Fantasy Football: Ranking the Most Unexpected Stars in the Early Going

The fantasy football season is approaching its halfway point, and there have been some surprising performances that have sent owners rushing to the waiver wires and scrambling to their phones and email to work out trade negotiations.

But who are the most surprising performers so far this season, and which ones will keep up their hot starts?

In this article, I’ll take a look at the eight players who I believe are the biggest surprises based on their current point total versus their preseason perception.

I’ll also give every player a ranking as to the likelihood of them continuing at their current pace, with one being the lowest (he’s going to see a huge decline in the coming weeks) and 10 being the highest (he’s a fantasy star we could have never seen coming). This will be known as the “Legitimacy Meter.”

Let’s get started with a player we all should have known would exceed expectations.

8. DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles

DeSean Jackson was on the decline following his fantastic 2010 campaign, which saw him haul in passes for 1,056 yards and six scores, and also rush for 100 yards and another score.

So with two increasingly disappointing seasons between Jackson’s last successful fantasy football campaign, it was easy to forget about him and slot him in the middle of the pack among receivers.

But with Chip Kelly’s arrival and Jeremy Maclin‘s injury departure, why didn’t we see Jackson returning to star status?

Jackson is currently on pace for the second best yards-per-catch average in his career, and is also on pace to catch more passes than he ever has before. And while he might slow down a bit, there’s no doubt that he’s Michael Vick’s favorite target in a very potent offense.

Legitimacy Meter: 8

He may slow down a bit, but there’s no doubt that he remains a low-end WR1 or a high-end WR2 in every format for the rest of the season.

7. Jordan Cameron, Cleveland Browns

Jordan Cameron was another fairly obvious sleeper candidate with huge potential to breakout during the 2013 season, and part of it had to do with the men on the sidelines.

As JJ Zachariason of numberFire pointed out during the offseason, Cleveland offensive coordinator Norv Turner is one of the best offensive minds when it comes to getting the most out of the tight end position.

Combine him with tight end friendly head coach Rob Chudzinski, and it should have been blatantly obvious that Cameron would be one of the best tight ends in the league this year.

A tight end that hauls in 80 yards and a touchdown per game is gold in fantasy football, and Cameron is poised to keep up that level of performance all season. He has the support and wisdom of his tight end guru coaching staff that should help overcome any bumps in the road.

Legitimacy Meter: 7

His quarterback situation is a concern, but he has the talent and the opportunities to overcome even the worst of quarterbacks on most weeks.

6. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs

Running quarterbacks are unfair in fantasy football, because they get more points per yard as a runner than they do as a passer. Add in the fact that many running quarterbacks still post decent passing totals, and they have an easy path to fantasy football stardom.

This is why Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick were probably highly sought after in your fantasy draft, and Michael Vick was a trendy late-round selection. But I doubt anyone took Alex Smith thinking he’d be a dual-threat QB1 option.

That’s exactly what he’s been through four games, though. Smith has carried the ball 30 times in 2013 for a total of 151 yards. That’s 15 points in standard scoring leagues, and that’s before you consider his extremely efficient passing numbers.

The problem with Smith is that he doesn’t have a very talented arm, and none of his numbers so far this year suggest a massive improvement over his historical averages. He’s avoiding interceptions, but is otherwise have a very average season as a passer.

Legitimacy Meter: 5

Smith’s athleticism can’t sustain a true “running quarterback” stat line all season, but he’s not going to fall off the map, either.

5. Joique Bell, Detroit Lions

The preseason depth chart in Detroit made Joique Bell’s fantasy prospects look bleak. Reggie Bush was brought in to dominate the touches out of the backfield, and Mikel Leshoure was supposedly the short yardage option to keep Bush healthy.

But Leshoure quickly found himself near the bottom of the roster, with Bell assuming the role of Bush’s backup. And with Bush’s injury history, that’s a good place to be for a player looking for an opportunity.

Bell has caught four or more passes in every game so far, even when Bush has been healthy. That means he’s an option in PPR leagues even with Reggie Bush as a full go for game day.

Bell’s value is tied to Bush’s health, which means his prospects moving forward are tough to project. But even if Bush remains healthy, Bell is still a flex option thanks to his role as the first player on the field as a backup running back.

Legitimacy Meter: 6

Bell is as good as his statistics suggest, but his opportunities aren’t so clear cut. 

4. Bilal Powell, New York Jets

When the New York Jets added Chris Ivory via trade this offseason, did you think you’d be reading an article on Bleacher Report about going all-in on Bilal Powell in fantasy football?

As it turns out, Powell was the better and more reliable running back for the Jets, because he can do everything the Jets need with a young quarterback under center.

Powell already has more catches this season than Chris Ivory does in his career, and it’s that versatility combined with efficient running that keeps Powell on the field and leading the Jets in carries so far this season. 

This won’t change anytime soon. Powell is a legitimate talent at running back, and he’s not going to lose his job.

Legitimacy Meter: 10

What you see is what you get. Powell is worthy of being a fantasy starter against almost any matchup.

3. Eddie Royal, San Diego Chargers

At the most successful point in his career, Eddie Royal was the ultimate slot receiver who caught very short passes and used his small size and shifty speed to get open.

That’s what happened during his rookie year in Denver, and ever since Royal has failed to live up to that debut. 

But with a revitalized Philip Rivers under center, and an unfortunate series of events to the receivers around him, Royal has been thrust into the spotlight as a savvy veteran, and he’s exceeded expectations.

Royal has already scored five times in 2013, but on only 15 catches. That’s the risk in using him, he’s been very touchdown-dependent so far this season.

Legitimacy Meter: 3

The lack of healthy receivers around him means he’ll trip and fall into some fantasy value, but he’s still not a reliable option.

2. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers

Philip Rivers entered the NFL in 2004, reached his peak as a pro in 2010, and seemed to be on a sharp decline by 2012. But that was until Mike McCoy came into town.

McCoy is the new head coach of the Chargers, and it’s apparently his offensive mind that has revived the career of Rivers, who has a career high completion percentage of 73.9 percent through four games.

More importantly, Rivers has raised his yards per attempt numbers back to the levels he was at during his prime in the late 2000s. That means he’s accurate but also continuing to post good yardage numbers.

Rivers is on pace for career high numbers with a much older Antonio Gates and a rapidly depleting wide receiver corps. But he doesn’t look like he’s slowing down at all.

Legitimacy Meter: 8

Good coaching and the right schemes and playcalling can work wonders for a quarterback seemingly on the decline. 

1. Knowshon Moreno, Denver Broncos

In June of 2013, DJ Siddiqi of Bleacher Report wrote an article questioning whether or not Knowshon Moreno would make the roster in Denver.

And while his ultimate assertion was that Moreno belonged on the roster, it wasn’t without plenty of questioning and consideration.

Moreno was widely considered a bust after being selected near the top of the first round by Denver, and with the addition of Montee Ball, it seemed like Moreno’s time was up.

But now, four weeks into the season, he’s one of the 12 best running backs in fantasy football.

Moreno is a reliable pass blocker, decent pass catcher, and wise veteran running back that Peyton Manning can rely on. In an offense led by one of the greatest quarterbacks in history (who also manipulates the offense and creates great matchups for his teammates), Moreno is the perfect fit in the backfield.

And as the season rolls on, the Broncos will continue to score massive amounts of points, and Moreno is going to be a key figure in that scoring. Moreno went from a roster cut candidate to an RB1 over the course of a few short months, and that’s not changing any time soon.

Legitimacy Meter: 9

Moreno is the featured back for a high-powered offense. He’s a must-start as long as he’s healthy.

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