Tuesday, May 31, 2005

NFL QB REVIEW... PART 2! THE 2 1/2 STAR QUARTERBACKS

Assessing Fantasy Football's Quarterbacks Part II; 2 1/2 STAR Signal Callers
By Jamey Feuer

Peyton Manning's long gone, so is Tom Brady, and Trent Green, Donovan McNabb, and Daunte Culpepper have all been pulled off the draft board as well. Mike Vick- a brilliant athlete but a confounding QB- Well? you'd like to see a pass catcher other than tight end Alge Crumpler step up, so you're inclined to take a pass on him, and you're concerned that Brett Favre's level of play will continue to decline. So, what WILL you do? Where WILL you find your fantasy quarterback?
Fret not fellow fantasy football fiends! Despite the fact that we've covered the NFL's top fantasy field generals, several young signal callers are making rapid ascensions, and a couple of veteran QBs are in new and intriguing situations as well. Let's examine the...

2 1/2 STAR QUARTERBACKS

Oakland Raiders: Kerry Collins 2 1/2 STARS; 3,495 yards, 21 TDs, 20 INTs, Passer Rating 74.8:
Towards the end of his Giant career, Kerry Collins became a wide-eyed, glass-jawed shell of an NFL quarterback. The recipient of some absolute tattoos, Collins always seemed to be anticipating the next big hit. Consequently, he developed a maddening case of "happy feet." And, thus began a rapid trip... downhill. Collins' skittishness begat poor mechanics; poor mechanics begat a reluctance to step into his throws; that reluctance begat poor accuracy; poor accuracy begat Giant head coach Tom Coughlin to cut ties with the QB who has yet to make good on his talent. A rocket-armed, one-dimensional pocket passer who has become a bit of a journeyman, Collins throws one of the prettiest deep balls in the league. And, because of that arm, each team that has furnished Collins with a paycheck has envisioned him as the answer to their starting QB prayers. Exit the N.Y Giants- enter the Oakland Raiders and team owner Al Davis. A devout believer in the vertical passing game, Davis holds speed and arm strength (and some would venture questionable character) in the highest regard. Collins is Davis' latest reclamation project and fits the Raider mold perfectly. Although his predecessor Rich Gannon played Pro Bowl caliber football, Collins has the arm strength that Davis covets and Gannon lacked. Significantly, the offense began to click over the final quarter of last season with Collins at the helm. Even though the team dropped 5 of its last 7 games, Collins and cronies hung some eye-popping numbers on opponents, including 3-330+ yard passing days and a 5 TD, week 15 explosion against Tennessee. Impressive- no? Impressive- yes. But then Al Davis, never one to eschew headlines or big name athletes for the sake of character, pulled the trigger on the biggest deal the league has seen in years. In addition to the considerable pass catching talent the team already fields, Davis provided offensive coordinator Norv Turner with a "division changing" talent; former All-Pro Viking receiver Randy Moss. Collins now has a battery of pass catchers at his disposal the likes of which he's never enjoyed. While in New York Collins' greatest strength, the deep ball, was wasted. Now, in Raider-land, he would appear to be the ideal fit. Keeping opposing defenses honest will be another transplanted New Yorker, former backup Jet running back LaMont Jordan. Bottom line? Collins has ascended the fantasy ranks in impressive fashion. This former fantasy 3rd stringer, thanks to the presence of both Randy Moss and a legit' run game, should now be considered a true #1 fantasy field general. Collins could easily meet, or exceed, a line of 30 TDs and 3,700 passing yards.

*EXTRA POINTS: Few teams have the cornerback depth to match up with a wide receiving corps of Moss, Porter, Gabriel and Curry. Add hulking tight end Teyo Johnson to the mix, and the Raider passing game has become one of the most formidable in the league. The talented troika of Moss, Porter, and Curry are all 1,000 yard receiving threats, and Moss should be the recipient of 95-105 passes. Opponents inclined to drop into nickel or dime coverage in order to better defend against Oakland?s "shock and awe" air campaign can expect to pay a heavy price. RB LaMont Jordan, who swapped coasts in order to pursue his feature back dreams, has a running style that meshes well with the Raider philosophy. If the vertical passing game is "the haymaker," then the 230 Lb. Jordan is "the body blow." A big dude, Jordan has nice wiggle and enough speed to slip into the secondary. Jordan's punishing style should wear opposing D-backs down, making them reluctant to square up on him late in games. As for the other side of the ball? The defense, while tweaked, did not receive anywhere near the same level of attention or improvement. Former Eagle DE Derrick Burgess was the only addition of note, and he's been an injury prone athlete. The secondary received the most off-season attention, and again speed was the name of the game. Using their first 2 draft picks, the Raiders selected a pair of corners (Fabian Washington and Stanford Routt) who both possess sub 4.3 speed. The Raider's suspect D ensures that they will again be engaged in some high scoring shootouts.

Carolina Panthers: Jake Delhomme 2 1/2 STARS: 3,886 Yards, 30 TDs (1 Rushing), 15 Ints Passer Rating 87.3:
A "steady-Eddie" QB can be a fantasy footballer's best friend, and few passers were more consistent than Delhomme. Recording scoring strikes in 15 of 17 games, and with 11 multiple-TD games to his credit, Delhomme was as reliable as any fantasy QB in '04. While his control was admittedly a bit rocky through week 6, an unfortunate spate of injuries forced these cats to almost completely revise their offensive philosophy. Delhomme should, therefore, be accorded some slack. A tough, reliable, and gritty athlete, Delhomme inspires confidence in his teammates. Assuming the Panthers' top skill position players return to health, Delhomme's numbers could even creep up a bit this season. That being said, investigative journalists from TV's "60 Minutes" news program leveled troubling steroid allegations against the team, and they were placed under uncomfortable scrutiny. How this will manifest itself next season remains to be seen, although no suspensions seem imminent. Nevertheless, the incident leaves an ugly mark on a squad just one year removed from the Superbowl.
On the brighter side, the Panthers, recognizing that games are won and lost in the trenches, selected 3 offensive lineman and 2 defensive linemen in April's draft. These moves ensure depth on both fronts, providing no small measure of security. Plus, the team snagged a power back with their 2nd round pick, 245 Lb RB Eric Shelton. This is significant for Delhomme's owners, for RB Stephen Davis' return is anything but assured. Attempting to return to the field after serious knee surgery, Davis' recovery has been an arduous process. Shelton, who coaches say has a similar style to Davis, is a bruiser, capable of punishing defenders. His presence alleviates some of the considerable pressure placed upon smaller runner, DeShaun Foster. Foster, who is a speed back, has durability issues and finished 2 of the past 3 seasons on IR. As far as the pass catchers go? Again, the theme here is recovery. Carolina's #1 receiver, Steve Smith, is also on the mend. During last year's week 1 game against Green Bay, Packer 'backer Hannibal Navies fell across Smith's leg, breaking it. Now, some nine months later, Panther head coach John Fox claims that the veteran pass catcher is "completely recovered" and "as explosive as he's ever been." Operating under the assumption that Smith is indeed back to form, coupled with emerging WR Keary Colbert and the "methusalean" yet clever Ricky Proehl, Delhomme's receivers are an above average group.

*EXTRA POINTS: The team experienced an unfortunate confluence of injuries at the skill positions last season, yet they hung tough, made an admirable playoff run, and displayed outstanding grit and moxie. Delhomme was the glue that held Carolina's ship together. Accordingly, his leadership inspired his teammates to play better, and arguably above their heads. If the team enjoys good health, look for the offense to hum like a Swiss watch; RB Eric Shelton possesses the potential to be a devastating goal-line weapon, WR Steve Smith (if he indeed has regained his burst) could post 8-10 TDs, WR Keary Colbert should continue to improve and be a viable #2-3 fantasy receiver, and Delhomme should be at least as good as he was last season; 33-35 TDs and 3,900 yards are not at all unreasonable projections for '05.

Cincinnati Bengals: Carson Palmer 2 1/2 STARS: 2,897 yards, 19 TDs (1 rushing), 18 INTs, Passer Rating 77.3: The light really seemed to come on for the Bengal's young QB towards the end of the '04 season. Although Palmer tossed 5 picks over his last 3 games (Palmer's season ended in week 15 due to injury), he also threw 9 TDs, shamed the Raven secondary when he lit 'em up for 380+ passing yards, posted an average Passer Rating of 108.6, and improved demonstrably. Not too shabby, all the more impressive as these numbers came against 3 of the league's best defenses; Baltimore, New England, and Cleveland. Palmer, entering in 3rd season, is complemented by an outstanding core of offensive talent. In Pro Bowler Chad Johnson, Palmer has a top 5 receiver; a fearless, brash, vertical threat, capable of out-leaping most defensive backs. In T.J Houshmanzadeh (73 grabs in '04), Palmer has one of the league's most reliable possession receivers, and in running back Rudi Johnson Palmer has a physical runner, capable of knocking foes back on their heels. The Bengal offense has the potential to be one of the leagues most explosive in '05. In an attempt to improve his mobility, an issue last season, Palmer dropped 30 Lbs and will play at 220 or so. Although he felt the added weight would help him absorb the punishment a pro signal caller must endure over a 16 game regular season, coaches felt that Carson was too stiff and immobile in the pocket.
Due to his youth, there's really not much of an NFL book on Carson Palmer. Although he's shown great promise, some fantasy experts feel that gambling a first round draft pick on him might be risky. Perhaps. Especially if your team already boasts a top tier QB and enjoys good skill position depth. But, the reality is, Palmer has all the physical tools needed to succeed in the pros and the Bengal coaching staff made certain that he has an ample offensive arsenal at hand. Look for the Cincinnati signal caller to emerge this season, and be a top fantasy (and real) QB in '06.

*EXTRA POINTS: Hindering the Bengal O is the lack of a pass catching tight end, though Matt Schobel has shown flashes of ability. Likewise, expecting RB Rudi Johnson to remain unscathed over 16 games is unreasonable. The team would like last year's 1st round pick, RB Chris Perry, to shake the injury bug and provide a speedy change of pace run game. Last season, Perry notched two totes for 1 yard. Yeah, well, it was a lost season for the 6', 220 Lb back, and coaches hope that an off-season of strength and conditioning work has improved his durability. Assuming the former Michigan Wolverine can stay on the field, his pass catching skills, which are above average for a running back, will be an asset to Palmer on swing passes, screens, and blitz dump offs. In addition, the team is excited by what this year's 3rd round pick, WR Chris Henry, brings to the table. Another of the new, taller breed of pass catcher (6' 4"), Henry comes into Cincy' camp loaded with talent... and baggage. If wide receivers coach Hue Jackson can get the former West Virginia Mountaineer straightened out, Henry and Johnson will form as dangerous a pass catching duo as exists in the league. With the weapons at his disposal, Carson Palmer has the potential to be a legit' #1 fantasy QB. And, though the team faces a daunting '05 schedule (they face the high powered teams of the NFC North), a 25 TD, 3,300 yard season may be within Palmer?s reach.

New Orleans Saints: Aaron Brooks: 2 1/2 STARS: 3,810 Yards, 25 TDs (4 rushing), 16 INTs, Passer Rating 79.5:
You know a franchise is floundering when finishing with a .500 record is reason to cheer. The team demonstrated poor discipline, set a franchise record for penalty yards assessed, and reverted back to it's 'Aints alter-ego for most of this past season. The team's confluence of offensive talent flat-out underachieved, and to say that the offense started each game sloooowly would be a marked understatement; New Orleans scored precisely two first-quarter TDs all season! Although questionable coaching decisions and RB Deuce McAllister's balky ankle were partly responsible for the team's offensive shortcomings, much of the blame falls upon QB Aaron Brooks' shoulders. Possessing an irritating penchant for handing the ball back to the opposition, Brooks recorded turnovers in 11 of 16 games and multiple turnovers in six of those contests. At this point in his career Brooks must become more consistent and stop trying to get by on physical ability alone. This will be a pivotal season for the mercurial QB, for his offensive coordinator and chief cheerleader/apologist Mike McCarthy (now with the 49'ers) has departed. Along with McCarthy went most of the leeway afforded Brooks for his numerous mental errors and boneheaded plays.
Now, let's look at the brighter side of things because Aaron Brooks is a very respectable fantasy QB. Having thrown TD passes in all but one game, and multiple TDs in nine games last season, Brooks is an excellent scoring league weapon. One very significant, and often overlooked statistic- Aaron Brooks' toughness and reliability; he hasn't missed a game in 4 seasons. In addition, the Saint QB possesses great mobility (Would you expect anything less? He is, after all, Michael Vick's cousin) and is unafraid to leave the pocket. Such elusiveness adds another dimension to both Brooks' game and the Saints' O. A talented roster affords Brooks with a variety of targets. WR Joe Horn had a 94 catch, 11 TD, 1,399 receiving yard campaign, and has the speed to slip past defenders, can make the circus catch, and is excellent after the catch. WR Donte' Stallworth, finally able to stay healthy, had a respectable 5 TD season and projects to improve. And lastly, look for stud RB Deuce McAllister to return to his former Pro Bowl form. A severe ankle sprain had the Saint 'back hobbled for most of last season. Even so, Deuce broke loose for 1,000+ yards and 9 TDs. Imagine what a healthy Deuce will do!

