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Monday, August 25, 2008

Report: Cardinals to start Warner

Fantasy football fans rejoice!

According to published reports, the Arizona Cardinals could choose Kurt Warner as their starting quarterback.

Matt Leinart might have given up the top spot on the depth chart Saturday night, as he completed one more pass to his teammates (4) than he did to the Oakland Raiders (3) in less than a half. He finished with a passer rating of 2.8 (no, that's not a misprint) and looked like the mistake-prone quarterback who threw for two scores and four picks in five starts last season.

2007 Statistics:
Comp: 281

Att: 451

Yards: 3,417

TDs/INTs: 27/17

Now that he might be in a prominent role for coach Ken Whisenhunt, I think Warner could turn into a top-10 fantasy quarterback. In fact, he might be ranked as high as eighth ahead of Derek Anderson, Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb.

Warner replaced an injured Leinart last season and produced enormous totals for owners. In 14 games (11 starts), the veteran finished with 3,417 passing yards and 28 total touchdowns. Those numbers were good enough to finish in the top 10 in fantasy points on NFL.com among quarterbacks.

Despite five fewer starts, Warner was right there in terms of statistical production with Matt Hasselbeck and Carson Palmer. His 250 fantasy points were a mere 28 fewer than Hasselbeck and 24 fewer than Palmer.

If the former two-time NFL MVP is in fact at the helm of the offense, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin would both become far safer draft choices. Fitzgerald, who finished last season with 100 catches, 1,409 yards and 10 touchdowns, would have a better chance to duplicate those totals. Boldin might not be content with the team or his contract, but he too would become more attractive in drafts.

Note: Whisenhunt hasn't officially named Warner his starter. Until he does, I'm leaving Leinart as the more highly-ranked quarterback on NFL.com.


Friday, August 22, 2008

First-round draft strategies

NFL.com Senior Editor Andy Fenelon proposed a question to me in the office this afternoon: "What do I do if I have the sixth or seventh pick in the first round?"

This is a question that countless fantasy footballers will have to ponder, and there are no simple answers. But if I'm in that position, I will not draft Tom Brady ahead of a running back. I know, I know, he had over 4,800 passing yards with 52 total touchdowns last year and is coming off the best fantasy season ever recorded.

2007 Statistics:
Att: 325

Yards: 1,262

TDs: 11

But I'm telling you right now, I have a better chance to score with Giselle Bündchen than Brady has of scoring another 52 times.

What's more, you can still land a solid quarterback after the fourth round. That was evident in the recent NFL.com Experts League draft, where I was able to nab Matt Hasselbeck in Round 7. If you do find yourself slotted in the middle of the draft in each round, here's how I would attack the situation.

Let's assume that LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson, Brian Westbrook, Steven Jackson and Joseph Addai are the first five choices. I wouldn't blink before I took Clinton Portis ahead of Brady. In fact, I'd take these six backs plusFrank Gore, Marion Barber and Marshawn Lynch ahead of Giselle's man.

Here's another question I've been asked over and over again: "What if I have a late pick in the first round and a high pick in the second round?"

Well, in this case there's a lot more risk at the running back position once you get to the likes Larry Johnson, Ryan Grant and Jamal Lewis. So if you're in a league that rewards six points for all touchdowns, it might be time to take Brady or an elite wideout like Randy Moss.

Since all drafts are different, however, you never know what player might fall in your lap and make your fantasy life a lot easier. Here's an example:

The fact that I ended up with Portis with the eleventh overall pick shows how no two drafts will ever shake out the same. I've been in plenty of drafts where Portis was a top-10 pick, but he fell to me in this situation. That allowed me to focus on a star wideout (Owens) in the second round.

Based on the flow of the draft, I passed on a back in Round 3 and took a chance on McGahee in Round 4. Just remember...come to the draft with a gameplan, but don't be afraid to abandon it if the draft dictates it.


Thursday, August 21, 2008

McGahee becoming more of a risk

When word came down that Willis McGahee needed an operation on his knee (the same knee that basically exploded in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl), it was cause for concern in fantasy land.

New coach John Harbaugh did state that his running back would return for Baltimore's regular-season opener, however, so the concern decreased for a time and McGahee kept his prominent spot on rank lists.

But after further examination, I've moved him to No. 17 at the running back position, behind Maurice Jones-Drew, Thomas Jones, Darren McFadden and Earnest Graham.

The reasons for this decision were simple.

First off, Baltimore's offensive line has looked awful. Second, the team has a less-than-desirable quarterback situation that will result in stacked fronts all season. Third is the emergence of rookie Ray Rice, who's a taller version of Jones-Drew and will no doubt have a role in the offense.

