For fantasy enthusiasts who participate in keeper or dynasty leagues, the season is never over. Even if your team has fallen out of playoff contention, it’s never too early to start thinking about next year. As you shift your focus to the future, here are some players to target that could help you rebuild your franchise. While many will already reside on rosters, particularly in dynasty leagues, you may be able to acquire one of these future stars via trade with a team that’s still in the playoff mix.
Billy Volek, Titans
While Volek isn’t scheduled to become a free agent, don’t be surprised if he’s under center Week 1 next year. Titans starting QB Steve McNair hinted at retirement last season and could follow through on those veiled statements this year. Tennessee is in a rebuilding mode and the Super Bowl isn’t a realistic goal for the short term. McNair’s body can only take so much punishment. He may finally wise up and realize the risk isn’t worth the reward. It’s no secret that Volek has thrived in the games that he’s started while Steve McNair was injured. Should he become the #1 QB, Volek could become a mid-level fantasy quarterback with the potential for an even greater contribution.
Jon Kitna, Bengals
Considering Carson Palmer’s success this season, Jon Kitna is suddenly expendable. Kitna, who will become a free agent following this season, will command more money on the open market than the Bengals are likely to pay. With the success he had in 2003 (remember hearing the word MVP tied to Kitna’s name midway through that season?), look for Kitna to seek out a team that will allow him to compete for a starting spot. The Dolphins, Jets, Ravens, or Packers are possibilities.
Phillip Rivers, Chargers
Despite hints of a trade this fall, Rivers remains in neutral behind Drew Brees in San Diego. I expect that to change this offseason. Brees is scheduled to be come a free agent in 2006. There will be tremendous pressure for the Chargers to resign him—both from inside and outside the organization. If he is signed to a long-term deal, the Chargers would likely trade Rivers to the highest bidder. If Brees isn’t given a new contract, Rivers becomes the heir to an offense that’s powered by LaDainian Tomlinson. Either way, it’s not a bad situation.
Charlie Frye, Browns
With the Browns quickly slipping out of playoff contention, the Charlie Frye era in Cleveland may begin sooner rather than later. Dynasty league owners should consider him to be a decent long-term prospect. Like Ben Roethlisberger, Frye played his college ball in the MAC conference. He is noted for his strong decision-making and, in time, will likely command a Browns offense that continues to get more talented.
Chester Taylor, Ravens
Taylor has clearly out-performed starter Jamal Lewis this season. Both players are expected to become free agents following the 2005 campaign. Reports out of Baltimore suggest a shake-up—including the firing of head coach Brian Billick—is on the horizon. If a new coach enters the mix, the Ravens might quickly shift into rebuilding mode. They aren’t likely to pay Jamal Lewis big bucks and may choose to ink the more affordable Taylor to a contract. Come next preseason, he could merit a protected roster spot in keeper leagues of all sizes.
Maurice Morris, Seahawks
Much like the situation in Baltimore, both Morris and Shaun Alexander will be free agents this offseason. I would be very surprised if they both returned. Morris has the talent to be a starter in this league and would be an attractive option for a team that can’t afford one of the premier free agent running backs. Don’t be surprised if he’s welcomed with open arms in Green Bay, where former Seattle GM Ted Thompson will be actively evaluating his running back corps with Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport, and Tony Fisher all slated to become free agents.
Dominic Rhodes, Colts
Colts owner Jim Irsay has publicly suggested that resigning Edgerrin James, who is due to become a free agent, is a priority. However, based on the big contracts he’s already given to Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, Irsay’s hands may be tied. If the team can’t hammer out the details on a new contract, James likely wouldn’t hesitate a nanosecond to relocate to a franchise in the southern part of the country. If James flees, Dominic Rhodes would likely be the frontrunner for the Colts starting running back slot.
