August 15, 2008

As the Olympics roll along, maybe the Games are a good example to use when ranking the hierarchy of fantasy football a year ago. At the end of the season, which position would be standing where on the medal stand? If you're thinking like I am, wide receivers grabbed the gold a year ago in what was a record breaking and relatively healthy year at the position.

Obviously Randy Moss was the cream of last years receiving crop, but eleven receivers and tight ends caught double digit touchdowns, and eight more hauled in either eight or nine scores. That latter group includes Anquan Boldin, Santonio Holmes, and Andre Johnson who all missed three games or more due to injury. What's more, it wasn't a very healthy year for pass catchers and they excelled anyway. Johnson (who missed nine games), Boldin (four), Roy Williams (four), and Todd Heap (four) joined Marvin Harrison as the most significant injury casualties a year ago. Harrison, of course, was the biggest disappointment playing at full go in just three games a year ago.

All this adds up to what for now appears to be a key season on the horizon for the leagues' best wide receivers. Early drafts are already suggesting a greater confidence in these positions when compared to years past. While running backs are teasing us with injury concerns and time shares, most of the top receivers and tight ends are in or entering their primes and doing so healthy. That said, here are some of the top pass catchers whose health you should keep an eye on as you go for the gold.

Terrell Owens, Dallas CowboysOwens has missed just one game in two years with the Cowboys and it was the season finale last year when Wade Phillips rested several starters before the playoffs. So why bring him up? Well, Owens is going to be 35 in December and he's dealt with reoccurring ankle and hamstring issues throughout his career. However, Owens quick-healing ability is well documented, and this offseason he practiced routes and cuts in the sand and says it's strengthened those areas of the body while allowing him to run more precise routes. I wouldn't necessarily drop him down your draft board, but I wouldn't blame you for moving some of the league's rising young studs closer to him.

Andre Johnson, Houston TexansJohnson had the type of year fantasy owners love. He hauled in almost seven passes per game, had several 100-yard games, and hauled in a TD pass almost every week. Unfortunately, he did it in just nine games. Johnson missed the other seven games a sprained MCL and PCL. The encouraging news is that Johnson came back fine and played at a high level the final seven games of the year despite injuries to the Texans quarterbacks. Concern arose in May when Johnson had to have the knee scoped and missed the Texans' mini camp. However, he's looked good in training camp and the Texans are being cautious not to overwork him. Be wary if any negative news of the knee pops up during the preseason as that would be the third issue in less than a year, but Johnson's 2nd half last year and track record suggest he'll be fine in '08.

Plaxico Burress, New York GiantsThe good news regarding Burress is that he showed last year he can play through injuries. Despite a severely sprained ankle he did not miss a game. In fact, he's missed just one game in three years with the Giants. The bad news is that, as of this writing, Burress has not yet participated in camp after injuring the same ankle in a workout this summer. The team says the injury is different from last year's but appears ready to make Burress wear special footwear or orthotics to prevent any further occurrences. Even if the ankle gives him some problems this year, Burress' still makes him effective in red zone situations even he is limited in his ability to outrun or cut past defenders in other areas of the field. Burress almost never practiced during the season last year but still scored a career-high twelve times. As long as his lack of participation is injury (and not contract) based, Burress remains atop fantasy option.

Anquan Boldin, Arizona CardinalsBoldin missed four games last season due to hip and toe injuries, but he remains Arizona's favorite red zone target. However, he's played in 16 games just twice in his five year career and has already dealt with a hamstring injury in camp. An MRI revealed no damage, and the Cardinals aren't concerned it will linger. Like Burress, Boldin's game is built more on size and positioning than speed and quickness. Plus, Boldin is seeking a contract extension, so you know what that means: Those aches and pains become a bit easier to play through.

Marvin Harrison, Indianapolis ColtsFor such a private athlete, Harrison may have provided us with some of the most perplexing storylines in the last year. A knee injury that we still don't know much about was followed this spring by a Philadelphia shooting incident involving a gun owned by Harrison. Philly police have turned up nothing, so it doesn't appear that will be an issue for Harrison this year. What might be are his knees. Harrison played just three healthy games last season and looked, frankly, embarrassing when the Colts threw him onto the field in the playoffs. Now, almost equally as mysterious, Harrison looks like ... Harrison. He's running, making all his cuts, and drawing rave reviews from teammates in camp. He hasn't missed a day of work yet. Obviously reoccurrence is the big question, but since we have almost no solid info to go on, I have to be honest in saying I have no idea how to factor in the possibility of a reoccurrence. He's sure to slip in drafts. Set a place you think he will be a good value and, if he's there, pull the trigger.

Steve Smith, Carolina PanthersSmith is healthy. Teammates that cross him are not. Joking aside, Smith makes the column simply as a reminder that he will miss the first two games as a result of a suspension for decking teammate Ken Lucas. Despite his size, Smith continues to play 15-16 games every year. Remember, QB Jake Delhomme is coming back from Tommy John surgery (only two QBs have ever done it before), and the Panthers added Mushin Muhammad and D.J. Hackett in the offseason -- all factors to think about when considering Smith in your draft this year.