Then I talked to a close friend, Anita Marks, who covers all things Baltimore sports for 1300 EPSN Radio. Her words say it all.

"McGahee's knee isn't good," said Marks. "He didn't participate in offseason OTAs, he's done little in training camp and he still doesn't know the playbook. The Ravens also have a horrible offensive line and no quarterback. Plus, the coaches love Rice. This could all be motivation for McGahee, but the negatives definitely outweigh the positives."

Even before I heard Anita talk about McGahee and the Ravens, I saw this as no better than a four-win team. You simply can't win games with so many question marks and an aging defense. While I might take him if he falls into the fourth round or later, it's hard to have much faith in McGahee in 2008.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Eagles lose veteran WR Curtis

In a sudden announcement this afternoon, Eagles coach Andy Reid announced that Kevin Curtis needs surgery to repair a sports hernia and will "be out for a while."

Curtis is coming off a career season in Philadelphia, and some fantasy enthusiasts felt he was a bit underrated in 2008 drafts. Now it looks like his value is limited to that of a late-round selection in leagues with larger rosters. While there's been no concrete timetable set for his return, this procedure could keep Curtis out of action for more than a month.

2007 Statistics:
Rec: 77

Yards: 1,110

TDs: 6

Teammate L.J. Smith has endured a similar procedure, and it dogged him much of last season. In fact, he was limited to 10 games and finished with his worst overall numbers since his rookie season. Being that Curtis' best athletic asset is his speed, this sort of operation could make him far less effective once he does return to the field.

His absence means an increase in DeSean Jackson's value, who has been so impressive in preseason. While rookie wideouts tend to struggle in their transition from college to the pros, Jackson looks destined to see more than his share of opportunities in the pass attack. He's now well worth a late-round pick. With Reggie Brown (hamstring) also hurt, the Eagles are thin at wide receiver. Hank Baskett and Greg Lewis should be more involved with Curtis out, but neither has a ton of value in fantasy drafts.

Aside from the team's receivers, the player whose value is impacted the most is Donovan McNabb.

With Curtis out and Brown at less than 100 percent, the veteran quarterback doesn't have a lot of weapons to choose from in the passing game. In fact, his best options now appear to be Brian Westbrook, Smith and Jackson. While a Reid-led team will be pass-laden at all costs, McNabb's stock has still fallen. He's now a borderline No. 1 or 2 fantasy quarterback in leagues with 10-plus teams.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Cincinnati re-signs Chris Henry

In a move that has to be seen as nothing less than desperate, the Bengals have re-signed troubled wide receiver Chris Henry just over four months after releasing him.

Henry will miss the first four weeks of the regular season due to a league-imposed suspension, but he's firmly back on the fantasy football radar.

The talented veteran from West Virginia has the skills and abilities to be one of the NFL's best No. 3 wideouts, so he'll be worth a late-round flier if you have room to stash him on your roster.

The greater concern in fantasy circles is if signing Henry means Chad Johnson's shoulder injury is worse than reported.

Johnson, who strained his shoulder in a preseason contest against the Detroit Lions, was expected back for the team's regular-season opener in Baltimore. But several new reports suggest the Bengals aren't sure how long they'll be without their star wideout.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh (hamstring) and rookie Andre Caldwell (foot) are also at less than 100 percent, so adding Henry (despite the expected backlash) was a move the team almost had to make to ensure depth at the position.

Until there is definitive word on Johnson's status, fantasy owners need to downgrade him on their rank lists.


Monday, August 18, 2008

Orton wins top spot in Chicago

In what might be the least-watched quarterback competition in fantasy football, Kyle Orton has beaten out Rex Grossman for the top spot in Chicago.

Orton found success on the field as a rookie in 2005, but his final numbers (1,869 yards, 9 TDs, 13 INTs) were, well, terrible. And while his value does increase a bit now that he's been named the Bears' starter, he's not a quarterback to consider in most drafts.

Career Statistics:
Comp: 233

Att: 448

Yards: 2,347

TDs/INTs: 12/15

In fact, his time in such a prominent role could be limited.

The Bears have a questionable offensive line (at best). LT John St. Clair, who will be looked upon to protect Orton's blind side, has been a virtual turnstile at the NFL level. That could make it hard for Orton to even survive the entire season, let alone fend off Rex Grossman if he fails to produce.

Orton also opens the regular season with difficult matchups against Indianapolis, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, so he's not even an option in larger leagues based on the level of opponents.

