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Career Year or Fantasy Star?

Matt Schaub led the NFL in passing yards last season with a career-high 4,770 yards.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - While many of the rushing, passing and receiving leaders stay the same from year to year, a few new names come and go each season. For the fantasy owner, determining which players had a career year and therefore will be drafted too high and which players have pushed their career to a new level of production is the key to winning a fantasy league.

In 2008, running backs Steve Slaton and Matt Forte both finished in the top-10 in yards gained on the ground. Slaton, a third round selection out of West Virginia, surprised Houston Texans fans and fantasy owners alike by posting 1,282 yards and nine touchdowns in his rookie season. Forte, a second-round pick from Tulane, carried the Chicago Bears offense, rushing for 1,238 yards, hauling in 63 passes for 477 yards and scoring 12 times.

Many fantasy owners thought both would repeat their performances in 2009 and drafted Forte fourth overall (2009 RapidDraft ADP 4.2) and Slaton 14th (ADP 13.5). Those that did likely saw their season go down in flames as both runners failed to produce numbers anywhere close to their 2008 level.

In Slaton's case, not only did he not put up similar statistics, but he lost his starting job - first to Chris Brown and then to Ryan Moats and Arian Foster.

In contrast, running back DeAngelo Williams was just 29th in rushing yards in 2007 (717 yards), but improved to third-best in 2008 with 1,515 yards on the ground. Had he not missed the final three games due to injury, Williams would have matched his rushing total in 2009 (though not his TD total). He still finished 13th in rushing yards despite missing the trio of games down the stretch.

Below are seven players where we saw drastic increases in their production in 2009. It's our job to evaluate whether they can do it again.

Matt Schaub, QB, Houston - Schaub led the NFL in passing yards last season with a career-high 4,770 yards. He also had career highs in completion percentage (67.9), yards-per-passing attempt (8.2), touchdowns (29), passing rating (98.6) and 300-yards games (9). With Andre Johnson maturing into the best receiver in the game, the return of talented tight end Owen Daniels from injury and two more solid receivers in Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones, there is no reason for Schaub to stumble. He is currently being selected as the sixth quarterback off the board (RapidDraft ADP 52.5), which should make him a "bargain."

Cedric Benson, RB, Cincinnati - After being a high draft choice of the Chicago Bears in 2005, Benson finally came into his own in 2009 for the Cincinnati Bengals. Despite missing three games, Benson ran for 1,251 yards and six scores. During the past offseason the team labored hard to improve their passing game, but Benson should still get close to 300 carries in 2010 as there isn't anyone with whom to share much of the workload. He should be a bargain as a fifth-round selection (ADP 52.0).

Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore - Rice was the third option in the Ravens backfield in 2008 behind Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain. However, things changed drastically in 2009 with Rice becoming the starter. He posted 1,339 yards on the ground and added a new dimension as a dangerous pass catcher with 78 receptions for another 702 yards. Although McGahee is still the goal line option, Rice should be able to reproduce last year's 2,000 yards from scrimmage. However, he won't be the bargain he was in 2009 when his ADP was 103.4, because he will cost you the fourth overall pick to get him this time.

Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City - Over the second half of the season, Charles was the second-best fantasy running back behind Chris Johnson. There are questions, however, as to whether he can reproduce those numbers in 2010 primarily because the team brought in Thomas Jones, who should see plenty of playing time after rushing for more than 1,400 yards last season with the Jets. I would find it difficult to select Charles in the first round because of Jones, but that's what you will have to do because his ADP is 8.4.

Miles Austin, WR, Dallas - In 2008, Austin caught just 13 balls for 278 yards and three touchdowns. So when he exploded onto the scene in Week 5 against Kansas City (10-250-2) hardly anyone had him on their roster. He finished the season with 81 receptions for 1,320 yards and 11 scores. My concern is that the Cowboys have more weapons than any team in the league and they may distribute them more evenly in 2010. While Austin was a 13th-round pick in 2009 and a huge bargain, he'll cost you a late first-round pick in 2010 (ADP 10.9). He should give you "fair market value" at that price, but now has more downside than upside.

Sidney Rice, WR, Minnesota - No receiver benefited more from a change in starting quarterback than Rice did when Brett Favre came to the Vikings in 2009. Rice jumped from a fantasy non-entity to a superstar the minute Favre decided he had confidence in his young receiver and Rice went from a 15-catch season in 2008 to 83 receptions for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns last year. Although I believe Favre will be back behind center on Opening Day, I'm not as sure that Rice will be in uniform because he has been bothered with a hip problem. Given that you will have to use a second-round pick to get him, there is too much of a downside to take that gamble.

Vernon Davis, TE, San Francisco - It's amazing how quickly Davis went from the head coach's doghouse to fantasy star. In October 2008, Davis was an underachieving tight end who was asked to leave the field by coach Mike Singletary. Yet in 2009 he was the No.1 fantasy tight end with 78 receptions for 965 yards and a league-leading 13 touchdowns. The 49ers have become a "passing team" (59 percent pass - 41 percent run in 2009) and Davis should be able to post similar numbers in 2010 so selecting him in the fifth-round (ADP 53) should not be much of a gamble.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Steve Schwarz at sschwarz@sportsnetwork.com.

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