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First Half Fantasy Surprises

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - We're halfway through the fantasy season and a look back at the first half of the year reveals some interesting information. Simply peeking at the top-three at each position shows at least one surprise in each position category. And that's just a tip of the iceberg in a season where top-25 choices like Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Roddy White, Philip Rivers and Peyton Hillis have come up short.

Quarterbacks - Aaron Rodgers (preseason rank 7), Cam Newton (184), Drew Brees (19)

While Rodgers and Brees have been lighting it up and garnering most of the media attention, they were both chosen in the first two rounds and were expected to perform at a high level. The second highest-scoring quarterback in 2011 is a rookie - Cam Newton. He is a rookie who most fantasy experts, me included, expected to struggle in a Carolina offense that was inept the previous season. Instead, Newton is averaging 285.5 passing yards-per-game at a respectable 60.6% completion rate.

Newton is proving that one man can make a huge difference. His presence has reinvigorated Panthers star wideout Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen. And while Newton's arm has been solid, it's his legs which separates him from most other quarterbacks. The No.1 overall pick in 2011 out of Auburn has rushed for 319 yards and seven touchdowns in his first eight professional games. That's 73 fantasy points just with his legs.

While he is likely "un-obtainable" in keeper leagues with his sky's-the-limit upside, trading for him in single season leagues might be worth the high price.

Running Backs - Fred Jackson (70), LeSean McCoy (6), Adrian Peterson (1)

There is a similar situation at running back where first rounders McCoy and Peterson are giving you all you could want. The surprise here is from the fifth-year running back in Buffalo - Jackson.

A 1,000-yard rusher two years ago, Jackson was thought of as being one half of a shared backfield with C.J. Spiller at draft time. Jackson demolished that notion in the season opener while rushing for 112 yards on 20 carries while Spiller saw just six touches. The division of running duties has been on the order of 90%-10% in Jackson's favor this season with Spiller's pass-catching abilities helping out a depleted receiving corps. Jackson has become a fantasy star, reminding many fantasy owners of Priest Holmes in his prime with Kansas City.

Jackson should be a huge factor in the fantasy playoffs, facing the 21st- ranked Chargers defense in Week 14, the 20th-ranked Dolphins rush defense in Week 15 and Denver's 18th-ranked run defense in a possible Week 16 championship game.

Wide Receivers - Calvin Johnson (13), Wes Welker (49), Steve Smith CAR (84)

Calvin Johnson is the best receiver in football and Wes Welker had been unbelievable until a recent two-week slump against some tough press coverage, but the reawakening of Smith have fantasy owners wondering how they could have been so foolish to bypass him in the draft.

Smith was a seventh-round pick in most leagues after struggling to keep him mind in the game in 2010. It was understandable based on the fact that his 2010 quarterbacks, Jimmy Clausen, Matt Moore, Brian St. Pierre and Tony Pike, couldn't get him the ball most of the time. That's all changed with the arrival of Newton and the results have the talented Smith once again among the league leaders. Smith and the Panthers will face Atlanta, Houston and Tampa Bay during the fantasy playoff and all are eminently beatable.

Tight Ends - Jimmy Graham (89), Rob Gronkowski (127), Jason Witten (56)

Witten is as good as advertised, but it's a pair of second-year tight ends, Graham and Gronkowski that have fantasy owners drooling.

At 6'7" and 260 lbs, Graham is impossible to cover in the Saints offense as the defense is usually too busy worrying about Marques Colston or Devery Henderson going deep. Instead, Brees has gone to a "short game" using Graham (team-leading 74 targets) and running back Darren Sproles (66 targets) to continuously move the chains. From Week 3 through Week 7 Graham averaged a position-leading 21 ppg.

Gronkowski is an even bigger surprise as an 11th-round fantasy pick. In 2010 Tom Brady had looked for the 6'6", 265 lbs tight end primarily in the red zone. He had 42 catches last season and 10 were for touchdowns, but he only totaled 546 yards in receptions. In 2011, Brady and the Patriots have featured Wes Welker and a pair of tight ends - Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Gronkowski was targeted just 59 times all last season but in seven games this year Brady has already looked his way 47 times. That extrapolates to 100+ targets for the season and likely 1,000+ yards receiving to go along with double-digit touchdowns. He'll also face Washington, Denver and Miami in the fantasy playoff which could make him the No.1 fantasy tight end when the title is on the line.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Steve Schwarz at sschwarz@sportsnetwork.com.


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