Friday, July 07, 2006

FANTASY FOOTBALL ... TOP-TIER QUARTERBACKS!

I'm getting a late jump on this series. It's approaching mid-July, several "experts" leagues I am in have already held their drafts, and my mailbox is inundated with fantasy Football offers that range from Sporting News to Sandbox to Yahoo to CBS Sportsline to NFL.com.
So, although I am a rather long-winded sort (or so I've been told), I'm going to boil each athlete down to his basic nuts and bolts and won't overwhelm you with minutiae and semi-obscure statistics.

But 1st, allow me to preface:
Fantasy buffs MUST keep in mind that what an athlete does on the field doesn't always translate to Sunday night's fantasy tally. Oftentimes, a top-tier fantasy performer is a marginal real performer or vice versa, a so-so NFL commodity finds the End-Zone or racks up yards during garbage time. As a "for instance," Michael Vick has mind-blowing talent... but you never know what the Atlanta Signal Caller is going to give you from 1 week to the next. Will the captivating talent donate 125 yards rushing, 225 yards passing and 3 TDs (2 of which came on the ground) to your teams' effort? Or, will the iffy Vick rear his medicore head and finish the contest with 110 passing yards, 85 rushing yards and 2 INTs?

A 4-Star Signal Caller should still be drafted after you pull your bell-cow Running Back off the draftboard. A prime example for this logic? The great "Manning-Tomlinson Debate" of 2005. Hot off of his record-setting 4,500+/49 '04 campaign, many owners were keen on drafting Peyton with their 1st overall draft picks. The savvy owners sat back and allowed studs such as LaDainian Tomlinson and Shaun Alexander to fall right into their laps. The outcome? The San Diego based 'back rumbled for nearly 1,500 yards and notched 20 total TDs. The Indy' Field General, meanwhile, didn't have a bad season, but his 3,700+/28 effort lies in stark contrast to his previous season. Was his total output better than Tomlinson's? Sure, but the owner who took Peyton Manning could have grabbed the Colt's little bro', Eli, several rounds later and received an almost identical number of passing yards yards (Eli actually threw for 15 more yards than Peyton!) and just 3 fewer scores.

The lesson? Elite runners will lead you to Fantasy glory while passers who are capable of contributing to your Roto-cup quest can be gotten later in the draft. The drop-off in talent between top-caliber Quarterbacks and their mid-road brethren is not nearly the same as the drop-off in talent between elite runners and their back-ups.

4 STAR QUARTERBACKS: The truly elite, and there are but 3. A 4 Star Signal Caller will help guide your team to a fantasy Football playoff berth... and beyond. There might be 1 or 2 weeks where he stumbles for all athletes do, but for the most part... he'll contribute double-diggy' points on a week in and week out basis.

Patriots, Tom Brady: Tom Terrific (4,110/27/14) and Peyton are almost interchangeable, but for my money... the umm, "edge" still lies with the dude who gets it done in crunch time.
Further, Brady possesses hardware... and software, that Manning does not. Hardware? How 'bout 3 Superbowl victories and a pair of 'Bowl MVP awards. Sotware? How 'bout the ability to calmly roam the pocket and freelance when DEs who are large enough to wear license plates are barelling through the Offensive Line... how 'bout Brady's willingness to take just what the opposing defense is willing to give him? These are the qualities that set a Superbowl winning Qube' apart from Indy's "thisclose" slinger.

