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: Bacon-wrapped shrimp
This bite-sized appetizer features shrimp paired with a salty pig product. It's delicious, but the shrimp is out of its element — seafood paired with barnyard.
Also out of his element, at least on paper, is 5-foot-8, 170-pound Chiefs rookie Dexter McCluster, who is being listed by NFL.com as a wide receiver. Before the season begins, urge the commissioner of your fantasy league to make a ruling on McCluster's position eligibility, because this is the sort of issue that could morph into a controversy later on.
I disagree with McCluster's current categorization: He should be considered a running back. I watched the Chiefs' first three preseason games, and although I wasn't charting McCluster's usage, it appeared to me that he was lined up in the backfield on the vast majority of his snaps. He took 17 handoffs during the preseason, which is a pretty good case against his WR status. McCluster had 108 rushing yards in the preseason, and he had seven receptions for 40 yards. In his final two seasons at Ole Miss, McCluster had 290 rushing attempt and 88 receptions, and his classification as a running back was never an issue.
If it's easier to defer to NFL.com, so be it, just as long as McCluster's position eligibility is clarified by your commissioner before the season begins. But it would be slightly unfair for an owner to be able to use McCluster as a wide receiver if McCluster is taking handoffs in every game. McCluster's owner would essentially be allowed to use a three-RB formation every week.
Of course, this assumes that McCluster will be relevant in fantasy football this season, which isn't a given. But better to make a ruling on McCluster now and avoid the possibility of hard feelings later.
Salad: Avocado grapefruit salad
The first time this salad was served to me, I figured it was going to be awful, with the bitterness of the grapefruit negating the taste of the avocado. But the chef had added some honey, and that helped make everything work.
The Bears' offense left a bitter taste in the mouths of Chicago fans last season, and new offensive coordinator Mike Martz is charged with injecting the honey that the Bears crave. But Chicago's first-team offense was hideous throughout the preseason. Of particular concern is the play of the Bears' offensive line. Jay Cutler spent much of the preseason on his rear end. Second-year OLT Chris Williams gave up four sacks to the Raiders' Kamerion Wimbley in the first half of one preseason game. If the Bears' offense continues to look like this in the regular season, Chicago fans will demand that heads roll.
But Cutler insists that the offense didn't play all of its cards in the preseason. He says that the play-calling was generic, and that he and Martz made no real effort to adjust to what opposing defenses were doing. In other words, the Bears' offense played possum.
The question is whether to believe him. All the hits that Cutler absorbed in the preseason were clearly not part of whatever script the Bears were following. But I still tend to take Cutler at his word when he contends that the Bears intentionally kept things vanilla. Why tip your hand in exhibition games? It makes sense for the Bears to keep their new offense under wraps until the season opener against the Lions, a divisional foe.
If you have Cutler, Matt Forté, Johnny Knox, Devin Hester or Devin Aromashodu on your fantasy team, don't be overly alarmed by the preseason performance of the Bears' offense, and don't use it as a reason to keep any of these Bears on your bench for Week One.
Entrée: Prime cuts of beef with new potatoes
There were some surprising releases on the day NFL teams were required to pare down rosters to the 53-player limit. Some of the more significant cuts might not have been considered surprises by anyone who closely monitored NFL news in the days before the final cutdown, but fantasy owners who had early drafts and wound up with Matt Leinart or T.J. Houshmandzadeh on their rosters were surely taken aback. (This would be an opportune time to make the case that no fantasy league should ever conduct its draft before the final cutdown, but we'll save that argument for another day.)
Some of the more interesting final cuts not only radically alter the fantasy prospects of the released players (some of whom have already resurfaced on new teams), but they also bode well for the fantasy prospects of some under-the-radar players who now have a greater window of opportunity.
As disappointing as Matt Leinart's NFL career has been, it was rather surprising that the Cardinals, two seasons removed from the Super Bowl and harboring legitimate playoff aspirations this season, would go to the extreme of releasing Leinart rather than merely demoting him. Leinart's release leaves Derek Anderson as the starter. I'm sure Anderson has his strong suits — maybe he's a good dancer, or perhaps he's handy with a set of tools — but quarterbacking isn't one of them. Anderson is an inaccurate passer and a turnover machine. He was surprisingly functional for the Cleveland Browns in 2007 but has been a train wreck ever since. If the Cardinals were willing to release their only other quarterback with NFL experience, it means they either have enormous confidence in Anderson (not likely), or they're bullish on one or both of their rookie backups, John Skelton and Max Hall (hmmm).
