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Friday, August 26, 2005
Updated: August 29, 11:49 AM ET
Counting down the fantasy 40

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

We're going with a one-question mailbag this week. Here's the question:

Q: Can't you do a 4,000 word article on how to draft in fantasy football? I have the ninth pick in a 12 team league and I have no clue who to pick.
-- James, Austin, Texas

SG: All right, as long as you're cool with me preparing my list for a 10-man league instead of a 12-man league. Why would anyone be in a 12-man league? Just kick out the two biggest losers and go with 10 teams like everyone else.

Anyway, here's one man's top 40 ...

1. LaDainian Tomlinson
Not only does everyone agree that he's the No. 1 guy, but he shattered LeBron's record for "Most appearances on the cover of crappy fantasy magazines" this summer. In the sports section of the giant newsstand near my house, L-Train was headlining more magazines than Brad and Angelina. And honestly? That worries me a little. In my West Coast draft, my partner T-man and I have the first pick. Is Tomlinson really that much of a sure thing? Or am I overthinking this?

(That reminds me: We need to come up with a better word for fantasy partner than "partner," if only because the previous paragraph made it sound like the T-Man and I live in West Hollywood, own two cats and have matching beards. Here's where we really feel the aftereffects of the premature demise of Rich Hall's career, because he definitely could have come up with a Sniglet for this. Anyway, I vote for "fantasy cohort." Much better than "fantasy partner." Um, not that there's anything wrong with that.)

2. Shaun Alexander
He's like the Tommy Lee Jones of running backs -- you never think of him as an elite guy, then you look at his IMDB.com page and it's like, "Wow, I had no idea!" Pretty much a guaranteed 14 to 16 TDs and 1,500 to 1,700 rushing yards at this point; he's in a contract year; and unlike in real life, the fact that he disappears in big games doesn't matter in a fantasy league. Solid No. 2 choice.

3. Priest Holmes
The consensus third guy, but do you really want your No. 3 pick to set off the first round of "Hey, the first guy with a limp has been taken!" jokes at the draft table? Plus, you have to waste a fifth- or sixth-round pick on Larry Johnson for insurance, so it's almost like you're trading Willis McGahee and your sixth-round pick for Priest Holmes and a ninth-round pick. Is Holmes really going to be that big of a difference?

In fact ...

3. Peyton Manning
I think Manning should go third. He's practically a guaranteed 25-30 points a week and fresh off a Pro Bowl MVP and an ESPY for Record-Breaking Performance. Plus, you don't have to worry about rolling the dice with the Jake Plummers and Kurt Warners in the sixth round. Really, what's the difference between McGahee, Portis, James, Dillon and everyone else? All of them could finish with 1,600 yards and 12-15 TDs, all could finish with 1,200 yards and 8-9 TDs, and there's just no way to know. So why not take a sure thing and start him every week (except for Week 9 against the Pats)?

FIRST DROP-OFF

Note: Fantasy drafts always seem to drop off at certain points -- you go from "Mortal locks" to "sure things" to "99 percent sure things" and on down the line. I think there are three Mortal Locks in this draft. Now we're into the Sure Thing section.

4. Priest Holmes
Much better.

5. Willis McGahee
Everyone keeps asking, "What happens when teams stack the line against him?" Well, didn't that happen last year? Was Bledsoe really keeping anyone honest? If anything, J.P. Losman, Kelly Holcombe or any of the other QB-candidates-in-Buffalo-who-also-have-good-porn-names should open up some opportunities for McGahee, simply because they won't be calcifying in the backfield the way Bledsoe did. Also, it takes two years to come back from an ACL injury and more than two years to come back from an injury in which your knee basically looked like it went through a pasta shredder. And you can't beat his name. Instantly makes your team look better on paper.

6. Deuce McAllister
I like guys one year after a non-threatening/debilitating injury that crippled fantasy stats but didn't do any long-term damage (like the Deuce with his high ankle sprain last season). It's like betting on a Jim Carrey comedy after he strays from his wheelhouse and makes those weird artsy-fartsy projects. Plus, it's always fun to announce his name by saying, "I'm gonna drop the Deuce right here" to a room of horrified guys.

