Jamal Lewis' rollercoaster ride as a Baltimore Raven probably ended Saturday, his last play an incomplete pass thrown to him by Steve McNair. Brian Billick spoke at his season-ending press conference about improving the running game, and it's clear where the Ravens will try to upgrade. Lewis is one of many veterans who finished this season as a starter, but head into a murky 2007.
January is oddly one of the quietest times of the year for the NFL. While four teams march towards a championship, 28 other organizations are stuck in a holding pattern. Other than coaching changes, not much activity occurs until after the Super Bowl.
Teams like Baltimore use this time to plot their off-season strategy, and fantasy owners in keeper/dynasty leagues should do the same. Once February hits, Lewis and many other veterans will be asked to re-structure their contracts or be released. Veterans with fantasy trade value following the 2006 season may have much less once free agency gets under way. The owner who can anticipate the market and sell high will benefit.
While Rotoworld's comprehensive free agent preview is a few weeks away, here are a group of veterans, primarily ones under contract, who face uncertain off-seasons. These are players who could see a big hit in value well before the summer hits.
Warrick Dunn, Falcons
Dunn finished 2006 with a career high 286 carries and his third straight season over 1,100 rushing yards. While Dunn has been a consistent fantasy option (ten straight seasons as a top 30 fantasy RB), his run could be ending soon.
The new coaching staff in Atlanta favors a power running attack and Dunn doesn't fit the mold. I'm not sure Jerious Norwood does either. The Falcons say they will bring Dunn back despite a $3.25 million base salary, but it's likely to be as a third-down back. It's never a bad idea to sell high on over-30 running backs in keeper leagues. It may be now-or-never for Dunn owners.
Corey Dillon, Patriots
Dillon's play improved considerably this season with Laurence Maroney around to share the load. He's still a valuable role player who can execute power running plays, but Dillon has a $3 million option bonus due in March, in addition to a $2.5 million salary. There is no chance the Patriots will pay that bonus, so Dillon will have to be willing to take a paycut (and swallow his pride) for a chance to return as Laurence Maroney's backup.
Dillon is a proud guy and can probably make more money if he leaves New England. While Dillon might get a shot at competing for a job elsewhere (both New York teams?), it's unlikely he will land anywhere he can score 13 times again.
Chad Pennington, Jets
Any starting quarterback has value in a dynasty league. Pennington proved to be solid this season, but he is year-to-year in terms of keeping a starting job and his value may never get higher. Kellen Clemens will be there to compete next season if Pennington's play tails off.
Ahman Green, Packers
Green is a free agent and is most likely to return to the Packers. While his 2006 campaign was surprisingly solid, Green only averaged 3.4 yards-per-carry in the second half of the season. No matter where Green ends up, he's unlikely to top 300 touches again next season as a 30-year-old.
Jamal Lewis, Ravens
Lewis won't make any free agent lists yet, but he may as well be one. He has a $5 million bonus due in March and a $5 million salary next season. The Ravens may offer him a cursory one-year offer for $2-3 million because Lewis no longer breaks many tackles and he doesn't bust open any big plays. Lewis will likely want to test his market value.
He's most likely to serve as a backup or committee member on a new team next year. Owners may not feel like they are selling high, but his value is unlikely to every get better than it is following a 1,100-yard season.
Reuben Droughns, Browns
Droughns owners also may not feel like they are selling high after a down 2006. But Droughns will be impossible to move by mid-summer when Cleveland adds a first-day pick in the draft or a free agent to take his job. Droughns will be with the Browns next season, but it should be in a backup/fullback role. Get what you can now.
Willie Parker, Steelers
FWP was a top-five fantasy back and probably will maintain a first-round grade going into the 2007 season. As a Parker owner, however, I'm concerned that the Steelers will add a better power running back to pair him with.
For all his huge numbers, Parker was held under 50 yards five times this season. The Steelers rely on the running game being more consistent. They would be better off getting a quality backup to take 75 of his carries and some short-yardage duties. I will only deal Parker if I get full first round value back, but it's worth looking into.