*EXTRA POINTS: The bottom line? While Aaron Brooks' TD total dropped by 3 last season, his INTs doubled. That would indicate a step backwards. However, one cannot diminish the impact that RB Deuce McAllister's poor season had upon Brooks, and indeed the entire offense. Looking towards this coming season, coaches have had nothing but praise for Brooks. They claim to have seen a "new" and "re-dedicated" QB, and one who is apparently in the best physical shape of his career. Could this "nose to the grindstone" mentality possibly be attributable to the threatening presence of rookie QB Adrian McPherson? The Saints took the 6'4", 220 Lb Florida State product in the 5th round of this year's draft. A raw player, McPherson enters the NFL with more baggage then a Boeing 747. A serious gambling scandal assured that the NCAA would never permit McPherson to play college ball again and precipitated his draft day plummet. McPherson then chose to enter the Arena Football League. He blew away the competition as the youngest athlete in the league, and enters the NFL drawing comparisons to Randall Cunningham. Aaron Brooks IS on notice. While Adrian McPherson probably won't be NFL ready this season...

Jacksonville Jaguars: QB Byron Leftwich: 2 1/2 STARS: 2,491 yards, 17 TDs (2 rushing), 10 INTs, Passer Rating 82.2:
To this point, Byron Leftwich has been a reliable if unspectacular fantasy starter. Many have projected him to blossom into a "poor man's Daunte Culpepper" this season. I've yet to be convinced of that. From a fantasy perspective, you've got to like the fact that "Lefty" tossed TD passes in 11 of 16 games last season and threw more TDs then INTs. Leftwich's success has been attributable to an admirable work ethic, and to some degree, #1 receiver Jimmy Smith. The team had been playing a West Coast style of offense, but managed a mere 16 points per game; ranking 29th in the league in points last season. Due to the team's offensive struggles, and the potential stagnation of Leftwich, the team parted ways with former offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave (now with the Dolphins). Now, new coordinator Carl Smith has some grand plans for Lefty and friends. Smith intends to implement an ambitious system that blends a ball control ground game with an aggressive downfield passing attack. At first blush, such an approach might seem counter-intuitive. Given the team's offensive personnel, however, subscribing entirely to a vertical passing would be unwise and RB Fred Taylor (slow to mend from knee surgery), who may be slowing down, has never been anyone's idea of a "grind it out" back. The team really needs last year's 1st round pick, WR Reggie Williams, to take a big step forward this season. Williams reported to April mini-camp at 210, down 20 Lbs from last season. As a by-product of his new slimmed down physique, coaches expect Williams to be quicker in and out of his breaks, and more of a factor this season. He had better be, because veteran wideout Jimmy Smith, although he did rack up 1,100+ receiving yards last season, will soon be eligible to file for his AARP card. Further, the team used this year's first round pick on a pass catching project; former Arkansas QB Matt Jones. Jones, at 6'5" and 240 Lbs, has a wideout's speed (4.39 40) and tight end's size. Nonetheless, even with his brilliant measurables, league observers question Jones' short area quickness (which could impact his ability to separate) and ability to contribute this season. The rookie is attempting to make a very difficult transition, has a history of groin and hamstring troubles, is currently shelved due to a hammy' pull suffered on the first day of mini-camp, and the team, quite arguably, would have been better off taking the draft's most NFL ready pass catcher, Mark Clayton. Clayton was taken by Baltimore with the very next pick. And, if the team questioned Clayton's size (5'10") they could've gone with 6'3' WR Roddy White, taken several picks later by the Falcons.
While owners can look for a season that was better than last for Leftwich (project for 20-23 TDs and 2,700 passing yards), he doesn't seem quite ready to mount a 30 TD campaign. A savvy owner will have a solid backup plan- just in case.

*Extra Points: Again, as with athletes such as Atlanta's Michael Vick and Philly's Donovan McNabb (assuming Owens indeed holds out for a new contract), a QB's fantasy value hinges upon the pass catching talent at hand. Leftwich will have to make do with Jimmy Smith and? and? right, who exactly? In addition to a dearth of pass catchers, it should also be noted that Leftwich is frequently banged up and plays hurt with some regularity; a knee injury cost him 2 games last season. If a credible receiving threat emerges opposite the aging Jimmy Smith, Lefty's value will escalate considerably.

Monday, May 23, 2005

THE NFL'S QUARTERBACKS; A FANTASY REVIEW!

Fantasy football, and indeed rotisserie sports in general, have enjoyed a huge upswell in popularity in recent years. We’re talking tens of millions of participants here. The advent of the Internet, the “global community,” the markedly increased visibility of fantasy sports, and the sheer volume of fantasy sites available to enthusiasts are all contributors to this explosive growth. In turn, fantasy gaming has become a multibillion dollar industry. But when you get right down to it... fantasy gaming pits one participant’s acumen and gut instinct against another's. And therein lies the real appeal. Accordingly, most fantasy gamers have “pet theories” and strategies for drafting and setting up their respective rosters. While each rotisserie sport will require a different approach, for scoring differs dramatically between individual fantasy sports, in the end? Fantasy gaming is all about points.
And, while no roto sport will allow a single athlete to carry a team, fantasy football does permit a degree of dominance. Sure, in fantasy hoops Lebron James or Allen Iverson might put on a clinic and score enough fantasy points to put his respective owners’ teams over the top in a given week or two. But, given the fact that basketball consists of an 82 game regular season PLUS playoff games, such athletes contributions are kept in relative check. Fantasy baseball? A 162 game regular season will ensure that almost any player’s (let’s exclude Barry Bonds who’s currently shelved, and Albert Pujols, who may be the closest thing to Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio baseball’s seen in a generation) season consists of peaks and valleys. Nope’. Fantasy football has a 16 game (plus 1 bye week) regular season, and that’s brief enough to allow for dominance as Indianapolis’ QB Peyton Manning demonstrated last season. While there’s but one Peyton Manning, there ARE several quarterbacks capable of guiding your fantasy football franchise to the post-season promised land. Let’s break it down.

The 4 STAR Quarterback.
To have an athlete of THIS caliber as part of your fantasy franchise is to have an athlete capable of single-handedly winning a week, and indeed perhaps the entire season for you. Naturally, scoring, point systems, and values will vary from league to league but there are really just two types of leagues; those that emphasize yardage and those that emphasize scoring. And, then there are some leagues that place value upon both. A solid quarterback should thrive in all three types of leagues, unlike a running back who might be either a short yardage or goal line specialist, such as Steeler Jerome Bettis, or a back who sees little of the end zone but accrues lots of yardage, like Jaguar Fred Taylor. Quarterbacks, due to the nature of the position, are a fantasy team's most crucial component. Again, points and the specific way they're tallied will vary from league to league, but a signal caller can pass for a TD, run for a TD, run or pass for a 2 point conversion, throw for "X number of yards," etc. The position's very versatility ensures it's point scoring prominence. So, while you can “cut corners” and take a #1 wide receiver later in your league's draft... best grab your franchise QB first. That's the way NFL draft days go down, and your fantasy draft should be no different!

Indianapolis Colts: Peyton Manning: 4,557 Yards, 49 TDs, 10 INTs, Passer Rating: 121.1:
Last season, the Colt QB was almost single minded in his pursuit of legendary Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino's single season TD record. Now that Manning's able to jot that particular record down on his resume (which will surely be just one of many by the time he hangs up the spikes), he can pursue his most elusive quarry to date; a Superbowl berth. With one of the NFL's deepest (if not THE deepest) receiving corps at his disposal, a swift, powerful, top 7 running back in Edgerrin James to hand off to, and a speedy, sure handed tight end in Dallas Clark, Manning couldn't ask for a more lethal, more versatile arsenal. When discussing Peyton Manning and his ability, football fans frequently lapse into fits of hyperbole. Yet, it would seem as if no amount of praise would prove too lavish when mulling Manning's accomplishments. He is, quite arguably, the best QB of this era; a paragon of passing excellence who, years from now, will evoke claims of "I saw him play." Manipulating his offense in much the same manner a great director does his cast, Peyton Manning is capable of seeing things that others cannot, much like a director can "see" things that others cannot. Thus, the already prolific QB can unmask and exploit almost any defense, even when the best defensive coordinator has done his best to camouflage its weaknesses. Last season, with unpleasant regularity, Manning would direct his team down field to a score, head to the sidelines in search of a breather and cup of Gatorade, and be forced to hop back onto the field within minutes due to the team's largely fictitious defense. So, as expected, defense, and particularly the porous secondary (The first 2 picks were spent on corners), was a draft day priority. Expect the team to make a real push towards Superbowl 39. With the bitter taste of divisional championship defeat still on his tongue and fresh in his mind, look for Manning to post another statistically absurd season. Although his TD total will probably be far closer to 40 than 50, Peyton Manning should again be fantasy football's most dangerous weapon... and its number one overall draft pick.

*EXTRA POINTS: Last season, motivated perhaps too much by what his legacy might be, Manning was throwing the ball constantly, even in obvious run situations. Look for a more balanced red zone approach this season. Also, former safety valve and TD specialist, TE Marcus Pollard was released by the team in a salary cap move. Although Pollard notched a mere 29 receptions in '04, 6 went for TDs. Thus, the team will be unable to run their preferred 2 TE sets. Will this hamper Manning? Probably not. With an offense that boasts WRs Reggie Wayne, "Marvelous" Marvin Harrison, Brandon Stokely, and the aforementioned TE Dallas Clark, Manning has an embarrassment of riches to throw to. It could mean that when on the goal line the team will be more likely to put the rock in RB Edgerrin James' hands.

Minnesota Vikings: Daunte Culpepper: 4 STARS; 4,717 yards, 41 TDs (2 rushing), 11 INTs Passer Rating 110.9:
Daunte Culpepper, drafted in the highly-touted and largely disappointing QB class of '99, is the Vikings' unquestioned leader and locomotive. Where he goes, so go the Vikes. "C-Pepp," at 6'4" and 265 Lbs or so, is built like a Defensive End, possesses a rocket arm, better than average touch, and is surprisingly quick and nimble for such a large man. As a fantasy QB (and many would say real as well), Culpepper is second only to Peyton Manning, who currently sets the bar for passing excellence. Culpepper cannot win by himself, however, and it's unreasonable to expect any one athlete to carry a team. Last season the team's soft D put enormous pressure upon Culpepper's shoulders, consistently forcing him to play catch-up football. Nevertheless, Culpepper enjoyed a bevy of multiple-TD games, significantly cut down on his turnovers, and with the skilled wideouts (such as the emerging Nate Burleson), pass-catching backs, and a soft handed TE (Jermaine Wiggins) lining up alongside him, is nearly the fantasy equal of Manning. This season, however, the team will be without the services of the supremely talented and equally moody perennial Pro Bowl wideout, Randy Moss. The strong armed QB benefitted greatly from Moss' uncanny ability to track and high point "jump ball" end zone passes. Although the team has high hopes for first round pick WR Troy Williamson, he's a raw product who needs to polish his skills, particulalry route running. Nevertheless, the Vikings, much like the Colts, placed an off-season priority on rebuilding a shoddy defense. Acquisitions such DT Pat Williams (Bills), S Darren Sharper (Packers), and CB Fred Smoot (Redskins) make the Viking D far more formidable. And, a team that is not constantly forced to throw down field can be far less predictable. Look for Culpepper to have another tremendous season. His yardage might creep up a bit, but the absence of Moss might impact upon his TD total as well.

*EXTRA POINTS: From the “Department of the Simply Unbelievable;” Viking RB Onterrio Smith was caught with a “faux weenie” at the Twin Cities Airport on April 21st. This was not however, included with his assorted leather goods and ball gags (just kidding, the reports said NOTHING about stuff like that). What this is, is another ingenious way athletes are attempting to elude the NFL’s rigid, (please excuse the pun) and obviously effective, drug tests. Smith has previously been busted and suspended for positive drug tests; marijuana. The “Whizzinator,” as it’s called, contains dried urine that, when reconstituted, allegedly allows the athlete to provide officials with a clean drug test. What this means for Smith is unclear as of right now, but Smith does face a year long suspension from football. That would, however, clear up an already crowded backfield situation for the Vikings. The Norseman took RB Ciatrick Faison in the 4th round of this year’s draft. His best bet was to contribute on Special Teams. Now, look for Faison to be the team’s 3rd option at the position, plus Special Teams work. RBs Michael Bennett and Mewelde Moore will provide Culpepper with an exciting 1-2 running back punch, as both offer good speed and pass catching skills. Moore is a determined runner, and Bennett’s a breakaway threat.

