- Harmon: NFC camp answers
I know that I probably watched more meaningless preseason football this summer than ever before. It's fun to watch guys in the throes of battle, scuffling to win that 53rd roster spot. At the end of the day, bad football is still football. Give me Bill Parcells berating a guy destined to be among the first cuts to any sitcom on the air. Ahh, the sights and sounds of autumn.
Now that we've watched these six weeks and lived and died with the news wires and television reports, what did we learn? A few weeks back, I wondered out loud about a series of questions facing each team as camps heated up. Let's revisit these issues and see which points were answered in the preseason.
Dillon looked positively giddy in the Week 1 contest against Indianapolis on Thursday. He carried the ball 15 times for 86 yards and gave up his body to protect Tom Brady on blitzes. Belichick alluded to the fact that Dillon's role will grow with time which is music to the ears of his fantasy owners. I think he'll be just fine.
2. Deion Branch sits atop a number of weapons at wide receiver. Will he post TD totals to rival other teams' No. 1s?
The way Belichick and Brady spread the ball around, it's tough to predict this type of production each week. However, Brady did look in Branch's direction nine times, hooking up for seven completions, 86 yards and a touchdown. Aside from the muffed punt, it was a sparkling effort from Branch as he looks to join the group of history's breakout third-year receivers.
Graham matched Branch's seven catches and touchdown in Thursday's contest, controlling the middle of the field. With rookie Ben Watson lurking around his touches, Graham showed why he should be the man. Fuaria was reduced to a single catch. Big things await Graham, who is in his third season.
At the end of the day, Travis Minor and Sammy Morris didn't excite Dave Wannstedt and company. So here comes Lamar Gordon from St. Louis. Minor will get the start on Saturday against Tennessee, but Gordon and the fantasy community will anxiously await every rushing attempt thwarted by the D-Line. See my full take on Gordon's acquisition here.
2. A.J. Feeley was brought in via trade to be the guy, but will he actually win first chair? Keep an eye on the battle between him and Jay Fiedler, because there actually is talent between wideouts David Boston and Chris Chambers, and TE Randy McMichael.
This question was clearly posed before Boston's season-ending injury, but we can substitute Marty Booker into the equation to ponder the same query. Fiedler won the battle to start and will be forced to carry the load while Gordon ingests the playbook. He's looked solid albeit unspectacular in his preseason outings, but there's no need to panic if you own Chambers just yet.
3. Miami is a perennial top-tier fantasy defense. How is Zach Thomas' recovery from injury coming along, and can they possibly approach the number of turnovers they forced in 2003?
Fantasy owners believe, making Miami the fifth defense drafted on average. They lost Adewale Ogunleye in a trade to the Bears that netted Marty Booker, but the balance between the line, linebackers and secondary should be able to overcome his departure. If the offense can control the clock at all, the defense will get the job done.
1. Mike Mularkey looks to resurrect the offense that spun in place in 2003. Bledsoe had only 11 TD passes last year. Can he get back to 20, or does rookie J.P. Losman jump on the fantasy radar?
Losman looked good in the preseason before his season-ending injury. Then the Bills lost Travis Brown, forcing them to scramble to sign Shane Matthews. It's clearly Bledsoe's show for 2004.
2. Will Travis Henry shoulder the load or will former Miami Hurricanes standout Willis McGahee share time?
Both running backs have been vocal about their desire to start, demanding trades and so on. Henry deservedly gets the nod out of the gate, but the second-year back out of Miami will get his chances. Coach Mike Mularkey will get McGahee eight-10 carries per game early on to fend off a repeat of Henry's steep decline in output in the second half of 2003.
3. How good will rookie wideout Lee Evans be opposite Moulds, and will Evans' presence boost the play of third-year receiver Josh Reed?
Evans will get his chance to pop off for a big play on occasion, but for now Josh Reed has reclaimed his role in the slot. He runs solid routes and isn't afraid of contact. With Evans in tow, it's tough to commit to Reed out of the gate as your third receiver option. Watch and see how this offense develops.
