The following is an excerpt from Sports Illustrated's Fantasy Football 2009 Preview Issue. Find it in stores or click here to order.
Welcome to fantasy football 2009. Like every other year, this season promises to be filled with joy (Ronnie Brown had how many fantasy points against the Pats?!?!), anguish (DeSean Jackson dropped the ball untouched on which yard line?!?!), good fortune (my 14th-round pick, DeAngelo Williams, scored how many touchdowns?!?!) and bad luck (Tom Brady played how many downs this season?!?!). It also promises to be full of surprises. So to start off we've decided to attack the hot-button issues that loom the largest as fantasy drafts roll around. Committing these answers to memory is the first step to a fantasy football title.
1. Who should be the No. 1 overall pick?
Selecting fantasy football's premier player isn't as clear-cut as it has been in the past few years, when LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson ruled. Tomlinson (see No. 2), the 2008 touchdown leader, has health and age issues. DeAngelo Williams experienced a once-in-a-lifetime season but will again split reps with the arguably more talented Jonathan Stewart. And Michael Turner faces a much tougher schedule following a playoff year than his Falcons had last season. That leaves Vikings stud Adrian Peterson, the league's rushing leader last year and the only man to surpass 3,000 yards over the last two seasons, as the safest choice. Should you be inclined to take a quarterback at the top -- and you shouldn't -- the Saints' Drew Brees is the only one to take with a clear conscience.
2. Speaking of Tomlinson, how much does he have left in the tank?
Perhaps the greatest fantasy running back ever, Tomlinson gained 1,110 rushing yards with 11 ground scores in 2008 while enduring, for most of the year, a painful right toe injury, which was then compounded by a pulled groin. His drop-off to mere mortal production and his reaching his 30th birthday suggest that his Hall of Fame career is on the decline. But before scratching him off your draft list, consider this: Playing last season with those injuries, which have since healed, Tomlinson ranked eighth in both yards from scrimmage (1,536) and total touchdowns (12). He was the league's fifth-busiest back (344 touches), and although Darren Sproles was re-signed, there are no signs that Norv Turner is looking for any dramatic reduction in Tomlinson's workload. At worst, LT is the eighth overall pick.
3. Who in Dallas loses the most now that the Terrell Owens era has ended?
By trading for Roy Williams last season, Jerry Jones invested four draft picks and $45 million (including $20 million guaranteed) for a receiver who was seen as a long-term replacement for Owens. After his arrival in Big D, however, Williams deserved a big F, catching just 19 balls for 198 yards in 10 games. His work habits have been in question since he joined the league, and he isn't a crisp route runner, two traits that will be exposed under the NFL's biggest microscope.
4. Who is primed for a big bounce-back year?
It wasn't long ago that Rams running back Steven Jackson was part of the Who's No. 1 argument, but in the last two years injuries and an offense that lacked identity have relegated him to the middle of the fantasy pack. That will change as all traces of The Greatest Show on Turf have been exorcised in favor of new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur's plans that promise to showcase Jackson's immense skills as both a runner and a receiver. Add in an offensive line that improved in the off-season with No. 2 overall pick Jason Smith and center Jason Brown, the headline free-agent blocker of 2009. Although Jackson will be in his sixth season, he will be just 26 this year and still has a lot of mileage left.
5. Is Jay Cutler worth drafting as quarterback of the Bears?
While Cutler's behavior isn't always the most mature, he has one of the strongest arms in the league and should challenge the Bears' single-season passing mark of 3,838 yards, set in 1995 by Erik Kramer, the only Chicago passer to throw for more than 3,200 yards in a season. A weak receiving corps means that a return to 4,500 passing yards is unlikely anytime soon for Cutler, but he will still be worth owning as a low-end QB1.
6. Which Bills move up in the rankings now that Terrell owens plays in Buffalo?
Despite his many drawbacks (questionable hands, team morale killer, etc.), T.O. remains one of the league's most influential players. The Bills who'll benefit the most are quarterback Trent Edwards and receiver Lee Evans. A fantasy star in his own right, Evans has been the Bills' only dangerous target since the departure of Eric Moulds in 2006, doubling the yardage of the next receiver over that time while outscoring the rest of the wide receiving corps 16-14. He now gets to roam a bit freer since Owens must be accounted for by safeties. Meanwhile Edwards, now in his third season and with two big-play threats at his disposal, is almost certain to have his best year and should be a midrange QB2.
