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Draft Day Dilemma: After Peyton's Place

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Whither Peyton Manning?

Is the Indy QB who looks a little like your dim-witted cousin Earl destined for Dan Fouts-hood? Will he forever shimmer in the regular season, only to fall short when it counts? Has a window closed on his best chance for a Super Bowl? Did the Colts grow a defense just a year too late?

You know what? Doesn't matter.

No, for you, the fantasy player, Manning the Elder is gold, gold, gold. Over the past three seasons, he's averaged 4,190 yards passing and over 35 TDs with exactly 10 picks in each campaign. That is disgusting. Sure, Manning's '05 (3,747 yards, 28 scores) paled in comparison to his '04 (4,557 yards, 49 scores), but he was still the most consistent, the most devastating, the most fantasy-worthy quarterback in the free world. And so he shall be again in 2006. Conversation over.

But who's next?

I think there are as many as five guys who can lay claim to the No. 2 overall QB position; everyone on this list has the potential to be a fantasy champion, but no one is bulletproof. And while I'm sure many readers can (and will, in angry emails to me) make arguments for other guys, I daresay this is a fairly exhaustive list of the elite in fantasy signal-calling. Each guy below has posted gaudy numbers, finds himself in a passer-friendly system, and can break out in any given week. So with apologies to Trent Green, Jake Delhomme, Marc Bulger, Brett Favre, Michael Vick and whomever else you'd care to mention, let's take a look at the numbers and arguments for and against each of our five prospective second-ranked QBs.

Tom Brady, NE

Pass Yd Pass TD Int Rush Yd Rush TD
2003 3,620 23 12 63 1
2004 3,692 28 14 28 0
2005 4,110 26 14 89 1
3-Yr Avg. 3,807 25.6 13.3 60 0.67

If New England's spread-it-around offensive system is murder on its other skill players, it's heaven for Brady. Whereas not even erstwhile No. 1 WR Deion Branch (who people like the Boston Globe's Ron Borges make sound like the second coming of Jerry Rice) has caught 80 passes in a season (like, ever), and whereas no single receiver in the Brady Era has ever gone for 1,000 yards receiving (I'm not counting Troy Brown in 2001, who amassed a lot of his 1,199 yards catching passes from Drew Bledsoe), Brady has been a fantasy rock from 2002 forward. He has a tough-guy image (despite his pretty face) which he's earned by playing hurt the last three or so years; this is great for the Patriots, but not always great for his fantasy owners. Nevertheless, he led the league in passing yards for the first time in his career in '05, and posted eight TD passes during the season's final month (a.k.a. the fantasy playoffs). You can count on Brady to play just about 16 games, do it at peak efficiency, lumber around in the pocket like an Easter Island statue, and make relatively few mistakes. Pretty good for a fantasy QB1. But Brady's blemishes come in the form of inexperienced wideouts (right now, with Branch holding out, Reche Caldwell is the best WR in camp; ew).

Matt Hasselbeck, Sea

Pass Yd Pass TD Int Rush Yd Rush TD
2003 3,841 26 15 125 2
2004 3,382 22 15 90 1
2005 3,459 24 9 124 1
3-Yr Avg. 3,561 24 13 113 1.3

I'll be honest: I'm not completely sold on Hasselbeck. He's got a pretty big arm, he's a likeable person and a fun, enthusiastic teammate, and he hands off to Shaun Alexander real good. Do I trust him when a game's on the line? No, not quite. To me, the Seattle offense always seems just on the verge of turning into an absolute powerhouse in the passing game (to match the insanely good numbers of the running game), but it never quite happens. Remember Hasselbeck tearing up the league at the end of 2003, mercifully putting an end to the Trent Dilfer Experiment? Hasselbeck wound up with a very good 26 TDs to 15 INTs (not terrible, not great), but looked to be one of the league's up-and-comers the following year. Yech. He made that fateful guarantee in the playoff game against Green Bay, lost that one, and then regressed in '04, posting a QB rating of 83.1. Don't get me wrong: he was very good in '05; I'm especially psyched about the measly nine picks he threw. But there are definitely chinks in the armor. Alexander vultures a ton of scores. Guys like Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram drop way too many passes. And Hasselbeck himself has to prove he can stay consistent in '06, and do it again. I think he can, but will he?

Eli Manning, NYG

Pass Yd Pass TD Int Rush Yd Rush TD
2004 1,043 6 9 35 0
2005 3,762 24 17 29 1
2-Yr Avg. 2,403 15 13 57.5 0.5

Little Bro is the George W. Bush of NFL QBs: a polarizing force that causes people nationwide to either love him or hate him. Manning was genuinely terrible in his rookie year subbing for Kurt Warner when the Giants were still in the playoff hunt, but it's clear now that that was a smart move by Tom Coughlin. With Plaxico Burress on board in '05, Manning was a fantasy dream, coming third in the NFL in attempts (behind Favre and Kerry Collins), fifth in passing yards and tying for fourth in passing TDs. Not bad for a 24-year-old. Yes, granted, Manning the Younger has a true gift for blowing passes about 25 feet over the heads of wide-open receivers, and making exceedingly poor decisions under pressure. But whereas someone like Hasselbeck is probably a better real-life QB than fantasy QB, you can certainly say the opposite about Manning. He has a relatively solid offensive line, a few excellent targets (including Jeremy Shockey), and a coach committed to the passing game. Yum. All that said, many experts are concerned about a third-year regression, and I can understand why. Teams won't be surprised by the Giants throwing, throwing and throwing some more, and they'll scheme to take advantage of Manning's accuracy problems. I wouldn't be shocked to see his interception total (already high at 17 last year) skyrocket to (for instance) Favre Country.

