August 18, 2008

To win at fantasy football, you must know the inner workings of every NFL team. You can't just watch your favorite NFL team anymore. No siree. You must now know everything you can about every NFL team before the start of the season and during the season as well.

With that in mind, I've looked over every AFC team and come up with the biggest burning question each club must answer before Sept. 4. The answer to these questions could determine each team's fate and they could determine whether you win a fantasy-league title or not. Here you go:

Buffalo Bills

Can QB Trent Edwards improve enough to make this a legitimate offense?

The Bills scored only 252 points last year, 15th in the AFC, with only Kansas City scoring fewer points. The QB controversy between Edwards and J.P. Losman is over as this second-year pro out of Stanford is now the unquestioned starter. He didn't look good in the preseason opener, but on Thursday he completed 9-of-14 passes for 104 yards and two TDs against Pittsburgh and looked much more confident in the pocket. He has good weapons in WR Lee Evans and RB Marshawn Lynch, and in time rookie WR James Hardy is going to be a very good target. Edwards remains a backup fantasy QB for 2008, but if Evans bounces back and Hardy emerges as expected this offense could be much improved.

Miami Dolphins

Does it matter who is at QB if Ronnie Brown can't stay healthy?

The addition of QB Chad Pennington was important because this young offense wasn't going to click with either second-year pro John Beck or rookie Chad Henne under center. Sorry, but neither QB is ready for prime time just yet. Pennington gives this offense stability, but let's be honest, with a wide receiving corps of Ted Ginn Jr., Ernest Wilford, Derek Hagan and David Kircus, this group isn't going to scare anyone. Only Ginn has fantasy value among this group and that's only as a deep reserve WR. This offense revolves around Brown, but he's already trying to come back from knee surgery and on Saturday night he suffered a thumb injury. Now Ricky Williams is getting more playing time -- he started ahead of Brown on Saturday -- so even Brown has questionable fantasy value right now. This could be another messy season in Miami, so don't plan your fantasy team's success around any of these offensive players, not even Brown.

New England Patriots

Will Randy Moss be just as motivated this season to prove his critics wrong as he was last year?

Say what you want about Tom Brady being the focus of this offense, but if Moss isn't as motivated to play this year as he was last year this offense will not be as dominant as it was in '07. Remember, the Patriots scored an NFL-record 589 points last year with Brady setting an NFL record with 50 TD passes and Moss setting an NFL record with 23 TD receptions. Moss had 98 catches for 1,493 yards and his deep routes allowed Wes Welker to catch 112 passes and add 8 TDs. Brady, Moss and Welker will all go in the top 25 picks on draft day, but the real bargains here could be WR Jabar Gaffney, who starts opposite Moss at split end, and Laurence Maroney, who is healthy now and ready to grab a more prominent role in this offense.

New York Jets

Can Brett Favre turn this moribound franchise into a playoff contender in just one year?

It's hard to believe that one player can make such a difference in a team game like football, but the addition of Favre has already had a positive effect on the franchise and the team. In just two weeks, Favre has given hope to Jets' fans who have awaited a savior since Joe Willie Namath left in the 1970s. That savior is now Brett Lorenzo Favre, who made his debut on Saturday night by completing five-of-six passes for 48 yards and a touchdown. He looked like the Brett of old as he made good decisions, threw tight spirals and found secondary receivers. If he plays like this all year and the defense holds up, the Jets could go from 4-12 to 9-7 and contend for a wild-card berth. And in turn, Jerricho Cotchery, Laveranues Coles, ThomasJones and rookie TE Dustin Keller all will have increased fantasy value thanks to the addition of Favre.

Baltimore Ravens

Who starts at QB in 2008 and will it even matter for fantasy owners?

Don't give up on this offense just yet. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron bombed out in Miami last year, but he's worked well with QBs in the past and could put a spark into this offense. The Ravens don't want to rush rookie QB Joe Flacco too much as they saw how badly Kyle Boller struggled as a rookie starter, so look for Boller to start ahead of Troy Smith. He has received the most playing time in the first two preseason games and head coach John Harbaugh has already said that Flacco isn't a consideration to start. Boller is too mistake-prone to be a top-flight fantasy option and isn't even backup material. Todd Heap and Derrick Mason are the best options here outside of RB Willis McGahee, but grab rookie RB Ray Rice in the middle rounds as he will be a great sleeper pick behind the injury-prone McGahee.

