Thursday, July 27, 2006

FANTASY FOOTBALL'S TOP TIGHT ENDS!

I apologize for the lag in postings... I took a 5 day vacation and went to Cape Cod.

**As an aside, I went fishing and caught myself a 42" long Striped Bass. Damn', it required 15 minutes of forearm searing effort to get the 45 pound fish aboard my chartered Boston Whaler. Alongside the 54" long Barracuda I caught while in Cancun 3 years ago... one of my fondest angling memories.

Now, the NFL has enjoyed a remarkable surge in talented, pass catching, game-changing Tight Ends! No longer are Tight Ends just big bodies who thrust themselves into the paths of on-rushing Defensive Ends. Well.... some of them are, but while blocking remains an integral part of the position guys such as Antonio Gates, Jeremy Shockey, Alge Crumpler, and Tony Gonzalez (who admittedly did MUCH more blocking last season then he has in years past) aren't compensated in royal fashion for their ability to keep extra defenders at bay.
Like no other sport the NFL is in "constant change," with both Offensive and Defensive coordinators doing their level best to keep the opposition off-balance. From the "Run n' Shoot," "Spread," and "No Huddle" offenses to the "46," "4-3," and "3-4" Defensive alignments, clubs are constantly trying to stay 1 step ahead of one another.

Kansas City Chief Tony Gonzalez was a known quantity; a huge athlete possessing great hands and speed that belied his size. Likewise, the Ravens' 2001 1st round draft pick, TE Todd Heap, has teased (in '03 and '05) both Baltimore and fantasy owners alike, but injuries and a lack of credible QB play have severely hampered his contributions.
But, when the Chargers signed undrafted Kent State Hoopster Antonio Gates in '03... things changed. Few took immediate notice, but his 24/389/2 rookie season certainly attracted the leagues' attention. It was his 81/964/13 '04 encore that really brought down the house, however, and forced GMs, scouts, and coaches to scour the nation for "the next Gates." Indeed, at 6-4/260 the Bolt' pass catcher is faster than most Linebackers, bigger that all DBs, and is really just a gargantuan Wide Receiver.
What the Chargers have in Antonio Gates has forced almost every other franchise to seek; an athletic giant capable of creating ugly defensive mismatches... and blocking when the occassion calls for it. Certainly, finding such an athlete is no mean feat. In fact, much like San Diego did with Gates, clubs are even combing through College Basketball's deep ranks searching for a rare gem amidst the thousands upon thousands of countless baubles.
NO other club boasts a Tight End possessing Antonio Gates' incredible confluence of size, speed, agility, athleticism, and baby-butt soft hands. But, there are a number of very talented Tight Ends who are worth drafting in your leagues' late-mid to later rounds.
Let's take a look at...

FANTASY FOOTBALL'S TOP TIGHT ENDS!

Chargers, Antonio Gates: I waxed poetic about the Bolts' big Tight End above. However, in a league rife with hyperbole; "he's the 2nd coming of Joe Montana," "I haven't seen a Running Back like him since Barry Sanders retired," and "he could be the next Lawrence Taylor," Antonio Gates is one of the few athletes whose accomplishments actually meet and even exceed the raves!
Coming off his 89/1,101/10 season, a year in which Gates notched a whopping 62 1st downs, a 12.4 YPC average, and recorded a quartet of 100 yard games (including back-to-back 145/3 and 132 yard efforts against the Chiefs and Jets respectively), the Charger pass catcher tops the Tight End list.
The concern? Quarterback Drew Brees, Antonio Gates' best bud', is now a Saint and unproven Philip Rivers has taken command of the huddle. The likliehood is that Gates will still record a season approaching... or exceeding, 800+/8+. The young Signal Caller will be brought along slowly, meaning he'll hand off to RB LaDainian Tomlinson with exhausting regularity... and frequently find an open Gates.
Just 26 years of age and finally mastering the many nuances of his position, Antonio Gates has rounded-out his game and is a "complete" package. Frighteningly enough, the kid still has ample upside.

Giants, Jeremy Shockey: Some would argue this ranking, but consider 2 consecutive seasons of production coupled with teammates that harbor Superbowl aspirations... not so outrageous now, is it?
Last season, Big Blue's "Shock' Jock" banked a career year; 65/891/7, and managed to stay on the field of play despite his annual handful of nagging nicks and knocks. In conjunction, Shockey's above-average blocking rendered Tiki barber and the run game downright lethal.
Shockey is the very definition of a "throwback player." He's got a mean-streak wide enough for 2, revels in nasty play (NOT dirty, however), possesses a knack for splitting the seam and getting himself into open space, and is powerful enough drag or bowl over would-be tacklers.
The key to springing this G-Man is Quarterback Eli Manning. Will the young Mann' be able to put a sorry 2nd half where it belongs, squarely in the rear-view mirror? Or, will Eli continue to struggle.
With a pass catching contingent of WRs Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, and rookie Sinorice Moss supported by versatile RB Tiki Barber (albeit aging) and brutish RB Brandon "Brahma Bull" Jacobs, the Giant O is well-equipped to score. Eli Manning looked to Shockey frequently last season, and the pass and catch combo should only improve as their timing and rapport sharpens this season.
With RB Tiki Barber not getting any younger and no real future feature in New York's fold, and WR Plaxico Burress drawing most of the opposing secondaries' attention, so long as he remains healthy Shock' could even improve upon last season's fine diggies'.

Chiefs, Tony Gonzalez: Gonzo's ranking is a matter for debate and it could even be argued that Falcon TE Alge Crumpler and Dolphin Randy McMichael brag more fantasy value. Please note, though, that fantasy value and real value differ considerably! What Tony Gonzalez brings to the Chiefs and what Randy McMichael contributes to the 'Phins is markedly different.
Getting back to our man of the hour, Gonzalez recorded a marvelous '04; 102/1,258/7, with 19 plays of 20 yards or more. Last season, though, the club needed the 6-5/255 TE to stay at home and block far more often than he'd become accustomed to due to injuries along the O-line. Accordingly, a disappointing line of 78/905/2 was slapped on the backs of his Trading Cards when the '05 season concluded.
The Offensive line did get younger, largely because septugenarian OT John Welbourne retired. But, OG Will Shields and OT Willie Roaf are each 35+, C Casey Wiegmann is 33, and these guys are just about eligible for the AARP cards. Should the line suffer a spate of injuries, the Offense will sink faster than the Titanic. Futher complicating matters is an aging Trent Green and an unimpressive receiving corps. A 33 year old Eddie Kennison is a marginal #2... and more of a #3 receiver at this stage of his career, Samie Parker has shown flashes but he's anything but a lock, and dimunitive Dante Hall (5-8/180), who poses for trophies over the off-season, gets lost amidst the goliaths of the midway once the action starts.
Although Gonzo's TD total should increase... it wouldn't be stunning if his yardage totals continue their plunge. Make no mistake, behind the powerful running of bruising RB Larry Johnson the Chiefs will go run-heavy.
Look for at least one more sterling season from the Canton-bound KC TE.

Falcons, Alge Crumpler: To savvy Roto-rooters, TE Alge Crumpler is no secret. The Hot-Lanta pass catcher posted a career best receiving total of 877 yards, and his 13+ YPC, 5 scores, and 42 1st Downs underscore his importance to the Falc' O.
Astonishingly agile for a 260 pounder, Crump' can get his over-sized rear into high gear rapidly and once he's moving at full-speed smaller defenders simply ricochet off of his tree-trunk legs or get taken along for a 15 yard piggy-back ride. In short? Alge's a nightmare to tackle.
QB Mike Vick's favorite receiver can catch almost anything thrown his way, excells in the red-zone, and should only benefit from the rapid development of 2nd year WR Roddy White.
If we operate under the somewhat suspect assumption that Michael Vick will take a substantial step forward this season and improve upon his accuracy, Crumpler could be as good as 850+/8-10. Yes, that IS an ambitious projection but heck, I'm a glass half-full kinda' guy!

Ravens, Todd Heap: If not for want of a Quarterback... Such has been the lament of many a pass catcher, but Heap's cry is particularly prescient. Of course... Toddy-boy's suffered a heap o' injuries, but his production would likely be semi-ridiculous if the Ravens had fielded a real live Quarterback prior to this coming season.
The signing of Steve McNair should have an immediate impact upon the offense;
1. RB Jamal Lewis won't be expected to carry the entire offense.
2. WR Derrick Mason and McNair will undoubtedly rekindle their past magic and be a potent 1-2 pass and catch punch.
3. TE Todd Heap, healthy and coming off an '05 campaign that saw him record career marks for receptions (75), receiving yards (855), TDs (7), and longest play (48 yards), should be scary now that the forward pass has been reintroduced to the Baltimore playbook.
4. The defense will no longer be expected to keep games virtually scoreless.
Look for TE Todd Heap to reclaim his place amongst the league's very best pass catchers, and another career-season could be dead-ahead!

Redskins, Chris Cooley: A swift and nimble H-Back, the 'Skin pass catcher is one of coach Joe Gibbs' favorite players. The tall Cool' one is yet another TE who banked career marks; grabs (77), yards (774), and trips to the 'Zone (7).
Chris Cooley is unafraid to stick his head into a blitzing 'backers belly, he's able to run block, and best of all... Chris Cooley's hands are phe-freakin'-nomenal.
Surrounded by an embarrassment of offensive Redskin riches, Chris Cooley... a 'Waiver Wire grab for many last season, is "thisclose" to being an elite TE. Once the run on TEs begins, Cooley should be pulled off the 'board amongst the top 5-6.

Cowboys, Jason Witten: This spot was a toss-up, and deciding between Jason Witten (66/757/6) and Randy McMichael was like trying to decide upon chocolate or vanilla. Both play for clubs that have questionmark QBs, both play for clubs with game-breaking Wide Receivers, and both are richly talented. Due to the presence of newcomer WR Terrell Owens, however, I give the edge to Witten.
Dallas' 2-time Pro Bowl TE is a student of the game, boasts a fine Football IQ, and is not yet 25. One of the slower 'Pokes, Witten makes his pass catching living off of his great hands and knack for snapping-off big gains.
Make no mistake, WR Terrell Owens will attract Cornerbacks and Safeties like candy does kids, and the immediate beneficiaries should be complementary WR Terry Glenn and TE Jason Witten. The next beneficary? Dallas's rushing tandem of Julius Jones and Marion Barber. This talented group of playmakers will force Defensive Coordinators to order Peptol-Bismol and Maalox by the case.

NEXT BEST!

Dolphins, Randy McMichael: If QB Daunte Culpepper can recapture his lost magic, WR Chris Chambers and RB Ronnie Brown will make it difficult if not impossible for opposing defenders to key upon Miami's fast and liquid-slick Tight End. Culpepper does love to throw to his TEs, and McMichael is by far the most talented TE he's had at his disposal to date.
Off field issues continue to stalk McMichael, however.

Steelers, Heath Miller: Although selecting a 2nd year TE is a risk, Miller's 39/459/6 season bodes awfully well for the future. Further, the defection of WR Antwaan Randel El and retirement of RB Jerome Bettis will afford Miller a bevvy of red-zone opps'.

Forty-Niners, Vernon Davis: Selecting a rookie pass-catcher is near heretical... but sophomore Signal Caller Alex Smith has a dearth of playmakers at his beck and call. At 6-3/255, Davis is faster than many Wide Receivers and is scary-good once he finds himself in open space.
Look for Smith and Davis to hook-up as regularly... and as sloppily (is that a word?) as High School sweethearts.

Eagles, L.J. Smith: Without WR Terrell Owens and with a fabulously versatile Running Back in Brian Westbrook, the Eags' have sworn a blood-oath to go run-heavy.
That may work well in theory, but Westy's durability is iffy. Further, the club lacks a clear-cut #1 Wide Receiver. Look for Fab' 'Nabb and Smith to rack-up frequent flyer miles.

Colts, Dallas Clark: Dallas has a knack for finding the soft spots in zones... and is a nifty open-field playmaker after the catch due to his surprising speed. The loss of Edgerrin James will force QB Peyton Manning to go pass heavy again, and I'm gambling that Dallas Clark sees a nice number of Red-Zone chances.

Friday, July 21, 2006

FANTASY FOOTBALL'S 3 STAR WIDE RECEIVERS!

