Fantasy Football: Who's Next? NFL's Top Three Surprise Keepers for 2011

Jack HarverCorrespondent IIAugust 22, 2010

Fantasy Football: Who's Next? NFL's Top Three Surprise Keepers for 2011

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    Jonathan Stewart of the Carolina Panthers stones a would-be tackler. If only he could fend off the competition in his own backfield...Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    For keeper leaguers, fantasy football isn't just about picking this year's starters. Good drafting means staying one step ahead of the year-to-year surprises that overhaul redraft rankings each offseason.

    Granted, some of them really come out of nowhere. You might have been optimistic that Baltimore's Ray Rice would get the majority of touches in a muddled backfield last year, for example, but expecting him to be the fourth-leading scorer among running backs would've been a punch-drunk projection.

    In any case, odds are you're keeping him around for 2010.

    Rarely do consistent top-tier performers hit the open market in competitive leagues. Like Rice, they start out as mid- or late-round draft picks, make a splash, and stick on one team's fantasy roster for years.

    The trick is to anticipate that splash. Amidst the jumble of second-tier talent available in your league, here are three players who'll be jealously guarded in 2011 after they surprise you this year.

3. Shonn Greene: Run-Heavy New York Jets' RB Primed for Bell Cow Role

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    Shonn Greene does his best "LT-2" impression in the New York Jets' divisional playoff win last year. For an encore, maybe he'll mimic Tomlinson circa 2007 in fantasy.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Yes, the New York Jets signed future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson to a two-year, $5.2 million contract this past spring.

    And yes, over half of the league's teams employ two or three backs in ground game committees—and, yes, running backs have the shortest shelf life of any position in football.

    But in New York, for this year and the foreseeable future, there is no timeshare.

    Head coach Rex Ryan hinted as much in a news conference earlier this month.

    "He's much better in the pass protection game," Ryan said of Greene. "He's facing people up in blitz pickups. That's something that's going to be important, obviously, if you're the bell cow."

    As a competent pass blocker, the Jets will be able to entrust Greene with guarding their $44.5 million investment in second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez.

    He'll be a three-down back, and Tomlinson's only chance to steal touches might come in blowouts or at the goal line.

    Considering Tomlinson's woeful 9-of-28 short-yardage conversion rate in 2009, it's more likely that "LT-2" will be little more than a glorified garbage man who'll give Greene the occasional breather.

    Behind arguably the NFL's best run-blocking offensive line, Greene racked up 504 yards and four scores in the four games where he had at least 15 touches last year. Two of those games were playoff wins.

    Four of New York's five starting offensive linemen are back, and the Jets won't be throwing the ball too much while the "Sanchise" continues to take his lumps.

    They boasted the league's run-heaviest offense a year ago, attempting an unbelievable 607 rushes.

    To put that in perspective, the Carolina Panthers' second-place ground game made 525 attempts, and the Miami Dolphins were the only other team with more than 500.

    Veteran Thomas Jones received the lion's share of that work, running for over 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns on 331 carries.

    Significantly for Greene, who caught only one pass for four yards in 2009, Jones did it while managing only 10 receptions.

    This offseason, the Jets released Jones five months before his 32nd birthday.

    More tellingly, they passed over highly-touted rookie rushers such as Jahvid Best and Ben Tate in the draft, opting instead to reinforce their offensive line with 6'4", 332-pound guard Vladimir Ducasse.

    All signs are that Greene will step right into Jones' role—and, for fantasy purposes, his statistics—in 2010 and beyond. Surprise!

2. Jay Cutler: Chicago Bears' Gunslinger QB Buoyed by Mike Martz Effect

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    Jay Cutler targets one of his Chicago Bears teammates. He'll be doing this around 600 times this year under new coordinator Mike Martz.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Remember Jon Kitna's heyday? If you weren't playing fantasy football back in 2007, you might not.

    Kitna broke into the NFL as an undrafted rookie with the Seattle Seahawks in 1997, winning the backup job behind Hall of Famer Warren Moon.

    From there, his career has wound through stays in Cincinnati and Detroit to his current job as Dallas' backup for Tony Romo.

    Live arm. Questionable decision-making. Career 76.6 passer rating. Unremarkable.

    But in 2006, Kitna was the seventh-best quarterback in fantasy, warts and all.

    And in 2007, he finished just outside the top ten—despite throwing 17 more interceptions than Jacksonville's David Garrard, who tallied the same number of fantasy points in standard scoring.

    Only four quarterbacks threw for over 4,000 yards in both years. One of them was Kitna, which put him in the company of Indianapolis' Peyton Manning, New Orleans' Drew Brees, and Cincinnati's Carson Palmer for the two pass-happiest years of his career.