With Orton under center, it's even harder to trust Chicago's blasé core of wide receivers that includes Earl Bennett, Marty Booker, Mark Bradley, Rashied Davis and Brandon Lloyd. In fact, the lone wideout I'd even consider in the Windy City is Devin Hester. I still see Greg Olsen as a solid sleeper at the tight end position, however.

The most valuable fantasy player in Chicago is and will remain rookie Matt Forte, whose rise to the top of the running back depth chart is far more important to owners.


Turner running well for Atlanta

Michael Turner's transition from second on San Diego's depth chart to the featured back in Atlanta could be the most significant player move in fantasy football.

Turner showed flashes of brilliance in limited time behind LaDainian Tomlinson, but playing in the shadow of a superstar made him worth little more than a late-round fantasy handcuff in recent seasons. If Saturday night's performance against Indianapolis is an indication, however, Turner could become as much as a second- or third-round selection.

He burned the Colts for 113 rushing yards on four carries (that's a ridiculous 28.2 YPC average), a line that included bursts of 52 and 63 yards. He now has 135 yards on nine carries (15.0 YPC) in two preseason contests.

Turner is by no means a lock to set the fantasy football world on fire. After all, the Falcons have a questionable quarterback situation at best and an offensive line that needs to improve over last season. But the explosive runner can make plays on his own, and he's a perfect fit for the run-based offense of new OC Mike Mularkey.

Whether it's Matt Ryan or Chris Redman under center in Week 1, the Falconsmust establish the run to compete this season. Coach Mike Smith and Mularkey are well aware of that fact, so Turner will see more than his share of carries. The team will also use Jerious Norwood in certain sets, but make no mistake about it.

Turner is the main man in the backfield.

If the offensive line can run protect and allow Turner even the smallest holes in the line of scrimmage, look out.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Brown could lose top spot in Miami

Ricky Williams has been so impressive in training camp that he's now in the mix to start ahead of Ronnie Brown. Williams showed up to camp in incredible shape and has made a real impression on coach Tony Sparano. Brown has done well in his own right, but he's being worked in slowly as he recovers from ACL surgery.

2007 Statistics:
Att: 119

Yards: 602

TDs: 4

"Who comes into the game warm or who needs to start the game to be warm is kind of an issue," Sparano told the Miami Herald. "Last week, Ronnie started the [first preseason] game, we got him touches early in the game, but there's Ricky kind of chomping at the bit to get in, and I wasn't sure how he would enter."

Sparano has compared this backfield situation to the one in Dallas that included Julius Jones and Marion Barber. Jones was the starter and saw his share of the carries, but Barber had the important looks down the stretch and was the team's unquestioned goal-line back. It was an odd situation for fantasy owners, as a team's No. 2 back had far more value than the starter.

Brown was the most productive runner in fantasy football before he tore up his knee in a game against the New England Patriots. And if the past is any indication, Brown is almost guaranteed to see his level of production fall in his first season back from a reconstructive knee procedure. That's where Williams enters the backfield picture.

Williams is 31, but he's had a mere 174 regular-season carries at the NFL level since 2003. He also played 11 games in the Canadian Football League in 2006, but Williams had just 109 carries up north. Overall, he's averaged a mere 94 carries between the NFL and CFL over the past three years, so it's no wonder he's looking fresh.

If this situation means anything in fantasy land, it's that Brown is becoming more and more of a risk in drafts. In fact, he's no better than a borderline No. 2 or 3 fantasy back in leagues with 12-plus teams. It also means that owners who do draft Brown should also be sure to target Williams as insurance.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bush has sore left knee

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that Reggie Bush will likely miss Saturday night's preseason game against the Texans because of swelling in his left knee. The team describes the move as precautionary, but it could be a cause for some concern in fantasy land.

After all, this is the same knee that landed Bush on the sidelines at the end of last season, the result of a torn posterior cruciate ligament. While an MRI taken earlier in the week showed no structural damage, the swelling in the knee has kept Bush out of practice twice this week.

The versatile runner out of Southern California isn't worried about the ailment, but it's still a situation for owners to monitor.

If Bush's knee can't handle the workload, coach Sean Payton could spell him more often during the regular season in order to keep him fresh. With Deuce McAllister (who will make his preseason debut vs. the Texans), Pierre Thomas and Aaron Stecker also on the roster, Payton has more backfield depth at his disposal than most teams.

That could equate to a backfield committee that sees Payton use three or four backs based on their respective skills sets. Bush would start and see time on passing downs. Payton will even line him up in the slot with another runner in the backfield. McAllister would be the power, between-the-tackles choice, while Thomas and Stecker would see time off the bench when Bush or McAllister need a blow.

