BY JAY CLEMONS
Darren McFadden: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
The numbers hit you like a punch in the face when clicking to Pro Football Reference. In 2009, Darren McFadden finished third amongst Raiders rushers with 357 yards and one touchdown (behind Michael Bush/Justin Fargas) ... and fifth amongst Oakland pass-catchers with 245 receiving yards. Granted, McFadden only played in 12 games last year, but his per-game average of 41.5 total yards was easily the worst for a former top-5-overall draft pick in Year 2 since Brent Fullwood in the late 1980s (minimum 12 games). Yes, even Curtis Enis, Ki-Jana Carter and Blair Thomas -- the three biggest RB draft busts of the modern era -- had better numbers in their respective second years than McFadden in '09. Yikes!
But this mini-section wasn't conceived to denigrate McFadden's talents or even characterize him as a bust at the tender age of 22 (he turns 23 in August). Rather, it's an exploratory exercise of whether D-Mac actually has the tools to be a great real-world and fantasyland tailback in the 2010 season. And from this point forward, we're going to accentuate all D-Mac positives, acting as if the high-profile 2008 man-crush has yet to expire:
1. As of May 6, the free agent Fargas has yet to re-sign with the Raiders or join forces with another club; and frankly, he'll probably have to wait for Brian Westbrook, Ronnie Brown, Jerome Harrison to find official homes before he's pursued with legitimate interest. (Note: Brown and Harrison are restricted free agents.) So, that's one major hurdle removed for D-Mac before the season even starts.
2. The Raiders passed on C.J. Spiller, Ryan Mathews, Jahvid Best, Dexter McCluster, Toby Gerhart, Joe McKnight, Montario Hardesty, Jonathan Dwyer and Ben Tate in last month's draft; so, on its own, that would be a strong endorsement of McFadden and Bush's standing amongst the franchise's one-man hierarchy (Al Davis).
3. The Raiders figuratively stole QB Jason Campbell from the Redskins on draft day (in exchange for a 4th-rounder), a move that actually puts them in the running to win the watered-down AFC West. As a direct consequence, McFadden and Bush won't have to worry about opposing defenses putting 8-9 guys in the proverbial "box" -- essentially daring JaMarcus Russell to accurately throw downfield ... or correctly execute a short-range screen pass.
4. Knock Oakland all you want for being an NFL model of instability, but there's no denying the talent at offensive line, bolstered by the fact it took Jared Veldheer and Bruce Campbell in the draft. If the Raiders were smart -- and yes, that's never a given -- they'd reclaim their 2008 status as one of the NFL leaders in rushing attempts and feed D-Mac and Bush a combined 35-40 times a game ... and then let Campbell work his conservative magic the rest of the way.
5. Perhaps I should've led with this one, but McFadden is easily the second-fastest back in the NFL (behind Chris Johnson) and probably the best overall athlete amongst the top tailbacks. And that supreme athleticism should eventually count for something, huh? Sooner or later, he's going to stop being compared to Brent Fullwood and Blair Thomas, right?
There's no bigger death knell in fantasy drafts than consistently reaching for talents who've yet to reach their full potential -- and likely won't do so in the next four months. But every now and then, it's healthy to take a major leap of faith:
Jay Cutler, Bears: Mike Martz may have lost his golden coaching touch in real-world circles, in terms of resurrecting the Lions and 49ers in recent years, but he remains a great friend to the fantasy industry. If he can transform Jon Kitna into a top-12 fantasy QB with Detroit (4,208 passing yards/21 TDs in 2006) ... just think of the damage he'll do with Cutler in Chicago.
Matthew Stafford, Lions: By a country mile, the NFC North is home to the NFL's current cradle of quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, Cutler, Stafford). But don't be fooled by Stafford's standing as the No. 4 QB in the former Black & Blue division: In two years, he'll be a top-5 fantasy stud ... and the primary reason for Detroit's annual flirtation with the Super Bowl.
Knowshon Moreno, Broncos: Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson aside, it's a tad unrealistic to expect out-of-this-world production from rookie backs; but it's also imperative to find pockets of sustainable potential for Year 2 and beyond. In Moreno's case, he racked up at least 86 total yards seven times from Weeks 2-12 (with five touchdowns); and in the season finale against Kansas City, Knowshon amassed 98 yards and posted his first two-TD game of the season.
Jonathan Stewart, Panthers: In my current preseason rankings, J-Stew stands as the No. 19 back -- in front of Matt Forte, Jerome Harrison, Marion Barber and a shade below Beanie Wells, Joseph Addai, Rashard Mendenhall. Translation: If Stewart wasn't stuck in a prodigious time-share with DeAngelo Williams, he'd be a top-10 back. In fact, he's perhaps the greatest second-string fantasy back since Bo Jackson (behind Marcus Allen) with the Raiders in 1988 ... or Larry Johnson (behind Priest Holmes) in 2004.