Ciatrick Fason, Vikings
Onterrio Smith, Vikings
I anticipate an open competition for the starting spot in Minnesota’s backfield next year. Michael Bennett is slated to become a free agent, leaving Mewelde Moore, Ciatrick Fason, and Onterrio Smith to jockey for the job. Dynasty owners that have fallen out of contention for a playoff spot would be wise to acquire Fason or Smith.
Lee Suggs, Browns
Because of his well-document injury history and the solid performance of Reuben Droughns, Lee Suggs isn’t likely to return to the Browns next year. He has shown game-breaking ability when healthy and could compete for a starting job next year. Stick him on your bench now and things could get interesting if he lands in a place like Arizona next summer.
Cedric Houston, Jets
Houston, a rookie out of Tennessee, sits behind the aging Curtis Martin on the depth chart. If the Jets stir the pot and head coach Herm Edwards, who is reportedly interested in the Kansas City head coaching position, leaves or is fired, Martin’s grasp on the starting spot might slip. Acquire Houston because he’s looked strong in limited action and has a 5.3 yards per carry average. He could become a factor next year should the Jets shift into a full-scale rebuilding mode.
Najeh Davenport, Packers
Davenport figures to get plenty of attention on the free agent market from both the Packers as well as other NFL teams. The hard-nosed runner has been a nice change of pace for Ahman Green for the past few years and is capable of becoming a workhorse running back. He would fill Jerome Bettis’ shoes nicely should “the Bus” retire. Other potential destinations include Philly, Arizona, and Minnesota.
Brandon Stokley, Colts
Reggie Wayne will be the top free agent wide receiver in 2006. The Colts probably won’t spend the kind of coin it will take to keep their #2 wideout in the fold. If Wayne flees, Brandon Stokley could slide into the starting lineup. With Peyton Manning under center, Stokley’s fantasy stock would instantly skyrocket. Don’t be surprised if he’s ranked among the top 20 fantasy receivers in preseason 2006.
Koren Robinson, Vikings
After a tumultuous end to his career in Seattle, Robinson has apparently turned his life around and found a new home in Minnesota. The verdict is out on whether Nate Burleson can be a true #1 receiver, but Robinson has already proven he can be that guy. KRob caught 78 passes for 1,200+ yards in 2002. At this point, he’s in the prime of his career. If Daunte Culpepper returns to form next year, Robinson could once again become a top fantasy wide receiver.
Michael Clayton, Buccaneers
Clayton has been branded a bust by most fantasy owners and his value is at an all-time low. If you’re out of the playoff hunt, acquire him now via trade or waiver wire and stock him away for the 2006 season. Clayton has battled injuries and inconsistent QB play this season. Next year is his third year in the NFL, a season that receivers historically take their game to the next level. With six months to rest, Clayton could return for the 2006 season with a bang.
Devery Henderson, Saints
If you subscribe to the third-year WR theory, take a look at New Orleans wide receiver Devery Henderson. Drafted in the second round of the 2004 draft (50th overall), Henderson has shown the occasional flash of speed and talent. He has 13 receptions this season for 232 yards, 33.1 yards per catch. With the Saints on the brink of being dismantled—and potentially relocated—a change to the wide receiver depth chart isn’t out of the question. If it happens, Henderson would be well positioned to take on a bigger role.
Matt Jones, Jaguars
During the 2005 preseason, rumors swirled that Jimmy Smith was on the verge of being released. While it never happened, you have to wonder how much longer Smith will stick around in Jacksonville. If he’s released, Matt Jones would likely be elevated to a starting spot. Head coach Jack Del Rio has been downright giddy at times about the athleticism and play-making ability of Jones. Dynasty league owners would be wise to acquire the former college QB and stash him on their bench.
Kellen Winslow, Browns
Look for Winslow to return in 2006 a humbler, wiser man. He was the target of a lot of criticism—and rightly so—after an offseason motorcycle accident. The Browns will likely start a young quarterback in 2006 and Winslow’s size and speed will make him a nice target. If he’s able to recover from reconstructive knee surgery, Winslow strikes me as the type of person who will do everything in his power to prove the naysayers wrong.