Pat Fitzmaurice is addicted to competitive cooking shows ("Top Chef," "Chopped," Hell's Kitchen," etc.), and he also loves to eat. Since he isn't much of a cook, he's channeling his chef obsession into Fitz's Four-Course Fantasy Feast, a regular column featuring an appetizer, salad, entrée and dessert. Bon appétit.
Appetizer: Manning marmalade on Texas toast
The consensus is that Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers should be the first quarterback off the board in fantasy drafts, and you can make a reasonable case for either. But what about old, boring, dependable Peyton Manning?
With 4,500 passing yards last season, Manning came within 57 yards of his career best, and it was the 10th time in the last 11 years that he's exceeded 4,000 yards. His 33 TD passes were the most since his career-high 49 in 2004. Manning hasn't missed a game in his 12 pro seasons, and his durability is rivaled only by some old gray-haired dude up in Minnesota.
But what frightens cerebral fantasy owners away from Manning is the Colts' bothersome habit of resting key starters in the final week or two of the regular season — potentially pivotal weeks for fantasy owners — once Indy has locked up first place in the AFC South. If you knew that Manning would play all 16 games to the final gun, you'd have to put him atop your QB rankings, wouldn't you?
Manning's value, therefore, may be tied to the success of those perennially so-so Lone Star laggards, the Houston Texans, who, on the heels of their first winning season in franchise history, appear to stand the best chance of taking the division title away from the Colts — or at least forcing Indy to play hard for 16 games. But "best chance" might still mean "not much chance." The Texans look to be pretty average on the defensive side of the ball, and their potent passing game is tempered by a flaccid running game. The savvy number-crunchers at Football Outsiders are bearish on Houston in their 2010 almanac, giving the Texans a 70 percent chance of winning six or fewer games, with a mean projection of 5.6 wins.
Can the Titans or Jaguars take down the Colts? Unlikely. Both have shaky defenses, and neither has a difference maker at quarterback. With a choice between the Colts and the field for the AFC South title, the smart money is still on the Colts, and it's not far-fetched to think that Indy will once again clinch early and then pack it in at the end of the regular season.
So we're back to ranking Manning third at quarterback, because even if you can make a case for Manning over Brees and Rodgers on stats alone, you can't overlook the possibility that Manning will be punching out early in Week 16 (championship week for most fantasy leagues) or Week 17 (championship week for some leagues and a potentially lucrative free-for-all in others).
Not so fast. I still rate Manning as the No. 1 quarterback. But if you draft Manning, you have to invest in a good backup, even though Manning doesn't ever miss games. Candidates? I like Chad Henne, who has a favorable home matchup against the Lions in all-important Week 16. And while Henne's road matchup against the Patriots in Week 17 isn't easy, it's not prohibitive. Donovan McNabb might also be worth the investment. McNabb's Redskins visit Jacksonville in Week 16 and then host the Giants in Week 17. (Neither Henne nor McNabb has a bye that conflicts with Manning's.) And while I dove headfirst off the Vince Young bandwagon a year ago, Young has a favorable finish, visiting Kansas City in Week 16 and then in Week 17 visiting ...
... Indianapolis, where Peyton will probably be roasting weenies and marshmallows on the sideline by the middle of the second quarter.
Salad: Caprese with Buffalo mozzarella
I have an inordinately large number of Buffalo Bills fans in my life, so many of the Monday-morning e-mails I send during the NFL season read like Hallmark sympathy cards. Bills fans have had little to get excited about in recent years and, barring a minor miracle, are in for another grim campaign in 2010.
Buffalo's bleak prospects are reflected on fantasy draft boards, where no Bills rank among the top players at their positions. But someone has to gain yardage and score points for the Bills. As bad as they may be, the Bills can still be expected to accumulate roughly 4,200 to 4,500 total yards of offense — approximately 70 percent to 75 percent of what an elite offensive team might generate. And even if their offense is as anemic as some people expect, the Bills will still produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 25-30 TDs.