Sidney Rice, Vikings: In August 2009, I boldly predicted Rice would collect 1,100 receiving yards -- regardless if Favre or Sage Rosenfels was taking the reps under center (he ultimately collected 1,312 yards and 8 TDs). Fast forward to the present: Rice seems like another lock for 1,200 yards, but with a realistic capacity for 10-plus TDs. Thankfully, he'll go undervalued in the preseason (again), given the uncertainty of Favre's return.
Calvin Johnson, Lions: Even the most optimistic fantasy owner has to be a little troubled over Johnson's declining production (and injury woes) in 2009; but NFL defensive coordinators can only keep Calvin down for so long -- especially with the Lions' pass-happy supporting cast of Stafford, Nate Burleson, TEs Brandon Pettigrew/Tony Scheffler, versatile rookie RB Jahvid Best and aggressive O-coordinator Scott Linehan. Here's a bonus: For the first time since 2007, Johnson can easily be scooped up in Round 3 of standard-league drafts.
Jermichael Finley, Packers: As a vital cog in the NFL's best passing offense, Finley offers tremendous hope to the fantasy owner who steadfastly refuses to take Dallas Clark, Antonio Gates, Jason Witten, Tony Gonzalez, Brent Celek or Kellen Winslow early in the draft.
Zach Miller, Raiders: Miller has experienced double-digit improvements in receptions the last two NFL seasons -- despite the Raiders' shell game at quarterback; and yet, he'll always be a draft-day afterthought. (Lucky for us.)
There's a perception in fantasyland, whether real or not, that wide receivers make the biggest strides in their third professional season. To wit, here are my 2010-only rankings for the Year 3 wideouts:
1. DeSean Jackson, Eagles
2. Devin Thomas, Redskins (ready to take one giant leap this fall)
3. Pierre Garcon, Colts
4. Mario Manningham, Giants
5. Donnie Avery, Rams
6. Josh Morgan, 49ers (Ted Ginn's presence affects his ranking)
7. Early Doucet, Cardinals (could easily be No. 2 here by season's end)
8. Eddie Royal, Broncos
9. Earl Bennett, Bears
10. Chaz Schilens, Raiders
11. Andre Caldwell, Bengals
12. James Hardy, Bills
13. Malcolm Kelly, Redskins
14. Harry Douglas, Falcons
15. Keenan Burton, Rams
I realize it's early, but here's a little preview of the top-10 studs for Week 14 (factoring in opponent and weather -- in no particular order), traditionally the first fantasy-playoff week. So, this should help you a little on draft day ... about three months from now:
QBs: Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, David Garrard, Drew Brees, Alex Smith, Matthew Stafford, Brett Favre, Kevin Kolb, Jay Cutler
RBs: Adrian Peterson, DeAngelo Williams, Frank Gore, Beanie Wells, Steven Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ryan Grant, Cedric Benson, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy
WRs: DeSean Jackson, Miles Austin, Sidney Rice, Greg Jennings, Calvin Johnson, Vincent Jackson, Mike Sims-Walker, Larry Fitzgerald, Reggie Wayne, Randy Moss
In Points Per Reception leagues, I almost always draft a QB and the No. 1 wide receiver from the same team. In the biz, it's known as "handcuffing" ... which simply means every time your quarterback (say Tom Brady) completes a pass or TD-score to Randy Moss, the fantasy owner would earn double the points. The downside to this strategy, of course, lies in that rare game when the quarterback throws for only 130 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. Odds are your wide receiver caught only a few passes and had little or no fantasy impact on that day. For the most part, though, handcuffing is a sneaky-good way to fantasy greatness, especially when you have the right weapons at your disposal. Here are the NFL's best QB-WR handcuffs in PPR leagues:
1. Matt Schaub/Andre Johnson, Texans
2. Peyton Manning/Reggie Wayne, Colts
3. Aaron Rodgers/Greg Jennings, Packers
4. Tom Brady/Randy Moss, Patriots
5. Matt Ryan/Roddy White, Falcons
6. Matt Leinart/Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals
7. Chad Henne/Brandon Marshall, Dolphins
8. Philip Rivers/Vincent Jackson, Chargers
9. Brett Favre/Sidney Rice, Vikings
10. Kevin Kolb/DeSean Jackson, Eagles
11. Matthew Stafford/Calvin Johnson, Lions
12. Matt Moore/Steve Smith, Panthers
13. Joe Flacco/Anquan Boldin, Ravens
14. Tony Romo/Miles Austin, Cowboys
15. Drew Brees/Marques Colston, Saints
16. Carson Palmer/Chad Ochocinco, Bengals
17. Brett Favre/Percy Harvin, Vikings
18. David Garrard/Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars
19. Jay Cutler/Devin Aromashodu, Bears
20. Matt Cassel/Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs
21. Vince Young/Kenny Britt, Titans
22. Mark Sanchez/Jerricho Cotchery, Jets
23. Alex Smith/Michael Crabtree, 49ers
24. Matt Leinart/Early Doucet, Cardinals
25. Peyton Manning/Austin Collie, Colts
Here's the best way to ensure a great handcuff on fantasy draft day -- without "reaching" for talent: By waiting until Rounds 7/8/9 to draft a quarterback (especially in 10- or 12-team leagues), you've bought yourself time to pair an underrated QB with a top-shelf receiver from the earlier rounds. Last year, for example, I sagely snagged Andre Johnson at the tail end of a PPR Round 1 ... and then happily plucked Matt Schaub in Round 8 without sacrificing talent or depth at running back. (The chances of repeating that same strategy for Johnson/Schaub this year: Zero percent.)
