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FANTASY FOOTBALL WEEKLY FEATURES

Free Agent Forecast - Week 1
Paul Sandy
September 5, 2006

Some leagues do not allow roster transactions until after Week 1. Others open the free agent market immediately following the draft. In either case, it pays to know who’s available. Here are a handful of players that have value today or could emerge as soon as this week. Make a push to acquire them now or, at the very least, monitor their performances this weekend.

QUARTERBACKS

1. Matt Leinart, Cardinals

Why should you want any part of a rookie QB? A few reasons: 1) Leinart backs up the ever-fragile Kurt Warner who’s playing behind a mediocre offensive line. 2) The Cardinals have the top young wide receiving corps in the league and they play in an offense geared toward the pass. 3) Dennis Green is on the hot seat and probably needs to have his team in contention for the playoffs to keep his job next year. He’ll give Warner the quick hook if the team struggles out of the gate. Get the former Heisman Trophy winner now while the gettings good—especially if you’re counting on Warner as your starter.

RUNNING BACKS

1. Ladell Betts, Redskins

When the Redskins traded for TJ Duckett, a lot of fantasy owners drafted assuming he’d become the backup to Clinton Portis. In fact, on one popular league management site, Duckett is owned in 80% of leagues. The actual backup is Betts, who is owned in just 23% of leagues. That’s shocking. Is Betts available in your league? If so, snatch him off your waiver wire ASAP. Should Portis sit in Week 1, Betts will get the bulk of the carries against the Vikings on Monday in front of a national audience. After that, it won’t be long before the secret is out.

2. Justin Griffith, Falcons

With Duckett out of the picture in Atlanta, Warrick Dunn is slated to have more opportunities to carry the ball at the goal line. Don’t expect that plan to last. Head coach Jim Mora may start the season with Dunn as his short yardage back, but look for the team to quickly turn to Plan B. That figures to be veteran fullback Justin Griffith. While Griffith carries little value in a yardage-oriented league, he certainly deserves a spot in leagues geared more toward touchdowns. He’s also a name to keep in your back pocket during the bye week stretch when your options at running back get a little lean.

WIDE RECEIVERS

1. Greg Jennings, Packers

All signs point to another dismal season for the Packers. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any fantasy gems on their roster. On the contrary, Green Bay figures to be involved in plenty of shootouts this year and that could mean solid production from the receivers. While Donald Driver has become a household name in fantasy circles, another guy to keep you eye on is rookie Greg Jennings. The Packers drafted him in the second round and he impressed the coaching staff enough to earn the starting spot. In fact, he led the NFL in receiving yardage this preseason. Look for Jennings to lead all rookie wideouts in 2006. If he’s available in your league, grab him even if he has a poor showing against the stingy Bears in Week 1.

2. Troy Brown and Reche Caldwell, Patriots

The New England Patriots threw for third-most passing yardage (4,322) in the NFL in 2005. Yet, oddly enough, New England’s starting wideouts went undrafted in the majority of fantasy leagues. With Deion Branch mired in an ugly contract dispute, veterans Troy Brown and free agent acquisition Reche Caldwell will hold down the fort. Most fantasy pundits figure the team’s tight ends (Ben Watson and Daniel Graham) will benefit the most while Brach is absent, but Tom Brady has a knack for getting a lot out of his receivers. Look for Brown and Caldwell to post some nice (though probably inconsistent) stats over the first several weeks of the season.

4. Marques Colston, Saints

Many chalk up the release of New Orleans wideout Donte Stallworth to an attitude clash with new head coach Sean Payton. However, those who followed the Saints training camp know that the performance of rookie Marques Colston made Stallworth expendable. Many scouts had projected the 6-4, 223 lbs. Colston as a tight end coming into the NFL draft, but the Saints picked him as a receiver. He could quickly develop into a big redzone target for Drew Brees, who frequently looked to Antonio Gates in that part of the field while the two played together in San Diego. 

5. Arnaz Battle, 49ers

Fearless prediction: Arnaz Battle not Antonio Bryant will lead the 49ers in receiving yardage this season. Battle has some brand recognition among fantasy owners. He opened up the 2005 season with two touchdown receptions in the first three games. While Bryant has gotten more attention this preseason, Battle has been working with QB Alex Smith longer and is a more trusted target. He was bitten by the injury bug too often last season, but in the games he played, he averaged just under 50 yards. Considering the state of San Francisco’s passing attack last year, that’s not too shabby. Alex Smith moved the offense fairly well during the preseason, so don’t dismiss Battle outright. In addition to receiving yardage, the former Notre Dame QB may even get you gravy points on an occasional trick play where the 49ers deploy his passing skills.

6. Corey Bradford, Lions

In recent years, the Lions have had their share of high-profile wide receivers. So far, none have lived up to the hype (or the high draft picks required to land them). Perhaps Mike Martz — a.k.a. the mad scientist — can inject new life into a miserable offense. If he does, Corey Bradford could be a surprise fantasy contributor in 2006. Detroit acquired him via free agency from Houston, and Bradford promptly climbed above former first-rounders Mike Williams and Charles Rogers on the depth chart. Should the Lions offense get rolling, Bradford could be good for 850 yards and six scores as he draws single coverage opposite Roy Williams.

TIGHT ENDS

1. Itula Mili, Seahawks

Seahakws starting TE Jerramy Stevens is expected to miss the first five weeks of the season with a torn meniscus in his left knee. The injury opens a window of opportunity for veteran backup Itula Mili. Coincidentally, Mili is battling a knee sprain of his own. He is expected to practice this week and play in the opener however. Considering the uncertainty surrounding WR Darrell Jackson who didn’t play at all during the preseason, Seattle is a bit shorthanded on pass catchers. Mili is a big redzone presence. Look for him to make some noise over the first several weeks of the season if he can recover quickly from his knee sprain.