The 3 STAR Quarterback: An athlete capable of fits of excellence... and spurts of inconsistency. QBs such as Tom Brady will qualify as 3 STAR QBs, but not because they want for ability. Signal callers such as Brady and McNabb steward systems that lack tremendously talented playmakers, thus the more conservative rating. Sure, Eagle WR Terrell Owens is a certifiable stud, he’s also a certifiable jackass. But, T.O’s contract situation is murky at best, and who lines up opposite him? The fact of the matter is, T.O is the most talented athlete, next to McNabb, on the Eagle offense. There’s no other pass catcher really worthy of mention on that team. Likewise, the Patriots and Tom “Terrific” have some skilled wideouts, but no one that’ll take your breath away. Nor, for that matter, a defensive coordinator’s. So, let’s take a look at the “3 STAR QBs.” When appropriate, I have added a 1/2 STAR. It simply implies that the signal caller possesses a greater level of talent... or greater talent to work with.

New England Patriots: Tom Brady: 3 1/2 STARS; 3,692 yards, 28 TDs, 14 INTs Passer Rating 92.6:
Although he heads the list of 3 STAR QBs, Brady has as much talent as Culpepper, certainly, and probably approaches Manning’s football intellect. Nevertheless, Brady remains a tier below Peyton Manning and Daunte Culpepper. Not so much due to a lack of talent, as few NFL signal callers possess Brady’s poise, touch, or football IQ. Rather, the Patriot offensive philosophy and pass catching talent dictates 3 STARS. As a fantasy weapon Brady is solid. This past season there was but one game wherein Brady did not throw at least one TD pass, and he really had only one poor game, against the Miami Dolphins and their skilled secondary. Also, keep in mind that the Patriots were unable to field a full and healthy contingent of receivers last season. One of the things that makes Brady such a great QB is the regard in which he holds himself. At age 27 Brady has accomplished what few have; 3 Superbowl rings in a safety deposit box somewhere. And yet the guy’s as humble as can be. When he signed his contract, 6 seasons at $60 million, he didn’t extort the franchise as many athletes do. In fact, Brady was quoted as saying, “...what’s a million after taxes? It’s half a million.” And then there was this heretofore unheard of athletic utterance; “... that money could be better spent elsewhere, on players capable of helping us win football games.” While the latter is not a direct quote, you get the drift. The Patriot QB is a team player, a team leader, and that filters down to his teammates. For cryin’ out loud, even former malcontent RB Corey Dillon seems to be emulating his QB’s quiet, confident style. Brady spreads the ball around “smooth as butter,” and is arguable a better yardage league QB then scoring league athlete for that reason. Still, a fantasy franchise could do FAR worse than Tom Brady. Look for yet another year of 25+ TDs and 3,500+ yards.

*EXTRA POINTS: The team signed WRs Tim Dwight and David Terrell during the off-season, and 20 of 22 starters return to defend New England’s title. That’s all well and good, but the greatest challenge to face the Pats in years is how they will overcome the loss of both head coordinators. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel now has his own NFL team to coach (he’ll try and pull the hapless Cleveland franchise off the mat), and offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss is in South Bend, Indiana, attempting to return the luster to Notre Dame’s blue and gold. Look for the Patriots to land on their feet, but the loss of BOTH resident geniuses may well be too much for the franchise to surmount. It could well be that the team will be watching Superbowl 39 on television.

Philadelphia Eagles: Donovan McNabb 3 1/2 STARS: 3,875 yards, 34 TDs (3 rushing), 8 INTs Passer Rating 104.7:
McNabb’s Eagles soared through the NFC Title game, but got their wings clipped in the Superbowl. McNabb WAS the reason the team got as far as it did, however. His “leadership by example” mentality, his unselfish style of play, and brilliant athleticism, all combined for a record setting season in which he became the first NFL passer to record a 30+ TD season with fewer than 10 INTs. Did “Chunky Soup” also play a role? Probably not. But the team IS stewing over star wide receiver, Terrell Owens’ latest antics. But, more on that in a minute. McNabb, like Viking QB Daunte Culpepper, was drafted in ‘99. Last season, though, was McNabb’s finest to date. Which makes sense, as a QB improves as he matures. McNabb can now read opposing defenses quickly, looks off his receivers, doesn’t try and force passes into openings not much larger than throw pillows, and no longer has “happy feet.” While not your model pocket passer, Donovan has a strong arm and possesses nice touch. He enjoyed 5 300+ yard passing days in ‘04, including an inspired 464 yard, 5 TD week 13 effort. Philly’s
“phinest” also threw TD passes in every game except one, multiple TD passes in 7 contests, and is “thisclose” to joining Culpepper and Manning. Only the Eagles’ lack of receiving talent will keep him from joining such elite company. Again, a great chef can do only so much with the ingredients at hand.

*EXTRA POINTS: In terms of NFL talent, the Eagle pass catchers are an average bunch... without the “Me-nificent One,” Terrell Owens. The team, in an ugly custody battle that involved the Baltimore Ravens who felt that THEY had a trade with the 49’ers in place for Owens, took on the frequently disguntled pass catcher, taking him at his word that he “wouldn’t become a distraction.” Well, Owens enjoyed a Pro Bowl caliber season... and then went down with a broken leg. In heroic fashion, and despite the numerous NFL talking heads and league observers who stated that he’d be unable to, Owens returned to the gridiron for Superbowl action. Much to the delight of the Philly’ faithful, Owens proved to be far more than just a “live body.” Owens recorded a lights-out, 11 reception, 133 yard Superbowl effort, and was the topic of Sports Talk radio for weeks to follow. However, Owens has returned to his selfish, self-centered, egocentric ways. He ditched his low profile agent, engaged the services of the high-powered (some would call him snake) Drew Rosenhaus... anathema to owners in every sport, and is refusing to report to camp despite the contract he inked just last season. This action, coupled with remarks that are widely believed to be shots at Eagle QB McNabb, have sparked outrage within, and without the organization. Will T.O stand by his promise to sit out the entire season in his quest for an even bigger dollar deal? Quite possibly. The team would be foolish to re-negotiate with Owens, for the message it would send to his teammates would be horrifying. Should Owens sit out, look for a degree of immediacy to be placed upon 2nd round pick, wide receiver Reggie Brown. Brown was probably going to see action anyway as the team sent loudmouth WR Freddie Mitchell packing. Look for the Eagles, and McNabb, to rely even more heavily upon RB Brian Westbrook, and rookie RB Ryan Moats. A “Westbrook clone,” Moats has excellent pass catching skills and at 5’ 8” and 210 Lbs, is built like a fireplug.

Kansas City Chiefs: Trent Green 3 1/2 STARS; 4,591 yards, 27 TDs, 17 INTs Passer Rating 95.2:
Trent Green is the epitome of the pocket passer, and if forced to scramble … well, a lawn gnome is probably more nimble than the statue-esque quarterback. An explosive run game has made Green a far more dangerous signal caller, and he posted some eye-popping yardage totals last season. In this instance we have a pro QB who’s probably a better fantasy QB than NFL passer. Green’s a true #1 fantasy player, and If you’re fortunate enough to have him on your roster … you’d better keep him. The Chief running game sets up the passing game and is in capable hands. Incumbent RB Priest Holmes is a proven (if slow to heal) weapon. Capable of toting the ball between the tackles or bouncing it outside, Priest is as happy to run over defenders as he is around them. And, when Penn State product RB Larry “Baby J.” Johnson finally got his chance to display his wares, he proved to be a very capable stand-in for Holmes, providing the team with 3 consecutive 100 yard games. A pass catching troika of Johnny Morton, Eddie Kennison, and TE Tony Gonzalez is somewhat less than formidable, however. Taking nothing away from Gonzalez, who set an NFL record for receptions for a tight end with 102 last season, the team MUST develop a vertical threat. Green will need to get SOMETHING out of WRs Marc Boerigter or Samie Parker. If Parker or Boerigter step it up, Green’s totals could inch up a bit. This might be overly optimistic however. Look for Trent Green to again be a nice fantasy weapon, but it’s not inconceivable that his totals could inch down as well.

*EXTRA POINTS: The truth is, if this team had fielded any kind of defense last season they wouldn’t have missed the playoffs. They could have been- unstoppable. With an offense virtually able to score at will, an awful KC D has ensured that opponents were able to do the same. In particular, poor play from the secondary kept this team from achieving any real success. Enter former Dolphin CBs, Patrick Surtain and Sammy Knight. Those 2 should bolster the league’s worst pass defense. In addition, former Titan DE Carlos Hall and Pittsburgh LB Kendrell Bell were added to the mix, they should help strengthen the team’s anemic run defense. But the most significant addition could be the team’s first round draft pick, LB Derrick Johnson. He was the best ‘backer in the draft, has sideline to sideline play making ability, and is a sure tackler... something this defense definitely did NOT possess last season. Look for the defensive unit to be vastly improved over last year’s model. That could decrease some of Green’s gaudy passing numbers. If the team is out in front... a luxury they rarely enjoyed in ‘04, the emphasis will be on the run, and running down the clock.

San Diego Chargers: QB Drew Brees 3 1/2 STARS; 3,159 yards, 29 TDs (2 rushing), 7 INTs Passer Rating 104.8:
Last season, operating out of a simplified West Coast offensive and with nothing to lose, Brees played smart, good football. He secured a Pro Bowl berth, the “Comeback Player of the Year” award, and his position as Charger QB for the ‘05 season. Several factors played a role in Brees’ reemergence: a vastly improved O-line, wide receivers who could actually catch the ball and make things happen after the catch, the out-of-nowhere emergence of TE and fellow Pro Bowler Antonio Gates, and an improved Bolt D that put far less pressure on the offense to score with each possession. Brees proved to be very accurate and unflappable last season, and more importantly- he stepped up as a team leader. To his credit, the guy could have packed it in. Brees already had a nice nut in the bank, and his franchise sent him a clear “no confidence” vote when they expended a high first-round investment on QB Philip Rivers in last April’s draft. A tough, gritty competitor who obviously relishes a challenge, Brees is playing on a 1 year contract. Look for him bust his hindquarters to be a top dollar free agent QB in ‘06. Brees’ draftmate always does HIS best to keep opposing Ds from focusing on the passing game. With stud RB LaDanian Tomlinson carrying San Diego’s mail, woe is the opponent who drops into coverage. And, should they creep up and stack the box to stop Tomlinson? Pro Bowl TE Antonio Gates, WR Keenan “I’m not quite dead yet” McCardell, and emergent Eric Parker afford Brees with a wealth of targets.

*EXTRA POINTS: It wouldn’t be a great surprise if Brees’ numbers increase with a healthy Reche Caldwell returning to the fold. Caldwell is, however, returning from a serious knee injury. Also, huge (6’ 5”) but raw rookie wideout Vincent Jackson provides the Charger QB with tight end size and wideout speed. If you DO draft or afford Brees with “Keeper” status, it might be wise to draft a capable backup as well... just in case. While last season might well prove to be anything BUT an aberration for Brees, a smart fantasy owner will cover his bases. The fact of the matter is, the Chargers will have a much, much tougher schedule in ‘06 with 7 games against playoff teams. San Diego went 1-5 against ‘04 playoff teams last season... draw your own conclusions.

