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.
A new season of fantasy football is dawning, and dawn means breakfast. (Well, it does in my house, anyway — my darned kids keep waking me up at ungodly hours.) Instead of the usual appetizer, salad, entrée and dessert, this week we're serving breakfast. And it's a big breakfast, not some puny little continental breakfast. Yogurt and a muffin? You call that breakfast? Please.
Grab a plate and amble up to the buffet ...
Arizona breakfast burritos
The breakfast burrito can be the perfect all-in-one morning dish, and since I like it spicy, I give it the Arizona touch, adding chorizo and salsa. But a bad egg can spoil a breakfast burrito, and I fear that Matt Leinart will be the rotten egg who ruins some of the Cardinals' fresh ingredients, most notably Larry Fitzgerald.
In fact, Fitzgerald's knee ligaments were nearly scrambled in Arizona's first preseason game, when Leinart threw into traffic over the middle and Fitzgerald was hit low by a Houston defender as he reached for the ball, causing his leg to contort awkwardly. Luckily, the leg wasn't planted, and what could have been a season-ending injury is instead a sprained MCL that is expected to sideline Fitzgerald for the rest of the preseason but no longer.
Leinart looked terrible Monday night in a preseason game against the Titans, and it doesn't look as if he'll ever be a decent NFL quarterback. I've been trying to give the former USC star the benefit of the doubt ever since he entered the league and quickly revealed himself to be a big-league bon vivant, but it's clear that Leinart is incapable of filling the shoes of the retired Kurt Warner. At this point, Cardinals fans would probably settle for Leinart becoming a left-handed version of Steve Beuerlein or Timm Rosenbach, but even such modest ambitions now seem far-fetched.
Leinart's arm is not strong by NFL standards. His decision-making is suspect. He hasn't shown much in the way of leadership, and his body language is terrible. The Cardinals are losing patience with Leinart, who's now 27 and can no longer use his youth as an excuse. His backup, Derek Anderson, is by no means a good NFL quarterback, but Anderson has just enough experience as a starter to shorten Leinart's leash.
Leinart was never going to make or break anyone's fantasy season — even the Leinart optimists regard him as nothing more than a No. 2 quarterback. But there will be fantasy owners out there who draft Fitzgerald and RB Beanie Wells in the first three rounds, and the Cardinals' QB problems are likely to drag down Fitz and Beanie, at least to some degree. Fitzgerald is so uniquely talented that he may be able to avoid a steep statistical decline despite the drop-off in QB play, but a repeat of last season's 13 TDs, or of his 1,431-yard performance in 2008, is highly unlikely. There's a danger that he could endure the sort of travails that have befallen Carolina's Steve Smith in recent years. Smith has still produced respectable numbers, but the rapid decline of QB Jake Delhomme clearly prevented Smith from being all that he could be.
Wells, too, stands to suffer if Leinart can't get the job done. If opponents don't respect the Arizona passing game, the rushing lanes won't consistently open up for Wells, and if the Cardinals can't convert their share of third downs and string together some longer drives, Wells simply won't get enough carries to make him an elite fantasy running back.
Just to clarify: bacon = hogs = Washington Redskins.
I'm starting to warm to the Redskins' offense. Donovan McNabb was a terrific addition — he legitimizes the previously illegitimate Washington passing game. Santana Moss, whose deep speed was never fully utilized by ex-teammate Jason Campbell, should thrive as McNabb's No. 1 target. Chris Cooley and Fred Davis provide a nice one-two punch at tight end. Clinton Portis appears to have at least a little something left in his tank, and the 'Skins figure to have at least one other reasonable RB option behind Portis. (More on that later.)
It's not the sort of lethal cache of skill-position talent that can be deployed by, say, the Cowboys or the Packers, but it's not a bad group of players. What will make or break the Redskins 'offense will be the play of the offensive line, and I'm optimistic that this revamped unit will come through.
