Every season, a few surprise studs come out of fantasy Siberia to reward savvy owners who had the foresight to select them in the later rounds of the draft. A season ago, Adrian Foster, Peyton Hillis and Brandon Lloyd come to mind. Ray Rice, Miles Austin and Sidney Rice were unlikely heroes in 2009. And so on and so forth.
Midway through the 2011 season, let's take a look at this year's biggest fantasy surprises. If one of these guys is on your team, give yourself a pat on the pack (but don’t do it as hard as Jim Harbaugh did to Jim Schwartz). And if you passed on these players and are watching them excel from the cellar, well, at least you aren’t alone.
Quarterback: Cam Newton, Panthers. His passing numbers (2,103 yards, eight TDs, nine INTs) aren’t great, but better than expected. The difference has been his legs. He leads all quarterbacks with seven rushing touchdowns and is second with 266 rushing yards. Honorable mention: Matthew Stafford, Lions.
Running back: Fred Jackson, Bills. Jackson rushed for 1,062 yards in 2009 and 927 in 2010, but he dropped into the middle rounds in most fantasy leagues (some experts were higher on C.J. Spiller). With 880 total yards and six touchdowns, he has been a top-three fantasy back. Honorable mention: Darren Sproles, Saints.
Wide receiver: Jordy Nelson, Packers, and A.J. Green, Bengals. I hyped Nelson as a sleeper before the season, and he has delivered with 465 yards and four touchdowns. Green, the fourth pick of the 2011 draft, didn’t sneak up on anyone, but it’s surprising he has been this good (453 yards and four scores) as a rookie with a fellow rook at QB, an abbreviated training camp and no offseason workouts. Honorable mention: Steve Smith, Panthers.
Tight end: Jimmy Graham, Saints. Graham has five touchdowns and at least 200 receiving yards more than each of the league’s other tight ends. According to ESPN’s standard scoring stats, only three wide receivers have scored more fantasy points than Graham, who is just 24. Honorable mention: Fred Davis, Redskins.
Defense/special teams: The Texans. A year after being a cushy matchup for fantasy quarterbacks and wide receivers, Houston has a top-five fantasy defense. Honorable mention: The Bengals.
Kicker: Dan Bailey, Cowboys. The rookie kicker has missed just one kick and is averaging 12 fantasy points a week. He had 21 points in Week 3. Honorable mention: John Kasay, Saints.
Fantasy penthouse: Drew Brees threw for 325 yards and five touchdowns, two of which went to Marques Colston, the week’s top fantasy wideout. Two more went to Jimmy Graham, the week’s top fantasy tight end. Meanwhile, outside of New Orleans, Arian Foster was the top back with 234 total yards and three TDs.
Fantasy doghouse: Matt Cassel somehow mustered just two fantasy points in a 28-0 win. Tashard Choice was worth negative-two points. Vincent Jackson got the Revis treatment. Greg Olsen had one catch for four yards.
The wire: 1. I picked up DeMarco Murray in one of my leagues. He might still be available in yours, too, after setting the Cowboys’ single-game rushing record. … 2. Demaryius Thomas caught a touchdown pass from Tim Tebow. … 3. Roy Helu is the guy you want with Tim Hightower headed to the IR. … 4. Speaking of the Redskins, Fred Davis will continue to produce like he did in Week 7. … 5. Montario Hardesty stands to benefit from the Peyton Hillis saga. … 6. Kansas City gave Jackie Battle 16 more carries on Sunday.
Five guys I really like this week: 1. My best guess is that Matthew Stafford will start Sunday and put up big numbers against the porous Broncos pass defense. … 2. DeMarco Murray probably won’t rush for 200-plus yards against the Eagles, but he is definitely worth a start. … 3. I have a feeling Anquan Boldin will rack up double-digit fantasy points against his former team. … 4. Jabar Gaffney is Washington’s go-to wideout by default right now. … 5. Visanthe Shiancoe is fantasy relevant again with Christian Ponder under center.
Reader question: I got none this week, but feel free to shoot me yours. My contact info is below.
Extra point: Say what you want about Tim Tebow as a reality quarterback -- chances are you already have -- but I told you he would be a strong option in the fake football world. Tebow threw for 161 yards and two touchdowns and his 65 rushing yards helped him finish as the fifth-highest point scorer among QBs in Week 7. Still not a believer? I respect that. We’ll see who is right after a tough test against the Lions defense this weekend.
Matt Vensel is a blogger and community coordinator for The Baltimore Sun. Send your fantasy questions and comments to Matt.Vensel@baltsun.com, @mattvensel on Twitter or leave them in the comments section below.