Once the cream of the pass catching crop has been skimmed from the drafts' surface and guys such as T.O., Randy, Marvelous, Chad and Hines (see? They can all go by 1st names like... Cher, Sting, Arnold, and ... umm, Sadaam) have been drafted, owners will need to dig a bit deeper if they're to select consistent fantasy contributors. And make no mistake my fantasy friends, if there's anything an owner places great emphasis and value upon, irregardless of the sport, it's "consistent consistency."

Sound redundant? In a way it is, but if a player regularly posts positive fantasy points that's consistent. Now, if said player regularly posts (I can't ascribe a point figure as every leagues' scoring system varies) above-average point totals (a locked-in receiver who snares 5+ balls, banks 75+ yards, and notches at least 1 score every other week)... that's "consistent consistency." In Baseball, a guy such as Philly OF'er Bobby Abreu is "consistently consistent." The Philadelphian is always good for a 2 hit/1-2 Run, 1+ Ribbie' night with an Extra Base Hot and/or a Swiped Bag thrown in for good measure. Bobby rarely whiffs' more than once per game, he can hit safely to all fields (24 Doubles, 2 Triples) and is an accomplished base stealer (20). This remarkable confluence of tools manifests itself in one of fantasy Baseball's top 10 Outfielders.
So.... you get the point? There are just a handful of elite Wideouts, but there are a number of 2nd tier pass catchers who are quite capable of making an appreciable fantasy impact.

Grab yer' box of Raisenettes or Non-Pareils, stick a straw in your cola of choice (or discretely pop the 6-pack of Corona into the styrofoam cooler), and let's continue our fantasy journey around our fantasy world!

FANTASY FOOTBALL'S 3-STAR WIDE RECEIVERS!

11. Santana Moss: So small, the dude could pose for trophies! Incidentally, the teeny-tiny Redksin receiver does a helluva' good "Pole Vault" and "Man About to Bowl" pose.
Though many would have slotted Moss (84/1,483/9) much higher, quite probably before Plaxico Burress, newcomers Antwaan Randel El and Brandon Lloyd, plus sure-handed H-Back Chris Cooley and always dangerous RB Clinton Portis will make it impossible for foes to adequately cover Moss. Sure ,they'll be able to place bracket coverage around the 5-10/190 firecracker, but that will leave another 'Skin playmaker wide open.
Operating under the assumption that Mark Brunell remains intact and the offensive reigns don't get handed off to young Jason Campbell, Moss should continue being a dangerous, 1,200+/6-9 vertical threat.
**NOTE: Lloyd and Randel El will certainly poach plays, but Moss is the team's deep threat and Lloyd is more a possession type. I do, however, love what Chris Cooley and TE Christian Fauria bring to the offense!

12. Reggie Wayne: Again, could Wayne (83/1.055/5) have been the #10 pass catcher? Absolutely... but we'd be splitting hairs.
For the most part, Reggie Wayne's production has consistently risen since he entered the league in '01. Taking QB Peyton Manning's all-out '04 assault on the record books aside (Reg' posted a 1,200+/12 that season), Wayne's receptions, yardage totals, and TDs have risen exponentially.
Without veteran RB Edgerrin James toting the rock, this season promises to be one of constant adjustments. The club will trot-out rook' runners Joseph Addai and veteran Dominic Rhodes, but the smart money says Peyton takes command and goes pass heavy, again, with Wayne and TEs Dallas Clark and Bryan Fletcher the most immediate beneficiaries.
I'm not so sure that this isn't the season that sees Reggie supplant Marvelous as the #1 Wide Receiver.

13. Chris Chambers: What'd I say about how tightly grouped the talent at this level is? S'like a Gordian Knot, that's how snug this bunch is.
Anyway, Daunte Culpepper is recovering from 3 torn knee liggies and G-d only gave us 4 per knee. To expect the gargantuan Signal Caller to be on his game would be entirely unreasonable, but the team's got a quandry on it's collective hands. Does Saban give 2nd year man Ronnie Brown a blue-collar workload? If so, he'll be taking a calculated risk since the team is without a credible backup. If, however, Saban places his faith in C-Pepp', the team's new QB will undoubtedly share the love and lean heavily upon Chambers (82/1,118/11) in much the same way he leaned upon Randy Moss when both wore Minny' duds.
Tall and athletic, Chambers is able to track and high-point the ball like few Wide Receivers can... and talk about hops! Chambers' legs are like... PoGo Sticks! With TE Randy McMichael no slouch and helping to alleviate the considerable pass catching pressure, Chambers could enjoy a breakout season now that he's got a real live QB throwing him the ball. For real!

14. Roy Williams: Wow! A Detroit Lion as a high draft pick? What's the fantasy world coming to! I'l tell you, though, for all his faults... and GM Matt Millen's got a wallet full of 'em, Kevin Jones and Roy Williams (45/687/ have been 2 of his best decisions. Then again, Charles Rogers, Joey Harrington, and LB Boss Bailey aren't exactly glowing endorsements of Millen's 9-5 work ethic and assessment skills.
Williams, though, is a breed apart, and this ranking is predicated more upon potential than past accomplishments. Roy the Detroit pass catching toy has been prone to injury and has yet to play a full 16 game complement. On the other hand, with the "Harrington Experiment" now over and proven QB Jon Kitna jammin' hands under C Dominic Raiola's rear... Williams is an excellent "breakout candidate of the year" projection!

15. Derrick Mason: Against my gut, I'm goin' with D-Mase' here. I could just as easily have gone with Seahawk Darrell Jackson or Bronc' Javon Walker.
Mason (86/1,073/3) is exceptionally durable for his size (5-10/190), he could run his typical crisp routes blindfolded, and his toughness is legendary. With the remarkably UNimpressive Kyle Boller calling the shots Mason notched nearly 1,100 receiving yards, with a proven Field General in Steve McNair in command of the Balty' flock? Look for D-Mase's TDs to double, at the least, and his yards to increase by as much as 30%.
**NOTE: Another Raven who should reach new heights? TE Todd Heap. Together, Heap and Mason will keep opposing defensive coordinators lying awake at night... a determined RB Jamal Lewis will cause them to break out into cold sweats.

16. Donald Driver: The Pack' are going to be an interesting club to watch this season, and how QB Brett Favre and the supporting run game fare will be fascinating.
I, for one, thoroughly expected an aging and increasingly worn Brett Favre to stride off into a Wisconsin sunset this past off-season, but I underestimated the lure of the game and the difficulty Brett would have shaking free of its siren call.
Driver (86/1,221/5) has phe-freakin'-nomenal straight-line speed, the vertical leap of a Dingo (A Dingo can jump straight-up, 4'), and is particularly dangerous along the sideline. With Javon's departure to Denver comes Donald's ascension to #1 receiver status. You might actually say, Donald's in the "Driver" seat. Get it" 'Cause Donald's surname's... never mind.
Anyway, much will hinge upon the so-so Offensive line (a mix of young and old) and the Running Backs, all of whom are coming off one injury or another. I do NOT expect Ahman Green to be anything special and Najeh Davenport showed flashes... before breaking his ankle. Sam Gado was the real surprise, but he won't be sneaking up on opponents again this year.
Bottom line? Favre has enough left in the tank to render Driver a 90/1,100/8 pass catcher, worthy of your 5th-ish round attention.

FANTASY FOOTBALL ... 4 STAR WIDE RECEIVERS!

An intriguing fantasy weapon, the wideout, and few warrant 4 Star rankings. There are a number of variables that go into a receiver's value and talent is 3rd or 4th on the list.
1. Most significantly, who's the teams' Quarterback? Does he have a big arm? Or, is he an accurate... but noodle-armed passer, able to hit his receivers in stride?
2. Does the team trot-out a rock-solid threat at Running Back? A good back will keep defenders off-balance, possibly forcing the Safety to creep up in an effort to better support the run. Ergo, a Safety who is playing close to the line is a Safety unable to slip back in help coverage.
3. What's the team's offensive philosophy? Will they be inclined to pound the ball down their opponents' collective throats... or, do they implement a West Coast/short passing system?
A. If you're fortunate enough to own Colt Reggie Wayne, the loss of RB Edgerrin James looms awfully large. Embarking upon the season without Edge' for the 1st time since '99, the team will very likely go pass-heavy again.
B. If you own prolific pass catcher Torry Holt, the new Ram regime has vowed to make better use of versatile Steven Jackson... which could have an impact upon Holt's numbers.

It's impossible to weigh every variable (and that's NOT limited to Wide Receivers) and doing so is apt to make your stir-crazy trying.That said, perhaps the following Wide Receiver cheat-sheet will provide you with some useful direction.

"4-STAR WIDE RECEIVERS"

1. Steve Smith: Smith (103/1,563/12) put up eye-popping numbers last season. Just 5-9/185, he's much tougher and far more durable than you mighty believe. Although he's not going to take anyone by surprise this season and will assuredly see oodles of double-teams, Smith is still way slick, and newcomer Keyshawn Johnson will make for an outstanding complementary receiver. QB Jake Delhomme won't blow your socks off but he's as steady as a rock, the team can run the ball but doesn't subscribe to the run-run-pass-punt school of offense, and I see no reason that, short of injury, Smith won't again eclispe 1,100/eight.

2. Larry Fitzgerald: It could be that RB Edgerrin James takes a small bite out of Fitz's (103/1,409/10) numbers, and a healthy Anquan Boldin might also swipe some balls. On the other hand, the presence of such dangerous skill position players may well open things up for Fitzgerald as few Defensive Coordinators have the assets at hand to cover such a talented trio.
Once, not if, man-child Matt Leinart is forced to assume Signal Calling duties, his remarkable poise, leadership, and accuracy will allow the Card' receiver to retain his rare value. This offense is VERY impressive.

3. Chad Johnson: Chad Johnson (97/1,432/9) and QB Carson Palmer form one of the league's most dangerous pass and catch tandems. Fortunately for Johnson, he's not a 1-man pass catching band, either. Complementary receiver T.J. Houshman-hate-to-spell-his-name and RB Rudi Johnson are well equipped to punish the defenders who foolishly elect to focus the bulk of their defensive resources upon the "brash one."
Palmer, coming off a serious knee injury and subsequent surgery, won't be anywhere near 100% come the season-opener irrgardless of what the club says. Just so much propoganda. Still, Palmer is much further along in his recovery than many would've believed, he'll more than likely be jammin' hands under his Center's ample (expletive) come Week 1, and that makes the limelight lovin' Chad Johnson a 3rd round pick in almost every league.

4. Terrell Owens: Here's a guy that could easily be slotted at the 8-spot. Why? A brittle Bledsoe combined with having to learn an entirely new system. Owens exhausted his welcome in San Fran' and his act wore awfully thin in Philly' (47/763/7 over just 6 contests) after just a season and a half. T.O. is unnaturally concerned with his teammates salaries and with what other Wide Receivers are making. If the guy could just hone is focus and direct it towards Football, he'd be so much better off.
If any coach is going to finally impress upon T.O. the meaning of "team," and I think convincing Sadam Hussein to love his fellow man might be an easier feat, it's gonna' be "The Tuna."
Supported by a dynamic 1-2 Running Back punch embodied in Julius Jones and Marion Barber (the III, of course) and alongside fellow pass catchers Jason Witten and Terry Glenn, T.O's opponents' heads will be on a swivel and their hands are gonna' be full. Even having been out of Football for as long as he has been, you could shred lettuce on Owens' abs and his physique looks like an anatomy chart. Look for a season akin to 75-80 grabs, 1,000+ receiving yards, and 10-12 TDs.

5. Randy Moss: I thought, as did so many other observers and fantasy writers, that QB Kerry Collins... he of the long-ball and not much else, would thrive in Oakland. If any owner subscribes to the vertical passing game it's grandpa Al. Incidentally, someone has got to take that guy aside and get him a new pair of eyeglasses! Those frames, circa 1950, are so not stylin'
Moving along. The team boasts a true bruiser in RB LaMont Jordan, and the receiving stable, featuring a combo of Moss (60/1,005/eight) and Porter, is virtually without equal (Arizona and Indy' are on par).
After 9 NFL seasons it's not inconceivable that Moss is wearing down. Still, given his remarkable gifts, let's give the former Viking 1 more season to reclaim his place amongst the pantheon of pass catching greats. With former Saint Aaron Brooks now suiting up for the Silver & Black, if nothing else the club will feature a strong-armed and mobile (let's not get into the whole questionable judgement thing, that'd be another article entirely) 'slinger.
Joey Porter, Doug Gabriel, and Ronald Curry flesh-out the receiving contingent, and RB LaMont Jordan is a fine receiver in his own right. Let's see how Randy fares this season, a 1,200/12 campaign may be ambitious (in terms of TDs, not yards) but not beyond reach.