Had I taken a QB in the first three rounds (like Brees, Manning, Brady, Romo), I would've had to disrupt the flow of my entire draft board just to get Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Reggie Wayne or Marques Colston as the second part of the QB-WR handcuff. The moral to the story: The best fantasy teams are built throughout the entire draft -- not just the first five rounds. In other words, who's going to be this year's Matt Schaub?
With the NFL Clicks running here on Thursday, there'll be no baseball Clicks for Friday this week. As part of this spur-of-the-moment alteration, we'll be holding off our detailed fantasy examination of the Pittsburgh Pirates until next week. For the sake of that mini-section, we're (selfishly) hoping Brad Lincoln or Pedro Alvarez don't make their big-league debuts in the next eight days.
Vince Young: Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Just like real-world football, fantasy owners can win a championship with either Vince Young or Joe Flacco running the show at quarterback for 14-16 weeks this season. But for the fantasy owner with both Young and Flacco on his/her roster, they're going to make their weekly determinations on who's the hot hand ... and who has the easier matchup. So, on the off chance you land Flacco and Young in the same draft (Rounds 8/9) and aren't sure whom to start, here's a week-by-week breakdown of the QBs currently ranked Nos. 17 and 18:
Week 1 -- Young (vs. Oakland) over Flacco (@ N.Y. Jets)
Week 2 -- Young (vs. Pittsburgh) over Flacco (@ Cincinnati)
Week 3 -- Flacco (vs. Cleveland) over Young (@ N.Y. Giants)
Week 4 -- Young (vs. Denver) over Flacco (@ Pittsburgh)
Week 5 -- Flacco (vs. Denver) over Young (@ Dallas)
Week 6 -- Young (@ Jacksonville) over Flacco (@ New England)
Week 7 -- Young (vs. Philadelphia) over Flacco (vs. Buffalo)
Week 8 -- Young (@ San Diego) over Flacco (BYE)
Week 9 -- Flacco (vs. Miami) over Young (BYE)
Week 10 -- Flacco (@ Atlanta) over Young (@ Miami)
Week 11 -- Flacco (@ Carolina) over Young (@ Washington)
Week 12 -- Flacco (vs. Tampa Bay) over Young (@ Houston)
Week 13 -- Young (vs. Jacksonville) over Flacco (vs. Pittsburgh)
Week 14 -- Flacco (@ Houston) over Young (vs. Indianapolis)
Week 15 -- Young (vs. Houston) over Flacco (vs. New Orleans)
Week 16 -- Young (@ Kansas City) over Flacco (@ Cleveland)
Week 17 -- Young (@ Indianapolis) over Flacco (vs. Cincinnati)
Final Tally: Young wins, 10-7
Verdict: There's absolutely no justification for Young coming out of the chute in a sluggish manner -- especially with early home games against the Raiders, Steelers and Broncos, and roadies with the highly susceptible Giants and Jaguars. Flacco, on the other hand, must endure a sustainable run of quality defenses, while playing second-fiddle to Ray Rice in September and October. But come November, he'll get to flex his muscles against the Dolphins, Falcons, Panthers and Bucs. Don't let the Young's three-game spread fool you here: He probably won't break free until Weeks 15, 16 and 17, culminating with a surprisingly easy-cheesy matchup with the we're-already-resting-for-the-playoffs Colts on the season's final week.