7. Edgerrin James
When you're the running back on a team that throws for 45-50 TDs, what's the motivation after a while? You do the dirty work; everyone else gets the glory. (Remember how the running back in "Varsity Blues" reacted when the coach kept calling Lance Harbor's number around the goal line? Exactly.) If Manning were smart, he would get James as many rushing TDs as possible this season -- if only because James seems to get hungrier when he's getting his numbers. In fact, if Tom Brady played with James, this is exactly what would happen. But since Manning has a decent chance to throw for 100 touchdowns in two years, I'm sure that's more appealing than a few extra wins -- much like how he signed for the fattest contract possible so the team wouldn't have any cap room to improve its defense two years ago. And yes, I'm openly trying to bait Colts fans right now.

Anyway, I know James is a top-seven guy, but I'd rather have ...

8. Corey Dillon
Excuse me ... Clock Killin' Corey Dillon.

9. Jamal Lewis
Did you know Lewis is only 25? Who's going to be more possessed than him this season? It's distracting to have a trial hanging over your head for four years after you allegedly used a cell phone to negotiate a cocaine deal for one of your homeys. Believe me, I know.

(One thing worries me about taking him this high -- Kyle Boller could single-handedly kill his season, much like the Led Zeppelin reunion single-handedly ruined Live Aid. What will stop teams from stacking the line with nine guys against the Ravens again this season? Anything?)

10. Daunte Culpepper
Everyone's worried about him without Randy Moss, but didn't Moss battle injuries for half the 2004 season without Culpepper's numbers suffering? Remember, Culpepper finished with more fantasy points than anyone last season (even Manning). Throw in some Ewing Theory potential and he's a nice choice here.

(By the way, do I need to join the "Fantasy Sports Writers Union" before I'm allowed to submit a column like this? I'm not going to have Eric Karabell and Brandon Funston picketing outside my house this weekend, am I? Is there a membership form I need to fill out? Do I have to pay dues? And should I start wearing glasses full-time?)

11. Ahman Green
More than 2,200 total yards and 20 TDs just two seasons ago. He also fits the Deuce McAllister Rule (sidetracked by dumb injuries last season, now he has something to prove). One thing worries me: Brett Favre suddenly looks like he's 43 years old. Have you seen him this summer? It's like when Ted Danson started filming "Becker" and everyone was like, "Whoa, what happened? Did I just wake up from a nine-year coma?"

SECOND DROP-OFF

Note: I'm excited about these guys, but there's a nagging issue with each of them.

Fantasy Bonus
A few sleepers and random guys I like...

• Jake Delhomme, Tom Brady and Steve McNair for middle-round quarterbacks. All of them have weapons, all have done it before.

• I like Travis Henry on the Titans -- just think he's better than Chris Brown, and they're going to score points. Also like J.J. Arrington on the Cards, as long as you're taking him after the 40th pick. And Kevan Barlow intrigues me for some reason -- seems like a bounce-back year for him with a new coach.

• Between the decrepit QB situation, the Ricky Williams soap opera and the fact that Miami looks like a 2-14 team, there's a 60 percent chance that Ronnie Brown could be a complete fantasy stiff this season. Then again, there's a 40 percent chance that Saban knows what he's doing and that this kid could end up being a workhorse for him. For some reason, I'm leaning toward the latter.

• Eight semi-sleeper receivers for the middle and late rounds: Laveranues Coles, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Corey Bradford, Kevin Curtis, Tyrone Calico, Rod Gardner, David Patten and Mike Williams. I have my reasons.

• If you're taking Kurt Warner, fine. I'm with you. Just make sure you draft a backup for him, and never forget how many fantasy teams he has murdered in the past four years.

• I like the Carolina, Baltimore and Buffalo defenses the most, with Kansas City's D as a sleeper because that's a possible 12-win team and they have Dante Hall, as well.