Atlanta Falcons: Michael Vick: 2,313 Yards (902 rushing yards), 17 TDs (3 Rushing), 12 INTs Passer Rating 78.1:
Watching Vick play football is reminiscent of the scene from the classic film Rocky, where the plodding pugilist attempts to improve his speed and reaction time by catching a chicken with his bare hands. Every time Rocky thinks his prey is bottled up, the pesky poultry darts away and leaves the fighter grasping at air and gasping for breath. The Falcons’ QB is no less elusive, and much like Rocky’s chicken, Vick can make defenders look downright silly, often forcing them to the sidelines in search of an available oxygen mask. But the debate continues to rage: is Vick a quarterback, a running back, or simply a gifted athlete playing the QB position? There are no easy answers, and assigning a fantasy value to Vick is almost as challenging as getting a hand on him. But as Vick’s owners can attest, at this stage of his career, he’s a better NFL QB than fantasy signal-caller. And for our purposes, that’s a crucial distinction. Let’s try to simplify things a bit. In no game, last season, did Vick throw for more than two scores, though he did have three three-TD games (with one rushing TD in each). Vick threw for a season-high of 258 yards in week 8. His next-highest passing total was 218 yards. There were three contests in which Vick threw for a paltry 115 yards, and the week 17 game against Seattle saw Vick rack up an awe-inspiring 35 passing yards. So for those of you who belong to yardage leagues- note that Vick averaged just 136 passing yards per game. On the flip side of the coin, Vick did rush for 902 yards and had three 100-yard rushing games. That’s the third-highest rushing total for a QB in league history, and Vick was the league’s 11th-ranked rusher. The truth is, Vick’s still maturing as a passer and learning the nuances of his position. And much like a great chef who’s been asked to whip up a four-star meal with canned vegetables and Spam (apologies to all Spam aficionados), Vick can do only so much with the “ingredients” at his disposal. While Vick’s three-star ranking for the upcoming ‘05 season is based more on potential than performance, he possesses uncanny vision, can throw a football through a brick wall, and the team hopes Vick’s completion percentage will rise this season. The team made it to the NFC Championship game primarily due to Vick’s legs and a vastly improved defense, but lost, thanks to an essentially one-dimensional offense. This season, the team is aspiring to far more. And this season rests squarely upon Vick’s shoulder pads.

*EXTRA POINTS: Last year, the team traded up in the draft to get WR Michael Jenkins. But, with a grand total of seven receptions, Jenkins has thus far been a pricey disappointment and must make some big strides this season. This year, the team gladly snatched-up WR Roddy White with their first round pick. A tall, speedy receiver, White should be more productive as a rookie then Jenkins was last season. In a nutshell? Until the receivers prove otherwise, the team will capitalize on their “thunder and lightning” running back combo of T.J Duckett and Warrick Dunn. Owners can look for improved numbers from Vick... but don’t expect miracles. Tight end Alge Crumpler should again be a top option at his position as well.

Green Bay Packers: Brett Favre: 3 STARS: 4,088 yards, 30 TDs, 17 INTs Passer Rating 92.4:
The Packers have lost much of their mystique. Favre, aging, has proven himself to be both human and fallible. His poor games are occurring with alarming regularity, and he has discussed the dreaded “R-word:":retirement, with increasing frequency as well. Facing painful obstacles such as his wife and best friend’s battle against breast cancer, his father passing away at a relatively young age from a heart attack, and a lifelong battle against substance abuse that fans may have forgotten about but will remain an issue for Brett as it does all those forced to contend with such demons, what’s left for Favre to prove as a football player? Increasing hints of grey hair aside, Favre remains football’s fiercest competitor, still seems to be enjoying the game, and so long as he’s upright, the Pack should never be counted out of any game. Favre’s play entered a slight decline over the second half of this past season, but he still remained a very productive fantasy QB. The bottom line for his owners last season were Favre’s 30 TDs, and the excellent corps of pass-catchers who’d run through a brick wall for him if need be. The team’s down field attack averaged almost 280 passing yards per game last season, outstanding digits if you’re in a yardage league. Favre also threw TD passes in all but one game. The counter to Favre is RB Ahman Green (when healthy and not putting the ball on the ground), who kept the chains moving with a 4.7 yards per carry average. Although Green may be slowing down as well, he’s a strong runner, ideally suited to Green Bay’s arctic venue. In addition, the team has jumbo-sized Najeh Davenport in the RB stable as well. Davenport offers decent speed, and once that boy gathers a head of steam... be thankful you’re not the safety in his sights. As for the receiving corps, WR Javon Walker positively blew up last season, is a true vertical threat, and is particularly dangerous along the sidelines. Fellow pass catchers Donald Driver and Robert Ferguson are nearly Walker’s equal. When Walker began to attract the opposing team’s top cover corner, Donald Driver stepped in and did yeoman’s work, helping to keep the team moving down field. Look for Favre to post solid, but unspectacular numbers this coming season. The O-line is going through changes for the first time since the ‘00 season, and Favre could find himself running for his very life. The teams of the NFC North have all bolstered their defenses, and there are no more “pattycake” squads. Keep Favre for another season if you belong to a Keeper league, or take him after the previously listed signal callers have been pulled off your league’s draft board. At worst, Brett will be a capable steward for your franchise, and at best? Well, perhaps the league’s great magician... the man who can always make something from nothing, has one more trick up his green and gold sleeve.

*EXTRA POINTS: The Pack’ have been roundly criticized for doing nothing to aid the team in winning now. Accordingly, Favre’s in a tough position. If anything, a line that was somewhat suspect last season has been further weakened, and although RB Ahman Green is only 28, there are a lot of miles on those wheels. The team took California QB Aaron Rodgers with their 1st round pick. Interestingly, the 49’ers had considered taking him with their 1st overall pick, but ultimately decided upon former Utah QB Alex Smith. That precipitated a drop for Rodgers, who went from being the potential 1st overall pick (and banking the millions upon millions of dollars that go along with it) to the 24th pick. Damn, that kid dropped faster than a New York City elevator! Still, Rodgers is ideally positioned to learn from one of the best quarterbacks of this (or any for that matter) generation. The Packers took WR Terrence Murphy with their 2nd- 2nd rounder. Given the fact that Green Bay’s receivers, 1 through 3 are practically set in stone, Terrence Murphy was a curious selection. The team did a poor job drafting for need, and aside from Rodgers, an odd job drafting for the future as well.

St. Louis Rams: Marc Bulger: 3 STARS: 3,964 yards, 24 TDs, 14 INTs Passer Rating 93.7:
Bulger benefits from as deep a pool of pass catching talent as exists anywhere in the league. WR Isaac Bruce is a physical specimen, and he’s altered his game to suit his team and it’s talents. The supremely conditioned Bruce is an ideal possession man, unafraid to go over the middle. In addition, Bruce still has “another gear,” and is capable of turning on the jets. Fellow pass catcher Torry Holt, a ‘99 draft pick, has been picking Bruce’s brain since his rookie season and is savvy beyond his years. The two combined for 183 grabs and an amazing 2,664 yards. In conjunction, the Rams field speedy #3 and #4 receivers (Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald) who are similar to Colt pass catchers, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokely. Both Curtis and McDonald averaged over 13 yards per reception last season, and both are good enough to be #2 receivers on most other teams. Bulger also has an excellent run game to turn to as well. Although Marshall Faulk is deep into the twilight of his illustrious career, ‘04 draft pick Steven Jackson has emerged as a very tough and capable heir to the throne. Jackson runs with good pad level, has a second gear, can deliver a pop and put a linebacker on his duff, and will keep opposing Ds honest; he just has to remain healthy in order to do so. As for Bulger’s fantasy value? Look for it to increase this season. Bulger’s accuracy was startling last season, he completed 66.2% of his passes. His decision making improved as well, for he cut his interceptions from 22 to 14, and he has learned to take only what opposing defenses give him. Bulger enjoyed a pair of 445+ yard passing days, and threw for less than 225 yards only twice. Again, in case that didn’t register, there were 14 games in which Bulger threw for at least 225+ yards! Also, there was but 1 game wherein the Ram QB didn’t toss a TD pass. In short, Bulger looks to be a top fantasy QB for the next decade or so.

*EXTRA POINTS: The Rams took Florida State OT Alex Barron with their 1st round pick. At 6’ 8” and 320 Lbs, Barron is a huge man, possesses a 90” wingspan (the equivalent of a 7+ footer), and should be the ideal “Yin” to Ram right tackle Orlando Pace’s “Yang.” The team allowed an unacceptable 50 Sacks last season, the hope is that Barron will help diminish that number. Curiously, Barron is more of a “finesse” tackle then “power” tackle, and an iffy work ethic resulted in a draft day drop. Based purely upon measureables alone, Barron should have been a top 10 pick. It will be up to the Ram coaching staff to both coach him up and help him realize his considerable potential.

THE NFL'S QUARTERBACKS; A FANTASY REVIEW!

Fantasy football, and indeed rotisserie sports in general, have enjoyed a huge upswell in popularity in recent years. We’re talking tens of millions of participants here. The advent of the Internet, the “global community,” the markedly increased visibility of fantasy sports, and the sheer volume of fantasy sites available to enthusiasts are all contributors to this explosive growth. In turn, fantasy gaming has become a multibillion dollar industry. But when you get right down to it... fantasy gaming pits one participant’s acumen and gut instinct against another's. And therein lies the real appeal. Accordingly, most fantasy gamers have “pet theories” and strategies for drafting and setting up their respective rosters. While each rotisserie sport will require a different approach, for scoring differs dramatically between individual fantasy sports, in the end? Fantasy gaming is all about points.
And, while no roto sport will allow a single athlete to carry a team, fantasy football does permit a degree of dominance. Sure, in fantasy hoops Lebron James or Allen Iverson might put on a clinic and score enough fantasy points to put his respective owners’ teams over the top in a given week or two. But, given the fact that basketball consists of an 82 game regular season PLUS playoff games, such athletes contributions are kept in relative check. Fantasy baseball? A 162 game regular season will ensure that almost any player’s (let’s exclude Barry Bonds who’s currently shelved, and Albert Pujols, who may be the closest thing to Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio baseball’s seen in a generation) season consists of peaks and valleys. Nope’. Fantasy football has a 16 game (plus 1 bye week) regular season, and that’s brief enough to allow for dominance as Indianapolis’ QB Peyton Manning demonstrated last season. While there’s but one Peyton Manning, there ARE several quarterbacks capable of guiding your fantasy football franchise to the post-season promised land. Let’s break it down.

The 4 STAR Quarterback.
To have an athlete of THIS caliber as part of your fantasy franchise is to have an athlete capable of single-handedly winning a week, and indeed perhaps the entire season for you. Naturally, scoring, point systems, and values will vary from league to league but there are really just two types of leagues; those that emphasize yardage and those that emphasize scoring. And, then there are some leagues that place value upon both. A solid quarterback should thrive in all three types of leagues, unlike a running back who might be either a short yardage or goal line specialist, such as Steeler Jerome Bettis, or a back who sees little of the end zone but accrues lots of yardage, like Jaguar Fred Taylor. Quarterbacks, due to the nature of the position, are a fantasy team's most crucial component. Again, points and the specific way they're tallied will vary from league to league, but a signal caller can pass for a TD, run for a TD, run or pass for a 2 point conversion, throw for "X number of yards," etc. The position's very versatility ensures it's point scoring prominence. So, while you can “cut corners” and take a #1 wide receiver later in your league's draft... best grab your franchise QB first. That's the way NFL draft days go down, and your fantasy draft should be no different!

Indianapolis Colts: Peyton Manning: 4,557 Yards, 49 TDs, 10 INTs, Passer Rating: 121.1:
Last season, the Colt QB was almost single minded in his pursuit of legendary Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino's single season TD record. Now that Manning's able to jot that particular record down on his resume (which will surely be just one of many by the time he hangs up the spikes), he can pursue his most elusive quarry to date; a Superbowl berth. With one of the NFL's deepest (if not THE deepest) receiving corps at his disposal, a swift, powerful, top 7 running back in Edgerrin James to hand off to, and a speedy, sure handed tight end in Dallas Clark, Manning couldn't ask for a more lethal, more versatile arsenal. When discussing Peyton Manning and his ability, football fans frequently lapse into fits of hyperbole. Yet, it would seem as if no amount of praise would prove too lavish when mulling Manning's accomplishments. He is, quite arguably, the best QB of this era; a paragon of passing excellence who, years from now, will evoke claims of "I saw him play." Manipulating his offense in much the same manner a great director does his cast, Peyton Manning is capable of seeing things that others cannot, much like a director can "see" things that others cannot. Thus, the already prolific QB can unmask and exploit almost any defense, even when the best defensive coordinator has done his best to camouflage its weaknesses. Last season, with unpleasant regularity, Manning would direct his team down field to a score, head to the sidelines in search of a breather and cup of Gatorade, and be forced to hop back onto the field within minutes due to the team's largely fictitious defense. So, as expected, defense, and particularly the porous secondary (The first 2 picks were spent on corners), was a draft day priority. Expect the team to make a real push towards Superbowl 39. With the bitter taste of divisional championship defeat still on his tongue and fresh in his mind, look for Manning to post another statistically absurd season. Although his TD total will probably be far closer to 40 than 50, Peyton Manning should again be fantasy football's most dangerous weapon... and its number one overall draft pick.

*EXTRA POINTS: Last season, motivated perhaps too much by what his legacy might be, Manning was throwing the ball constantly, even in obvious run situations. Look for a more balanced red zone approach this season. Also, former safety valve and TD specialist, TE Marcus Pollard was released by the team in a salary cap move. Although Pollard notched a mere 29 receptions in '04, 6 went for TDs. Thus, the team will be unable to run their preferred 2 TE sets. Will this hamper Manning? Probably not. With an offense that boasts WRs Reggie Wayne, "Marvelous" Marvin Harrison, Brandon Stokely, and the aforementioned TE Dallas Clark, Manning has an embarrassment of riches to throw to. It could mean that when on the goal line the team will be more likely to put the rock in RB Edgerrin James' hands.

