- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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Editor's note: Christopher Harris is locked away in seclusion, relentlessly tapping his keyboard to create fantasy football player profiles for our 2011 NFL Draft Kit. To whet your appetite for the kit and the forthcoming NFL draft, here's a sneak preview of 10 players who figure to be controversial leading up to your fantasy draft in '11.
Josh Freeman, QB, Buccaneers: Freeman's breakout '10 season could've been even better. After all, he finished second among all quarterbacks in rush yards (8 more than Aaron Rodgers) but didn't run into the end zone once. That smells like bad luck, and there's no reason he can't start posting a Rodgers-esque four or five rushing scores per season. Add that to a 61.4 percent completion rate and a veteran-esque 25-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and you're looking at a potential star, one whose second-half improvement was palpable. This is a big man who can move and whose accuracy has made a huge jump, plus suddenly the Buccaneers have a nice stable of young skill-position weapons. We have questions about Tampa's offensive line, where a couple of young starters may not return and depth is a question. Nevertheless, Freeman is a major breakout candidate in '11.
Jay Cutler, QB, Bears: Let's dispense with the "toughness" argument. Cutler's plenty tough: He's been sacked an impossible 87 times in his two seasons with the Bears and has missed one game. He's got a subpar offensive line and no true No. 1 receiver yet still produced a top-20 fantasy QB season last year. By the same token, we were never on board with those who said Cutler plus Mike Martz would automatically equal 4,000 passing yards. Chicago's offense really started to hum only when Martz started using shorter passes and lots of runs. In fact, the Bears were a top-10 team in the run-heaviness of their play calling. Cutler will make big throws and have big days. But he also has 11 multiple-interception games the past two years. He's a mixed bag.
Arian Foster, RB, Texans: Whoa. When Ben Tate fractured his fibula and tore ankle ligaments in the Texans' preseason opener last year, it seemed logical that Foster would become the starter and be worth considering in the first few rounds of fantasy drafts. But few could've foreseen he'd become 2010's fantasy MVP, submitting a season just as dominant as Chris Johnson's '09. Behind one of the NFL's best young O-lines, Foster won the rushing and TD titles, and he finished tops in receiving yards by a running back and second in receptions. There's risk in making him a top-five selection this year: He's done it only once, and Tate could get healthy enough to start siphoning off backfield looks. But heck, there's risk getting up in the morning, right? Foster probably will regress some, but he's a 25-year-old, Adrian-Peterson-sized workhorse. He still easily should push 300-plus touches, and make magic with many of them.
Darren McFadden, RB, Raiders: There he is. McFadden battled turf toe in his rookie season and a knee problem in his sophomore campaign, but in '10 he finally showed what he could do in the NFL when healthy. He led the league with 14 carries of 20 yards or more, finished top-10 among running backs in receptions and receiving yards, and scored 10 touchdowns. Unfortunately, he also missed two early-season games because of a hamstring problem and suffered a recurrence of his toe issues by season's end, doing nothing to relieve worries that he's a game-time decision waiting to happen. Michael Bush is a free agent and could head elsewhere, which would both reaffirm Run-DMC's week-to-week touches and expose him to that many more hits. Even if Bush returns to the East Bay, though, McFadden is the playmaker the Raiders will most frequently ride.
Ryan Grant, RB, Packers: Grant's Week 1 torn ankle ligaments and knee fracture made for unwanted backfield drama on the eventual Super Bowl champs and hobbled many fantasy teams to boot. The good news is Grant's surgery was in September, so he's been healed for a while. The bad news is James Starks leapt off the practice squad to provide Green Bay a playoff spark, and he'll be in the mix for touches in '11. Grant is likely at the head of a platoon situation, and although he's not a breakaway runner by NFL standards, he probably has the quickness edge on Starks. However, Starks is a load and has a chance to be the Pack's choice in at least goal-line situations.
Ryan Mathews, RB, Chargers: Mathews was incredibly disappointing to fantasy owners who bought the rookie hype. He injured an ankle early in '10 and aggravated it in November, missing four games. In his absence and gimpiness, Mike Tolbert shined, scoring 11 touchdowns. The good news for Mathews is that once he got healthy and Tolbert got hurt, the Chargers saw a glimpse of the first-rounder they thought they were getting: In San Diego's final two games, Mathews had 44 touches for 222 yards and four touchdowns and looked like a new man. Listen, the kid has size and talent. He just wasn't ready to be a fantasy first-rounder yet, and the injury didn't help. In '11, expect more of the Mathews-Tolbert combo, with Tolbert probably vulturing quite a few scores. But Mathews is the more gifted player and should assert himself as the more valuable fantasy commodity.
Brandon Lloyd, WR, Broncos: Sometimes ranking players is a battle between your heart and your head. Our heart wants to believe in Lloyd. He was amazing in '10, leading the NFL in fantasy points among receivers, plus nearly doubling his career high for touchdowns in a season. But at some point, our head intervenes and says: Maybe space aliens momentarily inhabited his body. All Lloyd had ever done before last season was disappoint, yet there he was, running deep patterns and winning jump ball after jump ball, catching long passes from Kyle Orton, of all people. No wideout with more than 40 grabs last year approached Lloyd's 15.9 yards-at-the-catch average. But what do you do with him for '11? With Josh McDaniels gone and John Fox coaching the Broncos? With Tim Tebow's scattershot arm potentially in charge? With reality knocking on the door? Like Fox Mulder, we want to believe. But it's tough.
Vincent Jackson, WR, Chargers: What a disaster '10 was for V-Jax owners. Suspended for an offseason DUI, Jackson was also unhappy with his contract and held out for the maximum allowable time while still accruing a year toward free agency. As a result, he missed the season's first 10 games, then pulled a calf muscle his first game back and missed two more. A ludicrous three-TD game one Thursday night in December was essentially wasted, as nobody in his right mind could trust Jackson enough to start him at that point, but at least it reminded us what this guy is all about. He's a spectacular downfield receiver -- with a tremendous size-speed combination -- and Philip Rivers loves to throw deep. With our lofty ranking, we're assuming V-Jax sticks around San Diego, most likely via the franchise tag. Should he land elsewhere, it likely would mean at least a small downgrade.
Steve Johnson, WR, Bills: Hand it to Johnson: He's got diva potential. From a hand-scrawled T-shirt under his uniform ("Why So Serious?") to a crushing drop at the end of a Week 12 game against the Steelers after which he blamed God via Twitter ("I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!"), he's got the head-clutching behavior down. But is he the fantasy stud his 10 unexpected touchdowns last season say he is? Well, we have no qualms ranking him above disappointing wideout Lee Evans, who these days mostly sprints straight downfield looking unsuccessfully for bombs. Johnson is a physical player who runs nice routes and is quick out of his breaks. But he's not a burner, and he's not an after-the-catch wrecking ball, and right now he still has Ryan Fitzpatrick as his quarterback. Plus, defenses won't be surprised by him this season. He should be good, but don't overpay.
Tim Tebow, QB, Broncos: We admit that Tebow is winning us over. His leadership and intangibles really are excellent. And although his throwing was seriously raw in his three-start audition at the end of '10, he did post a 300-yard passing game, one more than we believed he'd have for his entire career. What most intrigues fantasy owners, however, is Tebow's running: He had six rushing scores in limited action. Will new Broncos coach John Fox allow Tebow to play right away, especially if the team hasn't traded Kyle Orton? As long as the two passers stay on the same roster, we tentatively expect Orton to be the starter, but it seems likely that Tebow gets a crack at some point in '11. He'll be worth stashing in standard leagues.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy, and follow him on Twitter at @writerboyESPN.
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