It's the most wonderful time of the year.
OK, it's not Christmas, but I'm still here to give you some gifts for Draft Day: Players who I think will be worth stealing in drafts, others who will get picked but do better than expected, and guys that will disappoint and should be passed on altogether. Finding sleepers, breakouts and busts are what makes the preparation for your league's draft so much fun.
And it's a must-do. You're behind the curve if you don't dedicate some time to finding these kinds of players. And you can't just throw a dart or pick a name out of a hat and call him a bust or sleeper. You need to put in the time ...
Or, you can just copy our lists. My colleague Jamey Eisenberg has delivered on his sleepers, breakouts and busts, and mine are below. Combined, we're giving you 32 players (no DSTs or kickers!) to chew on before hitting the war room (but not without practicing in our mock draft lobby, though).
Here we go.
Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh
Dave's projection: 43 catches, 601 yards, five touchdowns
Jamey's projection: 36 catches, 680 yards, seven touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 161 (Round 14)
Three years ago the Steelers debuted a fast rookie named Mike Wallace. While Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward worked as the team's primary receivers, Wallace split defenses with his incredible speed and took home several long passes from Ben Roethlisberger. With Emmanuel Sanders hurt, Brown has picked up that role and should come away with some big games in 2011. He's already been doing it this preseason. He's a terrific late-round gamble.
Braylon Edwards, WR, San Francisco
Dave's projection: 54 catches, 722 yards, five touchdowns
Jamey's projection: 56 catches, 918 yards, five touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 108 (Round 9)
Edwards has a lot to prove and more to gain with a big season. He's playing on a one-year deal in San Francisco, where he's reunited with family friend and Michigan alum Jim Harbaugh. Alex Smith is his quarterback, which is not ideal, but Edwards is already starting ahead of Michael Crabtree and establishing himself as their best sideline threat. Moreover, Edwards was able to pull out 904 yards and seven touchdowns last season with Mark Sanchez as his quarterback, so he could feasibly come close to those numbers in '11 with the Niners. A lot of people don't like him because he's never been the same guy since that magical 2007 season with the Browns, but he represents a safe option to pad your bench. Moreover, there's always the chance he exceeds expectations and becomes relevant while trying to show the rest of the NFL that he can be a No. 1 receiver. That's the kind of low-risk pick worth drafting late.
Tim Hightower, RB, Washington
Dave's projection: 161 carries, 665 yards, six touchdowns; 27 catches, 181 receiving yards
Jamey's projection: 184 carries, 848 yards, six touchdowns; 29 catches, 215 yards, two touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 99 (Round 9)
Hightower's Fantasy value was salvaged when the Redskins traded for him in late July, and it took a jump again when Ryan Torain broke his hand. But perhaps it's been Hightower's solid play this preseason that has drawn even more eyeballs to him. He's running very well and with determination, knowing that he can own a big portion of the Redskins' workload on the ground. Torain is injury prone, as evidenced by his broken hand this year and hamstring pull last year, and rookies pretty much make up the rest of the Washington running back depth chart. Hightower is capable of playing on every down and has been money at the goal line -- no one else in Washington can touch him there. He should have ample opportunities to have a career year.
Lance Kendricks, TE, St. Louis
Dave's projection: 38 catches, 482 yards, four touchdowns
Jamey's projection: 43 catches, 488 yards, seven touchdowns
Average Draft Position: Undrafted
This one is for the Fantasy owners in deeper leagues who look for diamonds in the rough. We first took notice of Kendricks when he started working with the Rams' first-team offense in practice. Once he got some playing time with the starters -- and scored -- in the Rams' first preseason game, we were hooked. St. Louis loves the versatility that Kendricks offers: He can block, he can catch, he can line up wide and he can line up as an H-back. But best of all, he has good hands and speed, and those assets are what Sam Bradford will enjoy the most this season. The comparisons to Dallas Clark have been rolling in. Remember his name late in drafts or if you want to take a flier on someone off waivers.