Minnesota Vikings: Daunte Culpepper: 4 STARS; 4,717 yards, 41 TDs (2 rushing), 11 INTs Passer Rating 110.9:
Daunte Culpepper, drafted in the highly-touted and largely disappointing QB class of '99, is the Vikings' unquestioned leader and locomotive. Where he goes, so go the Vikes. "C-Pepp," at 6'4" and 265 Lbs or so, is built like a Defensive End, possesses a rocket arm, better than average touch, and is surprisingly quick and nimble for such a large man. As a fantasy QB (and many would say real as well), Culpepper is second only to Peyton Manning, who currently sets the bar for passing excellence. Culpepper cannot win by himself, however, and it's unreasonable to expect any one athlete to carry a team. Last season the team's soft D put enormous pressure upon Culpepper's shoulders, consistently forcing him to play catch-up football. Nevertheless, Culpepper enjoyed a bevy of multiple-TD games, significantly cut down on his turnovers, and with the skilled wideouts (such as the emerging Nate Burleson), pass-catching backs, and a soft handed TE (Jermaine Wiggins) lining up alongside him, is nearly the fantasy equal of Manning. This season, however, the team will be without the services of the supremely talented and equally moody perennial Pro Bowl wideout, Randy Moss. The strong armed QB benefitted greatly from Moss' uncanny ability to track and high point "jump ball" end zone passes. Although the team has high hopes for first round pick WR Troy Williamson, he's a raw product who needs to polish his skills, particulalry route running. Nevertheless, the Vikings, much like the Colts, placed an off-season priority on rebuilding a shoddy defense. Acquisitions such DT Pat Williams (Bills), S Darren Sharper (Packers), and CB Fred Smoot (Redskins) make the Viking D far more formidable. And, a team that is not constantly forced to throw down field can be far less predictable. Look for Culpepper to have another tremendous season. His yardage might creep up a bit, but the absence of Moss might impact upon his TD total as well.

*EXTRA POINTS: From the “Department of the Simply Unbelievable;” Viking RB Onterrio Smith was caught with a “faux weenie” at the Twin Cities Airport on April 21st. This was not however, included with his assorted leather goods and ball gags (just kidding, the reports said NOTHING about stuff like that). What this is, is another ingenious way athletes are attempting to elude the NFL’s rigid, (please excuse the pun) and obviously effective, drug tests. Smith has previously been busted and suspended for positive drug tests; marijuana. The “Whizzinator,” as it’s called, contains dried urine that, when reconstituted, allegedly allows the athlete to provide officials with a clean drug test. What this means for Smith is unclear as of right now, but Smith does face a year long suspension from football. That would, however, clear up an already crowded backfield situation for the Vikings. The Norseman took RB Ciatrick Faison in the 4th round of this year’s draft. His best bet was to contribute on Special Teams. Now, look for Faison to be the team’s 3rd option at the position, plus Special Teams work. RBs Michael Bennett and Mewelde Moore will provide Culpepper with an exciting 1-2 running back punch, as both offer good speed and pass catching skills. Moore is a determined runner, and Bennett’s a breakaway threat.

The 3 STAR Quarterback: An athlete capable of fits of excellence... and spurts of inconsistency. QBs such as Tom Brady will qualify as 3 STAR QBs, but not because they want for ability. Signal callers such as Brady and McNabb steward systems that lack tremendously talented playmakers, thus the more conservative rating. Sure, Eagle WR Terrell Owens is a certifiable stud, he’s also a certifiable jackass. But, T.O’s contract situation is murky at best, and who lines up opposite him? The fact of the matter is, T.O is the most talented athlete, next to McNabb, on the Eagle offense. There’s no other pass catcher really worthy of mention on that team. Likewise, the Patriots and Tom “Terrific” have some skilled wideouts, but no one that’ll take your breath away. Nor, for that matter, a defensive coordinator’s. So, let’s take a look at the “3 STAR QBs.” When appropriate, I have added a 1/2 STAR. It simply implies that the signal caller possesses a greater level of talent... or greater talent to work with.

New England Patriots: Tom Brady: 3 1/2 STARS; 3,692 yards, 28 TDs, 14 INTs Passer Rating 92.6:
Although he heads the list of 3 STAR QBs, Brady has as much talent as Culpepper, certainly, and probably approaches Manning’s football intellect. Nevertheless, Brady remains a tier below Peyton Manning and Daunte Culpepper. Not so much due to a lack of talent, as few NFL signal callers possess Brady’s poise, touch, or football IQ. Rather, the Patriot offensive philosophy and pass catching talent dictates 3 STARS. As a fantasy weapon Brady is solid. This past season there was but one game wherein Brady did not throw at least one TD pass, and he really had only one poor game, against the Miami Dolphins and their skilled secondary. Also, keep in mind that the Patriots were unable to field a full and healthy contingent of receivers last season. One of the things that makes Brady such a great QB is the regard in which he holds himself. At age 27 Brady has accomplished what few have; 3 Superbowl rings in a safety deposit box somewhere. And yet the guy’s as humble as can be. When he signed his contract, 6 seasons at $60 million, he didn’t extort the franchise as many athletes do. In fact, Brady was quoted as saying, “...what’s a million after taxes? It’s half a million.” And then there was this heretofore unheard of athletic utterance; “... that money could be better spent elsewhere, on players capable of helping us win football games.” While the latter is not a direct quote, you get the drift. The Patriot QB is a team player, a team leader, and that filters down to his teammates. For cryin’ out loud, even former malcontent RB Corey Dillon seems to be emulating his QB’s quiet, confident style. Brady spreads the ball around “smooth as butter,” and is arguable a better yardage league QB then scoring league athlete for that reason. Still, a fantasy franchise could do FAR worse than Tom Brady. Look for yet another year of 25+ TDs and 3,500+ yards.

*EXTRA POINTS: The team signed WRs Tim Dwight and David Terrell during the off-season, and 20 of 22 starters return to defend New England’s title. That’s all well and good, but the greatest challenge to face the Pats in years is how they will overcome the loss of both head coordinators. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel now has his own NFL team to coach (he’ll try and pull the hapless Cleveland franchise off the mat), and offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss is in South Bend, Indiana, attempting to return the luster to Notre Dame’s blue and gold. Look for the Patriots to land on their feet, but the loss of BOTH resident geniuses may well be too much for the franchise to surmount. It could well be that the team will be watching Superbowl 39 on television.

Philadelphia Eagles: Donovan McNabb 3 1/2 STARS: 3,875 yards, 34 TDs (3 rushing), 8 INTs Passer Rating 104.7:
McNabb’s Eagles soared through the NFC Title game, but got their wings clipped in the Superbowl. McNabb WAS the reason the team got as far as it did, however. His “leadership by example” mentality, his unselfish style of play, and brilliant athleticism, all combined for a record setting season in which he became the first NFL passer to record a 30+ TD season with fewer than 10 INTs. Did “Chunky Soup” also play a role? Probably not. But the team IS stewing over star wide receiver, Terrell Owens’ latest antics. But, more on that in a minute. McNabb, like Viking QB Daunte Culpepper, was drafted in ‘99. Last season, though, was McNabb’s finest to date. Which makes sense, as a QB improves as he matures. McNabb can now read opposing defenses quickly, looks off his receivers, doesn’t try and force passes into openings not much larger than throw pillows, and no longer has “happy feet.” While not your model pocket passer, Donovan has a strong arm and possesses nice touch. He enjoyed 5 300+ yard passing days in ‘04, including an inspired 464 yard, 5 TD week 13 effort. Philly’s
“phinest” also threw TD passes in every game except one, multiple TD passes in 7 contests, and is “thisclose” to joining Culpepper and Manning. Only the Eagles’ lack of receiving talent will keep him from joining such elite company. Again, a great chef can do only so much with the ingredients at hand.

*EXTRA POINTS: In terms of NFL talent, the Eagle pass catchers are an average bunch... without the “Me-nificent One,” Terrell Owens. The team, in an ugly custody battle that involved the Baltimore Ravens who felt that THEY had a trade with the 49’ers in place for Owens, took on the frequently disguntled pass catcher, taking him at his word that he “wouldn’t become a distraction.” Well, Owens enjoyed a Pro Bowl caliber season... and then went down with a broken leg. In heroic fashion, and despite the numerous NFL talking heads and league observers who stated that he’d be unable to, Owens returned to the gridiron for Superbowl action. Much to the delight of the Philly’ faithful, Owens proved to be far more than just a “live body.” Owens recorded a lights-out, 11 reception, 133 yard Superbowl effort, and was the topic of Sports Talk radio for weeks to follow. However, Owens has returned to his selfish, self-centered, egocentric ways. He ditched his low profile agent, engaged the services of the high-powered (some would call him snake) Drew Rosenhaus... anathema to owners in every sport, and is refusing to report to camp despite the contract he inked just last season. This action, coupled with remarks that are widely believed to be shots at Eagle QB McNabb, have sparked outrage within, and without the organization. Will T.O stand by his promise to sit out the entire season in his quest for an even bigger dollar deal? Quite possibly. The team would be foolish to re-negotiate with Owens, for the message it would send to his teammates would be horrifying. Should Owens sit out, look for a degree of immediacy to be placed upon 2nd round pick, wide receiver Reggie Brown. Brown was probably going to see action anyway as the team sent loudmouth WR Freddie Mitchell packing. Look for the Eagles, and McNabb, to rely even more heavily upon RB Brian Westbrook, and rookie RB Ryan Moats. A “Westbrook clone,” Moats has excellent pass catching skills and at 5’ 8” and 210 Lbs, is built like a fireplug.

Kansas City Chiefs: Trent Green 3 1/2 STARS; 4,591 yards, 27 TDs, 17 INTs Passer Rating 95.2:
Trent Green is the epitome of the pocket passer, and if forced to scramble … well, a lawn gnome is probably more nimble than the statue-esque quarterback. An explosive run game has made Green a far more dangerous signal caller, and he posted some eye-popping yardage totals last season. In this instance we have a pro QB who’s probably a better fantasy QB than NFL passer. Green’s a true #1 fantasy player, and If you’re fortunate enough to have him on your roster … you’d better keep him. The Chief running game sets up the passing game and is in capable hands. Incumbent RB Priest Holmes is a proven (if slow to heal) weapon. Capable of toting the ball between the tackles or bouncing it outside, Priest is as happy to run over defenders as he is around them. And, when Penn State product RB Larry “Baby J.” Johnson finally got his chance to display his wares, he proved to be a very capable stand-in for Holmes, providing the team with 3 consecutive 100 yard games. A pass catching troika of Johnny Morton, Eddie Kennison, and TE Tony Gonzalez is somewhat less than formidable, however. Taking nothing away from Gonzalez, who set an NFL record for receptions for a tight end with 102 last season, the team MUST develop a vertical threat. Green will need to get SOMETHING out of WRs Marc Boerigter or Samie Parker. If Parker or Boerigter step it up, Green’s totals could inch up a bit. This might be overly optimistic however. Look for Trent Green to again be a nice fantasy weapon, but it’s not inconceivable that his totals could inch down as well.

*EXTRA POINTS: The truth is, if this team had fielded any kind of defense last season they wouldn’t have missed the playoffs. They could have been- unstoppable. With an offense virtually able to score at will, an awful KC D has ensured that opponents were able to do the same. In particular, poor play from the secondary kept this team from achieving any real success. Enter former Dolphin CBs, Patrick Surtain and Sammy Knight. Those 2 should bolster the league’s worst pass defense. In addition, former Titan DE Carlos Hall and Pittsburgh LB Kendrell Bell were added to the mix, they should help strengthen the team’s anemic run defense. But the most significant addition could be the team’s first round draft pick, LB Derrick Johnson. He was the best ‘backer in the draft, has sideline to sideline play making ability, and is a sure tackler... something this defense definitely did NOT possess last season. Look for the defensive unit to be vastly improved over last year’s model. That could decrease some of Green’s gaudy passing numbers. If the team is out in front... a luxury they rarely enjoyed in ‘04, the emphasis will be on the run, and running down the clock.

