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Opportunity Breeds Success

The name of the game in any fantasy setup is opportunity. Often times, a player will be drafted based on sheer physical ability or past performance. While these factors obviously shouldn't be discounted, what is of at least equal importance is the player's opportunity.

I remember back to my first fantasy draft. We were all novices, and as such did not really know how to go about preparing for a league. Name recognition at the time meant everything to us, so players such as Troy Aikman were first round picks. Don't get me wrong -- Aikman was one of the great quarterbacks of his generation. But he never had a big enough season to warrant a first round fantasy draft choice. The reason? He just didn't have the opportunity to put up those kinds of numbers.

Players such as Aikman get credit as a great player and rightfully so, but he was by no means a fantasy stud at any point in his career. The great Dallas teams he played for were a running unit. Sure, Aikman got his yards and touchdowns here and there, but more often than not, he would finish the season with a high passer rating but low yardage and touchdown totals. This is something you must keep in mind when preparing for a fantasy draft. Great "real life" player does not always translate to great "fantasy" player.

Take, for example, the situation of Muhsin Muhammad last season. I don't think anyone would mistake Muhammad for a stud fantasy WR coming into a draft. Yet there he was snagging 93 balls for 1,405 yards and 14 touchdowns by the end of the year. Why all the big numbers? Well, the Panthers certainly didn't plan on going into the season relying on Muhammad as their number one wideout. That distinction was going to be Steve Smith. When Smith broke his leg in Week 1, however, everything changed. Muhammad lit up the stat sheets all season long. And the only reason he was able to post such gaudy numbers was because Steve Smith's injury created the opportunity for Muhammad. Not only was Muhammad catching everything thrown his way; he was now seeing far more passes than ordinary because the other reliable receiving threat was sitting on the sidelines. A simple thing like opportunity created the #1 wide receiver in fantasy football last season!

Another example of opportunity breeding success is the seemingly endless revolving door of successful Bronco running backs since Terrell Davis (a former sixth round pick-keep that in mind) first tore his ACL. There has to be a reason why every Broncos runner since Davis has enjoyed tremendous success. The Denver front office can't be THAT good that they just happen to pluck 1,000 yard rushers off trees! First it was fourth round pick Olandis Gary replacing Davis and rushing for over 1,100 yards in twelve games. Then the following year when Gary went down to injury, it was another sixth round pick, Mike Anderson, who carried the load to the tune of 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns in 14 games. Clinton Portis then entered the fray and turned in hall-of-fame caliber seasons, despite entering the league as merely a second-round pick. Upon leaving for Washington, Portis' stats became rather marginal. Just this past season, backup fullback Reuben Droughns was handed the rushing load and responded with yet another 1,000+-yard campaign from a no-name Denver RB. What in the world is going on here?

Well, recent history suggests that the Broncos have had among the best offensive lines in the league under Mike Shanahan. Shanahan himself has been regarded as an offensive guru since his days in San Francisco. Evidently, the Broncos know how to make their system work. It isn't just dumb luck that enables seemingly mediocre runners (outside of Portis and TD) to just step in and produce Pro Bowl seasons. It's the system that is in place, and the players are merely taking advantage of the opportunity.

Every year, there are examples of players who produce strictly on the basis of opportunity. Let's grab one from out of left field. Did you know that Charlie Batch once had a stretch in 2001 during which his game-by-game yardage totals were: 345, 338, 239, 74 (injured during the game), 239, and 436? Wow! I mean…this is Charlie Batch we're talking about! Well, the Lions may not have had a foolproof system in place, but Batch was forced to throw the ball an average of 40 times per game due to the fact that Detroit was losing by so much. The team may have been awful, but fantasy owners cannot complain about those kinds of stats, no matter what it took to compile them.

Think back to the past few years in the NFL. Fantasy owners rode the successes of players such as Jon Kitna, Moe Williams, Jerome Bettis, Brian Westbrook, Rudi Johnson; the list goes on and on. And many of these players likely went undrafted the year they had their "breakout" seasons. This past season, players such as Nate Burleson, Nick Goings, and Droughns transformed themselves from afterthoughts to key components of many a championship fantasy team merely because they were finally given an opportunity.

As you can see, a player does not even have to be supremely talented (Goings) to become a fantasy star. For example, if a guy wins the #1 WR spot, then he's likely in for a near 1,000-yard season. Merely on the basis of compiling stats, it's difficult to NOT gain 1,000 yards as a #1 receiver. That isn't to say a player will perform ONLY because of opportunity. After all, Marcel Shipp was all but handed the starting job in Arizona the past few years but could never hang on. Still, the astute fantasy owner can pick and choose from the best situations each season to see where the players with the most opportunity will emerge. You want to stay away from running backs that might have the opportunity but a poor offensive line (Lee Suggs comes to mind). You'll want to stay away from quarterbacks and wide receivers that have opportunity but play for conservative teams (Braylon Edwards in Cleveland…seriously, I'm not trying to pick on the Browns).

