Carson Palmer: David Drapkin/Getty Images
In last week's mock draft for Sports Illustrated's fantasy football spectacular (likely to hit the shelves by July 4), I made the uncomfortable selection of Cincinnati's Chad Ochocinco as my WR1. Yes, Ocho is still listed among my top-15 receivers for standard-scoring leagues. Yes, he's only 31 years old. Yes, I didn't mortgage my pretend team's roster by grabbing him in Round 5. And yes, the Wide Receiver Formerly Known as Johnson is only two seasons removed from 93 catches, 1,440 yards and eight TDs. But in lieu of Carson Palmer's cryptic comments about the state of the Bengals' receiving corps -- referring to Chad in past tense -- I cannot help but wonder if Ochocinco will be receiva non grata all season in the Queen City. I must also wonder: Are the Bengals actually equipped to handle the offensive workload -- should Chad remain a shrinking violet on pass routes?
Hmmmm ... seems like a perfect excuse to analyze the Bengals offense, through Carson's eyes, Revelations-style:
What He'll Like: It's scary to think of what kind of player Chris Henry could have been without injuries or infamous scrapes with Larry Law back in the day. But at 26 years old, it's far too early to construct his epitaph -- especially when Palmer needs him in red-zone situations. If he can stay healthy and law-abiding for all 16 games, the lightning-fast Henry has the capacity for 64 catches and eight TDs.
What He'll Like, Part II: Speaking of 26-year-old enigmas, there is no obvious rationale for Cedric Benson's finishing kick of three straight games of 100-plus total yards -- all Cincinnati victories, by the way. The Bears' deposed No. 1 pick from the '05 draft somehow leapfrogged the Bengals' stable of talented rushers to take full command of the offense last December, highlighted by a 171-yard effort against the Browns. But now, the real question becomes: Can Benson sustain his fantasy goodness throughout the 2009 season ... or was his closing spurt just a welcome benefit of playing the Chiefs, Browns and Redskins down the stretch? Time will tell.
What He'll Love: If Laveranues Coles can be an annual lock for 79 catches, 950 yards and six TDs with Chad Pennington, Kellen Clemens and Patrick Ramsey throwing the ball, he certainly will maintain or exceed that level of production on Palmer's watch. And Coles' age (31) isn't really a big deal for two reasons: He was never a pure speed burner in his younger days, and he'll never see double teams as long as Ochocinco's on the field (even in a decoy role).
What He'll Love ... Eventually: Make fun of team president and general manager Mike Brown all you want, but the club has an impeccable track record with drafting receivers (T.J. Houshmandazadeh, Carl Pickens, Eddie Brown, Cris Collinsworth, Darnay Scott, Ochocinco and Henry) in the last 30 years. So, perhaps we should remain optimistic with Jerome Simpson -- the second-round pick from 2008 -- while conveniently ignoring his one-catch performance last season. Yes, Simpson established his collegiate greatness at tiny Coastal Carolina ... but let's not forget that Tyler Thigpen (now with the Chiefs) was his quarterback with the Chanticleers.
What May Blow His Mind: Here's another feather in the Bengals' cap. Their cadre of backup receivers and running backs -- taken at full value -- might be the best in the NFL. Seriously. Running backs Brian Leonard, DeDe Dorsey, Jeremi Johnson, Marlon Lucky and Kenny Watson have so much promise that Cincinnati didn't bat an eye over releasing former first-rounder Chris Perry. And the receivers have a number of breakout candidates as well, like Quan Cosby, Mario Urrutia, Andre Caldwell and Maurice Purify.
What May Blow His Mind, Part II: Speaking of excellent depth, the Bengals might have the best 1-2 punch at tight end, with veteran Ben Utecht and touted rookie Chase Coffman ruling the middle of the field. At worst, Utecht/Coffman are a top-5 tandem -- right now.
