Tyler Thigpen, who opened last season as a third-string quarterback, finished with more fantasy points than Brett Favre and Ben Roethlisberger. Pierre Thomas, also a reserve player to open 2008, outscored one-time superstars Larry Johnson and Joseph Addai. Antonio Bryant didn't play a single snap at the pro level in 2007, but he still finished as a better option than Terrell Owens and Randy Moss.
Yes, the NFL can be unpredictable to say the very least.
As much as we prepare for our drafts and the upcoming season, there is no doubt that a few odd and seemingly improbable scenarios will occur that alters the landscape of fantasy football. With that said, Craig Ellenport, Michael Fabiano and Adam Rank broke out their thinking caps in an attempt to predict the unpredictable with five bold, outlandish (and maybe a little crazy) prognostications for the 2009 season.
1. LaDainian Tomlinson will rush for 1,600 yards and 21 TDs this season. And he'll add another 400 yards and three TDs receiving. Those rushing numbers are just a hair above what LT averaged for the three seasons prior to last year's injury-plagued "disaster" of a season. Disaster? Yeah, Tomlinson rushed for 1,110 yards and 11 TDs in a down year. Now he's got a chip on his shoulder, and he thrives in that situation. He will regain his title as the top fantasy RB. Don't worry about the money San Diego gave backup Darren Sproles. They had to do it at the time. But when Tomlinson starts rolling -- and he will -- coach Norv Turner will be smart enough to ride that train.
2. Darren McFadden is ready to explode. The fourth overall pick in last year's draft was overshadowed by several backs taken much later than he was, but look at it this way: As a rookie in 2008, playing for a team in disarray, with a coaching staff in flux and no weapons around him, McFadden averaged a healthy 4.4 yards per carry. Now consider that the Raiders appear more stable with interim head coach Tom Cable getting the permanent job and the offensive line getting a makeover. Sure, McFadden will give up some carries to both Justin Fargas and Michael Bush, but the former Razorback star is the true home-run hitter in the group. And laugh all you want about the Raiders' first-round reach for WR Darrius Heyward-Bey this year, but he'll stretch the defense -- giving McFadden more room to roam. Projected numbers for 2009: 1,250 yards and 11 TDs.
3. Chris Johnson will have the biggest sophomore slump. With so many rookie running backs having big years in 2008, there are plenty of candidates for the title of biggest sophomore slump. It says here that there won't be any doubt that Tennessee's second-year RB takes the crown. Johnson rushed for 1,228 yards and nine TDs in 15 games for the Titans last season. He might have scored more, but LenDale White had a big year as Tennessee's short-yardage/goal-line back. White is still in the picture. What's more troubling is that I don't think Tennessee has done enough to improve the receiving corps. Meanwhile, in the tough AFC South, all three of Tennessee's division rivals have made improvements to the run defense. Johnson's blazing speed makes him a home-run threat almost anytime he touches the ball, but consistency was not a part of his game last year -- he rushed for fewer than 75 yards in eight of his 14 starts. With teams focused on stopping him, Johnson will be a major disappointment for anyone who drafts him high in fantasy.
4. Matt Cassel will be a bust. I'll start off by saying I was absolutely stunned this offseason when Josh McDaniels thought it was worth trying to get Cassel in Denver. No way would I take Cassel over Jay Cutler...and I'm not sure Cassel is better than Tyler Thigpen. When Brady was lost for the season in Week 1 last year, not much about the New England offense was different from the record-setting attack of '07. In 15 subsequent starts, Cassel had three monster games -- and eight games with fewer than 220 yards passing. My guess is that Thigpen could have put up bigger and better numbers in that Patriots offense last season after Brady went down. Now consider this: If it were Thigpen backing up Brady last year and then he was traded to a rebuilding Kansas City team that jettisoned its top target in Tony Gonzalez, would you look at him as a fantasy factor? Not me. So why even touch Cassel?
