Fantasy Hall of Fame: 2007 candidates


They are the giant men who make you weep. They are the beasts who are sublime. They are the most rewarding, most unexpected, most startling fantasy football players of 2007. And now they're candidates for ESPN's Fantasy Hall of Fame. Some of these men emerged from obscurity to become cogs in unbeatable fantasy machines. Others rose above past mediocrity to become legends. We're not just talking about fantasy football's highest scorers. We're talking about players who embody the fickle finger of fate that is fantasy football, players drafted far below the level of their eventual performance, surprises who changed the face of the game. They sure were fun to own this season, and they were absolutely no fun to play against.

Derek Anderson, QB, Browns

When Anderson took over for Charlie Frye during a Week 1 blowout loss, no one could've foreseen the post-spinach-Popeye performance this 24-year-old Scappoose, Ore., native would deliver Cleveland Browns fans … and his fantasy owners. From Week 2 to Week 14, Anderson never failed to amass double-digit fantasy points, and all told wound up scoring the sixth-most fantasy points among all NFL quarterbacks. Not bad for a guy who was supposed to be the understudy's understudy when the Browns drafted Brady Quinn in April. The dirty details: Anderson threw for 29 touchdowns, the second-highest total ever for a Cleveland signal-caller, and 3,787 passing yards, fifth most in franchise history. He threw for multiple touchdowns in 10 games, and in that scintillating 12-game span between Weeks 2 and 14, he never once finished outside the top 14 in weekly quarterback fantasy scoring. Anderson is the answer to the trivia question: "Who followed Jonathan Smith as Oregon State's starting quarterback?" and, needless to say, was taken in exactly zero fantasy drafts this fall. That'll be the last time anyone ever makes that particular mistake again.

Earnest Graham, RB, Buccaneers

The list of players who scored double-digit rushing touchdowns in 2007 reads like a who's who of studly fantasy backs: LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Joseph Addai, Clinton Portis, Marion Barber and … Earnest Graham? The tough but diminutive Graham went undrafted out of the University of Florida, had never carried more than 28 times in his three previous regular seasons, and had logged more than five carries in a game only once. When Cadillac Williams went down with a knee injury, and then Michael Pittman lost time to a high-ankle sprain, the Bucs still weren't convinced they should use Graham, and they traded for Michael Bennett. But Graham pulled a nutty Week 7 against Detroit: 19 carries for 92 yards and 13 catches for another 99, and suddenly "Showroom" was motoring down Highway 275 at MVP speeds. Despite starting only 10 games, Graham scored 10 rushing touchdowns and amassed 1,222 combined yards, including a stretch of six consecutive games with at least one TD. By season's end, he'd finished 11th in fantasy points among all running backs while accruing fewer carries than everyone above him, prompting his owners to shout, "Bam! It's Earnest Graham!"

Justin Fargas, RB, Raiders

Imagine it's August. You've just received a note from your best friend, who's proposed a gentleman's wager for you: Pick the man who'll accumulate more rushing yards in 2007, Steven Jackson or Justin Fargas. Who among us, other than the true Huggy Bear enthusiast, could've envisioned taking the Raider? And before you defend Jackson by saying he missed time, realize this: Fargas tallied his 1,009 yards on 222 carries, while Jackson needed 237 to get his 1,002. Indeed, of the 17 backs who eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark in 2007, who was less likely to do so than Fargas? He'd seen his first serious action in 2006 and had managed just 3.7 yards per carry, plus the Raiders had signed LaMont Jordan and Dominic Rhodes in each of the previous two offseasons. Yet where no one else could do the job, Fargas excelled in '07. He gave a taste with a massive 179-yard Week 4 effort against Miami, then took over as the full-time starter in Week 9. Until he tore a knee ligament against the Colts in Week 15, Fargas was a fantasy force, scoring four times, rumbling for 676 yards and forcing sportscasters across the land to repeat the phrase "Huggy Jr." And his back-to-back efforts in Weeks 12 and 13 (285 yards, two scores) clinched hundreds of fantasy playoff berths.

Brandon Marshall, WR, Broncos

Marshall was selected in a lot of fantasy drafts as a fashionable sleeper. But not even Giorgio Armani's pajamas (get it? "fashionable sleeper"?) could've been as sexy to own in 2007 as Marshall. Drafted on average as the 46th wide receiver, he wound up with 102 catches for 1,325 yards and seven scores; that put him sixth in receiving yards and fifth in receptions. Marshall was strong right away, scoring in Week 1 and putting up a career-high 133 yards receiving in Week 3, but he got even more valuable when it counted most. In the season's final four weeks, "Baby T.O." was more T.O. than T.O., to the tune of three 100-yard games, 411 total yards, 37 catches and three scores. All season, Marshall's chemistry with quarterback Jay Cutler was palpable: He had the most passes thrown his way (170) of any receiver in the NFL. And in those fateful four games from Weeks 14 to 17, Marshall was targeted a ludicrous 55 times. Size, hands and opportunity made Marshall an ultimate fantasy star, and considering it was only his second season, the best is yet to come.

Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys

At least Tom Brady was supposed to be elite. He'd already won three Super Bowls and posted excellent numbers for the better part of a decade, so although few predicted he'd be the league MVP, at least Brady was in the top-three-quarterback conversation. Romo? No way. The undrafted Eastern Illinois Panther had shown flashes upon winning the Dallas quarterback gig in '06 (notably a Thanksgiving mauling of Tampa Bay), but had faded badly, tossing eight interceptions and just six touchdowns his last five games. On average in 2007 drafts, the happy-go-lucky Romo was the 10th quarterback taken, in the seventh round. But that was P.J.S. (pre-Jessica Simpson). With the allure of "Dukes of Hazzard" and misidentified cans of tuna fish fresh in his mind, Romo went ballistic from jump street, throwing 11 touchdowns in the first four weeks of '07. In fact, he didn't fail to throw a touchdown pass until Week 15, and eclipsed the 300-yard passing mark in seven games. All told, Romo wound up the third-highest-scoring player in all of fantasy football, with an astonishing-in-any-other-year 36 touchdown passes.

Braylon Edwards, WR, Browns

They talked about Braylon Edwards, yes they did. They said he didn't have elite speed. They said he had a bad attitude. They said he'd wind up being David Terrell. But two years removed from major knee surgery and a year past a mediocre 884-yard campaign, Edwards blew up in that much-fêted third year. He racked up 80 catches (sixth most in Cleveland Browns history) for 1,289 yards (most ever for a Browns receiver and seventh in the NFL this season) and 16 touchdowns (second most in the league, most ever by a Browns receiver and the first time a Browns receiver had even reached double digits since 1969). On average, Edwards was the 29th-highest-drafted receiver in 2007, but he wound up third among wideouts in fantasy points, behind only Randy Moss and Terrell Owens. Heck, he had only five games where he didn't score a touchdown, and he posted fewer than 11 fantasy points on just five occasions. Consistency like that is born from Edwards' freakish athletic ability and his knack for getting open downfield. His 16.1 yards-per-catch average was seventh in the league, and his yards per catch minus his yards after catch (a stat which reflects how far downfield a receiver is when he makes his grabs) was 12.2, fifth best in football.

Greg Jennings, WR, Packers

Like Wilt Chamberlain, Jennings was proof that fantasy value is all about scoring. He wasn't even his own team's top receiving target (Donald Driver was), but when it counted, Jennings was money. After a rookie season in which he caught 20 passes for 354 yards and three scores in his first five games before getting hurt, Jennings became Brett Favre's deep threat, scoring from 40 or more yards away an incredible six times in '07. Of course, Jennings was also a darn good red zone target, too, as his six touchdowns from inside an opponent's 20 indicate. Overall, his 12 receiving scores tied him for fourth in the NFL, and despite being just the 37th receiver drafted onto fantasy rosters, he produced the 11th-most fantasy points at his position. Consider that Jennings missed the season's first two games with a bad hamstring and sat out the finale with a bad ankle, and his feats are even more impressive. Indeed, nobody made more of his opportunities for fantasy glory in 2007 than Jennings. His 53 catches tied him for just 43rd in the NFL, and his 84 targets put him 53rd (by contrast, Driver's numbers in those two categories were 82 and 122, yet he scored just twice). But when this world-class athlete got his hands on the ball, magic happened.

Roddy White, WR, Falcons

Time hasn't been kind to many of the 2005 NFL draft's first-round receivers. Braylon Edwards was terrific this past season, but check out these other names: Troy Williamson, Mike Williams, Matt Jones and Mark Clayton. Eesh. But the 27th pick that year, Roddy White, took the third-year wide receiver jump into the deep-threat stratosphere in '07. With good reason, White went undrafted in just about every fantasy league; before this season, he'd caught just 59 balls for only 952 yards and three scores in his two-year career. Yet even amid the mess in Atlanta, with a revolving team of mediocre quarterbacks getting him the ball, White broke out: 83 catches, 1,202 yards and six touchdowns, making him 2007's 15th-highest-scoring fantasy receiver. He finished tied for eighth (with Marques Colston) in the NFL in receiving yards, and had fewer targets than anyone else in the top 10. He also had a higher yards-after-catch average (5.7) than anyone else in the top 10. And White was huge when it counted most: He scored a touchdown in four of the Falcons' final six games and amassed over 100 yards receiving in three.