Donovan McNabb, Phi

Pass Yd Pass TD Int Rush Yd Rush TD
2003 3,216 16 11 355 3
2004 3,875 31 8 220 3
2005 2,507 16 9 55 1
3-Yr Avg. 3,199 21 9.3 210 2.3

With McNabb, you used to get a running quarterback who wasn't all that accurate throwing the ball. In 2000, the man rushed for 629 yards (nearly twice the total yardage of any of the running backs on that team) and six scores, and as recently as 2003 hit the 355-yard mark. But when Terrell Owens came to town, much of the offense flowed through him; McNabb turned into a fantasy star straight out of Central Casting, posting a 31-to-8 TD-to-INT ratio, which is amazing in any language (even if you speak T.O.). His completion percentage jumped to 64 percent, the best of his career, and he looked like he was turning into a real system quarterback for Andy Reid. Things were even going pretty well through the first month of '05, until a sports hernia severely limited McNabb's mobility. Teams could essentially ignore his scrambling abilities, scheme away Owens, and the Eagles were toast. McNabb reverted to his inaccurate passing ways, without the benefit of the rushing yards or scores. His owners (and I was one of them) were not happy. With Owens gone and no true WR1 on the team (sound familiar?), Reid's version of the West Coast offense (in which Brian Westbrook becomes the leading receiver) will reign again. McNabb has to prove he's healthy, has to find Reggie Brown downfield, and (in order to merit consideration as the second fantasy QB on the board) regain his rushing abilities.

Carson Palmer, Cin

Pass Yd Pass TD Int Rush Yd Rush TD
2004 2,897 18 18 47 1
2005 3,836 32 12 41 1
2-Yr Avg. 3,367 25 15 44 1

There's little question that Palmer would be at least No. 2 on this list if he hadn't suffered a knee injury on the first pass play of the AFC Wild Card game last season. In fact, in some circles (circles to which I don't belong), Palmer might even be considered a better bet than Peyton Manning. All that is moot, however, as here in the beginning of 2006, there are serious questions surrounding Palmer's reconstructed knee. With all its pieces in place, Cincinnati boasts one tremendously explosive offense, with Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh running on the ends, Rudi Johnson busting up the middle, and Chris Perry catching 51 passes as the third-down back (in only 14 games). But Palmer's the piece that might not be in place, or at least not fully healthy, to start this year. Knee rehabilitation is supposed to be at least a one-year gig (and folks typically aren't back to full-strength until after two years), and Palmer's attempting to start in the NFL after a mere nine months? Color me concerned. And I've yet to hear about any rehabilitation that wasn't "ahead of schedule" (leading me to believe that "the schedule" is perhaps a bit on the Urkel side). Palmer will be effective at some point this season, but if he's not on his game right away, Anthony Wright may have to step in. That won't do Palmer's fantasy owners much good, eh?

The Verdict
It would be so easy not to give my preferred order for these fantasy QBs, but then I wouldn't have the pleasure of hundreds of hate e-mails. So here's my solution to this particular Draft Day Dilemma, followed by my reasoning (such as it is):

2. Brady
3. Hasselbeck
4. McNabb
5. Palmer
6. E. Manning

The last shall be first; I'm coming right out and admitting that Eli Manning makes me squirm like I've got something wet and squishy in my drawers. Many (including at least two experts on this very site) would tell you Manning deserves top-five status, but I can't see it, not just yet. I do smell at least a small fantasy regression this season, despite the fact that I think the Giants can be very good in the won-loss column. Burress quit on his teammates toward the end of last year, and that's never good. Shockey talks too much. Tiki Barber is a manimal, but I think Manning's inaccuracy gets the best of him too often in '06. He'll be very good, and offers a huge-upside explosiveness that someone like, say, Brady probably doesn't offer. But his downside is prodigious.

Next comes Palmer. It breaks my heart. He came such a long way in '05 (from an actually-so-awful-we-barely-remember-it '04), but the skeptic in me (wait, the skeptic is me) says the Bengals are overstating Palmer's miraculous healing powers. We'll all watch him in the preseason, we'll judge and worry over his every step and twinge, and there's actually a decent chance Palmer starts the season's first game. But I don't think he's his old self until halfway through the campaign. Rating him No. 5 is kind of a compromise; he'll start slow and end big.

Is it controversial that McNabb comes next? It's high, I know. But as it developed last season, I like Andy Reid's offense for a QB very, very much. For a full six weeks, the media had a field day telling America that Reid simply wasn't going to get away with rushing the ball so infrequently that it would eventually catch up with the team. What the football world failed to realize was that in Reid's latter-day system (no Mormon joke intended), the three-yard dump to Brian Westbrook basically is a run, except that it has the benefit (to McNabb owners) of counting as a pass. I expect a lot of that this year, I expect Reggie Brown to be better than advertised, and I expect McNabb to be fully healthy and to realize that he's got to rush more to be effective.

The final choice, for me, is between Brady and Hasselbeck. Over the last two seasons (one in which Corey Dillon was a monster, and one in which he was grossly ineffective), Brady has outdone Hasselbeck probably primarily because Shaun Alexander is such an amazing, once-in-a-generation fantasy rusher. With a lesser back (or, rather, with a back without such an amazing nose for the end zone), I'd imagine that Hasselbeck's TD numbers would exceed Brady's on a regular basis. And with his new-found conservative, intelligent play in '05 (witness the nine picks), it's clear Hasselbeck's got it in him to challenge Tom Terrific. But it still has to be Brady. He's just a rock out there. Having owned him a few times over the past seasons, I have to say that Brady is almost as much a comfort as Peyton Manning; he plays smart, he rarely turns in a pitiful, fantasy-killing game, and the Pats seem willing to throw as much as any offense in football, especially if and when their defense bends. It's close, but I'm taking Brady second.

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