Montario Hardesty, RB, Cleveland
Dave's projection: 105 carries, 419 yards, three touchdowns; two catches, 8 yards
Jamey's projection: 126 carries, 526 yards, five touchdowns; 11 catches, 69 yards
Average Draft Position: No. 154 (Round 13)
I never like touting players with injury histories, but Hardesty is an exception given where he'll get drafted. Peyton Hillis is the main man for the Browns, but he's already been dealing with hamstring and back problems in camp. Odds are he won't get enough touches to repeat his numbers from a year prior. Third-down back Brandon Jackson is also battling a turf toe injury. Meanwhile, the Browns played it smart and brought back Hardesty slowly from his knee rehab this offseason and it's seemed to pay off. He's been running well and cutting quick, showing flashes of what made the Browns love him coming out of college. Now that he's torn and rehabbed both of his ACLs, perhaps there's some hope that he'll stay healthy. If he does, and if Hillis doesn't, there could be a ton of Fantasy appeal.
Andre Roberts, WR, Arizona
Dave's projection: 43 catches, 582 yards, four touchdowns
Jamey's projection: 43 catches, 580 yards, seven touchdowns
Average Draft Position: Undrafted
Larry Fitzgerald is the No. 1 receiver in Arizona. Think fast: Who's No. 2? Todd Heap? Early Doucet? Forget about them -- second-year wideout Andre Roberts is in line for not only a lot of playing time but plenty of targets from Kevin Kolb. The two are already on the same page with the first-team offense and last year Roberts managed to finish second on the team in receiving touchdowns. All right, it was only two touchdowns, but he has at least established himself as a speed receiver who can help the Cardinals move the chains. So long as they don't add another player and all Roberts has to beat out is a banged-up, slow Doucet, he's going to have a shot at some promising totals.
Our Jamey Eisenberg was recognized for his accuracy.
Our Dave Richard named a finalist for FSWA Fantasy Football Writer of the Year
CBSSports.com honored by the N.Y. Times/FantasyFootballLibrarian.com Rankings Accuracy Challenge
Recognized for Best Article in Major Media by the FSWA
Chad Henne, QB, Miami
Dave's projection: 3,182 passing yards, 19 touchdowns, 14 interceptions
Jamey's projection: 3,517 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, 18 interceptions
Average Draft Position: No. 153 (Round 13)
Quit laughing. Just stop it. Look, everyone's looking for the next hot young quarterback, right? The word is out on Matthew Stafford (see below), and Sam Bradford and Kevin Kolb are already targeted by most Fantasy owners. These quarterbacks either have huge, reliable receivers to target 12 times a game or are in pass-heavy offenses. Well, Henne's got both of those factors working for him. Brandon Marshall enters 2011 healthy and with a chip on his shoulder, and the Dolphins upgraded at offensive coordinator with Brian Daboll. Henne also gets an extra boost with Reggie Bush coming to town. Sure, Bush isn't expected to be a Fantasy superstar, but his catch-and-run receptions will pad Henne's passing total. Remember what it did for Drew Brees back in 2006? Henne might top 225 yards every week without breaking a sweat, especially with Daboll trying to play aggressive football. Henne is the late-round sleeper quarterback you should pick up.
Felix Jones, RB, Dallas
Dave's projection: 207 carries, 951 yards, four touchdowns; 36 catches, 325 yards, one touchdown
Jamey's projection: 182 carries, 918 yards, six touchdowns; 31 catches, 271 yards, three touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 55 (Round 5)
The getting is good for Jones: His only competition for playing time is a rookie who hurt his hamstring and a three-year veteran who hurt his calf and is reportedly on the trading block. Furthermore, team owner Jerry Jones gave Jones a big vote of confidence, saying that if he runs well that the Cowboys will go to the Super Bowl. There's a lot of pressure on Jones to perform on the field, but the opportunities will be there to make it happen. Jones quietly topped over 1,200 total yards last year but had just two touchdowns. Part of the problem last year was that opponents sized up the Cowboys on both sides of the ball, especially once Tony Romo was hurt, and it forced Jon Kitna to throw a lot. Now, Romo's healthy, as is Jones, and the offensive line is improved. We might finally see some of Jones' potential reached in 2011. Best of all, he's a tremendous draft value -- many Fantasy owners pass on Jones because of his lack of touchdown production. He's a great pick in Round 6.
