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Rob Gronkowski, Jared Cook, and Lance Kendricks Emerging as Sleeper Tight Ends

As we get closer to the start of the NFL season, we’ll continue to provide you fantasy football advice. We’ve given you tips on a few different running backs and quarterbacks thus far, and now it’s time for a few sleeper tight ends to keep your eye on.

Rob Gronkowski is a player I’ve targeted in each one of my drafts. Gronk was one of the two tight ends the Patriots selected early in the draft last season and he had a dynamite rookie season. He caught 42 passes for 546 yards and an impressive 10 touchdowns. More importantly for fantasy purposes, most of his stats came in the second half of the year as he became more comfortable in the offense. 28 of his 42 catches and seven of his 10 touchdowns came in the second half.

Reports have said Gronkowski was dominant throughout training camp and unguardable in the red zone. Tom Brady will rely on Gronk and fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez as some of his best weapons in the passing game. Gronkowski’s yardage numbers might not be great, but if the guy gives you 12 or more touchdowns, you can’t go wrong.

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Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan Poised for Breakout Seasons

You know LB likes to drop in some fantasy advice when it comes up, and he’s already done so recommending a few running backs. Now it’s time to recommend a few quarterbacks who are going to take that next step to the elite level.

It goes without saying that Aaron Rodgers is a stud. So are Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Michael Vick (though Vick is more risky). Peyton Manning is elite but his neck injury is a concern for me (he should be humming by week four or five). Tony Romo and Matt Schaub ordinarily round out the top group of fantasy quarterbacks, but I think two more will join them this year: Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan.

You know I’ve been all about Matthew Stafford since the draft when he dominated the Wonderlic. His explosive preseason has done nothing to quiet my praise that began a few weeks ago. Stafford has gone 24-31 for 356 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions during the preseason. His numbers remind me of what Aaron Rodgers did in the 2009 preseason. In his second year as a full-time starter, Rodgers went 29-41 for 465 yards, six touchdowns and no picks in the preseason. He went on to destroy the league for 4,434 yards and 30 touchdowns — his best statistical year. Saying Stafford will put up those numbers is asking a lot, but there is little doubt he’s going to become a star this year.

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Darren McFadden, Rashard Mendenhall, Knowshon Moreno Receiving Rave Reviews

When players receive constant praise and recognition during training camp, it generally is an antecedent to a successful season. Running backs Darren McFadden, Rashard Mendenhall, and Knowshon Moreno fit that bill, so they’ve turned me into believers.

Darren McFadden has missed some of training camp because of a fractured orbital bone, but when he’s practiced he’s turned heads. Raiders beat writer Jerry McDonald recently wrote that it “Doesn’t matter how much [McFadden] practices. No one else close.” Oakland offensive coordinator Al Saunders said McFadden was in the same class as Priest Holmes, Marshall Faulk, and Marcus Allen. Head coach Hue Jackson has said McFadden is one of the most complete and elite runners in the NFL. When that many sources agree on something, it generally means something.

Rashard Mendenhall hasn’t received the same amount of praise as McFadden, but he’s received extremely positive reviews. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he thought Mendenhall still had room to grow even with his successful past two seasons. Running backs coach Kirby Wilson says there’s nothing Mendenhall can’t do and that he has a bright future. National writer Dan Pompei says Mendenhall “showed up to camp in ‘wow’ shape.” He also says that Mendenhall is more comfortable now that he’s in his fourth year with the team. Pompei says Mendenhall is out to make people recognize him for his play, not his bin Laden comments.

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Arian Foster Rips Fantasy Football Players for Worrying About Injury

Is fantasy football turning us into machines? These days it seems as though all age brackets, species, and sexes are playing fantasy football. Whether you are trying to make a couple bucks or just enjoy managing your own squad, fantasy football seems to appeal to everyone.

As a result, we find ourselves worrying about the health of the players on our teams. In that sense there’s not much difference between monitoring your fantasy team and worrying about your favorite team.  Arian Foster, the No. 1 overall pick in most fantasy drafts after his monster performance last season, has a huge problem with people who are only concerned about his injured hamstring because of fantasy football.

