The Free Press, Mankato, MN

The end is in sight. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve survived the first round or two of your playoffs and are getting ready to win it all.

This final column of the season is devoted to keepers. Specifically, those players you should consider protecting going into next season.

Keeper leagues, like most regular leagues, have different rules. Some allow the protection of only one player, others allow the protection of as many players as you choose, most fall somewhere in between.

For the purposes of this column I will operate under the assumption that you may keep no more than three players.

We’ll start with the “Duh” category — those players who should be protected no matter what the penalty.

The Duh running backs are Adrian Peterson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Joseph Addai, Reggie Bush, Steven Jackson, Marshawn Lynch, Brian Westbrook, Maurice Jones-Drew and Willis McGahee. Not all of these running backs have had great seasons — in fact, some like Bush were downright awful — but their potential is just too good for next year not to be considered definite keepers.

The Duh receivers are Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Braylon Edwards, Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Wayne. The quarterbacks are Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Tony Romo, Carson Palmer and Ben Roethlisberger. Antonio Gates is the lone definite keeper among tight ends.

You don’t have to look closely to notice some big names missing from this Duh category, namely — running back Larry Johnson, wide receiver Steve Smith and wide receiver Marvin Harrison. Johnson just missed the cut, not because of his injury problems this year but because of Kansas City’s horrible offensive line and inconsistent situation at quarterback. It may take him a few years to get back to the upper echelon of the running back heap.

Smith still has loads of potential but Carolina’s quarterback spot is also unsettled. Until the Panthers get a competent passer, Smith may flounder.

Harrison is the most likely of the three to rebound next season and have another strong year. The rest of the Colts’ offense is still intact and, even if rookie Anthony Gonzalez continues to emerge, Harrison should be an above average fantasy receiver the next few seasons.

Johnson, Smith and Harrison fall into the second tier of keepers — those who should probably be kept but are not necessarily locks. The second tier also includes running backs Willie Parker, Marion Barber, Ryan Grant, Ronnie Brown and Earnest Graham.

Second tier receivers include Larry Fitzgerald, T.J Houshmandzadeh, Tory Holt and Chad Johnson. Among the quarterbacks are Drew Brees, Matt Hasselbeck and Derek Anderson. Jason Witten is the only second tier keeper among tight ends.

Again, a close look at the list reveals some marquee omissions. Among them are running backs Frank Gore, Rudi Johnson and Clinton Portis, as well as receivers Anquan Boldin, Roy Williams and Lee Evans. Depending on who else you keep, they could sneak into that second-tier category.

Other guys who may creep in over the last few weeks of this season are: LenDale White (RB) Tennessee; Kevin Jones (RB) Detroit; Jamal Lewis (RB) Cleveland; Plaxico Burress (WR) N.Y. Giants; Brandon Marshall (WR) Denver; Santonio Holmes (WR) Pittsburgh; Greg Jennings (WR) Green Bay; Brandon Jacobs (RB) N.Y. Giants, Travis Henry (RB) Denver, Shaun Alexander (RB) Seattle, Marques Colston (WR) New Orleans, Kellen Winslow (TE) Cleveland and Hines Ward (WR) Pittsburgh.

Keep your eye on them and act accordingly. That’s all folks, good luck in the finals.

Jim Rueda is the Free Press sports editor. To contact him, call 344-6381 or e-mail him at jrueda@mankatofree

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