New York Jets
1. How much longer will LaMont Jordan be content to sit behind Curtis Martin? Jordan saw only 46 carries in 2003 but hit the end zone four times compared to Martin's two. This could become an issue as camp progresses.
He clearly wants in, and already assumed his vulture role of touchdown swiping in the preseason. Martin did finish with 1,300-plus yards on the ground last season, so he'll be the man to start the season. The schedule is very friendly to the Jets, so expectations for the offense are high. If Martin sputters, Jordan may see 10-12 carries before long.
2. Santana Moss exploded on the scene in 2003 with double-digit receiving touchdowns. With emerging star Justin McCareins on the other side and the dependable Anthony Becht at TE, Chad Pennington has been given the tools to yield a big season in Paul Hackett's West Coast attack. Is this his year?
Pennington was alternately brilliant and pedestrian in his half season of action in 2003. In Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Football PLUS drafts, he's the sixth QB taken on average, ahead of Brett Favre, Steve McNair and Marc Bulger. As mentioned above, the schedule is truly on the side of the Jets for a bust out season from Pennington and his minions.
3. Can Wayne Chrebet outlast rookie Jerricho Cotchery as the third-down possession receiver for Chad Pennington?
Fan favorite Chrebet is still battling injury and is questionable for Week 1. Cotchery is clearly a playmaker in progress, but not worthy of a fantasy flier just yet.
1. Jamal Lewis' drug trafficking charges cast a shadow over Ravens camp. Nothing is expected to come of it during the season, but keep an eye on the efforts of Chester Taylor and Musa Smith.
Lewis' trial is now scheduled to start at midseason, which gave meaning to the carries of Taylor and Smith in camp. Right now it's hard to separate the two, but they clearly have the ability to step in and be serviceable. The trial schedule and whether Lewis will actually miss time has yet to be determined, but stashing Smith in your final bench spot is probably a solid idea.
2. Is this the year that Travis Taylor steps to the next level? Currently a fourth or fifth fantasy option at wide receiver, Taylor has the raw ability to be a big-time contributor.
Kyle Boller looked more confident and precise in his preseason stint, which is to say that he didn't take sacks and threw to the guys in the right jersey color. Seriously, Boller will take a huge step forward this season and Taylor will be the beneficiary. With so much attention focused on Jamal Lewis, quick three-step drops should allow Boller to hook up Taylor on the fly.
3. Kevin Johnson leaves the committee situation in Cleveland for Baltimore. But is he No. 1 receiver material? And can he fly back to his lofty 2001 totals (84 catches, 1,094 yards and nine touchdowns)?
Johnson has always been a solid receiver, and with the rule emphasis in place, he'll be able to roam free downfield. Clearly he's tied directly to Boller's development, meaning that he's the last No. 1 receiver off of the board, but the return will be solid for the 10th round selection. Remember, he is only two years removed from a nine-touchdown explosion.
1. Carson Palmer gets the starting nod, but Kitna won't be far from Marvin Lewis' side. Kitna actually is being drafted before Palmer in the majority of leagues.
I was skeptical of this move when announced, but Palmer has been one of the most exciting developments of the preseason. He finished with four touchdowns and displayed the confidence of a veteran. With that said, the schedule makers have the Bengals starting the season with four potential defeats. Marvin Lewis has said that Jon Kitna will be at the ready should the season start slowly.
2. Is Kelley Washington ready to become the vertical threat in this offense? He stands 6-foot-3 and can run the big route, but will Palmer/Kitna call his number often considering the weapons of Chad Johnson, Rudi Johnson and Peter Warrick?
Peter Warrick has been slowed by a knee injury during camp, which may open the door for Washington in Week 1. He's got big-time potential and got a full season of work with Palmer in 2003 on the second squad. He's not a starter yet, but will be by midseason.
3. How long before first-round pick Chris Perry sees time, given Rudi Johnson's impending free agency?
Perry has been slowed by a hamstring injury, which means that incumbent Rudi Johnson is safe to start the season. Don't be surprised if Perry should start stealing carries in Week 2 or 3, particularly as Rudi gets pounded by the Miami and Baltimore defenses.
