BY JAY CLEMONS
Mike Shanahan & Donovan McNabb: Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
Not that we need a reason to talk fantasy football year-round ... but with the April 22-24 draft on the horizon, Fantasy Clicks will become a beacon for All Things NFL every Wednesday in April. For football fans, this should be a little slice of heaven; for baseball enthusiasts, it simply means you'll have to wait until Friday for cutting-edge insight on Rockies 2B/3B Ian Stewart (he'll be a top-30 stud next year -- so grab him now), Red Sox SP Jon Lester (ready to set the world on fire), Pirates 3B Pedro Alvarez (the next great hope in Pittsburgh), Braves OF Jason Heyward (already a member of the Atlanta Sports Council's Hall of Fame after one day of MLB service) ... and the Yankees' bullpen (the union of the words "train" and "wreck"). Now, on with the pigskin show (gee, if we only had a lightning-rod quarterback who's been in the news lately):
As the March 26 Fantasy Clicks can attest, no one is really shocked to see Donovan McNabb get traded from the Eagles -- the NFL-franchise equivalent to the 1970s TV show Logan's Run (I'll be happy if 20 percent of the readers got that 30-year-old joke). But to get dealt to a heated rival ... from the same division is equal parts diabolical and moronic (not sure which one carries more weight). So, just for kicks, here's a Revelations-style breakdown of McNabb's fantasy rebirth with the Redskins:
What He'll Like: Unless the Redskins have some crazy master plan of taking Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen at No. 4 overall -- perhaps putting the squeeze on free-agent-to-be McNabb to sign a long-term deal -- the club will most likely target offensive tackle at the top of the draft. From what I gather, either Russell Okung or Trent Williams project as solid, long-term options at left tackle. (FYI: Washington only has tackles Stephon Heyer, William Robinson, Clint Oldenburg on the roster. Yikes!)
What He May Love: It stands to reason that either Clinton Portis, Larry Johnson or Willie Parker still has enough in the proverbial tank to be a viable threat for 1,200 rushing yards, right? Or will the threesome form an equal partnership on carries (3rd and longs could be ugly)? On one hand, there exists plenty of intrigue with Portis, Johnson and Parker, with the thinking that a souped-up competition would vault someone to the top; but then again, we shouldn't be surprised that coach Mike Shanahan has taken his Running Back By Committee approach to the nation's capital. It's taken a whole paragraph to remember the time-tested creed: Avoid all Shanahan-igans at running back, whenever humanly possible. As for McNabb, he'll talk in glowing terms about how much talent resides in the crowded-house backfield; but soon enough, he'll get flustered by the warhorse state of the three backs ... and that neither one catches balls on a regular basis.
What He'll Definitely Love: I cannot think of a better tag-team duo at tight end than Chris Cooley (235 catches, 17 TDs in last 55 games) and Fred Davis. In a perfect, but not far-fetched world, both pass-catchers could each tally 50 receptions with 10 total touchdowns. Of course, Cooley might never see one official pass from McNabb, for the simple reason that below .500 clubs should never have luxurious options at that position -- especially when their wideouts are passable, at best.
What He'll Definitely Love, Part II: McNabb will appreciate the vision of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who worked wonders for Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, Steve Slaton in Houston and should have the full backing of his dad, Mike, on Sunday calls. Oh sure, McNabb loses out on the pass-first, pass-second, pass-third mentality of Philly's Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg ... but working with the Shanahans should prove to be an excellent consolation prize -- even if Portis and Co. are stuck in old-man mud.
What'll Make Him Cringe: There's no doubting the athletic grace of Washington wideouts Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly, but who's to say they're better than the other under-25 stalwarts in the NFC East -- like Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, Jeremy Maclin or DeSean Jackson? Yes, Thomas did produce one superstar-like game of seven catches, 100 yards and two TDs (Week 12 vs. New Orleans); and yes, Kelly saved his best outing for last in 2009 (Week 17: 5 catches for 109 yards @ San Diego) ... but they're still a long way from possessing fantasy viability.
What'll Make Him Cringe, Part II: After watching Santana Moss play in D.C. for five consecutive seasons, surely McNabb knows that Moss can be all-world for 3-4 games ... and The Great Disappear-O as many times in the same season. The way I see it, Moss's success in 2010 is directly tied to the production of the Redskins' three-pronged backfield.
What Should Make Him Sad: McNabb can only expose cornerback DeAngelo Hall from Monday-Saturday now ... instead of Sundays.