5. Ricky Williams will have better rushing numbers than Ronnie Brown. That's right, I said it. And, no, I haven't been messing with Ricky's old hookah. It's just a hunch, but it's not out of the blue. Bill Parcells has taken a real liking to Williams, and you have to wonder about the pre-draft rumors that Miami was shopping Brown. They were just rumors -- but where there's smoke, there's...Ricky! Seriously, though, Brown was the clear No. 1 RB in Miami last year but he only rushed for 259 yards more than Williams (916 to 659). Brown had 10 rushing TDs to Williams' 4, but the bottom line is that if the powers that be in Miami want to get Williams more carries, it won't take much for him to become the Dolphins' rushing leader. Brown's receiving numbers and impact in the Wildcat attack may tilt the balance, but the bottom line is that Williams will be a fantasy factor.
1. Larry Fitzgerald will be a major disappointment. I've never been one to follow superstitions -- I might write about them, but I don't follow them -- but Fitzgerald has two infamous curses to overcome this season. First is the *Madden cover curse*. This infamous hex has caused the athlete on the cover of the Madden video game to either see a decrease in statistical success or suffer a long-term injury. It's happened to Daunte Culpepper, Marshall Faulk and Michael Vick (to name a few), and Fitzgerald could be next. If Madden doesn't get him, the curse of the Super Bowl loser might do the trick. Superstars like Tom Brady, Donovan McNabb and Shaun Alexander all saw their numbers fall the season after their team lost the big game. Will Fitzgerald or one of his teammates be victimized next? It might sound insane, but only time will tell if his production becomes barren like the Arizona desert.
2. Maurice Jones-Drew will be a top-5 fantasy running back. He stands at a mere 5-foot-7 -- and that could be a stretch -- but Jones-Drew will make up for his lack of height with a huge statistical season in 2009. The smallish back out of UCLA will be one of the few featured backs in the National Football League after the release of Fred Taylor, whose presence had limited Jones-Drew to just four career starts. A touchdown machine, MJD has reached the end zone 38 total times in three seasons. The Jaguars also improved their offensive line with the addition of rookie OTs Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, which should amount to better run production. Now that he'll see more carries in the offense, not to mention additional chances as a receiver out of the backfield, Jones-Drew should be a lock to finish with better than 1,600-plus scrimmage yards and double-digit touchdowns this season.
3. LaDainian Tomlinson will not rebound to elite fantasy status. Tomlinson will go down in history as one of the best running backs in both the NFL and fantasy football, but his reign as an elite option ended last season. A major disappointment for owners, LT finished with a career-low 1,110 rushing yards. He scored 12 total touchdowns -- his lowest total since 2001 -- and three of those scores came in Week 17 when most fantasy seasons had ended. Tomlinson, who'll be 30 at the start of the next campaign, has averaged 332 carries per season. That ranks him third behind Eric Dickerson and Eddie George -- both of whom saw serious decreases in production at 30. LT also faces a tough schedule that includes games against the Ravens, Dolphins, Steelers, Giants, Eagles, Cowboys, Titans and Redskins -- those eight teams all finished in the top 12 in run defenses last season.
4. Clinton Portis will miss at least six contests. Predicting injuries is like predicting the weather in New England -- it's darn near impossible. Just ask anyone who took the durable Tom Brady in their fantasy draft in 2008. He had made 110 consecutive regular-season starts without much incident, but a torn ACL in his 111th start caused him to miss the next 15 games. But while Brady's ailment was impossible to predict, the wear and tear on Portis' body makes him more susceptible. He was riddled with injuries during the second half of last season and finished with 342 carries. The last time he had that many rushing attempts was in 2005, and he missed half of the following season with an injured shoulder. With over 2,000 regular-season carries in his career, Portis has seen more physical punishment than most runners his age (he'll be 28 in September). Buyer beware.
