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It’s been said that first impressions go a long way. You get introduced to someone for the first time and you accidentally spit on them when greeting them, they are going to remember that forever. Go on a job interview with a glob of hair gel hanging from your ear, a la Ben Stiller in “Something About Mary,” odds are that job isn’t in your future. Meet your girlfriend’s older, larger, meaner brother and within minutes of knowing him, insult his below average self-grooming habits, and you’ll just never recover from it physically, mentally, or emotionally.
The rules on first impressions hold true for first rounds of fantasy drafts as well. Screw it up, and you are in for a season full of ridicule. Get it right, and come wintertime, wads of cash, prizes, and bling will be headed your way. So today, in my third installment of The Starting 11, I give you just tha. The 11 ‘ballers that could, and should, start your draft off with a bang.
Now you could turn to a dozen different sports sites that cover fantasy football and you’d find a dozen different ways to rank the NFL’s top players. I’ll list my top 11, but let’s be honest, I’m just another writer with another opinion, no better or worse than anyone else’s. So I’ve helped you out further by giving you each player’s current player ranking on four other reputable sports sites, ESPN.com, CBSSports.com, Yahoo.com, and NFL.com. What can I say, I’m a helper, a giver, a real people person if you will. (Tips accepted.)
So in honor of Michael Vick’s official release earlier this week, let’s call this week’s Fantasy Football Focus article, “The Starting 11: Top Dawgs.” Ring the bell, the fight is underway!
Entering his third NFL season, AP is the consensus top pick amongst all fantasy gurus. Ok, almost all. ESPN’s Matthew Berry has chosen to be the contrarian and go with Michael Turner at the top of his draft board. But Berry’s a goofy looking dude, don’t listen to him. I could throw a bunch of numbers at you to prove my point, but frankly, with this guy, I don’t have to. Peterson will lead the Vikes’ offense, no matter who starts under center at the QB spot this year. He’s the truest definition of a “feature back” that we have left in the NFL. If you’re lucky enough to land the top spot in your draft, pick Peterson and don’t think twice about it.
Coming over from the Chargers before last season, Michael Turner came to Atlanta with huge expectations on his shoulders, and more importantly, his feet. It didn’t take long though for Turner to silence his critics, after an opening week drubbing of the Lions, highlighted by 220 rushing yards and two trips to the end zone. All year long, Turner put up the points in fantasy land, and there’s no reason why this season that won’t continue. The only potentially scary thing I see with Turner is the schedule he and the Falcons are up against, it is the third hardest in the NFL. Turner’s talent will rise to the top though, pick him second and enjoy the ride.
Without a great QB last season, Matt Forte had a breakout rookie year, combining for over 1,700 total yards on the ground and through the air. He essentially was the entire Bears offense for all of last year. Now with Jay Cutler in the Windy City, some of the pressure should be taken off Forte. However, that doesn’t mean he won’t still be a fantasy stud. With Forte’s pass-catching ability, look for him to play just as big a role in Chi-town’s offensive plans as he did last season. And contrary to Turner’s tough schedule, the Bears’ opponents for the upcoming season rank among the easiest lineup in the league. Draft Forte in the third spot, and think about him even higher in points-per-reception leagues.
With the departure of veteran Fred Taylor to the Pats, Maurice Jones-Drew vaults up the draft rankings as one of the few feature backs left in the league. With no serious contenders to steal away backfield carries, MJD finds himself as the big man on campus for the Jags. He was a TD machine last year, racking up a dozen on the ground and adding a pair through the air. Now, there’s no reason why he can’t have a 1,000-yard season on top of it. Jones-Drew rounds out the four backs in my top tier, as I see a big drop-off after him. If you draft fourth and MJD is still on the board, snatch him up and watch the next guy face a tough decision at #5.
Now we reach the part of the draft board where the risk factor goes through the roof. For a second consecutive year, the Rams’ Steven Jackson was able to play in just 12 games, thanks to an achy back and sore groin. Despite the health troubles though, Jackson still managed to top 1,000 yards on the ground, while continuing to be a backfield threat in the passing game as well. Like Jones-Drew, there really isn’t much competition on the Rams’ depth chart in the backfield, so look for St. Louis to lean on their star rusher to carry a heavy workload in ’09. Jackson’s definitely a mid-first-rounder, and I see him as a safe pick at the five spot.
