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Five Long-Shots That Could Produce in 2006
Derek Aiken
August 15, 2006

Every year, there are one or two long-shots that come out of nowhere to pay dividends for fantasy owners. While they may not be superstars, they often earn starting positions on their respective fantasy teams. At the very least, even if they don’t have a starting position on your team, you’re keeping the owner who just had the big injury or an early round bust from benefiting for their value. These five players could be the late round gems that your team needs to put you over the top in 2006.

Cedric Houston

Where has Curtis Martin gone? Nobody really seems to know the answer to that question. Possibly the most underrated running back of this generation has gone missing from Jets training camp. Not only is Martin not practicing, he’s not even pulling a T.O. and riding a bike on the sideline.

The reports out of New York are that, earlier this year, Martin informed the Jets that he wasn’t going to be playing that much longer. Either the Jets didn’t believe, or just didn’t take him seriously, because the only other running backs on the roster are Derrick Blaylock, Cedric Houston and rookie Leon Washington.

Does this mean Curtis Martin is retiring? Its really much too early to tell. It is possible that the Jets could just be sparing him the wear and tear of training camp, to keep him fresh for the season. But, even if Martin does return, this can’t be considered a good sign for his fantasy prospects in 2006. With the noodle-armed Chad Pennington at quarterback and Tim Dwight as a starting receiver, you can bet that the Jets are going to need to run the ball.

Recent rumors have the Jets talking to Tennessee about Chris Brown. This makes sense since Brown’s in a contract season and the combination of Travis Henry and LenDale White makes for a very crowded backfield on a team not expected to be very good. My money is that the Jets go with what they have or pick-up someone off the scrap heap. A good rule of thumb about trade rumors is, once you see it on the Web, it rarely ever happens.

So who’s going to carry the rock for the Jets in ‘06? Don’t expect it to be Derrick Blaylock, who is really more of a change-of-pace back, than a between-the-tackles runner. When given a workload in the past, Blaylock has often succumb to injuries. The other option is Leon Washington. Washington has talent, but is a rookie who fits more in the mold of Blaylock than Martin.

Enter Cedric Houston. He’s certainly nothing spectacular, but he can be a dependable and durable back in the Jets offense. Houston has the size (6’0 220 lbs) to run between the tackles and adequate speed. Another advantage that Houston has over the other two contenders is that he actually did start four games in 2005. While his statistics didn’t inspire the type of waiver wire chaos Mike Bell is, he was solid and sometimes that is good enough for a below-average team.

In four starts, Houston carried the ball 81 times for 302 yards (3.7 avg) and 2 touchdowns. Extrapolate that over a full season (its ok to do because these aren’t ridiculous numbers) and that’s 1,208 yards and 8 TD’s. Not bad numbers at all.

Barring some unforeseen breaking news on Martin, Houston should be available in the latter rounds of your draft. If you’ve already drafted, there’s a good chance he’s on the waiver wire right now.

Chad Jackson

Doesn’t the name just sound like a NFL receiver? Ok, I know that he came from the University of Florida and their receivers don’t exactly have the best pedigree (Jabar Gaffney, Reidel Anthony, Ike Hilliard, Jacquez Green, Travis Taylor etc), but there is Darrell Jackson, and that gives us hope for Chad Jackson.

The Patriots absolutely stole Jackson in the 2nd round of the 2006 NFL Draft. Jackson has all of the traits needed, to be a big part of the Patriots offense. Most importantly, he’s a rare commodity, a Florida receiver who plays the game with some toughness. He’s a playmaker who does all of the little things well. While he’ll never be called a “burner” he’s got more than enough speed to turn a 7-yard-out into a 83-yard touchdown.

While it would appear that it would be difficult for a rookie to break into an offense as good as New England’s, Jackson has a lot of things pointing in his favor right now. However, one thing that isn’t going his way is training camp. Jackson has been outplayed by free agent arrival Reche Caldwell and has even spent a stint on the infamous PUP list. But don’t let this dissuade you from taking him with your last pick of the draft (he’ll be there).

With the departure of Tim Dwight and David Givens, via free agency, there isn’t a very long line ahead of him on the depth chart. Assuming he enters the season as the #4 receiver, he would be right behind Troy Brown, who is aging and will probably be playing CB by Week 4. You would have to believe that Jackson’s superior talent will eventually push him ahead.

If Jackson is #4 and Brown is #3, that leaves Deion Branch and Reche Caldwell as the starters. While both have shown flashes of exceptional talent, neither one is exactly durable. The careers of both Branch and Caldwell have been littered by injuries severe enough to keep them out of the lineup. Branch has also been involved in an ugly contract dispute. While its extremely unlikely that Branch won’t be a Patriot this year, players involved in contract dispute have a way of getting a lot of bad luck, once they get back on the field.