6. Anquan Boldin: Only slightly less dangerous than Fitz', Boldin's (102/1,402/7) rookie year ('03) (101/1,377/eight) was nothing less than brilliant. His follow-up season was marred by an ugly knee injury, but diligent effort on his part paired with top-notch medical care and rehab' got Q' back onto the field for a successful '05 comeback. Now that his knee will be as strong as it was prior to injury, 2006 might just be Boldin's most productive campaign to date. Just how RB Edgerrin James will factor into the 'Zona offense remains to be seen, but what Q' and Fitz' did without benefit of a legit' rushing attack was nothing short of shocking. Each should only improve WITH a competent back... and Edgerrin James transcends "competent." Both Card' Wideouts are poised to take flight, and so long as Kurt Warner remains intact... and that's a 100-1 shot at best (Vegas odds, not mine), both stand to hang 100/1,000 seasons.

7. Torry Holt: Another brilliant skill position player who hails from the prolific... and ultimately disappointing class of '99 (Tim Couch, Akili Smith, Cade McNown, David Boston, Peerless Price, and Ricky Williams to name but a few), Holt (102/1,339/9) will continue his pass catching journey that will ultimately conclude in Canton.
There's no question that Quarterback Marc Bulger can get him the ball (in full stride, even!), and #2 and 3 receivers Isaac Bruce and Kevin Curtis make it difficult if not impossible to apply double-coverage. However, now that pass-happy coach Mike Martz is gone, the new regime is determined to make much better use of the physical and versatile RB Steven Jackson.
Nevertheless, Holt should still post one of his typical semi-ridiculous seasons; 90+/1,200+/8+.

8. Marvin Harrison: Choosing Marvin (82/1,146/12) over teammate Reggie Wayne is not as cut and dried as it might seem. Wayne is younger and possesses a bit more exlposiveness, but whatever Marvelous lacks in burst and top-end speed he makes up for with savvy and experience. Need I mention that Harrison and Manning have a mental connection that borders upon the spooky? With a barely perceptible glance, Manning can instantly convey his desire to Harrison... and that kind of communication is borne of thousands of hours of training and off-season work.
With RB Edgerrin James and "The Triplets" resigned to the dustbin of Football history, look for QB Peyton Manning to go pass heavy again, just like he did during his record-setting (single-season TD record) season of 2004. RB Joseph Addai may well be an "Edgerrin James" clone, and the club may state that they're comfortable entering the season with Dominic Rhodes serving as the "featured back," but that's just so much misdirection. This is a club that's still attempting to rinse the bitter taste of defeat from their mouths as they shake free from the ashes of last season.
Eager to prove his detractors wrong... you know, the ones that claim Peyton can't win the big game? Look for Manning and Marvelous to hook-up as regularly as High School sweethearts (just... not in the same way).
Harrison may have entered a bit of a decline, but he remains Peyton's favorite target and he retains more skill than most pass catchers have ever known.

9. Hines Ward: No club boasts a more cunning pass catcher, and Hines Ward(69/975/11) will be one of the prime beneficiaries of RB Jerome Bettis and WR Antwaan Randle El's departures. For the record, TE Heath Miller should also flourish. Without Bettis to carry the club's mail across the 'stripe and with a more mature (and I use that word only with regard to Ben's experience on the gridiron) Ben Roethlisberger at the helm, the Steelers will undoubtedly lean more heavily upon the passing game than they have in years past.
Look for yet another 1,000/10 season from Pittsburgh's prolific Ward.

10. Plaxico Burress: So, do I go with Plax', Reggie Wayne, or Chris Chambers in the 10-slot? Only because Tiki Barber shows no signs of slowing down and because the club brags a Manning, I give Plax' the nod. While Manning ended the season on a down-note and gave everyone pause for thought as he took a step backward, a healthy Burress, operating alongside a healthy TE Jeremy Shockey and rookie Sinorice Moss, should find himself in single-coverage with regularity.A deadly red-zone weapon, Plax' and Eli began to develop a nice chemistry and I see no reason that such won't continue. Taller than most DBs, if motivated Plaxico Burress is capable of dominating the field of play in a way few receivers can.
But therein lies the million-dollar question. Burress, it seems, blew-off a season-ending meeting and dissed' his coach by opting to workout by his lonesome in Florida. Could Plax' be New York's answer to T.O? Only time will tell, and the BIG Blue receiver has developed a rap for being beligerent and lazy. Stay tuned, but if the aforementioned was just a bunch of nonsense, the 6-5/225 pass catcher should be a mid-round draft pick.

NEXT UP? FANTASY FOOTBALLS' 3-STAR WIDE RECEIVERS!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

FANTASY FOOTBALL, RUNNING BACK REVIEW!

First, allow me to preface. It is just impossible to review every teams' runners. The enormity of the task is daunting, the length of the article far too cumbersome. Ergo, I elected to "hit the highlights" and my pair of "Fantasy Football's Running Backs" articles reflect as much.

Now, should Brian Westbrook be ranked ahead of Warrick Dunn? Maybe. Are you in a yardage league or a scoring league? Do you belong to a "Keeper" league? Are there 8, 10 or 12 owners in your league? How, exactly, does your league tally points? Given both backs' history, taking the supporting casts into account, and considering the offenses both runners will be playing in, I ranked Dunn ahead of Westy'. That does NOT mean, however, that the Eag' won't soar higher than the Falcon. Likewise, after much deliberation, I ranked Cowboy Julius Jones and did NOT list Lion Kevin Jones. Does that mean "KJ" is lacking in value? No, far from it. Actually, Detroit coach Rod Marinelli has said "we're going to pound the rock, and that starts with Kevin Jones" ... or words to a similar effect. But, with Terrell Owens suiting-up for the 'Pokes? Opposing defenders will be more apt to play off the line, thus affording Julius a scoche' more room.
So you see, the possibilities are myriad. Take my rankings as suggestions, they're not gospel.

"On The Way Up!"

Larry Johnson: Two years ago, the unquestioned #1 pick was Charger LaDainian Tomlinson. Johnson, though, has taken over the featured back duties and looks to have put his off-field issues behind him. LJ reeled off 9 straight 105+ yard rushing games, 5 straight 130+ yard games, and notched 15 TDs over his last 7 games.
The only thing that could possibly hold Johnson back, short of injury, is if the Chiefs' aged line suddenly crumbles. Older than dirt, virtually every O-Lineman is a 30-something and both Willie Roaf and Will Shields are 35+.

Steven Jackson: In an offense that has historically been of the "pass 1st, run later" variety, Jackson could be eye-balling a real breakout season. The staff is determined to show opponents a far more balanced offensive look, and Jackson is fast, physical, and versatile. Look for 20+ touches per game... and I wouldn't hesitate to pull a 2nd round trigger on Jax', even a 1st rounder in 12-team leagues.

Ronnie Brown: There's a new sherriff in town and Nick Saban, brought aboard last season, didn't take long to put his stamp on the 'Phins. Now, with Ricky' able to smoke Canada's outstanding sticky, Ronnie Brown is the man. Bolstered by a pass and catch combo of QB Daunte Culpepper (who can't be expected to do too much on his surgically reconstructed knee), Chris Chambers and TE Randy McMichael, Brown should be demonstrably better in his 2nd year.
**NOTE: Should Brown suffer an injury, the 'Phins are fish out of water. Backup Travis Minor is nothing more than a 3rd down/"breather" back.

**Honorable Mention:

Kevin Jones: Those of you who swore to never again draft KJ... think again. New coach Rod Marinelli's stated goal is to ram the rock down opponets' throats, and Jones is certainly strong enough... and swift enough, to do just that. Boasting a new, stable Signal Caller in Jon Kitna, the forward pass is once again part of the Lions' offense.
**Note: Although Charles Rogers has been chatted-up by the team, he's been running with the 2nd and 3rd teamers. D-troit would be thrilled to find a taker. Look for Kitna and Roy Williams to develop a nifty chemistry, and Mike Williams will either carve a niche for himself as a #2 Wideout or get a long look as a Tight End. Veteran TE Marcus Pollard, a horror-show to cover in the red-zone, is worth a late, late draft pick for those of you who belong to scoring leagues.

Carnell Williams: After starting the season in ridiculous fashion, Caddy' suffered a foot injury during the Week 3 game... and didn't disclose its severity to the Tampa staff. Williams didn't fully recover from the injury until, roughly, Baseball season.
Fast-forward to the '06 campaign, and with emerging QB Chris Simms, TE Alex Smith, WR Michael Clayton, and a nurturant... if foul-tempered coach, Caddy' is ready to resume rolling over opposing defenders.
**NOTE: QB Chris Simms is a promising talent who has secured control of the huddle and his teammates' confidence. With a savvy veteran such as Joey Galloway and a gifted pass catching youngster such as TE Alex Smith, D-coordinators will have a tough time scheming for Tampa.

"On The Way Down"

Corey Dillon: Dill', 32, finally looked his age last season and watched as all of his diggies' continued to dive.
The club drafted promising Laurence Maroney out of Minnesota and will likely intergrate him into the system sooner rather than later. Nevertheless, and although Maroney's a big dude (6-0/225), Dillon should still receive a regular diet of short yardage and Goalline carries.

Curtis Martin: In the late twilight of his Hall of Fame career, Martin went from being the leagues' rushing leader to being a rushing bottom feeder over the span of just a single season. As I wrote in a previous article, instability at the Signal Calling position did little to help C-Mart', but at age 33 his days of being a 25+/game back are at an end. New coach Eric Mangini, eager to make an impression upon his new club, will probably see if Cedric Houston or Derrick Blaylock are capable of heavy duty. If not, Mangini will probably explore 1 of 2 possible options; pour over the pool of available free agent backs or give Martin 15-20 touches per game and draft a new lead back next season.

Ahman Green: Green caused fantasy hearts to flutter everywhere when he recorded his signature season of '03; 1,883/20 (5 rec. TDs). Unfortunately, the Pack' back followed it up with an 1,163/8 (1 rec. TD) encore and last year... last year was a lost year as Green tore a quadricep muscle.
After Sam Gado exploded on the fantasy scene, Green will have an uphill battle on his hands. An "old" 29 due to the exorbitant wear and tear Lambeau Field exacts upon a Runner, I have said it before (like... last season in my pre-season rankings and again, this year) and I say again, "LET AHMAN GREEN GIVE ANOTHER OWNER ULCERS!"

"Could Surprise"

Chester Taylor: Alongside OG Steve Hutchinson, Taylor was Minny's most significant off-season acquisition. The Ravens plugged Taylor into their Running Back breach when Jamal Lewis was out with injury or just needed a breather, and were suitably impressed by his skills.
With a real Full Back in Tony Richardson (another key pickup) now in the Viking fold, Chester Taylor could blow-UP and be a legit' 1,000 yard/8 weapon.

Tatum Bell: Pick a Bronc' back, any Bronc' back! Dating from Terrell Davis to Olandis Gary to Mike Andersen to Clinton Portis to... you get the point, the "Mike Shanahan System" works.
Bell averaged almost 5 1/2 yards per tote last season, but his durability and toughness have been called into question.
If Bell can beat out quasi-bust Ron Dayne, he could be a nice addition to a fantasy roster. I anticipate that the jibes Shanny' directed Bell's way are designed to motivate and not DE-flate, and that Bell should start the season as the "Big D" back.

FANTASY FOOTBALL, RUNNING BACKS... THE BEST OF THE REST

The 3rd tier runners don't end with Warrick Dunn and Willie Parker and, quite frankly, at this point they're practically interchangeable.

