July 29, 2008

Every year we so-called experts join the masses of fantasy footballers in debating who should go in the first round and which players should make up the top 10 at each position. It's important, because you must get the proper value with your first-round selection and with your RB1, WR1, etc. That's how you set up the backbone of your team. But in the end, most titles will be won by snagging next year's first-round or top-10 position players in the second, fifth or even middle rounds of this fall's drafts and auctions. There was a time when Antonio Gates, Tom Brady and Terrell Owens were just talented players whose fantasy games hadn't come to full fruition. Now's your chance to get next year's stars at a reduced rate this fall and take your team to the championship.

Jay Cutler, Denver Broncos

This offseason, Cutler was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, a condition that slowed him considerably last season. Now that he's being treated properly, I fully expect a breakout season for the Broncos' slinger. Here's the take on Culter I gave in a column last month:

Now that he knows he has Type 1 diabetes and is treating it, we should see a dramatic improvement in Cutler's conditioning in '08. He reportedly dropped from his playing weight of around 230 pounds all the way down to about 200 late during last season. It's hard to even imagine how he battled through the lack of energy to perform as well as he did. Comparing Cutler's first-half performance last season to the second eight games, his completion percentage dropped from 65.8 to 61.7, and his yards per attempt from 7.7 to 7.3. But consider this: At the same time that Cutler was unknowingly battling his diabetes in the second half of the campaign, his quarterback rating actually rose from 86 to 89.9, and his TD/INT ratio improved from 8/8 to 12/6. I loved Cutler's potential coming out of Vanderbilt and ranked him higher than Matt Leinart in fantasy terms and thought his long-term upside would rival Vince Young's. A healthy and energetic Cutler should be poised for his breakout season in '08, so jump on the bandwagon now.

David Garrard, Jacksonville Jaguars

On the eve of last season, the Jags booted Byron Leftwich off their roster and handed over the reigns to Garrard. It was a gutsy move but one that turned out to pay dividends. He churned out four 200-yard games in his first five contests before being felled by an ankle injury that cost him four games. In his final six contests, Garrard threw for at least 189 yards and averaged two touchdowns. Amazingly, he tossed just three interceptions in 12 games, and we saw his yards per attempt rise to a quality 7.7. The addition of Jerry Porter (assuming he's over his hamstring surgery in time) and Troy Williamson to the receiving corps should get the Jags to open up the passing game some more in '08. Look for Garrard to take the next step in his development and genuinely break out this season.

While Cutler and Garrard are in position to join the top-end QBs, Vince Young, Jason Campbell and Aaron Rodgers feasibly could do so too this year, but it's more likely they'll need another season or two before we see them take that big step. Young needs to work on his passing accuracy and needs receivers to step up; Campbell needs be allowed to pass more often; and Rodgers needs to not buckle under the pressure of the ghost (or maybe even the actual) Brett Favre. Nonetheless, all three are worth consideration as QB2 draft or auction choices based on their considerable upside if things click.

Marshawn Lynch, Buffalo Bills

I usually flinch when I consider taking any player from the Bills, but there's no need to flinch on Lynch. As a rookie, he broke off 1,115 yards and seven touchdowns in 13 games. That's a solid start, but his average of 4.0 yards per carry wasn't all that impressive, he missed three games with a high-ankle sprain, and he caught just 18 passes for 184 yards. So why should we expect a breakout in '08? To begin with, he's as likely as any running back to lead the NFL in rushing attempts, which means you know he's going to be there every week churning out stats. Also, in the final four games after returning from the sprain, Lynch topped 100 yards twice and averaged 4.3 yards per carry. He's not likely to catch a ton of passes, but if he stays healthy, he's a shoo-in for 300-plus carries, 1,300 yards and double-digit TDs. Consider that the baseline for his 2008 performance, and if the Bills can move the ball as a team, we'll see all of those numbers inflate to breakout levels.

Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars

It wasn't all that surprising the darling of the '07 fantasy football campaign saw his stats take a step back in his sophomore campaign. After all, he churned out 941 yards at a 5.7 yards-per-carry clip and crossed the goal line 13 times as a rook. But consider that last season; he still busted off 768 yards on 167 carries and scored nine TDs in 15 games -- not bad for a "down year". What's holding MJD back from a genuine explosion in fantasy terms? One Fred Taylor, MJD's tag-team running back partner. For those of you who are newer to the game and only remember the 1,100-1,200 rushing yards and 5.0-5.4 ypc he tallied the past two seasons, you need to note that Taylor's body failed him often when he was younger -- and now he's 32 years old. The clock is ticking away on Taylor, and when -- not if -- he breaks down this season, Jones-Drew will be poised to join the elite running backs in fantasy.

