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Eyes of the Guru

Week 17 is upon us and we have reached the end of another exciting and intense season. There are very few leagues who will play their championships this week so as is the tradition with the EOTG, this final edition will be dedicated to the kicking off the quest for next year's title. There is a lot of change every offseason so lets take a look at some players and/or situations that possibly point toward production down the road. Tuck some of these names away or see if you can land one of them as a throw in on an off season trade. 

Defensive Line
Ryan Denney/Chris Kelsay
Denney managed to put up solid numbers (26-17-4 through 16 weeks) for a #3 DE and is scheduled to be a UFA. Defensive ends are always in high demand on the free agent market so Denney should command some attention. While he isn't likely to be a smash hit no matter where he lands, Denney could get a shot at a starting job somewhere and has the potential to be a fantasy contributor if he lands in the right situation... Kelsay's fantasy production stands to be the beneficiary if Denney leaves Buffalo. In their time share Kelsay has accounted for 25-18-2.5 making the total numbers generated by the position 51-35-6.5. Put that all on one player and you have a pretty solid fantasy option. The Bills don't have anyone else pushing for playing time and will likely make an effort to keep Denney but it could be expensive.   

Matt Roth
Kevin Carter is set to make a big chunk of money next season and he hasn't been all that productive. Rumors have it that he will be cut for cap relief and may retire. The Dolphins spent a second round pick on Roth who played very little early on but was able to get his feet wet late in the season. The Fins have high expectations and may have no choice but to throw Roth right into the fire in '06.   

Anthony Hargrove
Hargrove only posted 4.5 sacks through 15 games as a rookie but he did total a solid 40 solo tackles, and 2.5 of his sacks came in weeks 15-16. There is likely to be a great deal of change in St. Louis before next season which could include a completely new coaching staff and/or a new defensive scheme. Regardless of what happens Hargrove has solidified himself as an every down end with a lot of fantasy upside. If the Rams adopt a more physical and aggressive style of D in the future Hargrove could become a serious fantasy factor. Especially is Leonard Little can return to form opposite him.   

Raheem Brock
The Colts have a lot of issues staring them in the face this off season when it comes to keeping their club in tact. Brock isn't a flashy piece of the pie, playing mostly on early downs, but he has been a big time contributor to the new found success of the defense. He is also set to become an UFA. Obviously the club would like to resign him but with all their other issues will they be able to do so? Brock shared time with Robert Mathis all season but still managed to put up a mark of 31-8-4 in just 12 games. If he lands with a different club he would likely be an every down player and would likely be very productive.

Travis LaBoy/Antwan Odom
The Titans are an up and coming young club and LaBoy is going to be a big part of their defense into the future. He was banged up early this season but managed quality numbers (25-13-6) despite not making his first start until week 8. Kyle Vanden Bosch should be a candidate for comeback player of the year, but he only signed a 1 year deal with the club. After his monster season (40-24-12.5) resigning him will be an expensive proposition. Certainly the Titans will make an effort to do so but they will have a lot of competition. If Vandy stays, LaBoy will start opposite him and give the Titans a strong 1-2 punch from the ends. Should the Titans be out bid for Vandy, the club would look to Laboy and Antwan Odom to step up in '06. Either way LaBoy has the look of a strong future option for fantasy owners. 

Trent Cole/Jerome McDougle
Jevon Kearse is pretty much entrenched as the starter on one end for the Eagles and '03 first round pick McDougle was set to be the other bookend before injury landed him on IR without ever playing a snap. He is expected back and healthy for the '06 season but in his absence a challenger has emerged in rookie 5th round pick Trent Cole. Cole exploded with 5 sacks over a three game span between weeks 9 and 11 but then vanished from the sack column the rest of the way. To his credit he did manage 27 solo tackles over his 8 starts heading into the season finale. This will be an interesting situation to watch come next training camp. One of these guys should step up and be at least a decent prospect. 

Kalimba Edwards
One of this season's most puzzling situations to me was the Lions use (or lack of) of Edwards. Early on when James Hall was sidelined with a sore groin, Edwards provided an excellent pass rush. By week 11 he had tallied 21 tackles and 7 sacks despite starting just 4 games. Yet his playing time diminished and he has barely been heard from since his 4-1-1 against Dallas in week 11. We can expect to hear his name come up this off season as Edwards is set to become an UFA and will undoubtedly get a lot of interest. The knock against him in Detroit is that he struggles against the run but he sure looked better than to me than they want to give him credit for. Edwards could land in an every down situation and has a lot of upside.  