This article has a certain... como se dice', Clint Eastwood, "Go Ahead, Make My Roster!" feel to it. I have listed a trio of "The Good," "The Bad," and a pair of "The Ugly" backs for your fantasy pleasure.
Thereafter, I reviewed a trio of young guns who just might make an appreciable impact upon the fantasy landscape.
For all you Roto-rooters out there, understand that if ANY Rook' is gonna' make a fantasy dent and help guide your club to the playoffs... it'll be a Running Back.

"The Good"

Eagles, Brian Westbrook: Westy' (617/3 rushing, 616/4 receiving) is one of Football's most versatile runners and is one helluva' good fantasy pick. Realistically, the Eag' back should've been slotted a bit higher but questions surrounding the Philly' passing game make his ranking not quite so egregious.
At 5-8/203, Brian Westbrook just isn't built for between the Tackles totes. He is, however, as elusive as a drop of water on waxed paper and once he finds daylight? Dude gobbles up yards like Pacman does dashes and dots. Westy' has exemplary wiggle, possesses more moves than a Vegas Call Girl, and could be staring down the barrel of a career year given the team's committment to the run. Westbrook's hands and open-field moves make him such a valuable fantasy commodity, and an 1,800+/10-12 season is not beyond his grasp assuming he stays healthy.
Westbrook sandwiched 7- 19+ touch games around a pair of iffy starts (Weeks 4 and 5), but the work really took a toll on him Westbrook wore down towards the season's end, and his regular season concluded with a 14 touch, 55 yard "Weak" 13 effort.
Although I like the dimunitive back and think he could be a rock-solid #2 fantasy runner, his week to week production can be troubling. Smart owners might consider "handcuffing" themselves by taking 2nd year man Ryan Moats (278/3) in the later rounds. Moats flashed nice tools while filling in for a hobbled Westbrook last season, but at 5-8/210... Moats is Westbrook's stunt double.
**NOTE: Look for the club to also try and get Correll Buckhalter touches. Another fragile Philadelphian, at 6-0/222 Buckhalter is bigger than either Moats or Westbrook but he may be even more frail, if that's possible. Buckhalter has been a spectator in 3 of his 5 seasons due to knee injuries.

Ravens, Jamal Lewis: Jamal (906/4) has gotta' be stark ravin'! The '03 season saw Lewis record nearly 2,100 yards and 14 TDs, but then... then the house came tumbling down. And of course, Lewis was then shipped off to the "Big House," prison, for "brokering a drug transaction over a cell phone."
In addition to his legal troubles, though, Lewis also suffered from a bum ankle. He had the joint surgically repaired, but the Balty' back just wasn't his usual explosive self last season. Indeed, all of Lewis' numbers have declined since his banner '03 campaign; his rushing yards fell by nearly 1,000 to 1,006 in '04, and to just 906 last season, his rushing TDs fell from a high of 14 ('03) to 7 ('04) to 3 ('05), and his YPC (5.3 in '03) average has fallen by a yard per season, settling in at 3.4 last season.
Could Jamal Lewis be reborn? Without a Federal drug charge hanging over his head like the proverbial sword of Damocles (for you, Flashjeff) and with his ankle 100% healthy, and lest we forget that the Ravens can now boast a legit' Signal Caller in Steve McNair? my money's on J-Lew'.
With the forward pass once again part of Baltimore's offensive repetoire, opposing defenders won't be so cavalier about stacking the 'box. In fact... and although Lewis entered camp 10 pounds overweight, I would look for a 1,400/8 season.

Cowboys, Julius Jones: Picking this 3rd back wasn't as easy as you might imagine for there were several candidates to choose from. However...
The presence of WR Terrell Owens changes the entire complexion of the team, a team built to win now. Coach Bill Parcells, no fan of injury or ignorance, will accept nothing less than complete committment and effort from his players and towards that end Julius Jones (993/5) must prove himself to be sturdier. Jones has been dogged by nagging injuries; a high ankle sprain here, a sprained shoulder there, and Parcells was forced to draft Marion Barber (III) last season. Barber (538/5) is bigger than Jones (6'/215 as compared to Julius, 5-10/205), doesn't turn the ball over, has displayed good hands, and is better suited to inside running. Jones, on the other hand, has better burst, superior vision, and can "git' gone" in a flash.
Any worries that "JJ" was a 1-year wonder? Take a gander at the guy's Week 16, 211/2 (total yards) game against the stout Panther D' and fear no more. Look for both Jones and Barber to share time in the 'Poke backfield, with Julius seeing the bulk of the work between the 10's. Therefore, although Jones will have great value in all formats, I believe him to be a better "yardage league" candidate than "Scoring Leaguer."

"The Bad"

Jets, Curtis Martin: It's amazing how an athlete can go from "top o' the heap" to "bottom o' the barrel" in a matter of months. The Gang Green back was the NFL rushing leader in '04 with 1,697 yards (and 13 TDs), but last year (735/5) was a whole other story, and Martin has entered into a steep decline. Of course, it would be patently unfair to lay all of the blame on Martin's shoulders. The team, strapped at Quarterback, was even forced to trot-out QB Vinnie Testaverde. Frankly, if Testaverde, who I believe played ball with Knute Rockne and Red Grange during his rookie year of '27, is your club's Field General... the season's not just over, it's gone to hell in a handbasket. In addition, the team put both Jay Fiedler and Brooks Bollinger over Center. With QB play of that order, few Running Backs are going to flourish.
However, even if incumbent QB Chad Pennington should miraculously recover what little arm strength he possessed before his shoulder injuries? Martin, at age 33, is no longer a 300 carry back. In fact, I'd be shocked to see C-Mart record as many as 225 carries.
The team will acquire a new look under new coach Eric Mangini. When Herm "I'm Your Friend" Edwards shepherded the club no player EVER feared for his job; Edwards was the teams' greatest excusionist. Mangini, who studied at the "Bill Belichek School of Excellence," won't hesitate to reconfigure the Jet roster. First order of business? Addressing the QB situation. Shortly thereafter? What do the Jets have in a young Derrick Blaylock and a younger Cedric Houston.
Owners and fans can expect a Canton-bound Curtis Martin to see some work (think of how the Rams used Marshall Faulk last season), but he'll probably be nothing more than a fantasy spare part.

Packers, Ahman Green: Not unlike Curtis Martin, Ahman Green (255/0) enjoyed a sensational year (in '03, 2,200+ combined yards and 20 TDs), saw his numbers enter a modest decline over the next season ('04, 1,400+ combined yards and 8 TDs), and then watched slack-jawed as his production fell off a cliff.
Green's deterioration did not come as a surprise to many fantasy observers, and in last season's "Pre-Draft Positional Rankings" I urged readers to leave Green (and QB Brett Favre, for that matter) to another owner. Why? Aside from 61 carries as a Seahawk ('98 and '99), Green has played his entire career on the rough and tumble terrain of Lambeau Field. To call Lambeau a "frozen tundra" is no exagerration, and repeatedly landing upon it with 450-700 pounds of defensive meat clinging to you can wear a guy out. Thus, Green is an "old" 29.
Attempting to return to the gridiron after tearing a quad' may be admirable, but it's unlikely. I wouldn't rule Green out entirely, but I DO think that last season's surprise breakout player, Samkon Gado, will continue in his role as the primary back. Further, if Najeh "I'm Pooped" Davenport, who is built like an ox, can return from a busted ankle... he'll be the 1st Goalline option. In other words, and as I pleaded with you all last season, let someone else fret over Ahman Green's health and production. For my money, I'd rather draft a potential high-impact rookie like Colt Joseph Addai or Panther DeAngelo Williams (Saint Reggie is a likely 2nd to 3rd rounder), or even a lightly-used veteran who has changed unis', ala' Minnesota's Chester Taylor.

Chiefs, Priest Holmes: Holmes has surmounted a number of serious maladies over the span of his decade-long career, a downright ugly right hip injury that would've derailed virtually anyone else's career amongst them. Alas, this latest injury... a neck injury, looks to be the one that will force Holmes into retirement. Although Priest seeks a return to the Chief tabernacle and has been trying to find a Doctor who'll clear him to play, the KC RB has failed to land a positive medical opinion. Holmes has been quoted as saying that he'd like to be able to ambulate without need of a Walker or wheelchair when he's older. Well, he may therefore elect to hang 'em up now as that's a very reasonable aspiration.
If, by chance, Holmes does secure a physician's nod of approval... such may not mean very much to new coach Herm Edwards. The Chiefs unfurled a banner back in Larry Johnson last season, and the likliehood that these 2 will split carries is nil. If anything, Holmes will be the recipient of 5-8 token totes per game, possibly of the Goalline variety.Priest DOES have a proven nose for the 'Zone. Nevertheless, at this point in his career, Holmes is better left for another owner!

"The Ugly"

Falcons, T.J. Duckett: With a versatile Warrick Dunn looking every inch the stud even at this stage of his career, and the team going to a more pass-oriented offense, the Falcs' have been looking to move the slower, more physical Duckett (380/eight). Earlier this spring and again, in June, the Steelers expressed interest in the '02 draft pick. Should Duckett end up in Pittsburgh, his value will rise substantially. Now, though, he's nothing more than an insurance back.

Jaguars, Fred Taylor: What does the future hold for Fred Taylor (787/3)? Well, that answer really depends upon who you talk to. According to Taylor, his knee is fine and he's in the best shape of his 9 year career. Team observers, though, feel that Taylor has been in decline for the past 3 seasons and that his days of being a bell cow are at an end. "Fast Freddy" is coming off of a knee injury and having played in just 25 of his last 32 regular season tilts, draft the 30 year old Jag' at your peril.
The counterpoint to that argument? Taylor is a big (6-1/235) back who can catch the ball, he's unopposed to making his own holes if need be, and when healthy possesses another gear. It could be that Taylor is prepped for 1 last season in the F...L...A... sun, but there are better options. Consider Taylor nothing more than a #3 fantasy back, anything more will be a pleasant surprise.

"Young Guns"

Saints, Reggie Bush: While the club maintains that Deuce McAllister (335/3) will be the team's lead back, look for the dynamic rookie to bear a prominent role in the club's O.
Reggie Bush has rare speed, is much more versatile than Deuce is, and can be lined up as either a Wide Receiver or return man. Yes he's unproven, but if any rook' is a "sure thing" it's Reggie Bush. Someone will undoubtedly take this year's 2nd overall pick in the 2nd round of your fantasy draft, but that's probably a round too early. If, however, you belong to a "Keeper" or "Dynasty" league? Expending a high 2nd to low 3rd round pick on Bush should pay rich dividends.
Assuming QB Drew Brees is operating at let's say 80% efficiency, the pass catching combination of Joe Horn and Donte' Stallworth will make it impossible for foes to ignore the passing game and few defenses will be able to cover such a speedy duo. Look for the Saints to line both Deuce and Reggie up in the same backfield in order to capitalize upon the respective talents of each. Deuce is a bruiser with uncanny patience and unexpected speed for a man of his size, Bush is lightning in a bottle.

Colts, Joseph Addai: The team has called Addai an "Edgerrin James clone" and that's high praise indeed. It would seem as if the Colts felt that, next to Reggie Bush, Addai was the fastest, most versatile, most pro ready runner in the '06 class. Again, high praise indeed.
The plain fact of the matter is, Addai has fallen into a great big pile of good furtune. The Colt O revolves around playaction, the receiving corps ranks amongst the NFL's top 3 (more likely, 2), and the Colts' system is dangerous enough to transform any Nickle and Dime back into a 1,000 yard runner.
While coach Tony Dungy says that he's comfy' with veteran Dominic Rhodes assuming feature back duties, Rhodes hasn't done so in 4 years and Addai is no Nickle and Dime ball carrier. Rather, Addai IS the Running Back of Indy's future.
While the club will probably start him off slowly, look for Addai to be a 20 touch weapon by mid-season if not earlier. Oozing talent and potential, Joseph Addai is a 4th-6th round pick, predicated upon the size of your league.

