Fantasy Football: Hot trends
Jennifer Connelly is hot.
"Off The Grid" from the new Beastie Boys CD is hot. "Icky Thump" from the new White Stripes CD is hot. "Absurdistan" by Gary Shteyngart, while a year old, is still hot. Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen going ballistic in a new David Cronenberg mob movie ("Eastern Promises," out Sept. 14) is hot.
I'm not sure fantasy football can ever, truly be hot. It's maybe just a little too geeky.
Still, in our rarified, insular world in which we root for individual players more than teams, we plead with wide receivers to get tackled on the 1-yard line, and a fourth-quarter field goal in a 41-20 game can send us into paroxysms of glee, hot stories abound. For as much as we like to think we understand the NFL's landscape from season to season, things change, even if our perceptions don't. It's easy to fall into "OldThink," the received wisdom earned from previous seasons that can trap us into missing out on the latest trends.
Here, then, are the fantasy football stories of late June that may shake up your world come September.
Steven Jackson is rising
Entering the 2006 season, the top of your fantasy draft was a three-headed monster: Larry Johnson, Shaun Alexander and LaDainian Tomlinson. Much pixel dust was wasted on the dilemma of whom to select first (p.s.: the right answer was Tomlinson). A scant nine months later and Alexander has been left behind; an injury-filled season and a shake-up on the Seattle offensive line will do that to a fellow. The big three is now a big two, and there's really not much doubt that Tomlinson is your No. 1 guy. Except coming up on the outside, making a late charge is Steven Jackson? S-Jax managed 2,334 total yards from scrimmage last season, the fifth-best total in NFL history. He rushed for 13 scores and caught three more, and by the way, also caught an incredible 90 passes, compared to 19 his rookie year and 43 in '05. In the final third of '06, when offensive coordinator Greg Olson assumed play-calling duties, Jackson went crazy: 717 yards rushing, 324 yards receiving, 11 total touchdowns and 4.75 yards per carry in six games. Now, I'm not suggesting Jackson over Tomlinson. But I may be suggesting Jackson over LJ. Johnson set an NFL record with 416 carries last season, and there's no indication Herm Edwards is going to stop running him into the ground. The Chiefs' O-line took a big hit when Will Shields retired. And the quarterback situation in KC has the potential to get ugly, meaning defenses may focus even more on stopping the run. I haven't made up my mind yet, but it's possible that when draft time comes, I'll be advocating Jackson over Larry Johnson. That's hot.
Joseph Addai is all grown up
The Colts did a terrific job of keeping their rookie runner fresh in 2006, sometimes to the point of driving Indy fans crazy. Dominic Rhodes started every regular-season game, and led the team in carries six times last year, despite the fact that Addai's superiority as a runner was on display from Jump Street. All told, Rhodes stole 641 rushing yards that might've been Addai's (the kid managed 1,081 anyway) and racked up five touchdowns to Addai's eight. But Rhodes is in Oakland now, and Indianapolis hasn't really brought in anyone to follow through on Tony Dungy's promise to keep a "running-back rotation" in place in 2007. While Addai is still smallish (5'11", 214 lbs.), he proved he could take a beating pretty well last year, and you can scarcely imagine a better situation for a fantasy back. New England's stockpiling of receivers aside, the Colts still have the league's most explosive offense, they still play in a mediocre division, and defenses will always scheme to slow down the passing game first. Addai is going to take a great big step forward toward fantasy studliness in '07, making him worthy of a top-six selection in your draft. As a team, the Colts had 18 goal-line carries in '06, so Addai is all but guaranteed to get more than the five he had last season. OldThink has you worrying about Addai's size, and wondering whether he can handle the job mostly by himself. But wake up to a world where Joe Addai puts fantasy teams on his shoulders and wins them titles.
Reggie Wayne even more marvelous?
Sticking with the Colts, where huge fantasy numbers reside at every skill position, this may be the year we have to reconsider the order in which we value Indy's wide receivers. Reggie Wayne accepted more red-zone and goal-line targets than Marvin Harrison last season, outdid Harrison in yards per catch (15.2 to 14.4), was targeted just 11 fewer times than Harrison and registered just 56 fewer yards (1,310 to 1,366). Harrison will be 35 years old this season and Wayne is 28, and while Wayne probably still doesn't quite have the game-breaking speed Harrison does, his hands are just as good (Wayne had eight drops in '06 to Harrison's seven), and he's more elusive after the catch. At some point, when Peyton Manning is throwing to you, you're going to be extraordinarily valuable to your fantasy team, and choosing between these guys is splitting hairs: both of them belong in the top five of your wide receiver rankings. But for the first time ever, I'm finally giving in to temptation, and putting Wayne third, and Harrison fifth. How's that for a little crumbling OldThink?
Who's afraid of RBBCs?
Trying to divine who'll have more value in any of the various running back by committees around the NFL will turn your head into Matt Hasselbeck's pretty quick, but that hasn't stopped us from trying over the years. We primp, we preen, we consult Bonnie Bernstein (that almost rhymes), yet isn't it always the case that you wind up picking the wrong guy? You draft Julius Jones, and Marion Barber goes nutty. You finally put your faith in Fred Taylor, and some dude named Maurice dominates. In fact, the possibility that a back will find himself in a RBBC at all often influences preseason rankings to a huge degree. Just a whiff that, say, Ladell Betts is going to steal beaucoup carries from Clinton Portis, and we send both guys scuttling down our cheat sheets. That's OldThink, and it may have to change in '07. Instead of instantly rejecting (or bad-mouthing) a guy who finds himself in an RBBC, we should perform a bit more due diligence, because if the 2006 Saints showed us anything, it's that both guys in a committee can have value. The fact is: RBBCs come in different shapes and sizes. On teams like, say, Carolina, where the O-line was struggling and the offense sputtered, sure, the fact that DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams were sharing carries made them both well nigh unusable in fantasy leagues last year. But on well-balanced offenses with good quarterbacks who regularly put the fear of God in secondaries (hello, New Orleans!), we should be a lot less afraid to invest in either side of a committee, because all things being equal, either one of the committee members usually gets hurt, or there winds up being just enough fantasy goodness to go around. The Saints, Cowboys, Broncos and Jaguars may feature RBBCs this year, but I ain't afraid.
Will Randy Moss fool us again? There were exactly two situations in 2007 in which Randy Moss could've won back any of the fantasy football loyalty he's squandered over the past few years. Those two situations were: catching passes from Peyton Manning and catching passes from Tom Brady. Guess what? Moss is now routinely visiting top-20 lists for fantasy receivers. Should you believe? It's impossible to know right now, but I think we'll have an answer part-way through training camp. If Moss is running his yapper again, and failing to practice hard, and failing to run full-speed in preseason games, you'll know it's the same old Randy. If he's quiet, and if he catches balls in the first halves of exhibition games, we may be on to something. To be fair to Moss, last season in Oakland was a complete joke, with an offensive line that couldn't block your grandmother and quarterbacks less accurate than a fortune cookie. By the same token, Moss was supposed to be a force with Kerry Collins in '05, and we know how that worked out. Frankly, I'm not sure which way OldThink pushes us here. "He used to be a great player, and he's not that old. He can do it again!" Or: "He's been a total dog for three years, and there's no reason to think he'll change." I have to admit, I've got Moss in my top 20, too. But I'm holding my nose.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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