When making draft preparations for any season, what does your war room look like? Does it have a dry erase board, a large, round table to fit your inflatable personnel, and a draft board?
Well, mine does. Or not.
No, my personal war room is not really a room. It's ensconced in my skull, and to keep all the thoughts from leaking out, I put on a pair of earmuff hearing protectors (known to me as the noise-blocker-outers). They were great in college, especially for sleeping in a noisy dorm or for studying in the lounge. Now they're ideal for peacefully planning draft strategy. And in case I run into anyone who supports the National Rifle Association while wearing them in public, I have a friend for life.
One of the first things owners should do when preparing for any draft is to look for the players that will far exceed expectations by posting elite numbers. We call them breakout players. Drafting one of these players, and then reaping the benefits of their monstrous production, often will lead to championship seasons. Owners of Javon Walker in 2004 and Steve Smith in 2005 know exactly what I'm talking about. I get goosebumps just thinking about what these players did for me in various leagues.
How do you go about finding these players? There's some science involved, as owners will need to look at past performance to assess what a player is capable of. Add in a healthy dose of old-fashioned gut feelings, and you have the recipe for unearthing studs-to-be. Here's a list of five players I think will be breakout fantasy performers in 2006.
QB Eli Manning, Giants. You ever hold a light switch right between the on and off settings? The light flickers, electricity buzzes the switch, and your parents yell at you. That pretty much describes Manning's season -- except for the part about the parents. Manning was so inconsistent last year, and his play at season's end (four touchdowns and seven INTs in the Giants' last five regular season games) was not the best way to go into 2006. But don't forget how Manning started 2005 -- 10 touchdowns and three interceptions in the first five contests. That's indicative of what he can become. Many quarterbacks really start blossoming in their third year, and Manning is at that point. Manning realistically could be a top-five performer because of all the injuries to other top QBs.
QB Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers. My growing appreciation for Roethlisberger as a fantasy talent has something to do with my love of hamburgers, but there's much more to it than that. Except for the Super Bowl, Roethlisberger rose up in the postseason, making plays with his arm to help the Steelers beat the NFL's mightiest teams. Other Fantasy Source-ers have said it, but it's worth repeating: Roethlisberger is a young version of Tom Brady. He has the talent to make plays (and to not screw up), but the running game is still an integral part of the team's success. Still, if Roethlisberger has 200 yards passing and two scores each week, that's super fantasy production from the QB spot. Roethlisberger might not be among the top 10 picks at the QB position in 2006, but he will produce like one.
RB Ronnie Brown, Dolphins. With the Dolphins expected to trade Ricky Williams (and if they don't they are stupid), Brown will become the team's undisputed No. 1 back. In Miami's first four games of 2005, Brown averaged 80 yards rushing while Williams was serving his drug suspension. Prorate that over a 16-game schedule, and Brown gains 1,280 yards -- which would have been good for 10th in the NFL last year. Is Brown worth a second-round pick in 2006? Absolutely. Owners also have to love that he is utilized often as a receiver, upping his value. I'm beginning to think that Brown is the better player to own over Carnell Williams because of it.
WR Mark Clayton, Ravens. It's clear the Ravens think of Clayton as a playmaker, as they gave him ample opportunities as a receiver and a rusher in the final five weeks of the season. He caught 24 passes for 316 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed six times for 27 yards and a touchdown. The one scoring run came on a direct snap vs. the Packers, where Clayton ran it in from 11 yards out. Clayton has speed to burn, and if Kyle Boller continues to play the way he did at the end of 2005, the second-year receiver will be more than just a nice complement to Derrick Mason -- he'll be just as dangerous. Clayton stands only 5-10, but don't let that deter you from picking him. There's this guy named Steve Smith, who at 5-9 dominated the NFL last year.
Cowboys defense/special teams. Dallas allowed the fourth fewest points in the red zone last year, behind only the Bears, Panthers and Redskins. That should say something about the emerging toughness of this defense. But what this also should say is that the Cowboys gave up far too many big plays in 2005, and will need to reduce the number of those in 2006. An improved pass rush should help, and soon-to-be second-year players DeMarcus Ware, Chris Canty and Marcus Spears are emerging and will be able to provide that push. With better pressure up front, Roy Williams should be free to make even more big plays.
Imo, the only pick to really disagree with is Mark Clayton, but can you really complain if the 14th round pick you use on him doesn't pan out?