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Fantasy Football 2015: Under-the-Radar Players Worth a Look

Every fantasy owner will have players they rate much higher, and much lower, than their average ranking. Quite often, being right or wrong on those players can make or break an owner’s season. With that in mind, here are the players I like far more than the rest of the fantasy world heading into the 2015 season.

One quick note before we head off to our deserted locale: I want to cover new ground in this column. Therefore, you won’t be reading anything on why I believe Colin Kaepernick and Tyler Eifert, for example, are blatantly undervalued.

Jeremy Maclin (my ranking: 34, ADP: 60.2)

I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a receiver coming off a top-10 season go into the next year with an ADP that places him outside the top-25 receivers, but that’s Maclin’s reality. The new Chief’s ADP makes him the 26th receiver off the board in a typical 12-team draft, right behind Sammy Watkins and Jarvis Landry, and just ahead of Nelson Agholor. Maclin appears to be paying for the sins of the receivers who came before him in Kansas City, and that’s a serious mistake being made by the market right now. Yes, this team got zero receiving touchdowns from its receivers last year, and Alex Smith is not the most risk-taking quarterback in the league. There are, however, two unavoidable truths regarding that infamous record.

First, it’s a total fluke. Browns receivers had eight touchdowns last year. The Rams got nine scores from their wideouts. The Raiders—yes, the Oakland Raiders—got 13. Zero is a total anomaly, and it won’t happen again.

Second, Maclin is much better than Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery or any of the other receivers the Chiefs trotted out last season. He racked up 85 catches for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns in his last year with the Eagles. Chip Kelly’s offense may have inflated those numbers a bit, but no receiver posts a season like that strictly by happenstance and environment. Maclin may not match last year’s numbers, but he’s definitely not going to bottom out, either. He’s the No. 1 receiver in Kansas City, and the offense, with Jamaal Charles and Travis Kelce also in tow, could be more potent than expected.

There’s also a track record for talented receivers leaving Kelly’s offense and being just fine. DeSean Jackson thrived in his one season with Kelly before heading south for Washington. In his first season in D.C., he had 1,169 yards and six touchdowns, and you’ll recall that the offensive environment in the capital last year wasn’t exactly among the best in the league. Maclin has a great mix of talent, opportunity, and role with the Chiefs. He’ll be a strong WR2 this year.

Eric Decker (my ranking: 62, ADP: 122.1)

I’d be willing to bet that Decker didn’t have as bad a season in 2014 as you think he did. That much is obvious when you look at his ADP here in late August. As bad as the Jets’ passing game was last season, Decker had 74 grabs for 962 yards and five touchdowns, finishing the year as the No. 28th-ranked receiver in standard-scoring leagues. Since then, the environment for throwing the ball in New York has only improved. Let us count the ways.

Ryan Fitzpatrick took over as the starting quarterback. Last year, Geno Smith and Michael Vick combined for a Pro Football Focus rating of -41.5, which meant the Jets had the worst quarterback play in the league. Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, registered an 8.8 in 12 starts for the Texans last season. The quarterback play will be much better in 2015.

The Jets acquired Brandon Marshall from the Bears. Marshall may be a cantankerous malcontent on the wrong side of 30, but he remains a supremely talented receiver who will prevent defenses from focusing the majority of their attention on Decker.

Chris Ivory took over as the unquestioned starting running back. Ivory split the duties with the ineffective Chris Johnson last year, even though the former graded as the 10th-most effective runner, according to Pro Football Focus. Now that he’ll get the lion’s share of the carries, the Jets’ running game should be more imposing.

The team was in the middle of the pack in pass blocking, but likely improved the offensive line by signing left guard James Carpenter away from the Seahawks. Carpenter ranked 27th out of 78 guards in pass blocking last year.

To recap, Decker had a decent season in terrible circumstances last year. Everything around him, from the quarterback, to his teammates at the skill positions, to the offensive line, improved. And yet he’s still being selected as a throwaway pick in the 11th round. That’s just silly. Decker will be a WR2 this season.