Titans, LenDale White: I was torn between White, Panther DeAngelo Williams, and Patriot Laurence Maroney. After much deliberation, I decided that Williams will replace DeShaun Foster at some point this season because Foster just can't seem to stay healthy and Maroney plays for a club, and with a QB, that loves to spread the ball around... and he'll have a tough time supplanting an aging but still effective Corey Dillon.
The challenges White faces are no less steep for the Titan RB stable already boast Chris Brown and Travis Henry. Brown, the feature back, has put on size and strength this off-season in order to increase his value and durability. Although his heart is willing, Chris Brown's ego consistently writes checks his body cannot cash. Some athletes are built from papier mache', and I believe Chris Brown to be of that ilk.
A physical specimen at 6-2/235, White will likely get the G-Line carries straight from the gate in order to keep a fragile Brown as healthy as possible. Chris Brown is remarkably explosive and can pluck the ball outta' the air, but his long-term prognosis seems bleak given his lengthy medical history. With "Air" McNair now in Baltimore, the club will lean heavily upon the run game. Travis Henry? Tough as nails but you can time the dude's 40 with a Sundial.
Look for LenDale White to really emerge some time around mid-season... possibly earlier if Brown stays true to form and falls to injury.

Friday, July 14, 2006

FANTASY FOOTBALL; 3 1/2 STAR RUNNING BACKS!

While notable, the drop-off in talent after Shaun Alexander, LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson isn't enormous. The following crop includes aging but still productive runners such as Tiki Barber and Edgerrin James, and younger players who are just entering their prime years such as Rudi Johnson, Clinton Portis, and Steven Jackson.

FANTASY FOOTBALL'S 3 1/2 STAR RUNNING BACKS!

Cardinals, Edgerrin James: It can be argued that the Colt offensive machine ran like a Swiss watch because Edge' served as it's main-spring. The play-action fake, Peyton Manning's bread & butter, was so darn effective because Edgerrin James (1,506/14 ... 337 rec. yards) was so darn' effective. When forced to face the Colts, opposing D-Coordinators had no alternative but to pick their preferred poison; account for James and allow the brilliant Marvelous Marvin Harrison and his partner in pass catching crime, Reggie Wayne, to kill 'em? Or, cram the line and allow Manning to pick their defensive schemes apart like a Turkey on Thanksgiving Day.
No longer able to afford "The Triplets," Indy' elected to part with the 4th overall pick from the '99 draft and now, the Cardinals have the rushing Edge'.
In line with the Colt blue-print, the Cards' also feature a pair of near peerless pass catchers in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Both receivers are young, each possesses additional upside, and they should prove to be no less distracting than Marvelous and Reggie were in Indy'. It certainly seems as if the Cardinals are poised for take-off, but much will hinge upon the health of a creaky Kurt Warner. The out-of-nowhere SuperBowl winner and 2-time MVP is about as sturdy as peanut brittle, and it'd be shocking if he remains intact by Week 8. It's not so much a matter of "if" but when the Cards' are forced to go to the backup, will it be rookie sensation Matt Leinart or will it be Denny Green's pet project, John Navarre? Neither needs to be "special," they just need to play well enough to not lose. If the Offensive Line, which features some new parts and is still integrating last seasons' acquisitions, can give whomever is over Center some time, the receiving corps and James should take the team a long, long way.
For so long the Cardinals running game was fictitious; a laughable, bold-faced lie. Edgerrin James, a Hall of Fame talent who needs perhaps 2 more typical "Edge-esque" seasons to secure a bronze bust, gives the team instant credibility. And should the opposition elect to focus their energies upon James? Make no mistake, Q' and Fitz' will punish the foolish!

Giants, Tiki Barber: Tiki Barber (1,860/11, with 530 rec. yards), a dude who had gone unrecognized yet was consistently one of Football's most productive runners, is finally receiving the acclaim he so richly deserves. Often overlooked when discussion turned to "the best runners in the game," the former "3rd down/change o' pacer" is universally recognized as one of the game's preeminent talents. Versatile to a fault and remarkably durable given the heavy workload he's been subject to over the past 6 seasons, Barber has recorded 300+ carries in 4 of the past 5 seasons and notched a semi-ridiculous 785 touches over the last 2 seasons.
Last year, however, was Tiki's "signature season." The Big Blue back's 11 TD, 2,390 combined yard season was betterd only by Marshall Faulk's '99 season, when the soon-to-retire Ram runner posted the inconceivable; 1,381/7 rushing and 1,048/5 receiving. For the record, Faulk produced a 1,359/18 rushing and 830/8 receiving encore... so pick yer' fave' Faulk campaign!
Anyway, Barber is Football's answer to the multi-tool. With the young Mann' at the helm and maturing by the game, and both WR Plaxico Burress and TE Jeremy Shockey keeping opposing defenders honest, even at 31... Barber is a credible fantasy stud, worthy of your 1st round attention.

Bengals, Rudi Johnson: rudi, ruDi, rUDI, RUDI! I know, I know, you've heard it before. But, hear this: Johnson (1,458/14), according to team sources, is slim, trim, and in the best shape of his 6 year career. Do note, though, that 6 seasons is misleading because Rudi was Corey Dillon's back-up singer and it wasn't until 2003 that Johnson assumed featured back duties.
Built like a Full Back (5-10/225), the Cin' City runner has shifty feet, piston-powerful legs, and woe is the defender who atempts to arm-tackle Johnson! Last season, Rudi reportedly tore cartilage in his left knee during the Week 2 game but played through the pain and discomfort of the injury. Johnson is not likely to suddenly develop home run speed, but now that his knee is healthy and he shed some weight? Look for the Bengal back to get to the hole or crease with a bit more burst.
Bolstered by one of the league's most lethal passing games, Rudi Johnson should be at least as good as he was last season... and assuming QB Carson Palmer is operating at 90% efficiency, Johnson could even eclipse last season's totals.

Redskins, Clinton Portis: Portis' 1st year un a Redskin uni' proved to be a mixed bag. The former Bronco posted good rushing totals (1,315), but his TD production fell by almost 2/3 (from 14 to 5). Coach Joe Gibbs recognized that sweeps and hand-offs caused his feature back to run up his linemen's backs and were a poor fit to Portis' talents. Thus, the team integrated pitches, draws, and a blocking back... and "C Portis Go!" Yup'! Last season, the 'Skin back saw his TD total rebound to double-digits (11) and he cranked out 1,516 rushing yards, his first 1,500+ yard season since he played at Denver's Mile High Stadium.
The Redskin roster welcomes former Steeler WR Antwaan Randle El and former 49'er WR Brandon Lloyd, WR Santana Moss thrived after shedding his Jet gear, and H-Back Chris Cooley recorded a career year; career highs TDs (7), receptions (71), and receiving yards (771).
Portis' fortunes, in large part anyway, will be decided by QB Mark Brunell. Will Bru' bounce-back from the thumb injury he suffered in mid-June? If not, young Jason Campbell will take hold of the Redskin reigns and opposing defenders will be free to key upon Clinton. Even in a worst-case scenario, I'd look for nothing worse than 1,300+/10+ now that new Offensive Coordinator Al Saunders is calling the shots. Saunders served as the Chiefs' O-Coordinator and both Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson flourished during his tenure.

Raiders, LaMont Jordan: Scores of analysts and league observers "went out on a limb" and predicted that the Raiders, after adding WR Randy Moss, RB LaMont Jordan, and QB Kerry Collins, to an already talented offense (particularly deep at receiver) would prosper and make some serious post-season noise.
Collins (3,759/21/12) was an unmitigated bust, Moss (1,005/eight) was hounded by injury and went 11 consecutive games without 100 yards receiving, veteran Jerry Porter did most of his damage after mid-season, and LaMont Jordan? Jordan was the lone offensive bright spot.
LaMont (1,588 total yards and 11 TDs) has nice wiggle for a big (5-11/230) guy, and once he's got a head of steam going? Lighter 'backers are understandably reluctant tacklers. The fact is, Jordan's lower half is HUGE and defenders who try and take him low just sorta'... ricochet off of his pounding legs.
With a great set of mitts (70/563/2 receiving), Jordan is a dynamic athlete and an outstanding fantasy weapon. With Aaron Brooks now shepherding the offense it remains to be seen whether or not the former Saint proves to be an upgrade. It's not exactly news that Brooks' accuracy is suspect and his decision-making horrifying. The Raiders DO field a group of Wide Receivers that ranks amongst the leagues' top 3, and that should make Brooks' job a little easier.
If "A-Bomb Brooks" can keep opposing defenders honest then Jordan will continue his all-out assault on the AFC West. But, if Brooks continues to be a marginal pro? Things will be correlationally more difficult for the one-time Jet back.

Rams, Steven Jackson: An interesting dilemma, slotting Jackson here. It would be easy to put both Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams ahead of Jax', but I will give the nod to the Ram runner and the passing game that supports him.
Jackson (1,046/8 with 320 rec. yds) was misused by Mike Martz, and to be frank... Jackson was treated like an unwanted step-child by the former Ram coach. Martz, with a soft spot for Marshall Faulk, never allowed Jax' to develop any real rythym or confidence. Unsurpisingly, the 3rd year runner developed some bad habits and doesn't always maintain his concentration.
But there's a new sherrif in town, Scott Linehan, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that Steven Jackson enjoys a real breakout season. The team rarely struggles to put points on the board as few defenses have the resources to contain the receiving troika of Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Kevin Curtis, and when you toss speedy #4 receiver Shaun McDonald into the mix? "Fa-shew!" There's a club that will score as easily as Nick Lachey at a Sorority party!
Steven Jackson is tough, swift, powerful, can snatch the ball out of the air, and has Pro Bowl po'. Yes, Linehan has stated that he'd like to get RB Marshall Faulk involved more than he had been, but that may be just so much talk... a way to accord the veteran respect. Able to tote the rock through the Tackles or bounce it outside, Jax' should enjoy a VERY nice fantasy season; 1,800 total yards and 12-15 scores is certainly within reach.

Dolphins, Ronnie Brown: Is Brown a reach here? Perhaps, but I have respect for his abilities and I think the supporting skill po' players are a potentially explosive bunch.
When he was first drafted by the 'Phins, things didn't look real rosy for the former Auburn back. The Dolphins fielded a marginal Signal Caller in Gus Frerotte and Brown was forced to split tokes... err', "totes" with "Swami" Ricky Williams. Frerotte and Ricky disappeared... Gus in a puff o' mediocrity and Ricky in a puff of smoke, and the club now boasts a Pro Bowl talent at Quarterback in Daunte Culpepper, an emerging receiving threat not unlike what 'Pepp enjoyed while in Minnesota, Chris Chambers (I am NOT saying that Chambers is Moss's equal, merely that Chambers is a nice safety valve pass catcher and has great hops), an enormously gifted (if not troubled) TE in Randy McMichael (C-Pepp' does love throwing to his TEs) and the ultimate benficiary of this potent passing game? The running game and Ronnie Brown.
For better or worse, the spotlight is now solely on Brown. Under the brilliant guidance of Offensive Line coach/guru Hudson Houck, the line is now an asset, and Brown should have his choice of creases, holes and gaps. Look for Ronnie to be the recipient of a heavy workload; 325+ carries, 40+ passes, and a breakout season should be at hand.
With so-so Travis Minor now the primary back-up, Miami will need to find a more dangerous complementary runner. Lord help the 'Phins if they enter the season with a 1-2 of Brown and Minor. New Orleans' Michael Bennett might be a logical target. Bennett may be fragile, but he's fast, has ample NFL experience, and the Saints are flush at the Running Back position.

Buccaneers, Carnell Williams: Cadillac (1,178/6) started last season on a real roll. He set records for rushing yards (434/2 by the end of Week 3), averaged over 5 YPC, and made the game look simple. Alas, things are never quite so simple and a foot injury suffered during the Week 4 tilt against the Lions derailed what could've been a record-setting season. As it turns out, Williams reportedly didn't inform the Bucc' training staff as to the severity of his injury... and he played when he probably shouldn't have. Had he allowed himself to be sidelined for 4 or 5 weeks, Williams' foot would've properly healed and he likely would've picked up where he left off. Now, if that doesn't get his owners to gnash their collective teeth I don't know what will.
Really, Caddy' looked nothing like the 140 yard/game runner we saw at the season's start until the final 1/4 of the '05 season. He does, however, enter this season healthy, happy, and whole, and when Caddy' is all of those things and turns in a rushing C-note? Tampa is 6-0! Carnell Williams won't drag tacklers around, but he can run over or around a would-be defender and he is able to gain yards after contact. I would expect the combination of Michael Pittman and Mike Alstott to get the Goalline work in an effort to minimize Williams' wear and tear. Even so, under Gruden, look for a fantastic season out of Caddy' and it wouldn't be at all shocking if the Bucca'back turns in a season that is equal or superior to that of many of the above listed runners.

