In search of 2008's surprise teams, players

Everyone knows fantasy football is a star system. Find the most statistical stars in a given season and you're likely to conquer your league. But if you draft strictly according to "chalk," you're really drafting off last season's numbers. One look at 2007's preseason rankings reveals what we mean: Larry Johnson, Steven Jackson, Frank Gore and Willie Parker were ranked in the top six among running backs; the best two receivers on the board were Steve Smith and Marvin Harrison; and the No. 3 quarterback was Marc Bulger. None of these players finished among the season's top 34 fantasy scorers.

So we thought we'd take a slightly different approach in trying to locate 2008's unexpected fantasy stars. Every year, at least one NFL team comes "from nowhere" to threaten the playoffs. In '07, it was Cleveland (4-12 in '06), Washington (5-11) and Tampa Bay (4-12), and those squads yielded unexpected fantasy stars like Braylon Edwards, Derek Anderson and Earnest Graham, among others. Therefore we asked our experts:

"Name one NFL team who won five games or fewer in '07 that you think will make the playoffs in '08. Then tell us the player or players on that team who will be most likely to exceed fantasy expectations -- perhaps even achieving fantasy stardom -- and be the conduit to this unexpected rise."

Here's how they answered:

Tristan H. Cockcroft: New York Jets
For me, it's the Jets, and it has little to do with the addition of Brett Favre. He's doomed, you know, by that dreaded "Madden Curse." But since I'm such a believer in such sports superstitions, it's obvious to me what the Jets really have going on here: it's that odd-year-bad, even-year-good thing, and here we are in an even year. That means 10-6, baby, and the playoffs! OK, OK, I'm kidding, but there's a lot to like about "Gang Green," between the Favre acquisition, the strengthening of the offensive line and a cupcake schedule that appears as light this season as it was tough in 2007. In addition to being a veteran mentor for developing Kellen Clemens, Favre should get the most out of an underrated receiving corps; one has to think Jerricho Cotchery is more talented than his two touchdowns of a year ago and that Laveranues Coles is capable of better than 646 receiving yards. The additions of Pro Bowler Alan Faneca and Damien Woody help bolster the O-line, a significant problem area for the Jets a year ago.
Thomas Jones will love to hear that; he scored one touchdown all of last season and averaged a miserable 3.6 yards per carry. He's no spring chicken, but could be an early/midround bargain candidate, and I'd argue is actually more key to the Jets' success this season than Favre. Not that the Jets are any playoff shoo-in. They've got at least two teams from the AFC North and three from the AFC South to contend with for that final wild-card slot. But if Favre didn't bring that silly curse with him, they'll be in this thing right until the end.

Ken Daube: San Francisco 49ers
NFL teams are applauded when they go out and fix a broken part of their team. So whom should a team that finished 32nd offensively in the league target? None other than offensive mastermind Mike Martz, who can only be described as the perfect solution for the offense-challenged San Francisco 49ers. The NFC West could easily be won with a 9-7 record this season, and the 49ers are as likely as anyone in that division to get there. If they do, it'll be on the back of an improved passing game, which won't entirely be accomplished via the underwhelming Arnaz Battle or Bryant Johnson. The 49ers need to catch lightning in a bottle and they already have some in second-year wide receiver Jason Hill, who ran a 4.32 40-yard dash at the 2007 NFL scouting combine. If not for the extremely deep receiver class that season, Hill could have easily been taken in the late portion of the first round. If he had been, everyone would be drooling over how his exceptional speed and receiving skills would fit in a Mike Martz offense. Instead, he's being wrongfully ignored. Don't make that mistake; take a flier on him in the later rounds, as he could easily turn into a surprise fantasy producer a la Mike Furrey in 2006.

Christopher Harris: Oakland Raiders
Nobody spent more questionable dollars this offseason than the Raiders: Javon Walker and Tommy Kelly where horrible investments, and while DeAngelo Hall and Gibril Wilson are good players, Oakland overpaid for them. Still, this team now has a very good secondary (opposite Hall, Nnamdi Asomugha is one of the league's best corners), is pretty good against the run, and I've liked how the O-line has looked in the preseason. If he can get over his fumbling problems, Darren McFadden will be as good as advertised, and I think he wrests that job from his competitors early in the season. We forget about JaMarcus Russell's arm strength, which could make Drew Carter an interesting late-round sleeper, and I'm perennially a Ronald Curry apologist. The key on offense will be Russell. If he makes good plays and limits mistakes, this has the potential to be a way better offense than it's getting credit for, and the defense is going to be tough. I also don't hate the schedule here: six games in a top-heavy AFC West, four against the top-heavy AFC East, four against the shaky NFC South and contests against Baltimore and Houston. Now, the AFC is ridiculously tough, so I can't say I'm positive the Raiders make the playoffs. But I think at least 8-8 with some fantasy stars -- chief among them McFadden -- is going to happen.