1. Plaxico Burress skipped all of the Steelers' workouts this offseason but will be in camp and in shape according to reports. Can he forget a disappointing 2003 season and return to the dominant receiver he was in 2002 (78 catches, 1,325 yards and seven touchdowns)?
I'm a believer. Maybe I have "sucker" tattooed on my head, but I think Burress will turn in a huge year. Faster, stronger and playing for a big payoff in free agency after the season. Make him your No. 2 receiver, you won't be disappointed.
2. With the human battering ram Duce Staley in tow, has the Bus been parked? Staley's ability to catch the ball out of the backfield will open things up downfield and may relegate Jerome Bettis to short-yardage and goal-line situations. With that said, Bettis may just rack up touchdowns in this type of role.
That's exactly how it'll play out. Staley will be the every-down guy, with the vulture Bettis swooping in for the short yardage and goal line situations. Bill Cowher wants to return to the glory days and pound the rock, so both of these guys will see time. Look for a 20/10 split to start the season.
3. Tommy Maddox had seven games with zero passing touchdowns in 2003. That's enough to open the door for rookie Ben Roethlisberger. With Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and the speedy Antwaan Randle El in tow to complement the hands of Staley, the winner of this contest has a shot at posting solid numbers.
Maddox appears ready to forget about 2003 and move on. With the new rules emphasis and a myriad of toys in the receiving corps and the aforementioned running backs, he'll rebound to 25 passing touchdowns. Ben will need to battle in '05.
1. When will Kellen Winslow join the fray, and will he live up to the hype once he does?
Winslow finally hit the scene and he immediately called out the heart of his teammates. This guy will be fun to watch and has vaulted into the top five at TE already. Since Garcia (see below) will be running for his life behind a bad O-Line, Winslow will be his best friend.
2. Jeff Garcia leaves "the system" for Cleveland. How will he respond to a more traditional drop-back passing scheme?
I think Garcia will struggle mightily. There's already some unrest in the Cleveland locker room, where Butch Davis is clearly on the hot seat. The O-Line is in shambles, which means that Cleveland fans have to pray that the 34-year old Garcia does a Doug Flutie act.
3. Who's the man in the backfield, Lee Suggs or William Green?
Suggs was the man, but a neck stinger will plant him on the sidelines for Week 1. Green has the arduous task of making his case by challenging the Ravens defense. Here's looking to 75 yards on the ground and another 30 via air and Suggs in the I-formation for Week 2.
1. What kind of stand do they make with both Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison set to test free agency after the 2004 season?
Not a bad way to start the season, those two fumbles excepted of course. James was in fine form, racking up 30 carries and 142 yards, and while Harrison's numbers don't makes your eyes pop, a touchdown is a nice start. Unfortunately, the schedule makers get them early, because Tennessee awaits them in Week 2.
2. Brandon Stokley blew up down the stretch last season. He will be a bigger part of the scheme this year and makes for a great sleeper selection.
Sure, I should have phrased it as a question, but I'm feeling better about myself for the moment. Stokley turned in four catches, 77 yards and a touchdown against the vaunted Patriots defense on Thursday. He's a gifted route runner with speed and will have the chance to tear apart zones while Harrison and Reggie Wayne face press coverage on the outsides.
3. The two-headed TE attack of Marcus Pollard and Dallas Clark rounds out a downright scary offense. If Clark can stay healthy, he's the top option.
The Dallas Clark bandwagon picked up steam as the preseason came to an end, and he did not disappoint. His 64-yard catch and run showed precisely what was missing from the attack in '03 when he was saddled with a slew of injuries. Big things lie ahead for Clark, particularly if the Edge continues to run wild.
1. Eddie George left, and the Titans wasted no time signing Antowain Smith. That says something about the team's confidence or lack thereof, in Chris Brown. Keep an eye on this situation.