Mario Manningham, WR, N.Y. Giants
Dave's projection: 75 catches, 1,045 yards, seven touchdowns
Jamey's projection: 67 catches, 1,026 yards, seven touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 62 (Round 6)
Poor Eli Manning. He lost two of his trusted targets, Steve Smith and Kevin Boss, to free agency. Smith's in Philly, Boss is in Oakland. Replacing them will be untested players such as Domenik Hixon and Travis Beckum. Luckily, Manning still has Hakeem Nicks and Manningham to target, and the feeling here is that he'll routinely find ways to get the ball in their hands. The word is obviously out on Nicks, but when you tell Fantasy owners that Manningham had nearly 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns last year, most either would say they didn't know or don't think it could happen again. With limited targets for Manning to use, it's very possible that Manningham tops 1,000 yards with a healthy contribution in touchdowns. We think he's good enough to pick as a low-end No. 2 Fantasy receiver.
Lance Moore, WR, New Orleans
Dave's projection: 64 catches, 762 yards, six touchdowns
Jamey's projection: 53 catches, 776 yards, seven touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 108 (Round 9)
When Reggie Bush was lost for several weeks last season, we immediately called on owners to take a flier on Moore. He didn't disappoint, finishing with 66 catches for 763 yards and eight touchdowns, including two in his first game replacing Bush (Week 3 vs. the Jets). But Moore did more than just replace Bush -- he became a reliable target for Drew Brees, far more reliable than Robert Meachem. So Moore isn't really impacted by the arrival of Darren Sproles in New Orleans because he's got his own playing time carved out. After all, the Saints signed him to a contract extension. Expect Moore to post a career-high in receiving yards while enjoying his third season with seven or more touchdowns in four years. He's going to be a terrific No. 3 Fantasy wide receiver.
Greg Olsen, TE, Carolina
Dave's projection: 63 catches, 752 yards, six touchdowns
Jamey's projection: 48 catches, 608 yards, eight touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 128 (Round 11)
Olsen was freed from Fantasy mediocrity when the Bears traded him to the Panthers. He's since signed a contract extension and has immediately become Carolina's second-best receiving threat behind Steve Smith. More importantly, Olsen represents a sure-handed short- and mid-range target for rookie quarterback Cam Newton to cling to when the going gets tough. From the moment he became the head coach in Carolina, Ron Rivera said he wanted to implement the tight end in his offense. Olsen is the direct beneficiary of that statement. You'll be able to draft Olsen with a pick long after the likes of Jermichael Finley and Owen Daniels are gone, but he could play just as well.
Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit
Dave's projection: 4,004 passing yards, 24 touchdowns, 16 interceptions
Jamey's projection: 3,853 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, 12 interceptions
Average Draft Position: No. 84 (Round 7)
In May, Fantasy owners thought of Stafford as a guy who might be able to put up big stats, but needed to stay healthy. As the weeks went on and it became clear that Stafford's surgically repaired shoulder was fine, owners began to think of Stafford as a blue-chip backup who could be paired with a cheaper starter. But as camp opened and rave reviews poured in on Stafford and his receiving corps, the Fantasy world went bananas. Look, if you took the 2010 stats of Stafford, his backup Shaun Hill and third-stringer Drew Stanton, you would have had 4,001 yards and 26 touchdowns. Can we agree that Stafford would have improved on those numbers had he stayed healthy beyond nine quarters last season? We can -- and that's what Fantasy owners are hoping for this year. Stafford is now a Top-12 Fantasy quarterback, leapfrogging the likes of Eli Manning and in some leagues Josh Freeman. You shouldn't find him past Round 7, and if you're the one drafting him, you might see numbers for a quarterback picked in Rounds 4 or 5.
Austin Collie, WR, Indianapolis
Dave's projection: 53 catches, 607 yards, seven touchdowns
Jamey's projection: 72 catches, 1,013 yards, seven touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 79 (Round 7)
I hope I'm wrong on this one. I love Collie's game, I love what he does for the Colts offense and I love his potential. But I hate seeing him get carted off the field. That happened twice last season over three serious head injuries. He says he's fine and won't change his game one bit, but neither will opposing defenses. No one can say for sure that he'll absorb contact to his helmet without issue, and so if he can't stay healthy, he can't be a relevant pick on my Fantasy team. Moreover, he's hurt his knee and foot already this summer. The potential is there, but so is the risk -- he's not worth drafting before Round 8 or 9, and I'm afraid someone else in your leagues will roll the dice on him before then. Don't let it be you.
