Welcome to another season of the Free Agent Forecast. This weekly column is published every Tuesday morning and aims to identify free agents who will improve your chances of hoisting your league’s trophy at year end.
Given the diverse scoring systems and sizes of fantasy leagues, producing a weekly list of free agents that satisfies the masses can be challenging. For the most part, the column will hone in on players who are available in 40% or more of all fantasy leagues. If you play in a small league (8 teams), chances are there may be better players to pick up than you see listed here. If you play in a large league (16 teams), the majority of the players highlighted may already be on a squad; however, expect to find hidden gems, as well. In addition to scouting players who had breakout performances in the previous week, the Forecast will dig deep to identify players who may surface as fantasy contributors (or even super stars) a week or two down the line.
1. Kurt Warner, Cardinals
Warner got the starting nod over the weekend after many leagues had already held their draft. If he’s lingering on your waiver wire, he’s worth a look—especially if you didn’t land one of the top 4-5 QBs. Warner closed out the 2007 campaign with eight straight multi-TD games, including four three-TD games in the Cards last four games. Folks, those are starter-quality numbers. The only downsides for Warner are that he throws a ton of interceptions and Arizona has Matt Leinart waiting in the wings. Still, if you lack confidence in your starting QB, clear out a roster spot for Warner. Just be sure to have a viable Plan B in case Warner throws one of his patented fourth quarter interceptions and loses his job.
Availability: Owned in ~71% of leagues.
Forecast guidance: With two of the best wideouts in the NFL at his disposal, Warner once again has the potential to be a fantasy point machine.
2. Trent Edwards, Bills
I looked out across the waiver wires in all my leagues Monday night and was frightened at just how thin the depth is at the QB position this year. After the top 20 or so QBs, the talent level is a mish-mash mediocrity. Of all the young QBs who might be available in your league, I’d suggest keeping your eye on Trent Edwards. Guys like JaMarcus Russell and Matt Ryan may eventually emerge, but Edwards has the chops and experience to put up quality stats immediately. New offensive coordinator Turk Schonert comes from West Coast Offense background and promises lots of short passes and dump-offs to RB Marshawn Lynch while taking advantage of Edwards’ live arm in the vertical attack.
Availability: Owned in ~25% of leagues.
Forecast guidance: Of all the young passers available on the majority of waiver wires, I like Edwards’ chances of emerging as a viable fantasy QB.
1. Kenny Watson, Bengals
When the Bengals severed ties with Rudi Johnson, most fantasy owners flocked to presumed starter Chris Perry. There’s a lot to like about Perry. As a former first-round draft pick, he has a ton of untapped potential. But Perry comes with risk, as well. He has a well-documented history of injuries. Even if he puts the myriad ailments behind him, another pitfall that could hinder his fantasy value is poor pass protection—something Perry has reportedly struggled with. Carson Palmer took too many hits in 2007 and the team will do everything it can to protect him. If Perry starts missing blocks, he could get a quick hook. Even if Perry manages to stay healthy and picks up his assignments, Kenny Watson will likely split carries and should be a free agent target in all leagues in which he’s available.
Availability: Owned in ~56% of leagues.
Forecast guidance: Considering Perry’s injury history, acquiring Watson should be a no-brainer.
2. LaMont Jordan, Patriots
Call me crazy. I’ve been high on Jordan all preseason. Based on the lack of attention the fantasy world is paying to him, I guess I’m going solo on this one. I just don’t see Bill Belichick going after a veteran like Jordan and keeping him on the bench. In fact, I think he’ll be one of the top free agent targets next week. The Patriots will face off against the hapless Chiefs in Week 1 and figure to put 35+ points on the board. Look for New England to lean on Jordan in the second half. Plus, with Kevin Faulk suspended for the game, don’t be surprised if Jordan ends the day with a handful of receptions.
Availability: Owned in ~27% of leagues.
Forecast guidance: Jordan should get enough touches on a weekly basis to merit a roster spot.
3. Tim Hightower, Cardinals
Rookie RBs who back up 30-year old veterans with a history that includes reconstructive knee surgery tend to garner lots of attention in fantasy circles. Not so for Hightower, who was largerly overlooked by the masses because of such a deep crop of first-year backs. However, there’s been talk that Hightower could horn in on much of Edgerrin James’ goal line work. That alone would make him roster-worthy, but don’t be surprised if the team finds a way to get their fifth-round draft pick 10-12 touches per game. Get him on your team and don’t be stunned if he out-produces RBs taken well above him.
Availability: Owned in ~18% of leagues.
Forecast guidance: Hightower should get opportunities from the get-go and is is worth watching in all leagues.
4. Justin Forsett, Seahawks
A deep-sleeper special, Forsett ranked second in preseason rushing yardage and earned himself a roster spot in Seattle. He’s currently listed fourth on the depth chart but none of the RBs above him instill confidence. And none of them are going to scare defenses the way a homerun threat like Forsett will. The one common link between Julius Jones, Maurice Morris and T.J. Duckett is that they were all given a chance to be a featured back at one time or another and they all failed. It may take awhile, but don’t be surprised if Forsett starts to earn playing time as the season progresses. By midseason, I predict he’ll overtake Julius Jones and split carries with Morris the rest of the way.
Availability: Owned in ~1% of leagues.
Forecast guidance: Forsett is a great buy-and-hold candidate in deep leagues.
