My fiancée is an investor; I play fantasy football. I like to think of my game as a sort of plastic toolset version of hers. The stakes are lower, but success follows the same principle: always buy at a discount. Since everybody starts with the same resources – the same number of draft picks or the same auction budget – the only way to win consistently is to spend your resources on undervalued players. There are no Dan Snyders in fantasy football. (I say that as a Redskins fan, and I say it happily.)
Value lies at the confluence of talent and opportunity. Of the two, talent is more important, because it creates opportunity. Opportunity never creates talent. (If it did, imagine how good Thomas Jones would have been.) The trick is to find affordable players who have a lot of both. I bet you the best draft pick in your league last year was Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski, depending on your league's scoring system and on who was picked later. Nobody else who cost so little outscored the average player at his position by so much; not even Cam Newton (unless you were smart enough to draft Victor Cruz – I'll talk about him in a moment). Why were they so cheap? Although he played well late last year (with 4 touchdowns in his last 3 games), few knew how good Graham was. And because the Saints had spent the past few years spreading the ball around to several different tight ends, few thought the position was a big part of their offense. Gronk caught 10 touchdowns in 2010, but conventional wisdom doubted that the Pats would be able to support 2 fantasy-relevant tight ends.
As for Cruz, he seemed to come out of nowhere in 2011. But there had been signs: in the 2010 preseason (the first game of his career), Cruz caught 6 passes for 145 yards and 3 touchdowns. Anyone could tell then that he had talent, although not many noticed. The opportunity looked doubtful, too. The Giants intended to start Hakeem Nicks at wide-receiver alongside Mario Manningham, a favorite sleeper among fantasy pontificators. But there was still the Giants' slot position, which is where Steve Smith was playing when he made so many fantasy seasons back in 2009. In retrospect, it wasn't an impossible call. Several "experts" made the call last summer, in fact. No one thought he'd be as good as he turned out to be, but a few thought he'd be rosterable. (As an aside, keep an eye on Jerrel Jernigan, a receiver the Giants chose in the third round of the 2011 draft. If Manningham takes more money to play elsewhere, there could be another opening in the Giants' profitable passing game.)
With that in mind, I offer you a prospectus of penny-stocks -- players who could be severely undervalued come this summer. A lot will change once free-agency starts, but I'm focusing on players who, as of now, won't be drafted in standard 10- or even 12-team leagues. This series will be for serious players in deep leagues. My goal is to find players who can be acquired for the minimum price in your leagues and who stand to pay off big.
Penny-Stocks Part 1: The Saints' Passing-Game
The Saints have, by my count, 15 unrestricted free agents this year. They include Drew Brees , All-Pro guard Carl Nicks, cornerbacks Leigh Torrence and Tracy Porter, return man Courtney Roby, and wide-receivers Marques Colston and Robert Meachem. It is the pass-catchers I'm interested in, although it is worth noting that having so many free agents at one time means the Saints can't bring them all back. I suspect Colston will return unless he gets a huge offer elsewhere. Meachem, however, will likely find more money and greater opportunity with a receiver-poor team. On top of that, Devery Henderson is due $2.65 million in 2012, the final year of his contract. That's an awful lot of money for a 30 year old who caught 32 passes in 2011. He could be cut. In all likelihood at least one, probably two, and (though the chance is very small) possibly three new players will be catching passes from Drew Brees next season. Any chance to buy cheaply into the Saints passing-game, which mints fantasy points, should be taken seriously. Two players currently under contract with the Saints stand to profit from the departures of those above them.
The first has a lower floor and a higher ceiling (which is a common combination – it's the potential that gets these guys into the league in the first place). Joseph Morgan declared for last year's draft after a productive career at tiny Walsh College, an NAIA school in North Canton, Ohio. (He'd started college at Illinois, but was dismissed from the team after 3 disciplinary violations). Undrafted, the 6'1" former all-state track star was the signed by the Saints in July. He played enough in practice to play in the Saints' first preseason game, and on August 12 against the 49ers he returned a punt 78-yards for a touchdown. The following Saturday, in Houston, he caught a 56-yard touchdown pass. Saints head coach Sean Payton pronounced himself pleased with Morgan's route-running, and one of the most improbable stories of the summer of 2011 looked set to make the Saints' final roster. Then, near the end of August, he tore his meniscus in practice. An injury like Morgan's usually takes 2-4 weeks to heal, but the Saints placed him on IR. While they weren't willing to keep a roster spot for him, they wouldn't risk losing him by trying to get him through to the practice squad, either. With his size and speed – Morgan ran a 4.40 second forty at the 2011 combine – he'll at least have a good shot to replace Roby as a primary returner. If he gets snaps at wide-receiver as well, he could break out in 2012.
Adrian Arrington has a better chance at regular playing time in 2012. The Saints traded up in the 6th round of the 2009 draft to take him, and with two years in Sean Payton's system he knows the playbook well. Athletic and 6'3", he fits the Saints' receiver-profile. Although he hasn't played much in the regular season, in the preseason he's caught 19 passes for 359 yards and 3 touchdowns. That's 18.9 yards/reception and a 16% touchdown rate. (By way of comparison, Calvin Johnson's touchdown rate was nearly identical in 2011, and Jordy Nelson, who led the NFL in that category last season, scored a touchdown on 22% of his catches.) Whether Arrington can produce that way in real games isn't yet known, but both Brees and Payton trust him. In week 3 of last season he was set to be the Saints' third wide-receiver, with Colston out and Lance Moore expected to miss the game with injury. If Meachem and Henderson leave, Arrington has a realistic shot at playing across from Colston, with Lance Moore in the slot.
Keep an eye on the Saints' moves at wide-receiver over the off-season. If Colston, Meachem, or Henderson leave and aren't replaced by free agents from elsewhere, Arrington and Morgan will be good investments in 2012.