San Diego Chargers: QB Drew Brees 3 1/2 STARS; 3,159 yards, 29 TDs (2 rushing), 7 INTs Passer Rating 104.8:
Last season, operating out of a simplified West Coast offensive and with nothing to lose, Brees played smart, good football. He secured a Pro Bowl berth, the “Comeback Player of the Year” award, and his position as Charger QB for the ‘05 season. Several factors played a role in Brees’ reemergence: a vastly improved O-line, wide receivers who could actually catch the ball and make things happen after the catch, the out-of-nowhere emergence of TE and fellow Pro Bowler Antonio Gates, and an improved Bolt D that put far less pressure on the offense to score with each possession. Brees proved to be very accurate and unflappable last season, and more importantly- he stepped up as a team leader. To his credit, the guy could have packed it in. Brees already had a nice nut in the bank, and his franchise sent him a clear “no confidence” vote when they expended a high first-round investment on QB Philip Rivers in last April’s draft. A tough, gritty competitor who obviously relishes a challenge, Brees is playing on a 1 year contract. Look for him bust his hindquarters to be a top dollar free agent QB in ‘06. Brees’ draftmate always does HIS best to keep opposing Ds from focusing on the passing game. With stud RB LaDanian Tomlinson carrying San Diego’s mail, woe is the opponent who drops into coverage. And, should they creep up and stack the box to stop Tomlinson? Pro Bowl TE Antonio Gates, WR Keenan “I’m not quite dead yet” McCardell, and emergent Eric Parker afford Brees with a wealth of targets.

*EXTRA POINTS: It wouldn’t be a great surprise if Brees’ numbers increase with a healthy Reche Caldwell returning to the fold. Caldwell is, however, returning from a serious knee injury. Also, huge (6’ 5”) but raw rookie wideout Vincent Jackson provides the Charger QB with tight end size and wideout speed. If you DO draft or afford Brees with “Keeper” status, it might be wise to draft a capable backup as well... just in case. While last season might well prove to be anything BUT an aberration for Brees, a smart fantasy owner will cover his bases. The fact of the matter is, the Chargers will have a much, much tougher schedule in ‘06 with 7 games against playoff teams. San Diego went 1-5 against ‘04 playoff teams last season... draw your own conclusions.

Atlanta Falcons: Michael Vick: 2,313 Yards (902 rushing yards), 17 TDs (3 Rushing), 12 INTs Passer Rating 78.1:
Watching Vick play football is reminiscent of the scene from the classic film Rocky, where the plodding pugilist attempts to improve his speed and reaction time by catching a chicken with his bare hands. Every time Rocky thinks his prey is bottled up, the pesky poultry darts away and leaves the fighter grasping at air and gasping for breath. The Falcons’ QB is no less elusive, and much like Rocky’s chicken, Vick can make defenders look downright silly, often forcing them to the sidelines in search of an available oxygen mask. But the debate continues to rage: is Vick a quarterback, a running back, or simply a gifted athlete playing the QB position? There are no easy answers, and assigning a fantasy value to Vick is almost as challenging as getting a hand on him. But as Vick’s owners can attest, at this stage of his career, he’s a better NFL QB than fantasy signal-caller. And for our purposes, that’s a crucial distinction. Let’s try to simplify things a bit. In no game, last season, did Vick throw for more than two scores, though he did have three three-TD games (with one rushing TD in each). Vick threw for a season-high of 258 yards in week 8. His next-highest passing total was 218 yards. There were three contests in which Vick threw for a paltry 115 yards, and the week 17 game against Seattle saw Vick rack up an awe-inspiring 35 passing yards. So for those of you who belong to yardage leagues- note that Vick averaged just 136 passing yards per game. On the flip side of the coin, Vick did rush for 902 yards and had three 100-yard rushing games. That’s the third-highest rushing total for a QB in league history, and Vick was the league’s 11th-ranked rusher. The truth is, Vick’s still maturing as a passer and learning the nuances of his position. And much like a great chef who’s been asked to whip up a four-star meal with canned vegetables and Spam (apologies to all Spam aficionados), Vick can do only so much with the “ingredients” at his disposal. While Vick’s three-star ranking for the upcoming ‘05 season is based more on potential than performance, he possesses uncanny vision, can throw a football through a brick wall, and the team hopes Vick’s completion percentage will rise this season. The team made it to the NFC Championship game primarily due to Vick’s legs and a vastly improved defense, but lost, thanks to an essentially one-dimensional offense. This season, the team is aspiring to far more. And this season rests squarely upon Vick’s shoulder pads.

*EXTRA POINTS: Last year, the team traded up in the draft to get WR Michael Jenkins. But, with a grand total of seven receptions, Jenkins has thus far been a pricey disappointment and must make some big strides this season. This year, the team gladly snatched-up WR Roddy White with their first round pick. A tall, speedy receiver, White should be more productive as a rookie then Jenkins was last season. In a nutshell? Until the receivers prove otherwise, the team will capitalize on their “thunder and lightning” running back combo of T.J Duckett and Warrick Dunn. Owners can look for improved numbers from Vick... but don’t expect miracles. Tight end Alge Crumpler should again be a top option at his position as well.

Green Bay Packers: Brett Favre: 3 STARS: 4,088 yards, 30 TDs, 17 INTs Passer Rating 92.4:
The Packers have lost much of their mystique. Favre, aging, has proven himself to be both human and fallible. His poor games are occurring with alarming regularity, and he has discussed the dreaded “R-word:":retirement, with increasing frequency as well. Facing painful obstacles such as his wife and best friend’s battle against breast cancer, his father passing away at a relatively young age from a heart attack, and a lifelong battle against substance abuse that fans may have forgotten about but will remain an issue for Brett as it does all those forced to contend with such demons, what’s left for Favre to prove as a football player? Increasing hints of grey hair aside, Favre remains football’s fiercest competitor, still seems to be enjoying the game, and so long as he’s upright, the Pack should never be counted out of any game. Favre’s play entered a slight decline over the second half of this past season, but he still remained a very productive fantasy QB. The bottom line for his owners last season were Favre’s 30 TDs, and the excellent corps of pass-catchers who’d run through a brick wall for him if need be. The team’s down field attack averaged almost 280 passing yards per game last season, outstanding digits if you’re in a yardage league. Favre also threw TD passes in all but one game. The counter to Favre is RB Ahman Green (when healthy and not putting the ball on the ground), who kept the chains moving with a 4.7 yards per carry average. Although Green may be slowing down as well, he’s a strong runner, ideally suited to Green Bay’s arctic venue. In addition, the team has jumbo-sized Najeh Davenport in the RB stable as well. Davenport offers decent speed, and once that boy gathers a head of steam... be thankful you’re not the safety in his sights. As for the receiving corps, WR Javon Walker positively blew up last season, is a true vertical threat, and is particularly dangerous along the sidelines. Fellow pass catchers Donald Driver and Robert Ferguson are nearly Walker’s equal. When Walker began to attract the opposing team’s top cover corner, Donald Driver stepped in and did yeoman’s work, helping to keep the team moving down field. Look for Favre to post solid, but unspectacular numbers this coming season. The O-line is going through changes for the first time since the ‘00 season, and Favre could find himself running for his very life. The teams of the NFC North have all bolstered their defenses, and there are no more “pattycake” squads. Keep Favre for another season if you belong to a Keeper league, or take him after the previously listed signal callers have been pulled off your league’s draft board. At worst, Brett will be a capable steward for your franchise, and at best? Well, perhaps the league’s great magician... the man who can always make something from nothing, has one more trick up his green and gold sleeve.

*EXTRA POINTS: The Pack’ have been roundly criticized for doing nothing to aid the team in winning now. Accordingly, Favre’s in a tough position. If anything, a line that was somewhat suspect last season has been further weakened, and although RB Ahman Green is only 28, there are a lot of miles on those wheels. The team took California QB Aaron Rodgers with their 1st round pick. Interestingly, the 49’ers had considered taking him with their 1st overall pick, but ultimately decided upon former Utah QB Alex Smith. That precipitated a drop for Rodgers, who went from being the potential 1st overall pick (and banking the millions upon millions of dollars that go along with it) to the 24th pick. Damn, that kid dropped faster than a New York City elevator! Still, Rodgers is ideally positioned to learn from one of the best quarterbacks of this (or any for that matter) generation. The Packers took WR Terrence Murphy with their 2nd- 2nd rounder. Given the fact that Green Bay’s receivers, 1 through 3 are practically set in stone, Terrence Murphy was a curious selection. The team did a poor job drafting for need, and aside from Rodgers, an odd job drafting for the future as well.

St. Louis Rams: Marc Bulger: 3 STARS: 3,964 yards, 24 TDs, 14 INTs Passer Rating 93.7:
Bulger benefits from as deep a pool of pass catching talent as exists anywhere in the league. WR Isaac Bruce is a physical specimen, and he’s altered his game to suit his team and it’s talents. The supremely conditioned Bruce is an ideal possession man, unafraid to go over the middle. In addition, Bruce still has “another gear,” and is capable of turning on the jets. Fellow pass catcher Torry Holt, a ‘99 draft pick, has been picking Bruce’s brain since his rookie season and is savvy beyond his years. The two combined for 183 grabs and an amazing 2,664 yards. In conjunction, the Rams field speedy #3 and #4 receivers (Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald) who are similar to Colt pass catchers, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokely. Both Curtis and McDonald averaged over 13 yards per reception last season, and both are good enough to be #2 receivers on most other teams. Bulger also has an excellent run game to turn to as well. Although Marshall Faulk is deep into the twilight of his illustrious career, ‘04 draft pick Steven Jackson has emerged as a very tough and capable heir to the throne. Jackson runs with good pad level, has a second gear, can deliver a pop and put a linebacker on his duff, and will keep opposing Ds honest; he just has to remain healthy in order to do so. As for Bulger’s fantasy value? Look for it to increase this season. Bulger’s accuracy was startling last season, he completed 66.2% of his passes. His decision making improved as well, for he cut his interceptions from 22 to 14, and he has learned to take only what opposing defenses give him. Bulger enjoyed a pair of 445+ yard passing days, and threw for less than 225 yards only twice. Again, in case that didn’t register, there were 14 games in which Bulger threw for at least 225+ yards! Also, there was but 1 game wherein the Ram QB didn’t toss a TD pass. In short, Bulger looks to be a top fantasy QB for the next decade or so.

*EXTRA POINTS: The Rams took Florida State OT Alex Barron with their 1st round pick. At 6’ 8” and 320 Lbs, Barron is a huge man, possesses a 90” wingspan (the equivalent of a 7+ footer), and should be the ideal “Yin” to Ram right tackle Orlando Pace’s “Yang.” The team allowed an unacceptable 50 Sacks last season, the hope is that Barron will help diminish that number. Curiously, Barron is more of a “finesse” tackle then “power” tackle, and an iffy work ethic resulted in a draft day drop. Based purely upon measureables alone, Barron should have been a top 10 pick. It will be up to the Ram coaching staff to both coach him up and help him realize his considerable potential.

Monday, May 16, 2005

MAVS KNOCK SUNS OUT OF ORBIT

Last night the Dallas Mavericks managed to do what few teams have this season; shut down the high powered Sun offense.

The Suns' game is built on speed. Fast break basketball. They play fast break off of misses, makes, turnovers and steals. It's tantamount to Football's "No Huddle O." But that's no secret. What did the Mavs do that others failed to? They shut down the Suns' jitterbug Point Guard Steve Nash, that's what. They also managed to thoroughly stymie PF Amare' Stoudemire. But in hindsight, and though his thunderous dunks and overall powerful play in their prior wins was instrumental, the Suns really do orbit around their electric PG. Although Nash dropped 48 points on the Mavericks last night, they still succeeded in shutting him down; Nash dished but a handful (5) of Assists. And therein lies the secret to eclipsing the Suns. When teams faced the dynastic Chicago Bulls of last century, the only option open to them was to allow Michael Jordan his baskets, but to deny his teammates theirs. Last night, the Maverick's played a smothering style of defense; forcing turnovers, clogging passing lanes, pulling down rebounds, and in general, frustrating the heck out of Phoenix, and in particular, Nash.

But there's one more component at work here. Could it be that Phoenix is it's own worst enemy? Yesterday, both Josh Howard and Dirk Nowitzki had good games for Dallas, but the team also received exemplary bench play. Phoenix doesn't really have "bench play." Sure, backup Point Guard Leandro Barbosa can spell Steve Nash for a few minutes and Walter McCarty can trot onto the floor for a couple, he's always good for a few fouls. But the team sorely misses their dead-eye Shooting Guard, Joe Johnson. He's out with... well, a bad eye. A fall that resulted in a fractured orbital bone has him watching, and wincing, from the sidelines. So, while the Suns "run n' gun" style of offense exhausts opponents, it also wears them down as well. The difference? Dallas can bring Jerry Stackhouse, Darrell Armstrong, and Marquis Daniels in to the game and receive quality minutes. The Suns, well, they're far more reliant on their starters. The Suns received a grand total of 3 points, 2 assists, and 2 rebounds from their bench, while Dallas received 36 points, 6 dimes, and 10 boards from theirs. Coincidence? I think not.