And then there is the New England offense. In 2006, Tom Brady passed for more yards than Peyton Manning (I still can’t believe that). Don’t let the fact that New England spent a first round pick on Laurence Maroney fool you into thinking that they are going to be a running team now. Brady spreads the ball around a lot, and not many receivers get neglected when he’s behind center.

To sum up this whole thing: Things haven’t been going that well for Jackson yet, but he has superior talent, plays in a passing offense, has injury-prone and aged receivers ahead of him and has a great chance to see the field early on. While he’s a long-shot in annual drafts, value him highly in dynasty leagues. Its not too hard to imagine him becoming Tom Brady’s main target in only a couple of seasons and, if that happens, there’s no reason he can’t become a Top 15 receiver sometime soon.

Vernand Morency

Drafting Domanick Davis in 2006 would be a mistake. He’s always ranked very high in preseason rankings, but has not been a stranger to the injury-bug. To draft Davis, you would have to take him somewhere in the first three rounds, and that’s way too steep of a price for somebody with such a history of injuries.

In his first three seasons, Davis has yet to last a full season, most notably missing five games in 2005 with an injured knee. Of course, running back is a violent position and players often get hurt, but this injury is particularly concerning. Mostly because Davis is still feeling the effects of the injury that cost him five games in 2005. He has been held out of  most of training camp, had additional tests done on the knee and will miss at least one preseason game.

Who will benefit the most if Davis isn’t ready for 2006? There are really only two candidates to takeover Davis’ role in the offense. First, there is Antwain Smith. This guy epitomizes “solid but not spectacular.” Smith will get about three yards a carry, but is by no means considered a playmaker. At 34, with 10 NFL seasons under his belt, don’t expect any vast improvement from him in 2006. He was acquired only to be an insurance policy, if Davis wasn’t able to go.

The guy that you really want to watch is Vernand Morency. Entering his sophomore season, Morency would be the most likely beneficiary of a lingering injury to Davis. Morency got only one start in 2005, but made the most of it. In Week 17, he posted a combined 129 yards on 25 touches and scored a touchdown. For the entire season, Morency played in 12 games and totaled 184 yards on 46 attempts (4.0 average) and 2 touchdowns.

While his stats don’t blow away those of Antwain Smith, Morency is the younger player, with more upside. Not only does he run the ball at least as well as Smith, but he is a far superior receiver. As anyone who has seen the Texans offense in action knows, the running back is an important part of the receiving game. Morency is the complete package, where Smith is only a role player, and this gives him the inside track to the starting position, should Domanick Davis succumb to injury.

Like everyone else on this list, Morency will be available late in your draft and may not even get drafted at all. Given Davis’ history and current injuries, the lack of competition, and his potential for total yards, Morency could be an impact fantasy back in 2006. Should he get the chance to start, 1,500 total yards and double-digit touchdowns are not out of the question. He is especially valuable in point-per-reception leagues.

Zach Hilton

While many fantasy owners don’t know Zach Hilton’s name now, there is a very good chance that they will after the 2006 season. After starting tight end Ernie Conwell was injured, Hilton came on to post very respectable numbers in 2005.

At first glance, his numbers look very ordinary (35 receptions, 396 yards and 1 TD). Look deeper and you’ll realize that Hilton posted those numbers in only six starts. Hilton quickly became a major part of the passing game and a nice waiver wire pick-up in deeper leagues. In three of his six starts, Hilton had more than five catches, his best performance coming in Week 16 with 7 grabs for 83 yards.

Entering 2006, Hilton has to be considered the only New Orleans tight end with any fantasy significance. His only competition consists of Mark Campbell and Ernie Conwell. Campbell is a player who was only brought in for his blocking expertise and to make some holes for the ultra-talented combination of Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. Aside from one day in the sun (3 TD’s in one game for Buffalo), Campbell has never been known for his receiving prowess.

Conwell, last year’s starter, has started 16 games only once (1997) in his 10 year NFL career, last year he managed only eight. His best season came as a Ram (2001) with 38 catches for 431 yards and 4 TD’s. In his last three seasons, Conwell has totaled only 49 catches for 557 yards and 4 TD’s. Due to his history of injuries and pedestrian receiving numbers, Conwell can hardly be considered a viable option for the Saints passing offense in 2006.

That brings us to Zach Hilton. Now entering his fourth season, he didn’t even catch a pass until the 2005 season. What increases Hilton’s value the most is that he is now in the perfect situation. This starts with new quarterback Drew Brees. In San Diego, Brees showed a propensity to find the tight end and make him an integral part of the offense. Of course, Zach Hilton isn’t and will never be Antonio Gates, but a quarterback like Brees could easily propel Hilton into the Top 10-15 for fantasy tight ends. There is no reason that Hilton isn’t capable of these type of numbers: 60 receptions 700 yards 7 TD’s.

