UNLESS YOUR favorite adjective is wicked and you recently burned your Manny Ramirez jersey, you probably drafted Tom Brady for your fantasy team last year only because Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer and Drew Brees had already been taken. The man who put up the best numbers of any quarterback in history wasn't at the top of any 2007 preseason draft rankings. Fact is, chalk picks rarely win you championships. Doing the orthodox may keep you from being heckled at your draft, but being bold can make your season.
With that in mind, here are seven players not rated as highly as they deserve to be, and the rounds (in a 12-team league) in which I would first be tempted to take them:
1. Ricky Williams, Dolphins RB.
Yes, if you make this pick, you'll have to withstand the inevitable "What are you smoking?" gibes. Given that he's had all of six carries since New Year's Day 2006, taking Williams is a risk. But with Miami's offense being orchestrated by ground-game guru Dan Henning, Williams and Ronnie Brown will get plenty of carries, and Williams, the stronger of the two backs, will take the lead role, especially near the goal line. Round 2.
2. Eli Manning, Giants QB.
His reputation-altering win in the Super Bowl is not the chief reason to invest a pick in Eli. The Giants signal-caller is one of only five QBs to throw at least 23 TDs in each of the last three years. (The others are Brady, Brees, Palmer and Eli's brother Peyton.) Further, Manning leads a vibrant offense featuring WR Plaxico Burress and a couple talented young receivers, Domenik Hixon and Steve Smith, who should be in your grab bag of candidates for breakout seasons themselves. Round 5.
August 31, 2008
3. Jason Campbell, Redskins QB.
It's the system. With the Redskins moving to a pass-centric offense under new coach Jim Zorn, Campbell will more regularly put up the kind of numbers he amassed in November road games at Dallas and Tampa Bay, when he threw for 649 total yards. Round 6.
4. Jabar Gaffney, Patriots WR.
The low-glam man in the Patriots' receiving corps last year, Gaffney scored more touchdowns (five) and made nearly as many catches (36) as Donte' Stallworth (three TDs, 46 receptions). Now that Stallworth has left for Cleveland, Gaffney will join Randy Moss and Wes Welker as a regular starter and should get plenty of balls from Brady. Round 6.
5. Jerious Norwood, Falcons RB.
Most believe that Michael Turner, the big free-agent signee from San Diego, will dominate the Falcons' running game, but don't forget about Norwood, whose 6.2 yards per rushing attempt leads all active runners with at least 200 carries. Round 8.
6. Eddie Royal, Broncos WR.
Rookie wideouts are rarely worth drafting, but this second-round pick from Virginia Tech has earned a spot in the receiving rotation with his speed, agility and leaping ability. With Brandon Marshall serving a minimum two-game suspension to start the season and QB Jay Cutler already comfortable looking his way, Royal deserves a fantasy start in Week 1, when Denver visits the Raiders. Round 8.
7. J.T. O'Sullivan, 49ers QB.
Despite the presence of Alex Smith (the No. 1 overall pick in the '05 draft), the Niners' offense will be in the hands of a journeyman who has bounced among seven teams in his seven NFL seasons and has thrown 26 career passes. But with Mike Martz running the offense (and with O'Sullivan knowing Martz's system from his stint in Detroit last year), it's possible that Sullivan could do something Joe Montana never did: throw for 4,000 yards in a season. O'Sullivan has been on many benches in his career; in case he takes off, you'll want to be able to call him in from yours. Round 9.
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Three to Get Ready
Meet the tri-captains of my 10-foot pole team—popular draftees you should stay far, far away from.
1. Jon Kitna, Lions QB.
Kitna (right) threw for 4,068 yards in '07 but was picked off 20 times, and he's now in a more conservative, run-oriented offense.
2. Rudi Johnson, Bengals RB.
If his bad hamstring and downward-trending production isn't enough to scare you off, consider the stiff competition he'll get from Chris Perry and Kenny Watson.
3. Deion Branch, Seahawks WR.
Even if the former Super Bowl MVP's knee is strong enough for him to go, what do you get? A healthy Branch has never topped 1,000 receiving yards or caught more than five TDs in a season. Plus, he pulled in just 57.6% of the passes thrown his way in '07.