7. Who is a safer pick: Tom Brady or Matt Cassel?
After spending nearly a year as someone more interesting to People.com than SI.com, Brady returns to the Pats recovered from the torn ACL that cost him all but seven minutes of the 2008 season. He finds essentially the same players he left in place, with Randy Moss and Wes Welker still two of the league's top targets, and a running game without a true leader. Those are virtually the same tools that Cassel used to throw for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns, and he'll sorely miss them in Kansas City. Brady didn't appear to miss a beat in organized training activities (OTAs), and since he didn't run all that well to begin with, his loss of a step shouldn't be much of a concern. Cassel leads a rebuilding team that has some talent but can't compete with Brady's supporting cast in terms of skill level. Brady could throw for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. Cassel won't, even in coach Todd Haley's passing circus.
8. Is there any player in Ohio worth pinning fantasy hopes on?
Last year's Browns were supposed to have the league's up-and-coming offense, led by Derek Anderson, Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow and Jamal Lewis, who all were taken in the first third of most drafts. Times have changed. Lewis is still a workhorse in the backfield worthy of an RB2 spot, but there are too many questions around the passing game to invest anything but a late pick in any other Brown.
The Bengals are more promising. Carson Palmer is reportedly back to 100%, which gives solid value to Laveranues Coles and Chad Ochocinco. Stay far away from underachieving running back Cedric Benson, but if backup Brian Leonard is hanging around in the 14th or 15th round, he is worth a flier.
9. The free agent version of the Big Three -- Brett Favre, Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison -- is made up of alltime greats. None is with a team as of the unofficial start of summer. If any one of them signs, is he worthy of fantasy consideration?
Favre is the fantasy version of the hot stove that you can't keep yourself from touching. Should he finally end up as a Viking (and, more important, completely healed from that torn right biceps) as has been widely prophesied, he'll be as attractive as he was last year for the Jets, which was pretty ugly at the end. His impact, however, will come more in the bump that receivers Bernard Berrian and Sidney Rice will see in their values.
James, now 31, looked old in Arizona last season and would be miscast as anything other than a five- to 10-carry back, making him a good choice for the Saints or even the Texans but not for you. As for Harrison, he lost two steps last year, and it's a coin flip whether he'll even find a new team.
On the other crumbs of free agency, here's an interesting thought: Bears castoff Rex Grossman has as good a chance as any free agent to have fantasy value. Given the right situation, the quarterback who led Chicago to the Super Bowl during the 2006 season and has a 23-13 record as a starter could pilot a team in need of help. Don't draft him, but don't scoff at the idea of using him during the season either.
10. Which team's players will benefit the most from their schedule?
The Saints' slate can be appropriately named the Big Easy. An 8-8 record last year qualified them as a last-place team, setting up clashes this season with some of the league's most porous pass defenses. In addition to facing the suspect Falcons' and Bucs' secondaries twice each, Brees & Co. will also take on the Lions, Jets and Rams, all of whom ranked in the bottom half against the pass in '08. The weather shouldn't be an issue for New Orleans either, since 10 of its games will be played inside domes and two more take place in Florida. And two of its three bad-weather sites (Buffalo and Philadelphia) will be visited in September.
11. Which team's players will be hurt the most by their schedule?
As if losing Cutler wasn't bad enough, the Broncos and new quarterback Kyle Orton face one of the most daunting schedules in the league. The first two weeks should be easy against the Ohio teams, but then the gantlet begins -- at Oakland, Dallas, New England, at San Diego, the bye week, at Baltimore, Pittsburgh and at an improved Washington. If that doesn't discourage you from using too many Broncos, nothing will.
12. Are there any kickers worth grabbing before the final round?
The straightforward answer is no. Regardless of who you think will lead the league in scoring (hint: Garrett Hartley of the Saints), kickers are more creatures of weekly matchups than any other position. Even the best are held to three- or four-point games on occasion, rendering them all but useless to their owners. The best thing to do is to take someone who is on a team with a good offense (perhaps Atlanta's Jason Elam) and has been consistent in recent years. But also be ready to use the waiver wire to adjust the spot throughout the year based on the schedule.
13. Which high pick is most likely to blow up in your face?
In 2008 Broncos wideout Brandon Marshall topped the century mark in catches for a second straight year, hauling in 104 balls for 1,265 yards. Red flags swirl around him, however. The departures of Cutler and Mike Shanahan will certainly hurt his effectiveness, as will a possible suspension for an off-season arrest in Atlanta. But the most troubling factor is the uncertainty of his health following off-season hip surgery. On paper he's a top 10 WR, but in reality he's too much trouble as a WR1.
