By Mike Harmon
June 29, 2005
Previews: AFC South | NFC South | AFC West | NFC West
The AFC South goes under the microscope in my latest fantasy team preview stop. The obvious story is how Peyton Manning follows up his ridiculous 2004 totals, but the growth of third-year quarterbacks Byron Leftwich and David Carr will also be anxiously charted by fantasy owners. And, of course, how will RBs Chris Brown and Fred Taylor hold up this year?
I'll start with the Colts, where Tony Dungy will try to bring his defense up to the high offensive standards.
The Colts are a veritable track meet on turf. You've got the Edge in the backfield, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne on the wings, Brandon Stokley in the slot and up-and-coming tight end Dallas Clark running unopposed now that Marcus Pollard has left for Detroit. It should be another stellar season for the Colts offense. Dungy and the Colts brass tried to shore up the lackluster defense by drafting five defenders out of their first six picks, including two cornerbacks out of the gate.
Edgerrin James finished fourth in the NFL in rushing last year, racking up over 1,500 yards and nine touchdowns. Based on the excitement and hype around Manning's exploits, his brilliance went virtually unnoticed. James will certainly see his share of carries, and the spread out nature of the Colts attack supplies ample running room.
You can't stop them; you can only hope to contain them. Manning returns his three 1,000-yard wideouts and TE Dallas Clark, but will be without mainstay Marcus Pollard. The offensive line returns all but one member from last season and will look to continue its trend of keeping Manning upright. It has allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL for three straight seasons.
Fantasy Power List
Peyton Manning (first round): Where do you begin? How about 49 touchdowns against 10 interceptions? How about six straight years over 4,000 passing yards? And how about the fact that he's played in every game since 1998? He's never thrown fewer than 26 TD passes in a season and takes care of the ball. He's money in the bank.
Edgerrin James (first round): Some still use James's past injuries to push him down the draft board to the back of the first round, but two straight years over 1,200 yards and 644 carries tells me that he's just fine. He registered the highest rushing average of his career in 2004 (4.6 yards per carry).
Marvin Harrison (second round): Though he was forced to share catches with Wayne and Stokley, Harrison still registered his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard season and tied a career-high with 15 TD receptions. His 86 receptions last year was his lowest total since 1998. Look for a return to the century mark this year.
Reggie Wayne (third round): Wayne posted career-high totals across the board in '04, eclipsing the numbers earned by most teams' No. 1 receivers! By selecting him in the third round, Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Football PLUS users expect a repeat performance in '05.
Dallas Clark (eighth round): Clark slides up to the starting role for the 2005 season and is a popular sleeper pick among industry experts. His five touchdowns and 13 catches over a five-game stretch during the middle of the season whetted fantasy owners' appetites for stats to come.
Brandon Stokley (ninth round): The drop to the ninth round indicates that owners aren't very confident that Stokley will be able to approach his '04 heights. After all, not many times will you see a team's third receiver approach double-digit TDs. Even if he cuts his production from last season in half, Stokley is still a solid third fantasy receiver.
Ben Hartsock: With the departure of Pollard, Hartsock will be called upon to assume the second TE role. Clark thrived in the role last year, catching 25 balls and five touchdowns. Those totals were good enough to tie for ninth among tight ends and make Clark a solid play each week. Hartsock may be able to fit that bill this season.
In Jacksonville, the reliable defense was strengthened with the additions of Reggie Hayward and Marcellus Wiley. The defense that ranked 11th last season should keep the Jaguars in the ballgame. It's up to Byron Leftwich and the offense to take it from there. And there's a big question mark in the backfield as camp approaches and new faces in the receiving corps.
The Jaguars addressed the need for help on the offensive line by their selection of Khalif Barnes. However, they're concerned right now that Fred Taylor will not be ready to go for the beginning of camp. He revealed to radio station WZNZ that he "had an MCL and PCL combo (tore both)." But Taylor expects to be ready for the season opener. LaBrandon Toefield will begin camp in the No. 2 role.
Byron Leftwich has the arm and now he might have the help. New coordinator Carl Smith was brought in to improve the vertical passing game after Jacksonville averaged 16.3 points per game in 2004. Reliable veteran receiver Jimmy Smith returns for another season and will be joined by some combination of Cortez Hankton, second-year receivers Reggie Williams and Ernest Wilford and rookie QB-turned-wideout Matt Jones. IF the Jaguars can control the line of scrimmage and allow Leftwich time to throw, he'll break through to the next level this season.
Fantasy Power List
Fred Taylor (fourth or fifth round): Taylor drops behind virtually all starting backs after the recent revelations about the health of his knee. He did reach the 1,200-yard mark for the third consecutive year before hurting his knee. If you select him, be sure to handcuff LaBrandon Toefield to the selection.
Jimmy Smith (eight round): Some would argue that Father Time will catch up to Jimmy Smith one of these days, but he reached the 1,000-yard mark for the eighth time in nine years and contributed six TD receptions. Smith caught three or more passes in 14 of 16 games a year ago.
Byron Leftwich (11th round): Leftwich is on tap for the breakout campaign, armed with a new offense and some help in the receiving corps. Though he didn't light up the scoreboard, Leftwich did provide touchdowns for fantasy owners in 11 of 14 games in which he played. Curiously, two of the three shutouts were pitched by the Houston Texans.
