It is fair to say that fantasy football leagues can be won or lost by the decisions you make in your draft after your starters have been selected. Brian Westbrook, Domanick Davis, Moe Williams, Matt Hasselbeck, Trent Green, Santana Moss, Anquan Boldin, Keenan McCardell and Steve Smith are just some of the names that were difference-makers in fantasy leagues a year ago despite coming cheap on Draft Day.
So, before you navigate the nether regions of your upcoming draft, commit the following 10 names to memory. That way, when the barley-and-hops clouds start to invade your mind come Round 10, you'll have been pre-programmed to mutter the names that will be this year's late-round cavalry.
Josh McCown, Ari – Can typically be had in Round 11-12 of a 10-team draft
When Arizona tossed McCown into the starting lineup for the final three games of a throwaway season in '03, shrewd fantasy owners took notice. What they saw were some unexpectedly elusive running skills. No quarterback matched McCown's 112 rushing yards in the final three weeks of the season, not even Michael Vick. And with Dennis Green taking over the coaching reins, there's now reason to be optimistic about McCown's throwing arm. After all, Green's offenses in Minnesota finished in the top 10 in both passing yards and passing touchdowns seven times in his 10-year tenure.
McCown has some dynamic receiving talent at his disposal in sophomore sensation Anquan Boldin (update: out 8-12 weeks with a knee injury) and rookie Larry Fitzgerald. There certainly will be the inconsistency in this offense that comes with youth and inexperience. Still, McCown is worthy of backing up your No. 1 quarterback, and he'll have a few weeks where he is on par with fantasy's top guns.
Byron Leftwich, Jac – Can typically be had in Round 10-11 of a 10-team draft
Composure is the word you hear most when the topic turns to Leftwich. As a rookie, Leftwich started 13 games and proved his unflappability by leading a rebuilding Jacksonville squad to a 4-4 record down the stretch, including victories against Indianapolis and Tampa Bay. This season, Leftwich will benefit from a year's experience, dual receiving weapons in Jimmy Smith and rookie man-child Reggie Williams, and a potent running game led by Fred Taylor. The Jaguars finished among the upper half in the NFL in offense last season. This time around, Leftwich can push them into the top 10 and give fantasy owners 3,500 passing yards and 20-plus TD passes. You can't ask for better QB insurance than that.
Steven Jackson, StL – Can typically be had in Round 9-10 of a 10-team draft
If you listen closely to the NFL rumor mill, you can hear whispers about Marshall Faulk's surgically-repaired knee. The concern is that Faulk's knee is not ready to handle the rigors of the upcoming season. Certainly St. Louis' selection of Jackson in the first round of April's NFL draft adds ammo for Faulk conspirers. But let's remember that Faulk is far from a sure thing regardless of these rumors. He has missed 11 starts in the past two seasons because of injury. Add to that the fact that he is 31 and has seen his rushing and receiving yards per carry/catch drop in each season since '99.
No longer is Faulk a first-round pick in most leagues. I witnessed that fact in a recent experts draft, when he fell in my lap at No. 14 while Fred Taylor, Domanick Davis and Kevan Barlow all leapfrogged him. I bit on Faulk, but in a 14-team draft where running backs were flying off the board at breakneck speed, I was forced to nab Jackson only a couple rounds later.
It's only a matter of time before Jackson gets his opportunity. And when he does, he should explode onto the fantasy scene. He's considered the most well-rounded of this year's running back crop, blessed with elusive running skills and good hands in the receiving game. And coaches certainly will appreciate that this kid can handle his blocking assignments, a skill usually lacking in newbie running backs.
I'll put the over/under number on the amount of starts Jackson gets at six. That makes him well worth a seventh- or eighth-round pick. And certainly anyone taking Faulk has to marry that pick to a later Jackson selection. But if another owner takes Faulk, don't be afraid to rock their world and land Jackson as one of your first fantasy RB backups.
Correll Buckhalter, Phi – Can typically be had in Round 10-11 of a 10-team draft
If nothing else – with the departure of Duce Staley to Pittsburgh – Philly's three-man RB committee becomes a party of two with Brian Westbrook and Buckhalter dividing up Staley's 96 carries, 463 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Right now, Westbrook is everyone's fantasy darling coming off a 13 TD season (two via punt return). And while Westbrook typically will be drafted among the top 50 in fantasy drafts, you can expect that Buckhalter often will fall out of the top 100. Fantasy owners overlook the fact that Buckhalter led the Eagles in carries last season despite missing a game and finishing with less than five carries in four other contests. He still finished with eight touchdowns.