“(For) those sincerely concerned, I’m doing ok and plan (to be) back by opening day,” Foster wrote on Twitter. “For those worried (about) your fantasy team, (you people) are sick.”

In a sense Foster is right and it is pretty selfish for people to only ask about his health because they drafted him in a fantasy league.  However, it’s no different from rooting for your favorite team. When Tom Brady tore his ACL do you think Patriots fans felt badly for him personally or were worried about their season?  It could be a little of both, but we all know the latter is where priorities lie.  We’re talking about a tweaked hamstring, not locker room devastation.

Chest bump to Pro Football Talk for the story.

Tim Hightower and Ray Rice’s Fantasy Stocks are Booming

In case you’re a new reader to LBS, you may not know that LB fancies himself somewhat of a fantasy guru. What qualifies him as a fantasy guru? Well when you start your own website you get to call yourself anything you damn well please. On a serious note, LB has been playing fantasy sports since elementary school and he’s been winning leagues on a regular basis for the past 12 years.

The secret to success is simple: LB relies upon a deep understanding of the game of football, a network of trusted sources, and personal observations to provide expert advice that delivers on a consistent basis.

Through the first three weeks of the preseason season, some fantasy trends have become apparent. I don’t like to recommend players until I 100% believe in them. Now I’ll share two players I think will star on your fantasy squad this year: Tim Hightower and Ray Rice.

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Daniel Thomas May be Featured Running Back for Dolphins, Prime Fantasy Target

If there’s one thing the Miami Dolphins have loved to do under coach Tony Sparano, it’s run the ball. They did it successfully in 2009 with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams but they decided to balance the offense with more passing last season. If they decide to shift back to a running focus, they may have their new featured back.

The Dolphins traded three picks (a 3rd, 5th, and 7th) to the Washington Redskins to move up in the second round where they selected running back Daniel Thomas 62nd overall. All my UCLA friends should recall Thomas well; he was the guy in a purple #8 jersey running up and down the field all game in the season opener.

Thomas ran for 1,585 yards on 298 carries (3rd most in the country) last season for Kansas State, so there is little doubt he is a workhorse. He also is adept at running the Wildcat offense which should be perfect for Miami.

Though it’s too early to start doing mock fantasy football drafts — especially with the lockout — we wouldn’t be doing our duty if we didn’t share this nugget on Thomas. As Rotoworld pointed out, Thomas is expected to be Miami’s featured back with Williams, Brown, and Patrick Cobbs all free agents. The Dolphins could bring one of them back, but the job will likely be Thomas’ to lose.

Ben Tate Medically Cleared, Will He Cut into Arian Foster’s Productivity?

Houston Texans running back Arian Foster capitalized on injuries to Ben Tate and Steve Slaton by rushing for a franchise-record 231 yards the first week of the season against the Indianapolis Colts. The undrafted back out of Tennessee didn’t stop there — he put together seven more 100-yard games for the Texans to earn the NFL’s rushing title and fantasy MVP crown. Though 2010 proved to be a monstrous success for Foster, an interesting item was revealed on Tuesday making us wonder how it will impact Foster’s fantasy status for 2011.

Texans running back Ben Tate announced on twitter that he was finally ready to resume his NFL career. “Went to see the doc today finally cleared no more rehab im sooo happy…..time for a vacation then back on the grind for the 2011 season!!!!!!!!#NOLOCKOUT” he wrote.

Tate was Houston’s second-round pick last year and he unfortunately tore up his ankle in the team’s first preseason game in August. Tate ended up on injured reserve for the entire season, and the starting job went to Arian Foster who became a star. Now that the former second-round pick out of Auburn is returning, one has to wonder if Arian will be as productive as he was last year.

There is little doubt that Foster fits into Houston’s offense perfectly and that he can continue his success in the league. The reality is that all teams share carries at running back — even Houston had Derrick Ward getting plenty of looks last season — so I wouldn’t worry about Tate. He has to worry about regaining the form that led to him being a high draft pick, and the Texans would be crazy to take the ball out of Foster’s hands more than they need to.

Tate’s emergence may give the Texans a better second option at running back, but I wouldn’t worry about him cutting into Foster’s stats too much. Arian Foster is still the man in Houston.