Offseason moves, preseason games make for bold prognostications

With the ever-important third week of preseason games upon us, we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. The regular season is right around the corner, and that can only mean one thing. It's time to make some fantasy predictions.

Eric Mack set the boldness bar high with his predictions last week, and I'll try to match him with my entry below. Since he laid out such an effective roadmap for making and explaining his bold picks, I'll follow his template.

As Mack said, this is not done simply because we're expected to have a predictions column that differs from the rest of the fantasy community. The prognostications you'll find within come from a place of true conviction. They also just might prove to be the key to hoisting that fantasy trophy in December.

Why is this bold?

Calvin Johnson is the consensus No. 1 at the position, and rightfully so. After him, a host of options headed by Larry Fitzgerald make up the second tier. While most pundits see Marshall in that group, it's hard to emerge in front of guys like Fitzgerald, A.J. Green, Victor Cruz, Roddy White, Greg Jennings, Julio Jones and Andre Johnson. Don't forget that as long as Lovie Smith is at the helm, the Bears will "get off the bus running."

Why is this going to happen?

Despite Lovie's protestations that the Bears will always be a run-first team on his watch, there's no doubting that this is now Jay Cutler's offense. That's why new GM Phil Emery went out and got Marshall and Cutler's old QB coach from Denver, Jeremy Bates. In the two years Cutler and Marshall teamed in Denver, they connected 206 times for 2,590 yards and 13 touchdowns. The touchdown totals are a bit low, but the Bears should have one of the league's best red zone offenses, even with the sometimes-shaky Cutler, thanks to a plethora of options from Marshall to running backs Matt Forte and Michael Bush, to rookie receiver Alshon Jeffery and Cutler's trusted slot man Earl Bennett.

Meanwhile, Cruz, White, Jennings and Jones all have to split targets with other strong options opposite them, Green and Fitzgerald don't play with a quarterback nearly as talented as Cutler, and Johnson always raises injury questions. Marshall will emerge from this hodgepodge as fantasy's second best wide receiver.

What should we do about it?

Marshall is a big play receiver who can be deadly in the red zone, and he's typically going outside the top-30 picks. There's no reason for you to reach for him, even if you agree with this prediction. Focus on backs and the elite quarterbacks with your first two picks, and snag Marshall in the third round.

Why is this bold?

Jones-Drew has been among the fantasy elite essentially since scoring 15 touchdowns in his rookie year. He had 1,175 total yards and nine touchdowns in the worst year of his career. In the last three seasons, he has averaged 1,795 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns. He has been about as bankable a back as you could find since entering the league, and he's still just 27 years old.

Why is this going to happen?

His contract situation is a mess, he's very unhappy in Jacksonville, and he's talking trade two weeks before the season starts. Even if he stays in Jacksonville, their offense looks like a train wreck this year. If he leaves, he'll have to learn a new offense on the fly. And Chris Johnson showed last year showed all of us what a prolonged holdout can do to an established star. Other than that, everything is great in MoJo Land.

Also, while every running back outside the top three comes with his own risks, the talent pool remains deep. Guys like Steven Jackson, Fred Jackson, Ryan Mathews and Michael Turner are all on the outside of the current top-12 backs by ADP.

What should we do about it?

Resist the urge to take Jones-Drew in the late first/early second round. Wide receiver is very deep this year, so I'd recommend going with a back like Matt Forte, DeMarco Murray or Jamaal Charles in that spot. Of course, if Tom Brady or Drew Brees falls there, something totally within the realm of possibility, that's the pick to make.

Why is this bold?

Many fantasy experts wrote off Bush's eight-touchdown campaign with the Saints in 2009 as a fluke. It was nothing more than being part of one of the league's offenses, we said. When an injury cost him half of the 2010 season, we all patted ourselves on the back. I was foremost in labeling Bush a bum heading into last season. Then he went and rolled up nearly 1,400 total yards to go along with seven scores. Still, many see this as the absolute best he can do. They will be surprised in 2012.

Why is this going to happen?