This season, Buckhalter is likely to get 12-plus carries a game, plus almost all the goal-line carries. Westbrook did not score a TD within five yards in '03; Buckhalter picked up four from within that distance. It's time to entertain the idea that Buckhalter will be every bit as valuable as Westbrook. And don't be afraid to call Buckhalter's number among the top 75 players on Draft Day.
Tyrone Wheatley, Oak – Can typically be had in Round 12-13 of a 10-team draft
Wheatley will have competition in Oakland against the likes of Amos Zereoue, Justin Fargas and Troy Hambrick, but odds are that he'll plate the biggest piece of the pie. And in head coach Norv Turner's system, that pie should be ample in size. Remember that Turner is a guy who played a major role in padding the numbers of Emmitt Smith, Ricky Williams, Stephen Davis and LaDainian Tomlinson in previous seasons. Wheatley provides the best combo of size and experience for the starring role. Given that Turner's system calls for a heavy dose of running, smaller and less durable types like Zereoue and Fargas don't make sense as leading men. And Hambrick showed in Dallas that he is no better than a poor man's Wheatley.
Wheatley's veteran body showed some life down the stretch in '03, finishing in the top 20 in the league in rushing yards (541) from Week 10 thru Week 17. No doubt that the Raiders' backfield crew will be asked to share nicely. But Wheatley should get his 200 carries, 800 yards and half-dozen touchdowns.
Justin McCareins, NYJ – Can typically be had in Round 9-10 of a 10-team draft
McCareins is lobbying to replace Cris Carter as the league's "all he does is score touchdowns" guy. He had seven scores (just 47 catches total) in a part-time role in Tennessee last season. His 6.7 receptions per every TD scored was the sixth-best ratio in the league. And now that he's with the Jets, he appears to be in position to push the double-digit touchdown plateau. He'll start alongside Santana Moss who, at 5-foot-10, is four inches shorter than McCareins. When QB Chad Pennington gets in the red zone, it will be hard for him not to gravitate towards Big Mc.
Drew Bennett, Ten – Can typically be had in Round 13-14 of a 10-team draft
With the aforementioned McCareins out of the picture in Tennessee, it allows Bennett to stake sole claim on a starting role for the Titans. One of the tallest receivers in the league (6-foot-5), Bennett should stand out in the red zone much the same way McCareins will in New York. He has good speed and hands, and I've seen him make some impressive receptions in a crowd. Expect more than a few alley-oops to come his way in the back corner of the end zone. Teammate Derrick Mason will be the team's go-to receiver, but there's room for Bennett to haul in 60 catches, 900 yards and 7-8 touchdowns.
Jerry Porter, Oak – Can typically be had in Round 8-9 of a 10-team draft
In '03 drafts, people were reaching for Porter. He had just come off an '02 sophomore campaign in which he banked nine touchdowns as a backup. And last season was to be his magical third-year breakout performance. It never happened. Porter suffered a hernia early in the year and missed five games. When he returned, he wasn't 100 percent and the once-vaunted Oakland offense had disintegrated in his absence. In all, it was the kind of season that helps push an extreme talent like Porter off fantasy radars. And that's a mistake.
Porter enters '04 with a clean bill of health and is more than a decade younger than his receiving mates Jerry Rice and Tim Brown. For those reasons, Porter will be in the starting lineup come September. Head coach Norv Turner's system emphasizes the long ball, and Porter has the size, speed and hands to consistently pull in the Hail Marys. His breakout season will happen, just a year later than expected.
Antonio Gates, SD – Can typically be had in Round 14-15 of a 10-team draft
Gates is a sight to behold. A former collegiate basketball player, Gates' 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame found its way to the NFL gridiron in '03 and then found its way to fantasy rosters in December after Gates topped 100 yards against Green Bay.
Rookie quarterback Philip Rivers is dealing with a bevy of unproven wideouts, and he is sure to find comfort in a mammoth Gates sticking out like a lighthouse amid a stormy sea of defenders.
Jason Witten, Dal – Can typically be had in Round 14-15 of a 10-team draft
Give Bill Parcells time, and he'll turn his tight end into a star. He did it with Mark Bavarro and Ben Coates. Heck, even Zeke Mowatt logged a 698-yard, 6-TD season under Parcells' watch. It appears Witten is the latest ball of clay to be molded by the hands of "The Tuna." The transformation process started taking hold at the close of '03 when Witten put up top-10 fantasy numbers at the TE position for the final six games of the season. Given that is was his rookie campaign, Witten gave away time to TE Dan Campbell. But he'll have the spotlight to himself in '04, especially after endearing himself to Parcells with his willingness to block and play through injury. He should land comfortably among the top 10 at his position when the dust settles on the '04 season.