You know how this works, gamer. We're in a lot of leagues. Invariably, we wind up re-drafting a lot of the same players over and over, sometimes by accident, sometimes by design, sometimes for value, sometimes by coincidence. With that in mind, let's look at the common threads to my rosters this fall, the players who will, for better or for worse, define my success (or lack of it) in 2011.
• Aaron Hernandez: He's a tight end with wide-receiver skills, and that's the best thing for our fake-football rosters. Forget the blocking and the grunt-work, let's see Hernandez working downfield, moving in motion, getting special attention and scheming from the Patriots offense. Tom Brady is known for spreading things around and there are plenty of reasonable wideouts here, but there isn't a dominant mouth to feed in this offense, either. I could easily see Hernandez being the team's top receiver when it's all said and done; he's clearly been the dominant target in the exhibition games.
Rob Gronkowski is also around and might see more snaps (and perhaps more goal-line looks) than Hernandez, but that doesn't bother me. Let Gronkowski do the dirty work in the trenches, while Hernandez is treated like a hybrid wide receiver. Hernandez had a brief problem with dropped passes late in 2010 and was momentarily in the Belichick doghouse, but that's all forgotten now. A breakout year is coming.
• Philip Rivers: He's a Tier 1 quarterback who often comes at a Tier 1.5 price, and I love that all of the main targets are in place (a healthy Antonio Gates, a happy — for now — Vincent Jackson, and a returning Malcom Floyd). The worst Rivers TD count of the last three years was 28; the worst yardage return was 4,009; there's a very high floor here. He hasn't missed a game in five years. In leagues with short bench space, there's something to be said for having a set-it-and-forget-it quarterback and not needing to jockey around with two roster spots.
• Earl Bennett: I see the Bears heading for a crash-landing season and I don't have a lot of faith in Jay Cutler, but they will complete some passes and someone has to catch them. Enter Bennett, who's been the team's best receiver in camp, to the point that Cutler has gone out of his way to praise the fourth-year receiver.
Bennett and Cutler had one overlapping season at Vanderbilt (Bennett's first, Cutler's last), so there's a deep-rooted rapport here. And the Bennett case gets stronger when you look at the other suspects on the depth chart. Johnny Knox isn't a favorite of Mike Martz, Devin Hester has never completely adjusted to the receiver position, and Roy Williams, woof. Bennett has a strong chance to lead this team in receptions.
• Chris Johnson: Nothing too tricky here — it was fun to get a top-level talent in the middle or latter part of a first round. I had no inside info but I expected Johnson and the Titans to eventually get together on something. Running backs always hear that biological clock ticking in the back of their minds, and it's difficult for a club to go into a new season without the face of its franchise (and its best player). You can play hardball with a shutdown corner or a star receiver, but when your best offensive player plays this card, you better come up with something.
• Ahmad Bradshaw: Most of my Bradshaw shares came early; I've been getting beaten to the punch in the later drafts. I love his versatility and extra gear, and you can never question his toughness after watching him play through a broken foot. The New York offense has been messy in August but there are too many veterans here for me to panic. I'd go into battle with Bradshaw as my No. 2 back in just about any league.
• Cedric Benson: Okay, I'm not proud of this one. He's a plodder, he's got some off-field issues, and the Bengals look like a terrible team to me, perhaps the worst in the AFC. But eventually I can't say no to a clear No. 1 back in the middle rounds, so I've scooped up Benson a few times. All I'm hoping for is an ugly 1,100 yards on the ground and 5-7 scores.
• Ben Roethlisberger: I'm really liking the setup here. The Steelers have a messy offensive line, and while that could be an issue for everyone on this unit, it's going to hurt the running game more — you can hide blocking liabilities more easily in the passing game. And look at the weapons here: Mike Wallace is a star, Hines Ward isn't through yet, Emmanuel Sanders came on last year and Antonio Brown has been a monster in the preseason. With all due respect to Rashard Mendenhall, I can imagine the Steelers shifting to a pass focus this year — out of necessity.
• Lance Moore: His snaps are set to increase significantly in 2011 and I don't have any faith in Marques Colston's knees. And while we're at it, how reliable is Devery Henderson (one-trick pony) or Robert Meachem (disappears for weeks at a time)? I'll be shocked if Moore doesn't top 70 caches and 900 yards this fall, and he's got a reasonable chance to end the year as a Top 20 receiver.
• Tim Hightower: He was affordable for a while and then the bandwagon filled and he got a little pricy and trendy. That happens. And I know we all hate dealing with Shanahan roulette, and Roy Helu has the upside of the unknown. That all said, I fully expect the Redskins to be a scrubby 4-12 team this year, and that means they'll be chasing points late, working out of a spread set, hurrying things up. And in those situations, you want a veteran in the backfield, a good pass-catcher and pass-receiver. Sounds like a Hightower fit to me.
• Lee Evans: He's getting a change of scenery at the right time — the situation in Buffalo seemed to wear on him — and he's quickly getting comfortable running under those pretty Joe Flacco rainbows. Evans won't be consistent enough with catches and targets to be your second receiver, but he's got the perfect upside to be your No. 3 or No. 4 — look for a big play every 2-3 weeks, and maybe 8-9 scores by the end of the year.
• Browns Defense: I'll never understand the mentality of paying big prices for brand-name defenses. The scoring isn't reliable year to year, and you can do just as well by streaming on a week-to-week basis and picking on the favorable matchups. With that in mind, let's head to Cleveland, where the Browns are set to host rookie Andy Dalton and the suspect Bengals in Week 1. I'll be ready to cut ties with this rental before the Week 2 practice week begins.
What's not in my wallet but should be? I don't have any Ray Rice shares and that makes me sick. I fully expect Tony Romo to go bonkers but he hasn't been falling to me. It would be fun to own Calvin Johnson just once; you simply can't overthrow that man. I thought I'd get a bunch of Greg Olsen shares in August, but that bandwagon filled up quickly.
What's not in my wallet by choice? Count me out on the Colts passing game; I don't feel confident Peyton Manning will be sharp when things open, and you can easily argue against all of their receivers. Jim Harbaugh will fix the 49ers passing game eventually, but he might be the best quarterback in his locker room right now. I wish I knew Todd Haley would take the shackles off of Jamaal Charles, but I'm worried the coach feels validated by last year's division title and the production of JC. I've got nothing against Antonio Gates, but I generally don't pay for a designer tight end — the position is too deep, league-wide. I have no faith that Darren McFadden can approach last season, and/or stay healthy. And you know I'm not paying for any shiny kickers and big-name defenses; that's the biggest sucker play of all.
Now we go over to you — what common threads will define your 2011 season? Name your prize catches, and the big ones that got away.
Image courtesy Associated Press