Jermichael Finley, TE, Green Bay
Dave's projection: 61 catches, 784 yards, six touchdowns
Jamey's projection: 67 catches, 922 yards, eight touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 55 (Round 5)
Is Jermichael Finley worth drafting? Absolutely he is. Is he worth drafting among the elite tight ends? Probably not. Look, his upside playing in Green Bay is off the charts, but he's taken on two knee ligament problems in each of the last two seasons and just can't be counted on to deliver the Antonio Gates-like stats that we've been expecting. Aaron Rodgers loves throwing to him, but Rodgers also loves throwing to Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. That's a lot of mouths for Rodgers to feed, and it doesn't even include the run game, which is back this season with Ryan Grant healthy. Don't overhype Finley because he's an amazing receiver on paper -- get him at a good value on Draft Day (Round 6), if at all.
Steve Johnson, WR, Buffalo
Dave's projection: 68 catches, 895 yards, seven touchdowns
Jamey's projection: 62 catches, 1,002 yards, eight touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 65 (Round 6)
Antonio Bryant. Kevin Curtis. Mike Furrey. Every year there's a receiver who lands in a primo spot and bangs out tremendous stats, only to falter the following season. In 2011, Johnson is going to be that guy. Johnson had his career year the same time quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had his, but it didn't stop him from struggling over his final six games. What happened? Defenses figured him out, especially once Lee Evans went on injured reserve. Now Evans is gone from Buffalo, and the team did nothing to replace him. Johnson will be easy for defenses to key in on, and it's going to be a challenge for him to put up 10 touchdowns again in 2011. He'll also play the Jets twice, the Patriots twice and the Eagles, Giants, Chargers and Broncos once each. That's half of his schedule against tough secondaries. Expect a regression from the Bills' charismatic receiver.
Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Pittsburgh
Dave's projection: 274 carries, 1,161 yards, eight touchdowns; 20 catches, 160 yards
Jamey's projection: 284 carries, 1,305 yards, nine touchdowns; 26 carries, 211 yards, one touchdown
Average Draft Position: No. 16 (Round 2)
The odds are against Mendenhall putting up numbers like he did last season by virtue of his 2010 workload. Between the regular season and postseason, Mendenhall had 385 carries and 27 catches. That's 412 total touches for all you non-math majors, and you don't have to know your calculus to realize that's a lot of work. The success rate for running backs that take on less work than that the following season is slim. Tack on the Steelers' already banged-up offensive line and newfound willingness to pass and Mendenhall just isn't a lock to dominate. Here's one last nugget: Mendenhall averaged 102.8 rush yards in the four matchups he had without Ben Roethlisberger and 72.8 rush yards in the 15 games with him (including postseason). So Mendy's big campaign was boosted by those first four games without Roethlisberger -- no such games are expected so long as Big Ben is upright. Let someone else draft Mendenhall in Round 1 or 2.
Sidney Rice, WR, Seattle
Dave's projection: 60 catches, 810 yards, six touchdowns
Jamey's projection: 63 catches, 1,078 yards, five touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 83 (Round 7)
The Seahawks rewarded Rice handsomely for his massive 2009 season in Minnesota during Brett Favre's renaissance campaign. Anyone else see anything odd about that? Rice, who tried to land a huge contract in Minnesota before succumbing to major hip surgery last summer, finally got paid by a franchise that actually allowed him to score twice on them in '09. Rice's quarterback is a familiar one in Tarvaris Jackson, but Jackson has never been considered an accurate or reliable passer. Moreover, there's no telling just how motivated Rice is to really go all out now that he's finally gotten paid, and his quarterback situation certainly doesn't help things (Jackson's backup is Charlie Whitehurst). His schedule doesn't do him many favors, either. With an average of 30.3 yards per game in every contest he's been in other than 2009, Rice is just setting up Fantasy owners for disappointment.
Mike Sims-Walker, WR, St. Louis
Dave's projection: 41 catches, 587 yards, five touchdowns
Jamey's projection: 47 catches, 722 yards, eight touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 124 (Round 11)
Here's a bold call: Sims-Walker won't even be the best receiver on his own team! Danny Amendola has gained steam as a quality sleeper this season, especially in PPR leagues, and Brandon Gibson has caught the eye of the coaches there. Everyone's looking for the next Brandon Lloyd, who Josh McDaniels rehabbed into a star last season in Denver. McDaniels is in St. Louis now and he was one of the coaches who endorsed signing Sims-Walker, but the fact remains that the receiver is easy to defend. Furthermore, McDaniels will likely make it a point to spread the ball around, limiting Sims-Walker's opportunities. Don't draft him.