... There are now only two remaining non-expansion franchises (Jaguars, Texans don't count) that haven't reached one of the 44 Super Bowls: The Lions and Browns. Ironically, both clubs enjoyed plenty of championship success in the days prior to Max McGee, Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Chuck Howley, Jim O'Brien and Bob Lilly (heroes of Super Bowls I through VI) becoming household names. And yet, neither team has been able to break on through to the NFL's hallowed land of Roman numerals and Up With People. Which franchise will be the last one standing? I'd love to hear your responses via Twitter.
FYI: Sports Illustrated will be coming out with the sequel to its gigantic preseason fantasy football publication sometime in July, and our official Experts' Mock Draft is slated for June 1, meaning I'll have plenty of post-draft nuggets for the June 2 Clicks. Can't hardly wait
Everyone knows fantasy football has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 10 years (and will continue to mushroom throughout this decade, as well); but it's hard to truly appreciate just how deep the talent reservoir has gotten at certain positions -- tight end, for example -- until you stumble on this blast from the past: The 2001 CNNSI.com fantasy football cheatsheet which, ahem, boasts the following top-10 tight ends for the preseason.
1. Tony Gonzalez, Chiefs
2. Shannon Sharpe, Ravens
3. Freddie Jones, Chargers
4. Frank Wycheck, Titans
5. Chad Lewis, Eagles
6. Jay Riemersma, Bills
7. Kyle Brady, Jaguars
8. Wesley Walls, Panthers
9. Bubba Franks, Packers
10. Ken Dilger, Colts
Verdict: To be fair, this cheatsheet woefully underestimated the contributions of Byron Chamberlain, Desmond Clark, Eric Johnson and Marcus Pollard (8 TDs with the Colts) heading into the 2001 season; but the point remains that after Gonzalez and Sharpe (two likely Hall of Famers), the talent pool had an absurd dropoff. And to be honest, you could make a case the current No. 14 player in my TE rankings (Oakland's Zach Miller) might've cracked the top-3 nine years ago ... especially since JaMarcus Russell was merely a junior at Williamson High in Mobile, Ala.
Here's a post-draft listing of the top 25 tight ends for 2010:
1. Dallas Clark, Colts
2. Vernon Davis, 49ers
3. Jason Witten, Cowboys
4. Antonio Gates, Chargers
5. Brent Celek, Eagles
6. Tony Gonzalez, Falcons
7. Jermichael Finley, Packers
8. Kellen Winslow, Jr., Buccaneers
9. Owen Daniels, Texans
10. Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings
11. Greg Olsen, Bears (the Martz Effect is just too daunting)
12. John Carlson, Seahawks
13. Dustin Keller, Jets
14. Zach Miller, Raiders
15. Tony Scheffler/Brandon Pettigrew, Lions (BP would be higher if no ACL recovery)
16. Fred Davis/Chris Cooley, Redskins
17. David Thomas/Jeremy Shockey, Saints
18. Jermaine Gresham, Bengals
19. Todd Heap/Dennis Pitta, Ravens
20. Jared Cook, Titans
21. Heath Miller, Steelers
22. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots
23. Kevin Boss, Giants
24. Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars
25. Brad Cottam, Chiefs
After a few weeks of wading through your Twitter responses to my two-player, keeper-league quandary -- choosing amongst Matt Forte, Brandon Jacobs, Knowshon Moreno, Darren McFadden, Mike Sims-Walker, Roddy White or quarterbacks Chad Henne/Matthew Stafford -- I have finally decided to keep ... (drum roll please) ... Moreno and Roddy White.
Truth be told, I wanted to keep running backs Forte (my No. 1 overall pick in PPR leagues last year), Jacobs (the NFL's leading rusher after the first hit in '09) or McFadden (a popular man-crush) instead of White; but eventually, I succumbed to the time-tested fantasy creed of Don't overthink the obvious, stupid and committed to White and his 256 catches, 3,737 yards and 24 TDs from 2007-09. Here's another's factor in my decision: I own the No. 2 overall pick in this CBS draft and will likely get a clean shot at Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Ryan Grant, Reggie Wayne, DeSean Jackson, Sidney Rice, Brandon Marshall, Jonathan Stewart, Shonn Greene, LeSean McCoy, Miles Austin, Steve Smith, Beanie Wells, Vincent Jackson, Rashard Mendenhall and Randy Moss in Round 1.
Realistically speaking, my first eight players could be:
Keepers: Moreno, White
Round 1: RB Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers
Round 2: WR Sidney Rice, Vikings
Round 3: QB Philip Rivers, Chargers
Round 4: RB Matt Forte, Bears
Round 5: WR Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs
Round 6: TE Brent Celek, Eagles