As most of you already know, the Juggernaut Index is our annual preseason ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: For FANTASY purposes. We're not interested in real-life winning percentages here. This is simply about yards, points, and draft position.
9. Indianapolis Colts
Peyton Manning finally came off the PUP list, but he's still causing problems. Manning is only four months removed from neck surgery and he's missed nearly the entire preseason. Most of us were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in our early ranks — well earned, because he's played 227 straight games — but after the Colts plucked Kerry Collins off the discard pile, we had to react. The Yahoo! team has Manning ranked in the 6-9 range at his position, which would probably really bother the guy if he cared at all about the opinions of fantasy experts. (That is, if he were MJD). Over the past decade, Manning has never finished lower than sixth in year-end fantasy scoring among quarterbacks. If healthy, we would rank him top-three and that's where he'd finish. No team put the ball in the air as often as Indianapolis last season (42.4 attempts per game).
It's tempting to compare this preseason to 2008, when Manning was sidelined due to left knee surgery. But clearly these are different injuries. We don't know the extent to which the current neck issue will impact Peyton's ability to make every throw, with velocity. Manning's preparation is legendary, of course, and it's not like he's learning a new scheme or dealing with a new group of receivers.
Bottom line: When he declares himself ready to play, I'm willing to assume that he'll perform at the usual Peyton level. In my recent drafts, he's always slipped beyond Pick No. 40. Let's remember that the final weeks of the season are when your title is decided; take the discount on Manning, then find a caddy for Weeks 1-2. (Preferably not Collins).
Update, Sept. 4: OK, there are some ugly rumors out there about Peyton's neck. He seems like less of an obvious steal at the moment, and more of a dice roll.
The Colts' receiving corps is always a fantasy buffet and this season should be no different, assuming Manning returns at something close to full strength. Every analyst in the fantasy industry seems to be down on Reggie Wayne (he turns 33 in November), but let's not ignore the fact that he was targeted 176 times last year, more than any other AFC receiver. If you can get him at the end of Round 2 or top of Round 3 — and that's where he goes (Yahoo! ADP 28.1) — then you've got a reliable 100-catch, 1,200-yard wideout at a crazy price.
Austin Collie's various preseason maladies (foot, knee) have bumped him down most draft boards, and it's a completely understandable reaction. I've backed off Collie a bit as well, after targeting him in early drafts. The Colts never release meaningful injury information (because they're a smart team), so we'll never get the full truth until we see him in action. And of course there's the multiple concussion issue, a red flag for anyone, especially for a guy who makes his living over the middle. I'm still plenty interested in owning Collie — he gave us eight TDs in nine games last year — but I'll concede that he presents a risk/reward dilemma. Pierre Garcon remains a fine source for drops and big plays; he's a receiver who can't be ignored, considering the team context. He's a Round 10/11 player in an average Yahoo! draft, and at that stage you'll feel great about the pick. It won't surprise you to learn that Anthony Gonzalez is dealing with yet another injury (hamstring). No one's drafting him these days.
Dallas Clark is back in the mix, though he'll apparently wear a brace to protect his right wrist this year. Clark is just a season removed from what was, I believe, the only 100-1,000-10 campaign in the history of the tight end position, so his upside is well established. It's important to recall the fine work by Jacob Tamme in relief of Clark last season; the tight end in this offense is going to be useful, no matter who he is.
Last year, Indy's running game was little-used in real-life and lightly owned in fantasy. Joseph Addai remains the starter here, re-upping with the team shortly after the lockout ended ($14M/3Y). Addai got off to a nice start in 2010 through six games (4.4 YPC, 3 TD, 18 REC), but a neck/shoulder injury wrecked his year. He made it back in Week 16, however, and the Colts felt confident enough to pay him. In Yahoo! leagues, Addai is the No. 36 running back off the board. Even if you don't love the guy, you have to admit that the price tag is nice. The man found the end zone 13 times in '09. Delone Carter is the latest challenger to Addai's position atop this backfield hierarchy; he's clearly a nice later-round selection in fantasy, and not merely as a handcuff. It's not difficult to imagine Carter finding a rotational role in Indy, considering the starting back's injury history. At 5-foot-9 and 224 pounds, Carter is built for tough yards, and he's had a nice preseason for what it's worth (little).
No one wants to think about Donald Brown anymore, right? Good. He's reportedly at risk of being cut.
2010 team stats with NFL rank: 27.2 (4) points per game, 288.1 pass YPG (1), 92.7 rush YPG (29), 42.4 pass attempts (1), 24.6 rush attempts (28)
8. San Diego Chargers
OK, first of all, LOOK AT THAT PICTURE OF MIKE TOLBERT. Goodness. That's outstanding.
The Kool-Aid Man was a waiver wire gem last season, delivering 735 of the yards and 11 of the TDs that were supposed to belong to Ryan Mathews. Few players disappointed us as much as Mathews did last season (Shonn Greene being one notable exception), as injuries and fumbling issues transformed him into a part-timer. A terrific Week 17 stat line at Denver eventually made the rookie's year-end numbers look just fine (26 carries, 120 yards, 3 TDs). But unless you settled your fantasy championship that week, you did not enjoy your Mathews ownership experience, and he cost you a late-first/early-second round pick.
