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10 Players to Watch
By Paul Sandy
September 3, 2003
  During the first weekend of regular season NFL action, fantasy owners are typically consumed with their squads. We wait anxiously for the ticker to cross the bottom of our televisions. We keep our fingers poised on the refresh button of our computer keyboards to get updated with the latest stats. Those fortunate souls among us who are outfitted with DirecTV aim their remote controls with deadly accuracy. Watching our own teams and our own players brings great joy and great frustration. It’s what fantasy football is all about. But as we kick off the season, it’s important to understand that at least a couple of the players you drafted will fall flat on their faces and disappoint you. To get a leg up on the competition, you must keep your eyes peeled for potential free agent acquisitions.

To get you started, I’ve listed 10 players who, for whatever reason, may have been overlooked in your draft. As you’re watching this weekend’s games, monitor the progress of these prospects. Each is in a favorable situation and could emerge early in the season as a fantasy contributor.

Olandis Gary, RB, Lions
With James Stewart out for the season and the feeble Arizona Cardinals on the schedule in Week 1, Olandis Gary is sure to be among the hottest free agents next week. Gary boasts a respectable 4.2 career yards per carry, but he probably won’t be the type of running back that carries your fantasy squad to glory. The former 1,000-yard rusher hasn’t shown much explosiveness since his 2000 season was wiped out because of a torn ACL. Head coach Steve Mariucci also favors a running back by committee approach. Even so, productive running backs are hard to come by and you may be able to consistently squeeze 10-point games out of him. If you have a chance to land Gary, you’d be wise to do so.

Reche Caldwell, WR, Chargers
Caldwell was a popular sleeper pick in many drafts this season – and with good reason. Former Arizona Cardinal wideout David Boston was acquired by the Chargers this offseason to restore credibility to San Diego’s passing game. However, after battling knee problems all last year, Boston’s health is cause for concern. His weight is listed at 240 lbs. As far as NFL receivers go, Boston is a man among boys. While his size may help him when battling would-be defenders, it probably puts huge amounts of stress on his knees and legs. Should Boston again succumb to injury, Caldwell and Tim Dwight would benefit the most in terms of receptions and yardage. Keep an eye on Caldwell’s Week 1 performance and grab him if there’s any hint of stardom.

Wayne Chrebet, WR, Jets
Last season, Chrebet finished with a career-high nine touchdowns. Unfortunately, with only 691 receiving yards, fantasy owners couldn’t count on him for anything more than an occasional, emergency start. If Chrebet ever has a shot of regaining his 1999-2000 form, which drew the wrath of fellow teammate Keyshawn Johnson and the admiration of fans, this is it. The Jets lost number one receiver Laveranues Coles. And while they brought in Curtis Conway as a replacement, the former Charger/Bear receiver is on the downside of his career and frequents the injury report. Perhaps more importantly, Vinny Testaverde has once again taken the reins of the Jets offense. When Testaverde lines up under center and scopes out his receivers, Chrebet will be his most familiar target.

Kelly Holcomb, QB, Browns
After his record-setting performance in last year’s playoff game, Holcomb is a known commodity. Even so, many fantasy owners are waiting around to see if he’s merely a flash in the pan. When it comes to quarterbacks, it’s not a bad strategy because there typically are plenty available through free agency. But if Holcomb follows up his playoff performance with another humdinger in Week 1, don’t hesitate to grab him pronto. The Browns have all the offensive weapons to make Holcomb a star.

Drew Bennett, WR, Titans
Bennett spent the 2003 preseason battling Justin McCareins for the starting receiver spot opposite Derrick Mason. Despite winning the competition, Bennett hasn’t caught the eye of many fantasy owners, who are still seething from the disappointing Kevin Dyson years. For whatever reason, the Titans offense is often underrated by fantasy owners. McNair and George are about as consistent as you can get in terms of fantasy production. When he’s healthy, Mason is among the league’s best receivers. Now Bennett, a third-year receiver, has the chance to emerge as a new offensive threat for the Titans. At 6’5”, Bennett is a huge target. While the Titans figure to feature him in the red-zone offense, Bennett has also tallied two touchdowns over 40 yards in his short career. If he catches four or five passes this weekend against Oakland, don’t hesitate to acquire Bennett. He could be the every week contributor you need.

Dennis Northcutt, WR, Browns
Consider for a minute that in the five games Kelly Holcomb played last season, he connected with Dennis Northcutt for five touchdowns. This includes the playoff game in which Holcomb set playoff passing records and hooked up with Northcutt for six receptions, 92 yards and two TDs. The Cleveland receiving corps is crowded, but based on Holcomb’s choice of targets last year, Northcutt has a good chance to emerge as the top threat. In short, don’t buy into all the Quincy Morgan hype just yet.

Thomas Jones, RB, Bucs
After a miserable stint in Arizona, Jones joined Tampa Bay with a fresh outlook. He was the team’s strongest rusher during the preseason. But with a muddled backfield that includes Mike Alstott, Michael Pittman and Aaron Stecker, Jones might have gone overlooked in your draft. If so, don’t hesitate to grab him during the first week of free agency, assuming no one better is available. Jones should play a significant role in Jon Gruden’s offense and could emerge as an every week starter if he becomes the featured back.

Bryan Gilmore, WR, Cardinals
It’s going to be a long, long year for the Cardinals. They have a new quarterback, an aging veteran running back and a group of inexperienced receivers. Despite all the knocks against them, the Cards shouldn’t be completely disregarded. Jeff Blake still throws an accurate deep ball and starting wide receiver Bryan Gilmore has the speed to get open down the field. Considering that the Cardinals will likely be playing catch-up in the second half of most games, don’t be surprised to see Gilmore lead the league in “garbage-time” statistics.

David Patten, WR, Patriots
Over the last two seasons, Patten has increased his receptions by about 10 versus the prior year. If adds another 10 receptions to his total in 2003, he has a good chance to eclipse the 1,000 yard benchmark. Depending on how many touchdowns he scores, this will put Patten on the periphery of being an every week starter. In other words, he deserves to be on a fantasy roster – at the very least as a back up.

Morten Andersen
A kicker is a kicker is a kicker. That’s what fantasy owners say every preseason. Then, at some point during the season, their team loses by one point – all because the kicker got shut out. The surest way to get consistent production from your kicker is to get one from a team that puts a lot of points on the scoreboard. While this type of kicker might not lead your fantasy league in scoring, they won’t cost you many games either. With a healthy Priest Holmes, the Chiefs will finish in the top five in scoring offense. Despite playing on such a high-powered offense, the venerable Morten Andersen might have been overlooked in your draft because he’s … well … old. Get him anyway. You’ll appreciate the eight or nine points he gets every week.