And . . . we’re back. Despite two canceled flights and some wicked turbulence I’ve returned from the Midwest alive and well. Caught a great Twins game last Thursday with Scott Baker actually pitching very well, Chad Gaudin pitching not so well and Joe Nathan finishing the game with authority, retiring the final three batters with 9 pitches. I also had a chance to get out to my favorite Disc Golf Course, the scenic Basset Creek. For the time being I’m holding off on posting my updated fantasy baseball rankings because, well, they’re a pain in the neck and they’re still not done. Instead I offer ETB’s initial ranking of the top wide receivers in fantasy football.
For those of you who intend to participate in Empty the Bench’s First Annual Fantasy Football League, expect an e-mail with the league ID and login over the weekend. I’m just putting the finishing touches on the (some say too complicated) scoring system. I hope nobody’s a huge fan of kickers . . .
1. Chad Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals: With concern over Carson Palmer’s knee a thing of the past, this offense is set to put up big numbers in 2007. TJ is a great second option to take some pressure off and Rudi Johnson is always reliable. The loss of Chris Henry may hurt the Bengals slightly, but it should translate into a lot more looks for Johnson- particularly around the goal line. Chad is an unstoppable force when he’s on his game and I expect him to rebound from an up-and-down 2006 in a big way. Despite putting up “just” 87 receptions, 1,370 and 7 TDs (17, 360 and 5 coming in weeks 10 and 11), I see something like 1,500 yards and 14 TDs. The biggest reasoning behind this lofty ranking is the fantasy schedule though. During the playoff weeks he’ll be matched up against extremely suspect defenses: vs St. Louis, at San Francisco and vs Cleveland. Plus, the guy beat a horse in a foot race during the offseason. That’s gotta be good karma.
2. Stevonne L. Smith, Carolina Panthers: Smith is the most talented, electrifying WR in the business. He’s eminently capable of reproducing his 100+ catch, 1,500+ yard 12 TD season of 2005. He’s also had disconcerting leg injuries in two of the last three seasons, which isn’t ideal for a top-flight wideout who depends on his explosiveness. I think you can make an argument for Stevonne as the top WR out there, but I always try to avoid potential disasters as much as possible in the first four rounds of fantasy drafts. Jake Delhomme and Steve have a great connection, and I think this is going to be Deangelo Williams’ breakout season so it’s a good situation. A playoff schedule of at Jacksonville, vs Seattle and vs Dallas isn’t ideal, but it’s not bad either.
3. Marvin Harrison, Indianapolis Colts: Every year heading into the draft I say, ‘This is the year Harrison slows down or gets hurt.’ Every year, I’m wrong. The offense is going to roll, and the guy has 8 consecutive seasons of at least 1,100 receiving yards and 10 TDs. Harrison has some kind of ESP with Peyton Manning, runs routes you could set your watch to, keeps himself in great shape and you won’t see a more professional athlete in any sport. There’s really not much else to say except that you can bank on a 1,100 yard, 8-12 TD season.
4. Terrell Owens, Dallas Cowboys: Owens is one of the few players I’ll break my consistency policy for. As my friend Rick is fond of saying (though perhaps less since he burned the Iggles), TO is a purebred athlete. Watching him give an opposing DB the stiffarm and then majestically gallop down the sidelines to paydirt is sight of beauty to match anything captured in Planet Earth. Working with Tony Romo all offseason can only be a good thing for Owens, as Tony was a major upgrade over Drew Bledsoe last season in terms of Terrell’s looks and fantasy production. TO has six seasons of at least 13 TDs on his resume, including the injury plagued 2006 campaign. He also has something to prove right now, and fantasy owners know that usually gets the best out of Owens.
5. Torry Holt, St. Louis Rams: I’m as big a fan of Torry as the next guy, I drafted him last season in the second round. Holt is here now because of lingering concerns over his offseason knee surgery, not because of a lack of talent. If it was a simple scope, as the team has said, then he’ll move up a few spots. Based on the recovery time and internet scuttlebut, speculation in fantasy circles right now is that it was a more invasive procedure that could have lingering effects. On top of those concerns, Holt could lose a some looks to new additions Randy McMichael and Drew Bennett, especially in the Red Zone. Still, when healthy Holt ranks up there with Harrison in terms of polish and consistency (41 TDs in the last 4 seasons) and everybody is expecting huge things from the St. Louis offense this year.
6. Roy Williams, Detroit Lions: Common sentiment holds that Roy Williams will see significantly fewer looks with Calvin Johnson on board, but I don’t buy it. The two Detroit starting WRs (Furrey and Williams) produced a total of 180 receptions a year ago, so there’s plenty to go around. There isn’t a secondary in the league that can cover both Johnson and Williams in man coverage, and that means Roy will get to have his way with an opposing DB regularly. Despite the otherworldly talent and ball skills, Roy still hasn’t achieved the type of success he’s capable of during his three years in the NFL- but he will. Watch some Lions games and you’ll see that Roy is far better than his good-not-great production would indicate. Kitna is a competent QB, the Lions will be playing from behind often, and Mike Martz can get the most out of his receivers. I’m buying.
7. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals: Fitzgerald is a physical specimen who, like Harrison, Ocho Cinco and Roy Williams, has the luxury of playing opposite a receiver who would be a No. 1 guy in most systems. After his breakout 2005 campaign, injuries limited Fitz to a disappointing 946 yards and 6 TDs in 2006, but playing healthy with Matt Leinart all year should produce far better results. The Cardinals are another team that will be playing catchup early and often, which is a great situation for fantasy receivers.
8. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Cincinnati Bengals: Housh has quietly been one of the most productive and consistent wideouts in the game over the last couple of years, and that figures to continue in 2007. It’s in large part due to the significant attention that Chad Johnson commands on every play. Like Chad, he also gets to face that super soft fantasy playoffs schedule the Bengals have (vs St. Louis, at San Francisco and vs Cleveland). His long hair makes me nervous though.
9. Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts: There’s no reason to expect a regression in the Colt’s offense, and Wayne is still on the upswing of his career arc. He’s not as polished, but at this point Reggie has superior physical tools than Harrison and I don’t think it would be an absolute shocker if he outproduced him. He’s going in the 3th round of fantasy drafts right now, which may be just a tad high, but I like him in the 4th and after.
10. Anquan Boldin, Arizona Cardinals: I’m an Anquon Boldin fan. That’s partly because I tend to play in leagues which reward receptions, and partly because I was fortunate enough to end up with him for his marvelous 2003 and 2005 seasons. I also love to watch the guy play, he’s such a strong receiver and he goes over the shallow middle as well as anybody in the NFL, which is one of the reasons he’s so capable of racking up the high reception totals. Not that I put much stock in it, but the trend over his four-year career is to put up 100-reception seasons in odd years. It’s 2007 . . .
*Just Missed the Cut:
(in no order)
Marques Colston, New Orleans Saints: The New Orleans offense could be a juggernaut again this year, and Marques could end up repeating or surpassing his remarkable breakout season. I don’t want to be the guy who depends on that though. Colston is a solid option, but I hate buying high on guys who just had jaw-dropping numerical season out of the blue. He’s a solid WR 2, but not a WR 1.
Javon Walker, Denver Broncos: Playing a full season with cannon-armed Jay Cutler is going to be a good thing for Walker who excels deep. Walker is a playmaker who can thrive even in double teams, but Rod Smith is about to fall off a cliff and I don’t think Daniel Graham is going to take any pressure off Walker or the young QB. Even so, Javon one of my favorite upside receivers heading into drafts right now.
Plaxico Burress, New York Giants: Plax is talented, but due to character issues he has a knack of leaving fantasy owners high and dry too often. Plus, I don’t want to count on Eli Manning. With his skill set Burress should be a marginal WR 1, but as it stands right now he’s just a good WR 2.
Lee Evans, Buffalo Bills: Evans is a home run hitter par excellence. It’s a lot of fun to throw him into the lineup every week because you never know when that next 11 catch, 265 yard, 2 TD effort (November 19th at Houston a year ago) might come. He’s capable of those games, but he also had 3 or fewer catches in 6 of 16 contests last year. Additionally, there are still QB issues here. Maybe this is the year JP Losman finally ‘gets it’, maybe not. There’s some optimism in Bills country about the kid right now, and he did look more comfortable in the pocket as 2006 wore on.
Randy Moss, New England Patriots: As I mentioned in the fantasy QB article, I just don’t buy the notion that Moss has lost his physical gifts. This is perhaps the most talented wideout in the history of football, and now he’s playing with a top-tier QB in a very solid offense and with a coach who commands respect. I’m buying on Moss personally, but he’s the kind of head case, disaster-waiting-to-happen that I can’t recommend to strangers or friends in good conscience. This is also a suddenly crowded depth chart with Donte Stallworth, Chad Jackson and Reche Caldwell.
Andre Johnson, Houston Texans: It’s turning into the portion of th article where I put personal favorites who are hard to recommend wholeheartedly. I think Andre would be an absolute stud in a good offense, a top-5 receiver. Unfortunately, he plays for the Houston Texans. There is great upside here though because Matt Schaub should come in and provide a major upgrade under center. Because of that upgrade and the fact that they’ll be behind so often, I fully expect another 1,000+ yard season, but TDs may be scant.
Donald Driver, Green Bay Packers: Driver works very hard, keeping himself is great shape. But is this the year that Brett ‘Vicodin’ Favre breaks down? Is it the year the offensive line finally allows Favre’s head to be severed from his body? Both very real possibilities, but despite that Driver is a fine option for your second WR slot.
My Favorite Sleepers: Reggie Brown, Chris Chambers, Vincent Jackson, Mark Clayton, Devery Henderson, Santonio Holmes, Kevin Curtis, Drew Bennett . . .