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Mike's Mailbag: Rex Effect

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All across the country, friends and family members are flocking to training camps, hoping that viewing a two-hour workout session will relieve their uneasiness about free agent losses, coaching changes and the fortifications made by division rivals.

And, of course, it means that jerseys are flying off of the shelves. Need a new Randy Moss Raiders jersey? How about a Travis Henry Titans jersey? And if you're a fan of the Dolphins or Jets, aren't you fired up that you can dust off the Ricky Williams and Laveranues Coles jerseys?

Anyway, it's time to take another trip into the mailbag. This week, we've got questions about players returning from injury, young tailbacks, a lesson in fantasy versus reality, and that age-old dilemma if you're holding the first pick. Let's get after it.

I have Rex Grossman on my team and I'm thinking about trading him for Steve McNair. Both were injured last year, but I'm not sure who would help my team more. Which of these quarterbacks is more likely to be good this year, Rex Grossman or Steve McNair? – Dan in Columbia, TN

Dan –
Both players face huge hurdles as they return from injury. Tennessee was forced to purge a number of top players due to salary cap constraints, and injuries slowed the offensive line. The loss of Derrick Mason, a top McNair target, forces Drew Bennett into the top slot with little proven talent behind him. Will Tyrone Calico be ready to play? If not, which of the bevy of young receivers will step up?

There's one major factor that leads me to believe that you would be better served retaining Grossman. Should the Titans struggle out of the gate, Fisher may turn to Billy Volek, who established a special rapport with Bennett a season ago, to spark the offense. Grossman doesn't have to look over his shoulder.

The Bears have only one proven skill position player in Muhsin Muhammad, but young receivers Bobby Wade and Justin Gage appear ready to contribute this season. Cedric Benson has shown that he can run in the tough Big 12 Conference, so the running game should be sound if the offensive line can stay healthy. The line played with seven different combinations during '04 due to injuries and allowed 66 sacks.

The defense welcomes back a number of players who missed time due to injury and should be ready to ascend toward the top of the pack. Grossman and company may be the beneficiaries of a number of short fields caused by the defense, allowing them to put up points in Ron Turner's offense.

I have LaMont Jordan and Cedric Benson. Which one should I start if I have a No. 1 running back already? – Rob in Lincoln, NE

Rob –
Hands down, Jordan is your guy. The Raiders reworked offense is stacked and ready to put up big points in 2005. Kerry Collins will have plenty of time to operate, and the trio of Randy Moss, Jerry Porter and Ronald Curry will cause sleepless nights for defensive coordinators and cornerbacks. That will open running room for Jordan in his first season as a starting tailback.

I'm certainly not going to compare Collins to Peyton Manning, but this offense has the components and strength on the offensive line to chase the point leaders. And that puts Jordan in the neighborhood of Edgerrin James-type numbers. He'll be looking at double-digit touchdowns and 1,300 rushing yards, as the Raiders will work to keep their defense off of the field.

Should I have traded Curtis Martin and Isaac Bruce for Ricky Williams? – Jacob in Apopka, FL

Jacob –
No, you shouldn't have traded players of the stature of Martin and Bruce for Williams, either straight up or in this combination. Martin and Bruce are proven commodities with no hurdles to tremendous output. Williams has a four-game suspension to serve at the start of the campaign, and will need to supplant Ronnie Brown as the feature back to vault in fantasy value. While I believe that Williams will make an impact over the course of the season, even if he takes on the Jerome Bettis short-yardage role, this trade shouldn't be made.

You may look and say, why did I include this question? It's a classic example of the possible willingness of an owner to overpay to procure the services of a hometown hero. Pay close attention to how your draft progresses, watch what your league members wore to your offline draft – if you held one, and check out the early waiver wire activity in your league. They serve as indicators of an inability to separate fandom with the fantasy realm. Obviously, the two are intertwined; otherwise you wouldn't be participating in this world. However, the exchange of two top players at their positions for a player a year removed from his last start goes a bit too far.

