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Fantasy Sleepers

   by ASA - 07/27/2007

Training camps around the NFL kick off this weekend, which means it’s also time to prepare your cheat sheets for your upcoming fantasy football draft.

Everybody knows about fantasy studs like LaDainian Tomlinson, Peyton Manning and Chad Johnson. It’s often those late-round selections, though, that can ultimately make the difference between a fourth-place finish and first-place bragging rights.

Players such as Frank Gore, Maurice Jones-Drew and Marques Colston enjoyed breakout seasons last year despite often lasting until well past the 10th round, if not longer. A Gore, Jones-Drew or Colston emerges every year to push fantasy teams over the edge and past the competition. Here is this year’s bunch:

Jay Cutler, Denver Broncos: Vince Young is the reigning rookie of the year. Matt Leinart attends all of the hot Hollywood parties. But fellow 2006 first-round draft pick Cutler has the best opportunity of the three to have a huge second season. The starting gig in Denver is all Cutler’s this year after closing the 2006 season with five strong outings. He threw for more than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns with a 59.1 completion percentage in just five contests last year. His 88.5 quarterback rating would have placed him ninth in the NFL – one spot ahead of Tom Brady – if he had had enough attempts. A strong supporting cast that includes a stellar running game and a solid receiving corps will combine with an offseason of on-the-job training to produce a great sophomore campaign for Cutler.

Other options
Jon Kitna, Detroit Lions: A bevy of wide receivers with Mike Martz behind the curtain should lead to a huge season for Kitna. Whether or not that results in the 10-win season that Kitna has predicted is another story.

Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers: The former first overall draft pick showed steady improvement in his second season and should continue to develop in his third year.

Running Back
DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers: It’s often wise to avoid potential running back platoons as it subtracts from production totals. But it’s a safe bet that sophomore back Williams will unseat incumbent DeShaun Foster, who is always an injury risk, this season. Williams went threw his ups and downs during his rookie year but his ability to break the big run and catch the ball out of the backfield make him a better option for the Panthers. Carolina is implementing the zone-blocking scheme this season, which fits Williams’ running style to perfection while the old scheme was better suited for Foster. Williams tallied 74 rushing yards on just 13 carries against Minnesota’s top-ranked run defense last season and there will more where that came from this year.

Other options
Jerious Norwood, Atlanta Falcons: Warrick Dunn is aging quickly and the shift to a power running attack better suits Norwood, who averaged 6.4 yards per carry in his rookie season.

Joseph Addai, Indianapolis Colts: Addai is more of a known commodity but with Dominic Rhodes now in Oakland, Addai should receive even more touches this season, possibly matching Edgerrin James’ Indianapolis production.

Wide Receiver
Reggie Brown, Philadelphia Eagles: Aside from TO’s brief stay in Philly, Eagles fans have seen nary a Pro Bowl wideout come through over the years. Brown may not reach Pro Bowl status this season but he is more than capable of stepping up as a viable No. 1 option for Donovan McNabb. Brown led the Eagles in receiving yards and touchdowns last year and topped all Eagle wideouts with 46 catches. He is also one of the better deep threats in football after averaging 17.7 yards per catch a year ago. A lot of Brown’s success will be tied to McNabb’s health but if the injury prone quarterback stays on the field, it will result in a quality season for Brown.

Other options
D.J. Hackett, Seattle Seahawks: The departure of Darrell Jackson opens the door for Hackett to step into a starting role in Seattle. Hackett developed a solid rapport with Matt Hasselbeck at the end of the season, catching 19 balls for 291 yards over the final four games.

Tight End
Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers: An early-season injury derailed the development of Davis but extensive offseason work with quarterback Alex Smith could lead to a big season for the second-year tight end. Davis provides matchup problems like few other tight ends as he blends speed and power into one potentially dominating package. He came on in the last quarter of last season after returning from his injury, hauling in 13 passes for 196 yards and two scores. Smith doesn’t have the most reliable receiving options on the outside so you can expect his relationship with Davis to flourish as the season progresses.

Other options
Randy McMichael, St. Louis Rams: McMichael left Miami for St. Louis in what could be one of the offseason’s best under-the-radar acquisitions. The Rams love to throw the ball to the tight end in the red zone, which would mean a high touchdown total for McMichael.

Bo Scaife, Tennessee Titans: Vince Young has seen his wide receiving corps vanish before his eyes, leaving Scaife as the leading returning pass catcher. A tight end can be a quarterback’s best friend and that could very well be the case here.

Defense/Special Teams
Green Bay Packers: A lot of attention is usually placed on Brett Favre and the Green Bay offense but it is the defense that could carry the Packers this year. Green Bay owns a deep defensive line that can put pressure on the quarterback both from the ends and the interior. Linebackers A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett make plays from sideline to sideline. And Charles Woodson and Al Harris form one of the best cornerback tandems in football. Question marks at both safety spots, which were awful in coverage last year, are the main concern. The Packers closed the 2006 season with four straight wins and much of the credit is due to the defense, which allowed just 10.5 points per game over that span.

Oakland Raiders: Oakland’s offensive ineptitude overshadowed what became a solid defensive unit last year. The Raiders finished third in the NFL in total defense last year and should be solid again this season.

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