The primary reason this will happen is because I believe the Dolphins will get Bush more than the 259 touches he had last year. He's easily their most dangerous weapon, as he's the team's best rusher and receiver. While he still may not excel at running between the tackles, he averaged five yards per carry last year, and 5.6 back in his breakout 2009 season. He's going to catch 50 balls at the minimum, and he'll always turn those catches into solid yardage. And don't sleep on the impact Ryan Tannehill will have on this offense. While a severe need at quarteback in Miami may have made Tannehill a higher pick in the draft than he may have gone in other years, he has looked impressive this preseason, and certainly looks the part of an effective NFL QB. Improved quarterback play will only result in a better season for Bush.

What should we do about it?

The third and fourth rounds of typical fantasy drafts will be dominated by receivers, thanks to the depth of the talent pool. Bush will likely factor into this mix. While the picks you've already made will help dictate what you do in rounds three through five, you should feel confident making Bush your second running back. I recommend grabbing him over his clone, Darren Sproles (or is Bush a Sproles clone since Sproles is older?).

Why is this bold?

Like MJD, Rivers has been one of the most profitable players at his position since entering the NFL. He has put up four straight seasons with at least 4,000 yards, throwing for a total of 119 touchdowns in that stretch. We all know he lost Vincent Jackson, but his track record and health still makes him a seemingly safer pick than guys like Peyton Manning, Jay Cutler and Ben Roethlisberger. He's arguably in a group with Eli Manning and Tony Romo.

Why is this going to happen?

First, we saw the impact losing Darren Sproles had on him last year. Without that security blanket, he looked a lot less comfortable, and that likely had some role in his career-high 30 interceptions. Second, he lost Jackson, his biggest deep threat. The Chargers replaced him with Robert Meachem, a guy who was always second or third fiddle in New Orleans. He'll be asked to be the man in San Diego, and I'll believe he can do that when I see it and not a moment sooner. Antonio Gates is a shell of his former self, and a near-lock to miss a handful of games. He also no longer requires a double-team, meaning there are more defenders to cover Rivers' other options. Finally, Ryan Mathews is already dealing with his first injury of the season, and the two had precious little practice time together before he was injured. If Rivers is to remain a reliable fantasy starter, he'll need Mathews to not only be healthy, but to fulfill his potential.

What should we do about it?

Luckily, quarterback is as deep as it has been in years. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees are elite. Matthew Stafford, Cam Newton, Eli Manning, Michael Vick, Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan and Tony Romo are all every-week starters. Jay Cutler could vault back among the elite, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco are known commodities, and Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck are intriguing rookies. In other words, you have plenty of options. Unless you're drafting Rivers as a backup or Vick insurance, stay away.

Why is this bold?

Despite leading the Giants to their second Super Bowl championship in five seasons and coming off the best statistical season of his career, Eli Manning finds himself ranked eighth among quarterbacks by average draft position. According to the guys at FantasyPros, his average expert ranking is seventh. He may have settled the "Is Eli an elite QB" argument he started at the beginning of last season, but many of my brethren in the fantasy community clearly do not believe he is in the make-believe version of football. This is where I break ranks with my fellow experts.

Why is this going to happen?

First, he's coming off a year in which he threw for 4,933 yards and 29 touchdowns, getting 8.4 yards per attempt. He has arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL in Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, a supremely talented, if potentially knuckleheaded, tight end in Martellus Bennett, and a very strong offensive line that keeps him upright. He took care of the ball a year ago, making his 20-interception campaign in 2010 look like even more of an anomaly. He has proven that he can make all the throws, he has posted three consecutive 4,000-yard seasons, and he has the confidence befitting a quarterback who has won the Super Bowl twice. With Cruz starting from day one, he'll have the best weapons he has had entering any of his seasons in the NFL.

What should we do about it?

We should make a serious profit. In an average draft, Manning is currently going 42 picks later than Cam Newton and 32 picks later than Matthew Stafford. Let the fools in your league take 2011's stars early while you focus on running backs at that stage of the draft. Coolly sit back, bide your time, and grab Manning in the fifth or sixth round. Then watch him post numbers surpassing both Newton and Stafford this year. Trash talking the guys who took Newton and Stafford is optional, though I wholeheartedly endorse it.

