32 Questions: San Diego Chargers
Thirty-two teams, 32 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each NFL team. Be sure to check out all 32 questions.
You'll find few who'll argue the Chargers don't have just about the most dominant offense around. Its 492 points was 65 better than the second-best teams (the Colts and Bears); its yards-per-game average was fourth in the NFL; and its time of possession average was top-5. As the team's signal-caller, Philip Rivers was a respectable eighth in fantasy points among quarterbacks, having passed for 3,388 yards (ninth in the NFL), 22 touchdowns (eighth) and assembling a 92.0 rating (eighth). Rivers is a no-doubter No. 1 quarterback in all fantasy leagues. But is he "elite"?
I'm going to say no. It's not Rivers' fault; he's the most handsome beagle at a tortoiseshell cat convention. The best fantasy quarterbacks are those at the fulcrum of high-octane passing offenses, and as long as some guy named LaDainian Tomlinson is around to hog all the fun, Rivers' fiddle always will be second. Don't get me wrong: Rivers takes full advantage of what a LaDainian-based offense gives him. He only attempted 17 total passes inside the opponents' 10-yard-line in '06, and still converted nine of those for scores. (By comparison, Marc Bulger had 18 touchdown completions from inside the 10.) You hardly can blame the Chargers for using Tomlinson so much in the red zone, but it definitely puts a damper on Rivers. New head coach Norv Turner likes the run; in fact, he was the offensive coordinator who installed this Chargers' offense a few years back, and he's also the man who made Frank Gore a star in 2006. There's very little reason to believe he'll veer away from Tomlinson now.
None of which is meant to disrespect Rivers or his talent. He's really very good. Until a late-season foot sprain limited his mobility and messed with his mechanics, Rivers was supremely steady, and for the season, he passed for more touchdowns than interceptions in 11 of his 16 starts. But he passed for three scores only once in 2006, so his upside was more limited than the men who typically rate above him in fantasy football leagues. As the NFL grows ever more offense-oriented, we fantasy players lust for upside; after all, if you weren't lucky enough to draft LDT in last season, you needed all the explosive contributions you could get to beat your leaguemate who was. Rivers' steadiness is excellent and admirable, but his ceiling is solid.
All that said, the same isn't necessarily true of Vincent Jackson, Rivers' top receiver this year and one of the sexiest sleepers around this August. Jackson is 6-foot-4 and 241 pounds, but has very good downfield speed, making him a really difficult target to cover one-on-one, which is mostly what opponents resort to while accounting for Tomlinson and Antonio Gates. Jackson doesn't run routes like Terrell Owens just yet, but everything else about his on-field game is T.O.-like (I'll assume he doesn't share much in common with Owens off the field), and once he ascended to the starting lineup in Week 13 last year, he logged three scores and 286 yards receiving. Jackson has Rivers' problem, too: He's not a primary weapon in this offense. But Jackson benefits from the scoring systems in most fantasy leagues; a couple big plays from a quarterback don't send his point totals skyrocketing, but one big score from a receiver makes his week. Now, Jackson's not going to score a long one every game. Like most young receivers (he's 24), he'll be up and down. But in the weeks he's up, you'll be very glad to own him.
Would I say Jackson's an "elite" fantasy option this year? No. To me, elite means someone toward whom the offense will definitely flow every week, and Jackson doesn't fill that bill yet. But if you can get him as your third fantasy wideout, it'll be a steal, because it's possible he's starting for you by midseason. (With Eric Parker out because of toe surgery, first-round selection Craig Davis likely will start opposite Jackson, and while he's a name to know in dynasty leagues, he's unlikely to make a big fantasy impact in 2007.) As for Rivers, just because he's not "elite" doesn't mean you shouldn't own him. In fact, because I tend to take quarterbacks later in drafts than my leaguemates, I'll probably own Rivers in quite a few leagues. He's rock-steady, and because I can get him later than the truly elite signal-callers, I can spend earlier picks on high-upside guys at other, more valuable positions.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com.
You can e-mail him here.
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