They are the players who can put a fantasy team over the top, the guys who go from a backup role to the Pro Bowl. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady came out of nowhere in 2001 to lead the Patriots to the Super Bowl. Last year Bengals running back Rudi Johnson and Chargers quarterback Drew Brees had breakout seasons. Here are six types of promising performers who could be in for banner years.
Players who get the chance to take on a larger role
In 2001 free-agent running back Priest Holmes, who had started only 19 games in four seasons with the Ravens, signed with the Chiefs so he could become a starter. All Holmes did that year was rush for an NFL-high 1,555 yards. Every season there are players like Holmes who move into bigger roles through trades, free agency, coaching changes and injuries to the starters ahead of them. This year, for instance, if you can correctly predict which Vikings wideout will inherit the bulk of Randy Moss's receptions, you'll have found a diamond.
Prospects: Vikings wideout Nate Burleson, Raiders running back LaMont Jordan
Quarterbacks who pick up a talented new target
Before last season the Eagles' Donovan McNabb had thrown 33 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions in 26 games over two years. Then wideout Terrell Owens arrived by way of a trade, giving McNabb a big-time receiving threat for the first time. McNabb responded with the best year of his career: 3,875 yards, 31 TDs and only eight interceptions.
Prospects: Raiders' Kerry Collins, Lions' Joey Harrington and Jeff Garcia, Ravens' Kyle Boller
Players who suddenly showed something in the second half of the previous season
The supersleeper of 2004 was Chargers tight end Antonio Gates (964 receiving yards, 13 touchdowns), who played basketball but not football at Kent State. However, in the last three games of his rookie season in 2003, he started to come on, catching 12 passes for 217 yards.
Prospects:Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, Giants quarterback Eli Manning, Bills wideout Lee Evans
Players who are 100% healthy after an injury
The key is the "100%." Take the Ravens' Jamal Lewis, who suffered a torn left ACL that sidelined him for the 2001 season. A year later he was still nagged by a sore knee and ran for 1,327 yards and six touchdowns. In '03, fully recovered from the outset of the season, he rushed for 2,066 yards and 14 TDs.
Prospects:Cardinals wideout Anquan Boldin, Titans wideout Tyrone Calico, Patriots wideout Deion Branch
Players who back up injury-prone starters
In recent years quarterback Steve McNair has been a regular on the Titans' injury report, and last season he missed all or parts of 10 games. Billy Volek, who in his first four NFL seasons had thrown a total of 72 passes, made the most of his opportunity in 2004, throwing for 2,486 yards and 18 touchdowns in 10 appearances (eight of them starts). During one three-game stretch Volek threw for 11 scores.
Prospects:Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, Packers running back Najeh Davenport, Panthers running back Nick Goings
Players moving into systems that utilize their strengths
For four years with the Ravens, wideout Brandon Stokley was used primarily as a blocker in the team's power running attack; he never caught more than 24 passes in a season. After joining the Colts' aerial circus in 2003, Stokley showed what he could do: 90 receptions for 1,288 yards and 13 touchdowns in the last two years.
Prospects: Giants wideout Plaxico Burress, Jets tight end Doug Jolley