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Harris: Ten things I've changed my mind about

8/28/2008

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of something something something.

Hobgoblin. That's a fun word.

And, but, so anyway, not to go all "meta" on you, but I'm about to give you a list that's not really a list, and I'll comment on a series of previous lists that weren't really lists, either. Which is to say: I've updated my fantasy football cheat sheet, and I thought you'd like to know about it.

A cheat sheet, as we all know, is about as exact a science as phrenology (in which the "scientist" is able to tell something about his/her subject by reading the bumps on his/her skull). Fantasy football is equal parts smart rankings, injury luck and depth-chart fortune, and frankly I'd almost rather have either of the second two items than the first. Often as not, there's precious little difference between players beside one another on a cheat sheet, and my advice is to use such a sheet as a tour guide rather than a drill sergeant. In other words, if the difference between two players is minimal, pick the guy you'd rather root for.

That said, a heck of a lot has happened in August, and I've adjusted my personal cheat sheet accordingly. What follows are the 10 biggest things I've changed my mind about for the upcoming football season, which are reflected in my own rankings.

1. I "heart" Megatron. I've moved Calvin Johnson all the way to No. 9 on my wide receivers list, ahead of guys like T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Santonio Holmes, the Suspension Twins (Steve Smith and Brandon Marshall) and, yes, his teammate Roy Williams. I've fallen for Megatron hard. Williams is obviously still the more-accomplished player in the Lions' receiving corps and, as such, will be the guy who sees safeties roll his way. Johnson is huge and may be about the fastest player in the NFL, and if his back stays healthy, he'll have a monstrous year. I'm part of a groundswell here, so I'm not exactly blazing a new trail, but watching Johnson toast the Browns and Giants this preseason has made me feel that he could be well-nigh-unstoppable on an offense that will still throw an awful lot.

2. Not so fast, Daily Show. Jonathan Stewart (aka The Daily Show -- am I the first person to come up with that?) was just about my favorite rookie coming out of the draft. In fact, I did several radio gigs that April weekend and raved about Stewart; when ESPN The Magazine ran my rookie article as its cover story for its fantasy preview issue, it was because I gave Stewart a (slim) chance to have Adrian Peterson-like impact. Yet although Stewart looked tremendous in his first preseason action against the Redskins last weekend, DeAngelo Williams was just as explosive, and each guy took one to the house. That anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better moment pretty much solidified a timeshare in Carolina. I'd still rather have Stewart, but now I have him rated 27th among running backs and Williams 30th.

3. WKRAP in Cincinnati. Rudi Johnson has exactly one preseason game, Thursday night in Indianapolis, to show he belongs on the Bengals' roster. Chris Perry has the inside track on the starting gig in the Cincy backfield, with last year's unexpected fantasy hero Kenny Watson in the mix. ESPN has reported that the Bengals have shopped Johnson, which often is a precursor to a player's release, and he has been muffled by a bad hammy this camp. Perry, on the other hand, has been his typical steady, powerful self: unexplosive, but very solid. If Johnson is cut or is a bench player, I'd expect the job to be split between Perry and Watson. For the moment, I have Perry at No. 41, Johnson at No. 42 and Watson at No. 54 among running backs, but I'm ready and willing to bump Perry into the 30s and Watson into the 40s if and when Johnson goes.

4. Mammal muddle. Earlier this month, I wrote that Ronnie Brown was going too high in drafts, but it turns out even I was understating the case. Now the Miami media seem to agree that the Dolphins will rely heavily on Ricky Williams in the season's first couple of weeks while Brown regains his footing after recovering from his torn ACL and his sprained thumb. I still believe Brown will be the more valuable fantasy commodity through all of 2008, but he's looking less and less like a viable No. 2 fantasy back. I've bumped him down to No. 26 among rushers and put Williams all the way up to No. 32. It would be silly to sit here and predict that Williams will be a fantasy star; he's as bad a bet as ever to take a full season's pounding without getting hurt. Still, this is much more of a jumble than Brown's owners ever envisioned.

5. Apply directly to the forehead! Apply directly to the forehead! Injuries to Bobby Engram (cracked shoulder) and Kevin Curtis (sports hernia) have knocked those players for a loop and opened valuable targets in aerial-intensive offenses. Engram could return as soon as Week 5, but he's 35 and a Graves' Disease sufferer, so you never know. And although the Eagles say Curtis could be back as soon as Week 8, they should ask Donovan McNabb how easy it is to come back from surgery. In Seattle, where Deion Branch is also out, Courtney Taylor appears to be the best bet to run alongside starter Nate Burleson, with Ben Obomanu playing in the slot. Taylor makes an intriguing fantasy sleeper right away. And in Philly, standout rookie DeSean Jackson probably won't start on the outside but instead will be the slot guy, while Hank Baskett will start with Reggie Brown (assuming Brown's hammy doesn't act up). Baskett is more of a known quantity, which isn't necessarily a good thing. I'd still rather own Jackson.