• Stay-aways: The passing games for Buffalo, San Fran, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Chicago, Miami and Cleveland ... any of the Denver backs ... Fred Taylor ... Cedric Benson ... any of the Pats receivers (because they're going to split stats with each other and the tight ends) ... Brian Griese ... Michael Vick ... DeShaun Foster/Stephen Davis (since they're splitting time) ... the Pats' defense (the linebackers worry me a little).

12. Randy Moss
New team, something to prove, only smokes pot "once in a blue moon" ... I like everything I'm hearing. Here's my big concern: We already know Moss is a loose cannon, takes plays off, complains on the sidelines, causes commotions and so on. If Terrell Owens is a malignant tumor, then Moss is a benign tumor, more of a distraction than a genuine danger. Normally with tumors (whether they're running backs or receivers), two people can keep them in check: The QB and the coach. In this case, Kerry Collins and Norv Turner are the QB and the coach. So if Moss isn't getting the ball enough, if the Raiders start blowing games, if Collins overthrows him a few times, there is about a 100 percent chance that Moss will handle it badly. And if that ends up happening, do you want him on your fantasy team? I say no.

13. Rudi Johnson
Honestly, if he didn't spell his name like Rudi from the "Cosby Show," or if his name were something like "Deuce Johnson" or "Rufus Johnson," he'd be a top-10 guy. No question. I'm telling you, that "i" on his first name kills him.

14. Julius Jones
Now that's a good name for a RB: Julius Jones. Just sounds like he should be good. I see him starting off hot, then falling off once Bledsoe combusts and teams start throwing those 7-1-3 formations at them. But he should be around 1,400-1,500 yards and 12-15 TDs before everything is said and done.

(One concern: Jones received the dreaded "top-five fantasy RB pick" vote of confidence from our buddy Peter King last week, the man who once touted Danny Wuerffel as a potential 4,000-yard QB and is slowing evolving into the fantasy version of the dreaded Madden Cover Curse. I actually write "P.K." on my draft sheet next to guys King likes, just so I know going in they could potentially blow out both ACLs or have a grandstand collapse on them.)

15. Marvin Harrison
Probably the right spot for him, but the question remains: Why spend a No. 15 pick on Harrison when you can get Nate Burleson, Joe Horn or Reggie Wayne at No. 24? What's a reasonable fluctuation between Harrison and those guys, maybe 100-150 yards and 2-3 TDs at the worst? I'd rather grab a back in this spot, although I'm not crazy about the next two guys.

16. Clinton Portis
Any doubt that Joe Gibbs downsized from the 98-mph heater to curveballs and changeups was erased when he tried to turn poor Portis -- a shifty runner with breakaway speed -- into one of those John Riggins/Stephen Davis workhorse types last season. What happened? Portis ended up with a whopping 343 carries last year and was getting tackled by 3-4 guys on most of them. Not good times. And maybe that could change this season, but he seems like one of those guys who mostly make you happy when somebody else takes them so you don't have to.

17. Ricky Williams
Just kidding. Wanted to make sure you were still paying attention.

17. Tiki Barber
I hate having guys after their career year (in this case, 2,100 total years and 15 TDs). On the flip side, I've never had Tiki on my team, but everyone who has him raves about the experience afterward. You know what he's like? Ever had lunch with someone who ordered a Reuben? You think to yourself, "Grilled rye bread, butter, mustard, swiss cheese, greasy corned beef -- that's terrible for me, I'm not getting that." And then you watch your buddy happily mauling the Reuben and you want to jam a fork in his eye and steal it from him. That's Tiki Barber. He's the Reuben of running backs (no offense to Reuben Droughns).

18. Terrell Owens
Considering everyone else on the board, this seems like an acceptable risk -- either he's the No. 1 guy in Philly, or he's the No. 1 guy somewhere else (if the Eagles trade him). Worst-case scenario: Philly keeps him, suspends him 2-3 times during the season and eventually pulls a Keyshawn on him, and then you're done. But would T.O. really sabotage his career like that? He's calculating, self-absorbed, greedy, disloyal ... but he's not stupid.

