Depth charts can be deceiving. Just because a player is listed as the “starter” doesn’t always mean he’s going to be his team’s best player at the position. Case in point: Marion Barber III. For the past two seasons he had been entrenched as the backup to starter Julius Jones. Who was the most valuable Dallas RB from a fantasy perspective? Hands down and without a doubt it was Barber.
Study those depth charts, but study them with a skeptical eye. Try to identify opportunities that set the stage for a backup to see an increase in playing time. In many cases, it doesn’t have to be a lot of playing time. It could be a part-time role that leads to a lot of fantasy points. For example, a RB could be a goal-line specialist or a third-down back and end up outscoring the primary ball-carrier. A slot wide receiver might only score a handful of touchdowns but could be the go-to, clutch possession receiver and lead his team in receptions. Other scenarios might lead to a young player overtaking an aged veteran as his team’s primary weapon—like Greg Jennings did in 2007.
What follows are 10 players who are currently not considered to be the best weapon on their team at their respective position. Despite their perceived secondary roles, these players could equal or out-produce the higher-profile athletes on the team.
1. Sammy Morris, RB, Patriots
Before he went down with a season-ending chest injury in 2007, Morris was New England’s leading rusher and on his way to a 1,000+ yard season. From Weeks 2-5, he posted four straight quality fantasy performances—including three touchdowns and two 100-yard games. Morris’ abbreviated season has many fantasy owners overlooking him in 2008. Considering the firepower on New England’s offense, that’s a dangerous mistake. Should Morris return to form during training camp (and reports indicate he’s on his way to a full recovery), he could once again assume the bulk of the touches. Yes, the team still has Laurence Maroney. Yes, they’ve talked about signing Detroit castoff Kevin Jones. But both Maroney and Jones have their own heath issues. Neither player has been able to make it through a full season as a workhorse RB without getting hurt. Don’t count Morris out. He’s a favorite of the coaching staff and excels in pass protection—something Tom Brady will appreciate after getting clobbered in the Super Bowl. I expect Morris to share carries and be the team’s most productive RB.
2. Leon Washington, RB, Jets
A side-by-side comparison of the first two years of the respective NFL careers of Leon Washington and Brian Westbrook reveals some interesting similarities. Both had to earn their respect, Westbrook selected in the third round by the Eagles and Washington falling to the fourth round. Due to their small stature, neither player was considered an “every-down” back at the beginning of their careers. Westbrook measures up at 5-10 203 lbs.; Washington checks in at 5-8 202 lbs. Westbrook had 163 carries in his first two seasons; Washington had 222. Both averaged over 4.5 yards per carry. Westbrook started 11 games in his first two years; Washington started 12. In his third season, Westbrook finally made the leap to prominence, collecting 250 touches and over 1,500 yards of offense. Can Washington make a similar leap in his third season? All that’s standing in his way is Thomas Jones, who will be 30 years old this season and who averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in 2007. I expect Washington and Jones to split the carries in 2008—with Washington again following in the footsteps of Westbrook and tallying about 225 touches.
3. Fred Taylor, RB, Jaguars
Technically, Taylor is the starting running back for the Jags, so maybe he shouldn’t be on this list. However, in fantasy circles, owners have all but anointed Maurice Jones-Drew as Jacksonville’s top ball carrier. Most mock drafts I’ve seen have Jones-Drew going in the second round while Taylor falls to the seventh or eighth round. Absurd. Taylor might be over the hill, but he was arguably the most productive fantasy running back in the entire league during the month of December. Taylor, who has shed the moniker “Fragile Fred”, averaged an NFL-best 123.5 rushing yards per game over the final month, including five straight games with over 100 yards. Add in the intangibles—Taylor’s leadership and experience—and the bottom line is he’s not going away. Snag him in the middle rounds of your draft and you won’t be sorry when he again out-produces Jones-Drew.
4. Anthony Gonzalez, WR, Colts
During the 2007 regular season, Marvin Harrison made headlines for his mysterious knee injury. During the offseason, Harrison made headlines of a different kind. There are still questions surrounding his connection to a Philadelphia shooting. His lingering injury and the legal troubles—along with his age—have many doubting whether Harrison can return to form. If he’s healthy enough to take the field, one would expect him to be in the starting lineup. Even if he is, look for Harrison to get out-produced by second-year wideout Anthony Gonzalez. Gonzalez tore it up over the final month and a half of the season, posting two 100+ yard games and three scores. He could eclipse Harrison in fantasy points this season and may end up closer to Reggie Wayne than most expect.