Skelton was a fifth-round pick. Hall was an undrafted free agent. And yet Hall is apparently the stronger candidate to take over as a starter at some point. Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt raised eyebrows when he said that Hall was the team's best quarterback in training camp. Hall is on the small side and doesn't have a rocket arm, but he was a very effective college quarterback for BYU, and that school has a pretty good track record of producing NFL quarterbacks. Hall has the sort of accuracy that Anderson lacks, and he has the sort of leadership ability that the Cardinals never saw from Leinart. I don't know if Hall can help a fantasy team this season, but he's going to get a chance to replace Anderson at some point. Fantasy owners need to keep Hall in mind, and dynasty league owners should pay particularly close attention to him.
T.J. Houshmandzadeh can be an effective complementary receiver, as he proved during his years in Cincinnati. But he was miscast as a No. 1 receiver, and the Seahawks were unwise to pay him as one. The Seahawks cut their losses by releasing Houshmandzadeh and will try to make due with a strange assortment of receivers that includes Deion Branch, Deon Butler, Golden Tate and Mike Williams. Branch will start for Seattle but has little fantasy value. Butler is an intriguing second-year prospect, but he seems to have little chemistry with starting QB Matt Hasselbeck. (His chemistry with backup Charlie Whitehurst is stronger.) Tate is a rookie with impressive speed but not much polish as a receiver. The most intriguing guy in the group is Williams, the reclamation project. The former USC standout has had a star-crossed professional career, but his reunion with his former college coach, Pete Carroll, seems to have awakened Williams' long-dormant potential. At 6-foot-5, Williams is an enormous target, and in the preseason he was very good after the catch. We could see shockingly good receiving numbers out of Williams this year.
The Redskins' release of Ryan Torain didn't qualify as major news, but I found it surprising. I had expected the Redskins to cut Larry Johnson, who's now a shell of his former self. Torain has a history with Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan and looked good in the preseason. He's injury-prone, but he seems to be productive when healthy. Torain may not be out of the picture entirely, since the Redskins signed him to their practice squad. But Torain's release makes Keiland Williams a player to watch. Like the aforementioned Max Hall, Williams is an undrafted free agent. He's a big, bruising back out of LSU. Clinton Portis will be Washington's main man as long as he's healthy, but he's getting dinged up more frequently with age. If L.J. is as washed up as I think he is, Williams could play a substantial role. Even if Portis stays healthy, Williams might get goal-line work.
Dessert: Beignets with dipping sauce
Beignets are deep-fried delights typically associated with New Orleans, so let's enjoy dessert in the Big Easy.
For a team with such a prolific offense, the Saints have surprisingly few dependable fantasy performers. Drew Brees is obviously an elite quarterback, and Marques Colston is a week-in, week-out fantasy starter. But the rest of the Saints' skill-position players are unreliable from a fantasy perspective.
Some people thought Pierre Thomas would emerge as a top fantasy guy last year, but it didn't happen. An eight-TD season is respectable, but it was a drop-off from the 12 TDs Thomas produced a year earlier, and Thomas' 1,095 yards from scrimmage in the 14 games he played in amount to 78.2 yards per game — a rather ordinary figure. Reggie Bush's professional career is largely considered to be a disappointment, at least in fantasy terms. He tied a career high with eight offensive TDs last year, but his 725 yards from scrimmage were the fewest of his four-year career.
Saints WRs Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson cause weekly headaches. Bench them, and you risk missing a big day, like Meachem's 142-yard day against the Redskins last season, which included a 53-yard TD catch, or Henderson's 116-yard day against the Patriots, which included a 75-yard TD catch. But Meachem had eight games last season in which he finished with fewer than 50 receiving yards, and Henderson had nine such games. Neither is an every-week fantasy starter.
And then there's Jeremy Shockey. He's never lived up to the promise of his 894-yard rookie season with the Giants. In two seasons with the Saints, he's had 1,052 receiving yards and only three TDs. He's also missed seven games over the past two years, and Shockey's injury problems aren't likely to disappear now that he's turned 30.
Sean Payton likes to spread the ball around on offense, and that isn't likely to change. Brees and Colston once again figure to be the only constants. Thomas and Bush are good bets to finish with around 1,000 yards from scrimmage and eight TDs apiece, which makes them significant fantasy contributors but not dependable weekly starters. Undrafted rookie Chris Ivory could get some carries, too — maybe even some goal-line work — once he recovers from a sprained MCL. Meachem, Henderson and Shockey will have good days and bad, and newcomers such as WR Adrian Arrington and TE Jimmy Graham may also rise up at times.
If you own Saints other than Brees or Colston, just realize that Payton will dip his beignets in different sauces each week.
Each week during the regular season, Pat Fitzmaurice ranks players by position, according to the matchups, and writes "Ten Most Intriguing Players," as well as the above "Four-Course Feast."