LeGarrette Blount (my ranking: 47, ADP: 63.6)

No coach is more fickle when it comes to his running backs than Bill Belichick. The Patriots have been far and away the most successful franchise of the last 15 years, and rarely have they leaned on one running back in the Brady-Belichick Era. I understand why fantasy owners might be a little wary of using a high pick on Blount, who A) has had more than 200 carries exactly once in his career, and B) could very well go the way of almost every other running back who has played his way through New England in this millennium. There’s enough reason to believe, and even more reason to make a bet, that Blount will buck the trend in 2015.

First of all, Blount had a great run after joining thePatriots last year. In five games with New England, he ran for 281 yards and three touchdowns on 60 carries. He was nearly as good in the playoffs, racking up 189 yards and three more scores on 47 totes. Second, the only reason the Patriots went after him in the first place was because of the success he had with the team in 2013. Blount rumbled for 772 yards and seven touchdowns with the Patriots two seasons ago, good for an even five yards per carry. There’s no doubt that he’s got something this team likes.

Go and take a look at the rest of the running back depth chart in New England. Travaris Cadet will likely play on third downs and in obvious passing situations. Who else really threatens Blount’s time on the field? Brandon Bolden? Jonas Gray? James White? Tyler Gaffney? Belichick may not love turning one back into a workhorse, but he may not have much of a choice this year.

Finally, it’s not unprecedented for the Patriots to ride one back all year. Corey Dillon had the best year of his career with the Patriots in 2004, carrying the ball 345 times for 1,635 yards and 12 touchdowns. In 2012, Stevan Ridley turned 290 carries into 1,263 yards and 12 scores of his own. When it suits the Patriots, they’ll make one back their bellcow. It will suit them with Blount this season.

Ryan Tannehill (my ranking: 60, ADP: 97.4)

Last season, two quarterbacks finished among the top 12 in passing yards and touchdowns, outside the top 12 in interceptions, and inside the top five in rushing yards. One of them was Russell Wilson. The other was Tannehill.

Now, that’s admittedly a fantasy form of gerrymandering (which really should be pronounced with a hard G since it draws its name from early American statesman Elbridge Gerry, who pronounced his last name Gary, but that’s neither here nor there) to lump Tannehill’s name in with Wilson’s. There are so few quarterbacks that make a meaningful impact on the ground, that any time you isolate for those you do you’re going to be picking from a select group. Furthermore, no one would say that the mere fact that a quarterback adds value with his legs makes him intrinsically more valuable than one who doesn’t.

What it does illustrate when taken with his passing numbers, however, is that Tannehill is on the upswing as he enters his fourth year in the league. He also has the most dangerous cache of weapons at his disposal he has ever enjoyed since the Dolphins made him the eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft. Kenny Stills is an emerging deep threat who will step in seamlessly for the departed Mike Wallace. Jordan Cameron is one of the most talented pass-catching tight ends in the league, who just needs to stay healthy to realize his potential. Jarvis Landry is a receptions machine who had 84 catches as a rookie. Lamar Miller is one of the most underrated backs in the league, and is coming off a season in which he totaled nearly 1,400 yards from scrimmage. It all revolves around Tannehill, who has improved every season since his rookie year. It may just be the preseason, but there’s already evidence he’s again making strides this year.

Tannehill is 18-for-22 for 158 yards, 7.2 yards per attempt, and two touchdowns in Miami’s two preseason games. He has led four drives, and the Dolphins hit pay dirt on three of those possessions. You never want to draw too much meaning from what happens in the preseason, especially since confirmation bias is plentiful, but Tannehill has done exactly what those of us who are bullish on him believe he will do in the games that actually count. He’ll be a top-10 quarterback this season.

Photos: Christian Petersen/Getty Images (Maclin, Blount), Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images (Decker, Tannehill)

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