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Fantasy Bureau of Investigation: Persons of Interest
Mike Courter
July 15, 2005

When law enforcement seeks to solve a criminal case there typically are “persons of interest” who sometimes have a direct or indirect effect on the victim who are brought in for a few questions to hopefully provide the pieces to an answer that eventually cracks the case.

In the world of fantasy football, there are numerous “persons of interest” each season who may or may not be on your pre-draft cheat sheets but nevertheless have an impact on how your season progresses and can sometimes determine if you’ll survive the minefield of your head to head playoffs at the season’s end.

Below is a compilation of those individuals who may not have been part of your initial draft strategy but an increased awareness of how they will fit in the fabric of the 2005 season just might provide the edge that elevates your team past the also-rans in more competitive leagues.

KRIS WILSON

The 61st overall pick in the 2004 draft had been enjoying an impressive preseason before breaking his left fibula in the final exhibition game against Dallas, derailing the majority of what appeared to be a promising season for the rookie tight end. Reports out of Chiefs mini camp this year are glowing from both coaches and teammates alike regarding a healthy Wilson’s consistently sticky hands and athletic versatility.

Offensive Coordinator Al Saunders is planning on incorporating double and triple tight end sets to leverage the second year player’s talent and make an already formidable Kansas City offense that much harder to stop. So while you might not think of drafting Kris Wilson onto your roster, his 2005 on-field contributions should bolster Green, Holmes and Gonzo’s draft value even more.

TOM COUGHLIN

So much for Tom Coughlin’s Paul Brown-esque, take-no-prisoners taskmaster image scaring away today’s me-first, pampered free agents from wanting to play for the Giants. Big Blue had one of the busiest off-seasons in recent memory as a multitude of free agents, including MLB Antonio Pierce, deep threat Plaxico Burress and RT Kareem McKenzie, flocked to enlist in Colonel Coughlin’s unit.

Coughlin has reportedly softened in some key non-football related areas, most notably the interpersonal skills department, as numerous veterans publicly commented on Coughlin’s increased interest in them as people outside of their on-field role.

The second year head made subtle changes on the practice field, moving seven afternoon training camp sessions to the evening to allow more time for the player’s bodies to regroup between sessions in an effort to avoid a repeat of last season which saw 17 Giants end up on season-ending injured reserve.

These subtle adjustments by the coach, coupled with Eli Manning’s year two progression with a better and deeper offensive line allowing him time to find big and talented receivers, Shockey, Burress and Toomer, might finally make the Meadowlands, long devoid of fantasy football excitement (outside of Barber’s career year last year), a happening place for FFL participants this season.

CARL SMITH

The new Jacksonville offensive coordinator, most recently the USC Trojans quarterbacks coach, sat down with staff members Ken Anderson (quarterbacks coach) and Andy Heck (offensive line coach) and exercised a complete makeover of the Jags impotent playbook from last year and the result was a 600 page novel tailored to the roster’s specific talent with an emphasis on the vertical passing game.

Early indications should have savvy fantasy participants adjusting their QB rankings accordingly as Leftwich went 27 of 32 with two drops during a June 17th practice as reported by the Orlando Sentinel’s Shannon Shelton. After laboring under ex-OC Bill Musgrave’s 21st ranked offense in 2004, Leftwich leads the NFL’s largest receiving corps featuring Jimmy Smith (6’1”-205), Reggie Williams (6’4”-227), Ernest Wilford (6’3”-225) and uberathlete Matt Jones (6’6”-245) in what could be an explosive fantasy growth stock in 2005.

TEDY BRUSCHI

Defensive stalwart’s such as Bruschi don’t surface often in fantasy football discussions but, due to the uncertainty in his playing status for the upcoming season stemming from the mild stroke and subsequent heart surgery after last season’s Super Bowl, he has become a “Person of Interest” for 2005.

The Patriots public comments on the Bruschi situation continue to portray the organizational poker face regarding his availability but there actions clearly delineate preparations for his expected absence. The signing of ex-Seattle Pro Bowler Chad Brown was done with little fanfare and most assuredly had the increasingly smug Patriots front office thinking they got one over on the rest of the league once again. However, there is no single player on the New England defensive side of the ball more important than Bruschi (Rodney Harrison, currently posturing for a contract redux, being a close second). In addition to being the vicar of Belicheck on the field, the 10 year veteran has carved out a reputation as a difference-maker whose will to win has set the tone for the rest of the defense, if not the team during these heady Super Bowl days for the Pats.

His probable absence, only made worse by Romeo Crennel’s departure, will most likely force New England to alter their winning with defense/ ball control model as they will be involved in even more higher scoring affairs than in 2004, a season that saw the Patriots yield 20 or more points six times, including shootouts of 27-24 (Colts), 30-20 (Seahawks), 20-34 (Steelers), 40-22 (Rams), 35-28 (Bengals) and 28-29 (Dolphins). This heightened dependency on offense will set the table for Tom Brady (3,692 yards passing, 28 TDs) and Corey Dillon (1,635 yards rushing, 12 TDs) to top last year’s impressive fantasy totals with ancillary beneficiaries including newcomer David Terrell, reliable David Givens and explosive Deion Branch.