6. Tie me up, tie me down. As August began, you might've suspected that Edgerrin James was one of those guys headed for a big-time fantasy fall; after all, he turned 30 on the first of the month, and his longest run last year was 27 yards. But you'd probably have assumed Marcel Shipp would be a likely inheritor of James' role, right? Me, too. We were both wrong. Rookie Tim Hightower out of Richmond, a guy who ran for 1,900 yards his senior season, has impressed the Cardinals and the pundits alike, and he appears to be at least in line for goal-line touches in the desert. He also could start if James gets hurt. Along with Ray Rice of Baltimore, Hightower is perhaps the premier emerging handcuff this month. All Rice has done is run great, catch everything thrown his way, block like a veteran and make Ravens beat reporters imagine what life without Willis McGahee would be like. Rice could play Week 1 if McGahee isn't back from his knee surgery and certainly would win the gig outright if the mercurial Willis were to go down. Both backups now rank in my top 44 among runners, and are must-handcuffs.

7. Who are you and what have you done with my groceries? More than a decade ago, Kurt Warner was a part-time supermarket bagger and Arena League star who jumped onto the fantasy scene with both cleats and didn't let up for several years. Now he's merely trouncing Matt Leinart's career. ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported earlier this week that the Cardinals have decided to go with Warner instead of Leinart as the starter this year, and Ken Whisenhunt's nondenial denial did little to halt speculation. Leinart actually looked pretty good in Arizona's preseason opener against the Saints but undid that goodwill (and then some) by going 4-for-12 for 24 yards, no scores and three picks against the Raiders this past weekend. This situation is still fluid, and likely will be until Leinart tries to redeem himself Friday against the Broncos. For now, though, I've flip-flopped Warner to 21st in my rankings, with Leinart 27th. If and when Warner gets the full-time gig, expect him to jump up well into the teens.

8. The San Francisco treat? When Mike Martz came to the Bay, legendary were the stories of his powers. The NFL's worst offense would turn around like that (imagine me snapping my fingers), and fantasy glory would be found by all, not least Alex Smith. Unfortunately for the former No. 1 overall pick, Martz's offense isn't easy to learn, and some journeyman named J.T. O'Sullivan, who'd been with Martz as a third-stringer for a couple of years in Detroit, had a head start. O'Sullivan has pretty much locked down the No. 1 quarterback job for the Niners, leaving Smith a very, very sound sleeper. I don't at all expect O'Sullivan to keep this job all year, and with the way Martz gets his signal-callers hit, I wouldn't be surprised to see three different guys start under center in San Francisco before the year ends. I have all three guys (including Shaun Hill) ranked between 32 and 39 among quarterbacks. Forget 'em.

9. Since when did Virginia Tech gave good receivers? Last year's starting pair of Hokies wideouts, Eddie Royal and Josh Morgan, have been the talk of their camps with the Broncos and Niners, respectively. It's never a good idea to go hog wild on a rookie receiver because, Marques Colston aside, they rarely produce consistent fantasy seasons. But Royal is pegged to be a starter in Denver even after Brandon Marshall returns from his suspension, though if Darrell Jackson has a couple of big games in the first couple of weeks, that's subject to change. And although guys like Bryant Johnson, Ashley Lelie and Arnaz Battle have been unable to stay healthy this summer, Morgan has emerged as a potential Martz-related star. Until Johnson tested his bad hammy in practice a couple of days ago, it looked like Morgan was a shoo-in to start opposite Isaac Bruce; now that's less-definite, but Morgan still could be worth the late-round flier I originally assigned to Jason Hill.

10. Devin Hester. Listen, I'm as suspicious about Hester as the next guy. He has a grand total of 20 receptions in his NFL career and still isn't a definite starter on his own team. Rashied Davis, Brandon Lloyd and Marty Booker all figure to be in the mix in Chicago's ultralimited aerial game, helmed by the noodle-armed Neck Beard himself, Kyle Orton. But at this point, Bears management is committed to making a star out of Hester, and after his return histrionics the past couple of seasons, the only thing he can do for an encore is catch some bombs in the passing game. I'm not going so far as to say Hester is anything close to starter-worthy in any fantasy league on Earth. But I've bumped him up to 40th among my wide receivers just because I have a feeling that Lovie Smith and Ron Turner want to see Hester succeed, which tends to be half the battle.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports.

You can e-mail him here.