Someone on this team will yield fantasy value. It won't be a quarterback — the talent just isn't there. It could be Lee Evans, who's been a hit-and-miss fantasy receiver throughout his career but could produce 1,000 yards this season by default, since Buffalo enters training camp with the worst NFL receiving corps in recent memory. (You're off the hook, Raiders.)
More likely, it will happen at running back, the only position where the Bills have a stockpile of talent, with Fred Jackson, Marshawn Lynch and rookie C.J. Spiller. The run blocking of Buffalo's offensive line may not qualify as "good," but it's vastly better than the unit's abominable pass blocking. New head coach Chan Gailey wasn't considered a sexy hire, but his history suggests that he's malleable when it comes to his offensive philosophy, willing to adapt his schemes to the talent on hand.
Lynch, a former first-round draft pick, hasn't panned out as hoped and could be dealt before the start of the season, setting up a tidy little time-share between Jackson and Spiller, with the division of labor largely determined by how much instant electricity Spiller brings to Buffalo. A two-man platoon would be worth some sort of investment, but three's a crowd. Jackson is a good bet to get the most carries of the three, unless Spiller — the wild card of the bunch — is sensational from the start. Lynch will end up in a reserve role unless the Bills can deal him to a team that needs immediate help.
It's a situation worth watching in the preseason. Jackson is underrated, and Spiller could turn out to be the best rookie running back in the league - on talent alone, he's head and shoulders above the Chargers' Ryan Mathews. But while Mathews steps into a tailor-made role, Spiller's role is TBD.
Entrée: Rack of running back with wild Rice
Time to get to the heartier fare. The meat of today's column is the debate at the top of the RB rankings. Who's No. 1 — Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson?
... Or Ray Rice?
We'll get to Rice in a moment. First, let's start with the assumption that there's a clear Fab Four at running back: Johnson, Peterson, Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew. Perhaps Frank Gore belongs in the conversation, but I can't make a compelling case for him. MJD has been getting it done for a while now and is deserving of his spot in the top four, but as much as I love Jones-Drew (he's served me well in several leagues, and he's an admitted fantasy football junkie himself), he can be ranked no higher than fourth.
Most owners see it as a two-way debate between Johnson and Peterson. That's not unreasonable — Johnson just broke the single-season record for yards from scrimmage, and Peterson was the consensus No. 1 running back before Johnson's breakthrough — but I think I can make a case for Rice, and it starts with knocks (albeit minor ones) against Johnson and Peterson.
Johnson finished the '09 season with 2,009 rushing yards, 503 receiving yards and 16 total TDs, and seven of his TDs covered more than 50 yards. We may never see a better single-season performance by a running back. But as Johnson approached NFL records late in the season, the Titans fed him the ball at an ever-increasing rate. Johnson had 25 or more carries in seven of his last nine games, culminating in a 36-carry game against Seattle in Week 17. He showed no ill effects from the Herculean workload, but it's hard to discount the possibility that the effects of a 408-touch season will make him less effective this year. I also worry that Johnson won't remain happy with his recently revised contract for long, and that any lingering unhappiness will manifest itself on the field. And then there's the Vince Young problem. Young does certain things well, but he's lacking as a pure passer. Young's inability to keep defenses honest is bound to shrink Johnson's rushing lanes.
There's nothing wrong with Peterson's 2009 per-carry average of 4.4 yards ... until you consider that he averaged 4.8 yards the year before that, and 5.6 yards the year before that. The decline isn't Peterson's fault; his offensive line is falling apart. OT Bryant McKinnie and OG Steve Hutchinson, so formidable on the left side of Minnesota's offensive line just a few seasons ago, are getting old. McKinnie's play, in particular, has really gone south. The Vikings haven't found an adequate replacement for Matt Birk, who left as a free agent following the '08 season. There could be further slippage along the Minnesota O-line this season.
Offensive line performance is a major reason why Rice deserves consideration for the top spot. Baltimore's O-line is better than Tennessee's or Minnesota's, and it might be the best in the league. OLT Michael Oher is destined to be a perennial Pro Bowler, OGs Ben Grubbs and Marshal Yanda are unsung, and guess where the aforementioned (and still excellent) Matt Birk landed in free agency?