Some players who I believe will have high-impact seasons based in some part on talent and large part on opportunity include the following, in no particular order:

  • WR Ashley Lelie (DEN)
    Yes, I'm aware that Lelie posted tremendous numbers already last year. I'm very aware that he emerged as the #1 WR for the Broncos during the season. What I'll say now is that you ain't seen nothin yet. Watch out for Lelie as he joins the elite WRs in the game. His incredible physical tools are beginning to be harnessed, and he is very definitely the #1 option in the Broncos passing game.


  • QB Jeff Garcia (DET)
    The only thing preventing me from ranking Garcia as a solid QB2 is that darned depth chart. It still says that Joey Harrington is the Lions' starting quarterback. That may not last long. Harrington must prove himself, and quickly, if he wants to hold off Garcia. HC Steve Mariucci has more connection with Garcia than Harrington for obvious reasons, and you know he'd just love to get the veteran back in there with 3 stud receivers flanking him and a dynamite rusher in the backfield. If Garcia finds his way onto the field, grab him.


  • QB Kerry Collins (OAK)
    I've gone into great detail regarding my thoughts on Collins for this season. You can read them here.


  • TE Dallas Clark (IND)
    This is the first time Clark has had the primary tight end job to himself. He has had to compete with Marcus Pollard for touches the past few seasons, but with Pollard off to Detroit, it'll be Clark's show now. While Ben Hartsock will be a part of the base offense and may take some touches, expect the much more experienced Clark to grab a majority of the tight end receptions that go around in Indianapolis. He should be an excellent value play in leagues this year.


  • RB LaMont Jordan (OAK)
    I know, I'm not exactly going out on a limb here, but he needs to be mentioned. Jordan has never had the opportunity to be a featured back before, and his time is now. He has looked awesome in camp thus far, and could be one of the absolute steals of the draft. About the only concern is of Zack Crockett stealing goalline touches, but even that won't discount Jordan as a very good RB2.


  • RB Michael Bennett (MIN)
    Bennett is apparently running faster than he ever did at any point in high school, college, or the pros. For a man who was once assumed to be the fastest player in football, that's pretty darn fast. He also knows that this is a make-or-break year of sorts, and has gotten himself into top physical shape. With Onterrio Smith out of the mix for the starting job, Bennett may just be able to whiz past defenders on his way to a huge season.


  • WR Brandon Lloyd (SF)
    If Lloyd can get himself to make the routine plays to go along with the spectacular, we'd have ourselves a potential Pro Bowler. He's got a team that will be trailing a lot (meaning throwing a lot to catch up). He's got a QB with some skills that he'll be working with in Alex Smith (eventually). And most importantly, he's got that opportunity as the #1 receiver on the team. That alone should count for something, but owners are gun-shy about spending a high pick on Lloyd when he burned so many of us last year. Personally, I don't see any way the Niners can be WORSE than last year, meaning Lloyd should provide at least a decent return on your selection and could be quite good. Even the worst teams in the league score on occasion, and do you really see another consistent scoring option in San Fran this year? Me either.

Obviously, some of these players have experienced success in one form or another already. But don't underestimate them like the rest of your league is likely to do. They are in prime situations to succeed in 2005.

One final point is to keep in mind the injury factor. NFL teams are set up now in such a way that if the #1 guy at a particular position were to go down with an injury, the backup can make as seamless a transition as possible. Obviously, there is no way anyone can replace a Brett Favre or a Jamal Lewis. These are special players with special talents where you cannot just rotate someone in there and expect them to duplicate success. But there are still many spots out there in which the team is set up to handle an injury and have the backup immediately step in and produce. Some situations like this you should keep an eye on include:

  • Rams QB/RB/WR
  • Colts QB/RB/WR
  • Raiders QB/RB/WR
  • Bengals QB/RB/WR
  • Packers RB
  • Broncos RB
  • Vikings QB/WR
  • Panthers WR
  • Jets RB
  • Seahawks RB/WR
  • Chiefs RB/TE
  • Saints WR
  • Eagles RB

This is to take nothing away from Marc Bulger, Marvin Harrison, et al. It's just that if the starter at one of these positions were to be injured, his backup would likely step into a prime, proven situation in which he could immediately produce. The systems are already in place for him to succeed, and the commitment of the team and the philosophy of the coaching staff would likely not change regardless of what player they had to put in there. To clarify, the Broncos will always want to run the ball. The Rams will always want to throw the ball. Thus, the players who step into these situations will be primed to succeed if not in "real" football, then at least they will succeed statistically for fantasy football because of the opportunity. The players I listed above are some of the more obvious choices, but keep in mind that many a fantasy title is won or lost with waiver-wire gems. Don't discount picking up a player simply because you never heard of him before August. That no-name could very well turn out to be the player that puts your team over the top. All he needs is an opportunity.

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