By Dalton Del Don
Carnell Williams, RB, T.B. – It may just be coach-speak, rewarding a player who undoubtedly worked hard to return from his second torn patella tendon, but Williams currently sits atop the Bucs’ RB depth chart. Even if Williams somehow stayed healthy over 16 games this season, odds are Derrick Ward finishes with the most touches in Tampa Bay’s backfield, because although he benefitted from the Giants’ offensive line last season, he’s a talented back in his own right. Tampa Bay has an underrated offensive line, and with Antonio Bryant and Kellen Winslow out wide, the offense could be sneaky productive. Unfortunately, the running back situation looks like a three-headed monster. Earnest Graham is underwhelming and may play more fullback this year, and Williams looked impressive during the preseason, so he may well enter Week 1 fully healthy and as the starter. He needs to be owned in all formats but realize there’s not a ton of upside unless Ward gets hurt.
Matthew Stafford, QB, DET – It’s extremely unlikely Stafford, who has officially been named Detroit’s Week 1 starter, has nearly as good of a rookie season as Matt Ryan did last year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t have a more productive fantasy year than Ryan did in 2008. The Lions’ defense figures to remain one of the worst in the league, so while not ideal, the rookie signal caller may be forced to throw frequently, especially in the second half of games. Kevin Smith is a solid option as a receiver out of the backfield, and Brandon Pettigrew immediately upgrades the tight end position. But the real reason Stafford may emerge as a fantasy option (albeit only in deep leagues) is Calvin Johnson, who enters his third year in the league as the most valuable (non-quarterback) commodity in the NFL. Stafford has shown a willingness to take risks and go downfield during the preseason, and with his arm strength, it’s an excellent fit with Johnson as a target. Stafford’s overall numbers looked poor during preseason action, but it’s worth noting he got 8.1 YPA or better in three of his four games.
Nate Burleson, WR, SEA – With Deion Branch seemingly never going to be the same receiver after multiple knee injuries, Burleson is locked in as the WR2 in Seattle. He suffered a torn knee ligament in Week 1 last year, but because it happened so early in the season, he’s fully recovered entering 2009. Burleson has always been inconsistent throughout his career, but he did catch nine touchdowns two years ago and was off to a great start before going down in 2008. T.J. Houshmandzadeh figures to be the No. 1 option in the passing attack, but he’s hardly a star, and Burleson should easily be the team’s best downfield threat. Playing in such an awful division as the NFC West, Burleson is a nice sleeper, especially if Matt Hasselbeck can bounce back.
Ted Ginn, WR, MIA – Ginn has been considered something of a disappointment after being the ninth overall pick of the 2007 draft, but he showed improvement as a sophomore last season, making him a candidate to breakout during his third year in the league. At 5-11, 180 lbs, Ginn isn’t a good red-zone target, and his deep speed is hardly an ideal fit for Chad Pennington’s noodle arm, but Miami has a huge void at the WR2 spot, so Ginn should be targeted fairly heavily. His 8.5 YPA mark last season was sneaky good; to give a comparison, Terrell Owens got 7.5 YPA and Anquan Boldin got 8.2 YPA last year. Ginn should be considered a top 30-35 fantasy wide receiver entering the year.
Mark Bradley, WR, K.C. – When the Chiefs signed Amani Toomer and listed David Darling as the WR2 during the preseason, Bradley’s value took an obvious hit. After Darling suffered a torn ACL and the team released Toomer, Bradley is back listed as the Chiefs’ starter at flanker. He’s never been able to stay healthy throughout his career, but Bradley is a former high pick (early second round in 2005) and has showed flashes when given the opportunity. Kansas City could have a decent passing attack, with Matt Cassel upgrading the QB position, and Todd Haley taking over as coach. Dwayne Bowe will be the main target, but Tony Gonzalez is gone, so those extra looks could go to Bradley. With a poor defense, the Chiefs will be forced to throw frequently, something that could result in nice numbers playing in a weak AFC West division.
Brady Quinn, QB, CLE – To no one’s surprise, Quinn has officially been named the Browns’ starting quarterback. Well, not “officially,” since Eric Mangini plays by his own rules, but the word is out that Quinn is Cleveland’s QB1. Quinn hasn’t shown much promise during his two years in the NFL, but with just 97 attempts, the sample size doesn’t reveal all that much. This news could be considered bad for Braylon Edwards, who thrives downfield, which is Derek Anderson’s main strength. Quinn, meanwhile, showed a huge reluctance to throw the ball even 10 yards through the air when he got the chance to play last year, but he does have sufficient arm strength to change that mentality if he so chooses.
Pierre Thomas, RB, N.O. – Thomas, who has been dealing with a sprained MCL, recently suffered a laceration that required stitches to an unspecified part of his body. While that injury doesn’t seem too serious, the knee has been slow to heal, and he looks unlikely to play Week 1 against a Detroit team that looks like a terrific matchup. Thomas originally suffered the injury August 23, and it was expected to keep him sidelined just 1-to-2 weeks, but it’s clearly become a bigger concern since then. It’s always better to think long-term and not panic, but for now, Thomas gets the downgrade. As a result, Mike Bell becomes a fine plug and play for Week 1.
Jamal Lewis, RB, CLE – Lewis has been a repeat customer on the downgrade list, and although he was able to avoid getting cut by the Browns, the mere fact this was even an issue reveals plenty. He averaged 3.6 YPC last season and has looked markedly slower during the preseason. Think about that. He’s now 30 years old and has 2,399 career carries. Not only has rookie James Davis impressed in camp, but what happens when Jerome Harrison is back in the mix as well? Spend a roster spot on a second defense instead.
Devin Thomas, WR, WAS – Not that Thomas was high on many draft lists to begin with, but it’s disconcerting he was unable to earn a starting job during the preseason, as Malcolm Kelly is Washington’s official WR2. Thomas, who was taken 17 spots ahead of Kelly during the 2008 draft, was considered by many to be the best wide receiver coming out of college that year. Instead, he’s lacked focus and been a huge disappointment. Kelly doesn’t have Thomas’ speed or upside, but at 6-4, 219 lbs, he could be a nice target in the red zone.
Miles Austin, WR, DAL – Austin continues to miss time with a hamstring injury, and his status for Week 1 is in doubt. He was no better than Dallas’ third wide receiver, but with Roy Williams something of a question mark and the middling Patrick Crayton as the No. 2 WR, there was an opportunity for Austin to carve out a bigger role in the offense. That won’t happen if he can’t stay on the field.
Kevin Jones, RB, CHI - Jones tore a ligament in his left ankle during Thursday night's preseason finale and has been placed on IR as a result. Surgery will be required, and he'll need 10 months of rehab. It’s a tough break for Jones, who had looked good during the preseason, further removed from knee surgery. He simply can’t stay healthy at this stage of his career, and the Bears’ RB depth just got a lot thinner.
Kevin Walter, WR, HOU – Walter is still missing practice while dealing with a lingering hamstring problem, leaving his availability for Week 1 in doubt. At 6-3, 218 lbs, Walter is actually Matt Schaub’s preferred option in the red zone, so his absence would be felt. As long as Andre Johnson stays healthy, Walter won’t rack up the receptions (or yards), but he could easily repeat last season’s eight touchdowns regardless. But his hamstring has to cooperate.
Article first appeared 9/9/09