Fantasy Football

Top 10 breakout players: Gonzo ready to rock

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Michael Harmon

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The fantasy draft season is starting to heat up, and we're constantly adjusting our spreadsheets and working our position-by-position rankings. The signing of Michael Vick, the return of Brett Favre and a flurry of preseason activity, including a number of injuries, has us salivating as if we're participating in a Pavlovian experiment. In this next entry to the preseason draft guide, I'm examining some of the potential breakout stars for 2009. I've left out some of the players who experienced a huge fantasy rush in 2008, such as Pierre Thomas, while including more second-year players than I normally would in such a list. I'm just that excited about the prospects of several of those running backs who didn't get to party with Matt Forte, Steve Slaton and the rest of the 2008 rookie running back class. Let's gets started with an obvious choice, Anthony Gonzalez of Indianapolis. Don't worry, we'll work to some less-heralded choices in short order.

10. David Clowney, WR, New York Jets

Chansi Stuckey, who scored in three straight games to open the brief Brett Favre era in New York, is penciled in as a starter for the Jets opposite Jerricho Cotchery. Clowney is making his bid for the slot role with a spectacular camp. The speedy second-year receiver from Virginia Tech, a former Green Bay draft choice, caught three passes for 102 yards and a touchdown against the Rams in the exhibition opener. Clowney caught a 48-yard pass from Mark Sanchez and later caught a 50-yard touchdown from Erik Ainge. You can't expect huge numbers from a No. 3 receiver with Sanchez, Kellen Clemens or Ainge on a regular basis, but Clowney could become a sneaky spot play.

9. Tony Scheffler, TE, Denver

Scheffler proved to be a solid receiving option in Mike Shanahan's offense during the past two years, but injuries prevented him from ascending to star status. That could happen in 2009, provided that Scheffler can stay healthy and Kyle Orton's interception parade is confined to the preseason. The 6-foot-5 tight end from Western Michigan has averaged 3.07 receptions per game in the past two years. His receiving average improved by nearly five yards per catch in 2008 as Jay Cutler worked to keep his team competitive in shootout after shootout. I expect to see more action for Scheffler in 2009 with Orton under center as the short and intermediate pass routes are his specialties. Scheffler's profile rises higher if Brandon Marshall decides to sit down, gets deactivated by the Broncos or gets his wish of a trade out of Denver.

8. Davone Bess, WR, Miami

Bess performed well as a rookie in 2008, averaging 3.4 receptions and 34.6 yards per game. He became a huge factor down the stretch when fellow receiver Greg Camarillo went down with a torn ACL. Bess averaged 5.83 receptions and 61 yards per game during the final six games of the year. Camarillo will be back, but I expect Bess to excel in his second year.

7. Donnie Avery, WR, St. Louis

Avery posted a tremendous rookie campaign, averaging 3.5 receptions (seven games with four or more receptions) and 44.9 yards per game with three touchdowns for the scuffling Rams. He recorded a catch of at least 20 yards in six different games. The second-year receiver out of Houston sustained a stress fracture in his left foot, which could sideline him for the beginning of the season. Obviously, given the ineptitude of the St. Louis offense in 2008 and Marc Bulger's injury (fractured finger), there is cause to hesitate when considering a Rams receiver. However, when healthy, Avery is a phenomenal downfield threat. With Torry Holt off to Jacksonville, Avery becomes the de facto No. 1 option in the passing game.

6. Chris Henry, WR, Cincinnati

Do I dare put Henry, described by quarterback Carson Palmer as "Randy Moss, Jr." back on this list? Does he even qualify for the list, given that he'd already experienced a breakout in 2006? Following two lost seasons because of off-field transgressions, Henry has rededicated himself to the game and has taken advantage of the opportunity with a tremendous camp. He caught seven passes for 100 yards and a touchdown in the Bengals' first preseason game against the Saints. Remember, nine of Henry's 36 receptions went for touchdowns in that explosive 2006 campaign. If he's healthy (and Palmer's healthy) and keeps his nose clean, Henry could post strong numbers as the No. 3 receiver behind Chad Ochocinco and Laveranues Coles.

5. Matt Schaub, QB, Houston

I hesitate to add Schaub to the list for 2009, as he appeared in last year's edition. He's also appeared in my potential sleeper and flop lists this season. I'm losing sleep over Matt Schaub — this is problematic. Schaub averaged an astounding 276.6 yards per game last season. Unfortunately, he only appeared in 11 games for the second straight year. Schaub completed nearly two-thirds of his pass attempts and effectively worked the ball to Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, Owen Daniels and rookie sensation Steve Slaton. I have Schaub ranked as a fantasy starter, and I'm hoping for great protection up front to keep him upright for 16 games. I must also elaborate on Walter. He has amassed 125 catches and 1,699 yards in the past two years. However, I'm optimistic that he takes his game to the next level in 2009. Walter topped only 80 receiving yards four times last year and, although he did score eight times, I expect to see him become a more consistent and explosive weekly option.

4. Greg Olsen, TE, Chicago

Olsen was the second-leading receiver for the Bears last year with 54 receptions. However, the third-year tight end from Miami topped 50 receiving yards on only three occasions. I'm expecting a huge season from him in 2009 as the Bears seek to locate another top-tier receiving option. Olsen is being split wide in practice and has excelled in downfield running routes. He has the ability to split the seams and could become a red zone monster for Jay Cutler's passing attack (he did score in three of the final four games last year).

3. Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore

Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain still figure to be in the mix, but the second-year back out of Rutgers is battling for the lead role in the run-heavy attack. Rice averaged 4.2 yards per carry last season (he missed the final three games of the year) and caught 33 balls out of the backfield. He possesses a great combination of power and speed and will benefit immensely from the fortified Baltimore offensive line (Matt Birk and Michael Oher, among others). Expectations of a workload split push his ADP down, and that makes for a potential fantasy bargain.

2. Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland

McFadden performed well as a rookie, but couldn't stay healthy and found himself mired in a battle for touches. He carried the ball more than 20 times in a game only once, a huge 164-yard performance against the Chiefs in Week 2. McFadden averaged 4.4 yards per carry and amassed 29 receptions. The second-year back from Arkansas performed well in the exhibition opener against Dallas, racking up 63 yards on four carries, including 45 and 13-yard sprints. The timeshare situation in the Oakland backfield with Justin Fargas and Michael Bush pushes McFadden down the draft board, but his ability to bounce to the outside and catch the ball out of the backfield could make him a fantasy star in 2009.

1. Anthony Gonzalez, WR, Indianapolis

We're well aware of the annual passing heroics from Peyton Manning and company in Indianapolis. Gonzalez now has the opportunity to work in the starting lineup opposite Reggie Wayne, as veteran Marvin Harrison has left the building. Manning has praised Gonzalez's skills for the past two seasons, and Gonzalez has excelled in the third slot, averaging 47 receptions and 620 yards per season (13.2 yards per catch). He becomes the poster boy for this year's "third-year receiver" column and could become a PPR machine while running slants for the ultra-efficient Manning. Gonzalez caught four or more passes in nine games last season, and that's just the beginning. I should also make note of 2008 draft choice Pierre Garcon, who has been strong in camp, per The Indianapolis Star . He's a speed option out of Mount Union who appeared in 14 games as a rookie. Garcon is battling 2009 selection Austin Collie for the third role.

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