NEXT UP? THE BEST OF THE REST, FANTASY FOOTBALL'S 3-STAR RUNNERS!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

THE JIMMY V. EFFECT!

I was in my early 20's when Jim Valvano passed away. While I did not follow college Hoops at that time, I DID have the distinct privilege of listening to the stirring speech Valvano delivered at the 1993 ESPY Awards. I was just flipping through the channels and there, on my screen, was Valvano. Sick as a dog, and I know from sick, you could just tell from looking at Valvano's eyes; here is a fighter.
Jimmy V's "Don't Ever Give Up" speech was, in essence, a deathbed sonata as the legendary coach passed away barely 2 months after delivering it. A brilliant and moving diatribe, few could have forseen it's outcome and "Don't Ever Give Up" resonates as strongly today as it did the morning after the award ceremony.
I think that after listening to "Don't Ever Give Up" again this morning, for ESPN Radio aired it while I was on my way in to the library, as opposed to ranking Fantasy Football's 4-Star Running Backs I will write about what I took away from the speech... what I preceive Valvano's message to be.

When he was just a teen, Jimmy V. apparently jotted down his life's goals on an index card. Valvano decided that he would play Basketball at the High School and College levels, he would progress through the ranks and become a Head Coach, he would win on the hallowed hardwood of Madison Square Garden and ultimately, Jimmy Valvano would have the rare honor of cutting down the net after winning a National Championship. The irrepressible coach of N.C. State accomplished all of these things when any 1 or 2 would've been sufficient for so many, and that in itself is worthy of our admiration. And yet, Valvano was so much more than a Basketball coach. The life-long friendship he shared with Duke coach and living legend Mike Krzyzewski underscores the values of Valvano; God, family, friendship. As great as Krzyzewski is, he credits Valvano for making him a better coach and person. Many can claim the same.

Generally speaking, I share very little of myself in this Blog... it's domain is limited to Baseball, Basketball, Football and the ancillary concerns of sports. But life IS sport and sport IS life, and those of you who have read my Blog before know that I place great faith in the power of competition. Accordingly, Jim Valvano's speech touched me in a way it might not have touched you.
I spent much of my childhood, and a large part of young adulthood, running back and forth to the hospital. Born with a serious Kidney defect, here I am some 85 surgeries later. I have been told on at least 3 occassions that I can recall that I nearly passed away due to complications from surgery or from Kidney infections that turned more sinister. And, in a way that only those who have been chronically ill can identify with, I embrace life... and the people in it, with both arms. I have learned to appreciate the little gifts life gives you each and every day; the quiet moments with my toddler nephews, the bright chirping that emanates from the bird nest situated somewhat perilously in my Dryer Intake Duct, and my wife's big brown eyes. Yes, that's another thing that I find wondrous; love. Life is short enough, and when factors beyond your immediate control conspire to shorten it even further? You learn to cling savagely to every single day.

Most of those who know me could'nt recognize that I had, and am always "thisclose" to being, seriously ill. I go to the gym 5 days a week, I could still compete as a Bodybuilder if I were so inclined (I entered several bodybuilding competitions because I never wanted to say "I wish I had"), and I make certain to eat properly. One learns to live a clean lifestyle in an effort to stay as healthy as possible.
Never, never, NEVER knuckle-under to illness! Once you do... life loses meaning and it becomes a very slippery slope. Fight illness with everything you have... for all of their degrees and experience, Doctors still know so little about the power of the human mind. Once, I drove a fever down from 105.5 to 102.7. That may not sound like much... but a prolonged fever of 105+ can cause brain damage. My mother, frantic with worry, flew from New York to Virginia (I was in college at the time and Virginia was where my specialist was located) in the middle of the night so that she could monitor my care and keep me company. I sincerely believe that the power of positive thinking helped my body surmount that terrible infection.
Again, I am not saying that those who've been blessed with good health aren't appreciative of life... I am simply stating that those who, at one time, forgot what it feels like to feel good... or those who nearly lost their lives prematurely have a different take on things.

Now, loving life, taking a moment out of every day to really "think," cherishing your friends and family... this is just 1 component of Jim Valvano's message.
Contrary to what we teach our kids today, not everyone is going to win. Sometimes... sometimes you lose, and that's just a fact. That said, few experiences convey more powerful lessons than the bitter taste of defeat. Indeed, even fewer experiences provide greater motivation and fuel the drive to succeed. Although we like to disseminate trophies to the "winners," trophies to the "runners-up," and ribbons for just "showing up," that's just NOT the way the world works. Frankly, we do a disservice to our children when we reward them for mediocrity. As adults, NO one gives you a pat on the back and a nice paycheck for just... showing up, right?
Sport is a microcosm of life for life IS the greatest, most meaningful competition. For the most part, those who work the hardest (I.E practice) reap the rewards. Although some can skate by on God-given ability, success in ANYTHING takes diligent work.
Do whatever it is you do to the best of your ability- take pride in your work. Unsatisfied with where you are? Complaining about your station in life will only give you ulcers. Don't hesitate to pursue education or "skills training." Can't make it to a campus? There are quite literally thousands of distance learning programs available to anyone. Change jobs or even pick up and move. The beauty of America is that you can start over someplace else virtually overnight.
While things are never quite so easy or as cut and dried, it's not impossible to forge a new life... and a new future, for you and yours.

Jimmy V.'s simple message (as I preceive it to be)... and what my life experience has taught me; please, please, please, pursue happiness and try to better the lives of those around you!

I sincerely apologize if some found this piece to be "preachy," but after listening to Valvano this morning I felt compelled to share some of my life with those of you who elect to frequent this Blog and can only hope that this piece inspires one of you to do something you might not normally do; take a minute to stop and smell a rose!

FANTASY FOOTBALL ... QUARTERBACKS - BEST O' THE REST!

It's really time to take your Quarterback! You've lined up your bell-cow 'back, your #2 'back, and you snared yourself Chad Johnson as well. Nice scenario, no? Nice scenario, yes! However... did you out-wit yourself by passing on Jake Plummer or Drew Brees and cost yourself the season before it's even begun? No, several sneaky-good fantasy Field Generals remain. With the exception of possibly Michael Vick, though, don't look for any of these guys to lead your squad to the post-season promised land. Capable of fits of excellence, the Quarterbacks in this group are also apt to drive you to drain Peptol Bismol by the bottle... and chase it with a jigger of Maalox!

Falcons, Mike Vick: Although some would be inclined to rank slick Vick (2,412/21/13 and 597 rushing yards) higher, the former 1st overall pick ('01) has yet to truly distinguish himself as a Quarterback. A breathtakingly exciting athlete, therein lies the million dollar question; is Vick just a stunningly gifted athlete masquerading as a Signal Caller? Or, is there a real, live, NFL caliber Field General underneath all those pads?
This is the question that will make Vick's summary a somewhat lengthy one.
Although numbers mean little, especially when your dealing with such a rare talent, Vick's stats' DO warrant a bit of investigation. Last season, aside from a 306 passing yard, 2 TD game against Tampa of all teams, Mike Vick threw for as many as 200+ yards on just 3 occassions. The fact of the matter is, you never know what you're gonna' get from the ramblin' man. Will it be a 230 passing yard, 38 rushing yard, 1 pick, 3 TD (2 of which came on the ground) game ala' week 14 against New Orleans? Or, will it be a 116 passing yard, 18 rushing yard, 2 TD (both scores came on the ground), 3 INT, 2 fumble day such as Vick's "weak" 7 effort against the Jets?
Defensive Coordinators are very bright guys. Actually, the vast majority of those who coach at this level are remarkably astute, brilliant tacticians, and if you give 'em enough time they'll come up with a strategy to defeat any team and contain any player. Towards that end, the league finally seems to have discovered a way to clip this Falcon's wings. Flush Vick from the pocket with a speed rushing End(s) and send him right smack into the waiting arms of the Linebacker who stayed home to shadow him. This tactic led to 9 Sacks over the course of Atlanta's final 3 games last season.
So what do we make of the cannon-armed, stop-on-a-dime Sigal Caller and his unorthodox style? After much talk, this IS Vick's make or break season. Should Vick fail, however, it won't be because he lacked a supporting cast."MV-7" is protected by an athletic O-Line... a line that excels at run blocking but can also pass protect. The group has gotten short shrift in the pass blocking department, but I'd like to see another group of linemen guard a Quarterback who's about as predictable as the state lottery. In addition, Vick will be throwing to a young but talented group of pass catchers headed by TE alge Crumpler (877/5). The 6-2/265 TE isn't quite Gonzo' or Gates, but Crumpler possesses remarkable agility and surprising speed for a man of his size. A horror-show to defend in the red-zone, Crumpler has become Vick's safety-valve and target of choice.
Meanwhile, the youthful duo of WRs Michael Jenkins (speedy, with ideal size at 6-4/220, Jenkins must exit his breaks quicker) and Roddy White (very athletic but some question his toughness), each a 1st round pick, was drafted in order to provide Vick with a pair of lethal targets. Both receivers still require additional seasoning and each brings something different to the Falcon table, but the pair should take a giant step forward this season. Completing Vick's pass catching corps is the tall and reliable Brian Finneran (will likely be operating out of the slot this season) and the soft-handed Running Back, Warrick Dunn (220 receiving yards in '05).
Although expectations for Vick should be reigned in, the Hot-lanta coaching staff has decided to do precisely the opposite; the club will allow the Quarterback free reign. No longer will the team try to pound a round peg into a square hole and make Vick a pocket-passer. Instead, the Falcons will allow Vick to flee the pocket and make full use of those weapons that make him so special. This is a "no-brainer" coaching decision and it should be the one that finally allows Mike Vick to become the Quarterback everyone has longed to see since he was drafted back in 2001.
I'd expect to see an up-tick in Vick's passing totals, but he will still be more valuable in those leagues that place greater weight on TDs.

Packers, Brett Favre: While many thought that Favre (3,881/20/29) would finally hang 'em up, the lure of the game, the roar of the Packer backers, the entire exciting package ultimately proved to be too much for the Hall of Fame gunslinger to resist. Or so it would seem. I mean... with a mantle full of awards, a Scrapbook jammed full of ticket stubs from Hawaii (Pro Bowl), and a SuperBowl ring for his favorite finger, what else does Brett have left to prove? Nothing. At least not to the legions of Football fans who have had the privilige to watch him play, and the adoration for Favre extends far beyond Wisconsin's cheese-lovin' borders. No, what Brett has left to prove to himself is another matter entirely, and it's beyond our ken to presume that we can read his mind. But all we are concerned with, here anyway, is Brett Favre's ability to be a fantasy contributor... thus, that's all we'll attempt to divine.
Favre's TD totals have steadily declined over the past 3 seasons, his 6.39 "yards per attempt" was his lowest total since the '93 season, his longest passing play, 59 yards, was a career low, 29 INTs obviously represents a career high (his next highest INT total was 24, '03), and 7 lost fumbles marks another career high... or low, predicated upon the way you look at things. Indeed, Brett turned the ball over a career-worst 36 times.
To be fair, though, the Packers, particularly at the skill positions, were positively decimated by injury last season. WR Javon Walker caught 4 passes before suffering a knee injury that sidelined him for the remaining 15 1/2 regular season games, Robert Ferguson was dogged by injury, played in 11 games, and was limited to just 27 receptions, feature back Ahman Green was felled by a knee injury and was toes up by Week 8, burly backup runner Najeh Davenport was poised to assume the lead back's duties until, of course, he broke his ankle, TE Bubba Franks was continually pestered by the injury-bug and after missing Weeks 3-5 (6 was a Bye), Bubba said "buh-bye" to the season, and so forth. Ergo, Favre and Donald Driver (1,221/5) forged a nice chemistry, and the undrafted backup to the backup Samkon Gado (582/7 over 8 tilts) proved to be a nice fantasy surprise... and that's about it. This doesn't exonerate Favre for his ghastly-bad season, but a lack of playmakers certainly helps explain it. Ever the competitor, Favre is not lacking in arm strength and his field-vision remains razor sharp. The difference between the Brett Favre of last season and the Brett Favre of, say, 5 or 6 seasons ago, is an inability to make a whole lotta sumthin' out of a whole lotta' nuthin'. In conjunction and as one would expect, Favre is starting to break down after a decade and a half of NFL wear and tear.
And yet hope springs eternal! With the defection of Javon Walker to Denver comes the ascension of Donald Driver to new #1 pass catcher status. In addition, the receiving corps will feature a healthy Robert Ferguson and welcomes former Redskin Rod Gardner and former Kansas City Chief Marc Boerigter. But the 'Pack passing game will flounder yet again if RB Ahman Green cannot stay healthy. In last season's "Pre-Draft Positional Review" I wrote that Green, whose numbers have declined since his banner '03 campaign, was in for yet another "3 yards and a cloud of dust" season. I went on to suggest that I'd let another owner fret over Green. Sadly, my forecast was all too accurate. Due to questions surrounding Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport's recovery, I wonder whether or not G-Bay will be forced to go airborn early and often.
Although I would expect the defense to be much stouter with CB Charles Woodson and rook' LB A.J Hawk (an instant difference maker and an early favorite for "Defensive Rookie of the Year") making life unpleasant for the opposition, fans can still expect the team to be engaged in a fair share of shoot-outs.
Where does that leave owners with relation to a fantasy Favre? Consider that Brett Favre is struggling to absorb a new offense and it's confounding langauge. Much like his teammate, Ahman Green, I'd take a pass on Favre.