Going into last night Dallas had to deny Phoenix the 3 pointer... a weapon the Suns used with impunity in earlier games. Going into last night Dallas had to capitalize upon their possessions. And going into last night, Dallas had to limit the Suns most dynamic weapon, Steve Nash. They managed to accomplish all three tasks, and now the series is knotted up at 2 games apiece.

Friday, May 06, 2005

ASSESSING THE FANTASY VALUE OF THE AFC SOUTH

Assessing the Keeper Value of the AFC South

This piece was written prior to the draft. Not much has changed, the 1st round brought Marlin Jackson, a Cover-2 cornerback to the Colts. Jackson is a big, physical corner, who'll match up well against the Texans standout wide out, Andre Johnson.
The Texans, curiously, pulled a DT off the board. Travis Johnson will bring some depth and a nasty streak to a team that has Playoff aspirations.
The Jags pulled off draft day's biggest surprise, taking QB (and WR to be) Matt Jones with the 21st pick of the 1st round. At 6'6 and 240 something, Jones is a rare athlete who boasts 4.37 speed and has eye-popping athleticism. Nevertheless, the kid is a raw, long term project, who due to his size, is probably best suited to be a Tight End.
Lastly, the Titans drafted their "Secondary solution," Adam "PacMan" Jones. A small DB at 5'9 and 186, Jones is a sticky corner who has rare speed and excellent ball skills. And, contrary to what one might think given Jones' stature, he's surprisingly solid in run support. Look for "PacMan" to begin his NFL career gobbling up yards in the Titan return game, and be inserted opposite current Titan corner, Andre Woolfolk.

And with this smooth seque, on to the AFC South!



Indianapolis Colts:
The Indianapolis Colts are like the school yard bully; big, strong, and full of bluster, but when whacked soundly in the nose both tend to collapse into a heap. Those of you who remember the early 80's Charger teams that were under the stewardship of former head coach Don "Air" Coryell will recall the visionary coach trotting out an offense that possessed a rocket armed signal caller working within a philosophy that was well ahead of it's time. However, on Defense, those same Chargers couldn't keep a squad of BINGO bound septuagenarians out of the end zone. This millennium's Indianapolis franchise has much in common with that offensively potent, defensively challenged San Diego squad. While this Colt team boasts a peerless offensive arsenal, it also fields an opportunistic but still underwhelming defense that was ranked 29th overall in yards allowed last season. Cobbling together a defense that will compliment the vaunted O will be the Colts' greatest and most important task this off-season. Also, the unanswered questions swirling around RB Edgerrin James' return must be settled. As the legendary "Clash" song goes; "should I stay or should I go now?" Although the veteran running back was slapped with the franchise tag and inked to a 1 year, $8 mill' plus contract, Edge's return is anything BUT a certainty. Seeking the "security" of a long term contract that Indy can ill afford to grant for fear of winding up in salary cap hell, the Colts and James are seeking to arrive upon a mutually amenable solution. Chances are no better than 50/50 that James will be wearing a helmet with a horseshoe come August, however. The Colts feel that they have a certain measure of security with RB Dominic Rhodes still in the fold. When James went down with a torn ACL in '01, Rhodes put on quite a display, amassing 1,100+ yards and 9 TDs. That being said, should James depart, the Colts will probably seek to add a running back on Day 1 of the upcoming draft. Assuming that Edge' remains a Colt this coming season, however, "The "Triplets" (Manning, Harrison, James) will remain intact for a seventh straight season. And, just consider what that talented troika has accomplished; a trio of Divisional titles and 5 playoff appearances in 6 seasons. The only season the Colts missed making the playoffs was in 2001, when James was lost to that torn ACL we talked about.

*Note: If James SHOULD head to the white sand beaches of Florida and sign a deal with the Miami Dolphins, who covet him and have made no secret of that desire, Manning's value... and the value of EVERY Indy' receiver, will rise even further.

QB Peyton Manning: 4 STARS; 4,557 Yards, 49 TDs, 10 INTs: When discussing Peyton Manning and his ability, Football fans frequently lapse into fits of hyperbole. Yet, it would seem as if no amount of praise would prove too effusive when mulling Manning's accomplishments. Quite arguably the best QB of his era, and one who years from now fans will be able to claim "I saw him play," Manning benefits from a scary deep pool of wide receiving talent, a soft-handed, fleet-of-foot tight end whose size poses serious match-up problems in Dallas Clark, and for the time being anyway, a top tier feature back in Edgerrin James. Directing his offense much like a great conductor does an orchestra, Manning's capable of seeing things that others cannot much like a conductor hears things the untrained ear cannot. Thus, the already prolific QB can unmask and exploit almost any defense, even when the best defensive coordinator has done his best to camoflauge it's weaknesses'. With an improved D supporting him, a full complement of pass catchers at his disposal, and the bitter taste of Divisional Championship defeat still on his tongue and fresh in his mind, look for Manning to again be single minded in his efforts to escort the Colts to the Super Bowl. Without question, Peyton Manning should again be fantasy football's most dangerous weapon and it's number one overall draft pick.

*Note: This coming season, with the single season TD record now safely part of his resume, Manning's TD total, while still absurd, will probably be
much closer to 40 than 50.

RB Edgerrin James: 4 STARS; 1,548 Yards, 9 TDs, 483 yds Rec.: The good news for Colt fans is that, for now at least, James remains in Indy'. Saying that Edge' plays Robin to Manning's Batman may seem a bit like, well, hyperbole, but there's no getting around the fact that the Colts' all-time rushing leader loosens up opposing Ds and provides his QB with greater room to operate. And, having recorded his best season since he tore his ACL in...right, '01, James has "a leg to stand upon" with regard to his contract demands. You see, with the Colts having given QB Peyton Manning a king's ransom of a contract (7 years/$98 million with an eye-ball popping $34.5 million bonus), and Marvin Harrison having received HIS lotto type contract (7 years/$67 million with $23 million guaranteed), James quite understandably feels it's his turn to get paid. But, alas, the Colts cannot mortgage their future for their "right now." With several teams having expressed interest in the gifted back, James could well be donning a brand new uni' come next season. For a fantasy owner, that's a VERY important factor to consider. Should James end up in Miami his value will diminish, quite possibly significantly. Miami's iffy QB situation, coupled with it's dearth of receiving talent, will hinder James as opponents will simply stack the box to stop him and dare the QB (currently A.J Feeley) to beat them. Interestingly, for a big back (he's listed at 6' 215), James has a hard time bull dozing his way into the end zone. Should James remain with Indianapolis, the team is toying with the idea of lining a full back up in front of him. Such a development could boost James' TD totals a bit. Keep an eye on the Colts' draft day machinations for Edge's ultimate value is contingent upon his ultimate destination.

WR Marvin Harrison: 4 STARS; 86 Rec., 1,113 Yards, 15 TDs: Harrison and Manning have an uncanny chemistry. With nothing more than a glance or seemingly innocuous gesture, Harrison will know precisley what his QB wants and where he should be. With a history that dates back to Manning's rookie year of '98, Harrison and Manning will eventually be the most prolific catch and throw tandem in league history. Is Harrison losing a step as he enters his mid-30's? Maybe. But, the guy's a training fanatic, a physical marvel (6', 175 Lbs, and has never had a major injury) and has talented young receivers in Brandon Stokely and Reggie Wayne to help alleviate the pressure. With other skill position players I will cite statistics and game performances in order to justify my assessment. However, "Marvelous Marvin" is Peyton Manning's favorite receiver, is quite possibly the NFL's quietest and most underrated star, should still be good for double diggy' TDs next season, and is one of a select few "no brainer" keepers.

WR Reggie Wayne: 3 STARS; 77 Rec., 1,210 Yards, 12 TDs: Wayne's numbers have steadily improved since his rookie year of 2001. Nevertheless, last season was one of the best ever for a "# 2" pass catcher. Wayne came up big frequently last season, posting 4 100 + yard receiving days (including an inspired, 11 grab, 184 yard week 3 game against the Packers) and 3 90+ yard receiving days. Wayne recorded TDs in 10 of 16 games last season, and should again make for a nice #2-3 fantasy pass catcher. If Harrison should prove to have lost a step next season, and after a ridiculous 15 TD season there's nothing to indicate that he has, Wayne will assume an even larger role than he did this past season. Predicated upon the depth of your team's skill position players, allot a keeper slot to this skilled receiver who's just entering his prime (Wayne is 27). After a breakout 12 TD season, in an offense that features the league's top QB and emphasizes the passing game, Wayne's an absolute keeper.

WR Brandon Stokely: 2 1/2 STARS; 68 Rec., 1,077 Yards, 10 TDs: With a remarkably consistent knack for getting open, Stokely didn't just emerge last season, he positively blew UP! Drafted in '99, Stokely's previous most productive campaign was 2002 when he notched 24 receptions for 357 yards and 2 TDs. Was last season an aberration? Quite possibly. On any other team Stokely would be afforded "2 STAR" status, but with Manning as his QB... how can you bet against the speedy receiver? Interestingly, Stokely was either overlooked or almost overworked depending upon the opponent; 7 games saw Stokely record fewer than 5 catches, and there were 7 contests where he had 5 or more grabs. Here's the rub; even though Stokely had 10 TDs (exactly half of his career total), there were games, and indeed stretches of games, where he just disappeared. This season should be an intriguing one for Stokely, especially if RB Edgerrin James is sent packing, for the team will be forced to rely even more heavily upon it's 3rd and 4th receivers. For those of you who belong to yardage leagues, Stokely possesses even greater value.

"Colt Extra Points": Recently, the team parted ways their long time TE, Marcus Pollard. One of Manning's favorite red zone and "safety valve" targets due to his ability to catch almost anything thrown within reach, Pollard posted a mere 29 catches this past season but 6 resulted in TDs. The greatest beneficiary of Pollard's departure will be fellow TE Dallas Clark, who possesses the ability to split coverage and find the soft spots in zones. And, with 25 receptions for a wide receiver-esque average of 16.9 yards per catch and 5 TDs to his credit, Clark will be a top sleeper this season. However, the loss of Pollard will have significant ripple effects. The team will now be forced to adapt the playbook substantially as they will be unable to run their preferred 2 TE sets. Another sleeper is RB Dominic Rhodes, owner of a gaudy 4.8 yard per carry average. If James is dealt, the Colts may well rely upon Rhodes. Lastly, Mike Vanderjagt, once referred to as "that... (insert your own insult) drunken kicker," was 59/60 for PATS and 20/25 in FG attempts. A savvy owner won't underestimate the value of a Kicker (depending of course upon your league), and next to New England's Adam Vinatieri no other kicker is as reliable or cool under pressure. To be clear, I am NOT suggesting owners burn keeper slots on kickers. Rather, I am saying that smart owners don't "punt" the kicker position.

Tennessee Titans:
The Titans proved to be a frustrating team to watch last season and things might not be a whole lot better this coming. Gone is McNair's "safety blanket" pass catcher, the sturdy and reliable Derrick Mason; now a Raven and destined to be Kyle Boller's new favorite receiver. In conjunction, highly touted WR Tyrone Calico, a 6'4" 220 pound speedster, was a non-factor in '04 due to injury. According to reports, Calico (who's 5 months into his rehab for a torn ACL) has been running and working on exploding into his cuts. That's all well and good, but Calico has yet to cash in on his considerable size and talent. One potential sleeper is the 6'4", 260 pound TE, Ben Troupe. Last season's 2nd round pick and owner of a timed 40 yard dash of 4.7 seconds, assuming Troupe's finally got the playbook down he could be a coverage nightmare for opposing DBs and LBs. Still, fantasy owners will be well served drafting skill position players from other teams. Given the sheer number of free agent defections and salary cap casualties, the Tennessee Titans will probably be no better than a first year expansion team this coming season.

