By Dalton Del Don
Kevin Smith – Due to lack of competition, it should come as no surprise when Smith is named Detroit's starting tailback, with last week's nice 35-yard TD run likely sealing the deal. Smith has run for 64 yards on 14 carries (4.6 YPC) over the last two preseason games, and none of the Lions' other backs have stepped up at all. Smith carried the ball a college record 450 times last year, which is a definite concern entering 2008. Still, he might be young and fresh enough to bounce back, and if he can stay healthy, there's upside playing with two elite wide receivers at his side on offense.
Matt Ryan – Fantasy footballers should almost always ignore rookie quarterbacks, but since Ryan was already named the starter, keeper-leaguers need to take notice, as it didn't take long for Ryan to gain the trust of his coaching staff. He's completed 61.5 percent of his passes with a 2:1 TD:INT ratio so far this preseason, but that's also come with a paltry 5.3 YPA. Still, he's shown signs for a bright future, and having Roddy White at his disposal certainly helps.
DeSean Jackson – Thought to be too small and raw to be an effective receiver right away coming out of Cal, Jackson has impressed, catching 16 passes for 189 yards over the first three exhibition games, while also excelling on special teams. Additionally, Kevin Curtis is going to miss half the season after undergoing surgery on a sports hernia, meaning Jackson is locked into the No. 3 receiver's role with the potential to move up to No. 2 since only the untested Hank Baskett is in front of him. Moreover, No. 2 wideout Reggie Brown has also been dealing with a hamstring issue and is inconsistent even when healthy, so Jackson could be looking at plenty of targets in a pass-happy system. Still, expectations need to be tempered since he's a rookie.
Chris Perry – Perry hasn't been overly impressive this preseason, but Rudi Johnson has continued to battle hamstring problems and is now rumored to be on the trading block. Since Johnson is coming off such an abysmal 2007, there's a good chance he's not with the Bengals when the regular season opens, and Perry looks like the team's starting running back. Kenny Watson will also be involved, but Perry is Cincinnati's best power runner, something coach Marvin Lewis covets. Perry is a huge injury risk, but he does offer a nice combo of speed and size with terrific receiving ability. There's quite a bit of upside here.
Kurt Warner – It remains to be seen whether Matt Leinart's awful third preseason game (2.0 YPA, 0 TDs, 3 INTs) leads to Warner starting the season at quarterback, but it certainly seems the veteran gives the team its best chance at winning. In a weak division, the Cardinals have a legitimate shot at the playoffs, so Leinart's youth and big contract shouldn't matter. Warner takes too many sacks and throws too many picks, but his 21 touchdowns in the second half of last season were more than even Tom Brady tossed. Warner's career 8.1 YPA is truly elite, and he has two terrific wideouts to use as well.
Jonathan Stewart – Concerns over Stewart's troublesome toe were eased when he ripped off a 50-yard touchdown run against the Redskins on Saturday. Stewart finished with 100 yards on 10 carries, though DeAngelo Williams also impressed. The Carolina backfield looks like a full-blown committee, but Stewart should get all the short-yardage work, giving him more upside because of the touchdown potential. The Panthers have a rebuilt offensive line and will go run-heavy this season.
Ronald Curry – After a great start to training camp, Curry has fallen off a bit. However, Javon Walker has failed to step up, and Drew Carter, whom Curry was battling for a starting role, tore his ACL, ending his season. With Curry now locked into a starting role, he'll get all the targets he can handle. Teammate Zach Miller also benefits and deserves an upgrade.
Greg Olsen – Olsen is entering his second year in the league and could see as many targets as any receiver on the Bears' roster this season. Desmond Clark will be the tight end asked to do most of the blocking, while Olsen will attack defenses downfield. At 6-5, 252, he'll also be a primary red-zone target.
Peyton Manning - Manning returned to practice Tuesday and looked back to normal while not even wearing a knee brace. However, he did not deny a direct question when asked if he had a second knee surgery. The mystery over Manning's knee injury continues, but it looks like he's going to play in Week 1 of the regular season. We'll need to see if he has any setbacks this week, and the Colts are saying he's still "iffy" for the first week, but all signs look positive for him to be ready.
Chad Johnson – After originally being reported as just a sprain, Johnson's shoulder injury is actually a partially torn labrum, an issue more serious than the Bengals initially let on. He's expected to wear a harness and try to play through the injury all season and avoid surgery that would presumably be season ending. However, if his shoulder pops out again once more, something that could happen in his sleep, his season would be over. Even if he somehow fights through the pain and makes it through 16 games, the question remains, how much will it affect his play on the field? Proceed cautiously.
Kevin Curtis – Curtis underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia, which could sideline him for as much as half of the regular season. After finishing the 2007 season with 77 receptions for 1,110 yards and six scores, he had emerged as the Eagles' No. 1 wideout. But this injury deserves a big downgrade, as he'll miss significant time, and it's also a problem that is sometimes difficult to come back from fully healthy.
Matt Leinart - Leinart struggled badly in Saturday's preseason game, as he was intercepted three times and only completed 4-of-12 passes for 24 yards. He was pretty solid over his first two starts, but his preseason YPA now stands at a disappointing 5.7. As much as the Cardinals' organization wants Leinart to stake claim as the team's No. 1 quarterback, Kurt Warner looks like the clear best option at the position.
Ronnie Brown - Brown may see a lightened workload early in the season as he nurses his injured right thumb back to health and also tries to regain confidence in his surgically repaired knee. Meanwhile, Ricky Williams has looked fantastic throughout training camp, so there will be major competition for touches in Miami's backfield. Brown could emerge as the primary option during the second half of the season, as Williams is 31 and has played in just one game since 2005, but Brown's workload figures to be limited in the early going.
Rudi Johnson – After last year's disastrous season, Johnson showed up to camp with a newly sculpted physique and motivated to prove he wasn't done as an effective running back. Then, yet another hamstring injury sidelined him for almost the entire preseason. He did return to practice Monday, but that was accompanied by rumors that the Bengals were shopping him in trades in hopes of acquiring much needed wide receiver depth. It's unclear if Johnson would really bring back much via a deal, but the bigger point here is the utter lack of trust the coaching staff has in the increasingly unreliable Johnson. Maybe the injury was much to blame, but last year's 2.9 YPC was simply unacceptable, and the exciting Chris Perry is finally healthy. Kenny Watson also remains in the picture, and he proved he can be an adequate fill in last year. Johnson is fighting an uphill battle to remain relevant.
Torry Holt – Age 32 isn't ancient when it comes to wide receivers, but Holt's best days are in the rearview mirror. He's been able to recover from the back troubles that have plagued him throughout camp, but Holt is no longer the burner he once was. He's still a precise route-runner, but the Rams offense is one in decline, and if Steven Jackson stays healthy this year unlike last, he figures to be the focal point of the offense.
Reggie Bush - Bush, who left Saturday's preseason game with a thigh injury, appeared to miss practice Monday and had his right thigh wrapped. The injury isn't considered serious, but he also missed time earlier in camp with a knee problem. With his body becoming increasingly fragile and his inability to read holes and run effectively on the inside, Bush best projects as a third-down back.
Article first appeared 8/27/08