    Kitna had never thrown for 4,000 yards before 2006, and his only relevant fantasy season had been with Cincinnati in 2003.

    In those two years as the Lions' starter, he posted his highest completion percentages as a starter.

    The difference? Mike Martz, the mind behind St. Louis' record-breaking "Greatest Show on Turf" offense from 1999-2005, was Detroit's offensive coordinator.

    Now, after an unfruitful stay in San Francisco in 2008—some people (i.e., 49ers quarterback Alex Smith) can't be helped—and a year off, Martz will be working in that same capacity with Chicago's Jay Cutler.

    Cutler struggled in his first season with the Bears, whose sub-par offensive line and inexperienced receiving corps did little to ease him into a new offense.

    Prior to 2009, Cutler hadn't thrown more than 18 picks or finished with a passer rating under 86.0 in either of his seasons with the Denver Broncos.

    In fact, his 4,526 yards on a whopping 616 attempts in 2008 blew Kitna's best year under Martz out of the water.

    That's the raw material Martz will be working with this year, and he's had nothing but praise for Cutler thus far.

    "He's got Kurt [Warner's] awareness and intelligence," Martz said of his new quarterback earlier this month. "But then he's got an arm I've never had before. He's thrown some balls in practice, and I say, 'Did he just do that?'

    "He can be as good as there is," Martz proclaimed.

    As good as there is? That's in league with Brees, Manning, and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, all of whom are surefire fantasy keepers.

    Whether or not Chicago's win-loss record improves, Martz could vault Cutler into that stratosphere. Surprise!

1. Jonathan Stewart: Backfield Takeover Fated for Carolina Panthers' RB

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    Jonathan Stewart basks in the adoration of the Carolina Panthers' fans. He'll have them—and the workload—all to himself in 2011.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Entering the 2010 season, Carolina's DeAngelo Williams interprets his "Double Trouble" backfield timeshare with 2008 first-rounder Jonathan Stewart as "a 50-50 split."

    "We're each about 220 or 230 carries a year," Williams told ESPN's Pat Yasinkas back in March.

    "I'd rather have that than 300-plus carries a year. That wears on your legs and you're not going to last long doing that."

    Williams, who's 27 years old and heading into the final year of his rookie contract, observed that "30 [years old] is like the new 50 in the NFL, especially when it comes to tailbacks."

    With negotiations for a potential extension hamstrung by the lack of a collective bargaining agreement, he'll play the upcoming season for $2.1 million.

    But in 2011, barring a work stoppage, the Panthers will be forced to decide Williams' fate.

    They could slap the franchise tag on him (if it's still an option, which is up for debate) to stall for another year, but it'd cost them upwards of $7 million without giving Williams long-term financial security.

    Realistically, Williams could demand a contract based on the five-year, $31 million deal signed by Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew in 2009.

    The Jaguars paid that figure for a featured back, but Williams would enter contract talks with better past production than Jones-Drew had as leverage.

    Next year, he'll either sign that deal or leave—and there are several reasons Carolina might not even offer it.

    Last season, Williams spent the Panthers' final three games nursing an injured ankle.

    Over that stretch, Stewart racked up 470 yards and four scores on 73 touches, including the first receiving touchdown of the year by a Carolina tailback. The Panthers won all three games handily.

    Offseason surgery has cleaned up Williams' ankle, but it won't have gone unnoticed that he broke down while Stewart, who missed most of training camp and struggled early in the year, picked up steam as the season wore on.

    Now, for the first time in his professional career, Stewart is coming in on a medical high note.

    He has yet to suit up for a full-contact practice, but head coach John Fox remarked recently that Stewart is "way farther ahead than this time last year."

    According to ESPN fantasy injury analyst Stephania Bell, the surgery that repaired Stewart's left Achilles tendon this offseason will allow him to play with significantly less pain in 2010.

    Since drafting Stewart with the 13th overall pick in 2008, Fox and general manager Marty Hurney have touted the advantages of their two-back system.

    Beyond keeping "Double Trouble" fresh, Carolina's 525 rushing attempts in 2009 took a lot of heat off of floundering veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme and the inexperienced Matt Moore.

    But Stewart, whose $14 million contract runs through 2012, has flashed all the tools to be a workhorse and is only getting better.

    Meanwhile, the Panthers' quarterback situation has improved considerably. Between Moore and talented rookie Jimmy Clausen, Carolina will likely find a franchise signal-caller to build around.

    Throw in the team's needs on the defensive side of the ball, and there's really only room for one well-paid running back after this coming season.

    That's Stewart. Take the Panthers' ground game, subtract a fair amount of touches by backups and due to improved passing, and you've still got a potential top-five fantasy back in 2011. Surprise!