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Mason's return means decreased fantasy value for Clayton, Williams

The short-lived retirement of Derrick Mason ended over the weekend, as the veteran reported to Ravens training camp and informed the team he will play football in 2009.

Mason, who announced he was leaving football shortly after the sudden death of his friend and former teammate, Steve McNair, told the Ravens official website that he "needed time to evaluate [his] life, football and career." His return to the team's pass attack once again means he'll be a viable No. 3 fantasy wideout in most formats.

The underrated receiver out of Michigan State is a little long in the tooth at the age of 35, but he has produced 1,000-plus yards in seven of his past eight seasons and can still help fantasy leaguers in their quest for a title. He'll be worth a middle- to late-round selection in most drafts and has a little added value in those PPR formats.

With his top target back at his disposal, Joe Flacco won't see a decrease in value based on lack of reliable weapons. While reports have indicated that he's gotten off to a rough start in training camp (coach John Harbaugh admits the staff is throwing a lot at the young quarterback), Flacco remains a viable No. 2 fantasy quarterback.

The value of Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams tumbles with Mason back in the mix, however.

Clayton, a one-time fantasy sleeper who has never reached his potential at the NFL level, moves back to second on the depth chart and is now worth little more than a late-round flier. The veteran injured his hamstring during Sunday's practice and was carted off the field, but the ailment isn't considered to be serious. Williams, who also tweaked his hamstring, now has no real value in most drafts. Reserve wideouts Yamon Figurs and Marcus Smith also won't figure into the draft equation this season.

The same holds true of Todd Heap, who's gone from a top-notch fantasy tight end to an afterthought in one season.

The Arizona State product could once again be utilized more often as a blocker on the line of scrimmage, especially with two young offensive tackles slated to see prominent roles. That means running fewer pass routes and seeing fewer opportunities to produce as a receiver for fantasy leaguers. With fellow veteran L.J. Smith now also on the team, Heap's name won't even be called in most drafts.

While the value of Mason, Flacco and the passing game are easily projected, the state of the Ravens backfield will be enough to make fantasy owners ill. Coordinator Cam Cameron has again reiterated that he will use a running back by committee this season, so the trio of Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain will all see carries.

"You could see all three of them in the game at the same time," Cameron told the team's official website. "You could see any combination of the two. We've got three good running backs, and I think everybody is clear that you need three guys."

Cameron also praised McGahee, who has looked explosive in the first few days of training camp. Rice has also been impressive on the field, showcasing improved lower-body power that could earn him more short-yardage work. McClain, the best fantasy option of the trio last season, entered camp in good shape but wants to lose 10 more pounds off his 270-pound frame. With that decrease in weight, McClain hopes to see more time in the backfield.

Whether McClain continues to be used at tailback, sees more time at fullback or a combination of the two spots, he's a good bet to lead all three runners in touchdowns. Of course, it's almost a virtual guarantee that he won't duplicate the 902 rushing yards he recorded during what turned out to be a Pro Bowl 2008 season. With an expected drop in carries, McClain's stock will fall in traditional leagues but remains better in touchdown-based formats.

When the smoke clears and the regular season starts for the Ravens on a Sunday afternoon against the Chiefs, the constructs of the backfield depth chart means little.

Rice, the youngest runner with the most upside of the threesome, is the best bet for fantasy owners and warrants a middle-round selection as a No. 3 fantasy back or flex starter. However, the expected shared workload is certain to limit his overall production and will keep him from having a true breakout season from a statistical perspective.

McGahee and McClain will warrant middle- to late-round consideration in standard leagues, but expectations should be tempered in this imminent committee scenario.

News and notes

  • » The Arizona Republic reports that the Cardinals might have to limit Chris "Beanie" Wells in the team's preseason opener after he injured his ankle in a recent practice. He can't afford to miss time while in a backfield battle with Tim Hightower, who remains atop the depth chart and will see most of the first-team snaps while Wells is sidelined. Wells is still the better fantasy bet, but he needs to avoid injuries.
  • » Saints coach Sean Payton will limit the workload of Reggie Bush as he recovers from microfracture knee surgery, holding him out every fourth practice. The shifty runner has looked explosive when he has been on the field, but Payton wants to be cautious with him nonetheless. Bush, who has added value in PPR leagues due to his skills as a receiver, will be one of the biggest risk-reward fantasy options at his position in 2009.
  • » Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin is slated to see several different roles in his rookie season under coach Brad Childress. He'll see time as a wideout, in the slot, out of the backfield, in a "Wildcat"-based formation and as a return man on special teams. Harvin even saw some work with the goal line offense in his first practice. His versatility and explosiveness makes him a nice middle- to late-round choice.
  • » The Chicago Tribune reports that the Bears plan to scale back Matt Forte's opportunities as a receiver out of the backfield this season. Forte, who posted 63 receptions in his rookie season, will instead see more touches on straight hand-offs out of the backfield. That's not good news for fantasy leaguers in PPR leagues, though it would be a shock if Forte still didn't finish with around 50 catches in the offense.
  • » Reports out of Pittsburgh suggest Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore will all see time in the Steelers backfield in 2009. In fact, Fast Willie admitted to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he won't see as much work as he has in seasons past. He could even rotate with Mendenhall on earlier downs with Moore coming in as a third-down back. This sounds like another potential headache for owners.

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