Darrell Jackson, Seahawks
This one is just a hunch, and I hope it's wrong because Jackson has been a steady force on my dynasty league team for years. Each off-season, Jackson complains a little more about some unknown contract snafu that went down before Seahawks GM Tim Ruskell took over. Jackson often skips offseason workouts and isn't known as the hardest worker.
Whil Jackson remains Seattle's most productive receiver, he's been hurt the last two seasons and only Terrell Owens dropped more passes in 2006. The Seahawks have depth at receiver with DJ Hackett and Nate Burleson on the bench. It would not be a surprise if Jackson was dangled in trades this offseason. A move away from Seattle would almost certainly hurt his fantasy value.
DeShaun Foster, Panthers
Panthers offensive coordinator Dan Henning got fired largely because of Carolina's 27th-ranked rushing game. Foster is a passable NFL player, but his skills haven't developed in four NFL seasons. DeAngelo Williams' role is only going to increase in 2007, and it wouldn't be a shock if Foster was released outright because of his high salary.
Ron Dayne, Texans
Dayne's Week 17 scratch from the lineup was a good reminder for Gary Kubiak why the former Heisman Winner is not a feature back. He gets hurt too much. Dayne is a free agent this season and is unlikely enter a better situation in 2007. The most likely scenario is returning to Houston, but as a backup to a running back to be named later.
LaMont Jordan, Raiders
Jordan fits the criteria of facing an uncertain off-season. But I would pause before dealing him. His value is ridiculously low after a lost 2006. With only 648 career carries, his upside is far greater than players like Ahman Green and Warrick Dunn. The firing of Art Shell makes it more likely that the Raiders will be closer to competence in 2007.
The big question is whether Jordan will remain in the Silver and Black. Jordan is due a $4.75 million roster bonus in March and the Raiders may approach him about lowering the figure. The two sides should figure something out because there is absolutely no other options on the Raiders roster. Justin Fargas is a free agent and ReShard Lee is next in line. If Jordan was cut, a move back to the Jets makes some sense.
Tatum Bell, Broncos
It's a near certainty that Tatum Bell won't be Denver's primary running back next season. He lost five fumbles on the season, including three in the last three weeks. One potential saving grace for his fantasy owners would be a trade to Houston, where he could take over the job as Gary Kubiak's starter. Still, Tatum got his shot to be the man this season when Denver didn't draft Laurence Maroney. He probably won't get another one.
Rod Smith and Keenan McCardell
These two players are grouped together because it's probably too late to deal them for any value. Both veterans face uncertain futures after steep declines this season. They will still have a job if they want, but don't expect either over-35 wideout to be a starter next year.
Thomas Jones, Bears
Cedric Benson is so close to passing Thomas Jones that he's not even visible in the rearview mirror anymore. From a team perspective, the Bears would do well to retain both players and let them share evenly next season. Jones is only due $2.25 million in the last year of his contract, so they could afford it. He has passing game skills than Benson still hasn't developed and has proven to be a solid NFL starter, if not a difference maker.
From a locker-room perspective, the Bears may want to avoid the whole Jones vs. Benson issue. They could still deal Jones while he has some value, possibly for a third or fourth round pick. It's possible Jones would end up in a better situation than this year's Chicago team, but unlikely.
Fred Taylor, Jaguars
Jacksonville says they want to retain Fred Taylor with a raise and keep him happy. Unlike the other again running backs on this list, Taylor is coming off one of his best NFL seasons. He could earn one more signing bonus on the open market. He could attempt Jacksonville to release him, but they own his rights for 2007 and can do whatever they please. Unfortunately for Maurice Jones-Drew owners, the Jaguars are probably happy to maintain the status quo.
Travis Henry, Titans
The Titans have to restructure Henry's contract or release him because of an $8.3 million option in his contract coming up. The team would like to retain Henry because they don't trust LenDale White yet, but Henry holds the cards here. If he wants to maximize his dollars, he should test the free agent market. Henry is try-hard player with limited skills, and his keeper league owners may never see his value higher than right now.
This list is by no means complete. There are enough players to write another column, so that's exactly what I'll do. If you have a player you want to see me tackle, shoot me an email.
I think he's wrong about Willie Parker.