As for the "Avoid taking him because he's a duplicitous, conniving, mean-spirited, contract-welching franchise-killer and you don't want to root for him even for fantasy purposes" factor, we took Steve Smith over T.O. in our West Coast draft last year for that very reason ... Smith broke his leg in Week 1 ... and T.O. haunted us all season. So don't think that way. Until someone figures out a way for professional athletes to telepathically poison fantasy teams, he's a top-20 pick in every fantasy draft this year.

THIRD DROP-OFF

Reliable picks who will give you numbers but won't be carrying your team.

19. Chad Johnson
He's getting some top-15 buzz because everyone naturally assumes that Carson Palmer will be 20-25 percent better this season, which means that Johnson will have a better season. Just keep this in mind: We have a tendency to assume that quarterbacks will mature into fantasy threats after two or three seasons, when the reality is that just as many mature into stiffs and fantasy killers (Tim Couch, Cade McNown, Akili Smith, Ryan Leaf, Joey Harrington and so on). Buyers beware.

20. Javon Walker
Uh-oh ... anyone else feeling a run on receivers right now?

(Speaking of the Packers, during ESPN's Celebrity Fantasy Draft last night, Suzy Kolber took Brett Favre in the second round. If it weren't for Jonny Fairplay dropping an Upper Decker in the "Kill Reality" house three weeks ago, this would have been the unequivocal TV highlight of the summer. In fact, I'd tell you more, but I'm being electroshocked by my editors right now. Back to the column.)

21. Nate Burleson
Someone will take him about five or six picks too early; everyone will make fun of the pick; and yet he'll be leading the league in receiving heading into November and everyone will be saying, "How did Murph get Alexander, T.O. and Burleson with his top three picks?"

22. Big Game Torry Holt
Any people who can say definitively that they know they're getting the most fantasy points out of Johnson, Walker, Burleson, Holt and Joe Horn are lying.

23. Lamont Jordan
Here's the thing: Whenever he spelled Curtis Martin, he was good. I was always petrified of him during any Pats-Jets games. And maybe he won't rush for 27 TDs, but there are some similarities here to Priest Holmes moving from Baltimore to K.C. three years ago. And besides, can you put a price on having someone on your team named "Lamont"?

24. Kevin Jones
Love this guy.

25. Joe Horn
In that aforementioned Pats-Saints game, Brooks threw an interception that bounced off Horn's pads as he was diving, then bounced right to Rodney Harrison. So Harrison was running it back, dodging tacklers and moving down the field ... meanwhile, Horn jumped up, chased after him, finally caught him at the 10 yard line and stripped the football from behind (although the Pats recovered it). Keep in mind, this was Week 2 of the exhibition season. And I guess what I'm trying to say is this: Joe Horn is a pro. The guy delivers every year. Maybe he's not a sexy pick, but you know what you're getting.

(And yes, I just used the word "sexy" to make sure you were still reading.)

26. Reggie Wayne
The good thing about Wayne: if Harrison ever gets injured, suddenly you have the No. 1 WR on a team that scores 35 points a game. Always a fun wrinkle.

(By the way, is there a more successful random sports name than "Reggie?" You rarely see crummy Reggies -- it's always someone who's good. Reggie White. Reggie Jackson. Reggie Lewis. Reggie Wayne. Reggie Rucker. Reggie Sanders. Even Reggie Cleveland was good enough to launch the Reggie Cleveland All-Stars. I bet the name "Reggie" has a higher success-failure rate than any other relatively common athlete name.)

FOURTH DROP-OFF

We're firmly into the "He's all right, but I wouldn't bet my life on him not screwing me" portion of the draft.

27. Domanick Davis
I never understood the Davis thing -- just seems like he can be tackled. There's nothing special about him. Yet I've seen him as high as No. 11 on some boards. Ridiculous. He's like a more durable Kevin Faulk.

