August 25, 2011
As most of you already know, the Juggernaut Index is our annual preseason ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: For FANTASY purposes. We're not interested in real-life winning percentages here. This is simply about yards, points, and draft positions. We've moved into the top half of the ranks, so all these teams are promising. Previous entries: 29-32: Washington, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Carolina; 25-28: San Francisco, Buffalo, Miami, Seattle; 21-24: Oakland, Jacksonville, Denver, Tennessee; 17-20: Minnesota, Chicago, St. Louis, Tampa Bay.
No, I won't go so far as to suggest that Big Red should dust off his NFC West championship belt just yet (pictured above). But we should all be a bit more interested in the Arizona passing game this year.
Hopefully we can agree that Kevin Kolb(notes) is a serious upgrade over the Anderson-Hall-Skelton mess that Cards fans endured in 2010 . I've been a Kolb skeptic in recent seasons, but c'mon. He's a much more respectable passer than any member of last year's band of rogues. One of the nice things about Kolb in 2011 is that we're no longer inflating the fantasy price, as we did a season ago. His Yahoo! average draft position is 108.9, which makes him the 16th QB selected in a typical league. (Over at Mock Draft Central, the price tag is even friendlier: ADP 170.1, QB20). It's reasonable to expect early struggles, because we're talking about a QB who didn't have anything close to a full offseason in his new system. Still, Kolb is clearly a bench player with benefits in our game, a guy I've drafted as a starter in deeper formats.
The switch to Kolb is clearly a win for the NFL's best receiver, Larry Fitzgerald(notes), a man coming off a ridiculously productive season considering his circumstances. It's crazy that he hauled in 90 passed for 1,137 yards in 2010. With Kolb at the controls, it would not be terribly surprising to see Fitzgerald return to his career norms (double-digit TDs, 95-100 REC, 1300-plus yards). This is a player who's basically seen every coverage and shredded them all. That six-game run that Fitz had in 2008, beginning in Week 16 and extending through the Super Bowl, might be the most impressive multi-game performance by a receiver in league history. (Game log here).
In short, I have nothing but nice things to say about Fitzgerald, and would draft him ahead of any other WR, in any format. Also: I do not wish to ever again think about Derek Anderson(notes) — at least not until the '07 Browns are celebrated by Grantland in 2022.
We should probably not have waited this long to mention that the Cards' offensive line could really be terrible. This group is basically three inflatable dolls, a Levi Brown hologram, and an overpaid Daryn Colledge(notes). The Cards tied for the second-most sacks allowed in 2010 (50) and the team ranked dead-last in rushing yards (86.8 YPG). If there's no protection for Kolb, then John Skelton(notes) could reappear, an outcome that no one wants. So let's hope for soft landings on the dozens of sacks that Kolb will suffer.
After Fitzgerald, the Arizona receiving corps is full of late-round fantasy options. Andre Roberts(notes), Early Doucet(notes) and Stephen Williams have each flashed talent, and they'll all have opportunities in the year ahead. This team threw fairly often last season, but not efficiently. I'd give Roberts a slight rankings edge over Doucet at the moment. Steve Breaston(notes) is gone to KC (see below), for a five-year deal that Arizona would have been foolish to consider. Todd Heap(notes) is the new tight end in the desert; he won't open the season on many fantasy rosters, but he'll be a nice option for Kolb when the QB is under pressure.
Beanie Wells(notes) is the last man standing in Arizona's backfield, following the Tim Hightower(notes) trade and the season-ending injury to Ryan Williams(notes). (Keep Williams in mind as a last-round dynasty pick). No one fully trusts Wells after last year's fantasy disaster. Beanie led the NFL in unhelpful injury notes, ranked 46th in rushing yards. And again, the line here isn't pretty. But still, Wells is in line for a full workload in an improved offense, and the price is right (Yahoo! ADP 106.7). The Cards will no doubt pluck someone from the discard pile — some Maroney or Portis or Barber or Buckhalter — but that back won't be a serious threat. LaRod Stephens-Howling(notes) and Alfonso Smith(notes) are currently behind Wells on the depth chart. No obvious need to target either player in your draft; you won't want to handcuff this running game.
2010 team stats with NFL rank: 18.1 points per game (27), 182.6 pass YPG (31), 86.8 rush YPG (32), 35.1 pass attempts (11), 20.4 rush attempts (32).