Cincinnati Bengals

Will Chad Johnson stay happy in Cincinnati or is he ready to derail this high-powered offense?

This is a very fragile offense in '08. With Chris Henry gone, there basically are two good wideouts and very little depth behind them. The Bengals can't afford an injury to T.J. Houshmandzadeh or discontent by Johnson because after them is Doug Gabriel, Jerome Simpson and Antonio Chatman. A nice third option will be TE Ben Utecht, who could be a good sleeper pick at that position. The Bengals have not used their tight end effectively since QB Carson Palmer has been the starter, but he seems much more comfortable with Utecht around and says that Utecht can have "a big year." The running back situation is muddled right now as Rudi Johnson has battled a hamstring injury, which has Chris Perry now competing for a starting job. He could be a good sleeper pick, but he's also been so injury-prone that you can't count on him. If you do grab Rudi, grab Perry later on as a nice handcuff.

Cleveland Browns

Was Derek Anderson for real last year or was that just a mirage?

It's very rare to see a backup QB become the starting QB after just one game and then become one of the most dominant QBs in the league, but that's what happened with Anderson last year. He replaced Charlie Frye in Week 1 and never looked back, throwing for 3,787 yards and 29 TDs. He was rewarded this offseason with a three-year, $26 million contract and should put up similar numbers this year because his weapons are so good. Wide receiver Braylon Edwards and TE Kellen Winslow are top-3 talents at their positions who will perform again this year, and WR Donte Stallworth provides a better WR2 option than Edwards had all last year. As long as Jamal Lewis stays healthy to take pressure off the passing game, the Browns will equal or surpass last year's offensive totals. Simply put, Andersen is a worthy top-6 pick among all QBs on fantasy draft day.

Pittsburgh Steelers

How will the addition of rookie RB Rashard Mendenhall change the Steelers' offensive attack in 2008?

This defensive-minded franchise surprised some folks when it took Mendenhall in the first round of this year's draft, but the Illinois standout was just too good to pass up. Willie Parker is still the starting RB in Pittsburgh and he will get most of the carries in '08, but the 224-pound Mendenhall could steal some goal-line carries this year. Parker suffered a broken fibula in the playoffs last year, but he has looked good in camp and looks like the "Fast Willie" of old. He's just in a fight to keep his old role, and as a result he's now ranked outside of the top 20 RBs, a situation that has him going in the fourth round of most drafts. The best bargain on this offense is WR Santonio Holmes, who just keeps making big plays this preseason and is ready to emerge as a 1,000-yard receiver and the No. 1 playmaker in this offense. He should have a big, big year, along with QB Ben Roethlisberger.

Houston Texans

With the passing game showing signs of life last year, is there any hope for the running game?

The Texans scored 379 points last year mainly behind a revived passing game under head coach Gary Kubiak. Quarterback Matt Schaub is a worthy fantasy backup QB if he can stay healthy as he has solid targets in WRs Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter and Andre Davis, and TE Owen Daniels. But this team needs to find a solid No. 1 back and that's unlikely this year. Ahman Green strained a groin muscle in the first pre-season game and veteran Chris Brown isn't a reliable option. Rookie Steve Slaton looked good in the second preseason game, but he is still behind Chris Taylor on the depth chart. Don't be surprised if one of the veterans gets released in the final cut and a running back-by-committee emerges once again in Houston. Stay clear of that if at all possible.

Indianapolis Colts

Will injuries derail this proud offense or can QB Peyton Manning and WR Marvin Harrison recover in time to save things?

Manning is on schedule to start the opener against Chicago, head coach Tony Dungy says, but his knee surgery shouldn't be taken lightly. He opens the season with his first three games on turf, which can't be good, even though he's never missed a regular-season game in his career. The same can be said for Harrison, who is trying to bounce back from knee surgery as well, while playing on turf. He looked good in the preseason opener and caught three passes for 22 yards, and as a result, his fantasy value is back on the rise. This should all work out fine, and in the end this will be one of the most feared offenses in the NFL once again. But until we see Manning running the offense in practice again, there's still a little reason to be concerned.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Can this team win a Super Bowl with such a conservative offense?