Forget about it. Chris Brown will be the every down guy, and according to Jeff Fisher, he'll stay in during goal-line situations. So, Smith plays insurance policy to start the season for both the Titans and your fantasy squad.
2. Tyrone Calico needs to become more consistent. He has the physical tools to be a dominant fantasy contributor. See if he overtakes Drew Bennett as the No. 2 wideout.
Bennett looked good during camp and Calico is recovering from strains to both MCLs. Bennett now stands firmly in the No. 2 role and is ready to assume the role occupied by Justin McCareins in 2003.
3. Erron Kinney is a name that fantasy owners know now, but watch for rookie Ben Troupe to get a lot of time in camp. He's got the potential to emerge as a top-tier TE before this year is out.
Troupe has progressed very slowly in camp and will watch Kinney run with the first unit. Kinney was fourth on the team in receiving yards last season and scored in two games down the stretch. Look for McNair to use him early and often.
1. Fred Taylor has started every game for two straight years. Can he make it three? Jack Del Rio wants to pound the rock. If you draft Taylor, keep an eye on rookie Greg Jones and LaBrandon Toefield for handcuff purposes.
Taylor is ready to roll, but injuries of seasons past continue to haunt fantasy owners. Greg Jones looked solid in the preseason, so the Jags are in good shape. Jones will see some action early, but it's Freddy's show. Get Jones on your bench if you drafted Taylor so that you can rest a little easier.
2. Once Reggie Williams gets into camp, he'll assume the No. 2 WR role with an on replacing Jimmy Smith in the No. 1 spot. He is a speedy playmaker who has fantasy owners high on Byron Leftwich.
Williams brought his A-game from Washington to the pros and has been nabbed as a prime sleeper by fantasy owners. Leftwich has a big arm and will want to show it off early. Look for Williams to have five-seven balls thrown his way in Week 1.
3. Will veteran receiver Troy Edwards or rookie Ernest Wilford serve as Leftwich's third option?
Wilford will factor into the offense when the team goes four wide, but Edwards is a perfect No. 3 in this offense. He runs precise routes and still has the speed he demonstrated back at Lousiana Tech.
1. Can the offensive line protect David Carr, and what changes were made to the playbook this offseason to protect the franchise?
Coaches worked with a stopwatch on David Carr, forcing a quick release. He only took 15 sacks in 2003, one-fifth the number that he took in his rookie season. The maturation process continues and he tallies his first 3,000-yard season with 20 TD passes.
2. Is the diminutive Domanick Davis stout enough to battle through the rigors of an entire NFL campaign, or will Tony Hollings steal carries from him?
Davis has been slowed by injury this preseason, opening the door for Tony Hollings to remind coaches of his ability. Hollings will see a handful of touches spelling Davis, but will be relegated to second string. Handcuff him to your selection of Davis.
3. Andre Johnson is the No. 1 receiver without question, but will Corey Bradford or Jabar Gaffney be consistent targets to allow him to make the big play?
The early schedule will allow David Carr to spread the ball around. I look for a huge year from Johnson, but I'm very high on the athletic Bradford. With teams plugging up the middle to silence Domanick Davis and Johnson drawing double coverage, Bradford will be able to abuse second cornerbacks. Watch for a big game out of the gate against San Diego.
Kansas City Chiefs
1. Can Trent Green replicate his 2003 heroics without a true No. 1 receiver? Yes, Priest Holmes and Tony Gonzalez are nice starts, but will it be enough?
The receiver corps is its usual ragged self, with Johnnie Morton nursing injury and 2002 favorite Marc Boerigter lost for the year. With that said, being able to pencil in 150 completions and double-digit touchdowns between Holmes and Gonzalez is a nice start. Look for Dante Hall to become more involved on flanker screens and the deep ball.
2. How much leg does Morten Andersen have left?
Obviously, the Chiefs decided he was not up to the rigors of kicking 60 PATs this season. Lawrence Tynes assumes the role, and naturally, becomes the fantasy darling of the kicking game. Wait, did I just say that? He'll get opportunities, and with place-kickers, that's all you can hope for.