James Hall
Much was expected of Hall coming off a monster '04 season but an early groin injury put the binders on his '05 campaign. While he did return to action after missing about a month, he was never able to return to form. It's possible that he was simply a one year wonder but groin injuries tend to linger and require a long rest to completely heal. It's much more likely that his far less stellar '05 numbers were a direct result of being slowed by the sore groin. He should be back strong in '06. 

Erasmus James
James didn't see any serious playing time until week 9 when injuries helped to push him into the lineup. In 8 games he managed to put up a mark of 22-5-3 while making a strong impression. James should enter next season as the starter and his experience from this season will be a big plus. He's an explosive pass rusher that is solid against the run and should be an every down player. Kenechi Udeze will return from injury and likely contend with Darrion Scott for a starting job.

Kevin Williams
Simply put Williams suffered a horrible sophomore slump in '05. After lighting up the box scores as a rookie he recorded just a sack and a half this season while his tackle production fell by about half. There is a history in the NFL of rookie linemen blowing up but never getting close to their rookie numbers again. Jevon Kearse, Gerard Warren and Corey Simon come to mind as prime examples. Williams may never repeat the stellar numbers of his rookie year but he is certainly a better player than his '05 numbers would suggest. It's very possible that there could be major changes in the Vikings organization and coaching staff before next season as well which could change the way Williams is used. The Vikings did a poor job of taking advantage of his talent this season. 

Jonathan Babineaux
The Falcons lack beef up front but they make up for it with quick athletic interior linemen. Babineaux is very similar to Rod Coleman in this sense. While he isn't a road grader type, he presents a lot of different problems for an offense to deal with. Chances are he will join Coleman in the starting lineup for '06 giving the Falcons the smallest interior tandem in the league but also a pair who are both capable of making huge plays with their quickness and explosiveness. Owners in leagues that require tackles will want to lend some attention to this kid come next preseason. 

Darren Howard
For are the stink Howard has stirred in New Orleans this season he will get a first class ticket on the first jet out of town this off season and the next time he is in town it will be in a different uniform. This is a very talented guy who has battled some injuries in recent years but will still be near the top of several team's wish lists when free agency opens. The Saints are happily prepared to go with Will Smith for the future and will make no effort at all to retain Howard. He has been somewhat inconsistent while with the Saints but is almost certain to land a high profile starting gig with someone in '06 and he won't have to share time with Smith any longer.  

Charles Grant
Grant is another player who entered '05 with great expectations after a monster '04 season. Unfortunately he was forced to play most of the year with a nagging turf toe injury that seriously hampered his ability to push off and get after the passer. He still managed 42 solo tackles but was a shadow of his former self. Grant is an excellent player who should rebound strongly in '06 after an off season to rest the toe and rejuvenate.

Derek Smith/Saleem Rasheed
Smith has been the mainstay of the Niners defense for several years. He's a solid if unspectacular player who is an excellent fit in a 3-4 scheme. He is also set to become an UFA this off season. The club will very likely resign him and make this a mute point but there is always the possibility that they will consider giving Rasheed a shot at playing. He was the team's third round pick in '02 and has had his share of injury issues but may get a look if Smith moves on. 

Angelo Crowell
If you picked Crowell up after Spikes went down this year, don't be in too big a hurry to dump him. When Crowell entered the lineup early in the season the initial reaction was that there would be a huge drop off in production from the position. While Crowell didn't have the same big play impact that Spikes probably would have, he did play very well and managed very solid tackle production. The opportunity to play also got him some exposure heading into this offseason when he will be a restricted free agent. The Bills are all but certain to tender him an offer making it likely that he will remain in Buffalo as a backup but if by chance he lands as a starter for someone, Crowell could be a quality option.

Eric Barton/Jeff Ulbrich/Ray Lewis/Takeo Spikes/Ed Hartwell 
All these guys are coming off injuries that ended their '05 seasons. Barton, Ulbrich and Hartwell were all backup caliber fantasy options before being injured and all are likely to return to that status for '06. Lewis and Spikes are expected to make full recoveries and should be back at 100% by training camp. 

Bart Scott/Tommy Polley
When Ray Lewis went down the Ravens moved Tommy Polley to MLB and inserted Bart Scott at WLB. Over the final few weeks of the season they actually turned back to the 3-4 alignment they had moved away from heading into the season. The important factor here is that not only did both Scott and Polley prove that they can play and be productive, but both are set to become UFA after the season. The Ravens will likely resign at least one if not both of them but either of these guys has a chance to continue their success if they can escape the shadow of Ray Lewis in '06.