The Jaguars have won in the past with a physical defense and an offense that relies on the running game to win the battle of the clock. It's been successful in the past, but not successful enough to reach the Super Bowl. Still, some folks may be surprised to learn that the Jags scored 411 points last year, sixth-highest total in the NFL. They did this with QB David Garrard making smart decisions, throwing only three interceptions in 12 games and adding 18 TDs. The addition of WR Jerry Porter should give this offense a little more life, but look for RBs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew to again carry the load. Greg Jones is also healthy and will be the No. 3 RB, so look for the same gameplan to be in place for '08 as the Jags try to win the time of possession game again this year.

Tennessee Titans

Will Vince Young bounce back from a dismal 2007 season or did we see the best of him at Texas?

Young seems to be regressing from his impressive rookie season of '06 and his performance this preseason hasn't erased any of the doubts fantasy owners have about him. On Friday during the Titans' second preseason game, Young completed 4-of-13 passes for 37 yards while often underthrowing or overthrowing his receivers. He also isn't scrambling as much as he did during his rookie season, which hurts his fantasy value. The Titans brought back offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger this offseason and he seems more focused on the running game than the passing game, so lower Young's value for this season. Young is a backup QB in fantasy football this year, while wideouts Justin Gage and Roydell Williams are also backups. Focus more on rookie RB Chris Johnson, who could be the biggest sleeper of the season as he will have plenty of highlight reel plays and could platoon with LenDale White as the starting halfback before the season is done.

Denver Broncos

Will the Broncos have one starting running back this season or will we see a running back-by-committee approach?

Fantasy owners know that drafting the right Denver running back can lead to great success, but it's been hit-or-miss here the last few seasons. How many owners gambled on Travis Henry last year and lost? Yeah, I see your hands up out there. This year the best bet is for Selvin Young to be the starting back and gain most of the yards as he's looked pretty good this pre-season. But it also looks like they will take him out in the Red Zone and allow Andre Hall to be the goal-line back. They wanted to use rookie Ryan Torain in that role until he had elbow surgery last week, so Hall is now the short-yardage back. All in all, this looks like a losing situation for fantasy owners as Young will have value, but not as much value if his touchdowns are limited. This situation is just too volatile to find the winning sleeper pick here this year.

Kansas City Chiefs

Will the QB play be so bad in K.C. this year that it devalues every other skill position player?

Larry Johnson has fallen into the second round in recent fantasy drafts. Dwayne Bowe has fallen outside of the top 20 WRs suddenly. Tony Gonzalez is being drafted after the top three tight ends, and even after Chris Cooley sometimes. Why? Because the Chiefs' QB situation is so bad that fantasy owners feel it will affect the passing game and the running game. It certainly allowed defenses to stack eight men in the box last year and limit Johnson's effectiveness, and it could happen again this year. Brodie Croyle is the anointed starter, but he hasn't topped 100 yards yet in the first two preseason games and he struggled badly on Saturday. This team has top fantasy players at RB, WR and TE, but all of them need to be down-graded because of the poor play at QB.

Oakland Raiders

Will rookie RB Darren McFadden be the newest home run hitter in Oakland or will he be lodged in a platoon situation with Justin Fargas?

Fargas topped 1,000 yards last season and will still get plenty of playing time this year, but he's also coming off knee surgery and isn't the big play threat that McFadden is. Head coach Lane Kiffin said repeatedly this offseason that the Raiders lacked explosiveness last year and that's why they used the fourth pick in this year's draft to land McFadden. That being said, the Raiders would like to use Fargas as the starter and use McFadden for 15-20 carries per game, hoping for that big home run once or twice a game. Don't draft McFadden in the top 30 hoping that he turns in an Adrian Peterson-type rookie season because he's not going to get as many carries as AP did last year, but overall he will finish with 1,000 yards and several big plays as your RB2.

San Diego Chargers

Should fantasy owners be concerned about LaDainian Tomlinson wearing down from the number of touches he's had so far in his career?

During his first seven NFL seasons, LT2 has averaged 338 carries a season and has never had fewer than 313 carries. He's also averaged 65 receptions per season, so no matter what anyone says the wear and tear of all this production has to eventually take a toll on this 5-10, 221-pounder. He is still the consensus No. 1 pick on draft day and you'd be a fool not to build your team around him if you had the top pick because he has missed just one regular season game in seven seasons. He's a warrior, he will hold up and he's the best player in fantasy football, but eventually even this warrior will break down. Let's just hope it doesn't happen this year.

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