Picking LarryJohnson in 2006? A no-brainer. Picking Larry Johnson in 2005? Not so much. Lastyear it took a wise owner to anticipate that the Chiefs' running back was asleeper, a player ready to have a breakout season. But those who had suchvision came away with a steal. As all owners know, identifying sleepers is--alltogether now--the key to winning your fantasy league. So which players areprimed for a breakout in '06?
1 - LaurenceMaroney
In three seasons at Minnesota, Maroney rushed for 3,933 yards and 32touchdowns.
HOW MUCH does theNew England front office love Maroney? He was the No. 1 running back on theteam's draft board. That's right, ahead of even Heisman Trophy winner ReggieBush. Perhaps the Patriots were dazzled by Maroney's breakaway speed or hisastonishing balance. Regardless, by selecting the 5'11", 220-pound backfrom Minnesota with the 21st pick in April's draft, the team acknowledged thatit has concerns about incumbent starter Corey Dillon. The 10-year veteran has anumber of factors working against him: At 31 he is past the age when runningbacks tend to start breaking down, two of the last three seasons (2003 and '05)have been the worst of his career, and last year he ran slow and scared as hebattled ankle and calf injuries. Hmmm, let's look at this a little closer: Wehave a first-round running back from a Big Ten school who's backing up aninjury-prone veteran on the downside of his career and plays for a team thatmoves the ball and scores a lot of points? Sounds as if Maroney could be theLarry Johnson of '06.
2 - HeathMiller
Miller's 39 catches in 2005 were the most by a Steelers tight end since1994.
A PLAYER whosenickname is Big Money and who has a candy bar called Heath's Big Money Barisn't exactly flying under the public's radar, but in fantasy terms Miller hasbeen undervalued. Pittsburgh enters the season without the King of the One-YardTouchdown, Jerome Bettis, who retired, and playmaking receiver Antwaan RandleEl, who bolted for the Redskins as a free agent. So someone has to make up forBettis's nine touchdowns and Randle El's 558 receiving yards. The likelycandidate is Miller, a 6'5", 256-pound blocking-and-receiving monster whoshould improve upon his rookie season, in which he ranked second on the team incatches (39) and touchdown receptions (six). Miller's scores all came in thefirst seven weeks of the season, at which point quarterback Ben Roethlisbergermissed three straight games with a right-knee injury and Miller didn't find theend zone again until the playoffs. The rapport between Miller andRoethlisberger, however, not only exists but should also strengthen withanother year of hooking up. Put Big Money on it.
3 - RoyWilliams
Williams's 16 touchdown catches are the most by any Lion in his first twoseasons.
WE KNOW whatyou're thinking: Roy Williams, a sleeper? Hear us out. Many fantasy draftboards don't include Williams among the top 15 receivers. That's way too lowfor this 6'2", 212-pound athletic freak. Williams had a good rookie year in2004 (817 yards, eight touchdowns) and then fell off slightly last season (687and eight) when he was hampered by a quad injury. He has yet to have abreakthrough year, but evidence suggests that it will come this season. Detroitoffensive coordinator Mike Martz has imported his aerial wizardry from St.Louis and has said he wants to make Williams the Lions' version of perennialAll-Pro Torry Holt. And new Detroit quarterback Jon Kitna, fresh fromCincinnati, has said that Williams compares favorably with the Bengals' ChadJohnson, considered by some to be the best wideout in the league. "Chadwould probably be ticked at me for saying this, but Roy Williams probably has agreater upside," Kitna told USA Today. "Chad is one of the top threereceivers in this league. And Roy can be there."
4 - DavidCarr
Carr is one of the NFL's top running quarterbacks, with 1,040 yards and six TDsin his career.
IT SEEMS as ifpeople have been repeating this mantra for a couple of years: David Carr isready to break out. Well, this really is the year that David Carr is ready tobreak out. The 6'3", 220-pound No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft hasalways had the arm and the ability. The difference this season is that he isgetting the coaching to fully tap that potential. New Texans coach Gary Kubiak,formerly with the 49ers and the Broncos, maximized the talents of Steve Youngand John Elway and even helped transform the maddeningly inconsistent JakePlummer into a Pro Bowl selection. Meanwhile, Houston's traditionally woefuloffensive line, which has allowed 229 sacks in Carr's four seasons, is muchimproved under new assistant head coach Mike Sherman, a former O-line coach,and new offensive line coach John Benton. With new acquisition Eric Mouldsjoining Andre Johnson, Carr has receiving threats that should enable him toroll up big fantasy numbers. Carr won't be Peyton Manning or Carson Palmer thisseason, but he won't be the same old David Carr either.
5 - FrankGore
Last season Gore's 4.8-yard average led all rookie running backs with more than55 carries.
GORE WAS a muchbigger sleeper before San Francisco traded his main competition--last year'sstarter, Kevan Barlow--to the Jets on Aug. 20, but the move confirmed what manyhad noticed: Gore was having a terrific camp and is more than capable ofbecoming the 49ers' sole featured back. A 5'10" 208-pounder who combineshome-run-hitting ability with inside power, Gore rushed for a team-high 608yards as a rookie last year despite starting only one game and having 49 fewercarries than Barlow. In the off-season San Francisco brought in offensive guruNorv Turner to run the offense and 10-time Pro Bowl guard Larry Allen to addtoughness to the offensive line.