I still see Bush as a viable No. 2 fantasy back (especially in PPR formats), but there is at least some risk involved. As a result, it's a smart idea for owners who draft him to take McAllister or Thomas in the late rounds as insurance.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Steven Jackson's holdout continues

Steven Jackson's contractual holdout has now reached 19 days, and it's starting to become a concern for some fantasy football owners.

2007 Statistics:
Att: 237

Yards: 1,002

TDs: 5

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Rams President of football operations-general manager Jay Zygmunt and Jackson's agent, Eugene Parker, have had "low-key" talks in recent days. That was the first discussion between the two sides in close to three weeks, but a resolution has not been reached.

The last offer the team made was for seven years and around $50 million.

With the regular season closing fast, Jackson will need some time to get back up to speed. He does have a firm understanding of OC Al Saunders' offensive philosophies and is a physical specimen, so there shouldn't be a significant learning curve once he returns. And if the past is any indication, he should be back in time for Week 1.

Shaun Alexander, Jamal Anderson, Lance Briggs, Marshall Faulk, Larry Johnson, Javon Walker and Hines Ward are just a few of the prominent fantasy players to have extended holdouts in camp, only to be back on the field in time for their team's regular-season openers.

The lone superstar who actually missed time was Emmitt Smith, who held out two weeks into the 1993 season. He went on to lead the Dallas Cowboys with 1,486 rushing yards and helped the team repeat as Super Bowl champions.

While some worrisome owners will draft Tom Brady, Joseph Addai, Clinton Portis, Frank Gore or Marion Barber ahead of him as a precaution, Jackson's holdout shouldn't keep him from being a top-five pick in all drafts. Once he does return (and he will sooner rather than later), Jackson will be an absolute fantasy beast.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

RB Johnson has injured hamstring...again

Rudi Johnson is once again dealing with hamstring issues, and it's something fantasy footballers need to monitor.

2007 Statistics:
Att: 170

Yards: 497

TDs: 3

Johnson, who missed significant time last season with a problematic hamstring, has been held out of recent practices and didn't suit up for Monday night's preseason contest in Green Bay.

While the team has labeled the hamstring pull "mild," it's hard not to be at least a little concerned about Johnson and his potential value in drafts.

The veteran runner was one of the most consistent backs in fantasy football from 2004-2006, when he averaged an impressive 1,407 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Those numbers fell hard last season, however, as Johnson totaled 497 yards on the ground and four total touchdowns due to time missed with injuries.

His absence opened the door for Kenny Watson, who turned out to be an underrated fantasy sleeper. Watson recorded a career-best 52 receptions, 1,137 scrimmage yards and seven scores.

With or without Johnson, numbers like that will make it hard for coach Marvin Lewis to ignore Watson in certain sets. The Bengals also have a healthy Chris Perry back in the mix, so talk of a backfield committee will no doubt rumble throughout fantasy land. That sort of scenario will make Johnson less valuable in drafts.

As it stands, Johnson should be seen as no more than a borderline No. 2 or 3 fantasy back in leagues with 12-plus teams. But if these hamstring troubles persist in the weeks leading up to September, it might be better to avoid Johnson altogether.


Monday, August 11, 2008

Engram out six to eight weeks

The Seattle Seahawks (and fantasy footballers alike) have lost veteran wide receiver Bobby Engram for six to eight weeks with a cracked bone in his shoulder.

2007 Statistics:
Rec: 94

Yards: 1,147

TDs: 6

Engram, who developed into a reliable option in fantasy circles last season, sustained the ailment in the team's exhibition opener against the Minnesota Vikings. In a worst-case scenario, Engram will be sidelined until after the team's Week 4 bye and return to face the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

Now that's he out of action, the Seahawks will turn to Nate Burleson and Courtney Taylor as the top two wideouts on their depth chart. Ben Obomanu looks like the favorite to move into the slot position.

The Seahawks could also be without Deion Branch, who continues to recover from reconstructive knee surgery. In fact, coach Mike Holmgren said Branch would have to practice for at least one week to be on the team's Week 1 roster. Branch remains on the training camp/Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list and has done little in practice sessions.

Burleson figures to see the greatest spike in draft value with Engram out. In fact, he should now be seen as an attractive No. 3 fantasy wideout. Taylor and Obomanu are well worth watching for the remainder of the preseason, but neither will be worth more than a late-round flier.