Eric Karabell: New York Jets
I think the 2007 season was a bit of an aberration for the Jets. Seven games were lost by a touchdown or less. The quarterback situation was a mess. Thomas Jones had nowhere to run, especially in the red zone. In 2006, this bunch won 10 games and made the playoffs. I see a return to, not so much glory, but more wins than losses. It's not just the Brett Favre situation that changes things. I was already high on the Jets because of the commitment to the offensive line, as the Alan Faneca addition at left guard doesn't merely solve that position, but should help others like D'Brickashaw Ferguson. This is great news for Jones to become relevant again. He was gaining yards anyway -- 10th in the league in rushing despite what was perceived as a brutal campaign -- but I expect he'll get back into the 1,300-yard range and score six or seven times, making him a solid third-rounder in fantasy. I don't expect Leon Washington to threaten his carries. You already know about Favre, who becomes a top-10 fantasy quarterback, and I think his addition rejuvenates Laveranues Coles, Jerricho Cotchery and creates opportunity for sleepers like David Clowney. As for the defense, other than when Tom Brady is lining up on the other side, I can see this group being a worthy bye-week fill-in. The Jets weren't as bad as their record indicated in 2007, and with all the changes around him, from who hands him the ball to who opens the holes, I think Jones can give fantasy owners one more productive season.

AJ Mass: St. Louis Rams
The Rams dug themselves such a huge hole last season, compounded by a spate of injuries, that by the time the season was at its midpoint, they were already out of playoff contention. In short, everything that could go wrong did go wrong, especially against their divisional foes. That's just not going to happen again. Offensive coordinator Al Saunders is back in town and should reenergize the Rams offense, whether or not Steven Jackson decides to come to camp and take part in the upcoming season. In fact, Jackson's prolonged self-imposed exile might be exactly what ultimately gets the Rams into the playoffs. By forcing the offense to consider the possibility of life without Jackson, it is going to be spending more time with Antonio Pittman and Brian Leonard taking snaps with the first-string offense, leaving it far better prepared in the event that Jackson gets hurt again in 2008. While I certainly expect Jackson to be in the huddle come Week 1, the extra familiarity with Pittman and Leonard is sure to lead to a few extra plays going the Rams way, especially in the red zone, to keep defenses honest. And with the Rams offense reverting back to form, the likelihood for a lot more fourth-quarter "garbage time" should see one or both of these backs with respectable fantasy numbers more weeks than not. Remember, it doesn't matter when your player earns his stats, so long as he earns them.

James McCormick: New York Jets

No huge surprise here that I'm picking the New York Bretts as the sub-five-win team from '07 most likely to nab a playoff bid this season. Not only did they go on a Yankees-like spending spree this offseason, beefing up the O-line and the front seven with proven vets, they also added this quarterback you might have heard about. The Jets have one of the league's "easiest" schedules this season, and will be motivated to win under the glaring scrutiny that No. 4 brings. In fantasy terms, it's relatively safe to assume that wideouts Jerricho Cotchery and Laveranues Coles should enjoy increased production with Favre in town. That being said, let's look a little deeper at this offense. One player that I find particularly intriguing is rookie tight end Dustin Keller. Throughout the years, Favre has looked for his tight ends regularly, with Donald Lee most recently enjoying a solid 2007 in Green Bay. While the position is somewhat crowded with Bubba Franks and Chris Baker on the roster, Keller clearly possesses the most compelling skill set among the TE corps. Keller earned his first-round status with a supremely athletic, Vernon Davis-esque performance at the combine this year and a dominant senior campaign at Purdue. Glowing reports from camp so far marvel at his speed and deft route-running. Admittedly, preseason reports are often useless as indicators, but early reports suggest that he's gelling well with Favre and offers an athletic dimension no other tight end on the roster can match. Consider Lee's '07 numbers a benchmark: 48 receptions, 575 yards and six TDs and spend a late-round flier on Keller.

James Quintong: Atlanta Falcons
Ever since the NFL went to eight divisions in 2002, the last-place team in the NFC South has earned at least a share of the division crown the next year. The Panthers started the trend by finishing in 2002, then going to the Super Bowl the next season. That trend has continued through the decade, with each team in the division going through a worst-to-first transformation at least once. If this trend holds, the Falcons, who finished last in the NFC South last season, will win the division this year. It sounds crazy now, but did you think the Bucs would win the division entering last year, or the Saints would reach the NFC title game during the 2006 season? The Falcons should also be a bit more stable with the Vick situation behind them, as well as the disastrous, short-lived Bobby Petrino administration. As for the players who could be the fantasy breakouts to help spur a Falcons' resurgence, let's first look at quarterback Chris Redman. Sure, the Falcons invested a very high pick in Matt Ryan, but could Redman pull off a Derek Anderson and shine while holding off the hot rookie? The journeyman Redman had three 250-yard passing games in his final four contests of 2007, with eight TDs and just four picks. Plus, he's got a solid go-to receiver in Roddy White, who had his breakout last season. If you're looking for a safer fantasy sleeper, look at Jerious Norwood, who'll back up recently acquired Michael Turner. Norwood had his moments behind Warrick Dunn, showing the knack for the big play. New offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is a creative guy who can get the most of the running game, so he'll find ways to get Turner and Norwood their touches to take the pressure off the passing game. Turner already has high expectations and so doesn't qualify as a sleeper, but Norwood could do enough to merit watching as the season wears on.