Welcome to the Week 1 edition of Claim to Fame, where we’ll provide recommendations on a handful of players that are available in most fantasy leagues. Some might just get you through an injury or a bye week, others might pull a Victor Cruz and make you famous. Each week, we’ll list players in the order that you should be pursuing them, and we’ll provide a letter grade that will give you an indication of how aggressively you should pursue that player. Here’s what each letter grade means:
A: Must-have player in all league types. Aggressively pursue.
B: Should be on rosters in most leagues.
C: Viable additions for leagues with deep rosters.
D: Speculative additions that might pay dividends weeks down the road.
F: Only worth adding as a handcuff if you have the starter.
Alex Smith, 49ers
Smith will never be a fantasy regular, but he proved down the stretch last year (he accounted for 8 TDs in the final three games including playoffs) that he can register decent fantasy totals on occasion. Surprisingly, there may be plenty of occasions on which to use Smith early in 2012. Perhaps no other QB has an easier schedule (on paper) than the 49ers for the first six weeks of the season. Smith starts things off with three matchups against the lousy (in terms of pass defense) NFC North and also gets the Bills and Giants within the first six weeks. All five of those teams ranked in the bottom eight against opposing QBs a year ago, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Smith returns QB1 value in the early portion of the season.
Russell Wilson, Seahawks
The secret’s already out on Wilson, who was extremely impressive in the preseason while wresting the job away from presumed starter (and big money free agent acquisition) Matt Flynn. Wilson appears to add an aggressive, playmaking flair to an otherwise ordinary Seahawks offense, but it remains to be seen if he can find success against first-teamers in real game action, and if the Seahawks can piece together enough healthy WRs to help him along. Don’t go bonkers trying to add Wilson based on the preseason hype, but if you have a roster spot at the end of your bench, Wilson has big fantasy upside as a dual threat QB.
Jonathan Dwyer, Steelers
The running back situation in Pittsburgh is a mess, but Dwyer has put himself into the mix for early-season carries with an impressive preseason. While presumed injury fill-in Ike Redman was battling injuries and ineffectiveness throughout camp, Dwyer gained nearly 150 yards on over five yards per tote. He and Redman will likely split carries in Week 1, and both are probably just keeping the seat warm for Rashard Mendenhall when he returns from his torn ACL rehab, but Dwyer is just as capable as Redman of putting up usable fantasy numbers in the early going.
Ronnie Brown, Chargers
Don’t tell the optimistic Ryan Mathews, but he’s almost certainly going to miss Week 1, and possibly Week 2, with his fractured clavicle. Brown is ostensibly Mathews’ top backup, though Curtis Brinkley and Le’Ron McClain are likely to be involved as well. Brown is reportedly a Norv Turner favorite, which probably overrides that fact that he stinks and appears to have almost nothing left in the tank since suffering a torn ACL a couple seasons ago. Nevertheless, he figures to get at least 12-15 carries for the Bolts in their opener against the Raiders in the final game of Week 1. Playing against the bottom-10 run defense of the Raiders sans Mathews in Week 17 of last year, Chargers’ RBs racked up 140 combo yards and a TD.
Alfred Morris, Redskins
Evan Royster landed atop the Redskins’ diabolical RB depth chart earlier this week, but not even Royster knows if that means he’ll be the starter in Week 1 (let alone whether being named the starter even means anything). Roy Helu is at least penciled in as the change-of-pace and 3rd-down back, but Morris ran as well as any Reskins back during the preseason and has put himself squarely into the mix for early-down carries alongside, ahead of, or behind Royster. On the off chance that Mike Shanahan manages to turn Morris into the next Mike Anderson or Olandis Gary, Morris is worth a roster spot.
Kendall Hunter, 49ers
It’s easy to overlook Hunter after the 49ers brought in all sorts of competition (Brandon Jacobs, LaMichael James) for his job over the offseason. But that competition appears to have motivated Hunter, who drew rave reviews for his work in both the offseason and training camp. Frank Gore is pretty clearly on his last legs, and Hunter showed how explosive he can be in spurts last year. This is more of a long-term play, but if you have the room to stash Hunter you might be rewarded in the second half of the season.
Vick Ballard, Colts
It’s faint praise, but Ballard might already be the most talented back on the Colts’ roster. Donald Brown may never live up to his high draft status, and Ballard figures to get first crack if Brown falters.