The player who could see a decrease in stock is Matt Hasselbeck. The veteran quarterback is now without his top three receiving options from last season (Engram, Branch and D.J. Hackett), so he could have a slow start. Hasselbeck does face teams with questionable pass defenses such as Buffalo, San Francisco and St. Louis in the first three weeks, however, so it's hard to look past him as a fantasy starter in most formats.


Friday, August 8, 2008

Don't read into preseason numbers

David Clowney and Robert Meachem are no doubt on the minds of fantasy football owners after their spectacular performances on Thursday night.

Clowney hauled in four passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns for the Jets in a 24-20 win at Cleveland, while Meachem totaled four catches, 129 yards and one score for the Saints in a 24-10 win at Arizona.

But before your label them both possible sleeper candidates, keep in mind that preseason statistics have very little value in most cases.

Sure, Clowney and Meachem both made a statement in their attempts to move up the depth charts of their respective teams. And it doesn't hurt to keep tabs on them for the remainder of the preseason. But overall, the Clowneys and Meachems of the world will be little between the white lines when the games count.

In the 2007 preseason, J.T. O'Sullivan led all quarterbacks with 675 passing yards. He threw a total of 26 passes in the regular season for Detroit. Thomas Clayton's 200 rushing yards led all running backs, but he landed on San Francisco's practice squad. Lance Moore and Paris Warren finished second and fourth in receiving yards. That duo finished the regular season with a combined 365 yards.

Exhibition contests are important for owners to watch, but they're less about the numbers and more about repetitions, roles and execution. Drew Brees looked tremendous in running the first-team offense for New Orleans. Tim Hightower saw goal-line work for Arizona. Calvin Johnson looked impressive against the Giants' first-team defense. Kansas City running backs average a mere 3.3 yards per carry behind a questionable offensive line. LaMont Jordan had 19 carries with his new team against the Baltimore Ravens.

These are the things to watch.

So before you read the preseason box scores to help determine player values, remember that some of the more vital components can't be found in the numbers.


Thursday, August 7, 2008

Garrett: Barber is an "everydown back"

Marion Barber has scored a combined 28 touchdowns in two NFL seasons, and he recorded those totals while sitting behind Julius Jones on the depth chart in Dallas.

2007 Statistics:
Att: 204

Yards: 975

TDs: 10

With Jones now in Seattle, Barber is the unquestioned No. 1 running back in Big D. And if the opener of HBO's Hard Knocks is any indication, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has all the faith in the world in Barber as a featured runner at the NFL level.

In fact, Garrett was integral in the selection of Felix Jones, not Rashard Mendenhall, in the 2008 NFL Draft.

"The one guy [Mendenhall] is an everydown back," Garrett said. "The other guy [Jones] is a special complementary back. We've got to remember that we've got an everydown back here."

Garrett has been creative with his talented duo of runners. Barber has lined up at fullback in an offset "I" formation. He has also been alone in the backfield with Jones split out wide or in the slot. The rookie has also been used in motion, moving from the slot position and into the backfield.

But the fact that Garrett sees Jones as a compliment says a lot about Barber's skills and abilities. It also indicates that a committee situation is not in the cards, so Barber should see closer to 300 carries and most (if not all) of the goal-line work.

With an increase in shared backfields around the NFL, this news should make Barber a lock first-round selection in all fantasy drafts.


Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Denver loses rookie RB Torain

The first significant injury of training camp occured on Wednesday morning, as Denver running back Ryan Torain broke his elbow during a 9-on-7 drill.

While initial reports have varied, it looks like Torain is out a minimum of three months. The team could even decide to place him on injured reserve, which would end his season. Unless his timetable improves, Torain now won't be worth more than a late-round flier (if that) in seasonal drafts.

2007 Statistics:
Att: 140

Yards: 729

TDs: 1

The loss of Torain almost guarantees that Selvin Young will open the regular season atop the depth chart, so he's a much safer pick as a borderline No. 2 or 3 fantasy back. Young showed flashes of potential as an undrafted rookie last season, recording 35 receptions and 960 scrimmage yards in 15 games (eight starts), so he has the tools to make an impact. Couple that with the successful track record of most runners under coach Mike Shanahan, and it's obvious that Young has increased draft stock.

Andre Hall appears to be the favorite to serve as Young's fantasy handcuff, though Michael Pittman could also be a candidate. Pittman had been moved to fullback, but he'll be back at the tailback position after Torain's ailment.

Undrafted rookie Anthony Aldridge, who could land third on the depth chart, is more of a deep darkhorse in the competition. Of course, deep dark horses like Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary and Reuben Droughns have come out of nowhere to make significant fantasy contributions for Shanahan in the past, so owners in larger leagues should keep him in mind.

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