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Lessons Learned

So your plan to build a playoff powerhouse didn't pan out, and you're thinking there's no sense in dwelling on the past. But as you look to next year, history is your best teacher

MAYBE YOU'VE already been eliminated from your league's championship chase and still need your fantasy fix. Or maybe you'd just like to get a head start on next year. Either way, preparation for 2007 begins with looking back at '06. Here are five lessons from the past season that you should take with you as you begin to ponder the next one.

1 GO YOUNG

In a year dominated by running back time shares--usually a rookie or second-year man splitting time with a more seasoned veteran--many of the younger players have started to emerge. The Colts' Joseph Addai, the Cowboys' Marion Barber and the Patriots' Laurence Maroney have all outplayed their older counterparts in recent weeks and are making their cases to be featured backs next year. Falcons rookie Jerious Norwood is averaging a hefty 6.7 yards per carry compared with backfieldmate Warrick Dunn's 4.2. (Moreover, Dunn turns 32 next month.) And the Bears' Cedric Benson, 23, has come on strong of late and taken goal line carries away from seventh-year man Thomas Jones. "He's definitely gotten our attention," Chicago coach Lovie Smith said of Benson last week.

The most intriguing young back, however, is the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew. He has been almost as productive as starter Fred Taylor, and Taylor, who turns 31 next month, has said publicly that sharing carries with Jones-Drew is preventing him from hitting certain numbers in his incentive-laden contract. That contract runs through '07, and the situation isn't going to get any better for Taylor next year.

2 ASSESS THE DAMAGED

What do Drew Brees, Steve Smith and Javon Walker have in common? They all entered 2006 coming off major injuries (a torn labrum, a hamstring pull and a torn ACL, respectively), which scared off many owners come fantasy draft time. But they've overcome their ailments to have sensational statistical seasons. The lesson? There's value in a player returning from an injury because he usually falls on draft boards. The keys, of course, are picking the likes of Brees and not Daunte Culpepper, who also entered '06 coming off an injury but flopped, and using this strategy sparingly. You don't want to overload your roster with comeback kids.

So who is the potential Brees of 2007? According to Eagles trainer Rick Burkholder, there's a good chance that Donovan McNabb, who tore his right ACL last month, will be ready for Philadelphia's season opener. He could pick up right where he left off this season. Redskins running back Clinton Portis likely will be ready for the start of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery this month. And of all people, Culpepper--who last month had surgery to clean up some loose cartilage in his right knee that he believes has been causing his nagging pain all along--could bounce back in '07.

3 CUT BAIT ON COLD BACKS

Call this the Edgerrin James lesson. There were indications early on that he would not be the same Edge he was in Indianapolis. He was running behind essentially the same punchless offensive line that the Cardinals employed in 2005, and in his first three games James averaged 3.4 yards per carry. If a team can't run in September, there's little reason to think it will be able to run in December, so smart owners dealt James while he had some value left.

The Dolphins' Ronnie Brown, the Raiders' LaMont Jordan and the Bucs' Cadillac Williams also never got anything going after starting the season slowly--further proof that you don't need much of a track record with an underperforming running back to know which way he'll go or, rather, not go.

4 FOLLOW THE FREE AGENTS

Chester Taylor is the anti-Edge. Taylor was an unrestricted free agent in the off-season who signed with the Vikings and became a dependable fantasy back. There are several backups, including the Chargers' Michael Turner, the Raiders' Justin Fargas and the Redskins' T.J. Duckett, who could be free agents next summer and emerge as the '07 Taylor.

Potential free agency has also made the Ravens' backfield the one to watch in the off-season. Starter Jamal Lewis is owed $10 million over the next two years, and it's likely that Baltimore will cut him before the contract kicks in. The club may well try to bring him back at a lesser price, especially considering his performance of late (299 yards and five touchdowns in his last four games). Backup Musa Smith is an unrestricted free agent next year, which could leave Mike Anderson (who is signed through '09) as the Ravens' only experienced running back. However this game of musical chairs plays out, the best-positioned survivor has a chance to be a solid fantasy contributor.

5 FILE AWAY THE LATE BLOOMERS

The supersleeper of the 2006 season not named Drew Brees was 49ers second-year running back Frank Gore. But this shouldn't have come as a shock: The way Gore finished last season (255 rushing yards and two touchdowns in his last three games) foreshadowed his '06 success.

No one has come on stronger in the last few weeks than Titans rookie quarterback Vince Young, whose knowledge of the offense and familiarity with his receivers should only grow next season. And with DeShaun Foster sidelined by an elbow injury, Panthers rookie running back DeAngelo Williams was finally given a chance to contribute and has responded with 445 total yards in his last four games. If he can improve his pass blocking, this gamebreaker will be hard to keep off the field.

Meanwhile, receivers such as New England's Reche Caldwell (24 catches in his last five games) and Miami's Marty Booker (26 in his last four games, with four TDs) have stepped up their production down the stretch and are well worth taking a flier on next year.

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