Ben Roethlisberger, QB, PIT – Roethlisberger’s career 8.0 YPA ranks among the best of all-time - only three QBs rank higher and none have thrown a pass since 1960. It’s worth noting whom he’s tied with – Tony Romo, Steve Young and Philip Rivers, the latter of which has led the league for three straight seasons, which only Steve Young and Kurt Warner can also claim in the modern era. Roethlisberger typically throws in a “hitter’s count,” and while his ability to attack downfield after breaking tackles might be second to none, his YPA when taking sacks into account drops quite a bit. Still, with Mike Wallace, Hines Ward, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Heath Miller and impressive second-year player Antonio Brown at his disposal, Big Ben should easily be viewed as a QB1 for fantasy purposes, despite the general view that Pittsburgh is a smashmouth team that relies heavily on defense and running. The Steelers have a shaky offensive line, but offensive coordinator Bruce Arians continues to lean toward a pass-first offense, and it’s important to remember Roethlisberger was the No. 7 fantasy QB last year after returning from suspension. That number seven spot seems like a perfectly appropriate ranking entering 2011.
Mike Williams, WR, TB – There’s no question Williams will have a tough time matching the 11 touchdowns on 65 receptions he put up in his rookie year, but don’t overlook the fact he scored nearly a dozen times, which were the third-most by a rookie in NFL history. It’s safe to expect an increase in targets this year since the Bucs will be facing a much tougher schedule, and Williams’ ability to run routes has increased dramatically. Players coming off such dominant rookie seasons, especially from the WR position, typically get overdrafted in fantasy leagues, but the oopposite has seemed to occur when it comes to Williams. He’s an extremely talented receiver who saw 18 red-zone looks as a rookie from a quarterback who should also improve. There’s little doubt Josh Freeman’s INT% increases this year, but a tougher schedule also means the Buccaneers may be forced to pass more often. Williams would have been a first-round NFL pick if not for off-field issues; look for him to build off last season with a strong sophomore campaign.
Rex Grossman, QB, WAS – Grossman won the starting quarterback job in Washington, and although his leash may be short, he’s now on the radar in 2-QB formats. Grossman threw seven touchdown passes over just three starts for the Redskins last season and gets a banged up Giants defense in Week 1. He averaged 7.7 YPA during the preseason, but it’s safe to expect him to play like he has throughout the rest of his career once the real games start.
Deji Karim, RB, JAC – With Rashad Jennings’ season coming to an end thanks to a knee injury, Karim vaults to No. 2 on the Jaguars’ RB depth chart. Maurice Jones-Drew coming off knee surgery, and with little competition elsewhere on the roster, Karim is clearly a must-own in all formats. Karim is raw, but he averaged 4.6 YPC in limited work during his rookie season last year and is familiar with Jacksonville’s offense. The team projects to have a shaky passing attack with Luke McCown starting at quarterback and possibly the worst receiver corps in football, but the offensive line is sneaky good at run blocking. Karim is one Jones-Drew injury away from having serious fantasy value.
Braylon Edwards, WR, SF – Edwards avoided an offseason suspension, which was somewhat surprising considering he signed for so cheap with the understanding he’d likely miss a game or two. He obviously didn’t land in an ideal spot with such a shaky quarterback situation in San Francisco, and he’ll be sharing targets with a dominant red-zone threat in Vernon Davis. However, Michael Crabtree hasn’t shown the ability to stay healthy and be productive, and Edwards did a good job curtailing his drops last season. Remember, this is a receiver who once had 1,289 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns in a season, and he’s still just 28 years old.
Vince Young, QB, PHI – Young is questionable for Week 1 after leaving the final preseason game with a hamstring strain, but the injury is not considered serious and furthers the likelihood he remains on your waiver wire. Young completed 15-of-23 passes for 193 yards for a touchdown in fewer than two quarters before departing, easing concerns about him picking up a new offensive system. Young averaged 8.4 YPA and posted a 9:2 TD:INT ratio over eight starts last year, and at still just 28 years old and now in a situation that quickly turned Michael Vick into a top fantasy option, Young needs to be stashed in fantasy leagues. Young’s rushing ability makes him a high-upside player, and keep in mind he’s playing behind one of the biggest injury risks in the league in Michael Vick.
Peyton Manning, QB, IND – Amidst swirling rumors, the Colts finally confirmed that Manning underwent another neck procedure recently. The procedure was labeled a single level anterior infusion. It’s not career threatening, but he’s likely out 2-to-3 months, which could easily land him on injured reserve. All Colts offensive players deserve a downgrade as a result of Manning’s injury.
LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, NYJ – Tomlinson has essentially proven me wrong two seasons running, although it’s not like he has been anything more than an RB3 in the process. Tomlinson deserves plenty of credit, as few running backs in NFL history have remained as productive while surpassing 3,000 carries (not to mention his 582 receptions), but all Hall of Famers eventually meet their end. Shonn Greene may fail this year, but I’d be shocked if were because of another big season from Tomlinson, who average 3.28 YPC over the final half of last season.
Matt Cassel, QB, KC – Cassel appears likely to suit up Week 1, but he’s dealing with a nagging rib injury that he suffered in the final preseason game, when coach Todd Haley had his starters play deeper than any other team in football. Cassel also lost offensive coordinator Charlie Weis during the offseason and impressive young tight end Tony Moeaki during the preseason. Kansas City’s schedule also goes from one of the easiest to what projects to be one of the most difficult in 2011. Moreover, Cassel’s 1.6% interception rate is sure to regress, so it’s a safe bet to expect a decline in performance.
David Garrard, QB, JAC – Garrard completed 64.5 percent of his passes last year and averaged 7.5 YPA with 23 touchdowns over 14 games. That’s not exactly elite in today’s NFL, but it’s far from terrible, especially when you consider his rushing ability (he ran for 279 yards and five touchdowns). So, it came as something of surprise when he was released a week before the sesason, although it’s pretty clear the reasoning behind it was mostly financial. The switch to Luke McCown shouldn’t be a huge downgrade for the rest of Jacksonville’s skill position players, but it does mean the team is one less injury away from having to turn to rookie Blaine Gabbert, which could be disastrous.