REX RYAN

Baltimore’s new defensive coordinator has brought his father Buddy’s championship defensive scheme, the vaunted 46, to a talented group of personnel who seem ideally suited for it after spending a troubling 2004 trying to execute ex DC Mike Nolan’s 3-4 alignment.

Last season, as Lewis struggled to fight through 300 pound blockers on his way to the ball, Baltimore allowed an un-Raven-like 20 or more points in six of their seven defeats, including embarrassments to the Chiefs (24-27), Browns (3-20), Patriots (3-24) and Bengals (26-27).

Ray Lewis is simply giddy at the thought of returning to a system designed to allow him to attack the football unimpeded, hearkening back to the Ravens dominant years when Lewis simulated a fox having free reign of the henhouse while space-eaters Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa occupied those pesky offensive linemen seeking to slow the attacking Ray-ven.

This defensive philosophy shift will not only boost the Ravens defense/special teams draft day status but fantasy teams with key players opposing Baltimore, especially division opponents and Denver (week 14), Green Bay (week 15) and Minnesota (week 16), better have a Plan B in place to safeguard against what could be a resurrection of the ’85 Bears.

JON JANSEN

Jansen returns from a disastrous 2004 campaign which ended prematurely in the Hall of Fame game last preseason with a ruptured Achilles tendon, setting an ominous tone for what would be a disappointing “welcome back to the NFL” for the revered Joe Gibbs.

Jansen’s return to anchor the right side, along with offensive game plan changes instituted by Gibbs, should have a pronounced impact on Clinton Portis’ second season in Washington.

In 2003’s 5-11 campaign, with Jansen in the lineup and no threat in the passing game to opposing defenses, the Skins managed almost 4.0 yards per carry (3.9) with eight rushing touchdowns utilizing an underwhelming cast of no-names featuring Trung Canidate, Rock Cartwright, Ladell Betts and Chad Morton. The numbers actually dropped in 2004 with the arrival of Pro Bowler Clinton Portis to 3.7 yards per carry and a scant six scores. The deficit left in Washington’s offensive front created by Jansen’s injury looms as a major factor why. Conversely, expect Jansen’s healthy return to play an equally pivotal role in Portis’ return to fantasy prominence this season.

KYLE JOHNSON

Who? It’s precisely B-list characters like Johnson who are totally under the radar yet can dramatically alter a team’s fantasy fortunes over the course of the season. Last season, Johnson started to turn heads in the lead blocker role for Reuben Droughns helping the former fullback to a dominant 166 rushing yards at New Orleans as well as the ninth highest rushing total in franchise history against Carolina with 193 yards. Early signs from camp this year show the Broncos hoping to address their anemic red zone production from 2004 (28th overall) with the insertion of the powerful 6-1, 245 pound Johnson into most goal line formations in a wedge-opening role. If you’ve taken a chance on the mercurial Tatum Bell or the rugged Maurice Clarett in your draft, you just may be sending Johnson a fruit basket come January ’06.

JEFF GARCIA

Especially in leagues where they package the team backup QB when you select the starter, Garcia should be under Mafia-grade surveillance before your draft. In 2004, Garcia’s fantasy fortunes were doomed right out of the gate in a forgettable year in Cleveland. From his ex-Playmate girlfriend’s catfight at a local watering hole and rebutting T.O.’s sexual orientation accusations to getting pummeled behind the Browns shaky offensive line, Garcia’s one season in Ohio turned into his personal “Mistake by the Lake”.

What a difference a change of scenery makes as the 35 year old seems to have settled into his happy place. Garcia is now perched in the proverbial catbird seat waiting for the inevitable moment when Joey Harrington comes up short again and the veteran signal caller can ride in a la Sir Galahad, reunited with his coach from the San Francisco glory days, and step into the driver’s seat of a three horse chariot pulled by the large and speedy receiving firm of Williams, Williams and Rogers.

If you can’t afford to draft and stow him you’ll no doubt end up with the rest of the masses scrambling for him in week six after Harrington struggles through an @Chicago, @Tampa Bay and Baltimore gauntlet in the early part of the season.

DERRICK MASON

Mason’s arrival in Baltimore, coupled with Jim Fassel’s promotion to Offensive Coordinator, will instantly improve the league’s worst passing attack (averaging a last place 9.9 yards per catch in 2004) as he hopes to create a swagger on the flip side of Baltimore’s notoriously confident defense. Opposing defenses should no longer be able to liberally stack eight man fronts to stop Jamal Lewis with Mason’s vertical threat looming. This will also enable the Ravens to play Todd Heap as a wide out in three receiver sets, exploiting the “Gonzo within” the 6’5” 252 former Arizona State basketballer. Mason’s workmanlike example has also been cited by the team as a value add in his mentoring of rookie first round pick Mark Clayton.

In fantasy football terms, Mason’s choice of Baltimore as his free agent destination has cast him into the role of this year’s fantasy football sacrificial lamb. His receiving numbers will almost certainly drop from his stat line as a Titan where he averaged 86 catches and 1,153 yards and seven touchdowns in his last four seasons in Tennessee. But his addition to Baltimore’s offense should boost Jamal Lewis, Todd Heap and Kyle Boller’s fantasy value in ’05.