Willis McGahee, Jonathan Stewart and Laurence Maroney all have the potential to make big leaps in fantasy production, but there are enough factors going against each of them that you can't expect a breakout in '08 without a little outside assistance. McGahee was solid in his first year with the Ravens (1,207 yards, seven TDs), but the addition of new OC Cam Cameron (who got a ton out of a healthy Ronnie Brown in Miami) offers hope that we could see more from McGahee in '08. The downside is the Ravens still have no quarterback, and the offense as a whole has been unimpressive forever. Stewart's a rookie coming off toe surgery, and DeAngelo Williams is still hanging around Carolina. But Stewart has the skills to score a lot of TDs and maybe take the bulk of carries for the Panthers. Maroney topped 100 yards four times and scored seven touchdowns in his final six games (including the postseason) in '08, so you see the upside. But barring a shift in thinking by Bill Belichick, he's not going to see enough touches to be explosive every week.

Santonio Holmes, Pittsburgh Steelers

Since '01, Hines Ward has been one of the more underrated studs in the NFL, but fantasy owners have lived off his steady play year in and year out. However, his production has dwindled the last couple of seasons as he's crept into his 30s. It's not just age that has caught up to Ward, though; to be honest, Holmes already caught up to Ward and is running right by him. Holmes pulled in 49 passes at 16.8 yards per catch in 16 rookie games in '07, then led the entire NFL with a whopping 18.1 ypc average on 52 catches last year, while crossing the goal line eight times -- and he did that in just 13 games. The only real concern is keeping the rail-thin (he's listed at 5-foot-11, 189 pounds) Holmes healthy. If he can avoid the infirmary, Holmes will get a load of deep passes thrown his way by Big Ben and join the top-10 receivers in fantasy.

Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions

The most hyped wide receiver prospect in recent memory paired up with an offensive coordinator who likes to pass like he's playing Madden and running up the score on his worst enemy? Sounded like a dream pairing. And yet, Mike Martz only managed to get 48 receptions and four touchdowns out of the rookie last year. Now the pass-addicted Martz is in San Fran and Johnson is on a breakout list? What gives? Let's start with the basics: Johnson really is as talented and dedicated as any receiver in recent memory, and any rookie who explodes in fantasy terms is at best fortunate and at worst an anomaly. There's also the nasty back injury he sustained in his third game and bothered him the rest of the way. Now Johnson has a year of experience at the pro level, averaged an impressive 15.8 ypc, enters the season healthy, and still has Roy Williams limiting opponents' ability to double-team. Sure, the Lions will pass less often without Martz calling the plays, but who do you think is going to take the biggest hit in the targeting department? Shaun McDonald (127 targets, 79 catches in '07), Mike Furrey (90, 61) or the No. 2 overall pick in the '07 draft? Exactly. Look for Johnson to get his full share and do the most with it.

Jerricho Cotchery, Dwayne Bowe and Chris Chambers represent the receivers I see as having the potential to make a big jump in production this season, but like the previous positions, they also have things holding them back. Cotchery could see a boost if the 31-year-old Laveranues Coles breaks down. But though he missed four games last season, Coles has played every game from '01 through '06. Even if he holds steady in receptions (82 in '06 and '07) and yardage (961, 1,130), Cotchery still could see a bump in production if he can pull in more touchdowns as an end-zone option. If Bowe were on a different team, he'd be ready to breakout for certain, but the Chiefs aren't going to throw enough to make that happen because they still have major QB questions, and Larry Johnson ready to run through walls. But 70 catches for 995 yards and five TDs as a rook on a bad team is a good start, so don't count Bowe out of the mix. In a sense, Chambers broke out last year when he joined the Chargers in midseason and piled up 555 yards and four TDs on 35 catches. If Philip Rivers is healthy enough to get the ball out, Chambers is set for a big year. It could be even bigger if Antonio Gates remains sidelined by his ailing toe.

Owen Daniels, Houston Texans

Last year, Daniels bumped up to 63 catches for 768 yards and pulled in three scores. All three of those TDs came over the final six weeks, and he caught at least three passes in all but four games on the season. If Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson can stay healthy, I genuinely expect the Texans' offense to make a big push forward in '08. With that should come more red-zone opportunities for Daniels, which will push him over the edge into a top-end fantasy TE.

Tony Scheffler, Denver Broncos

Forget about Scheffler's overall numbers last year; he missed the first four games due to injury. Instead, take a look at how involved he was in the offense when he did play. He caught four or more passes seven times and six or more passes three times. Scheffler also topped 80 yards receiving twice, averaged 11.2 ypc and pulled in five TDs in 11 contests. Cutler's ready to step it up, and with Javon Walker formally out of the picture, Scheffler's as likely as any of the receivers to benefit in fantasy terms.

Greg Olsen and Zach Miller have loads of skills, but both are on bad offenses (Bears and Raiders, respectively), which means we aren't likely to see the best of them this season. That said, when their teams manage to get near the red zone, each is capable of snagging touchdowns. And both should be targeted enough to approach or top 50 catches and 600 yards receiving. With a little good fortune, though, it wouldn't be outrageous to see at least one of them bust loose with a bigger season.

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