Then there is the rushing game. The Saints boast the NFL’s most impressive backfield with the combination of Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. You can bet that every opposing defense will be most concerned with stopping this combination, before worrying about the tight end. Even in passing situations, expect defenses to pay most attention to Reggie Bush, Joe Horn and Donte’ Stallworth. Hilton should see plenty of room, in the middle of field, thanks to the attention paid to his talented teammates.

The real value of Hilton comes from the fact that he will be flying under the radar this year. Not only in the mind of opposing defensive coordinators, but of fantasy owners as well. Hilton is the type of player where doing your homework, instead of just looking at a cumulative stat line, can net you a nice reward on draft day. Hilton shouldn’t go until the later rounds of your draft and may not even get drafted at all. I’m not saying you should expect him to be your starting tight end, but he is a backup with excellent potential for fantasy points and future trade bait.

Matt Leinart

You wouldn’t think that a quarterback who won the Heisman and was a first-round pick, would be a considered a long-shot to produce in 2006, but Matt Leinart is considered just that. Leinart continues to be involved in the most prolonged hold-out of the off-season, and may not be in camp for at least another week. That’s not even counting the fact that quarterback is the hardest position for a rookie to play.

So, why is Matt Leinart even on this list? Because he still, even with all of this going on, has an excellent chance to produce in 2006. Reports today have even listed John Navarre as the back-up quarterback.

Sitting atop the Cardinals depth chart is Kurt Warner. Before he got injured, the former MVP actually had a very good season in 2006. Warner was often over the 300 yard mark, he finished with 2,713 yards, despite playing less than 10 full games. Had Warner played a full season, its very possible that he would have been a Top 5 fantasy quarterback.

But don’t expect Warner to have an impact year in 2006. First of all, Warner is injury-prone. He simply hasn’t proven that he is a durable quarterback, who can take the punishment of the position for a full 16 game season. In eight seasons as a starting quarterback, Warner has only played two full seasons. In the last four seasons, Warner has only started a total of 26 games.

Don’t forget that a lot of Warner’s 2005 success came from “garbage yards.” The Cardinals were often behind after the first half, and were forced to play catch-up. Aside from their terrible defense, the Cardinals were often behind because of Warner’s interceptions (11 TD’s 9 INT’s). Don’t make the mistake of confusing fantasy success with the type of NFL success that keeps you on the field.

And who could forget the running game that was anything but. Marcel Shipp was incapable of being an effective back and J.J. Arrington was given every chance to succeed and couldn’t get the job done. Both were terrible in 2005, forcing Warner to throw the ball even more. This season, the Cardinals have finally added a bona fide stud at running back, in Edgerrin James. More carries from James means more successful running plays, which means better scoring and time of possession, and less “garbage yards.”

This is where Matt Leinart fits in. There are two scenarios that could happen here. First, and most likely, Warner will get injured. He always seems to. Don’t think for a second John Navarre will be coming into the game, the bitter contract dispute will be a distant memory by this time. Leinart will be the one who gets the keys to the offense. The second scenario, and recent history suggests this to be unlikely, the Cardinals may actually be good. While Warner is good at piling up “garbage yards”, his mistakes would be magnified on a good team and he could quickly see the bench.

What happens if Leinart does get into the game? Expect very good things. He’s not going to be Manning or Palmer, but could be a very serviceable QB2. Once Leinart enters, the defense will be fixated on stopping Edgerrin and putting 8-9 men in the box. This will give Leinart even more time to find his receivers, and what a receiving corps it is. Larry Fitzgerald is the best young receiver in the NFL, Boldin would be just as good if he could stay healthy and the Cardinals now have a massive receiving threat at TE with rookie Leonard Pope.

Let’s not forget who Leinart is. He’s no Alex Smith. He won a national championship, a Heisman, and probably should have won two of each. If Leinart is able to get into the lineup, it would be nearly impossible for him to fail with the surrounding group of offensive talent. You won’t be able to get him as a free agent, his name is too big not get drafted, but is a really nice sleeper in the 15th round or later.

Of the five players listed above, two will probably be drafted, but even they won‘t get drafted until very late in your draft. Three should be available in the last round or as a free agent pick-up. What they all have in common is that, even though they should be considered long-shots, they could all benefit your lineup at some point in 2006. Buy them low, and reap the rewards later. If nothing else, all of these players are a great handcuff or trade bait with the person who drafted the starters ahead of these guys.