LaBrandon Toefield (12th round): Right now, he's only a late-round gamble and insurance for Fred Taylor owners. He's assumed to be the top option for the Jaguars if Fred Taylor misses time, although it's possible that a platoon with he and likely fullback Greg Jones would develop.
Matt Jones: It's hard to expect a player to switch from quarterback to wide receiver overnight, but Jones showed the willingness and ability during the college All-Star games after 2004. Jones should mesh well with Leftwich and his QB experience should shorten the learning curve. And, at 6-foot-6, Jones can go up and get it.
The most intriguing question for Tennessee is whether Norm Chow can replicate his success at USC in the NFL. Steve McNair will be back under center, but returns to the field without long-time receiving option Derrick Mason and questions behind Drew Bennett. The defense lost four high-priced veterans and will face a rough first month to the season with games against Pittsburgh, Baltimore, St. Louis and Indianapolis.
Chris Brown was brilliant at times, but failed to keep himself on the field. He taunted owners with several weeks with 100 rushing yards in the first half, only to leave due to ankle troubles. As it stands right now, there is no obvious backup. Jarrett Payton, Troy Fleming, Damien Nash and Joe Smith fail to inspire. Some portion of Tennessee management is still pushing for the team to deal for Travis Henry. With his Tennessee Volunteers ties, Henry would be a nice marketing tool, not to mention a great addition to this offense.
The offensive line returns four starters, where the continuity should allow McNair to remain on the field. Drew Bennett comes off of his superb 2004 season and slides into the No. 1 role. Behind Bennett in the receiving corps stand Tyrone Calico and rookies Courtney Roby and Brandon Jones. If TE Ben Troupe can shake the injury bug, he has the makings of a great safety valve for McNair.
Fantasy Power List
Chris Brown (third or fourth round): Brown rushed for over 1,000 yards in his first year as the Titans' starter, including six 100-yard games. He missed five games and parts of several others, prompting many to slap the injury-prone tag on him already. I won't go quite to that extreme, but I will take this opportunity to reiterate the need for depth at RB.
Drew Bennett (fourth round): Bennett rises to the fourth round after his 11-TD, 1,247 receiving yards in 2004. Owners are confident that he'll be more consistent as the No. 1 receiver, spreading out those TDs over more than three weeks (25 of his 80 catches and eight of his 11 TDs came between Weeks 13-15). He faces the challenge of teams' No. 1 cornerbacks and double-teams with the absence of Derrick Mason.
Steve McNair (11th round): McNair comes back to the starting role after missing more than half of 2004 with his sternum injury. He had posted three solid fantasy seasons before the injury-shortened '04 season. Fantasy owners are willing to take a flier that Norm Chow will be able to make him a fantasy superstar in this comeback year.
Tyrone Calico: He hasn't practiced since surgery for an injured knee last October, but he's been participating in drills and running routes over the past several weeks. When healthy, Calico is a tremendous deep threat at 6-foot-4, but the jury's out about when he'll be able to contribute. Calico averaged 21.2 yards per carry in his 2003 rookie season.
The Texans have built a solid core on offense with Domanick Davis, Andre Johnson and David Carr, but the offensive line continues to make Carr a sitting duck for pass rushers. He's been sacked 140 times over three seasons and will likely face heavy pressure again this year. The 23rd-ranked defense in '04 lost four starters and will have trouble mounting a consistent pass rush (24 sacks in '04). They did add Philip Buchanon to aid an ailing defensive backfield.
Domanick Davis has put together two straight 1,000-yard seasons in spite of the offensive line and has valiantly battled through injuries. The Texans drafted Vernand Morency from Oklahoma State as protection should Davis and the oft-injured Tony Hollings miss any time.
Again, it all starts with the offensive line. Carr posted a solid 61.2 percent completion rate and tossed for 3,531 yards, but registered only 16 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. There are no established receivers behind Andre Johnson (79 catches, 1,142 yards) and Domanick Davis (68 receptions).
Fantasy Power List
Domanick Davis (late-first, early-second round): Davis has been impressive in his two years in Houston, reaching the 1,000-yard mark twice and scoring 21 rushing TDs. He's also contributed 115 receptions over two years. In a recent experts draft, Davis was selected fourth overall.
Andre Johnson (fourth round): Johnson has established himself as a top-flight receiver in his two NFL seasons. Without a steady No. 2 receiver, he's averaged 72 catches and 1,060 receiving yards.
David Carr (tenth round): Carr has been a solid QB when not on his back. If your league takes away points for sacks, then be prepared to lose a handful each week. However, he did open the season by throwing for at least 200 yards in nine of his first 10 outings. In leagues that reward quarterbacks for piling up yardage, he's worth a look-see.
Jerome Mathis: The speedy receiver and return threat from Hampton has the opportunity to challenge for the No. 2 receiver role opposite Johnson. Jabar Gaffney has been a solid but unspectacular option, and Corey Bradford can't seem to stay on the field. His game-breaking speed (he was a Division I-AA sprinting champion) might help open up the offense and give Carr room to operate.
Updated on Wednesday, Jun 29, 2005 10:44 am, EDT
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