Rice finished with 2,041 yards from scrimmage last year, and he had 104 fewer carries than Johnson. Rice had 78 receptions and will continue to be used heavily in the passing game. If the gap in carries between Johnson and Rice narrows (and it almost certainly will), Rice will have a decent chance of exceeding Johnson's yardage total.
Maybe you're concerned that Rice scored only eight TDs last season, and that Willis McGahee will continue to steal short-range scores from Rice. Yes, McGahee might again vulture some TDs as a red-zone specialist. And it's hard to completely explain away Rice's TD deficiency — he failed to reach the endzone as a rookie a year earlier despite showing clear signs of his talent. But TD totals are more variable than yardage totals and more prone to wild fluctuations. I wouldn't wager that Rice will produce more TDs than Peterson this season, but I think we'll see something smaller than the 10-TD gap that we saw last season. But I wouldn't be completely floored if Rice scored more TDs than Peterson and/or Johnson, and I like Rice's odds in the total-yardage category.
As of now, I have Rice first, Johnson second, Peterson third. But it's a tightly bunched pack, and there may be some reordering before the start of the season.
But this much I'm certain of: I'd be elated to draw the No. 3 pick in any fantasy draft.
Dessert: Bittersweet wideout soufflé
Will they rise or will they fall? We conclude with quick takes on a few select wide receivers:
Miles Austin — I'm all in. Austin turned heads with a two-game, 421-yard, four-TD explosion in the first half of the season, but his finishing kick (46 catches for 641 yards and four TDs over the final six games of the season) should have dispelled any doubts that he's elite. Rookie Dez Bryant won't threaten Austin's alpha-dog role among the Dallas receivers, and Roy Williams is mere flotsam at this point. Austin should either be the No. 2 wideout overall behind Andre Johnson, or possibly No. 3 behind Johnson and Roddy White.
Randy Moss — After a 1,264-yard, 13-TD season, Moss is a top-three receiver on a lot of draft boards. Be my guest. We've seen Moss shut it down before, and chances are he'll do it again at least once before the end of his career. Hitch your fantasy fortunes to Randy's enthusiasm at your own peril.
Pierre Garcon — Don't forget how terrific he was in the Super Bowl. There's still some untapped potential here, and Peyton Manning is just the guy to mine it. There was a time when Marvin Harrison was head and shoulders above Reggie Wayne as a fantasy prospect. Wayne gradually closed the gap and became Harrison's equal. Garcon may be capable of catching Wayne in a year or two.
Chad Ochocinco — Take away two huge games against discombobulated Chicago and Detroit pass defenses, and Ocho had a pretty ordinary 2009. A healthy Antonio Bryant will catch his share of passes, as will the recently signed Terrell Owens. Ochocinco's productivity no longer matches his outsized persona, and with Ocho and T.O. sharing locker-room space, the chemistry in Cincinnati is potentially explosive.
James Jones — Jones, not Jordy Nelson, will be Green Bay's No. 3 receiver, and the No. 3 in Green Bay could be more valuable than the No. 2 receivers on about half the teams in the league.
Michael Crabtree — I want to like him, but at least one owner in every fantasy league will be too high on him. Crabtree simply didn't make enough big plays last season. Toward the end of the year, Crabtree was churning out similar stats, week after week: four or five catches for about 60 yards. I'm worried that he's a possession receiver in playmaker's clothing. Crabtree also must make do without a top-shelf quarterback. Let the buyer beware.
Mardy Gilyard — Here's a deep sleeper for owners in deeper leagues. Gilyard was an absolute steal for the Rams in the fourth round of this year's NFL draft. He was a big-play machine for the Cincinnati Bearcats, and I think he'll outperform most of the receivers drafted ahead of him this year.
Donté Stallworth — It's stunning to see him on sleeper lists. Stallworth was a stiff and a career underachiever before he missed the 2009 season due to a yearlong suspension. The sabbatical from football didn't magically turn him into a player.
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