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Using Late Round Draft Picks to Draft Unknown Preseason Studs

We all know that the key to building a winning fantasy football squad is by constantly staying one step ahead of the competition. You want to be the first manager to grab that breakout stud off the waiver wire. Cam Newton, Victor Cruz, Rob Gronkowski, Miles Austin. BAM!! Or how about a consistent performer like Jordy Nelson, Antonio Brown or Laurent Robinson?

Chances are that if you were lucky enough to snatch up one or two of these stars-in-the-making before other managers caught on, you were able to propel your team to the top of the standings.

But what if you could see into the future? What if players like these were already on your team before they caught fire? Let’s face it. You’re not the only one that takes your fantasy game seriously. You know others in your league our scouring that waiver wire just as hard as you are. And if they are quicker to the draw, or if their waiver priority is higher than yours come Wednesday morning, they win and you lose.

This is why you need to stay two steps ahead of the competition by making the best use of mid-to-late round drafting. The back end of the draft is not the time to start nodding off or switching to auto-draft mode. And you don’t need a third quarterback or another defense. This is the time to pounce on players that have the potential to break out later on in the season.

I like to take unknown preseason performers with my late picks or injured players and holdouts that will be back later on in the season. Let’s look at just one of these strategies right now.

Roll the dice on a top preseason performer later in the draft

People are quick to write off the preseason. “It’s garbage time,” or “players aren’t trying as hard.” Don’t fall into that trap. You can learn a lot in the preseason. This is where younger players are fighting for attention and are struggling to make an impression. They want a job, and they want it bad. It may not come this year, but next year or after a few key injuries, they may find themselves thrust them into the NFL limelight based on preseason performance.

This is where your preseason performance research comes into play. It may take a year, it may take two years, but preseason studs often turn out to be the next fantasy football lottery ticket. And you want them on your team long before others catch on.

Victor Cruz, Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown are three examples of unknown players who showed promise in the preseason and went on to deliver for fantasy owners. These guys weren’t buried down in the preseason stats either. They were right there on top of the preseason leaderboards.

Victor Cruz

Cruz is the more obvious example. But he wasn’t so obvious before last season. Cruz is a stud who helped the New York Giants win a Super Bowl championship. He was third in receiving yards behind only Calvin Johnson and Wes Welker in the regular season and he caught nine touchdowns.

During the preseason the year before (2010), he had the most receiving yards at 297 and was tied for first in touchdowns with Rob Gronkowski, with four. He had a three-touchdown night that raised eyebrows around the league that preseason. Even with numbers like that, Cruz could be had easily late in the draft that year.

Unfortunately, he was buried on the depth chart behind guys like Hakeem Nicks and wound up on the Injured Reserve for most of the season. But there he was. Forgotten, but waiting in the wings. And if you made note of his performance and rolled the dice on him a year later, you were the genius that might’ve just won your league as a result.

Rob Gronkowski

Gronkowski is another example of a stud who showed elite promise in the preseason and later delivered in the regular season. Now, he’s the No. 1 ranked tight end without question. He’s just as good as drafting a No. 1 wide receiver this year. In the 2010 preseason, Gronkowski flashed his potential with four touchdowns and 109 receiving yards. And again, even though he was tied for first with Cruz for the most touchdowns in the preseason, he could easily be had in the mid-to-late rounds of that year’s, and last year’s fantasy drafts. We all know what happened after that.

Antonio Brown

Brown led all wide receivers in the preseason last year with 230 yards and was tied for the most touchdowns (three) with two other players. During the regular season he broke a  1,000 receiving yards and had a couple scores. He established himself and Brown will take it to the next level this year while the coverage focuses primarily on Mike Wallace.

Tomorrow’s fantasy studs today

I recommend using a late-round draft pick strategy for whichever unknown player or rookie or two performs the best this upcoming preseason. I’m talking most receiving yards, most touchdowns and most rushing yards, after the results of known, established entities. It’s worth noting, though, as in the above examples, the top preseason performers tend to be the unknowns and not the established studs.

Obviously top NFL draft picks like Trent Richardson and Justin Blackmon won’t be around that late. So if they’re the ones on the preseason leader boards, skip down to the players coming in at No. 2 in these statistical areas. What about guys that went later in this year’s NFL draft like New York Giants running back David Wilson, Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin or San Francisco wide receiver A.J. Jenkins? Or, what about last year’s draft picks that haven’t blossomed yet? The top unknown preseason performer this season could be a member of the 2011 or 2010 draft class. Let’s wait and see what happens. In the meantime, here are a couple players to consider from recent preseasons.

David Clowney

Clowney was signed by the New York Jets in 2007 and was cut, and re-signed and waived and claimed and he dealt with an injury. It’s a bit of a mess for him. But he’s with the Buffalo Bills right now. During the 2008 preseason he led all receivers with 222 yards and two touchdowns on eight receptions. In one preseason game that year, Clowney managed 163 yards and two touchdowns on just four receptions. He injured his collarbone that year, unfortunately, and his first NFL reception would not come until Week 15 against Buffalo, when he reportedly made a one-handed catch that went for 26 yards. He’s had impressive numbers in the regular season with very little playing time, though in the years that followed he had 14 receptions for 191 yards and one score in 2009, and then a year later he had 124 yards off seven receptions.

Clowney has had preseason success, but he’s also had great regular season flashes to back that preseason success up. Granted, Clowney doesn’t show up on the Buffalo depth chart right now. But an injury here or there, a waiver claim or a bit of luck could get him back on the field. And, again, you want him before everyone else catches on.

Taj Smith

Smith is currently playing in the Canadian Football League. Prior to that in 2011 he was with the Indianapolis Colts. But during the 2011 preseason he showed flashes of real potential. The undrafted Newark, N.J. born wide receiver was second behind Antonio Brown last preseason in receiving yards. He tallied 210 yards on 12 receptions and he scored twice. In a game against the Dallas Cowboys, according to his Wikipedia entry, Smith blocked a punt and recovered it in the end zone, tying the game for the Colts. It’s worth noting that New Jersey has produced some real winners in recent years with Victor Cruz and Miles Austin. Is Smith the next fantasy stud from New Jersey?

I admit we’re digging a bit deep here. But now you understand my strategy and you can apply it this upcoming season based on this year’s preseason. Look, who needs a third-string quarterback or another kicker in the 12th, 13th, 14th rounds of the draft? The risk/reward of this strategy is painless. I’m not telling you to give up a high-draft pick for a guy who may or may not turn into an awesome player. But why not use your last pick or your second-to-last pick as an inexpensive value play?

And heck, if midway through the season your guy doesn’t perform, you could always drop him for a breakout player off the waiver wire. But, give it a bit of time for the results of these up-and-comers to play out. Patience in fantasy football is a valuable and oft-forgotten trait. Don’t drop them too soon or you may be kicking yourself during Round 2 of the fantasy playoffs when you could really use a boost.

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