5. Jason Avant, WR, Eagles
Avant had a terrific preseason in 2007 but ended up posting pedestrian numbers when it mattered. His struggles can be attributed to a couple factors. First, Donovan McNabb battled inaccuracy for most of the season. Second, Avant had an undisclosed sports hernia injury that he tried to play through. Looking ahead to this season, a now healthy Avant could be poised for a breakout performance in this his third year. With McNabb a couple years removed from an ACL injury, his accuracy and mobility should return. In order to see an increase in playing time and pass targets, Avant only need beat out the likes of Reggie Brown and Kevin Curtis. Brown has never lived up to expectations and likely never will. Curtis, led the team in most receiving categories last year, but is probably better situated to be a slot-type receiver. Avant is fearless across the middle of the field and is exactly the kind of possession target the Eagles need. Expect Brown to be looking over his shoulder during training camp. He may win out, but by season’s end it’s entirely possible that Avant leads all Philadelphia wideouts in receptions.
6. Kenny Watson, RB, Bengals
Rudi Johnson looks like he could be another in a long line of power running backs that haven’t been able to stay healthy because of their punishing running style. Johnson was a force from 2004-2006, putting up three straight seasons with 1,300+ yards rushing. However, he broke down last season and battled a hamstring injury for most of the year. Even when he was healthy, Johnson looked like a shadow of his former self. He averaged just 2.9 yards per carry. When Johnson hit the injury report midway through the season, backup Kenny Watson gave the team a lift and was productive in both the running and passing attacks. He ended the season with 1,137 all-purpose yards and seven touchdowns. The Bengals thought so highly of Watson’s performance last year that they did little to address the backfield during the offseason. As the incumbent, Johnson will certainly open the 2008 campaign as Cincinnati’s starter, but don’t be surprised if Watson cuts into his playing time and ends up as the team’s most productive back.
7. Sidney Rice, WR, Vikings
The Vikings poached Bernard Berrian from the Bears with the hopes that he’d give their team a viable number one receiver. Berrian is capable of being that guy, but don’t be surprised if Sidney Rice bursts onto the scene in his second year, much like Green Bay’s Greg Jennings did in 2007. Rice led all Minnesota players in receiving touchdowns last season with four. If QB Tarvaris Jackson continues to progress, Rice could double that output this year. The guy has incredible body control and has showcased a knack for making difficult catches look routine. When you consider Rice’s production in 2007 then realize that he only played two years of college ball—leaving after his sophomore year—you can’t help but get excited about his potential now that he has another year of experience under his belt. Look for him to out-produce Berrian and Bobby Wade in 2008.
8. Brandon Jackson, RB, Packers
The Packers have had a different leading rusher for each of the past three years (Ahman Green, Samkon Gado, and Ryan Grant). Like Gado before him, Grant had a meteoric rise from waiver wire unknown to super stud in the fantasy community. I can’t take anything away from Grant’s 2007 season. He racked up 956 rushing yards despite starting only seven games. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility the Grant continues to run roughshod over the league. However, he’s not happy with his contract and the Packers did invest a second-round draft pick in Brandon Jackson. Jackson has reportedly been sharp in offseason workouts and added 10-15 pounds of muscle. While he’s a long-shot to overtake Grant, keep your eye on Jackson during the preseason. If he’s productive and secures the backup spot, take a late-round flier on him. The Green Bay backfield has been a goldmine for fantasy points lately and no single ball-carrier has been able to maintain a stranglehold on the starting position during Mike McCarthy’s reign as head coach.
9. Bryant Johnson, WR, 49ers
Finally out from under the shadows of Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, sixth-year wideout Bryant Johnson has the opportunity to make a name for himself in San Francisco. The 49ers inked two free agent receivers to contracts during the offseason—Johnson and Isaac Bruce. Bruce is a known commodity, who will likely be on the Hall of Fame ballot someday. Since he will be reunited with OC Mike Martz, Bruce figures to be the first San Francisco receiver taken in fantasy drafts as delusional owners hearken back to the hey-day of the “Greatest Show on Turf”. But Bruce’s career is winding down and Johnson is in his prime. If Martz can coax a bit of talent out of QB Alex Smith, Johnson has an excellent chance to realize the potential that Arizona saw when they spent a first-round pick on him. Target Johnson late in your draft with the hopes that he out-produces Bruce and Arnaz Battle.
10. Devin Hester, WR, Bears
The Bears lost Muhsin Muhammad and Bernard Berrian to free agency, which has left the team with a major shortage of talent in the receiving game. Come to think of it the Bears have a shortage of talent at just about every key offensive position. The lack of playmakers will open the door for return specialist Devin Hester to have a significant role in the passing game. While I don’t expect him to win a spot in the starting lineup, he very likely could end the year as the team’s top-scoring wideout. Look for him to earn consistent looks in the vertical attack and finish the season with about seven receiving touchdowns, plus a handful in the return game. That’ll be good enough to make him a spot starter in any fantasy league and an excellent player to have during the bye weeks.