By Dalton Del Don
Kevin Smith, RB, DET - Coming off a 450-carry season at UCF, Smith was able to manage 4.1 YPC on a team that finished 0-16 last season. Over the final eight games, he totaled 795 yards with four touchdowns - that's a 1,590-yard, eight-TD pace over a full season. He's clearly Detroit's workhorse, getting work between the 20s, out of the backfield as a receiver and at the goal-line, with little competition for carries. It's too bad the Lions wasted a first round pick on tackle Gosder Cherilus last year, as the offensive line could really use help. Still, defenses are going to be unable to keep eight men in the box with Calvin Johnson out wide, so Smith will have room to run. It's recently been revealed he played through a painful ankle injury throughout last year, so it should be interesting to see what a healthy Smith can do, especially with improved quarterback play. A Week 14 meeting in Baltimore is tough, but with matchups against Arizona and San Francisco the following two games, he could be a difference maker come playoff time.
Larry Johnson, RB, KC - For someone approaching 30, Johnson's career mileage is low (1,243 carries), and the 4.5 YPC mark last season suggests he's not done. Usually attitude takes a backseat in our evaluations, but in this case, it's worth noting just how good his behavior has been throughout the offseason and into training camp. The new regime, which once considered cutting him, is giving Johnson nothing, declaring the running back position an open competition. However, so as long as Johnson remains on good behavior, we expect he'll win the job and get the majority of touches on an offense that should be sneaky productive, with Matt Cassel and Todd Haley upgrading the passing attack. Remember, Johnson is just two years removed from a 2,199-yard, 19-TD campaign.
DeSean Jackson, WR, PHI - Jackson has been the talk of Eagles camp, apparently impossible to cover one-on-one. His speed is apparent, and any rookie wideout who can tally 912 receiving yards is likely on the path to future stardom. He's not a great red-zone target, and Philadelphia typically spreads the ball around, but Jackson is clearly the No. 1 option on a team sure to be pass-heavy.
Chris Henry, WR, CIN - Henry isn't much more than a late-round flier as the third WR for Cincinnati, but he has the upside of a top-20 receiver. By all accounts, Henry has turned his life completely around, and don't forget, he caught nine touchdowns in just 13 games two seasons ago. At 6-4, 200 with blazing speed, Henry is the most physically gifted wide receiver on the Bengals, and though Chad Johnson looks re-dedicated as well, Laveranues Coles is an injury risk, and Cincinnati figures to be pass-heavy on offense. With a healthy Carson Palmer, Henry is a gamble worth taking.
Patrick Crayton, WR, DAL - While Miles Austin has an ADP about 20 spots ahead of Crayton, it's the latter who's assured a starting job. Recent reports suggest Roy Williams is developing a nice rapport with Tony Romo, but that's hardly a guarantee to last into the season with the way Williams performed after joining Dallas last year. Since Romo is one of the elite quarterbacks in the league, any receiver getting a decent amount of targets should be relatively productive. Crayton is a solid end-game pick.
Ray Rice, RB, BAL - Rice doesn't have huge upside, ceding goal-line carries to Le'Ron McClain and fighting Willis McGahee for touches. Still, Rice has impressed throughout camp, and he's the favorite to lead Baltimore in carries in 2009. He's a good receiver out of the backfield, and though Rice is still searching for his first NFL touchdown, he can run between the tackles, as his weight (205 lbs) is more important than his height (5-8). The Ravens' defense should remain strong, once again encouraging a ball-control offense. In fact, Baltimore easily led the NFL with a whopping 592 rushing attempts last season, so Rice should get plenty of opportunities.
Nate Washington, WR, TEN - With Kenny Britt (hamstring) unable to practice with the Titans since the beginning of training camp, Washington is clearly the team's No. 1 wide receiver - and he should be after getting paid $27 million during the offseason. Washington is finally getting a grasp of the playbook and has impressed in practice, so though Tennessee is a run-first team, Kerry Collins' strong arm is a perfect fit for Washington's ability to go downfield. Expect the Titans' defense to take a step back this year, and away from Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, Washington should see a career-high in targets.
Roddy White, WR, ATL - White has improved his numbers every season he's been in the league, and he possesses top-five receiver upside, especially playing alongside an emerging star at quarterback. However, White and the Falcons remain far apart in their efforts to work out a long-term extension, as White is believed to be seeking something close to the four-year, $40 million deal Arizona gave Larry Fitzgerald. With Harry Douglas recently suffering a season-ending knee injury, White just gained some leverage. In reality, very few holdouts last into the season, but this is a situation worth monitoring.
Reggie Bush, RB, NO - Bush has repeatedly left practice this week with continued swelling in his surgically-repaired knee. Since the surgery was of the microfracture variety, this is especially concerning, though he claims a recent MRI came back clean. Bush has actually been undervalued so far in fantasy leagues, with an ADP of 43.07. Still, he's essentially missed 12 games over the past two seasons, so he's an obvious injury risk. Bump Pierre Thomas up even further.
Brandon Marshall, WR, DEN - In addition to his hamstring and hip issues, Marshall is due in court for a trial in Atlanta for misdemeanor battery charges from a March 2008 incident with his former girlfriend. While Marshall is confident to be cleared, commissioner Roger Goodell could still potentially suspend the disgruntled wide receiver, who continues to look for a new contract or a trade. Marshall has talent, but there is a lot of risk involved with him right now, especially with the huge downgrade from Jay Cutler to Kyle Orton as his quarterback. That his hip, on which he had surgery during the offseason, still has lingering issues is a problem. Don't be at all surprised when Eddie Royal leads the team in receiving this year.
Jonathan Stewart, RB, CAR - Stemming from last year's foot problems, Stewart has lingering Achilles soreness, which kept him out of all OTAs and has limited him to just one practice per day in training camp. Stewart was fantastic as a rookie, and even though he has DeAngelo Williams above him on the depth chart, Carolina's an extreme ground-heavy team sporting a terrific run-blocking line. In fact, if Williams were to go down with an injury, Stewart would immediately become a top-five back. However, The Achilles injury is worrisome, so approach this situation with caution.
Michael Crabtree, WR, SF - Crabtree remains unsigned and is reportedly willing to sit out all season and re-enter the 2010 NFL Draft. While that scenario is highly unlikely, it doesn't appear he'll be signed any time soon, and wide receiver is an especially difficult position to transition into the NFL. Considering he's also coming off surgery, Crabtree is sure to get off to a slow start. Draft Josh Morgan instead.
Mark Clayton, WR, BAL - First Derrick Mason decided to unretire and then Clayton suffered significant bleeding in his hamstring, which will keep him out of at least a few preseason games. On a run-heavy offense, Clayton now offers little upside. It's not inconceivable Demetrius Williams steals the starting job away from him while sidelined.
Mark Bradley, WR, KC - Playing on a spread offense with Tony Gonzalez no longer around, Bradley seemed like a good sleeper, if he could only stay healthy. However, with Kansas City signing Amani Toomer, it's clear the team isn't satisfied with Bradley as a starter.
Article first appeared 8/6/09