Let’s look at a “team” (QB, 2RB, 3WR, TE) of players that have been underrated in early drafts. For a list of overrated players, go here.
Matthew Stafford (DET) (QB11, Avg. Pick 86.1) – Stafford had a huge year in 2011 with 5038 yards and 41 TDs. But in his last 3 seasons, he hasn’t lived up to those numbers with 20, 29 and 22 touchdowns, respectively. While I don’t expect him to repeat his 2011 numbers, there are reasons to expect an improvement from the last few seasons. First, the Lions improved their offensive line at the draft, selecting OG Laken Tomlinson 28th overall, and acquiring OL Manny Ramirez. Second, the defense is weaker than last season, which means the Lions should have a lot of time to play catch-up and throw the ball a lot. Third, Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. Tate had a good year last year but Johnson was dealing with a nagging ankle injury. With both of them healthy, defenses will have a tough time dealing with the Lions passing attack.
Jonathan Stewart (CAR) (RB22, 75.8) – DeAngelo Williams is finally gone, so Stewart will now be the feature back in Carolina. Down the stretch last year, he gave us a glimpse of what may be to come this year averaging 105 total yards per game in his final 7 games, with 3 TDs in that span. If he stays healthy, he could top 300 carries. I like his value as the 22nd RB off the board.
Joseph Randle (DAL) (RB29, 97.7) – Whoever emerges as the lead RB in Dallas will certainly be a valuable fantasy asset, and could end up as a top-10 RB. Darren McFadden is already missing time in training camp because of a hamstring injury, but even if he was healthy, Randle is the better choice for lead back duties. Randle had 6.7 YPC and 3 TDs in a limited role last year. DeMarco Murray and his 392 carries are now in Philly, so there are a lot of running back touches to go around. Even in a bit of a committee, Randle has very good value around pick-100, but if he emerges as the lead back in the Cowboys’ offense, he could be the steal of the year.
Calvin Johnson (DET) (WR5, 15.9) – Last year he finished with “just” 71 receptions for 1,077 yards and 8 touchdowns. That was while missing 3 games and being limited or used as a decoy in several others. In 2011, 2012, and 2013 he compiled stat lines of 96-1681-16, 122-1964-8, and 84-1492-12 respectively, while missing 2 games in the 2013 season. He’s still the best and most un-guardable receiver in the NFL. The only knock on him is his health and potential to miss games, but you can’t predict or count on future injuries. In my book, Johnson is still the top ranked WR for fantasy purposes. If I can draft him with the 15th or 16th pick, I’d consider that a steal.
Brandin Cooks (NO) (WR16, 39.9) – As a rookie in 2014, Cooks played 10 games and finished with 53 receptions for 550 yards and 3 touchdowns, while adding 73 yards and a touchdown on 7 carries. Kenny Stills and Jimmy Graham are gone, so Cooks should become the focal point in the Saints passing offense. I expect at least 1300 yards from scrimmage, possibly even 1500+, with a high single-digit TD total.
Pierre Garcon (WAS) (WR48, 119.4) – I already posted a bit about why I like Garcon here. Redskins’ coach Jay Gruden has been saying all off-season that Garcon will get more looks and improve his numbers this year. In 2013 he had 113 receptions, 1346 receiving yards, and 5 TDs. We know he can produce in the right role. As the 48th WR taken in early drafts, he’s being picked as about a WR4 or WR5 on fantasy teams, but I expect him to put up WR3 numbers.
Josh Hill (NO) (TE13, 122.4) – Another guy I talked about here, Hill has some big shoes to fill with Jimmy Graham gone. I don’t expect him to replicate Graham’s numbers, but he certainly has a high ceiling, and will be in contention for a top-5 finish at TE. I’d be fine with waiting until pick 122 to draft a TE if Josh Hill is that guy.