Colts, Peyton Manning: Although some sites and writers rank Peyton (3,747/28/10) before Tom "Terrific" Brady, the loss of Edgerrin James may cause Indy' to become a bit more predictable.
As technically sound a passer as the league has ever seen, Manning's field-vision is impressive and his ability to pick a defense apart is almost unparalleled. He does, however, struggle when defenders are getting peneteration and the play breaks down. Manning just isn't as unflappable as Tom Brady or Brett Favre are.
Other substantial issues may lurk just beneath the surface, too. The offense ran like a Swiss watch in large part because Edge' is a brilliant and versatile talent. The Colt's bread and butter is playaction, thus the loss of James may resonate more deeply than the team anticipated if rook' runner Joseph Addai or veteran Dominic Rhodes struggle. That said, Addai has been called a "James clone," Rhodes proved himself capable of shouldering a feature back's load when James was lost to a knee injury ('02), and the tandem should be talented enough to keep the chains moving and punish those Defensive Coordinators who elect to disregard the running game.
Although league observers have begun to speak in hushed tones about Peyton Manning's seeming inability to win the big game, the Colt Field General remains a preeminent talent. With the bitter taste of defeat still fresh in Manning's mouth and the ashes of last season not yet cool, the Colts enter this season (albeit again) with a single goal; Superbowl XLI.
**NOTE: Manning could easily be ranked ahead of Tom Brady, especially given the depth of the Indy' O. With a #1 of Marvelous (still getting it done after all these years), a #2 of Reggie Wayne (who'd be a #1 on virtually ANY other team), and a TE who is as talented as Dallas Clark (soft-handed with a knack for finding the soft spots in zones), the Colts may very well go pass heavy again, thus inflating Petyon's numbers and fantasy value.

Bengals, Carson Palmer: Palmer (3,836/33/12), plain and simple, is standing upon the cusp of greatness. In just his 2nd season as the Cin' City starter, NO Quarterback was outperforming Palmer. The only thing that slowed his rapid ascent to the land of the NFL elite? A torn ACL, suffered in the Wildcard playoff game against the Steelers.
While a torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament is no small affair, it's also not the career-ender it once was. Indeed, Sports Medicine has advanced to the point where Palmer is expected back before the pre-season concludes! Cincy's favorite Football son still needs to be able to place trust in his surgically reconstructed weight bearing joint, but assuming he's even 75% of what he was prior to injury his star will continue to rise... and so will the Bengals!
Palmer and WR Chad Johnson have forged a dynamic chemistry, and an elite receiver is a Quarterback's best friend. The pass and catch combo rank amongst the very best in the league, and #2 receiver T.J Houshman-hate-to-spell-his-name (alright, Houshmanzadeh) and RB Chris Perry afford Palmer with 3 slick targets. Although the loss of Chris Henry (to any number of infractions, pick yer' favorite!) will sting, Kelley Washington or former Packer Antonio Chatman should be quite serviceable in such a role.
It wouldn't be at all shocking if Carson Palmer propels himself to a #2 fantasy ranking by this time next season.

3 STAR QUARTERBACKS: Obviously not as reliable as a 4 Star QB... but not necessarily due to a lack of talent. A Quarterback is only as good as the pass catchers on the other end of his passes, and he may not even be that good if he has 3 nanoseconds in which to survey the field due to shoddy protection. Unless the Texans can field a credible Left Tackle, for instance, we may never know how good human pinata David Carr could have been for he'll either be crippled... or his development will be permanently retarded.

Giants, Eli Manning: The young Mann' (3,762/25/17) has given Big Blue fans much to be excited about. He is still developing, however, and growing pains abound.
During the 1st half of the '05 campaign Peyton's little was lights-out, cobbling a pair of 100+ Passer Rating games together (against San Diego and St. Louis). But the 2nd half of the season was anything but a cake-walk, and Eli's INTs outnumbered his TDs by a 12 to 10 margin. Alright... so I lied about the statistics thing.
Yes, the G-Mann' struggled against the league's better defenses... but what more would you expect from a 2nd year pro?
I DO think he'll show demonstrable improvement this season, though, and pass catchers such as Plaxico Burress, Jeremy Shockey, aging but under-rated Amani Toomer and rookie Sinorice Moss form the backbone of a dynamic pass catching contingent. Helping to alleviate the substantial pressure placed upon Eli is Running Back Tiki Barber, who apparently discovered the fountain of youth.

Seahawks, Matt Hasselbeck: A steady-Eddie Quarterback is a fantasy godsend, and Hasselbeck (3,455/25/9) is the very definition of such. While 'Beck won't wow you and pop-off a 350/5 game (316 passing yards was last season's high), there were but 2 games wherein the Seahawk Signal Caller did not find the 'Zone. That, my fantasy friends, is consistency, and if there's anything owners value... it's consistency!
Naturally, record-setting runner Shaun Alexander makes Hasselbeck's job considerably easier, as do veteran receivers Darrell Jackson, Bobby Engram, giant TE Jerramy Stevens, and adding a new wrinkle this season? Newcomer Nate Burleson, late of the Vikings. A great deal of responsibility was laid upon Nate's shoulders last season as he was expected to succeed Randy Moss as Minny's #1. Burleson bowed under the considerable strain but now that less is expected of him... look for the "Nate the Great" of '04, the pass catcher that broke 1,000 yards receiving and scored 9 times.
As good as last season was for 'Beck and the boys, this upcoming campaign could be even better. The sole concern? The loss of world class OG, Steve Hutchinson (coincidentally, to the Vikings). Floyd "Porkchop" Womack will take over at Left Guard.