Here are my backup-QB rankings for standard-scoring leagues, from No. 1 (Tyler Thigpen) to No. 32 (Caleb Henie). Unless Matt Cassel sets the NFL world on fire in '09 (which I don't think will happen), Thigpen will likely be called upon to save the Chiefs in at least three or four games
1. Tyler Thigpen, Chiefs
2. Derek Anderson, Browns
3. Seneca Wallace, Seahawks
4. Vince Young, Titans (assuming his head's in the game)
5. J.T. O'Sullivan, Bengals (a perfect fit in Cincy)
6. Tarvaris Jackson, Vikings
7. Chris Simms, Broncos
8. J.P. Losman, Bills (he can beat out Gibran Hamdan, right?)
9. Kevin Kolb, Eagles
10. Matt Leinart, Cardinals
11. Jeff Garcia, Raiders
12. Dan Orlovsky, Texans (make all the "safety" jokes you want ... the kid has talent)
13. David Carr, Giants
14. Josh McCown, Panthers
15. Luke McCown/Byron Leftwich/Brian Griese, Buccaneers
16. Mark Sanchez, Jets (has a better short-term fantasy future than the No. 17 guy)
17. Matthew Stafford, Lions (the greatest fantasy potential of anyone on this list)
18. Kyle Boller, Rams
19. Alex Smith, 49ers
20. Billy Volek, Chargers (the "rust" factor justifies this low ranking)
21. Cleo Lemon, Jaguars
22. Brooks Bollinger, Cowboys (a slight upgrade over Brad Johnson)
23. Todd Collins, Redskins
24. Chad Henne/Pat White, Dolphins
25. Troy Smith, Ravens
26. Kevin O'Connell, Patriots (should probably be higher on the Pats' reputation alone)
27. Jim Sorgi, Colts
28. Mark Brunell, Saints (thank goodness for Drew Brees' durability, eh?)
29. Chris Redman, Falcons
30. Charlie Batch, Steelers
31. Matt Flynn/Brian Brohm, Packers
32. Caleb Henie, Bears (listed here for obvious reasons)
A receiver is only as good as his quarterback ... and the number of opportunities he gets to make a catch (known as Targets). Here are last season's Target leaders -- on a per-game basis -- which explains Nate Burleson's place on the list, even though his season was cut short due to injury:
1. Brandon Marshall, Broncos (12.4 Targets)
2. Andre Johnson, Texans (11.3 Targets)
3. Anquan Boldin, Cardinals (11.0 Targets)
4. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals (10.4 Targets)
5. Calvin Johnson, Lions (10.4 Targets)
6. Roddy White, Falcons (10.2 Targets)
7. Dwyane Bowe, Chiefs (10.2 Targets)
8. Steve Smith, Panthers (10.1 Targets)
9. Nate Burleson, Seahawks (10.0 Targets)
10. Wes Welker, Patriots (9.6 Targets)
11. Braylon Edwards, Browns (9.4 Targets)
12. Terrell Owens, Cowboys -- now Bills (9.3 Targets)
13. Eddie Royal, Broncos (9.3 Targets)
14. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Bengals -- now Seahawks (9.3 Targets)
15. Santana Moss, Redskins (9.1 Targets)
16. Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers (9.0 Targets)
17. Matt Jones, Free Agent (9.0 Targets)
18. Greg Jennings, Packers (8.9 Targets)
19. Marques Colston, Saints (8.6 Targets)
20. Reggie Wayne, Colts (8.4 Targets)
21. Randy Moss, Patriots (8.3 Targets)
22. Hines Ward, Steelers (8.1 Targets)
23. Derrick Mason, Ravens (8.1 Targets)
24. Santonio Holmes, Steelers (7.9 Targets)
25. Plaxico Burress, Free Agent (7.9 Targets)
26. Donald Driver, Packers (7.8 Targets)
27. Laveranues Coles, Jets -- now Bengals (7.8 Targets)
28. Deion Branch, Seahawks (7.8 Targets)
29. Torry Holt, Rams -- now Jaguars (7.7 Targets)
30. Greg Camarillo, Dolphins (7.7 Targets)
Tight ends may represent the glue of any proficient passing attack; but alas, they weren't all created equal. To wit, the way-too-early TE tier system for fantasy drafts -- some of which begin in about, oh, nine weeks:
Tier I (minimum projections -- 1,000 total yards and/or 8 TDs)
Jason Witten, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark
Tier II (minimum projections -- 850 total yards and/or 6 TDs)
John Carlson, Kellen Winslow, Chris Cooley, Owen Daniels, Greg Olsen, Zach Miller
Tier III (minimum projections -- 700 total yards and/or 5 TDs)
Kevin Boss, Visanthe Shiancoe, Heath Miller, Vernon Davis, Brent Celek, Dustin Keller, Todd Heap, Tony Scheffler, Jeremy Shockey
Tier IV (minimum projections -- 500 total yards and/or 3 TDs)
Bo Scaife, Brandon Pettigrew, Steve Heiden, Marcedes Lewis, Anthony Fasano, Donald Lee, Robert Royal, L.J. Smith, Ben Utecht, Brad Cottam, Alex Smith, Leonard Pope
Tier V (minimum projections -- 400 total yards and/or 3 TDs)
Billy Miller, Alge Crumpler, Dante Rosario, Martellus Bennett, Jerramy Stevens, Ben Watson, Randy McMichael, Daniel Graham, Ben Patrick, David Martin, Shawn Nelson, Reggie Kelly, Jermichael Finley, Joe Klopfenstein, Matt Spaeth
Last August, I jumped the gun (big time) in heaping mondo praise onto Niners rookie receiver Josh Morgan. Looking back at my stupidity, I simply placed more trust in speculative opinion (then-offenisve coordinator Mike Martz's never-ending compliments and the too-good-to-be-true Terrell Owens comparisons) than actual fact (his minimal hype coming out of college and that Broncos receiver Eddie Royal was far more productive while playing with 'Baby T.O.' at Virginia Tech). What can I say? I was wayyyyyyyy off in declaring Morgan (20 catches, 319 yards, 3 TDs in '08) as a sneaky-good WR3 option.
The Morgan debacle notwithstanding, I will always put myself on the proverbial ledge when trying to find the next great class of fantasy sleepers (defined by those with the capacity to finish top-20 at their respective positions). Like this year's early top 10:
1. RB Darren McFadden, Raiders (could be top-10 when it's all said and done)
2. WR Sidney Rice, Vikings (IF any receiver is primed for a giant leap, it's Rice)
3. RB Derrick Ward, Bucs (DON'T FORGET his 212-yard rushing day against the Giants in Week 16)
4. QB Kyle Orton, Titans (he can't lose with B-Marsh, Royal, Scheff, Knowshon, C-Buck)
5. WR Greg Camarillo, Dolphins (as long as Chad Pennington's the QB ... he'll knock 'em dead)
6. TE Vernon Davis, 49ers (look no further than their TE-friendly O-coordinator, Jimmy Raye)
7. RB Jonathan Stewart, Panthers (a bigger, faster version of DeAngelo Williams; can he be better?)
8. WR Earl Bennett, Bears (someone has to benefit from Jay Cutler's greatness)
9. TE Ben Utecht/Chase Coffman, Bengals (this tandem is too good to ignore ... right, Carson?)
10. RB Correll Buckhalter, Broncos (don't assume Knowshon Moreno automatically wins the job on Day 1)
I sincerely doubt Anquan Boldin has heard the unfortunate tale of John Jefferson. In 1980, Boldin's birth year, Jefferson was one of three Chargers to tally at least 1,000 receiving yards, as part of the go-for-broke "Air Coryell" offense. In '81, Jefferson (three 1,000-yard seasons and 36 TDs from 1978-80) pouted his way out of San Diego (surprise! he wanted a new contract) and to Green Bay in a midseason trade ... where he had four lackluster years before retiring, without fanfare, with Cleveland after the '85 season. The Chargers, in turn, acquired the Plastic-Man-like talents of Wes Chandler midway through the '81 season and never really missed a beat with their high-octane attack.
