While painful as a pop hit from 80’s singer Debbie Gibson, ‘electric youth’ aptly applies to the people that power fantasy football year after year – energetic new players whose fresh blood is literally the lifeline for NFL clubs. This constant youth movement is particularly important in keeper leagues, where a fine b balanced must be maintained between production and age.
If you hold on to your aging start too long, eventually you will suffer for it. Take Curtis Martin for instance. He had been declining for two years in 2002 and 2003. In 2004 he enjoyed a career year, which was truly and anomaly, especially for a running back his age. This year the aberration was corrected. He started much more slowly, and finally succumbed to a nagging knee injury, ending his season.
Below is a list of the top 25 fantasy players who will be 25 years of age or younger at the start of 2006. You should never drop a superstar in his prime for one of these players, but if your team needs and infusion of youth and all other factors are equal, these are the guys to take with you into the new year.
Very few signal callers at this age are worth using as a starter. More than any other position in football, this job simply requires a long learning curve, and a lot of time to mature. Here are three players though that might be a surprise boon for owners willing to take a little risk in 2006.
Eli Manning – Though Manning has made plenty of mistakes this year, he has come along very quickly as a quarterback who can put up fantasy points. More importantly, he is a leader, so his array of passing targets will work hard for him now and in the future.
Kyle Boller – Boller played his way back into the Ravens’ long term plans with a few huge late-season games. He took flight with Todd Heap and rookie Mark Clayton and could be poised to fly up the quarterback charts next season.
Ben Roethlisberger – Although the Steelers are known as a run and defense outfit, Roethlisberger has the firepower to be a fantasy factor. His consistency makes him an attractive option for owners with a lot of talent at other positions.
There are a number of your backs in the league ready to assume a starting slot on someone’s roster. In contrast to quarterbacks, this position can be a seamless transition from college to professional due to the nature of the assignment.
Clinton Portis – It seems like he has been around forever already, but Portis is still a young back. The Redskins have recently woven a tapestry of their own on offense, and Portis, who finished third in the league in rushing yards, is a robust part of that design.
Willis McGahee – McGahee would be wise to stop beating his chest with and start beating run defenses. As long as the Bills address their offensive line problems in the draft or in free agency, expect McGahee to have a comeback year in 2006.
Steven Jackson – Jackson is one of those underrated fantasy performers, the kind who complements a strong stable of starters and comes up big when necessary. He is the immediate future for the Rams, so he will remain busy.
Kevin Jones – The new potent Detroit offense never materialized, and Jones was no exception. Don’t let that keep you from keeping him, however. Jones is a powerful back who simply needs some help on offense.
Julius Jones – Julius waited until the end of the season to post the monster games many owners were expecting from him all along. His backup, Marion Barber III, looked pretty good in spot duty, but Parcells knows game-breaking ability when he sees it.
Cadillac Williams – Williams was able to break out at the start of the season with a record for rookie rushers. The high carry total led to mid-season injury slump, but he closed strong, will garner rookie of the year honors and will be a strong part of Gruden’s offense for years to come.
Ronnie Brown – Brown failed to cement himself as the exclusive starter for the Dolphins, but did look good in the middle of the year. Because Ricky Williams played so well at the tail end of the season, Brown’s development depends on what the team decides to do with Williams.
Cedric Benson – Thomas Jones put forth a fantastic effort for the Bears this season, which along with an injury, kept Benson on the sidelines as a rookie. Chicago can’t help but give Benson a shot to break through next year though. It tends to happen for former first-round picks.
Samkon Gado – Gado must overcome both a blown medial collateral ligament and the difficulty of starting ahead of both Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport next year, both of whom have looked good when they themselves are healthy. Gado looked great though for a few games, and is likely up to the challenge.
Mewelde Moore – No more doghouse for Moore. Head coach Mike Tice is out, and that means Moore should be the starter next season. He has been productive when he is in the game.
J.J. Arrington – Arrington did little as a rookie, but the Cardinals had no line in front of him. Unless they draft a running back again, Arrington will be given another shot to make something of himself. He has the speed and moves to make it work.
Greg Jones – Jones played well while Fred Taylor nursed more injuries. Eventually Taylor is going to go down for the count, and Jones should pick up the slack full time.
Receivers often take three or more years to really hit their stride, so some of these young guys are inconsistent. However they do represent the players at the position coming into their prime soon, and who have the talent to leap up the rankings as early as next season.
Larry Fitzgerald – Fitzgerald made it a cardinal sin to ignore him on defense this season He is superb at the goal line because his large size and strong hands enable him to bully defensive backs.
Roy Williams – There is not much chance that Detroit can repeat such ineptness on offense next season, and Williams is the only Lions receiver worth a fantasy selection right now. He can at times throw his weight around in a big way. Expect more of it next year.
Lee Evans – J.P. Losman locks onto him as a target, and Evans has the speed to get by safeties coming over to help on a deep pass. If he can start playing well at the beginning of a season, instead of in the middle, he will post great statistics.
Braylon Edwards – Edwards flashed his skills just before he got injured this year. Since Antonio Bryant failed to establish himself as the top starter, expect Edwards to come on strong in year two.
Mark Clayton – After a rookie year washout for fantasy owners, Clayton posted a few great games with Boller. He has the sure hands, quick feet and nifty moves to slice through defenses like a Santana Moss or Steve Smith.
Brandon Lloyd – Alex Smith will be throwing touchdowns in his career, and a lot of them are going to end up going to playmaker Lloyd. He makes the circus catch look routine, but must be more consistent with the routine catch if he wants to master the big top.
Tight ends can come in and dominate for years. Gonzalez recently relinquished his reign to Antonio Gates, but there has been a fantasy surge at this position, with a number of young players worth keeping as starters.
Chris Cooley – Cooley ran hot and cold at times this year, but his three-touchdown performance helped place him firmly among the list of tight ends that owners want to have at the position. He is an integral part of the Redskins passing attack.
Jason Witten – Witten went about his business to less fanfare this season, but was a steady slot producer, and can be counted on for something every time out, especially with Bledsoe as a quarterback and Parcells as coach.
Heath Miller – Unless the Steelers select a wide receiver high in the draft this year, Roethlisberger will begin to rely on Miller more for first-down production. He is likely to become a threat like Todd Heap.
Ben Troupe – Although Erron Kinney got the catches and yards as a Titans tight end, Troupe is younger, has more explosive ability and was drafted to develop into a special player.
Hire Joe Levit for corporate or client appreciation events at fantasyfootballspeaker.com. His fantasy football columns appear on SI.com and thehuddle.com. Joe, a PFWA and FSWA member, writes about the NFL for patriotsinsider.com and is a fantasy football analyst on radio. He is the creator of the Sleeper League and FF Hold ‘em League concepts.