(During minicampcoach Mike Nolan had to tell Allen to stop throwing linebackers around becausehe was afraid somebody might get hurt.) Subtracting Barlow and adding Turnerand Allen? That equals a big season for Gore.
Get the latest NFL news, plus ratings for all fantasy football positions anddaily injury updates at SI.com/fantasy.
THEY COULD BE SURPRISES
1 MARK CLAYTON
Ended his rookie season strongly, catching 24 passes for 316 yards and twotouchdowns in his final five games. And this year he has a better quarterback(Steve McNair) throwing to him.
2 Chester Taylor
An underrated backup with the Ravens, Taylor joins a team that added nastinessto the offensive line by signing restricted free-agent guard Steve Hutchinson.Taylor is this year's LaMont Jordan.
3 Ben Watson
More double-tight-end formations mean more catches for this 6'3", 255-poundreceiving beast, whose only question mark is durability.
4 Joseph Addai
As is the case with the Patriots and Laurence Maroney, the Colts didn't selectLSU's Addai in the first round to ride the pine. He may not start the season asthe No. 1 back, but he will finish in that slot.
5 Philip Rivers
Rivers played understudy to Drew Brees for two years and arguably has morephysical tools than his predecessor. If Brees can reach the Pro Bowl throwingto Antonio Gates and LaDainian Tomlinson, so can Rivers.
6 DeAngelo Williams
There are two givens in the NFL: wide receiver David (of the Titans), andDeShaun Foster's getting hurt. When the latter inevitably happens again thisseason, explosive rookie Williams (out of Memphis) will be ready to step intothe breach.
7 Mike Bell
People still don't believe that coach Mike Shanahan will stick with thisundrafted rookie out of Arizona, but Shanahan and the staff think he's the realdeal.
8 Jon Kitna
Already proven as a starter in Cincinnati--he tied for third in the league inTD passes in 2003--Kitna will be the ringmaster of new offensive coordinatorMike Martz's aerial circus.
9 Matt Jones
With great size (6'6", 229 pounds) and surprising speed, Jones is betterequipped than Ernest Wilford to be the team's No. 1 receiver now that JimmySmith has retired.
10 Ben Troupe
When either Billy Volek or Vince Young needs a safety net (likely often), itwill be Troupe, a third-year player who has looked spectacular in trainingcamp.
THEY COULD BE BUSTS
1 TRENT GREEN
New coach Herman Edwards likes to run, run, run the ball, and none of KansasCity's wide receivers will scare any defensive backs--meaning it will be hardfor Green to pass for 4,014 yards as he did in 2005.
2 Edgerrin James
Arizona's offensive line was, well, offensive last year. James won't be acomplete flop, but it's unlikely he'll approach the 1,506 yards and 13touchdowns he had with the Colts last season.
3 Reuben Droughns
The ripple effect caused by center LeCharles Bentley's season-ending injury hasturned the offensive line from a strength to a weakness. Droughns gets everyyard out of every play, but there won't be many this year.
4 Jamal Lewis
Uh-oh. The regular season isn't here yet, and Lewis already has a nagging hipinjury. That's bad news for a power back, especially with Mike Anderson on thesideline itching to get in.
5 Mark Brunell
Even the arrival of receivers Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd can't savethis aging southpaw, who faded down the stretch last season with only one200-yard game in his last nine, including the playoffs.
6 Michael Vick
Who knows? Maybe having a full-time quarterbacks coach (Bill Musgrave) willfinally help Vick become a consistent passing threat. But in each of his fiveseasons, the hype has exceeded the production.
7 Darrell Jackson
Surgery to repair torn cartilage in his right knee twice in the last 11 monthsand the arrival of receiver Nate Burleson don't portend good things forJackson, who has yet to play in a preseason game.
8 Lee Evans
With Eric Moulds gone to Houston, Evans is the No. 1 receiver in Buffalo. Nowif he only had a quarterback to get him the ball. J.P. Losman won't be enoughto make Evans a viable fantasy starter.
9 Mike Vanderjagt
Not only is Vanderjagt no longer kicking for the potent Colts (and thus mustboot outside the friendly confines of a dome), but he also has been battling agroin injury throughout camp.
10 Kevin Jones
He has looked lost at times in the preseason, rushing for 75 yards on 24carries, and is playing for an offensive coordinator, Mike Martz, who considersrunning the ball an afterthought.
GREG M. COOPER/US PRESSWIRE (MARONEY)
AARON JOSEFCZYK/ICON SMI (MILLER)
MICHAEL HICKEY/WIREIMAGE.COM (CLAYTON)
TOM DIPACE (WILLIAMS)
MICHAEL HICKEY/WIREIMAGE.COM (CARR)
JED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGES (GORE)
DARREN CARROLL (GREEN)