Bobby Engram, WR, Seahawks

It's not as if Engram doesn't have the pedigree. He's the career receiving leader at Penn State, and in his senior year at Happy Valley (waaaaay back in 1995), he set school records for receptions and yards receiving. But he's 35 now, and through his entire 11-year NFL career leading into 2007 he'd been at best a second fiddle, and often a third, to guys like Ricky Proehl, Curtis Conway, Marcus Robinson, Koren Robinson, Darrell Jackson, Joe Jurevicius and Deion Branch. But the injury gods favored Engram and his soft slot-receiver's hands this season. Neither Branch nor D.J. Hackett could stay healthy, so Engram became the lead dog, catching a career-high 94 passes for a career-high 1,147 yards (his first 1,000-yard campaign) and six touchdowns. Most importantly, in a sea of Seahawks receivers whose hands you could use to smash walnuts, Engram was Matt Hasselbeck's only reliable pass grabber, converting his targets into receptions 70.1 percent of the time, the seventh-best rate in the NFL. After all was said and done, Engram, who went undrafted in just about every fantasy league, finished 16th in fantasy scoring among receivers, making him one of the year's most productive midseason pickups.

Wes Welker, WR, Patriots

Welker had the best hands in football this season. Literally. He caught 112 passes, tied for most in the NFL, on 145 targets, which was 11th-most. Do the math, and you'll see Welker converted a ridiculous 77.2 percent of his targets into receptions, tops in the league. In the average fantasy draft, he was the 49th receiver taken, yet he finished with 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns, which made him the 12th-highest-scoring receiver in fantasy football. But these numbers don't do the enormity of Welker's fantasy effort justice, because he played on the same team, at the same position, as Randy Moss, the guy who shattered the single-season mark for touchdown receptions. Raise your hand if you believed before the season started that Welker would challenge Reggie Wayne and T.J. Houshmandzadeh for the best No. 2 receiver performance of the decade. And remember: Unlike those other guys, Welker does his damage out of the slot, which limits his home run-hitting ability. Guys his size are rarely elite red zone threats, but seven of Welker's scores came from inside the opponent's 20, and three came from inside the 3-yard line. Not bad for a guy traded in exchange for a second-round draft pick.

Ryan Grant, RB, Packers

In 2005, Grant was a practice-squad running back for the Giants and spent each week studying tape of the opponent's best rusher and then impersonating him in practice. That season he played the role of Deuce McAllister, LaDainian Tomlinson, Steven Jackson, Clinton Portis, Brian Westbrook and Shaun Alexander, among others. This year he played the role of savior. The Packers believed they'd find a lead dog from a group that included rookies Brandon Jackson and DeShawn Wynn and third-year man Vernand Morency. Instead Wynn got hurt and the other two guys weren't very good, so Grant got his chance to start beginning in Week 8. In the season's final 10 games, he turned in five 100-yard efforts, scored eight touchdowns (and didn't fail to score in a game after Week 11) and broke scores of 66, 62, 30 and 27 yards. Despite having just six carries through the first seven weeks, Grant wound up 16th among running backs in fantasy scoring. He also finished an impressive 19th in rushing yards (956) and sixth in yards per carry (5.1). Next thing you know, practice-squad kids will be imitating Grant.

Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings

On average, Peterson was a fourth-round fantasy pick this season, the 23rd running back selected. Heck, he wasn't even the first rookie rusher taken in most drafts; that distinction went to Marshawn Lynch, who didn't have Chester Taylor breathing down his neck. Yet so dominating was Peterson when he was healthy in 2007, there'll be a legitimate case for taking him first overall in your 2008 draft. You had to see him play only once. He was Barry Sanders, but bigger; Walter Payton but quicker. Despite splitting time with Taylor for a sizable chunk of the season, and despite missing two games entirely with a torn knee ligament, Peterson finished second in the NFL in rushing yards (1,341), and tied for second in rushing touchdowns (12). He was first in rushing yards per game (95.8), second in yards per carry (5.6), and took runs of 73, 67, 64, 46, 35 and 20 yards to the house. He also posted two games with three touchdowns and two with over 200 yards rushing and broke Jamal Lewis's single-game rushing record with a ludicrous 296-yard day against an otherwise very good San Diego defense. Call him "All Day" or call him "AP," but either way, call this rookie of the year one of the biggest fantasy studs of 2007.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com.
You can e-mail him here.