My first two draft choices were Ahman Green and Tiki Barber, as I drafted last in the first round and first in the second (round). My question is two-fold: What should I expect out of Green? Will he have a solid season considering the questions about Brett Favre, or will he be a bust? And should I expect another solid, almost fumble-free, year out of Tiki? – Elad in Israel

Elad –
There are two issues that concern me about Green's fantasy prospects entering 2005. First, the Packers lost members off their offensive line for the first time since 2000. Gone are Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera, and the remaining players have injury concerns. Second, though he has tallied five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in a row, Green is nursing a sore back as camp begins. Therefore, it stands to reason that Najeh Davenport will eat into his touches to keep Green on the field through the season.

As for Barber, he'll benefit from health and continuity on the line and the addition of tackle Kareem McKenzie. Eli Manning survived the trial by fire stretch of last season, and welcomes a new receiver in Plaxico Burress. I believe that Barber will have a big year and approach his 2004 marks, both on the ground and catching the ball out of the backfield. One word of caution on Barber is the possible use of rookie Brandon Jacobs in goal-line situations.

And this was the most-asked question of the week, bonding fantasy owners across North America.

I've got the No. 1 pick in my draft. Should I go with LaDainian Tomlinson or Peyton Manning? – Nick in Menomonee Falls, WI; Cory in Toronto, Canada; Todd in Albuquerque, NM; Jerry in Chicago, IL

Greetings, all –
While I love the fact that Manning never misses a game (112 straight) and he has a crazy good complement of skill position players, I'm running with the running back at No. 1. Manning's 49-TD total last season was downright magical, flipping fantasy football totals like pinball machines. But can we possibly expect another run at this mark? What happens if Manning fails to find the mark in Week 1 and 2 against tough defenses in Baltimore and Jacksonville? Manning owners from 2004 remember Week 1 of the fantasy playoffs against Baltimore. And though undermanned in Cleveland, won't Romeo Crennel remember a few things from the scheming in New England for Week 3? I expect more drives to end with Mike Vanderjagt bouncing off of the field after putting up three points than Manning with his arms raised. For what it's worth, Manning and company will face the Philly defense in Week 15. So, while Manning leads the charge in my positional ranks, he's behind LT on this list.

Tomlinson was impacted virtually the entire season by a groin injury and still piled up over 1,300 yards and reached a new career-high with 17 touchdowns. And, he missed out on an opportunity to pile it on against the Chiefs in Week 17. The offense returns intact and with a year of growth under its collective belt. Antonio Gates will be joined by a healthy Keenan McCardell, Eric Parker, Reche Caldwell and rookie Vincent Jackson in the receiving corps for Drew Brees. That offensive balance means another big season ahead for LT.

Finally, with Javon Walker, Terrell Owens and Shaun Alexander in camp and ready to dominate, some of the worries about fantasy studs sitting on the sidelines have been allayed. So, the number of reader rants about contracts has died down this week. But, that doesn't mean that we're rant-free this week.

Jeremy from Seattle had a bone to pick with my recent comments about San Francisco back Kevan Barlow.

You were saying that the 49ers problems were on Barlow's shoulders. How can you say that? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought football was a team sport, so it is impossible for all of the team's problems to be blamed on one person. Besides, the defense was horrendous and Tim Rattay was not leading the offense very well. So that right there says that it's not all because of Barlow. Barlow scored like seven touchdowns last season, so he was doing something to try and help the team. But if no else will play then there is nothing Barlow can do about it. So I rest my case.

Jeremy –
I agree with you wholeheartedly. The 49ers were a disaster across the board in the 2004 season, and everyone on the team and the departed coaches played a part in that. However, for the purpose of fantasy football, Tim Rattay and company were not expected to make an impact; Kevan Barlow was. Left unopposed in the backfield, though he managed seven touchdowns in five games, he tallied just two 100-yard games last season. With eight games of fewer than 60 rushing yards, Barlow became the bane of fantasy owners' existences and one of the season's biggest disappointments.

That's all for now. Keep those questions and comments about draft issues coming. We're now just one month away from the big Thursday night season opener. As for me, it's time to jump in the car and head to Foxboro to begin my camp tour. Look for the write-up of my journey next week.

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