The New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers opened the NFL's preseason schedule last night with the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, a contest won by the Steelers, 20-7. While most of the fantasy-relevant players either sat out or saw limited work between the white lines, there was one aspect of the game that owners should have noticed.
Ben Roethlisberger was solid under center in his one series, completing two of three passes for 73 yards. The biggest play came on a 55-yard strike to Cedrick Wilson, who was able to release downfield and beat Saints safety Kevin Kaesviharn. Wilson doesn't have value in drafts, but he did finish with four catches for 99 yards to lead the team. Santonio Holmes, a popular sleeper candidate in the world of fantasy football, had three receptions for 48 yards and scored on a three-yard pass from No. 3 quarterback Brian St. Pierre.
Roethlisberger, who is a bit under the radar after a difficult 2006 season, is expected to have a far greater presence in the offense of new coordinator Bruce Arians. In fact, Arians will allow Roethlisberger to utilize the no-huddle offense more often and call his own audibles and pass protections. With more multiple-receiver sets and a greater emphasis on the pass attack, Roethlisberger could be a terrific middle- to late-round value. The same can be said of Holmes, who is the favorite to start opposite veteran Hines Ward.
While the Steelers will throw the football more often, the team won't abandon its bread and butter, the run. First-round lock Willie Parker sat out the contest to rest his sore knee, but the ailment isn't serious and will not hurt his value. The trio of Najeh Davenport, Kevan Barlow and Verron Haynes combined to record 14 carries against the Saints in Parker's absence, and the Steelers finished with 37 total carries on the night.
Davenport started the contest for head coach Mike Tomlin and is considered the favorite to finish second on the depth chart behind Parker, so owners looking to handcuff Fast Willie do have Davenport to target.
CLINTON PORTIS STILL NOT 100 PERCENT
One of the biggest questions that face fantasy football owners this season is when to draft Clinton Portis (if at all). An absolute stud for much of his NFL career, Portis' value has fallen after a tumultuous few months that saw him endure shoulder and hand surgeries. What's more, a recent bout of knee tendonitis could limit him in training camp and the preseason.
"I have every confidence that had that been a game today, he would have played," Gibbs told the Washington Post after a weekend scrimmage against the Baltimore Ravens. "And I think he feels that way. But at the same time if there's a chance for us to get that calmed down, we're going to do that."
Portis, who could not take part in most offseason drills due to his knee, is expected to refrain from making sharp cuts for now and will remain on anti-inflammatory drugs. While he could be available for Saturday's preseason opener at Tennessee, chances are that Portis will be sidelined until his knee calms down a bit.
Aside from Portis's knee issues, fantasy owners must also be concerned with the presence of Ladell Betts. The Iowa product recorded 1,154 rushing yards and five total touchdowns in 2006, and his late-season numbers while Portis was sidelined helped many owners win a championship. Betts rushed for 100-plus yards in five straight weeks - three came in the fantasy postseason - so his value has never been higher.
That will make it almost impossible for owners to handcuff Portis with Betts in drafts.
We all know what Portis can do between the white lines when he's healthy, but whether he can return to 100 percent in time for the regular-season opener against Miami will determine his true value. In the event that his knee improves and he can handle the lion's share of the carries, Portis will be less of a risk-reward selection. If he needs to see fewer carries each week in order to rest his knee and remain fresh throughout the regular season, however, then Betts will take on more of the work and Portis' stock will tumble.
For those owners who have their drafts this week, Portis should be seen as no more than a second- or third-round choice as a No. 2 fantasy runner.
NEWS & NOTES
- DeAngelo Williams is one of the more attractive sleepers in fantasy football, but his performance near the goal line in training camp has been less than impressive. In fact, he could lose those ever-important looks to DeShaun Foster or Nick Goings. Furthermore, Foster, not Williams, was the No. 1 back in the Panthers' recent intrasquad scrimmage. We still like Williams' potential in the offense, but he needs to improve parts of his game to avoid a true backfield committee situation.
- The San Diego Chargers will be without Eric Parker for up to 10 weeks after undergoing a surgical procedure on his toe, so look for the value of rookie wideout Craig Davis to rise. A true burner out of Louisiana State who can stretch defenses, Davis now warrants late-round consideration in larger leagues. Malcolm Floyd and Kassim Osgood will battle for the third spot on the team's depth chart, but neither warrants draft consideration.
- Brandon Jackson finished this weekend's Packers scrimmage with 20 yards on six carries and one touchdown. He also caught a 25-yard pass as a slot receiver, and he did a better job in his pass protection, which he has struggled with in training camp. With Vernand Morency out of action due to an injured knee, Jackson has a chance to separate himself and earn the top spot on the depth chart. A viable sleeper, Jackson should be considered a borderline No. 3 or 4 fantasy runner.
- One of our favorite sleepers, D.J. Hackett, caught five passes for 65 yards and scored on a 39-yard pass in the Seahawks' scrimmage over the weekend. Now the heavy favorite to start with Deion Branch after the trade of Darrell Jackson to San Francisco, Hackett's value has never been better. We wouldn't be shocked if he records the first 1,000-yard season of his NFL career in 2007, so owners should take a chance on Hackett in the middle to late rounds as a No. 3 fantasy wideout.
- Cedric Benson was seen with a wrap on his left shoulder over the weekend and was held out of contact drills on Sunday night. The Bears will err on the side of caution with their featured back, who did work with the first team in seven-on-seven drills. Injuries are a concern, but Benson is still a viable No. 2 fantasy runner in an offense that will lean on him. Adrian Peterson took almost all of the first-team snaps in Benson's absence, so consider him the best handcuff for the Texas product.