OTHERS TO CONSIDER:

Ravens, Steve McNair: McNair brings a breath of fresh "Air" to Balty'. WR Derrick Mason and TE Todd Heap are wonderfully gifted and each should flourish now that the club boasts a credible 'Caller. If RB Jamal Lewis can re-discover his sha'wing, and former Bronc' back Mike Andersen is more than willing to step in if he can't, then the Raven O could be VERY potent.

Jaguars, Byron Leftwich: Lefty' can make virtually every throw in the book... but he's a "statue-esque" Signal Caller to say the least. But with intriguing talents Matt "The Freak" Jones (a red-zone nightmare), Ernest Wilford (prototypical size), and rookie TE Mercedes Lewis (really just a giant WR) on the receiving end of Byron's passes, the Jag' QB could turn in a breakout campaign. Much will hinge upon RB Fred Taylor, however. If Taylor can't get it done then rookie RB Maurice Drew could see time, but he's just 5'8 and is more a change of pace/3rd down back.

Cowboys, Drew Bledsoe: A brittle Bledsoe will benefit from the presence of a game-breaking Terrell Owens. Until, of course, Bledsoe finds himself in T.O's rather spacious doghouse. Terry Glenn is a nifty #2 and TE Jason Witten ranks amongst the leagues' best, but the 1-2 combo of RBs Julius Jones and Marion Barber (the 3rd!) will see a heavy workload.

Jets, Chad Pennington: Is his surgically repaired shoulder sound and can he answer nagging questions surrounding his durability? With former Redskin 'slinger Patrick Ramsey serving as the Jets' co-pilot, Pennington's window of opportunity is rapidly closing.

Cardinals, Kurt Warner: At Warner's disposal is, perhaps, the most talented supporting cast in the league. WRs Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald and new Running Back Edgerrin James are a Signal Caller's dream. But Warner is an Orthopedic surgeon's dream, and if he's intact by Week 8... I'd be amazed. Rookie Quarterbacks are never good gambles, but Matt Leinart is worth a late-mid, to late round gamble based solely upon the talent surrounding him. If Leinart doesn't assume command of this offense by the final 1/3 of the '06 season that'd be surprising.

Raiders, Aaron Brooks: Although Brooks is last on this list... oddly, he just might boast more upside than most of the others ranked above him. At Brooks' bone-headed beck and call is a world class stable of pass catchers that features Randy Moss and Jerry Porter, and a "gonna' get medieval" RB, LaMont Jordan. While Brooks' judgement is highly questionable and can be downright bewildering at times, his arm strength is a certainty. In addition, the flighty QB can buy time and gain ground with his legs. A worthy and sneaky-good backup Aaron Brooks could be reborn in Silver & Black, not unlike another iffy Signal Caller who found a home and turned into a league MVP, Rich Gannon.

NEXT UP? 4-STAR RUNNING BACKS!

Monday, July 10, 2006

FANTASY FOOTBALL ; QUARTERBACKS... THE NEXT BATCH!

So, the Manning brothers have been drafted, Tom Brady is gone, the fantical Eagle fan drafted Fab' 'Nabb while another owner took an early gamble on Daunte Culpepper, and Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Delhomme were pulled off the 'board once the owners picking before you caught wind of the position run. What's an owner without a Signal Caller to do? Examine your options!
1. Never draft a player because you support the team-
2. Try to avoid getting caught up in premature position runs-

The next tier of fantasy Quarterbacks is rather tightly grouped and again, talent doesn't always factor in to a player getting slotted here; much depends upon the QB's supporting cast and the type of offense he plays in. For instance...

Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger: Over the course of his first two NFL seasons, Big Ben (2,385/20/9) stewarded a run heavy offense. However, now that steam-rolling RB Jerome Bettis opted to retire more will be expected of the 3rd year Signal Caller.
Never asked to do "too much" as coach Bill Cowher has no stomach for turnovers and bone-headed plays, Roethlisberger nonetheless flashed great instincts and playmaking ability. At 6-4/245 and with an arm strong enough to pierce the winds of Heinz Field, Ben's combination of size, toughness, and surprising nimbleness make him a very dangerous weapon indeed.
Lining up alongside Roethlisberger is the cunning and dangerous WR Hines Ward (had Ward, who has played 127 of 128 regular season games since he entered the league, not missed his 1st game as a pro he likely would've notched his 5th straight season with 1,000+ yards receiving), the intriguingly talented but to date unspectacular Cedrick Wilson (6 TDs over his 5 year career), standout 2nd year TE Heath Miller (soft hands allowed him to rack a 459/6 rookie campaign), and the promising but immature rookie Santonio Holmes (drafted 25th overall). Lining up a few steps behind the judgementally challenged Pitt' Field General, and I refer of course to Ben's ill-fated motorcycle ride, are RBs "Fast" Willie Parker (as slick as satin, "Fast" accrued 1,200+ yards rushing, 210+ receiving yards, and 5 total TDs filling in for the injured duo of Bettis and Staley) and veteran Duce Staley. Battling Staley for the 2nd Running Back job is 5th year back, Verron Haynes. Look for Haynes to edge out the oft-injured Duce and see a diet of short-yardage and goalline totes.
Although I can't see Cowher straying too far from his preferred "smash-mouth" style, I would expect the "jaw with eyes" to delegate more responsibility to Roethlisberger. Big Ben should continue ascending the Quarterback ranks and a 3,000/25 season is by no means inconceivable.

Dolphins, Daunte Culpepper: A new team means a new start, and Culpepper (1,564/7/12) is anxious to put last season... and an ugly chapter, behind him. In order to do so, however, Culpepper must prove that he's suitably recovered from the serious knee injury (tore 3 of 4 knee liggies') he suffered during Minnesota's Week 8 game against Carolina.
The former Viking brags a number of qualities that set him apart from the rest of his Signal Calling brethren. Built like a Defensive End (6-4/260), 'Pepp possesses great athleticism and can throw the ball a country mile with would-be tacklers hanging off him like Christmas ornaments. The flip-side of that coin? He's not terribly accurate and is prone to the costly INT (he's also fumbled the ball 78 times out of his 81 pro games). Look for an emerging Chris Chambers to be the kind of safety valve pass catcher that Randy Moss was when both he and Culpepper wore the purple and white. In addition, TE Randy McMichael (582/5) should flourish as Culpepper does love to throw to his Tight Ends, and RB Ronnie Brown, who snared 32 passes for 230+ yards, should easily eclipse 40 passes and approach... if not exceed, 300 receiving yards.
All in all, Daunte Culpepper looks to be a very worthy fantasy gamble. His numbers should be bolstered by an above-average pass catching contingent and the Offensive Line became an asset once Offensive Line coach/Guru Hudson Houck assumed responsibility for the group.

Chiefs, Trent Green: Although some might argue otherwise, I'd call K.C QB Trent Green (4,014/17/10) an over-achiever. Why? The team's receiving stable, aside from TE Tony Gonzalez, has been a weak link for several seasons now.. but prior to last season Green's TD numbers saw him ranked amongst the game's elite.
The Chief greybeard really makes this list, at this slot, anyway, based more upon his accuracy and ability than anything else. The fact of the matter is, that with just 17 (he stacked 27 6's during the 2004 season) scores Green's TD production fell-off by more than 1/3 last season.
If Trent Green produces 20-23 TDs... his owners should view that as a successful campaign. Now featuring brutish RB Larry Johnson (Priest Holmes is seeking a physician's advice, but this neck injury looks to be the one that forces him into retirement), the Chiefs were and will continue to be a run first... and run second, squad.
TE Tony Gonzalez, whose TD production has entered a noticeable decline, was used more as a blocker than in years past last season and his numbers reflected as much. And, after the Canton-bound TE, Green has few targets of consequence; Eddie Kennison (broke 1,100 yards receiving and found the 'Zone 5 times, but he's a marginal #2 and probably more of a #3 fantasy pass catcher at this point), Dante Hall (brilliant return man, teeny-tiny wideout), and Samie Parker (although he scored just 3 times last season, Parker's a candidate for a breakout season).

Saints, Drew Brees: No longer a Charger, Drew Brees (3,576/25/15) is coming off of shoulder surgery and must prove himself healthy. At the beginning of June, Brees was quoted as saying that he feels "1,000 percent better." Frankly, that's a lot of percentage points and should that be the case the Saints' newest Signal Caller should be a sneaky-good mid-round pick.
Brees no longer has leviathan pass catcher Antonio Gates to throw to, but savvy WR Joe Horn, "slick-ery" Donte' Stallworth, deep-sleeper Devery Henderson, and TE Zach Hilton (assuming he surmounts the challenge posed by Ernie Conwell, returning from injury) form an above-average pass catching contingent... if everyone's healthy. Further, rook' runner Reggie Bush will undoubtedly be lined up as a Wide Receiver and what he can do with a quick slant or screen is positively breath-taking.
Although he claims to bear no ill will, look for a healthy Drew Brees to try and make the 'Bolts rue their decision to part with him.

Broncos, Jake Plummer: Jake Plummer (3,366/20/7) made news this off-season when "someone cut him off" on the Highway. "The Snake" backed his Honda SUV into the offending motorist's truck and then proceeded to lash out with a booted foot, subsequently shattering the poor dude's headlights. My question... what teh heck is Plummer doing in a RAV-4?
But alas, that's the problem with Plummer in a umm, "nutshell." Jake is STILL prone to the emotional... yeah, even bone-headed move at this late date in his career. The road-rage incident, Jake sending fans the stiff-fingered salute... Plummer's tenure in Denver has not been without incident, and with promising Jay Cutler now in the Bronc' fold this could even be Jake's last season in Denver duds.
That said, Plummer amped-up his game last season, reeled in his penchant for forcing passes, and did an impressive job cutting down on foolish picks. The 2005 season saw Jake toss 7 INTs, the season before? 20.
Plummer could ratchet his value up this season if he takes full advantage of the weapons at his disposal. The previously iffy corps of Wideout's improved considerably when Shanny' acquired former Packer star Javon Walker (Walker is running and jumping, but sharp cuts... eh', not so much), an ideal complement to longtime pass catcher Rod Smith (1,105/6). Oh yes, there's also Ashley Lelie but he has yet to develop and has repeatedly requested a trade.
In sum? With Vandy' product Jay Cutler being groomed to replace Plummer, look for Jake to come out with guns blazing.

NEXT UP? "THE BEST OF THE REST" ... AND "4-STAR RUNNING BACKS!"

ARTICLE ERRATA

Please excuse the following typo and factual error.

Tom Brady does of course boast 3 SuperBowl rings, not 2-

For some inexplicable reason, I suffered a brain cramp and listed the retired Jimmy Smith as a Carolina Panther. Smith played for the Jaguars, again... apologies.

Friday, July 07, 2006

FANTASY FOOTBALL ... TOP-TIER QUARTERBACKS!

