Parker is a risk-reward fantasy pick in 2009; Cutler's stock falling

I'm trying to figure out the Steelers backfield situation. With Willie Parker's numbers going down last season, not to mention his proneness to injuries, how will his value suffer? Is Rashard Mendenhall a viable sleeper? Do you see a backfield committee? Help! -- L. Turney, New Smyrna Beach, Fla.

Michael Fabiano: Parker will remain the starter for coach Mike Tomlin, and he'll see more carries than both Mendenhall and Moore if he can avoid injuries. Of course, that's a big if with Parker. Even with Mendenhall in the mix, he still saw a featured role in the first three weeks of last season (66 carries, 263 yards, 3 TDs) before knee problems landed him on the sidelines. Fast Willie was also featured in the offense late in the season and throughout the playoffs en route to a Super Bowl XLIII championship.

Keep in mind that he's also in a contract year, so Parker will look to perform well in an effort to improve his chances to land a new deal. As long as he's effective, I think Parker will be the man. While I can see Mendenhall becoming a sleeper if Parker suffers a long-term ailment, I'd consider him more of a fantasy handcuff in 2009. He'll come off the board in the middle rounds in seasonal formats.

2008 statistics:
Completions: 384

Attempts: 616

Yards: 4,526

TDs/INTs: 25/18

Why do you have Jay Cutler ranked 50th in your fantasy rankings? Are you a disgruntled Broncos fan too? I know you're going to say it's because he had better receivers to throw to, hence making him a better quarterback. But were the receivers that good or did Cutler make them better? I don't think Brandon Marshall will be as good without him! Maybe you should rank Devin Hester and Greg Olsen a little higher. C'mon man! -- K. Anderson, Las Vegas, Nev.

M.F.: No, I'm not a disgruntled Broncos fan. But I am a realist in a fantasy world. Did Cutler make Marshall and Eddie Royal better wide receivers? Sure. Will he turn Hester or Earl Bennett into the next Marshall or Royal? No chance. In fact, I think the recent news that Hester will continue his duties as a return man rather than focus on being a wideout will hurt him. The receiver I like the most in Chicago is Greg Olsen, who I've moved up to sixth at the tight end position. As for Cutler, well, I have a better chance to steal Jessica Simpson from Tony Romo then he has to duplicate last season's totals. Remember, the Broncos offense had no running game and was basically built around Cutler in 2008.

Thus, he finished with a ridiculous 616 pass attempts -- some of those attempts came when the team was behind because of it's porous defense. He probably won't even throw the football 500 times in 2009, especially with a talented runner like Matt Forte in the backfield. Cutler, who went in the ninth round in two recent expert league drafts, is still a No. 1 fantasy quarterback, but he's no longer an elite option.

Hey Mike, how much of a fantasy impact do you think Derrick Ward will make with the Buccaneers? I think he's Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn all rolled into one. What do you think? -- D. Holmes

M.F.: I think Ward is a nice sleeper candidate and someone who could turn into a viable No. 2 fantasy back next season. He's a strong runner with immense skills as a receiver out of the backfield (he caught 41 passes with the Giants last season), and I feel like Ward is already the favorite to start ahead of Earnest Graham. While he will lose carries to his backfield mate, Ward is a better bet for overall fantasy production. I see him coming off the board between the third and fifth rounds in most drafts.

I enjoy your opinions and won my first fantasy league last year! I know you get a lot of questions, but I'll send you a Canadian beer if you answer mine! I'm in a 14-team keeper league that rewards points for kick and punt returns and need to retain three players from Kurt Warner, Matt Forte, LaDainian Tomlinson, Andre Johnson, Steve Smith and Tony Gonzalez. I also have Darren Sproles and Leon Washington, who have more value because of their return value, but I don't feel like I should keep them. I'm leaning towards Forte, L.T. and Johnson. I can also trade Tomlinson and Smith for Michael Turner. Should I do this trade? -- J. Snow, Canada

M.F.: I think that's the first time I've been offered a beer to answer a fantasy question. This one's on the house! Since you can retain only three players, I would pull the trigger on that trade and deal Tomlinson and Smith for Turner. I would then retain Forte, Turner and Johnson. That gives you three young, talented and productive players to build your team around next season and for seasons to come. Be sure to focus on a quarterback and a wide receiver in the first two rounds of the re-draft.