28. Curtis Martin
He has reached full-fledged Emmitt Smith Status, in which he drops six or seven picks too low every year because everyone's convinced he's about to lose a step, then goes and has another phenomenal season. He's like the Raffie Palmeiro of NFL running backs, minus the steroids, the Viagra and the lying. That said, I'm not going near him. You never like having those guys in their "Uh-oh, he's completely lost it" season (like Charlie Garner last year).

29. Andre Johnson
Why couldn't he match the stats of the Burleson-Horn-Wayne-Holt-Johnson-Walker group? He could, right?

30. Cadillac Williams
I like everything I've read, like his situation, love the nickname. We certainly needed a guy named after a car in the NFL, and that name works 10 times better than "Dodge Stratus Williams." But when a guy keeps getting banged up in college ... that scares me a little. Not a good omen.

31. Stephen Jackson
This pick comes with a complimentary Marshall Faulk voodoo doll.

32. Brian Westbrook
Here's when people start going, "Code red! Code red! The running backs are dwindling! I'm going to end up with Michael Bennett as my second back unless I address the situation immediately! Code red!"

33. Donovan McNabb
Only because somebody will be dumb enough to take him this high. I'm a traditionalist -- if I'm picking a QB in the first 3-4 rounds, I want him to have NFL-caliber receivers on his team. Call me crazy.

34. Michael Clayton
Put it this way: If we redid the draft in Week 10, I bet he would be taken about 12 picks higher.

35. Kerry Collins
The two scariest words in any 2005 draft. If you're saying them, you're terrified. If somebody else is saying them, you're terrified. No pick has a higher ceiling or a lower basement. You know what? I refuse to take him. I can't deal with another Kerry Collins experience. Too traumatic. Like buying a shaky stock that forces you to check the price 20 times a day to make sure nothing disastrous happened.

36. Trent Green
Let's say your draft unfolds exactly like the top 36 of this list and this is your pick: That means you're getting McGahee, Portis, Horn and Green as your top four. Pretty solid.

37. Larry Fitzgerald
We'll see how much the Epstein-Barr virus, the partial deafness and the missing ACL in his left knee affects him this year ... remains to be seen.

(I'm just kidding -- I love Larry Fitzgerald this season, I'm trying to throw everyone in my two fantasy leagues off his trail in case they're reading. Hopefully the parentheses will confuse them and they'll somehow miss this paragraph. By the way, isn't it much more fun to take an up-and-comer with UUUUPPPPPPPP-side like Fitzgerald over a steady producer like Joe Horn? Why is that? Is this what happens to GMs during the NBA draft? Like they say, "I know Danny Granger is going to be good, but screw it, I can't resist the hit-or-miss potential of Andrew Bynum!")

38. Steve Smith
Yet another Comeback Guy. Maybe my favorite of the bunch.

39. Tony Gonzalez
We've all had him at this point. It's like breaking out old porn you haven't seen in a while -- sure, the music's a little familiar, and so are the faces, but it's still porn.

40. Drew Bennett
I'm giving him the nod over Darrell Jackson, Roy Williams and Antonio Gates as the last pick in the top 40, and here's why: I firmly believe the Norm Chow Era is going to be practically life-altering from a fantasy standpoint. Just remember, one random offense takes it to another level every season -- in recent years, the 1999 Vikes, 1999 Rams, 2002 Chiefs and 2004 Colts come to mind -- and when it happens, you want as many of that team's offensive guys as possible.

Which reminds me of a classic quote: During the catastrophic 1977-78 Celtics season, one of the players (Curtis Rowe) dismissed another tough loss by joking, "There ain't no W's and L's on a paycheck." And the same can be said for fantasy football. The Titans won't win the Super Bowl or anything, but they're going to move the ball, and if you don't think they'll be involved in more than a few 41-38 type games, you're nuts.

(Note to James from Austin: You're going to have to settle for 3,400 words instead of 4,000. I did my best.)

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.