I'm getting a late jump on this series. It's approaching mid-July, several "experts" leagues I am in have already held their drafts, and my mailbox is inundated with fantasy Football offers that range from Sporting News to Sandbox to Yahoo to CBS Sportsline to NFL.com.
So, although I am a rather long-winded sort (or so I've been told), I'm going to boil each athlete down to his basic nuts and bolts and won't overwhelm you with minutiae and semi-obscure statistics.

But 1st, allow me to preface:
Fantasy buffs MUST keep in mind that what an athlete does on the field doesn't always translate to Sunday night's fantasy tally. Oftentimes, a top-tier fantasy performer is a marginal real performer or vice versa, a so-so NFL commodity finds the End-Zone or racks up yards during garbage time. As a "for instance," Michael Vick has mind-blowing talent... but you never know what the Atlanta Signal Caller is going to give you from 1 week to the next. Will the captivating talent donate 125 yards rushing, 225 yards passing and 3 TDs (2 of which came on the ground) to your teams' effort? Or, will the iffy Vick rear his medicore head and finish the contest with 110 passing yards, 85 rushing yards and 2 INTs?

A 4-Star Signal Caller should still be drafted after you pull your bell-cow Running Back off the draftboard. A prime example for this logic? The great "Manning-Tomlinson Debate" of 2005. Hot off of his record-setting 4,500+/49 '04 campaign, many owners were keen on drafting Peyton with their 1st overall draft picks. The savvy owners sat back and allowed studs such as LaDainian Tomlinson and Shaun Alexander to fall right into their laps. The outcome? The San Diego based 'back rumbled for nearly 1,500 yards and notched 20 total TDs. The Indy' Field General, meanwhile, didn't have a bad season, but his 3,700+/28 effort lies in stark contrast to his previous season. Was his total output better than Tomlinson's? Sure, but the owner who took Peyton Manning could have grabbed the Colt's little bro', Eli, several rounds later and received an almost identical number of passing yards yards (Eli actually threw for 15 more yards than Peyton!) and just 3 fewer scores.

The lesson? Elite runners will lead you to Fantasy glory while passers who are capable of contributing to your Roto-cup quest can be gotten later in the draft. The drop-off in talent between top-caliber Quarterbacks and their mid-road brethren is not nearly the same as the drop-off in talent between elite runners and their back-ups.

4 STAR QUARTERBACKS: The truly elite, and there are but 3. A 4 Star Signal Caller will help guide your team to a fantasy Football playoff berth... and beyond. There might be 1 or 2 weeks where he stumbles for all athletes do, but for the most part... he'll contribute double-diggy' points on a week in and week out basis.

Patriots, Tom Brady: Tom Terrific (4,110/27/14) and Peyton are almost interchangeable, but for my money... the umm, "edge" still lies with the dude who gets it done in crunch time.
Further, Brady possesses hardware... and software, that Manning does not. Hardware? How 'bout 3 Superbowl victories and a pair of 'Bowl MVP awards. Sotware? How 'bout the ability to calmly roam the pocket and freelance when DEs who are large enough to wear license plates are barelling through the Offensive Line... how 'bout Brady's willingness to take just what the opposing defense is willing to give him? These are the qualities that set a Superbowl winning Qube' apart from Indy's "thisclose" slinger.

Colts, Peyton Manning: Although some sites and writers rank Peyton (3,747/28/10) before Tom "Terrific" Brady, the loss of Edgerrin James may cause Indy' to become a bit more predictable.
As technically sound a passer as the league has ever seen, Manning's field-vision is impressive and his ability to pick a defense apart is almost unparalleled. He does, however, struggle when defenders are getting peneteration and the play breaks down. Manning just isn't as unflappable as Tom Brady or Brett Favre are.
Other substantial issues may lurk just beneath the surface, too. The offense ran like a Swiss watch in large part because Edge' is a brilliant and versatile talent. The Colt's bread and butter is playaction, thus the loss of James may resonate more deeply than the team anticipated if rook' runner Joseph Addai or veteran Dominic Rhodes struggle. That said, Addai has been called a "James clone," Rhodes proved himself capable of shouldering a feature back's load when James was lost to a knee injury ('02), and the tandem should be talented enough to keep the chains moving and punish those Defensive Coordinators who elect to disregard the running game.
Although league observers have begun to speak in hushed tones about Peyton Manning's seeming inability to win the big game, the Colt Field General remains a preeminent talent. With the bitter taste of defeat still fresh in Manning's mouth and the ashes of last season not yet cool, the Colts enter this season (albeit again) with a single goal; Superbowl XLI.
**NOTE: Manning could easily be ranked ahead of Tom Brady, especially given the depth of the Indy' O. With a #1 of Marvelous (still getting it done after all these years), a #2 of Reggie Wayne (who'd be a #1 on virtually ANY other team), and a TE who is as talented as Dallas Clark (soft-handed with a knack for finding the soft spots in zones), the Colts may very well go pass heavy again, thus inflating Petyon's numbers and fantasy value.

Bengals, Carson Palmer: Palmer (3,836/33/12), plain and simple, is standing upon the cusp of greatness. In just his 2nd season as the Cin' City starter, NO Quarterback was outperforming Palmer. The only thing that slowed his rapid ascent to the land of the NFL elite? A torn ACL, suffered in the Wildcard playoff game against the Steelers.
While a torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament is no small affair, it's also not the career-ender it once was. Indeed, Sports Medicine has advanced to the point where Palmer is expected back before the pre-season concludes! Cincy's favorite Football son still needs to be able to place trust in his surgically reconstructed weight bearing joint, but assuming he's even 75% of what he was prior to injury his star will continue to rise... and so will the Bengals!
Palmer and WR Chad Johnson have forged a dynamic chemistry, and an elite receiver is a Quarterback's best friend. The pass and catch combo rank amongst the very best in the league, and #2 receiver T.J Houshman-hate-to-spell-his-name (alright, Houshmanzadeh) and RB Chris Perry afford Palmer with 3 slick targets. Although the loss of Chris Henry (to any number of infractions, pick yer' favorite!) will sting, Kelley Washington or former Packer Antonio Chatman should be quite serviceable in such a role.
It wouldn't be at all shocking if Carson Palmer propels himself to a #2 fantasy ranking by this time next season.

3 STAR QUARTERBACKS: Obviously not as reliable as a 4 Star QB... but not necessarily due to a lack of talent. A Quarterback is only as good as the pass catchers on the other end of his passes, and he may not even be that good if he has 3 nanoseconds in which to survey the field due to shoddy protection. Unless the Texans can field a credible Left Tackle, for instance, we may never know how good human pinata David Carr could have been for he'll either be crippled... or his development will be permanently retarded.

Giants, Eli Manning: The young Mann' (3,762/25/17) has given Big Blue fans much to be excited about. He is still developing, however, and growing pains abound.
During the 1st half of the '05 campaign Peyton's little was lights-out, cobbling a pair of 100+ Passer Rating games together (against San Diego and St. Louis). But the 2nd half of the season was anything but a cake-walk, and Eli's INTs outnumbered his TDs by a 12 to 10 margin. Alright... so I lied about the statistics thing.
Yes, the G-Mann' struggled against the league's better defenses... but what more would you expect from a 2nd year pro?
I DO think he'll show demonstrable improvement this season, though, and pass catchers such as Plaxico Burress, Jeremy Shockey, aging but under-rated Amani Toomer and rookie Sinorice Moss form the backbone of a dynamic pass catching contingent. Helping to alleviate the substantial pressure placed upon Eli is Running Back Tiki Barber, who apparently discovered the fountain of youth.

Seahawks, Matt Hasselbeck: A steady-Eddie Quarterback is a fantasy godsend, and Hasselbeck (3,455/25/9) is the very definition of such. While 'Beck won't wow you and pop-off a 350/5 game (316 passing yards was last season's high), there were but 2 games wherein the Seahawk Signal Caller did not find the 'Zone. That, my fantasy friends, is consistency, and if there's anything owners value... it's consistency!
Naturally, record-setting runner Shaun Alexander makes Hasselbeck's job considerably easier, as do veteran receivers Darrell Jackson, Bobby Engram, giant TE Jerramy Stevens, and adding a new wrinkle this season? Newcomer Nate Burleson, late of the Vikings. A great deal of responsibility was laid upon Nate's shoulders last season as he was expected to succeed Randy Moss as Minny's #1. Burleson bowed under the considerable strain but now that less is expected of him... look for the "Nate the Great" of '04, the pass catcher that broke 1,000 yards receiving and scored 9 times.
As good as last season was for 'Beck and the boys, this upcoming campaign could be even better. The sole concern? The loss of world class OG, Steve Hutchinson (coincidentally, to the Vikings). Floyd "Porkchop" Womack will take over at Left Guard.

Eagles, Donovan McNabb: Here's a Quarterback who illustrates one of the previously mentioned points perfectly. With malcontent (and really, this is a disservice to malcontents everywhere) receiver Terrell Owens now playing for Dallas, who, exactly, is going to fill McNabb's (2,507/17/9) #1 receiver void? Todd Pinkson has the height at 6'3, but he's slight of build (180) and is coming off a torn achilles. Perhaps 2nd year receiver Reggie Brown, though he hasn't done a whole lot to distinguish himself this off-season.
McNabb may not be the running threat he was when we ushered in the 2nd millenium, but D-Nabb's arm strength and demonstrably improved accuracy offset any loss of mobility. The fact of the matter is, McNabb is a bit of a conundrum. Subject to a number of debilitating injuries, Nabb's played just 2 full seasons of his 7 as a pro.
Is a 30 year-old Donovan already on the downside? I don't think so. I do, however, think that the Eags' are going to give multi-talented RB Brian Westbrook every opportunity (and that means 22-25 touches) to get his playmaking mitts on the ball, even if that means lining him up as a Wide Receiver, and "Westbrook clone" Ryan Moats will undoubtedly see action as well. I would think that Philly will be more run oriented this season due to questions at the pass catching position and in an effort to help keep McNabb upright and grass-stain free.
Although I could be wrong, I'd be inclined to take a pass and let another owner worry about McNabb's health and suspect supporting cast.

Rams, Mark Bulger: If Bulger (2,297/14/9) didn't struggle to stay off the Training Table he'd be ranked higher. The sad fantasy fact is, the Ram Field General... who is not without considerable talent, played in just 8 regular season games last season and has yet to play a full 16 game complement.
Bulger has suffered a number of shoulder injuries and enters this season with a question mark hanging over his head. If he cannot stay healthy or his arm strength is impacted, the Rams may well look for a more durable QB.
A very accurate gunslinger, Bulger benefits from one of the finest receiving stables in Football; Torry Holt, greybeard Isaac Bruce, emerging Kevin Curtis, and who dat' talent Shaun McDonald.
Do not be surprised if new head coach Scott Linehan makes better use of RB Steven Jackson in an effort to keep Bulger healthy. Jackson is a dynamic talent and the general consensus is, former coach/egomaniac/nut-job Mike Martz misused the versatile 'back.
I would not be disinclined to take a gamble on Bulger given his strong arm, accuracy, and wealth of pass catching targets. I would, however, have a rock-solid back-up plan in place should Bulger fall to injury yet again.

Panthers, Jake Delhomme: Another QB with a gunslinger mentality who could easily be slotted higher, Jake (3,421/25/16) and his Del-Homeys whupped Eli and the G-Men in the Wildcard game, slipped by the Bears in the Divisional round, but were ultimately tripped up by "Beck and the 'Hawks in the Conference Championship.
What does all this say? Well, I gather that Jake and the Panthers, accustomed to being under-dogs, have a rather hefty chip on their collective shoulders. And, speaking of chips, WR Steve Smith may be no larger than a chocolate chip... but man, that dude can catch and make things happen afterwards! Newcomer Keyshawn Johnson brags loads of experience and should assume a leadership role. He is, however, just a "possession guy."
Bottom line? If jitterbug RB DeShaun Foster can simply stay healthy, and that'd be no mean feat, then the pressure on Delhomme will be considerably diminished. Ironically, though, rook' runner DeAngelo Williams may make the bigest impact upon the O.
Over the course of the past 2 seasons Delhomme has raised his stock. Another 3,500+/25+ season will see him be considered "thisclose" to elite.

NEXT UP? 2ND-TIER FANTASY QUARTERBACKS!