Here are the revised starting-QB rankings, from No. 1 (Drew Brees) ... all the way to No. 32 (A.J. Feeley). This list will obviously be reshuffled once Sam Bradford, Jimmy Clausen, Tim Tebow, Tony Pike, Dan LeFevour, etc. find definitive homes on April 22-24:
1. Drew Brees, Saints
2. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
3. Peyton Manning, Colts
4. Tom Brady, Patriots
5. Philip Rivers, Chargers
6. Matt Schaub, Texans
7. Brett Favre, Vikings
8. Tony Romo, Cowboys
9. Matt Ryan, Falcons
10. Jay Cutler, Bears
11. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
12. Kevin Kolb, Eagles
13. Donovan McNabb, Redskins
14. Eli Manning, Giants
15. Matt Leinart, Cardinals
16. Matthew Stafford, Lions
17. Kyle Orton, Broncos
18. Vince Young, Titans
19. Joe Flacco, Ravens
20. Alex Smith, 49ers
21. Mark Sanchez, Jets
22. Chad Henne, Dolphins
23. Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks
24. David Garrard, Jaguars
25. Carson Palmer, Bengals
26. Trent Edwards, Bills
27. Matt Moore, Panthers
28. Matt Cassel, Chiefs
29. Josh Freeman, Buccaneers
30. Jake Delhomme, Browns
31. JaMarcus Russell, Raiders
32. A.J. Feeley, Rams
So here we are, 15 days until the NFL draft ... and ESPN or NFL Network still haven't provided one shred of indisputable-on-video evidence as to why Sam Bradford deserves to be the No. 1 overall pick, ahead of Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Eric Berry or even Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen. And yet, both TV networks openly tout Bradford as the Rams' obvious choice at the top spot. Yes, Bradford has nicely filled out his frame since we last saw him against Texas in October; yes, he completed 49-of-50 dink-and-dunk OR medium-range passes on his pro day; and yes, Bradford's mug would probably look good on the club's Web site when promoting ticket sales for the coming season ... but I'm sorry, that shouldn't be enough for franchises to blindly throw $43 million at the NFL's next-maaaayyyybe hope (fingers crossed).
Sadly, though, it might be.
If Bradford had a cannon for an arm (like Matthew Stafford), or quick feet (like John Elway), or never-seen-before escapability (Michael Vick), or a hair-trigger release (Troy Aikman) or even played in a pro-style offense throughout college (Peyton Manning), I suppose one could make a case for him joining the pantheon of "No. 1 Overall Draft Picks For All Time" (although Stafford obviously has a long way to go here). But a for guy who has very little experience taking direct snaps from under center and seldom dealt with a fierce pass rush in college (credit Oklahoma's O-linemen for that), the ONLY historical comparison one can make for Bradford, unfortunately, is Tim Couch.
One last thing, and after this, I promise not to reconvene this rant until AFTER April 25: Noted draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr. (who has no control over Bradford's lame highlight package that loops on ESPN's airwaves) obviously loves Bradford's physical makeup and intangibles; but he also voices this disclaimer anytime Bradford is given a free pass to the Rams at No. 1: The last two times we've seen Bradford throw a pass, he's been seriously injured on routine tackles.
For everyone who wants to dismiss Bradford's recent injuries as dumb/bad luck, just remember that former Lions receiver Charles Rogers was flourishing in the NFL seven years ago ... before back-to-back broken collarbones derailed his career (the illicit drug use came after all that, by the way). I'm no doctor (nor do I play one on TV), but I'm quite sure medical science hasn't yet mastered the art of making collarbones or AC joints in shoulders impervious to injury. And last I checked, the NFL is not a two-hand-touch kind of league.
Obviously, no NFL executive, coach, fan or snarky fantasy blogger can predict the future; but certain gut instincts for the great beyond MUST come into play when investing time, money and emotions into Round 1 quarterbacks. To wit, the Almighty Acid Test for risking life and limb on quarterbacks at the top of the draft:
**Will your Round 1 stud become the starter for at least seven games in Year 1 (like Dan Marino, John Elway, Ben Roethlisberger)?
**Can your Round 1 stud orchestrate a significant win-loss turnaround in Year 2? (a la Peyton Manning in 1999)
**Will your Round 1 stud throw for more than 3,800 yards in Year 2 (Elway, Marino, Manning)?
**Will your Round 1 stud average 65 percent passing from Years 2 through 8 (Troy Aikman)?
**Can your Round 1 stud annually exceed 4,000 yards passing after his 30th birthday -- and for your team (Marino, Manning)?
**Will your Round 1 stud throw for 60 combined TDs in Years 3 and 4 (Marino, Jim Everett)?
**Does your Round 1 stud have the potential for 2,500 yards passing and almost 1,000 rushing yards in the same season (Michael Vick -- during his Falcons heyday, at least)?