Fast forward to the present: Boldin has reportedly fired his agent and noted Twitter honk Drew Rosenhaus, in the name of either getting a new contract with the Cardinals ... or pouting his way out of Arizona, Jefferson-style. Now, if Boldin genuinely wants to keep playing in the desert, but wants a little pay bump ... that's fine, I suppose. But if he's dead-set on bolting town before his 29th birthday, I think it'd be a huge mistake. This isn't to say Boldin cannot carry an offense without Larry Fitzgerald at his side -- he did catch 101 balls for 1,377 yards and 8 TDs in 2003. But I also believe, at this stage in his career, he'd be more interested in building a Hall of Fame résumé in a pass-friendly offense than going to the Dolphins, Titans or Redskins -- where good receivers go to die, at least in fantasyland.
After all, in the history of the NFL inducting its best players into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I highly doubt any of the enshrinees ever looked at his Hall of Fame bust, the emotional notes from his meticulously planned acceptance speech ... and the seemingly endless throng of family, friends and supporting fans in Canton that day and muttered to himself: Gee, I'd trade it all for just a little more money and another ego stroke from a new NFL city.
From my seat on the bench, I'm guessing only three rookie quarterbacks have a legitimate shot at seeing any playing time in '09 -- let alone contributing to the fantasy landscape:
Matthew Stafford, Lions
Just so there's no confusion down the line, I'm guaranteeing that Stafford will be an NFL top-5 fantasy QB as early as 2011 -- as evidenced by his rocket arm, supreme intelligence (he scored a 36 on the Wonderlic -- that's Peyton Manning territory) and that he'll be throwing darts to Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew throughout the next decade. But in the short term, he'll undoubtedly sit behind Daunte Culpepper and Drew Stanton for at least 12 games this season. And if everything goes right for Stafford (that's a big IF) ... then maybe, just maybe he'll be a promising emergency start at Week 15, when Detroit hosts Arizona.
Mark Sanchez, Jets
Let's start with the positive: In five years, Sanchez will be a better pro QB than Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow or Colt McCoy, three high-profile studs in the 2010 NFL Draft. And he may actually start more games than Stafford in 2009, making him the slightly better fantasy option. Now for the negative: I'm struggling to see Sanchez's once-in-a-decade upside in the pros. I'm also weary of the Namath comparisons. He seems like a case of What you see ... is what you'll get.
Pat White, Dolphins
In non-keeper leagues, White is the strongest fantasy buy this season. He's a lock to play in every game -- either as a 'Wildcat' QB or standard receiver for Chad Pennington. He's also a lead-pipe-cinch for at least 6-7 TDs, which may surpass the number of combined scores credited to Tampa Bay's quarterbacks. (I think I'm kidding on that one)
The following is a TV bit I dreamed up recently, as an homage to NFL.com's brilliant fantasy commericals through the years -- like this one, this one, this one and, of course, the coup d'etat, "Housh ... yourmama. (It's amazing what the mind can create when lying on a couch for 14 consecutive hours.) For the record, I have no plans of pitching this to an NFL Network exec ... I'm just having fun here. However, I wouldn't mind some brutally honest feedback from the Clicks reader. In the spirit of the immortal Dick Clark and American Bandstand ... do we Jam It or Slam It?
Backstory: The motivation for the following 30-second TV spot was borne out of ex-Broncos coach Mike Shanahan's legendary disdain for fantasy football -- at least that's his perception after years of randomly assigning reps to running backs in Denver, from week-to-week. It also helps that he's taking a break from coaching in 2009 (he?s accessible), possesses TV-friendly charisma ... and that Texans head coach Gary Kubiak is one of his best NFL friends.