I might be loyal to a fault, but I have LT ranked higher on my board than any of the “experts.” He’s been there, done that, and has the bumps and bruises to show for it. He’s had eight seasons of wear and tear, but in my book, Tomlinson is still near the top of my list, even at age 30. Would it be a smart move to handcuff LT with young Darren Sproles in the middle rounds? Absolutely! LT’s nagging toe injuries could come back to haunt him. But for at least one more year, I see LT as a first-round worthy running back. I know there are a bunch of you risk takers out there and for you, I suggest Mr. Tomlinson.
Look atop the final running back rankings in most standard scoring fantasy leagues by season’s end last year, and you wouldn’t find Peterson, Turner, or Forte as “king of the mountain”. You’d see DeAngelo Williams there. After a monster year that saw Williams rush for over 1,500 yards and a whopping 18 touchdowns, Carolina’s breakout backfield star is poised for another season of posting incredible numbers. You can’t expect the same output as last year though, as Carolina’s second-year back Jonathan Stewart will be hungrier to steal away carries from his older and wiser teammate. But look for Williams to put up numbers worthy of a mid-first-rounder, no question about it.
If it weren’t for Matt Forte stealing the show as the league’s top rookie rusher last season, all eyes would have been focused on the little guy from Houston, Steve Slaton. Slaton took the reigns of the Texans’ offense, after early injuries to RB Ahman Green and QB Matt Schaub, and rushed for nearly 1,300 yards and 9 TDs, while also contributing to the passing game with 50 grabs. Down the stretch last year, if you had Slaton on your team you were loving life, and if you were facing a team with him on it, you were down in the dumps. December brought out the greatest in the rookie back, posting 508 yards rushing in Houston’s final five games. With no real threat on the Texans’ depth chart, look for Slaton’s sophomore season to be filled with ups and (first) downs.
Breaking away from the normal running back trend, we find our first wide receiver on the draft board with ‘Zona’s Larry Fitzgerald. What Fitzy did in the postseason will forever be remembered in NFL history, but his regular season numbers were what had fantasyheads frothing at the mouth. As a featured member of the league’s top passing offense, Fitzgerald hauled in 96 catches for over 1,400 yards and a dozen touchdowns in ’08, leading his team to the Super Bowl in the process. The common thought is to draft backs early, but if you want to be the one to buck that trend and all of the feature backs are off the board, go with Fitzgerald late in the first round and enjoy the show.
Johnson is the third of the second-year backs featured on this list, and while some gurus have CJ higher on their boards, there’s something about the Titans’ young rusher that doesn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s the fact that LenDale White will swipe away several goal-line chances from Johnson over the course of the year. Maybe it’s the fact I don’t see Tennessee having as much success as a team as they did a year ago. Or maybe it’s a whole name association thing…I once worked with a guy named Chris Johnson and he was, to put it nicely, a doo-doo head. At any rate, Johnson should build on his rookie season and put up solid numbers this coming year. Feel free to draft him late in the first round, but you won’t see me with him on any of my teams. I don’t draft guys with doo-doo head names.
In a neck and neck race, Fitzgerald edges out Houston’s Andre Johnson for the top receiver spot on my board, but not by much. Johnson was a receiving stud in ’08, posting a career-high in catches (115) and receiving yards (1,575), while tying his career mark in TDs with 8. All that without his starting QB Matt Schaub for much of the season. If Schaub has a healthy ’09, look out for the Texans, and look out for AJ. Again, if you can handle holding off on drafting a running back, and your pick is right at the turn of the first/second round, draft Andre with confidence.
Tags: Adrian Peterson, Andre Johnson, Chris Johnson, DeAngelo Williams, Fantasy Football, LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Fitzgerald, Matt Forte, Maurice Jones-Drew, Michael Turner, NFL, Steve Slaton, Steven Jackson