15. New York Jets
This seems like an appropriate time to remind you that the Juggernaut Index is a fantasy ranking, not an NFL power ranking. In fact, in the vast universe of meaningless team rankings, this thing right here might have the least meaning of all. Don't sweat the placement of the Jets. This group is a clear Super Bowl contender, even if they aren't exactly a fantasy buffet.
The first Jets skill player taken in your draft will almost certainly be running back Shonn Greene(notes), a guy who should dominate the carries for an elite rushing offense (unless he fumbles away the job, like he did last season). Greene is getting drafted as a mid-to-late third rounder (ADP 29.6), and he clearly has the potential to outproduce that price. The Jets have made noises about tweaking the run/pass mix, but I won't buy that story until we see regular season evidence. Over the past two seasons, New York has run the football until their opponents were dead and buried. The team ranked second in rush attempts last season (33.4 per game) and first the year before (37.9). LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) is still in the team picture at age 32, and he'll again be an interesting back in PPR leagues. Joe McKnight(notes), hero of Week 17, is next on the depth chart.
Analysts will forever overrate Mark Sanchez(notes) when he has a solid game, and we'll over-hammer him when he brings shame upon the house of Jet. (This game leaps to mind). There's clearly hope for Sanchez, but accuracy and recklessness are issues that haven't gone away. He completed just 54.8 percent of his throws last year, only a slight improvement over his rookie rate (53.8). In the 2011 Friends & Family draft — 14 teams, every owner an accredited expert — Sanchez wasn't even taken. So that tells you something about the industry's outlook.
There's no disputing the fact that Sanchez has a fine receiving corps at his disposal, however. Santonio Holmes(notes) is terrific wideout, a clear top-25 option at his position, and Plaxico Burress(notes) impressed in Week 2 of the preseason. Burress caught three balls for 66 yards and a score against the Bengals; he looked NFL-ready on this grab. No one should be surprised if the 6-foot-5 vet leads the team in touchdown receptions. Ideally, you'll draft Plaxico as a bench receiver with upside. You might also recall that PPR legend Derrick Mason(notes) signed on with the Jets, after Baltimore cut him loose. Rookie fifth-rounder Jeremy Kerley(notes) is for return yardage-lovers only. And Dustin Keller(notes) returns to tease you again, ultimately finishing with 15 fewer catches and three fewer TDs than you'd hoped for.
In short, this is a quality group for fantasy purposes, but they aren't quite an elite offense, not until Sanchez makes a leap. If you don't already know about the Jets defense, I'm sure Bart Scott(notes) would be happy to tell you all about 'em. It's an elite unit, usually one of the top-five DEFs selected in drafts. The IDP to own is David Harris(notes), who never quite gets as many tackles as I expect ... and yet I always take him. Planning to draft him this weekend, in fact.
2010 team stats: 22.9 points per game (14), 202.6 pass YPG (22), 148.4 rush YPG (4), 32.8 pass attempts (18), 33.4 rush attempts (2).
14. Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore, if you don't like this ranking, then you can call WNST on Friday morning and tell me all about it. But let's be realistic. You've got a first-round running back in Ray Rice(notes), a value quarterback in Joe Flacco(notes), a third-tier receiver in Anquan Boldin(notes), and ... well, what else?
Did I leave anyone out?
OK, fine, you have a really nice 2005 fantasy roster. You win.
I actually like the Flacco-Evans pairing (as much as anyone should enjoy a combination of humans that involves Lee Evans. That dude was trouble at Wisconsin. Jay Clemons, if you're reading this, I'd like you to remember this game. You're welcome). Flacco certainly has the necessary arm strength to take advantage of Lee's home run potential, so perhaps we'll see an uptick in value for the wideout. For the past two years, Evans has been crying himself to sleep, wailing about JP Losman(notes). Flacco should help.
Boldin got off to a nice start in 2010, his first season with the Ravens, but he was a huge disappointment in the second half of the season. He never topped five receptions in any game after his team's Week 8 bye, and he only reached the end zone twice over the final nine weeks. You can hope for an improvement, but you also have to recognize that Baltimore is not exactly a pass-happy team. Flacco's single-season high in pass attempts is just 499. So beyond Boldin and Evans, there's not much worth drafting in this group of receivers. Rookie Torrey Smith(notes) hasn't really done anything to put himself on the fantasy radar. So far, this is his greatest NFL highlight. Second-year tight ends Ed Dickson(notes) and Dennis Pitta(notes) will take over for Todd Heap, but neither needs to be drafted in any league smaller than a 20-teamer.