**Will your Round 1 stud reach the Super Bowl within his first four seasons (Marino, Elway, Aikman)?
**Does your Round 1 stud possess the greatest arm you've ever seen -- or will ever see (Matthew Stafford, Jeff George)?
**And finally ... would your Round 1 stud have been selected before, between OR after Vince Young (No. 3 overall) and Jay Cutler (No. 11 overall) in the famed 2006 draft?
Verdict: If a GM can honestly say 'Yes' to the questions, by all means, go ahead and draft your guy in Round 1 with supreme confidence. Then, sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor for the next 10-15 seasons. (Obviously, Jeff George didn't work out for the Colts.)
However, if you answered 'No' to the questions, don't fret. Just take a deep breath, consult your larger-than-life draft board and focus on taking a top-rated offensive or defensive lineman in Round 1 or make the bold plunge for a play-making safety (Eric Berry). And if you feel like picking a quarterback in the latter rounds, that's OK, too. After all, neither Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Matt Schaub, Tony Romo, David Garrard nor Brett Favre were Round 1 selections on draft day ... and they all survived the heartbreak of not being labeled can't-miss kids coming out of college.
Here's an early, early listing of the top 20 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. Greg Olsen , Bears (thanks, eHose of Twitter fame)
10. Visanthe Shiancoe, Vikings
11. Owen Daniels, Texans
12. John Carlson, Seahawks
13. Dustin Keller, Jets
14. Zach Miller, Raiders
15. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions (would be much higher if no ACL tear)
16. Fred Davis/Chris Cooley, Redskins
17. David Thomas/Jeremy Shockey, Saints
18. Todd Heap, Ravens
19. Heath Miller, Steelers
20. Kevin Boss, Giants/Jared Cook, Titans (tie)
Rookies To Watch: Jermaine Gresham, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez
Knowshon Moreno: Tom Hauck/Getty Images
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, Jay 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 Brett 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 Matthew Stafford, Nate Burleson, TE Brandon Pettigrew 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.)
Enlisting the help of SI.com's Jeff Ritter, who is leaving us next week for Golf.com, here's our consensus look at the Top 40 fantasy studs for draft day (list subject to change before mid-July):
1. RB Chris Johnson, Titans
2. RB Adrian Peterson, Vikings
3. RB Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars
4. RB Ray Rice, Ravens
5. RB Michael Turner, Falcons
6. RB Steven Jackson, Rams
7. RB DeAngelo Williams, Panthers
8. RB Frank Gore, 49ers
9. RB Cedric Benson, Bengals
10. WR Andre Johnson, Texans
11. QB Drew Brees, Saints
12. WR Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals
13. QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers
14. RB Ryan Grant, Packers
15. RB Jamaal Charles, Chiefs
16. WR Reggie Wayne, Colts
17. RB Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers
18. RB Shonn Greene, Jets
19. QB Peyton Manning, Colts
20. RB Pierre Thomas, Saints
21. RB Knowshon Moreno, Broncos
22. QB Tom Brady, Patriots
23. RB Fred Jackson, Bills
24. WR Randy Moss, Patriots
25. RB Joseph Addai, Colts
26. RB Beanie Wells, Cardinals
27. WR Calvin Johnson, Lions
28. RB Jonathan Stewart, Panthers
29. QB Philip Rivers, Chargers
30. WR DeSean Jackson, Eagles
31. RB Jerome Harrison, Browns
32. WR Roddy White, Falcons
33. RB Matt Forte, Bears
34. RB Marion Barber, Cowboys
35. RB Brandon Jacobs, Giants
36. RB Steve Slaton, Texans
37. WR Anquan Boldin, Ravens
38. WR Sidney Rice, Vikings
39. RB Clinton Portis, Redskins
40. WR Greg Jennings, Packers
I'm hardly an expert at forecasting the NFL Draft. Luckily, these Web sites have been busy reading the draft-day tea leaves for us:
**Pat Kirwan's NFL.com mock
**SI.com's Don Banks' Mock 4.0
**Great Blue North Draft Report
**NFL Draft Site
**The New NFL Draft Report
**NFL Draft Blitz
**The Football Expert
**NFL Draft King
Using recent history as our guide, the NFL should be releasing its full 2010 schedule on the second Tuesday of April (the 13th). If the sked becomes public that day, Fantasy Clicks will provide an extensive breakdown of the coming season on April 14 -- including an early look at the Week 1 "locks" for 100 yards rushing/receiving and 300 yards passing. Who knows, perhaps Falcons RB Michael Turner will be a lead-pipe cinch for four rushing TDs ... assuming Atlanta hosts Tampa Bay that weekend (my personal hunch).
... 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.