Bilal Powell, Jets
You know it. I know it. Just about everybody knows it: Shonn Greene stinks. He’s been given dozens of opportunities to prove he’s something close to the hard-charging runner we saw during the playoffs of his rookie season, and failed every time. Powell doesn’t seem to be anything special himself, but he’s already reportedly won the third-down back in Jets camp, and he took some reps with the first-team offense during training camp practices as well. The upside is limited because of the looming presence of goal line vulture Tim Tebow, but if/when Greene stumbles again earlier in the season, the Jets may not have a choice but to see what they have in Powell.
Curtis Brinkley, Chargers
As noted above, Brinkley figures to get some touches against a beatable Oakland run defense next Monday night, but his brief history suggests he won’t do much with them. There’s a small slice of upside here simply because Brown isn’t going to wow anybody, but if you’re already grasping at straws in Week 1 you have more problems than Curtis Brinkley can solve.
D.J. Ware, Buccaneers
LeGarrette Blount is still the de facto backup to rookie Doug Martin in Tampa, but Ware is somewhat intriguing after being plucked by the Bucs from the Giants’ cut list last week. Ware is familiar with the Tampa offensive system from his time under Mike Sullivan in Tampa, and as a 3rd-down specialist he would figure to get nearly as much playing time as the pass blocking-impaired Blount would if Martin were to suffer an injury.
Brandon LaFell, Panthers
Less than 25% owned in both ESPN and Yahoo leagues, LaFell should be on your fantasy radar. His preseason stats didn’t jump off the page, but LaFell is now a clear-cut No. 2 WR and starter opposite Steve Smith. Even while splitting time with Legedu Naanee last year, LaFell had two of his best games against the Bucs, Carolina’s Week 1 opponent; he followed up a three-catch, 64-yard performance in Week 13 against Tampa with a 3-103-1 encore three weeks later. If Cam Newton takes strides in the passing game, LaFell could be much more than just a one-week wonder.
Austin Collie, Colts
After suffering what appeared to be a career-threatening fourth concussion in less than two years during the preseason, fantasy owners bailed on Collie en masse. But now that he’s been unexpectedly cleared for Week 1, he shouldn’t be left on your waiver wire any longer. Collie had already earned Andrew Luck’s trust as the No. 2 wideout opposite Reggie Wayne, which could be a very lucrative fantasy spot on a team that will almost certainly be forced to air it out in come-from-behind mode most weeks.
Braylon Edwards, Seahawks
By sheer attrition, it appears Edwards is in line to start for the Seahawks in Week 1. He’s technically behind Golden Tate on the depth chart, but Tate will miss a couple of weeks with a knee injury suffered late in the preseason. That makes Edwards an intriguing option as Russell Wilson’s deep threat. Wilson showed no hesitancy in chucking it up during preseason action, and Edwards is nothing if not a deep threat. A history of extreme unreliability (and the fact that he apparently couldn’t beat out Golden Tate) means Edwards is anything but a sure thing, but with a couple of big plays in the early going Edwards could carve out a more consistent long-term role with the Seahawks.
Rod Streater, Raiders
Apparently, it doesn’t take much for Carson Palmer to label a player “special.” But that’s exactly what Palmer did after the undrafted Streater tallied 18 catches for 165 yards in the first three preseason games. Nevermind the fact that Streater managed just 19 catches all season for traditional college football powerhouse Temple last year. But Streater will reportedly open the season as the slot receiver in place of the injured Jacoby Ford, and any time you can add a “special” player to your roster, you’ve got to leap at the chance. Just don’t strain anything.
Kyle Rudolph, Vikings
Still owned in less than 40% of fantasy leagues, Rudolph’s quiet preseason has hidden his massive upside. With John Carlson continuing to nurse a sprained MCL suffered early in preseason, Rudolph has cemented his status as the No. 1 tight end in what figures to be a fairly conservative Vikings offense. And with suspended WR Jerome Simpson set to miss the first three games, Rudolph is easily Christian Ponder’s No. 2 target behind Percy Harvin. Rudolph is a red zone matchup nightmare and should be a top safety valve for Ponder all season long. He should be owned in most leagues.
Martellus Bennett, Giants
The former second-round draft pick never got much of a chance to shine behind Jason Witten in Dallas, but he’ll be the starter from Day One for the Giants this season. Eli Manning has always made good use of his tight ends, even turning marginal players like Jake Ballard and Kevin Boss into legitimate fantasy commodities in recent seasons. Those who didn’t grab an elite TE on draft day should have Bennett on their watch lists.