Setting: The NFL.com fantasy guys are watching a Houston Texans game on a typical Sunday afternoon -- in a spacious living room
Step 1: Tight camera shot on the NFL.com fantasy guys watching the Texans intently (camera then flashes to old footage of Houston QB Matt Schaub throwing a red-zone touchdown to Kevin Walter, Owen Daniels or any other receiver NOT named Andre Johnson)
Step 2: After the TD, the NFL.com guys celebrate the Houston score (and subsequent Schaub fantasy points), on-camera ... but they are drowned out by the nonsensical ravings of a man, off-camera ... some of the guys look at the unseen wailer with bemusement
Step 3: Fast forward to another Schaub TD pass not involving Andre Johnson ... the NFL.com guys celebrate the Houston/Schaub score with unbridled delight -- but again, they are drowned out by the unseen wailer, off-camera ...
Step 4: Finally, one of the guys says to a buddy:
NFL.com Guy #1
Dude, what's with your friend?
Step 5: Suddenly, the camera pans to the previously unseen wailer, Mike Shanahan, who's donning a #80 Andre Johnson/Texans hat and a T-shirt that reads, "Ask me about my fantasy team" ... once on camera, Shanahan buries his face in his hands for a brief moment, before shouting to no one in particular:
Why does Kubiak hate fantasy football??? That should be Andre Johnson's red-zone touchdown!!!
Step 6: The NFL.com guys, sensing the irony, just look each other with scrunched faces, while hearing Shanahan bellow off camera:
Jacoby Jones ... are you kidding me? Come on!
Screen goes black ... before "commercial voice-over guy" says:
Fantasy Rule #87: Avoid fantasy haters on NFL Sundays at all costs. Fantasy Rule #1: Play fantasy football on NFL.com.
Commercial Ends -- Fade To Black
Jay Cutler: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Before the Cowboys dumped Terrell Owens and before the Broncos shockingly shipped Jay Cutler to the Bears, I would've guessed the Romo vs. Cutler debate would be a dead heat this season. But now that Romo's primary target is Roy Williams (ugh!) and Cutler will have to exercise tremendous patience with Devin Hester's inconsistent route running, I'm not really sure what to believe. Luckily, we have time for a fantasy breakdown of which QB gets the weekly starting nod:
Week 1 -- Romo (@ Tampa Bay) over Cutler (@ Green Bay)
Week 2 -- Romo (vs. N.Y. Giants) over Cutler (vs. Pittsburgh)
Week 3 -- Cutler (@ Seattle) over Romo (vs. Carolina)
Week 4 -- Cutler (vs. Detroit) over Romo (@ Denver)
Week 5 -- Romo (@ Kansas City) over Cutler (BYE)
Week 6 -- Cutler (@ Atlanta) over Romo (BYE)
Week 7 -- Romo (vs. Atlanta) over Cutler (@ Cincinnati)
Week 8 -- Cutler (vs. Cleveland) over Romo (vs. Seattle)
Week 9 -- Cutler (vs. Arizona) over Romo (@ Philadelphia)
Week 10 -- Cutler (@ San Francisco) over Romo (@ Green Bay)
Week 11 -- Romo (vs. Washington) over Cutler (vs. Philadelphia)
Week 12 -- Cutler (@ Minnesota) and Romo (vs. Oakland) -- TOSS UP
Week 13 -- Cutler (vs. St. Louis) over Romo (@ N.Y. Giants)
Week 14 -- Romo (vs. San Diego) over Cutler (vs. Green Bay)
Week 15 -- Romo (@ New Orleans) over Cutler (@ Baltimore)
Week 16 -- Cutler (vs. Minnesota) over Romo (@ Washington)
Week 17 -- Cutler (@ Detroit) over Romo (vs. Philadelphia)
Verdict: How about that? Cutler won by a 9-8-1 vote, although we're basically splitting hairs with Weeks 4, 7, 10 and 12 -- and Romo would be my starting choice for Weeks 14 and 15, traditionally fantasy playoff weeks. But here's something to consider: Does Cutler's week-to-week superiority mean that he'll get drafted ahead of Romo in standard-scoring leagues come August? I doubt that'll be the case. Name-brand recognition still goes a long way in fantasyland.
