Fantasy football hasn't changed that much since it first exploded onto the scene in the 1990s. Fueled by the Internet and sites that did all the totals for you in real-time, fantasy football became something anyone could play. It's simple, requires little maintenance, and doesn't get in too deep or require knowledge of the players that don't show up in the highlights. It's the perfect game for the highlight era. The only real change is the shift to PPR (point per reception), which has shifted the balance slightly. It reflects the change in football as the Bill Walsh principles of the West Coast offense have become offensive orthodoxy. A short pass is as good as a run, but in fantasy, it might be better. The deep ball isn't what it used to be, but short slants and screens to smaller "water bug" receivers carry a risk. It's not that big, tall guys like Larry Johnson and Dez Bryant are immune to injury, it's that they tend to be healthier overall. Mass counts as well as force when it comes to the car-crash collisions of the NFL. No one's immune, but you'd better know the risk before you use a high pick on a receiver ... if you want to win.
Before you start, I don't hate the Houston Texans. In fact, they're a team I really enjoy watching and one that feels to me like the Chicago Bulls when they were beating their head against the wall that was the Detroit Pistons. Once all the pieces were in place, we know what happened. So just because all of the pieces in Houston are risky doesn't mean they're bad or won't be ready to knock the Colts out of their position in the AFC South. What it means is that to do it, they'll have to be healthy.
Unlike Arian Foster, Johnson isn't easily replaceable. Skilled WR1s are hard to find and building up a rapport with a QB is hard to do. Johnson has had leg injuries during his career, which is about the only thing that's held him back. Healthy, he's a no doubt No. 1 and a legitimate mid-first pick in most leagues. It's just that he's never really been healthy for long enough to say, "Yes, I'm going to get value out of that high a pick." I'm not saying don't pick him, I'm saying assess the risk and accept it before you do.
Johnson has become an elite WR without the benefit of a full season of health or a full season with a real QB throwing him passes. He's had no running game, no good WR on the other side, and ... well, here we are, talking about taking Johnson off the board no later than the top of the third round. Johnson's a big-bodied WR who's a red zone target if nothing else. Even hurt, he's still tall. If we knew he'd be healthy -- and that Matthew Stafford would do the same -- Johnson is an elite level guy. There's just enough uncertainty here that he slides back a notch. Saying he's the third best WR in fantasy is hardly an insult. Given the other issues, it's a heck of a compliment.
Some players are "if" players, like Calvin Johnson. Others, like Nicks are "but" players. Nicks sneaks into the top tier of WRs more on what he did in the absence of other options than on the skills he has. Nicks, not unlike Miles Austin, took an opportunity and ran with it. Nicks dealt with compartment syndrome last season, an unusual leg injury that shouldn't recur ... and here's where the "but" comes in. It's always something with Nicks. Something unusual, something small, something nagging, something that keeps him just out of the elite level or at least out of the consistently elite level. If Nicks can stay healthy, he'll become an "and" player, as in "Fitzgerald, Johnson and Nicks."
The 175 pounds that the Eagles list Jackson at appears generous, according to most who see him, but Jackson tested taller (6-feet) and heavier (178) at the Combine. Granted, he bulked up to answer questions heading into the draft, but Jackson's done nothing but answer questions as an NFL WR1. Jackson's size hasn't contributed to his injury risk. The concussion he suffered was brutal, but those happen. The difference between the first tier and where we find Jackson is that his TDs have to come on the deep dramatic plays rather than the red zone targets. Unless Riley Cooper becomes a legitimate option, the Eagles don't have a big go-to red zone guy. Jackson's late-season leg issues appeared minor and he's shown his trademark quickness in camp.
Welker came back from ACL surgery last year and had no physical issues. But his comments all year long make it clear he didn't have full confidence in the knee until late in the season, which is typical. With more time off and a full camp, Welker should have that confidence back, which should make him a step better. He'll get the same types of targets, though there's a risk that a better receiving corps will let Tom Brady spread it around a bit more. That would help Welker's yardage, but not his totals. In PPR leagues, Welker's right on the cusp of staying in the second tier. Otherwise, the risk that he doesn't get the step back means you should let someone else draft him too high.
Harvin killed some fantasy teams last year. His last-minute scratches befuddled many, but migraines are extremely unpredictable. This offseason, Harvin said that he'd had no migraines since January ... precisely the time he stopped most activity and stopped getting hit. It might be coincidence, but if the migraines begin again, we'll know that we'll never see a full season of Harvin. He's essentially the WR1 in Minnesota and should have a better QB throwing him the ball. The downside is that you can't count on him to be there, and that will force you to both overdraft to get him and go four deep with WRs on a standard roster. The risk is simply too high to draft him on choice.
Kasey Kasem needs to announce this big drop on the chart, but do not find yourself calling Britt's name on draft day. Even with a solidified QB situation, Britt's history of hamstring problems and conditioning issues aren't going away. Worse, he showed up with a hamstring problem at camp and hasn't begun full practices. Britt's too good for Matt Hasselbeck to ignore -- many of Britt's numbers compare well with the elite WRs -- but the Titans do have other options and limited patience. Don't draft Britt too high, but even on the downside, he should be a red zone target.
Rice didn't wait to see how he might fit in with Donovan McNabb and jetted to Seattle. He'll have a familiar guy tossing it to him there, with Tarvaris Jackson the new "starter." It doesn't matter for Rice, a big-bodied burner who was sidetracked last season by hip surgery and then a QB that couldn't get him the deep up-ball he lives on. Rice should be fully healthy and a great comfort target for Jackson, especially early. His small totals from last year plus the misunderstood injury make Rice a real sleeper if you believe at all in Pete Carroll's offense.
Colston has a perfect comparable for how he should come back from microfracture surgery: himself. Colston is the first known NFL player to have microfracture on both knees. He came back pretty well last time, but just "pretty well." He kept the red zone targets, but Robert Meachem emerged as a contender for targets and huge TE Jimmy Graham is being groomed as a red zone monster. Colston is clearly sliding down the board and I'd expect him to put up numbers 15 percent off last year's totals.
I don't get why people are having such a tough time with the word "susceptibility." Collie became the poster boy for the concussion debate as he lay motionless on the field last year and then was cleared to return by the Colts despite still experiencing post-concussion symptoms. (The Colts followed all guidelines, but Collie's light sensitivity should have been a bigger red flag.) Coming into '11, Collie is being watched closely and is probably one more big hit away from hanging it up or being forced to sit. This is more about what happens if he gets the hit rather than the likelihood that he's going to take that hit. Collie's susceptibility -- the chance that he gets hit hard enough and in the right way to cause a concussion -- is no different from it was before his first concussion. He runs the same routes and plays the same role in the Colts offense. If anything, there might be a change in the Colts (and Peyton Manning's) willingness to send Collie on crossing routes that might take him into big hits. Don't mistake the worries about what could happen if Collie is hit with the belief that he's more likely to be hit. That distinction is why Collie is slightly undervalued this season.
(List is based on SI Rankings, as of the date of this article, and adjusted for risk based on that projection. This is not my suggestion for a draft list. I only go as deep as is necessary to get 10 interesting risk/injury cases.)