A career underachiever, Robinson was nearly headed out of the league when the Cowboys came calling looking for receiving help after the Chargers released him following the 2011 preseason. Over four seasons Robinson had more leg injuries (five) than touchdowns (four) and averaged 11.2 yards per catch over 89 grabs.
In 2011: Robinson took his last chance and turned it into breakout campaign. Playing as either the second or third receiver in Dallas based on injuries, Robinson routinely exploited single coverage, especially in the red zone, and became a Fantasy hero with 11 scores and 858 yards in just 14 weeks of play. He also scored in eight of the Cowboys last 10 games.
One-year wonder? That tremendous effort landed Robinson a rich contract with the Jaguars, which isn't exactly the Cowboys. Instead of catching passes from Tony Romo, he'll handle bullets from Blaine Gabbert. Instead of being the singled-up receiver opposite Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, he'll be the experienced veteran opposite rookie Justin Blackmon. And instead of being in the pass-intensive Dallas offense he'll be in a more balanced system in Jacksonville. Fantasy owners aren't buying Robinson as a valid threat -- his average draft position as of late August is a woeful 151st overall! This might be the first time the Fantasy universe is turning its back on a receiver coming off an 11-touchdown season and being perfectly justified for it.
Fred Davis, Redskins
Before 2011: After entering the NFL with a little fanfare, Davis quickly played second fiddle to Chris Cooley and only saw extensive playing time in 2009 when Cooley got hurt. He scored six times in 10 games and was seemingly on his way to being a more regular participant in the Washington offense until Mike Shanahan changed his mind and took the offense in a different direction. Davis' stats were nearly halved in 2010 even though he started nine games.
In 2011: Cooley got hurt again and Davis took advantage of the opportunity, scoring three times while posting career-highs in catches (59) and yardage (796). He had 80 yards and/or a touchdown in half of his 12 games, his season ending prematurely when he was banned four games for violating the NFL's drug policy.
One-year wonder? Things are changing again in Washington and it might lead to more challenges for Davis. With the addition of rookie Robert Griffin III the Redskins will tailor their offense to enhance his strengths, which is downfield passing and out-of-pocket passing toward the sidelines. Griffin isn't always looking in the middle of the field and rarely leaned on his tight ends while at Baylor. Davis has spent more time blocking than catching through three preseason games in part because the Redskins offensive line is already banged up. Considering how he regressed after the first time he put up decent numbers, there isn't a ton of hope for Davis to finish the season as a Top 12 Fantasy tight end.
Jermaine Gresham, Bengals
Before 2011: As a rookie, Gresham was prominent in the Cincinnati offense but not a key player. He caught 52 passes over 15 games but averaged a weak 9.1 yards per catch and scored just four times. The Bengals changed offensive coordinators and gave Gresham the same kind of opportunity.
In 2011: Gresham had more playing time in one fewer game and grew his numbers for the second season in a row. The Bengals' new offense proved to be friendly for the tight end as was a rookie quarterback who wasn't rattled despite not having the benefit of offseason training. Gresham went a long way in helping that rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, get comfortable and remains a big target for him.
One-year wonder? Hard to imagine Gresham not repeating his numbers, if not exceeding them. Truth is, Gresham fits the bill as a large receiving threat that serves as a mismatch for defenses and the Bengals would be bonkers not to take advantage. Moreover, the team still doesn't quite have a reliable second receiver to go with A.J. Green. Gresham might be it. It would be a stunner if he didn't catch over 50 passes for the third season in a row.