1. Ryan Mathews is still a top-10 back -- Despite fracturing his clavicle, Mathews shouldn't miss too much time during the regular season. Even if he misses a couple games, 14 games of Mathews is better than 16 games of a lot of guys. I'm willing to bet that he stays healthy and still racks up 1,200-plus total yards and double-digit scores.

2. Andy Dalton is the AFC North's top fantasy quarterback -- Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco may be playoff-tested, but Dalton has the best receiver of the bunch, as well as, in my opinion, the best team. Dalton proves himself a solid fantasy option and occasional starter, thanks largely to A.J. Green, and the Bengals win the division.

3. JerMichael Finley is fantasy's top scoring tight end -- Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham set records last year, but 2012 will belong to Finley. With Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson occupying so much attention, a more sure-handed Finley establishes consistency en route to a 1,200-yard, 12-TD season. And just for the record, I second Mack's "Tamme is a top-five TE" call.

4. Pierre Garcon is a top-20 receiver -- With Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky and Kerry Collins playing "quarterback" for the Colts last year, Garcon somehow caught 70 passes for 947 yards and six touchdowns. He looks rejuvenated in Washington, and already appears to be Robert Griffin III's top target. He'll get over 1,000 yards this year to go with eight receiving touchdowns.

5. Russell Wilson is the No. 2 rookie quarterback -- Four quarterbacks were selected in the first round of April's NFL Draft. Come December, only one, Andre Luck, will have had a better statistical season than Wilson, who will win the job in Seattle at start all 16 games. He'll best RG3, Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden, and end the year as a top-20 quarterback.

6. Doug Martin continues the tradition of struggling rookie running backs -- I know Martin has the tools and opportunity to be an every-down back, but I've been burned too many times by rookie running backs to fully buy in, especially if I don't believe in the team as a whole. Just a year ago people were swearing Daniel Thomas and Mark Ingram would be instant fantasy successes. Unless the price is right, I'm letting someone else take the plunge on Martin.

7. Jamaal Charles is who we thought we was -- Last year, Charles was a consensus top-five pick. A torn ACL ended his season right off the bat, but he's fully healthy and ready to pick up where he left off in 2010. He reprises his role as a home-run threat every time he touches the ball and racks up 1,500 total yards with 11 touchdowns.

8. Tony Romo's not a top-10 quarterback -- Miles Austin and Dez Bryant are already hurting, and the usually reliable Jason Witten will miss the first few weeks of the season with a spleen injury. Laurent Robinson, last year's security blanket, is in San Francisco. He may not be directly at fault, but without consistent production from his weapons, Romo will be on the fringe every-week starter. You'll have to pair him with a strong second option.

9. Donald Brown is a starting running back in all formats -- The talent has always been apparent in the former first rounder, but the circumstances haven't always worked out. As a rookie in 2009, the Colts already had a Super Bowl-caliber offense, and they just never found a place for him. He missed the first four games of the 2010 season due to injury, but put together a strong finish, ending with 645 yards and five touchdowns on 134 carries. Manning's neck injury sunk the entire 2011 Colts team. With Andrew Luck in town, a few full seasons under his belt and no real competition in sight, Brown starts to realize his potential. He'll get to 1,100 yards and lead the Colts in touchdowns.

10. Stevie Johnson is a top-20 receiver -- In 2010, the third year of Johnson's career and the first in which he got significant playing time, he caught 82 passes for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns. Last year, his production ticked down slightly, but he still had 76 receptions, 1,004 yards and seven scores. He's not really flashy and he's more of a volume guy, but the only thing that can derail another year that at least matches last year's totals is health. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a competent quarterback and Johnson remains his best weapon. A little more C.J. Spiller involvement should benefit the offense as a whole. Johnson will get back over the 1,000-yard mark to go along with nine touchdowns.

Chat with me on Twitter, @MBeller.


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