Engel Eye: Focus shifts to next season
In the final installment of the Engel Eye, I'll reflect back on some of the key performances of the final week of the regular season, while taking an overall look at some 2007 story lines. I'll also look ahead to the 2008 season when considering important players and trends.
The disappointing season ends: Shaun Alexander played only briefly in the Seahawks' season-ending loss to the Falcons. He scored on a 2-yard run on the opening drive, giving him four for the season. That is his lowest total since his rookie season of 2000, as is his total of 716 rushing yards. Alexander rushed for 31 yards on eight carries Sunday. His final average of 3.5 yards per carry also is the lowest of his career. Although he did show some flashes of his old self late in the season, Alexander never appeared comfortable behind an adequate but not outstanding offensive line in 2007. Unlike his best years with better blockers, Alexander could not wait for openings to develop. Alexander is not an attacking runner and will need to adjust his style if he is to rebound in 2008. He could end up sharing carries with Maurice Morris next season, and fantasy players should not draft Alexander as a starter in '08 drafts.
A fine finish: Like the Saints as a team, Marques Colston started slowly this season; he didn't have a 100-yard game and scored only two touchdowns in the first six games. He finally broke out with a three-touchdown performance in Week 8, and he followed that up with three 100-yard-plus outings. Colston closed the 2007 season with five touchdown receptions in his final four games, and he soared past the 90-yard receiving mark in seven of his past nine games. In the season finale, he caught eight passes for 94 yards and two scores despite missing much of the second half because of a wrist injury. Colston finished with 90 receptions and has opened his career with two 1,000-yard seasons. Early on, defenses gave Colston more respect after his outstanding rookie year, and he also suffered from a lack of quality complements. The Saints and Colston, however, adjusted and bounced back, and Colston will now be one of the top wide receivers selected in many 2008 fantasy drafts, possibly being picked just outside the top five at his position
What now? Jamal Lewis finished a surprisingly productive season on Sunday, rushing for 128 yards on 26 carries against the 49ers. He had three 100-yard outings in his final four games to finish the year with 1,304 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, his best season since his monumental 2003 campaign. Lewis was good proof that working in a contract season can highly motivate a player. He had signed a one-year deal with the Browns during the offseason. He showed that he is certainly not done yet and worked through a foot injury that caused him to a miss a game and carry only once in another. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer already has reported that Lewis' future with the Browns is uncertain. Wherever he ends up, though, Lewis will be out to prove himself again in 2008, and he will be 29 years old when next season starts, so he should have at least one more good year left in him. Depending on where he plays in '08, Lewis can at least be an outstanding No. 2 fantasy back next season. Remaining in Cleveland for another year behind a very good offensive line with comfortable surroundings will make him worthy of being a No. 1 guy in many leagues.
Help! There was a sect of fantasy players during the preseason who thought the addition of Calvin Johnson would make Jon Kitna a terrific starter in 2007, especially based on his somewhat impressive yardage totals of 2006. Kitna indeed looked as though he would fulfill those expectations early on, as he threw eight touchdown passes in his first four games. As the Lions collapsed in the second half of '07 and went from playoff contender to regular loser again, it was proved that it takes a lot more than a pretty cast of pass catchers to make a quarterback successful. From Week 5 on, Kitna threw only 10 touchdown passes the rest of the season, and he reached the 300-yard mark just twice during that span. Not only did Kitna suffer from bad pass blocking -- he was sacked an NFL-high 51 times -- he also didn't get consistent support from his running game and still made questionable decisions under pressure. He finished the season with 18 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions. As for his highly decorated receiving crew, Roy Williams was inconsistent and missed the past four games. Johnson played like a rookie, with only four touchdown receptions and one 100-yard game. Shaun McDonald turned out to be the team's best receiver but did not reach 1,000 yards. And Mike Furrey was often invisible. Kitna is simply an erratic, unreliable fantasy option, and the Lions need to make a lot of changes around him and his receivers before they can come close to reaching their potential as a group. Expectations for Kitna and his receivers should be naturally lowered in 2008.
Playoff bound: The Redskins have been inconsistent overall this season but finished strong, and will now head to Seattle in the first round of the playoffs. Running back Clinton Portis has been a centerpiece of Washington's success during an emotional season. In the all-important season finale, Portis rushed for 104 yards and two touchdowns. Portis finished the season strong, with two 100-yard-plus games and four touchdowns in his final three games, and he scored in four of his final five games. Portis was a key to many fantasy championship seasons in 2008, as he played well late and rushed for 1,262 yards and 11 touchdowns overall. Portis rebounded from a frustrating 2006 campaign and was very reliable all year long. I thought he was rather underrated among top fantasy runners this season, as you didn't hear his name mentioned often when the best running backs were discussed. That's because he was very solid and gave you a lot of comfort if he was in your lineup. Portis should be a fine No. 1 fantasy back again in 2008. He is 26 years old and is an outstanding keeper-league option.
Value dropping? Overall, when you look at the 1,341 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns from Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, he easily seems like a lock to go in the top four in fantasy drafts next season. A closer look at his late-season numbers, though, leads to reason for concern for those who will keep Peterson or draft him early next season. He rushed for only 63 yards in his final two games and 144 yards in his final four. The Vikings have a great offensive line, and Peterson has been able to tear through some stacked fronts at times this season. By the end of the season, though, it was clear Peterson cannot be consistently effective unless Minnesota improves its putrid passing game during the offseason. Tarvaris Jackson would be better served to work behind a veteran quarterback who mentors him while also keeping defenses honest. Minnesota does have a few promising young receivers but needs a solid veteran or two to help keep the chains moving more regularly. If the Vikings go for smart, experienced offensive players in the passing game during the offseason, there will be fewer worries about Peterson heading into next season.
Random reads: Laurence Maroney rushed for five touchdowns in his final three games. He became a more decisive, authoritative inside runner late in the season. Many fantasy owners will pass on him as a starter next season when they look at his overall numbers, but 2008 will be his true breakthrough year. Ted Ginn Jr. caught seven passes for 53 yards and a touchdown in the season finale and will become a more integral part of the Miami offense next season. He'll be a good value pick in the later rounds. Marshawn Lynch finished with 1,010 rushing yards and seven rushing scores in 12 games. He also caught 17 passes for 162 yards. He'll be even more productive and versatile next season, and should be drafted as a No. 1 fantasy running back. Reggie Williams caught only 38 passes in 2007, but 10 of his receptions produced touchdowns. Williams and David Garrard work very well together, and the overall reception and yardage numbers should improve for Williams next season. He finished 2007 with touchdown receptions in his last four games.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.