Eagles, Donovan McNabb: Here's a Quarterback who illustrates one of the previously mentioned points perfectly. With malcontent (and really, this is a disservice to malcontents everywhere) receiver Terrell Owens now playing for Dallas, who, exactly, is going to fill McNabb's (2,507/17/9) #1 receiver void? Todd Pinkson has the height at 6'3, but he's slight of build (180) and is coming off a torn achilles. Perhaps 2nd year receiver Reggie Brown, though he hasn't done a whole lot to distinguish himself this off-season.
McNabb may not be the running threat he was when we ushered in the 2nd millenium, but D-Nabb's arm strength and demonstrably improved accuracy offset any loss of mobility. The fact of the matter is, McNabb is a bit of a conundrum. Subject to a number of debilitating injuries, Nabb's played just 2 full seasons of his 7 as a pro.
Is a 30 year-old Donovan already on the downside? I don't think so. I do, however, think that the Eags' are going to give multi-talented RB Brian Westbrook every opportunity (and that means 22-25 touches) to get his playmaking mitts on the ball, even if that means lining him up as a Wide Receiver, and "Westbrook clone" Ryan Moats will undoubtedly see action as well. I would think that Philly will be more run oriented this season due to questions at the pass catching position and in an effort to help keep McNabb upright and grass-stain free.
Although I could be wrong, I'd be inclined to take a pass and let another owner worry about McNabb's health and suspect supporting cast.

Rams, Mark Bulger: If Bulger (2,297/14/9) didn't struggle to stay off the Training Table he'd be ranked higher. The sad fantasy fact is, the Ram Field General... who is not without considerable talent, played in just 8 regular season games last season and has yet to play a full 16 game complement.
Bulger has suffered a number of shoulder injuries and enters this season with a question mark hanging over his head. If he cannot stay healthy or his arm strength is impacted, the Rams may well look for a more durable QB.
A very accurate gunslinger, Bulger benefits from one of the finest receiving stables in Football; Torry Holt, greybeard Isaac Bruce, emerging Kevin Curtis, and who dat' talent Shaun McDonald.
Do not be surprised if new head coach Scott Linehan makes better use of RB Steven Jackson in an effort to keep Bulger healthy. Jackson is a dynamic talent and the general consensus is, former coach/egomaniac/nut-job Mike Martz misused the versatile 'back.
I would not be disinclined to take a gamble on Bulger given his strong arm, accuracy, and wealth of pass catching targets. I would, however, have a rock-solid back-up plan in place should Bulger fall to injury yet again.

Panthers, Jake Delhomme: Another QB with a gunslinger mentality who could easily be slotted higher, Jake (3,421/25/16) and his Del-Homeys whupped Eli and the G-Men in the Wildcard game, slipped by the Bears in the Divisional round, but were ultimately tripped up by "Beck and the 'Hawks in the Conference Championship.
What does all this say? Well, I gather that Jake and the Panthers, accustomed to being under-dogs, have a rather hefty chip on their collective shoulders. And, speaking of chips, WR Steve Smith may be no larger than a chocolate chip... but man, that dude can catch and make things happen afterwards! Newcomer Keyshawn Johnson brags loads of experience and should assume a leadership role. He is, however, just a "possession guy."
Bottom line? If jitterbug RB DeShaun Foster can simply stay healthy, and that'd be no mean feat, then the pressure on Delhomme will be considerably diminished. Ironically, though, rook' runner DeAngelo Williams may make the bigest impact upon the O.
Over the course of the past 2 seasons Delhomme has raised his stock. Another 3,500+/25+ season will see him be considered "thisclose" to elite.

NEXT UP? 2ND-TIER FANTASY QUARTERBACKS!

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