We should mention that Rice's off-season has gone spectacularly well, at least from a fantasy perspective. Willis McGahee(notes) was finally shipped off, and Le'Ron McClain(notes) is gone as well. Williams hasn't been handed McGahee's old inside-the-10 role, so there should be a few more scoring opportunities for Rice this season. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron sounds like he intends to lean on Rice until the fourth-year RB begs for mercy. Ray will now have Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach(notes) clearing lanes, too. Don't dismiss the possibility that Baltimore could produce this season's top fantasy scorer, if everything falls in place for No. 27. For me, he's an obvious top-five pick in both PPR and standard formats. It's a bit alarming that the Ravens felt the need to sign million-pound tackle Bryant McKinnie(notes) to a two-year deal, so let's all keep a good thought for this line.
The Ravens defense is still a strong brand name — Ray Lewis(notes) and Ed Reed(notes) are still in town — but this was an ordinary group against the pass last season (224.9 pass YPG). They've fallen outside the top-five in the preseason ranks. Not the D to reach for, if you're susceptible to mid-draft position runs.
2010 team stats: 22.3 points per game (17), 208.4 pass YPG (20), 114.4 rush YPG (14), 30.7 pass attempts (25), 30.4 rush attempts (6).
OK, one last team for today, then I can finally get back to making seven F&F trade offers per hour...
Jamaal Charles(notes) finished second in the NFL in rushing yards last season, an impressive achievement for a guy who didn't even lead his team in rush attempts. Charles carried 230 times for 1,467 yards (6.4 YPC). Thomas Jones(notes) had 245 carries, picking up 896 yards (3.7).
No one really understood that split, but it's useless to argue with Todd Haley — and it's especially useless to argue with him on a fantasy blog, because he hates us.
The Chiefs have apparently decided that the best way to maximize Charles' per-touch effectiveness is to make him something less than a full-time, every-down back. Fine. In fantasy, we need to assign value to players based on the workload they're likely to receive, not the workload we wish they'd receive. (This principle is known as Jerious Norwood's(notes) Law). If you get 230-250 carries from Jamaal, he's going to give you a great season, loaded with highlights. He's a special player, clearly. Just don't assume that Haley is looking to feed him the ball an extra 100 times. The 33-year-old Jones will almost certainly cede carries, but several of them will go to Dexter McCluster(notes) and Le'Ron McClain.
In any case, the nice thing about this running game is that it's a high-volume attack. Kansas City led the NFL in both rushing yards and attempts last season (164.2 YPG, 34.8 carries). It's truly incredible that the back who received the most work actually gained a full yard-per-carry less than the team average (4.7), but ... oh, skip it. [Expletive]. There's no talking to these coaches. Let's move on...
There's been some talk (via Peter King, who thinks you're a nerd) that the Chiefs intend to get more creative in the passing game, deploying tight end Tony Moeaki(notes) in a variety of ways. There's little doubt that Moeaki is a gifted receiver...
...so it's important to keep an eye on his usage. Steve Breaston is new to this receiving corps, as is injured rookie Jonathan Baldwin(notes). (The Baldwin injury story is odd and a bit murky; the end result is that he isn't going to be a factor to open the year). It's tough to imagine any KC wideout other than Dwayne Bowe(notes) becoming an every-week fantasy option, not with the run-pass mix tilted so heavily toward the ground game.
Bowe, of course, is coming off an absurd year. He took full advantage of every friendly match-up on his schedule, and he usually managed to find the end zone in the tough weeks, too. Bowe finished with 15 TDs on 72 catches, a crazy rate; he somehow broke the plane 13 times during a seven-week stretch in the middle of the season. Bowe is entering a free agent year and the camp reports have been solid. No one should expect another 15 scores — we discussed this topic right here — but that doesn't mean you can ignore him. On my board, he's a WR2. No one else here is better than a WR5 or 6. I will not enter a bidding war over Breaston.
Matt Cassel(notes) basically disappeared late last season, flat-lining after news broke that Charlie Weis was leaving the coordinator gig. Bill Muir was promoted from O-line coach to OC, so at least there's still a familiar face at the controls. Cassel threw for 27 scores on just 450 attempts in 2010, which ain't easy (particularly when you only complete 58.2 percent of your passes). Don't expect a similar TD total in the year ahead, not in this run-heavy offense. Cassel is a bye-week option in leagues of standard size, not a starter.
2010 team stats with NFL rank: 22.9 points per game (13), 185.5 pass YPG (30), 164.2 rush YPG (1), 29.7 pass attempts (29), 34.8 rush attempts (1).
Photos via US Presswire
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