Well, neither Tolbert or Mathews are flying off the board near the tops of drafts this season, so there are no worries about overpayment. Tolbert should own the goal-line carries — thus he gets a rankings edge — while Mathews fights his way back into the circle of trust, doing most of his work between the 10s. Chargers head coach Norv Turner continues to spit sunshine about his second-year back...
"I think Ryan is growing as a player," Turner said. "I see it in practice every day. It's great when it shows up. We know he's going to make long runs ... I think he's getting better as a down-to-down consistent runner."
...but it's a disappointment that we're still discussing the guy as a project.
I'll say this much in defense of Mathews: We've definitely seen flashes of talent, and he's tied to a great offense. You cannot ignore him, no matter how much he let you down last season. He's worth owning somewhere, given the flex-player price.
And now for the really fun part of this offense...
It's possible that the best-QB-in-the-game discussion not only must include Philip Rivers, but it needs to begin with Rivers. Not only did he lead the NFL in passing yards last season (4,710), but he did it with 138 fewer pass attempts than Manning, the guy who finished second. His efficiency is ridiculous, and last year wasn't an outlier. Rivers has eclipsed 8.0 yards per pass attempt in each of the past three seasons (8.7 in 2010). He's given us three straight 4,000-yard campaigns, averaging 30.7 touchdowns per season during that stretch. Crazy. He also plays the full 16 games every year. If the guy ever ran the ball, Rodgers-style, he'd be a perfect fantasy QB. As it is, I won't laugh you out of the room if you want to select him first at his position. He's terrific, a clear top-tier quarterback. What he accomplished last season, with a depleted receiving corps, was MVP-level stuff.
San Diego also provides fantasy owners with a best-in-class tight end, Antonio Gates, a man who caught 10 touchdown passes in just 10 games last season. He seems to be successfully managing his plantar fascia issues, putting in full practices. No cause for alarm here.
Wide receiver Vincent Jackson is in a much different situation this season, as opposed to 2010, the holdout year. He gets a guaranteed $11.4 million in 2011, the preseason has gone well, and he's a preferred target for an elite quarterback. Jackson is invariably a top-eight pick at his position, a mid to late-second rounder in leagues of standard size. No one should be surprised if he exceeds his 2009 totals (68-1167-9). Malcom Floyd remains with the Chargers, inking a two-year deal last month. He was terrific during Jackson's absence last season, at least through five weeks, until injuries struck. And then Rivers briefly turned Seyi Ajirotutu into a fantasy asset, because he's the sort of QB who can do that. Patrick Crayton is still in town, but injured (ankle). Rookie third-rounder Vincent Brown is a receiver of interest for dynasty owners, but an injury sidelined him during the preseason, too. This passing game is excellent, clearly, so you'll want to jump on any wideout who gets a shot at targets.
2010 team stats: 27.6 (2) points per game, 282.4 pass YPG (2), 113.1 rush YPG (15), 34.0 pass attempts (15), 28.6 rush attempts (9)
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
As mentioned on Thursday, I'm fairly annoyed with myself for failing to draft Ben Roethlisberger in any leagues so far. I've committed to taking him at some point in the week ahead. We've ranked him outside the top-tier at his position, yet he's been an elite scorer in prior years. Roethlisberger has a 32-touchdown season on his resume (2007), and his career high in passing yardage is 4,328 (2009). Those are huge numbers, better than anything Matt Ryan, our No. 8 quarterback, has ever done. Ben has taken quite a bit of punishment over the years — he was sacked at least 46 times every season from 2006 to '09 — but the beatings haven't yet caught up with him. He delivered a passer rating of 97.0 last year, over 12 games.
Mike Wallace, entering his third season, looks like a receiver with the potential to someday lead his position in fantasy scoring. It would be no surprise if he forced his way into the top-tier in 2012. If you snag him in Round 3, it's simply a great buy. He gave us seven 100-yard games last year and 10 touchdown receptions. Trust him, trust his quarterback. Hines Ward is still in the team photo, but his production dipped significantly a year ago (59-755-5) and he's entering his age-35 season. At this point, he's playing for career milestones and Super Bowl appearances; his days as an every-week fantasy starter appear to be at an end. With Ward in the decline phase, the Steelers have a pair of under-25 receivers who should be of interest to us: Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Sanders has been sidelined with a slow-healing stress fracture in his foot, but he's finally back at practice; Brown has been a preseason highlight machine. Both receivers need to be owned in deeper leagues.
Rashard Mendenhall is the best sort of fantasy back (non-PPR division): He'll get all the carries he can possibly handle, and he isn't lifted from games when he team is inside the 5-yard line. You wish he had a better O-line, but you'll take the workload nonetheless. He's a clear first-rounder in standard formats, coming off a 324-carry, 13-TD season. Isaac Redman has the second chair in this backfield.
Pittsburgh's defense, as you probably know, is formidable. They're a top-three unit for fantasy purposes, loaded with IDPs. (Ranks here). James Harrison's return from back surgery is a concern, but that hasn't scared off fantasy owners. This DEF has been the first off the board in Yahoo! drafts.
2010 team stats: 23.4 (12) points per game, 225.1 pass YPG (14), 120.3 rush YPG (11), 29.9 pass attempts (28), 29.4 rush attempts (8)
Previous Juggernaut entries: Washington, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Carolina, San Francisco, Buffalo, Miami, Seattle, Oakland, Jacksonville, Denver, Tennessee, Minnesota, Chicago, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Arizona, New York Jets, Baltimore, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Giants, Detroit, New England.
Photos via US Presswire