August 29, 2008
The Juggernaut Index is our annual attempt to rank every NFL team for fantasy purposes. And we're finally near the end. We're not concerned with real-life wins and losses here, only fantasy potential. These rankings are not to be questioned.
Whenever LaDainian Tomlinson decides to retire -- and that day can't arrive soon enough for the Raiders -- any discussion of the all-time running backs will have to begin with him. Maybe it already does.
Tomlinson is only 29, yet he's already third on the career rushing TD list (115) and 18th in rushing yards (10,650). His next disappointing season will be his first.
Tomlinson is again the top-ranked fantasy running back, and the voting was nearly unanimous. He has remarkable vision, he won't go down on first contact, he makes the quickest cuts, he's a terrific receiving option, and he runs behind an outstanding line. There's nothing obvious to criticize. He missed a game once, back in 2004.
His average Yahoo! draft position is 1.3. Tomlinson simply doesn't fall past the second pick, ever. If you draft him, the biggest worry you'll have is that the Chargers will have clinched everything there is to clinch by Week 16, and Tomlinson will rest.
If he were to miss any time this season (unlikely, but possible), Darren Sproles and Jacob Hester would form a useful committee in his absence. Tomlinson is the only back in the NFL worth handcuffing twice. Sproles was sensational in Week 15 last year, although the Lions were the opponent; Hester has impressed during the preseason, but he's not Michael Turner.
Even if the Chargers didn't have another useful fantasy option on the roster, Tomlinson alone would force them into the top half of the Juggernaut Index. But of course they do have other useful, ownable players.
Philip Rivers still needs to prove that he's one of them. He made a few poor decisions last year, threw 15 interceptions, and fumbled 11 times (losing six). However, he finished the season with three strong efforts, throwing four touchdown passes and no picks in Weeks 15 through 17. Rivers had ACL surgery just seven months ago, so health is a concern. He's 19th in our quarterback rankings, and none of us slotted him any higher than No. 17. You're not drafting him as a starter in public leagues.
Tight end Antonio Gates is again the most dangerous weapon in the San Diego passing game. Recent propaganda suggests that his recovery from February foot surgery has gone well. It's worth noting that he was somewhat more productive back when Drew Brees was his quarterback. Gates had 170 total receptions, 2065 yards and 23 TDs in 30 games in '04 and '05; he's caught 146 passes for 1908 yards and 18 TDs in 32 games over the past two years. That difference isn't massive, of course, but it's enough to allow other tight ends to join him in the top-tier.
You can have Chris Chambers. We've ranked him as the 31st best fantasy wide receiver, but I've found it impossible to draft him ahead of any running back with even a glimmer of upside. Last year Chambers was targeted 129 times, but he caught only 66 passes; in 2006 it was 154 targets and 59 receptions. Elite receivers are generally better than that. Those rates can be partially explained by the quality of the quarterback play in Miami, obviously. Chambers was much more useful as a Charger.
And still...you can have him.
Vincent Jackson was excellent in the AFC playoffs last season (18 receptions, 300 yards, 2 TDs), and it would not be a surprise if he outproduced Chambers in '08. At 6'5" and 241 pounds, he should be a great red zone target, although most of those looks will go to Tomlinson and Gates. Here's a little preseason hype from the San Diego Union-Tribune:
Seriously, Jackson is catching everything -- slants, deep balls, making spectacular grabs. And he is running like a much smaller man. He appears to be ready to build on his second half of 2007.
Buster Davis is again worth a look in dynasty leagues, but that's it.
The biggest story involving the San Diego defense is the bizarre, career-threatening decision Shawne Merriman has made to actually play this season, despite the fact that he'll basically have only one useful leg. With or without him, the Chargers defense is draft-worthy. CB Antonio Cromartie (10 INT in '07) makes it so. LBs Shaun Phillips and Matt Wilhelm are IDP options, as are DBs Quentin Jammer and Clinton Hart.
2007 San Diego team stats
Rushing: 127.4 Y/G
Passing: 187.8 Y/G
Points per game: 25.8
Red Zone possessions and TDs: 52, 29
'08 Schedule strength: .422
The rest of the Index...
32) Chicago, 31) Tennessee, 30) San Francisco, 29) Miami, 28) Baltimore, 27) NY Jets, 26) Oakland, 25) Tampa Bay, 24) Atlanta, 23) Houston, 22) Kansas City, 21) Buffalo, 20) Carolina, 19) Detroit, 18) Seattle, 17) Denver, 16) Washington, 15) St. Louis, 14) Minnesota, 13) Arizona, 12) Jacksonville, 11) Cincinnati, 10) Philadelphia, 9) Pittsburgh, 8) Green Bay, 7) NY Giants, 6) Cleveland, 5) New Orleans, 4) San Diego
Photos via Getty Images