The lone holdovers from last season are C Casey Rabach and OLG Derrick Dockery, both solid. Artis Hicks is the new right guard. The critical additions are the new tackles — Jamaal Brown, a former Pro Bowler for the Saints, and Trent Williams, a rookie taken with the fourth overall pick of the draft. Williams has to come through. He was dominated by the Ravens' Terrell Suggs in last weekend's preseason game, but that's to be expected. Williams will make a few mistakes, particularly against defenders the caliber of Suggs. But he can't make a boatload of mistakes, and he can't be ineffective against lesser opponents. Oh, and he also has to be a good run blocker right off the bat. If Williams doesn't stink, the 'Skins should have their best offensive line since Jon Jansen, Chris Samuels and Randy Thomas were in their salad days.
And if this new and improved offensive line can occasionally evoke memories of the Hogs of yore — Russ Grimm, Mark May, Joe Jacoby, et al. — then this Redskins' offense could be an unexpectedly rich source of fantasy football ore.
If silver-dollar pancakes are done right — light and fluffy — you can scarf down a bunch of them and still have room left for sides. Here's a double stack of quick takes as the regular season draws closer ...
— Obviously, scoring systems and league sizes are important variables that will affect early-round draft strategies and the order in which you address various positions. But I cringe when people talk about how the popularity of the RB-by-committee approach in the NFL has made it less important to draft running backs early. It may be true that it's now easier than ever to fill two RB slots with capable performers, but there's never been greater value in proven-workhorse running backs, now an endangered species. There are only about 8-10 of these creatures left on earth, so you can't exactly sit back and wait if you wish to capture one. More likely, your only chance will come in the first round.
— Jahvid Best is looking like Barry Sanders Lite for the Lions. Is it crazy to think of the rookie as a top-10 running back? The thought of spending a second-round pick on Best might give you sweaty palms, but this might be the last time for a long time that Best is available beyond the first round of fantasy drafts.
— As I've written before, it's hard to quibble with how the whole Ryan Mathews thing looks on paper. But there's one little snag I can't quite get past: The Chargers averaged a league-worst 3.3 yards per carry last season, and that was with stud OLT Marcus McNeill, who's now threatening a long holdout. Sure, a big part of that was LaDainian Tomlinson hitting the wall, but it's hard to believe that Mathews alone can completely rejuvenate San Diego's ailing ground game.
— Arian Foster's average draft position has been rising following a season-ending injury to Texans rookie RB Ben Tate. But my gut tells me that Foster and Steve Slaton end up with something close to a 50-50 yardage split for Houston this year.
— In recent mock drafts and on average-draft-position lists, Johnny Knox is usually listed first among Bears receivers, followed closely by Devin Aromashodu, with Devin Hester usually falling out of the top 40 at the position. I think the Knox rating is solid — his talent is legit, and he seems to fit Mike Martz's offense. But the Aromashodu and Hester perceptions seem askew. Aromashodu's potential is being oversold right now. He doesn't have the speed to consistently make big plays, and he won't be the otherworldly red-zone threat that some people are making him out to be. Hester, on the other hand, is falling much further than he should. He's more polished as a receiver than popularly believed, and he still has the sort of speed that kills.
— I've been snookered by Vince Young in the past, but this year ... oh hell, I'm coming back for more. I'm just gullible enough to buy into the idea that V.Y. has matured (on the field, at least — just don't give him an upside-down "Hook 'em Horns" gesture if you see him out on the town). And Chris Johnson is such a lethal weapon at running back, how can it not make Young's job easier? It's no coincidence that once Young came off the bench last season, he wound up producing the best passer rating of his career. ... Here's a play-action fake to Johnson, a safety bites on it, and Kenny Britt ends up wide open for an easy 15-yard catch. ... There's a fake toss left to Johnson, and Young rolls right with a run-pass option. Sound good? I like Young more than trendier QB choice Matthew Stafford, and I like him more than the riskier-than-you-think Carson Palmer.
— Seahawks TE John Carlson will be a sneaky-good draft pick this year.
— Speaking of sneaky-good picks from the Seahawks, the shortage of average-draft-position and mock-draft love for Justin Forsett is perplexing. Who else is going to get carries for the Seahawks? Leon Washington, who can't run between the tackles and is coming off a gruesome leg injury? Julius Jones, who was washed up three years ago? Forsett seems like a screaming draft bargain right now.
— A top-five quarterback, an elite wide receiver, a top tight end, three capable running backs and a Rookie of the Year candidate at receiver ... you do realize that someone on the Cowboys is going to flop, don't you?