5. Matt Ryan will have more touchdowns than Jay Cutler. Cutler is one of the most talented and strong-armed young quarterbacks in fantasy football. He showed that last season with a career-best 4,525 passing yards and 27 total touchdowns -- those numbers ranked him fifth in fantasy points at his position on NFL.com. Ryan was solid as a rookie, but his numbers (3,440 passing yards, 17 total TDs) paled in comparison. After an eventful offseason for both players, though, Ryan will be the better fantasy option. Not only does he have one full season under his belt and the support of a tremendous running game led by Michael Turner, but he now has Tony Gonzalez in the pass attack. Cutler, on the other hand, goes from an offense built around his arm to one that will lean on the run and includes far fewer weapons. So if you have to pick between Ryan and Cutler, go with the former.
1. The Cardinals will win the NFC West. A lot of people are predicting a down year for the Cardinals fantasy studs because of the curse of the Super Bowl runner-up. And really, do we have to pad it by saying runner-up instead of loser? Games have winners and losers, not winners and runner-ups. I want more players to act like LeBron James after a crushing defeat. I don't want to see players mugging for the camera or hugging their friends after a tough loss. At least take it as hard as I do. Don't smile after a loss. That's such a Donovan McNabb thing to do. That being said, the Cardinals should do well in 2009. Feel safe to take Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, et al. Remember, the Cardinals were a 9-7 team, so they are more like one of those worst-to-first type of teams. And second, the last time a team was on the receiving end of some controversial calls in a Super Bowl loss to the Steelers, that team (the Seahawks after Super Bowl XL), went on to win the NFC West.
2. Chad Ochocinco will have double-digit touchdowns. Consider this one of the byproducts of the Bengals becoming a playoff team in 2009. That's right, the Bengals are going to the playoffs in 2009. Don't act so surprised, you follow the NFL, right? One team comes from the depths of despair to make a playoff run each season. Remember the Dolphins and Falcons last year? Tampa Bay the year before that? Consider the Bengals this year's surprise team. Carson Palmer should regain his fantasy stud status, and the biggest beneficiary should be Ochocinco who will benefit from T.J. Houshmandzadeh being in Seattle, but will have a nice complimentary receiver in Laveranues Coles.
3. John Harbaugh will pick a running back and stick with him this year. But don't give him too much credit, he might not have a choice. The Ravens' rookie coach frustrated fantasy owners last year with a befuddling running back rotation that was as confusing as "Angels and Demons," but with bigger plot holes. Harbaugh rotated (which is a kind description) three running backs last season but might not get a chance this year. Le'Ron McClain figures to be the starting fullback following the departure of Lorenzo Neal. Willis McGahee figures to get hurt a lot. That means that Ray Rice could be poised for a big season in Baltimore. Until, of course, Harbaugh puts Derrick Mason at running back or something.
4. The Giants will become the first team in NFL history to have three 1,000-yard rushers in one season. Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward topped 1,000 yards for the Giants in 2008, and the team could probably run the ball even more now in the wake of Plaxico Burress' departure. Eli Manning was never a fantasy superstar. He's more like this generation's version of Trent Dilfer -- a guy that rode a hot defense and strong running game to a Super Bowl title. The Giants entire passing game philosophy seemingly consisted of Manning lobbing prayers in the air, and Burress answering them by making big plays. Now Manning must go forward with Domenik Hixon and Steve Smith. Meaning the Giants will be running. A lot. We might even see a Wing T formation this season. I can't even tell you who the third running back for the Giants is, but I expect him to rush for 1,000 yards this season.
5. Peyton Manning will be a huge fantasy disappointment this season. Manning throwing for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns is a bigger fantasy lock than somebody in your fantasy draft singing "My Sharona" after Rob Bironas is picked. (And please, stop doing that.) Manning has topped 4,000 passing yards in nine of his past 10 seasons. A run that almost doesn't seem possible. But this is a season of change in Indianapolis, and Manning could suffer. Manning made news when he said that communication was "pretty poor" with the Colts. This move seemed out of character, because Manning doesn't usually point fingers until after a playoff loss. The Colts didn't finish in first place last season for the first time, well, seemingly ever. Joseph Addai struggled last year. Marvin Harrison and Tony Dungy are gone. Just call this a hunch.