Torry Holt, St. Louis RamsOne look at Holt's career stats suggests he's hardly an injury concern -- he's missed just two games in nine years. However, Holt is now 32 (an age when even star receivers usually begin their decline), has played on one of the league's hardest surfaces during his career, and spent most of last year battling cartilage damage in his right knee. To fight that and the other nagging injuries Holts has dealt with in the past, he changed his training regimen in the offseason. In fact, Holt mostly stayed away from "football activities" and instead played basketball, did extensive yoga, and turned laps in the pool. Whether those activities keep Holt fresh, remains to be seen, but Holt claims to feel great and, equally as important, QB Mark Bulger enters camp healthy as well. If Holts start slipping in your draft, don't hesitate to nab one of fantasy's most consistent wide receivers.

Brandon Marshall, Denver BroncosMarshall is worth a mention simply for the strange offseason he's had. Marshall busted out in a big way last year as one of only six players to haul in 100 or more passes, yet he's been suspended by the NFL for the first three games of '08 due to multiple violations of the league's personal conduct policy. (The suspension will likely be reduced to two games if Marshall agrees to undergo counseling.) Marshall's run in with a McDonalds bag, or whatever really happened, resulted in surgery to repair an artery, nerve, vein, two tendons, and three muscles in his right forearm. The Marshall has been on the field and those injuries shouldn't impact him in '08, but the strange injury and suspension raise some red flags that suggest Marshall could be one of those guys whose production may not equal his headaches.

Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson, Detroit LionsI'll put the talented Lions duo together here because of several similarities. Both players are big, fast, Top 20 picks that were limited due to injuries a year ago. Plus, both players were underutilized in Mike Martz' system that featured far too much of Martz tinkering with his "toys" -- slot receivers Mike Furrey and Shaun McDonald. With Martz gone, the Lions will have a more conventional approach of actually running the football and looking outside for their two big wideouts.

Now the injuries. Williams missed the final four games with a strained PCL. The injury has healed and Williams even caught a TD in the Lions fort preseason game. However, he's missed nine games in his four year career and only played all 16 once. He's a good bet to miss a game or two for various reasons. As for Johnson, let's not forget this guy came into the league with more hype than perhaps any receiver in ten years. For a rookie, his stats were respectable, but a strained back in Week 3 limited what may have been a special first year. The injury only forced Johnson to miss one game, but it bothered him so much that Johnson admitted there were games he needed multiple Vicodin just to play. Keep an eye on Johnson since back injuries can sometimes linger, but he's been pain free thus far in camp. Plus, with a nickname like "Megatron", don't you have to find a place for Johnson on your team?

Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward, Pittsburgh SteelersLast year, Holmes was one of the primary beneficiaries of Mike Tomlin's decision to open up the Steelers offense. The only thing that kept him from 1,000 yards and double digit TDs was an ankle injury that forced him to miss three games. The terrible playing surface at Heinz Field is well documented, so no Steeler is completely safe from leg injuries. However, the three games he missed last year were the only games he's missed in college or the pros.

Nagging injuries may have finally caught up with the 32-year old Ward. He played most of last season on a knee with a sprained MCL and PCL and then had offseason surgery to repair a torn meniscus. He was excused from most of the team's offseason activities to rest the knee and it seems to have worked as he's been full go in camp. Ward has only missed six games in his 10-year career, but they've all come in the last three seasons (including three last year). Few players have played through injuries the way Ward has, but is it something he can continue to do? Ward is still a nice option for the right price, but age and health are catching up. Even if fully healthy, the offense is more spread out with Holmes, rookie Limas Sweed, and Heath Miller fighting with Ward for looks from Ben Roethlisberger.

Keep An Eye On ...Laveranues Coles missed five games last year due to a concussion and a high ankle sprain, but he hadn't missed a game in six years prior. Obviously Brett Favre throwing him and teammate Jerricho Cotchery the ball is an upgrade over what the these two were working with at quarterback last year... The Saints Robert Meachem missed all of his rookie season with knee injury, but the big first round pick from a year ago should finally give the Saints a legit weapon opposite Marques Colston. He's already flashed big play ability in the preseason and may just be in the league's most bountiful passing offense... Buffalo's James Hardy may be the rookie receiver that makes the biggest impact this year. Hardy is a big target with outstanding hands. He gives Buffalo a great red zone target and finally a legit compliment to Lee Evans ... Anthony Gonzalez is being viewed as potential late round steal, but if Harrison's healthy and the Colts remain committed to using Dallas Clark more in the slot, where does that leave Gonzalez? Harrison's health will be the key, and if the future Hall of Famer stays on the filed, Gonzalez (who missed three games himself due to a thumb injury) may only see a small increase in value.

You May Like