Here are more results from my fantasy draft with Mock Draft Central on April 27. The draft attracted some of the highest-profile fantasy experts in the biz ... and the entire production will be published in Rotoworld's next football magazine (similar to SI's fantasy blowout). Rounds 1-8 have already been listed here in previous weeks (standard-scoring league, 14 rounds, 2 RBs/3 WRs start):
97. WR Michael Crabtree, 49ers
98. WR Donald Driver, Packers
99. WR Derrick Mason, Ravens
100. QB Carson Palmer, Bengals
101. QB Matt Schaub, Texans
102. TE Dustin Keller, Jets
103. RB Le'Ron McClain, Ravens
104. RB Ricky Williams, Dolphins
105. QB Matt Ryan, Falcons
106. QB Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers (my pick)
107. RB Earnest Graham, Buccaneers
108. QB Eli Manning, Giants
109. WR Domenik Hixon, Giants
110. QB Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks
111. WR Sidney Rice, Vikings (my pick)
112. WR Chris Chambers, Chargers (more on him later)
113. WR Isaac Bruce, 49ers
114. WR Mark Clayton, Ravens
115. WR Jeremy Maclin, Eagles
116. WR Ted Ginn, Jr., Dolphins
117. WR Devin Hester, Bears
118. WR Miles Austin, Cowboys
119. RB Julius Jones, Seahawks
120. RB Chester Taylor, Vikings
Sure, the 2009 NFL Draft has barely been put to bed, but I wanted to call attention to SI.com writer Andrew Perloff's intriguing mock draft for next season. For obvious reasons, he has the Lions and Raiders picking 1-2 -- although he has Detroit making a landmark trade at the top spot. Enjoy!
A decade from now, NFL/fantasy historians might look back at the Running Back Class of 2008 and see a bunch of All-Pros, Pro Bowlers and -- dare we say it -- Hall of Fame candidates. This group is that deep and that good. For the '09 season, here are the best Year 2 options within standard-scoring leagues:
1. Matt Forte, Bears
2. Chris Johnson, Titans
3. Steve Slaton, Texans
4. Darren McFadden, Raiders
5. Kevin Smith, Lions
6. Jonathan Stewart, Panthers
7. Felix Jones, Cowboys (injuries in '08 thwarted a higher ranking here)
8. Ray Rice, Ravens
9. Tim Hightower, Cardinals
10. Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers (ditto for this future TD machine)
11. Tashard Choice, Cowboys
12. Ryan Torain, Broncos
13. Peyton Hillis, Broncos
14. Mike Hart, Colts
15. Chauncey Washington, Jaguars
Chargers receiver Chris Chambers may be on the wrong side of 30 (is there a right side?), and Vincent Jackson (59 catches, 1,098 yards, 7 TDs last season) has officially supplanted him as the Bolts' best receiver, but Chambers still holds one major trump card for savvy fantasy owners: In odd-numbered years, he's averaging a robust 65 catches, 983 yards and 8 TDs per season. And as luck would have it, the calendar reads 2009! Cha-ching!
In an extensive interview with Peter King in this week's Sports Illustrated, Patriots QB and international man of intrigue Tom Brady says he'd like to keep playing in the NFL through his 41st birthday. Now, this mini-section isn't to poke fun of Brady for throwing out such a random figure (kind of like Lowell Mather on TV's Wings getting his family inheritance on his "31st and a half" birthday -- but I digress) ... it just gives me a chance to repeat my philosophy on taking QBs in Round 1 of fantasy drafts:
IF you can dead-cinch-lock guarantee me that either Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Tony Romo or Brady will throw for 40-plus touchdowns this season ... maybe, just maybe I'll consider grabbing 'em in Round 1 (or Round 2). Until then, I'll simply wait until Round 7 to grab the QB with the best value; and believe me, there's always a great one available at that point.