By Dalton Del Don
Chris Johnson – Johnson finished his first preseason in the NFL with a 5.5 YPC mark while excelling in the passing game. He’s clearly more than just a burner. The Titans have a strong defense, a physical offensive line and a shaky passing game, so expect the team to approach 600 rushing attempts in 2008. Moreover, LenDale White is a plodder and an unexciting option who is constantly battling nagging injuries. Johnson’s upside is through the roof.
Bryant Johnson - Seeing his first action of the preseason, Johnson (hamstring) looked good in the 49ers' final tune-up before the regular season, catching three balls for 41 yards. Since his main competition is a rookie, Johnson should get every opportunity to start this year in San Francisco. It would have been nice if he could have stayed healthy and better acclimated himself to the new offense this preseason, but he’s in a situation that could be fruitful, as new offensive coordinator Mike Martz usually brings big passing stats with him.
Michael Turner – In Mike Mularkey’s power running game, Turner is the much better fit than Jerious Norwood, and the newly minted free agent expects to get at least 300 carries. With a rookie starting at quarterback, you can bet Atlanta will be run heavy, and although Turner never caught the ball much during his brief work in San Diego, he might be asked to be heavily involved in that area since first-year signal callers frequently check down. There’s an unknown element to Turner, since he’s never carried a full workload, but he’s the rare back in the league who should get most of the carries both between the twenties and at the goal line.
Courtney Taylor – Taylor, a 2007 sixth-round draft pick, could enter the season as Seattle’s starting flanker, especially since Ben Obomanu is out for the season. It’s a great position to be in, as the Seattle passing game is very productive, and it’s an extremely thin group. Even top receiver Nate Burleson comes with question marks. Deion Branch avoided the PUP list, but he can’t seriously be expected to return even close to full strength. The coaches rave about Taylor, a tough, smart route-runner who's great at working the middle of the field. Coach Mike Holmgren expects whoever starts at flanker to lead the team in catches. He’s a sleeper.
Thomas Jones – There’s still plenty of reason to be skeptical about Jones, as he needs to greatly improve last year’s YPC, work at the goal line and become more active in the passing game. However, Jesse Chatman’s recent suspension upgrades Jones’ status, as he once again is staring down a full workload. With the Jets so improved in all other areas, there’s a real nice opportunity to succeed.
Brandon Marshall – Once feared to miss the first three games of the season, Marshall’s suspension has been reduced to just one contest, and so his value shouldn’t be adjusted at all. Marshall is about as physically gifted as any other wide receiver in the league and has an elite quarterback throwing to him, so monstrous numbers should follow. He’s a nightmare for opposing cornerbacks.
Plaxico Burress - Burress (ankle) has returned to the practice field this past week and is on track to start the regular season opener. It's good to see Burress getting close to full speed with the season approaching. It would be better if Burress and Eli Manning had more reps to get their timing down, but the two played well together last season even when Burress hardly practiced at all, so fantasy owners can draft him with confidence.
Ronnie Brown – Last week he got the downgrade. This week it’s an upgrade after looking good during his first extensive action in the preseason. The sprained thumb wasn’t a problem, and he also looked good cutting on his surgically repaired knee, finally showing confidence in his change of direction ability. As he continued to miss time this preseason combined with Ricky Williams making noise, Brown has been shooting down draft boards. At this point, he makes an excellent target at a discount.
Chris Perry – With Rudi Johnson’s departure, Perry becomes the clear No. 1 runner in Cincinnati. The defense and offensive line aren’t great, but it’s still a productive offense, and with Carson Palmer and the passing game demanding opponents’ attention, there will be room to run. Perry offers even more upside than Johnson in his heyday because of his terrific skills as a receiver, and he’s also a powerful back. Perry’s injury history cannot be underestimated, and he’s almost certainly going to miss some time this season, but when on the field, he has the upside of a top-10 fantasy running back.
Larry Johnson – After averaging a paltry 3.5 YPC last season, Johnson has gotten just 3.3 over 35 preseason carries. He’s seemingly fully recovered from last year’s season-ending foot injury, but it’s uncertain if Johnson can ever rebound from 2006, when his 417 carries set an NFL record. He can catch passes, and because of the high volume of touches with the Chiefs centering their offense around him, Johnson can remain somewhat productive even if his YPC remains low. Still, he’s in decline, and the upside is no longer there. Playing on a rebuilding Chiefs team with little talent surrounding him, Johnson could be looking at his second straight season as a bust.
Vince Young – Because of his rushing ability, Young possesses about as much fantasy upside as any quarterback in the league. Unfortunately, ever since he suffered a serious quad injury last year, an issue that he still feels the effects from, he hasn’t been the same runner. Additionally, his passing has gone from bad to worse. Last year’s 9:17 TD:INT ratio was ugly, and his preseason this year was even uglier. He completed just 45.3 percent of his passes, didn’t lead the first-team offense to a touchdown in 19 possessions and finished with a horrible 4.5 YPA mark. It’s safe to say that the Titans regret taking him over Jay Cutler.
Edgerrin James – James is 30 years old, is coming off five consecutive 300-carry seasons and has accrued 2,849 rushing attempts throughout his career. He’ll also cede goal-line work to exciting rookie Tim Hightower. The Cardinals have the potential to be a good offense, and the NFC West is conducive to offense more so than defense, but at this stage of his career, James is unlikely to be able to take advantage of it. His workload cannot be underestimated, and odds are a big breakdown is in store.
Alex Smith – After completing just 50.9 percent of his passes with 6.2 YPA this preseason, last year’s disaster can no longer be solely blamed on Smith’s bum shoulder. Smith may be brilliant off the field, but he’s been a very poor decision-maker on it, and when you combine that with horrible accuracy, you’re left with one of the bigger draft busts in NFL history. Smith did get 8.6 YPA during his final preseason action, but the only reason he threw two interceptions was because defensive backs dropped two others. His days in San Francisco are clearly numbered.
James Jones – Jones wasn’t looking at huge numbers this season because Green Bay has a ton of wide receiver depth, but he’s displayed skills that have him looking like a future starter who will be very productive. Even as the team’s No. 3 wideout, he was going to be heavily involved in the passing game. Unfortunately, Jones is expected to miss several more weeks with a knee injury.
Fred Taylor – Taylor showed no signs of decline last year, finishing with a career-best 5.4 YPC. He also remained totally healthy for the second straight season, something that was unheard of early on in his career. Still, the fact remains Taylor is now 32 years old, which is ancient for the running back position. He’s also approaching 2,300 career carries, so he’s much more likely to breakdown in 2008 than he is to turn in another performance similar to last year’s.
Deuce McAllister – Coming off two more major knee surgeries with one being a microfracture procedure, McAllister has looked sluggish during the preseason, gaining just 2.6 YPC over 21 attempts. While the Saints rested most of their starters during the team’s final exhibition game, they gave McAllister 11 carries, which suggests they still wanted to see more out of him. Reggie Bush isn’t the answer at running back in New Orleans, but don’t even think about drafting McAllister ahead of Pierre Thomas.
Kevin Smith – It’s a flip-flop from last week, when Smith got an upgrade, but that’s purely because the team signed Rudi Johnson. With Johnson so injury-prone, he’s no guarantee to take significant touches from Smith, but he is more of a threat than Tatum Bell was prior to being cut. Smith is still looking at the majority of work in Detroit’s backfield, but coming off a record-setting 450-carry season in college last year, the Lions will want to keep him as fresh as possible, and Johnson could steal all the goal-line work.
Article first appeared 9/3/08