September 07, 2010

With just 48 hours before kickoff and a long offseason of fantasy speculation almost behind us, I'll be watching a six-pack of plots play out in this weekend's games.

6. The Dixon debut: Newly anointed Pittsburgh Steelers starter Dennis Dixon makes his regular season debut against the Falcons Sunday. Even though it's a home game and the Falcons aren't world beaters, their defense is good enough to provide a solid test. Nervous Rashard Mendenhall owners should get some answers whether they'll get to sit back and enjoy vintage, smash-mouth Steelers-ball for the first month or second-guess starting him until Ben Roethlisberger returns, while keeping the antacids handy.

5. Patriot games: When New England hosts the Bengals Sunday we'll get to see how improved the Bengals defense is with a fully-healthy cast, but, more important, get to analyze the Pats. Will Tom Brady, with two years between him and his knee injury recapture at least some of his production from 2007? Also, will the contract tension affect fantasy's No. 2 receiver Randy Moss (who's been known to sulk a wee bit in the past), if miracle healer Wes Welker sits, does Julian Edelman continue on his quest to eventually become Welker 2.0, how do the dynamic pair of rookie tight ends look and finally, will Laurence Maroney finally take the reigns and be the lead back?

4. When Bears attack: One game does not a season make, but Bears' fantasy owners will get a sneak peek of what the Chicago offense could look like in the coming months if it can fire on all cylinders. Jay Cutler and the Bears' new aerial attack face one of the league's worst secondaries when it opens at the Lions. Standout safety Louis Delmas has played sparingly in preseason due to injury, while newly acquired Chris Houston was a big-play burn victim in Atlanta last year. The Bears and Cutler should have a field day as long as the Lions' improved pass rush doesn't disrupt too much.

3. Fantasy shootouts, anyone? Two games that should be worth their weight in points and fun are Thursday's Vikings-Saints and Sunday's Packers at Eagles gunslinger duels. When it comes to the Vikings, prepare to be on Brett Favre watch, seeing how he deals with his gimpy ankle and the loss of Sidney Rice. In the Packers game, it isn't a stretch to call them the favorites, but watching a young and promising offense like the Eagles with Kevin Kolb, try to keep pace with Aaron Rodgers and Co. could be a blast.

2. A possible K.C. masterpiece: The late game on Monday night between the Chargers and Chiefs is packed with fantasy storylines. When it comes to watching the Chiefs, the Jamaal Charles-Thomas Jones timeshare will be front and center while Dwayne Bowe will also be under the microscope to see if his 2008 fantasy ascent -- which got interrupted last year -- continues. For the Chargers, the heavily hyped Ryan Mathews debut is in full effect, not to mention seeing how the passing game functions without the presence of Vincent Jackson. Owners invested in Philip Rivers and WR sleepers Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee will no doubt be the most interested.

1. Will the Jets crash? Sure you're tired of hearing about them, but love the Jets or hate them, it's hard to turn away from watching them. The Hard Knocks stars kick off the season with a great opener against the Ravens in Monday's early game. Fantasy points might be hard to come by, but what better stage to debut the improved Baltimore passing game and the Jets' tweaked ground attack with Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson. If either unit or both does well against these quality defenses, only good things could be in store down the road. A probable one-on-one Anquan Boldin-Darrelle Revis matchup should be one of the main events of this knock-down, drag out brawl.

Matt Leinart is now a Texan, at least for a year. When the Cardinals first acquired Derek Anderson, I predicted he would be the starter and Leinart would be out, way back last March:

"Enter Anderson, who has one of the strongest arms in football and would be a perfect play-action quarterback in the pocket for the Cards. ... My bold prediction is that Anderson could wrest the job by the beginning of the season or at the latest, midway."

The only thing that surprised me was how quickly things unraveled publicly in the past two weeks of preseason for Leinart, leading to the wholesale change. Anderson should make a low end QB2 for most leagues and will come dirt cheap, at least until he proves himself reliable. For me, WR Larry Fitzgerald's stock actually goes up a bit, as does RB Beanie Wells with the Anderson move. He may start off a little shaky, but the Rams make for a nice Week 1 starter kit and his skill set fits the Cardinals way better than Leinart's ever did.

In Seattle, the cutting of T.J. Houshmandzadeh was way more surprising. The Mike Williams redemption project must be gang-busters, because the Seattle pass-catching group from here looks like rookie Golden Tate and question marks galore. The signing of Housh in Baltimore was a nice pickup, although more practical in real life than in fantasyland. Playing behind Boldin and Derrick Mason, he'll make for a nice red zone target or possession receiver out of the No. 3 role. Unfortunately he won't be much of a factor in fantasy.

Thanks to the Houshmandzadeh pickup, Mark Clayton got a new lease on life with a trade to the Rams. Clayton could make for a nice waiver wire pickup in a month or so, once he learns the offense. Due to Donnie Avery's injury, Clayton instantly becomes the No. 1 receiver thanks to the unheralded corps led by Laurent Robinson who led what has to be the league's worst group of receivers anywhere. Although he's never lit the fantasy world on fire, he'll have a chance to shine in St. Louis.

It's amazing how quickly fortunes change not only in the NFL, but in fantasy. Here's how the top 30 looked in my 10-team, mixed yardage and scoring league draft in 2006:

1 RB Larry Johnson, Chiefs2 RB LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers3 RB Shaun Alexander, Seahawks4 QB Peyton Manning, Colts5 RB Clinton Portis, Redskins6 RB Tiki Barber, Giants7 RB Ronnie Brown, Dolphins8 RB Steven Jackson, Rams9 RB Rudi Johnson, Bengals10 RB Edgerrin James, Cardinals

Second round

11 RB Lamont Jordan, Raiders12 RB Cadillac Williams, Bucs13 WR Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals14 RB Reggie Bush, Saints15 WR Steve Smith, Panthers16 WR Marvin Harrison, Colts17 WR Chad Johnson, Bengals18 RB Willis McGahee, Ravens19 WR Torry Holt, Rams20 RB Kevin Jones, Lions

Third round

21 RB Willie Parker, Steelers22 WR Randy Moss, Raiders23 WR Terrell Owens, Cowboys24 RB Warrick Dunn, Falcons25 WR Anquan Boldin, Cardinals26 RB Bryan Westbrook, Eagles27 RB Domanick Davis, Texans28 WR Hines Ward, Steelers29 WR Chris Chambers, Dolphins30 RB Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars

This collection of old-school names makes the draft look like it took place eight years ago instead of just four. The running back attrition rate really stands out here, and by the way, was Brown always a fantasy tease? Interesting how Jackson's draft spot didn't differ much from this year's projections (now that's consistency). Top-pick Johnson entered year two of his brief two-year reign of dominance, while No. 2 pick Tomlinson would go supernova with 28 TDs that year. Alexander's period as a member of the Big 3 running backs ended this season, as his TD number fell from the then-record 27 in 2005 to just seven the next season.

As far as the other backs went, James' desert decline was imminent, while Jones washed out, Dunn's days were numbered, Parker had a short shelf life and Davis got hurt and never played in 2006. And that forward-thinking last pick of the third round? By some astute owner and current Fantasy Clicks lead writer Jay Clemons, who gambled on the Jaguars' rookie and was rewarded with 16 touchdowns but claims he never drove a DeLorean or knew anyone named Doc Brown prior to the draft.

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