|Denis Poroy / Associated Press|
|Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers finished last season with career bests in passing yards and touchdowns.|
So much for trends. After a watershed 2007 season that produced the most passing attempts, completions, and yards since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978, things changed a bit in 2008.
The big change was sideline communication for the defense. With the ability to speak directly into the helmet of one of their players on the field, defensive coordinators could audible out of bad coverages much more effectively. As a result (and as we predicted here last year in this space), those monstrous offensive barrages unleashed on defenses in 2007 came back down to earth in 2008.
Offenses attempted 519 fewer passes than the year before and ran the ball 133 times more. There were 452 fewer plays overall, too, because quarterbacks often let the play clock drop down below the 15-second mark, when defenses had to stop communicating with the sideline. The quick-snap, no-huddle offenses of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning took a back seat to wait-and-see audibles and snaps taken just a few seconds before the play clock expired.
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For fantasy owners, less passing meant a dramatic shift in their approach to the draft. Wise drafters relied less on quarterbacks and receivers and understood that a large number of running backs would suddenly be in vogue. In 2009, expect more of the same. Another thing to watch for will be even more of those "Wildcat" formations in 2009. This running-back-led scheme first popped up in Miami early in the season and quickly spread.
Those crazy offensive formations cause a ton of matchup problems for the defense. They force coordinators and head coaches to spend way too much time during the week scheming, watching film, and practicing against formations that may or may not even be run during the upcoming game.
Here is a position-by-position forecast of what to expect in the 2009 fantasy season.
In 2008, only four QBs produced 30-plus combined TDs; none had more than 34. Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Kurt Warner, and Aaron Rodgers stood out from a very tight and mostly unimpressive pack of quarterbacks last season. With no changes in any of their head coaches and systems, expect them to again be at or near the top of the QB pile in 2009.
Wild-card entrants to reach the top of the heap are Jay Cutler (can he succeed in Chicago like he did in Denver?), Tony Romo (without T.O., more freedom?), Peyton Manning (he's always consistent), and Tom Brady (will he recover from the knee injury?). Expect the majority of quarterbacks to continue to operate at a higher level of efficiency, with fewer INTs.
Look for offensive-minded head coaches when you are drafting a quarterback. They always tend to pass a lot more than they run the ball.
Conversely, look for defensive-oriented head coaches when drafting running backs. They like a strong running game to take time off the clock and save their defense. You can always look for Adrian Peterson to have a great year, but last year's top two runners came out of nowhere. Carolina's DeAngelo Williams and Atlanta's
Michael Turner outperformed any reasonable expectations forecasters had for them and vaulted to the head of the class in 2008. Nothing tells me anything different for them this year. Second-year man Jonathan Stewart has the potential to steal a few TDs from Williams, but that looks like a terrific running back combo heading into the 2009 season.
Matt Forté, Chris Johnson, and Steve Slaton also had outstanding debuts last season and should keep up the pace with their young, fresh legs. Expect more out of the Cowboys' three-headed monster of Marion Barber (TDs), Felix Jones (breakaway speed/returns), and Tashard Choice (best third RB in the NFL) without T.O., because the Cowboys will rely a lot more on the run. In addition, plan on better production from the Giants' Brandon Jacobs (without Derrick Ward) and a healthy Steven Jackson in St. Louis.
When it comes to fantasy, running back has changed more than any other position in the last few years. Be aware that very few teams give the ball to one guy all the time and be prepared to have a number of No. 2 RBs on your roster that can contribute effectively whether they start or not. Don't be afraid to take rookies, either. Three of last year's top 10 fantasy RBs never had an NFL carry when the season began. And remember the general belief that once runners get near (and past) their 30th birthdays, their best days are behind them.
Only nine players in 2008 had between 8 and 12 receiving TDs. So continue looking for No. 2 WRs when you draft. It's obvious who last year's dominant WR was: Larry Fitzgerald, who put on a record-breaking show during the postseason. With quarterback Kurt Warner still in Arizona, expect more of the same from Fitzgerald. Houston's Andre Johnson, when healthy, looks like a man among boys.
Three WRs emerged last season: Calvin Johnson, Greg Jennings, and Roddy White. Finding those diamonds in the rough, in addition to finding those great second options, is the way to beat your opponents to the best lineup at this position. Bill Belichick's defensive strategy of "eliminating" the top receiver from the offensive game plan has caught on in defensive circles around the NFL and opened up new opportunities for second and third WRs all over the league.
Age matters at this position, too, but it's a lot different than running back. Rookies very rarely see much success, and once a receiver sees his mid-30s, the speed of the game has probably passed him by. The position trends positively to the 25- to 32-year-old that has a connection with his quarterback.
This has become a very tough position to draft because very few players separate themselves from the herd each season. Last year, only four tight ends (Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Dallas Clark, and Antonio Gates) were markedly better than the run-of-the-mill player at their position. Expect those four to be good again, but look out for up-and-comers such as Owen Daniels, Tony Scheffler, John Carlson, and Visanthe Shiancoe to get close to top-four numbers without the cost of a high draft pick.
One trend to look for in tight ends is fewer overall receptions, as teams may start running more unbalanced lines that ask the tight ends to block more as they emphasize running the ball. Watch the injury reports each week if you plan on scanning the free-agent wires for TEs. Teams that regularly use two TEs and have an injury to the No. 1 will have to focus on the No. 2 that given week.
As we discussed earlier, the ability of defensive coordinators to talk to their on-field leaders has lessened the impact of mismatches, no-huddles, and quick snaps that can overpower a defense on any given play. As it relates to fantasy, I would expect more turnovers and sacks from team defenses, and less overall scoring, especially on long passing plays on which the defense gets caught flat-footed.
I've said it before and I'll just keep saying it: Don't do it. Just don't do it. When you're thinking, "It's the ninth round now, and the best kicker is still out there," just don't do it! Wait, wait, wait on kickers. That said, I prefer indoor or good-weather kickers on a weekly basis.