In 2006, the New Orleans Saints took the NFL by storm en route to a 10-6 record and an NFC South Division title. The team’s offense was particularly potent, propelled by rookie draft picks like Reggie Bush and Marques Colston, free agent acquisitions like Drew Brees, veterans including Deuce McAllister and Joe Horn, and a new head coach with a more aggressive game plan.
Fantasy owners who were paying attention in the preseason realized there might be the potential for greatness down on the bayou and adjusted their cheatsheets accordingly. The payoff was huge with 7-8 regular fantasy contributors coming from the Saints offense – many of whom were available late in most fantasy drafts.
Identifying NFL offenses that are on the brink of experiencing a breakout season is an excellent way to improve your fantasy draft. When an offense is clicks, as was the case with the Saints last year, it can be a fantasy goldmine.
Which teams have made all the right moves this offseason and are poised for a big jump in production? Here are three to watch:
No, seriously . . . this time they’re for real. It seems like every year about now the Lions have lofty expectations only to fall short (way short) when the cleats meet the turf. Why will 2007 be any different?
For starters, the team will be working in its second year under the leadership of offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Martz has added new weapons to his arsenal, including RB Tatum Bell and rookie WR Calvin Johnson. Both players are homerun threats that will cause all sorts of problems for opposing defenses. The team also added veteran depth on the offensive line, which should help keep QB Jon Kitna off his backside.
From a fantasy perspective, the team’s receiving unit is likely to yield the best players. Johnson is a phenom and has the talent and attitude to be a star from Day 1. Drafting rookie wide receivers has been a bit of a crapshoot historically, but in recent seasons wideouts have been producing at a higher level in their first year. Don’t be afraid to reach for Johnson above known veterans like Darrell Jackson or Isaac Bruce. On the opposite side, Roy Williams is coming off his best year as a pro. He’s a bona fide #1 fantasy wideout who is in the prime of his career. Finally, don’t overlook Mike Furrey. Furrey caught 98 balls last season and will continue to figure prominently in Martz’s offense, which features multi-receiver sets on most downs. At worst, Furrey will be a fine #4 or #5 wideout who you can count on for the bye week stretch.
While there are big questions in the backfield, the Lions have enough depth to keep defenses on their heels. Kevin Jones was having a Pro Bowl season before he messed up his foot. His value will be hard to gauge until he tests it out in preseason action. Jones is definitely worth a mid-round gamble if it looks like he’ll be ready to go in Week 1. Tatum Bell and TJ Duckett were brought in as insurance and will spell Jones as needed. If you pick Jones, be sure to grab Bell as a handcuff. Duckett may have value in TD-only leagues.
At QB, Jon Kitna seems to be everyone’s favorite fantasy sleeper. The journeyman QB certainly isn’t lacking confidence. He predicted last month that the Lions would win at least 10 games. With the team’s poor defense, I don’t see it happening. However, Kitna has the potential to be a good or even great fantasy QB if the offensive line gels. He has talent around him. He plays in a great offensive scheme. And the Lions will be playing from behind on most weeks.
Bottom line: Look to the WR corps for the most potential. Tap the RB and QB positions in the mid-rounds for players who could surprise. Avoid all the TEs.
Draft Day Outlook
Roy Williams – Stud WR who may out-produce guys taken a round or two earlier.
Calvin Johnson – A risky #2 wideout but a fabulous #3.
Kevin Jones – His value will climb or drop based on how he looks in training camp.
Jon Kitna – Should be a viable #1 QB but don’t reach too high.
Mike Furrey – A decent backup WR.
Tatum Bell – The must-have handcuff for Jones owners.
TJ Duckett – Might be worthy of a roster spot in TD-only leagues.
Houston’s biggest offseason acquisition was at the NFL’s most important position: quarterback. The Texans scored Matt Schaub from the Falcons in a trade. Whereas former starter David Carr was indecisive, Schaub possesses a quick release and will make his reads more confidently. Many will point to Houston’s offensive line as its Achilles heel. But Schaub’s pocket presence should help offset deficiencies in that area. Besides, my hunch is that the OL was too often the scapegoat on a team crippled by Carr, who progressed through his reads with the urgency of a diseased snail.