14. Marshall isn't the only productive player facing possible legal ramifications. Are any of the others worth drafting?
NFL teams vet players before signing or drafting them, and some are unwilling to acquire anyone with a questionable background. When putting your fantasy team together, you're risking fantasy suicide if you don't exercise the same caution. Of the players deep into legal issues, Plaxico Burress, who awaits trial on charges of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon stemming from accidentally shooting himself in a New York City nightclub, is the most intriguing in the draft-and-stash realm. He drew interest in the spring from the Jets, and should he be cleared to play by the courts and the league, he'd be a top 10 receiver. But getting cleared is the problem. Even if Burress pleads to a lesser, third-degree charge, he could still face prison time. (According to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, almost 80% of people convicted of a third-degree charge in 2008 spent time in behind bars.) Given that fact, his tremendous upside is worth drafting only as a late-round flier.
In addition to Burress, quarterback Michael Vick will try to entice a team to sign him and give him playing time following his release from prison on dogfighting charges, assuming the NFL clears the way for him to return this season. But his fantasy output is an afterthought at this point. Receivers Matt Jones (probation violation for failing a random alcohol test) and Donte' Stallworth (DUI manslaughter charges) were borderline draftees even at the height of their careers, and with doubt surrounding them, both can be ignored.
15. What veteran has received little attention but might be this year's version of DeAngelo Williams?
In neither of his two previous seasons did Williams show any sign of being a candidate to lead the league's skill players in scoring. But in 2008 he did, and if you were lucky enough to draft him, you cashed in. So who is this year's Veteran Ready to Explode? There's a good chance that Jets Pro Bowl special-teamer Leon Washington is that man. Similar in stature to Maurice Jones-Drew and Sproles, Washington quietly scored eight touchdowns from scrimmage last season despite just 123 touches. Realizing that he's one of, if not the most, effective weapon on offense, the Jets' new staff is incorporating Washington more into the offensive game plan, making him an excellent late-round selection.
16. Who is the best choice to serve as a backup quarterback?
It all depends on who your starter is. You don't only want to find the best available quarterback on the board, you also want to find who'll be the most useful when needed most. You may be excited about the prospect of the Texans' Matt Schaub as your QB2, but if he's facing the Steelers the week of your starter's bye (i.e., the only week you know you'll play him), then what good will he be? Complicating things even further is that this season's bye weeks seem to take out all of the good quarterbacks early and often.
Here are the optimal starter-backup situations based on their respective byes. If you own Donovan McNabb, Matt Ryan or Kurt Warner, who are all off Week 4, then you'd probably want either Shaun Hill (versus Rams), Mark Sanchez (at Saints) or Brady Quinn (versus Bengals). If your starter is Brees, Cutler, Philip Rivers or Aaron Rodgers -- all with Week 5 byes -- then grab Edwards (versus Cleveland), Ben Roethlisberger (at Lions), Matt Hasselbeck (versus Jaguars) or Schaub (at Cardinals). Peyton Manning and Tony Romo owners will be smart to get Schaub (at Bengals), Roethlisberger (versus Browns) or Eli Manning (at Saints). The quarterbacks with Week 8 byes -- Brady, Cassel and Palmer -- should be backed up with Marc Bulger (at Lions), Jake Delhomme (at Cardinals) or Kerry Collins (versus Jaguars).
You may have noticed that we didn't offer suggestions for quarterbacks who have byes in Week 7. That was intentional, because if you're starting a quarterback with a bye that week (Joe Flacco, David Garrard, Collins, etc.) you need more help than we can give.
17. Are any true backup quarterbacks worth drafting?
Normally it's a reach to spend a valuable draft selection on a player who is slated to carry a clipboard and wear a baseball cap, but in the case of Matt Leinart it might just be worth it. Remember last season when Warner took over, the underlying sentiment around the fantasy world was that it was just a matter of time before the oft-injured oldster would find his way back to the bench, clearing the way for the quarterback of the future. That didn't happen last year, but Leinart is again just one big hit away from having the receiving corps of Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston, and the huge fantasy numbers they contribute, at his disposal.
18. Who are the best long-shot running backs?
There's no more satisfying fantasy football feeling than uncovering someone whom nobody else considered as a factor and watching him pay off. Two great deep-sleepers at running back are the Browns' James Davis, who has a great chance to unseat Jerome Harrison as the No. 2 back behind Lewis, and the Giants' Andre Brown, who is a dark-horse candidate to move into Derrick Ward's old slot in New York's dominating ground game.
19. Who is the best long-shot wide receiver?
Under their new regime, the Jets aren't going to be a big passing team, but by all accounts David Clowney, a speedster from Virginia Tech who missed nearly all of 2008 with a broken collarbone, has raised eyebrows and has a real chance to be a major contributor to an offense likely to be piloted by Sanchez.
20. What, if anything, can be guaranteed about the 2009 season?
Take every bit of information you read or hear with a grain of salt. Nobody saw the Brady injury coming last year, just as nobody saw DeAngelo Williams blowing up the way he did. The only thing that can be guaranteed about '09 is that it won't look anything like '08, so don't become a slave to past performance or overanalysis.