3. The emphasis is on speed in this offense, so rookie Samie Parker out of Oregon could make some waves. Watch his development as a possible sleeper at wide receiver.
Parker will see some time, but has been very inconsistent, dropping a number of catchable balls. With that said, Dick Vermeil likes the cut of his jib and will look to use him to stretch the field.
1. Two-time Comeback Player of the Year Garrison Hearst was signed to lead the group of backs in coach Mike Shanahan's offense. If he's healthy, he will shine. But watch for Tatum Bell to work with the first unit in camp and steal some carries from Hearst early on.
It's Quentin Griffin's job to lose. Rookie Tatum Bell awaits his shot in the Shanahan machine. Hearst is the third man in this rotation to start the year, but the cagey veteran could slip by Bell if Griffin falters.
2. With Shannon Sharpe gone, the battle for his heir is on. Byron Chamberlain and free-agent acquisition Jed Weaver will duke it out to serve as the safety valves for Jake Plummer.
Both Chamberlain and Weaver failed to capture Shanahan's imagination and were summarily dismissed this past weekend. That means that Jeb Putzier becomes the man in Denver. Wait a week or two to see how he develops, as there are other more viable options out there. But if Jake Plummer is an MVP-type as some would have you believe, then Putzier will need to play huge.
3. Ashley Lelie disappointed fantasy owners who thought he would be the downfield option for Plummer. Watch for the high-flying Darius Watts to make his pitch for the No. 3 spot in camp.
Watts is wafer thin, but all this guy does is catch balls. For now, both he and Lelie will see time in the slot, but I believe he'll win the job in short order. I'm looking for four catches for sixty yards and a long TD in Week 1 against Kansas City.
1. Rich Gannon will attempt to fight off the challenge of Collins for the starting nod in Oakland. With Norv Turner's offense in place and Robert Gallery checking his blind side, is he primed for another campaign to rival his MVP season?
The normally cuddly as a porcupine Gannon has been at it already with the media, who keep asking when Kerry Collins will overtake him. Why would you ask a dude when he's going to lose his job? Anyway, Norv Turner knows offense, and he'll be able to get the Raiders offense humming against the suspect Pittsburgh secondary.
2. How much does the incomparable Jerry Rice have left in the tank? With Jerry Porter on the field, I believe he's a sleeper for a big year.
I'm sticking by this. I think the incomparable Rice will be a prime beneficiary of the NFL Rule emphasis and a healthy Jerry Porter gets to battle through the double teams. Stretch the field with Porter and Doug Gabriel and let Rice and the myriad of tight ends dominate the middle of the field. He's gold in the No. 3 receiver slot.
3. The Raiders have assembled a large pool of running backs. Tyrone Wheatley leads the pack, but keep an eye on how Troy Hambrick, Justin Fargas and Amos Zereoue fit into the system as camp unfolds.
Hambrick was pawned off on Arizona for a bucket of balls and Zereoue has been lackluster at best. Wheatley stands atop this situation, with the speedy Justin Fargas looking to steal carries and offer a change of pace out of the backfield.
San Diego Chargers
1. All LT, all the time. That's the offensive scheme in San Diego. LaDainian Tomlinson caught a remarkable total of 100 passes in 2003. Can he continue that pace behind a makeshift O-Line?
Book it. LT continues to roll and battle toward 1,800 rushing yards. Fantasy owners will appreciate his attempt to reach the 100-catch mark for a second straight year.
2. Can the surgically reconstructed Kevin Dyson become the top option for the winner of the SD QB job?
Dyson was released, so the dream is over. Eric Parker and Reche Caldwell stand as the top two options of a lackluster group. Forget about the receiving corps. It's LT and the man below that alone warrant your attention.
3. How much will TE Antonio Gates figure into the mix? He's a great sleeper at this position, with a big, athletic frame among a group of lackluster receiver options.
Gates was the favorite sleeper of all "Experts" drafts to the point that he became the fifth or sixth tight end selected. He's a big, athletic target and will cover up some of Brees' soaring mistakes.