The Texans also snagged free agent Ahman Green. Green quietly had a nice 2006 season for the Packers, posting over 1,300 total yards despite missing two games. He’ll benefit from working under offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, who called the shots during Green’s heyday with the Pack. Sherman is expected to mix the power running game he used in Green Bay with the zone blocking scheme, which head coach Gary Kubiak favors. It’s an offense that fits Green’s style perfectly. Ron Dayne was surprisingly effective late in 2006, but won’t have much value unless Green goes down.
In the passing game, Andre Johnson is the team’s most talented player. He led the NFL in receptions last year with 104. To become an elite fantasy player though, he’ll need to improve his yardage (1,147) and touchdowns (5). With Schaub under center, I expect him to do just that. The Texans let Eric Moulds go, which opens a glaring hole at the #2 WR position. The team has some raw talent at the position, including rookie Jacoby Jones, a late-round draft pick who some are billing as the next Marques Colston. More likely, the team will seek production in the passing game from Ahman Green, who caught 46 passes in 2006, and second-year TE Owen Daniels. Daniels is an intriguing sleeper pick. He caught five TDs last season and has good upside because Kubiak and Sherman have both historically gotten production from the TE position.
Bottom line: Expect all of the key skill position players, including Schaub, Green, Johnson, and Daniels, to out-perform their average draft positions.
Draft Day Outlook
Andre Johnson – Poised to become a top five WR with Schaub at the helm.
Ahman Green – Still has some gas in the tank. An okay RB2, outstanding RB3.
Matt Schaub – Snag him late as your backup, knowing he might be your starter by Week 6.
Owen Daniels – A good sleeper pick. Draft him in the last 2-3 rounds and look for surprising TD output.
Ron Dayne – Nothing more than a handcuff to Green.
Jacoby Jones, Andre Davis, Kevin Walter and Bethel Johnson – All long-shots, but see who emerges as WR2 during training camp.
New England Patriots
It all starts with Tom Brady. That Brady is one of the NFL’s top QBs goes without saying. However, the talent around him got significantly better this offseason and the Patriots offense has gone from good to great seemingly overnight. With a new supporting cast, Brady should be the second QB taken in nearly every draft.
While I’m not buying into the Randy Moss hype wholeheartedly, there’s no denying that Moss adds a dimension to New England’s offense that has been missing. Brady is the best QB Moss has ever had throwing to him, and that’s a scary thought. What’s even scarier is that Moss has put on a happy face and is doing his part to be a team player. Were he in his prime, I think you could go ahead and pencil Moss in for 1,300 yards and 15 TDs. Now I think you’re looking at more like 1,000 and 10. That’s better production than any Pats WR this decade, but maybe not good enough to be your #1 WR. As if the Moss acquisition weren’t enough, New England also snagged free agent speedster Donte Stallworth and gutty possession receiver Wes Welker. Stallworth should be streaky and have enough big games to be a viable #3 WR. Welker gives Brady a sure-handed target and is worth a look in the late rounds particularly in leagues that give points for receptions.
Tight end Ben Watson has shown flashes of potential throughout his three-year career. With the departure of Daniel Graham, Watson becomes the undisputed leader at the TE position. However, the added targets at WR mean he still might struggle with bouts of inconsistency.
At RB, the team let veteran Corey Dillon walk, showing faith in second-year pro Laurence Maroney. Maroney is a boom or bust pick. He has the speed and elusiveness to be a stud RB, but can he stay healthy? Maroney underwent offseason surgery to repair a shoulder injury. The Patriots have a cloak-and-dagger method of disclosing injuries, so we may never know the extent of the damage. The team didn’t really address the backup RB position in the offeseason, which is a good sign. Even so, see who wins the #2 RB gig. Guys like Kevin Faulk and Heath Evans have had big games while filling in for an injured Dillon in the past.
Bottom line: The Patriots offense might not be on par with Indianapolis or San Diego, but there are plenty of studs to be had here.
Draft Day Outlook
Tom Brady – This should be the year he throws for 30 TDs.
Laurence Maroney – I like him better as a RB2 than a RB1.
Randy Moss – Avoid reaching too high, but Moss is a more-than-capable WR2.
Ben Watson – A viable starting TE, but he might frustrate you with an occasional goose egg.
Donte Stallworth – Don’t overlook him in the mid rounds when you need a third or fourth wideout.
Wes Welker – Worth a late pick in points-per-reception (PPR) leagues.
Stephen Gostkowski – Offensive improvements make him a viable kicker.
Kevin Faulk – Has some late-round value in PPR leagues.