QB Steve McNair: 2 1/2 STARS; 1,343 Yards, 8 TDs, 9 INTs: On-field sightings of "Air McNair" have proven to be increasingly rare. The QB's '04 season was an injury plagued affair and ended up being a virtual washout. Frustrated and expressing his desire to simply have the ability to ambulate when older, McNair (now 32) seriously contemplated hanging 'em up due to his accumulated aches and agonies. But, it would seem as if this gamer's good for at least one more season. He will however, have a somewhat suspect receiving corps at his disposal. Unless the aforementioned Tyrone Calico puts on an absolute clinic in mini-camp or the pre-season, or the Titans make a big draft day move and acquire a #1 wideout (taking nothing away from Drew Bennett), I'd look elsewhere for my fantasy QB as the team will play a more run oriented game plan with their young RB, Chris Brown, returning to health. And should McNair get nicked up in the pre-season (it'd be shocking if he plays more than a few pre-season quarters anyway) or early regular season, don't be stunned if he decides to reverse field and suddenly opt for retirement. Interestingly enough, an intriguing draft day pick (especially for those of you in "Dynasty" or keeper Leagues) for daring franchise owners might be McNair's back up, and a guy who'd be a starter for many teams, QB Billy Volek. Volek, who developed impressive chemistry with WR Drew Bennett, went off for 2,486 yards, 18 TDs and 10 INTs. With huge games in weeks 14 and 15 against the hapless Chiefs and Raiders respectively, Volek recorded a combined 918 passing yards and 8 TDs. The kid cooled off considerably during the final 2 weeks of the season, however, much to the dismay of the many owners who were counting on him to carry their teams to Fantasy Football's post-season glory. Nevertheless, Volek showed enough to be counted upon to one day (and that day may come much sooner than later) be a top fantasy performer.

RB Chris Brown: 3 STARS; 1,067 Yards, 6 TDs: For a big guy, Brown's another Titan who can be found on the Trainer's table with an irritating regularity. Weeks 1-10 (the team enjoyed a week 9 bye) saw Brown post solid fantasy numbers; he broke 100 yards rushing in 5 of those 9 contests, and scored 5 TDs. However, weeks 11-17 were another story, with the Titan back playing in just 2 of 7 games (weeks 13 and 14). In those contests Brown ran for another 195 yards and 1 TD. Owners who were anticipating a 1,600 yard, double diggy' TD season were sorely disappointed. As Chicago Cubs fans are often overheard saying, "maybe this season?" The trouble with Brown may lie in his running style. Listed at 6' 3", Brown's a tall back who runs with an upright style.Such a running style frequently leaves him open to punishing hits. And, as his QB can well attest, those nicks and dings can really start to add up. During this past off-season Brown had surgery on BOTH ankles. Due to the iffy nature of the Tennessee QB and WR situations, coupled with Brown's penchant for getting banged up, perhaps leave Brown to another owner.

WR Drew Bennett: 2 1/2 STARS; 80 Rec.,1,247 Yards, 11 TDs: This dude went from being an undrafted, unkown, to a household (at least... in those homes where the residents play fantasy sports) name inside of a season. Why? Let me throw some numbers at you; 379, 478, 504 and 1,247. Mean anything? If not, the first three figures are Bennett's "yards receiving" totals for the years '01-'03, the last is his '04 total. Impressed, but still unconvinced? Ok, how 'bout, 1 2, 4, and 11. Those digits would be Bennett's TD totals correlating with the same years. Now you're impressed and eager to see more from Bennett aren't you? Well, so are the Titans. But, if the increased expectations that come with such a breakout performance weren't pressure enough, with the loss of WR Derrick Mason to Baltimore through free agency comes the ascension of Bennett to #1 WR receiver status. Yet, with jaw dropping performances such as his week 14, 12 catch, 233 yard, 3 TD effort, it's easy to understand the ownership and coaching staff's titanic confidence. But can the young pass catcher duplicate such hefty numbers? It's difficult to forecast, especially given the unsettled nature of the team's offensive personnel. Of the 5 games in which Bennett toasted foes for at least 100+ yards receiving, 3 came during the season's final quarter. As a point of reference, through the first 11 games of last season, Bennett snared a mere 2 TDs. While the guy's a sharp route runner and possesses deceptive speed, the better gamble is to NOT afford Bennett with keeper status. Rather, try and draft the over-achieving pass catcher in the early to middle rounds. Without Derrick Mason on the field to monopolize the attention of the opposing team's top cover man, Bennett may well find yardage and the end zone much harder to find.

Jacksonville Jaguars:
Already fielding an impressive pair of bookend Defensive Tackles in Johnathan Henderson and Marcus Stroud, the Jags further bolstered an already formidable D by adding former Denver Bronco and pass rush specialist, Reggie Hayward. Hayward, who notched an impressive 10 1/2 Sacks last season, will help turn the Jaguar pass rush into one of the most relentless in the league. And as if that wasn't enough, the Jags continued to improve the defensive side of the ball by adding Defensive End Marcellus Wiley. If nothing else, the 9 year veteran will help provide depth and run support. What the team really needs though, and desperately, are offensive play makers. While I don't mean to diminish Jimmy Smith's more than adequate '04 campaign, a #1 pass catcher must record more than a fistful of TDs; Smith crossed the Goalline a mere 6 times. Further complicating matters is the fact that the next most productive Jaguar wide receiver, Troy Edwards, posted a very pedestrian 50 grabs for 533 yards and 1 TD. In addition, it's time for these cats to begin grooming an heir to RB Fred Taylor's throne. While Taylor also had a solid season on paper, on the gridiron... well, that was something else entirely. While the former big game back DID rack up almost 1,300 rushing yards, his continued inability to find the end zone has caused the Jacksonville coaching staff, and his fantasy owners, to pull their collective hair out by it's roots. The team tried to answer the skill position issues, assuredly not new dilemmas, unsuccessfully through last season's draft by taking wide receiver Reggie Williams in the first round, and RB Greg Jones in the second. Both athletes fell as flat as sewer caps, however. While Williams hauled in 27 balls for 268 yards and 1 TD, his average yards per catch, 9.9, was more what you'd expect from a full back. Likewise, RB Greg Jones notched 3 TDs and amassed a less than inspiring 162 yards on 62 totes; averaging 2.5 yards per carry. Clearly, the Jaguar staff MUST do a better job finding athletes who are both NFL ready and who fit their offensive scheme... which begs another question. What IS Jacksonville's offensive philosophy? If the team doesn't bring a take-charge offensive coordinator on board soon, QB Byron Leftwich's development threatens to be permanenetly retarded.

QB Byron Leftwich: 3 STARS; 2,491 Yards, 15 TDs, 10 INTs: Byron Leftwich is blossoming into a reliable if unspectacular Roto starter. From a fantasy perspective you've got to like the fact that "Lefty" tossed TD passes in 11 of 16 games last season and threw more TDs then INTs. If there is a downside to slapping a keeper tag on Leftwich it's the fact that the young signal caller lacks a true vertical threat capable of assisting him inflate his yardage and TD totals. Also, it should be noted that he's frequently banged up and plays hurt with some regularity; he missed a pair of games to a knee injury last season. If the Jags can manage to line a credible receiving threat up opposite the aging Jimmy Smith, and this draft contains an embarrassment of receiving riches, Lefty's value will escalate considerably. The caveat being, the team really doesn't have the luxury of drafting a project. Rather, they need a rookie pass catcher capable of making an immediate impact.

RB Fred Taylor: 2 1/2 STARS; 1,224 Yards, 3 TDs (1 rec.), 345 Yards Rec.: Many owners may still shy away from drafting this speedy back due to fears over his sturdiness or perceived lack thereof. But, how many owners are aware that prior to sitting out the final 2 games of last season due to an acute knee injury Taylor had strung together 46 consecutive starts? The Jag's 1st round pick of '98, Taylor missed 24 of his first 64 contests to various injuries; including a knee clampingly painful sounding abdominal injury wherein his groin muscles actually tore away from his pelvis (and yes, my knees are currently mashed together). Still, last season marked Taylor's fifth 1,000 yard season in 7 years. Pretty impressive stuff when you consider his earlier fragility. As the centerpiece of the Jaguar O, though, one would like to see more than just the trio of TDs such as Taylor posted all of last season. Still possessing good speed even at this stage of his career, (Fred won't be celebrating his 30th birthday until the end of next season) the guy has the wheels to take it to the house from virtually anyplace on the field. But, the fact of the matter is, until such time as defenses are forced to guard against the long passing play Fred Taylor will continue to be greeted by defenses and schemes geared almost expressly to stop him. This is yet another example of an athlete who's value in yardage leagues far surpasses his value in "TD leagues."

Houston Texans:
Here's the Texans' deal in a nutshell; "needs, needs, needs." Having released linebackers Jamie Sharper and Jay Foreman, the Texans will seek to replace the meat of the D through the draft. The team, running a 3-4 scheme, was largely unable to mount a pass rush last season and they will quite probably consider taking an Outside 'backer on Day 1. In conjunction, the staff still isn't comfortable with either their cornerback or offensive line situations, and the team has a safety with coverage skills close to the top of it's draft day wish-list. While last year's 1st round pick CB Dunta Robinson has shown great promise, he's still raw and remains a work in progress. Meanwhile, cornerback Aaron Glenn (33) has lost a step and is on the downside of his career. As for the O-line? Carr was sacked 49 times last season; nuff' said. The Texans MUST find someone... ANYONE, capable of protecting QB David Carr's blind side. Protection has been an ongoing problem for the team. And, while the team selected OT Seth Wand in the 3rd round of the '03 draft, he hasn't been the answer either. An agile Offensive Tackle will prove to be a high draft day priority. Lastly, the team still needs to line a legitimate receiving threat up opposite promising WR Andre Johnson. Owning the 13 pick in this year's draft, the Texans could go either way. But, since the upcoming draft possesses what amounts to the deepest pool of pass catching talent in decades, it may well be that the team takes a wideout in the 2nd or 3rd rounds and fills the O-line void first. While rumor has it the team would like to take a running back capable of pushing or filling in for Domanick Davis, the team has numerous needs that are far more pressing.

QB David Carr: 2 STARS; 3,531 Yards, 16 TDs, 14 INTs.: Entering a "make or break" season, Carr doesn't rate a keeper tag unless you belong to a deep league. Having tossed picks in 9 of 16 games last season and with a disconcerting 6 INTs to 4 TDs over the season's final quarter, Carr must work upon his decision making. One rather urgent problem for Carr has been the unfortunate ass kicking he's endured at the hands of the assorted linebackers, cornerback's, defensive ends, and occassional DBs and DTs that have sacked Carr 140 times over the course of his first 3 seasons. Again, that's no misprint. Carr has been sacked 140 times over his 3 seasons in the NFL, and that number doesn't include the countless knock downs, hurries, and late hits he's been subjected to. Carr's been the recipient of some absolute tattoos, and while you've got to admire his toughness we're talking production here. We're talking... fantasy value. And, fortunately, Carr's got a few weapons at his disposal. WR Andre Johnson is perched on the very cusp of stardom, and RB Domanick Davis is a dangerous ball carrier, capable of burning the defense that foolishly chooses to discount him. All the same, Carr and his Texans remain at least 1 playmaker away from being able to take foes out to the woodshed. However, Carr has proven himself capable of really hanging some numbers. And with a season that saw the developing signal caller post 200+ passing yards in 11 games and a pair of 300+ yard passing games, Carr is a far more attractive yardage league QB. Although the TD numbers should rise in '05, Carr will still be a 2nd to 3rd tier QB in most leagues.

RB Domanick Davis: 3 STARS; 1,180 Yards, 14 TDs (1 rec.), 588 Yards Rec: Those fantasy owners who entered last season believing Davis to be nothing more than a flash in the pan athlete incapable of carrying the load missed out on a top 5 fantasy back. Davis actually proved himself to be the very definition of a workhorse back; both real and fantasy last season, recording at least 20 totes in 8 games (and 19 in one more), and scores in 12 of 16 contests. But Davis offers his offensive coordinator and owners more than just speed to the outside and power between the Tackles. Davis possesses excellent hands and is a viable passing game weapon. With 5 50+ yard receiving days, the guy's more than just a safety valve receiver. And, although ball security was an issue at the start of the season (Davis had put the ball on the ground 4 times by the end of week 2), few backs were more reliable by week 17. Any owner contemplating cutting this kid loose obviously has a stacked roster... or has no business playing fantasy football.

WR Andre Johnson: 2 1/2 STARS; 79 Rec., 1,142 Yards, 6 TDs: The '03 draft's 3rd overall pick possesses prototype size (6'3", 220), outstanding speed, great hands, tremendous vertical leap, an acrobat's body control, and the ability to track and high point the ball. Johnson is assuredly one of the league's most talented wideouts, with the ability to be a Pro Bowl regular for the better part of the next decade. But, after finishing poorly for a second straight season, Johnson clearly has some work to do before he'll be considered a finished product. Although he snagged almost 80 passes last season and recorded a reception of 30 yards or more in 7 games (Ok, 1 was for 29 yards), the final quarter of the season saw a significant decline in Johnson's production, with a mere 11 grabs for 124 yards and 1 TD. It would seem as if the talented pass catcher relies upon his natural ability a bit too often. Johnson's one of those athletes who are diffcult to assess. Certainly, an 1,100+ yard receiving season is heady stuff... but again, here's a case where the athlete rates another 1/2 star if you belong to a yardage league, as a fantasy team's #1 pass catcher must record more than a handful of TDs.