Tropical fruit assortment with Kareem anglaise
Like tropical fruit, fantasy football sleepers hold the promise of something exotic. Of course, the consumption of a kiwifruit or a pawpaw won't transport you to a tropical locale, and the chances of a sleeper putting your team on his shoulders and carrying you to the Fantasy Bowl are incredibly remote. But a well-placed bet on a penny stock can sometimes pay handsome dividends. Before I arouse additional suspicion from the metaphor police, allow me to offer these five names (technically, five players but only four names) for your consideration:
Mike Williams (T.B.) — There's star potential here. Williams is miles ahead of fellow rookie Arrelious Benn, no matter that the Buccaneers drafted Benn two rounds earlier. Character concerns caused Williams to fall into the fourth round, and those concerns were well founded; his college career at Syracuse was as checkered as a tablecloth at a picnic. But Williams is one talented dude. He's been an absolute revelation for the Bucs so far, to the extent that he's probably going to be the team's No. 1 receiver this season. True, this is partially an indictment of Tampa Bay's receivers (I'm looking at you, Michael Clayton), and it's not as if the Buccaneers are going to throw for 5,000 yards this season. But Williams might be talented enough to be a fantasy WR2 or WR3 from the get-go, and depending on the awareness of your competitors, he could be available at the end of fantasy drafts.
Mike Williams (Sea.) — Yep, another Mike Williams. Remember the Mike Williams who used to be a star at USC in the early 2000s, unsuccessfully petitioned the NFL for early entry into the draft, sat out the 2004 season, became another failed top-10 draft pick for Matt Millen and the Lions and then seemingly faded away? Well, he didn't fade away. He's making a comeback with the Seahawks, and he's playing for his old college coach, Pete Carroll. Williams is still 6-foot-5, and after letting himself turn into a 270-pound heifer at one point, he's gotten himself into excellent shape and has been sharp in the preseason. All bets are off if the Seahawks prove serious about their inquiries into Vincent Jackson's availability and make a deal with the Chargers. But at the moment, the Seahawks are weak at receiver, and if Williams can work his way past has-been Deion Branch, never-was Deon Butler and overrated rookie Golden Tate on the depth chart, he could be a pleasant surprise.
Aaron Hernandez — Some fantasy owners will be fooled into thinking that Rob Gronkowski will be the more valuable rookie tight end on the Patriots simply because Gronkowski was drafted ahead of Hernandez. But whereas Gronkowski is more of a complete tight end, Hernandez is a pure pass catcher. The former Florida Gator has been terrific in the preseason, and I could see him fitting perfectly into the New England passing game and finishing with about 600 receiving yards and 7-8 TDs.
Ryan Torain — As mentioned earlier, I'm optimistic about the Redskins' offense. Clinton Portis will be the main man at running back, but with his odometer showing 2,176 career carries, he'll need to be spelled at times, and a breakdown is always a possibility. Larry Johnson and Willie Parker are around, but perhaps not for long; they're both nearing the end of the line and haven't shown much in training camp or the preseason. Torain played for Mike Shanahan in Denver two years ago and seemed poised to get playing time before blowing out his knee. He has the sort of one-cut running style that Shanahan favors. I think Torain will end up ahead of Johnson and Parker on the depth chart by Week One, and perhaps his only serious competition for the No. 2 role will come from surprisingly lively undrafted free agent Keiland Williams. My money is on Torain to win the backup job, and I think he has a good chance to become a significant contributor before long.
Kareem Huggins — Here's the Kareem anglaise to finish off this list. Consider the following: (1) Buccaneers RB Cadillac Williams has a substantial injury history; (2) backup Derrick Ward was a flop after signing on with the Bucs last season and has shown less life than Jimmy Hoffa in this year's preseason; (3) Huggins has looked terrific in the preseason; (4) Huggins once ran a 4.28 in the 40-yard dash and offers speed that no other Tampa Bay running back can match; (5) when he played Pop Warner football, Huggins' coach was the father of current Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris; and (6) Morris kept tabs on Huggins and eventually gave him a tryout after Huggins was cut by the Jets in 2008 and was out of football in 2009. I think all of the above portend a bright future for Morris, who has a decent chance to end up as the No. 1 running back for the Bucs at some point this season.
Next Wednesday: Fitz's final preseason draft board