I just saw your fantasy football mock draft, and I think it was way too running back heavy. My league uses a pretty standard scoring system and our top 20 spots are very even between quarterbacks and running backs. This season I plan to draft a quarterback, running back, running back and wide receiver in the first four rounds. It seems like you can find solid running backs on waivers -- look at Chris Johnson, Steve Slaton and Pierre Thomas last season. What are your thoughts? -- J. Rae, Canada

M.F.: The mock draft is a look at how I see the first three rounds going in a standard, 12-team league. And in my opinion, running backs will be far more prominent than quarterbacks in the first three rounds. Of course, all leagues and drafts are different. If quarterbacks are seen as more valuable among the majority of the owners in your league, then my mock will be quite different. You mention that there are always good running backs to come off the waiver wire. I'm not sure I agree with that. There will be some good ones, but the demands for free-agent backs will be much greater than for free-agent quarterbacks. As a result, it will be more difficult to add someone like Johnson, Slaton or Thomas unless you're high on the waiver wire. And if you're high on the waiver wire, that means your fantasy team isn't very good. Overall, running backs and wide receivers will dominate the first three rounds. Unless the flow of the draft dictates a different strategy, I'll wait on a quarterback until at least the fifth round.

Hey Michael, this will be my first year playing fantasy football, and I'm eager to find out your opinion on Clinton Portis. Will he be a good fantasy option this season, or will he be less effective? He was the top running back in the league last season, at least until all those injuries. Thanks! -- T Roncon, Australia

M.F.: I have to admit it, Portis scares me a little bit. He'll be 28 at the start of next season, but he's a far more weathered 28 based on the 2,052 regular-season carries he's endured in his career. The veteran also rushed the ball 342 times in 2008. The last time he had that many carries was 2005, when he touted the rock 352 times. He went on to miss half of the following season due to injuries. Portis also suffered through an assortment of ailments in the second half of last season, so it's pretty apparent that the wear and tear on his body is taking its toll. While I still see him as a first-round pick, I'd be sure to handcuff Portis with Ladell Betts to avoid a worst-case scenario.

I'm in standard, seasonal fantasy league, and I want to turn it into a keeper or dynasty league. My friends in the league are a bit more seasoned, so it's time for a new challenge. What's the difference between the two leagues? -- V. Amezcua, Colorado

M.F.: If you want your fantasy league to closely mirror the actual NFL, then dynasty leagues are the way to go. In a dynasty league, owners retain their entire team (aside from trades or waiver-wire moves) from one season to the next. After the initial draft, future drafts include rookies alone. Dynasty leagues are huge committments, so be prepared to do quite a bit of work. Keeper leagues are less of a committment -- think of them as being somewhere between a seasonal league and a dynasty league. Each owner is allowed to retain a predetermined number of players from the previous season. In some cases, owners will lose the round of the players they've retained. So if you take Adrian Peterson in the first round in your 2009 draft and retain him for the 2010 season, you will lose your first-round selection in that draft.

What do you think of JaMarcus Russell and Darren McFadden for next season? Will Russell break out? Thanks! -- R. Eisenbart

M.F.: I have a hard time having any faith in any player wearing the Silver & Black these days. Russell has a big arm but no reliable weapons in the pass attack, and I've never seen much emotion or passion out of him at the NFL level. He did show flashes of potential late last season with six touchdowns in his last three starts, but I still don't see him as a sleeper in 2009. In fact, he'll be worth no more than a late-round pick as a fantasy reserve. As for McFadden, I just don't see him as more than a low-end No. 2 fantasy back or flex starter in what will likely be a backfield committee in Oakland. Justin Fargas is still the favorite to start, and Michael Bush should see an increase in carries if he can perform well in training camp and the preseason. Despite his talents as a runner and receiver out of the backfield, I'd avoid McFadden until the middle rounds.

Love the column! As an NFL and fantasy fan in the United Kingdom, it's great to be able to read your thoughts since we don't get a lot of NFL coverage on television. Last season, I won our championship because of a great draft that included Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson, DeAngelo Williams and Larry Fitzgerald. However, I'm only allowed to keep three players. I'm definitely keeping Peterson, but I'm torn about the other two. We start two running backs, two wide receivers and one flex spot (RB, WR), so I can start three backs. Who should I retain? -- O. Williams, United Kingdom

M.F.: Congratulations on the championship -- that's one heck of a team you drafted! As much as I'd love to have three runners like Johnson, Jones-Drew and Peterson in a keeper league (or any league for that matter), it's hard for me to release the top wide receiver in fantasy football. So unless you're superstitous and fear the dreaded Madden cover curse, I would retain Jones-Drew, Peterson and Fitzgerald.

How can you write a column on sleepers and leave Earl Bennett off it? Have you lost your mind? -- A. Carruthers

M.F.: Actually, Bennett was included in my look at the top super sleepers for 2009. In an effort to give fantasy owners even more draft options, I posted a sleepers column, that included better-known players like Trent Edwards and Anthony Gonzalez, along with the aforementioned super sleeper piece. That column includes lesser-know players like Bennett and Brent Celek. Based on what looks like a great chance to start and play alongside Cutler, his former Vanderbilt teammate, Bennett is certainly a player to watch this summer.

Have a burning question for Michael Fabiano on anything fantasy football related? Leave it in our comments section below or send it to AskFabiano@nfl.com, and the best questions will be answered throughout the season right here on NFL.com!

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