Andra Davis/Ben Taylor/Chaun Thompson
Davis and Taylor are both set to become free agents this off season. Chances are the Browns will make a strong effort to keep at least one of them. The wild card here is Thompson who moved outside in the Browns 3-4 but looked like a fish out of water at times. Thompson is a natural inside linebacker and the Cleveland brain trust may take a long look at moving him back to where he belongs. The bottom line here is that all three of these guys have good potential so keep an eye on this situation.  

David Thornton
Remember the '03 season when Thornton was a stud? The move to SLB ruined him for fantasy purposes over the past two years. Thornton is still the same player and plugged into a better situation he could again reach the 100 tackle plateau. He may get that chance as he enters the off season as an UFA. The Colts have a lot of players to resign and they can't keep them all. Thornton could very well find himself on the outside when the money is divided up in Indy. If that is the case someone out there is going to get a very good player who is best suited to play in the middle. There are several clubs in dire need of a solid run stuffer and Thornton may well be the best free agent available at the position.

Nick Griesen
The Giants have a decision to make with Griesen who is headed for free agency this offseason He has seen a great deal of action as a backup over the past two years and has played well enough to be considered for a starting role. New York will get Antonio Pierce back for '06 so there is no opening in the middle leaving the Giants to decide if Griesen can be their starter on the weak side. If they choose to let him go he will be a free agent and will be in search of a club that will give him a chance to start. Griesen isn't a great player but he is a very solid and dependable guy who makes up for his average talent with heart and effort. He would have to land in just the right situation to be a fantasy factor in '06 but it could happen.

LaVar Arrington
The word out of Washington is that Arrington is out once the Skins are done this year. He is set to be a huge cap hit for next year and has fallen out of grace with the organization over several issues including money. According to recent reports Arrington will consider leaving football if he is released by the Skins but I'll believe that when I see it. He's a great talent who has struggled with injuries but if he can stay healthy he can be a star.

Teddy Lehman
There will be a ton of change in Detroit this off season and it could range all the way from management through the coaching staff and onto the field. In the preseason. EOTG I made the statement that Lehman was the Lions best linebacker period, and I stand by that statement to this day. He missed a golden opportunity to prove it this year when he was injured early in the season and eventually landed on IR. Lehman will be healthy in plenty of time for '06 and should finally emerge as the starter in the middle. The knock on him was that he could be pushed around a little in the running game which led the club to go with aging vet Earl Holmes at MLB. Holmes will be 33 this off season, landed on IR with a chronic sore knee and is a UFA. Chances are he will not be back.

Sam Cowart/E.J. Henderson/Dontarrious Thomas
Cowart fell short of expectations this year in Minnesota and is headed for free agency. More than likely he will not be invited back. While I have been a Cowart fan over the years I have to admit after this season that he isn't the player he once was. That said, he is still a quality veteran linebacker who will likely land a starting job for someone and could be box score productive it it's the right someone. Meanwhile if Cowart does leave the Vikings are likely to slide Henderson back into the middle which would open the WLB job for Thomas. None of the Vikings linebackers jumped out in the box scores this season but ownership has been noncommittal on the future of the coaching staff so we very well may see a completely different look on defense in Minnesota come '06.

Will Witherspoon
Witherspoon is headed to free agency this offseason unless the Panthers can get him a new deal soon. He's a very solid player who will draw a great deal of interest if he hits the open market. There has been no word from the team to suggest how interested they might be in retaining his services and I have to wonder if maybe the plan is to shift Thomas Davis to the position? If Spooney can get away from Morgan and land in a better situation, he has the potential to be a fantasy stud. 

Albert Fincher
The '05 season has been a disaster for the Saints right from the opening gun. Courtney Watson opened as the starter in the middle but poor play and then injury landed him on the sideline and eventually on IR. Fincher struggled through his rookie campaign and was bypassed in favor of over the hill vet Ronald McKinnon. Fincher however is a talented player who will make a strong run at the starting job come training camp. The Saints MLB position is a golden fantasy opportunity if they can just find someone to step up and play well. Fincher was a tackling machine in college and is next in line to get a shot.

