Ringer, Rudolph in line for big years

Kermit the Frog famously stated, “It’s not easy being green.” This same sentiment can be applied to the life of an NFL backup. Sure, you aren’t exposed to the perils of premature dementia from multiple blows to the head, but the benefits end there. The pay’s substantially less for a second-stringer, your relegation to the sidelines often leads to heckles from fans who were probably cut from their high school squad and you have to rock a baseball cap on the bench, making it harder to mack on the ladies after the game (which, really, is the whole reason to play football in the first place).

Luckily, there’s hope. Every year, a benchwarmer emerges from the depths of obscurity to become a pigskin powerhouse for fantasy squads. In 2010, Peyton Hillis and Michael Vick were fantasy contributors that started the year on the sidelines; prior to that, Jamaal Charles and Miles Austin were the benchwarming breakouts.

So which substitutes are bound for stardom in 2011? A quick rundown of candidates in line for fantasy fame:

Charlie Whitehurst, Seahawks.

For now, Tarvaris Jackson remains the starter in the Emerald City despite his atrocious showings in the preseason. Yet Jackson has done little in his abbreviated NFL career to convince the Seattle fan base he’s worthy of the role, throwing 24 touchdowns, 22 interceptions and owning a 76.6 QB rating.

While Whitehurst didn’t light the world on fire in his two starts for the Seahawks last season, he has looked like Joe Montana compared to Jackson in the preseason, completing 71.8 percent of his passes and posting a 93.1 QB rating. If Whitehurst takes the reins of the offense, he’ll be working with an improved receiving corps thanks to the additions of Sidney Rice and Zach Miller. A less than strenuous schedule will likewise aid in Whitehurst’s worth if this substitution comes to pass. Whitehurst is also surprisingly mobile, translating into the occasional outburst in the ground game.

Though Jackson may remain the starter heading into Seattle’s opener, Whitehurst as a late-round gamble could provide dividends.

Javon Ringer, Titans.

The longer Chris Johnson remains on the sidelines, the higher Ringer’s fantasy value soars. The Michigan State product was productive when given the opportunity last year, rushing for 239 yards on 51 carries (4.7 yards per carry). With Johnson continuing his holdout, Ringer is slated as the de facto starter. Even when Johnson ends his sabbatical, Ringer should factor heavily into Tennessee’s game plan as Johnson may not be in football shape to start the season.

Brad Smith, Bills.

The Bills plan to employ more of the Wildcat this fall, with Smith directing traffic in the backfield. This proposal has already come to fruition in the preseason, with Smith gaining 40 yards on the ground on seven attempts while completing 5-of-6 passes for 45 yards.

Most fantasy leagues will have Smith designated as a WR, although chances are the former Jet will rarely, if ever, line up at the position. While Smith’s preseason statistics may not appear remarkable, they could prove beneficial in the flex spot in deeper formats, a la Joe Webb’s performance at the end of 2010. Smith is far from a sure-thing in terms of fantasy production, but his situation is worth monitoring the first few weeks of the season.

Randall Cobb, Packers.

Cobb suffered a setback with a knee injury against the Arizona Cardinals, and is in jeopardy of missing the Packers’ season opener. Nevertheless, Cobb has been drawing rave reviews from his performance in camp and displayed this dexterity in Green Bay’s first preseason tilt against the Browns, hauling in three receptions for 60 yards and another 58 yards in the return game.

When Cobb returns to full health, he becomes an intriguing option in formats that reward return yards in scoring. A crowded receiving corps may scare away potential buyers, but Cobb’s production in August will equate to playing time in the high-flying Packer offense.

Anthony Gonzalez, Colts.

I hope you are sitting down: Gonzalez is currently dealing with an injury. Shocking, right? Reportedly, Gonzo’s latest issue is not believed to be serious, although it’s understandable to be skeptical when factoring in the receiver’s medical history.

Currently on the last year of his rookie deal, Gonzalez will be playing for a pay day. Currently ranked fourth on the Indianapolis depth chart, the 2007 first-round selection will need some luck to find the field. However, Indianapolis’ first three receivers are anything but dependable. Reggie Wayne submitted a fine campaign in 2010, but wore down at the end of the season. After coming on strong in the second half of 2009, Pierre Garcon was somewhat of a disappointment last year. And while he was dominant when on the field, Austin Collie is one concussion away from retirement.

Gonzalez’s past certainly makes him a risk, as well as the ambiguity surrounding the Colts’ quarterback situation. But when healthy, Gonzalez has the capability to be one of the best possession receivers in the league.

Kyle Rudolph, Vikings.

The rookie from Notre Dame has seen some action in the slot during the preseason, grabbing four balls for 32 yards. Although listed as the second-string tight end, starter Visanthe Shiancoe is currently dealing with a hamstring issue. Shiancoe’s injury aside, Minnesota will employ a two-tight end set, meaning Rudolph will see plenty of time in this scheme or in the aforementioned slot. Furthermore, Vikings QB Donovan McNabb is noted for his utilization of tight ends, elevating Rudolph’s fantasy prospects.

The market for tight ends is plush, so Rudolph doesn’t necessitate a draft pick in most formats. However, keep an eye on his output, especially if he continues to work in the slot.

Vince Young, Eagles.

Granted, this is predicated on injury, but chances are good that Michael Vick will be sidelined at some juncture this season. If the injury knocks Vick out for a good chunk of time, don’t be surprised if Young flourishes and transforms into a fantasy star. With weapons like LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek at his disposal, Young finally has the passing tools that were nonexistent in Nashville.

Whether Young possesses the mental fortitude to enter the season as the unquestioned backup remains to be seen. Yet if he gets the opportunity to start, Young becomes an appealing fantasy starter in most leagues.

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