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Picking Larry Johnson in 2006? A no-brainer. Picking Larry Johnson in 2005? Not so much. Last year it took a wise owner to anticipate that the Chiefs' running back was a sleeper, a player ready to have a breakout season. But those who had such vision came away with a steal. As all owners know, identifying sleepers is--all together now--the key to winning your fantasy league. So which players are primed for a breakout in '06?
HOW MUCH does the New England front office love Maroney? He was the No. 1 running back on the team's draft board. That's right, ahead of even Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush. Perhaps the Patriots were dazzled by Maroney's breakaway speed or his astonishing balance. Regardless, by selecting the 5'11", 220-pound back from Minnesota with the 21st pick in April's draft, the team acknowledged that it has concerns about incumbent starter Corey Dillon. The 10-year veteran has a number of factors working against him: At 31 he is past the age when running backs 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 he battled ankle and calf injuries. Hmmm, let's look at this a little closer: We have a first-round running back from a Big Ten school who's backing up an injury-prone veteran on the downside of his career and plays for a team that moves the ball and scores a lot of points? Sounds as if Maroney could be the Larry Johnson of '06.
2 - Heath
A PLAYER whose nickname is Big Money and who has a candy bar called Heath's Big Money Bar isn't exactly flying under the public's radar, but in fantasy terms Miller has been undervalued. Pittsburgh enters the season without the King of the One-Yard Touchdown, Jerome Bettis, who retired, and playmaking receiver Antwaan Randle El, who bolted for the Redskins as a free agent. So someone has to make up for Bettis's nine touchdowns and Randle El's 558 receiving yards. The likely candidate is Miller, a 6'5", 256-pound blocking-and-receiving monster who should improve upon his rookie season, in which he ranked second on the team in catches (39) and touchdown receptions (six). Miller's scores all came in the first seven weeks of the season, at which point quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed three straight games with a right-knee injury and Miller didn't find the end zone again until the playoffs. The rapport between Miller and Roethlisberger, however, not only exists but should also strengthen with another year of hooking up. Put Big Money on it.
3 - Roy
WE KNOW what you're thinking: Roy Williams, a sleeper? Hear us out. Many fantasy draft boards don't include Williams among the top 15 receivers. That's way too low for this 6'2", 212-pound athletic freak. Williams had a good rookie year in 2004 (817 yards, eight touchdowns) and then fell off slightly last season (687 and eight) when he was hampered by a quad injury. He has yet to have a breakthrough year, but evidence suggests that it will come this season. Detroit offensive coordinator Mike Martz has imported his aerial wizardry from St. Louis and has said he wants to make Williams the Lions' version of perennial All-Pro Torry Holt. And new Detroit quarterback Jon Kitna, fresh from Cincinnati, has said that Williams compares favorably with the Bengals' Chad Johnson, considered by some to be the best wideout in the league. " Chad would probably be ticked at me for saying this, but Roy Williams probably has a greater upside," Kitna told USA Today. " Chad is one of the top three receivers in this league. And Roy can be there."
IT SEEMS as if people have been repeating this mantra for a couple of years: David Carr is ready to break out. Well, this really is the year that David Carr is ready to break out. The 6'3", 220-pound No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft has always had the arm and the ability. The difference this season is that he is getting the coaching to fully tap that potential. New Texans coach Gary Kubiak, formerly with the 49ers and the Broncos, maximized the talents of Steve Young and John Elway and even helped transform the maddeningly inconsistent Jake Plummer into a Pro Bowl selection. Meanwhile, Houston's traditionally woeful offensive line, which has allowed 229 sacks in Carr's four seasons, is much improved under new assistant head coach Mike Sherman, a former O-line coach, and new offensive line coach John Benton. With new acquisition Eric Moulds joining Andre Johnson, Carr has receiving threats that should enable him to roll up big fantasy numbers. Carr won't be Peyton Manning or Carson Palmer this season, but he won't be the same old David Carr either.
5 - Frank