1. Jabar Gaffney, Patriots
Gaffney closed out the 2007 regular season with a touchdown in four of his last five games. Within that five-week stretch, he also posted three games with 80+ yards. That’s solid production for any WR. On the flip-side of the coin, Gaffney also had two games in the final five with just eight yards receiving. If you can stomach the inconsistency, Gaffney is a player worth owning. As New England’s de facto #3 receiver opposite Randy Moss and Wes Welker, Gaffney will always draw single coverage and have a decent chance of burning opponents. However, there’s also a chance he’ll end up turning in a goose egg. Personally, I wouldn’t have any misgivings about going to battle with him as my WR3 in a 12-team league.
Availability: Owned in ~55 of leagues.
Forecast guidance: Gaffney should be owned in all leagues.
2. Kevin Walter, Texans
I’m not entirely clear why so many fantasy owners are overlooking Walter, who’s available in 60% of leagues. Matt Schaub is a capable QB and with defenses rolling coverage to Andre Johnson, Walter should have little difficulty getting open. At the very least, Walter is a quality reserve player. However, if the Texans offense clicks, he could prove to be much more than that.
Availability: Owned in ~40 of leagues.
Forecast guidance: Walter is worth a look in all leagues and should be particularly valuable in points-per-reception leagues.
3. Courtney Taylor, Seahawks
The Seahawks don’t have many healthy receivers left on their roster. Aside from Nate Burleson, Taylor appears to be the best of the bunch. The second-year wideout drew rave reviews from the coaching staff in camp, showcasing good hands and polished route-running. As seems to be the case with all Seahawks wideouts, the question surrounding Taylor is whether or not he can stay healthy.
Availability: Owned in ~2 of leagues.
Forecast guidance: Taylor could out-pace Nate Burleson and become Seattle’s top receiver; he’s worth a look in all leagues.
4. Muhsin Muhammad, Panthers
The 2008 season will be a homecoming of sorts for Muhammad who returns to Carolina after a dismal stint with the Bears. Chicago is “where receivers go to die” according to Muhammad. He’ll get a chance to prove his futility over the last three years was a product of his environment not his age. With Steve Smith serving a team-enforced two-game suspension, the Panthers are no doubt hoping Muhammad can pick up where he left off his career with the team, when he caught 93 balls for 1,453 yards in 2004. Muhammad is a nice early-season acquisition, but could also have some staying power if he continues to out-play the oft-injured D.J. Hackett.
Availability: Owned in ~39 of leagues.
Forecast guidance: Muhammad should provide nice depth in leagues of all sizes and scoring systems.
5. Sidney Rice, Vikings
If Rice played on any other team (or had any other QB chucking him the ball), I bet he’d be one of the hottest sleepers in fantasy football. Despite the shortcomings at QB, the former South Carolina Gamecock has value. In fact, Rice has an excellent chance to be Minnesota’s top receiver in 2008. Bernard Berrian was supposed to be the #1 WR, but he’s battling a turf toe injury that could linger for weeks. Rice is primed to pick up the slack starting in Week 1 against the Packers. Last year, he posted a career-best six receptions against Green Bay for 75 yards and a touchdown. I won’t be shocked if he slips behind the coverage and catches another long score against the Packers aging cornerbacks.
Availability: Owned in ~62 of leagues.
Forecast guidance: If Rice blows up against the Packers, it could be a harbinger of things to come.
6. Ruvell Martin, Packers
Although this pick is primarily intended for owners in leagues with 16+ teams and/or leagues with supremely deep rosters, any owner who isn’t 100% satisfied with his/her WR corps might want to keep Ruvell Martin on the radar. The tables are set for Martin to turn in a positive stat line in Week 1. James Jones is nursing a knee sprain and will miss at least a few weeks of action, which means Martin will be the third wideout opposite starters Donald Driver and Greg Jennings. Green Bay squares off against Minnesota in an NFC North grudge match. If the 2007 defensive trends hold up, the Vikings will field one of the better run defenses and one of the worst pass defenses in 2008. Look for the Packers to attempt 40+ passes in this game, and don’t be shocked if Martin puts up 80+ yards and a possible score.
Availability: Owned in ~0 of leagues.
Forecast guidance: Martin could be a sneaky pickup if Aaron Rodgers pans out as a starter.
1. Dustin Keller, Jets
Keller would never be mistaken for a blocking tight end. This kid is receiver through and through. When he first set foot on the Purdue campus he was 185 lbs. and lined up as a wideout. He eventually bulked up to his current size but can still motor. Look for the Jets to use him much more frequently than they ever did with Chris Baker. In fact, don’t be surprised if the Jets line him up in the slot or even split him wide. Think Dallas Clark. Given Keller’s potential to be a pass-catching TE in every sense of the word, he’s a guy worth keeping your eye on.
Availability: Owned in ~42 of leagues.
Forecast guidance: Keller could become a favorite red-zone target of Brett Favre and merits consideration in deep leagues.
DEFENSE / SPECIAL TEAMS
1. Houston Texans
For the first time in, well, forever, the Texans have a reason to be optimistic about their defense. And fantasy owners have a reason to pay attention. The team has an up-and-coming defensive core that includes Mario Williams, Amobi Okoye and DeMeco Ryans. If these players gel all at once and the defensive line can pressure the QB without blitzing, it will help the team overcome some deficiencies in the secondary. Should the squad you selected as your team defense stumble out of the gate, consider grabbing the Texans, who will likely rank among the top 5-10 teams in sacks.
Availability: Owned in ~23 of leagues.
Forecast guidance: The Texans are a good sleeper defense for owners in leagues with 12 or more teams.