Lance Mitchell/Gerald Hayes
Mitchell is a guy I was high on as a sleeper heading into this season but he never got his chance. He was promoted to the second team during training camp but when Hayes went down early in the season, Mitchell was passed over due to his "lack of experience". Hayes will be back from his knee injury in time for training camp and there will likely be a heated competition for the starting job between these two and/or possibly another entry not currently on the roster. It is certainly a situation to watch over the offseason 

Robert McCune
Another of my preseason. deep sleepers, McCune was initially cut and signed to the practice squad but later added to the 53 man roster. Most of his action came on special teams when he did play but the fact is the Skins aren't sold on Lemar Marshall as their long term answer in the middle. Marshall moved into the lineup when Antonio Pierce was lost to free agency last off season. Marshall has done a very adequate job but he is not the force that Joe Gibbs wants at MLB. McCune is a little unpolished but he is a big physical presence who could get a longer look now that he has a year in the NFL under his belt. 

Barrett Ruud
There is little doubt that the Bucks were looking to the future when the drafted Barrett Ruud in April. He didn't see a lot of action this season playing mostly on special teams and in short yardage situations but he is clearly next in line at MLB. The question is, how long will he have to wait? Shelton Quarles will turn 35 early next season so he has to be very near the end of the road. Ruud will certainly see a bigger role next year and there is a real chance he could come out of camp as the starter.

Defensive Backs
Artrell Hawkins
After being out of football for a short while Hawkins may have found a way to extend his career. Hawking had never played safety until the Patriots came knocking but he has done a solid job for them since joining the team. Rodney Harrison's career is likely over leaving the Pats with no one at SS for '06. While it is a real long shot that Hawkins could hang onto the starting job, it's a possibility that should be considered.

Will Demps
Demps has been stuck behind Ray Lewis and beside Ed Reed for a long time and hasn't had much of an opportunity to make a fantasy impact. He's set to be a free agent this off season so all that could change. Demps has the ability to be productive in the box scores if he lands in a more target rich environment.

Sean Jones/Broadney Poole
The Browns spent early picks on Jones and Spencer over the past couple of years but neither of them made a significant contribution in '05. The safety play in Cleveland left something to be desired from a consistency standpoint if nothing else. There will be a stiff competition for the starting safety jobs again come training camp '06 as the new coaching staff continues to put their mark on an improving young club.

Jerome Carter
Adam Archuleta is set to be a free agent and there is at least some chance the Rams won't make a real strong play to keep him. He has been fighting a bad knee for the past couple of years which prompted the coaching staff to try him at FS during training camp in order to save some of the pounding. That experiment failed but Archuleta was obviously not the same player he has been in the past. Carter was the team's 4th round pick this spring and played well when called upon to during the season. This will be an interesting situation to keep an eye on over the of season.

Renaldo Hill
Like many corners before him Hill may have extended his career by making the switch to safety. The Raiders defensive scheme used a hybrid nickel alignment as their base defense much of the year with Hill playing basically as a third safety. His success will not have gone unnoticed as he enters free agency. Look for someone to give him a job but likely not as a corner.

Derrick Gibson/Tony Parrish/Madieu Williams 
Here are three guys who landed on IR this season after getting off to strong starts. None were missed more than Williams who burst onto the scene as a rookie and then left the Bengals secondary in dire need at safety early this season. All three are expected back and healthy for '06 and should be able to pick up right where they left off.

Bryan Scott
The Falcons coaching staff busted Scott to backup in an effort to get more physical play at free safety. It didn't work. Maybe they will go back and look at last year's game films where they would see a more physical Scott playing strong safety. Scott is a solid player who contributed well in '04 from the SS position but simply isn't cut out to play off the ball at FS. He's still the best SS on the Falcons roster and if they realize it before next season he will again be a solid fantasy option. If they don't realize it maybe they will release him so my Bengals can pick him up. God knows we could use him...

Thomas Davis
Davis was as complete a bust as they come this year. After a ton of hype all through the preseason. he lost the starting job right before the opener and never regained it. After spending such a high pick on him the club is going to look for a way to get him on the field. That could come at linebacker or SS but it will come. Marlon McCree held the SS position all season but is no better than average at best. The club would undoubtedly like to see Davis play the SS position that he was drafted to play but he will need to improve his cover skills for that to happen. 

Josh Bullocks
Bullocks initially worked at FS when Jay Bellamy went down but by the end of the season he has switched with Dwight Smith at SS. While inconsistent in the box scores, Bullocks played well and turned in several solid outings. He will be in the lineup from the opening gun come '06 and should show improvement with the experience.

That puts a cap on another great season. I'll be back next come training camp with another edition of the preseason. EOTG. Until then remember championships are won in the offseason!

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