"Football brings out the sociologist that lurks in some otherwise respectable citizens. They say football is a metaphor for America's sinfulness." – George F. Will
Your carpal tunnel condition has flared up after weeks of exhaustive fantasy research. You've watched endless hours of uneventful preseason football trying to solve the Denver running back riddle. And despite participating in 10 drafts, you can't figure out how to pronounce T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. Hey, just be thankful you don't have to spell them. Enough with the draft talk and exhibition mumbo jumbo, it's go time. Are you psyched?
For the fantasy faithful, there is nothing more satisfying than the pigskin elation felt every second Sunday in September. In this testosterone-rich rite of passage, owners across the country put on their favorite player jerseys, nestle into that perfectly molded spot on the couch and pound pieces of poultry like Shaun Alexander opposing defensive lines.
Why does the advent of meaningful NFL action make millions of football fans so giddy? Here are my top-five reasons:
5. Cardiologists no longer ridicule patients for consuming six bratwursts in one sitting.
4. Three words: Scantily clad cheerleaders.
3. Originally believed to be unfashionable, Brian Urlacher Fat Heads instantly become trendy pieces of living room artwork.
2. Chugging an entire twelve pack of adult beverages on the Sabbath is excusable.
1. After body-slamming a co-worker's fantasy team on Sunday, trash-talk sessions in the office on Monday morning become priceless moments.
Conversations around the water cooler won't be tame for at least the rest of the year.
WEEK 1 FANTASY FLAMES
Each week, the Noise will dig deep to find seven no-so-obvious names to help you crush the competition. Here are this week's flame candidates:
Kurt Warner, Ari, QB – Opponent:SF
Fearless Forecast: 315 YDs, 3 TDs, INT
Notes: Believe it. The sultan of stubble is bar-none the best fantasy quarterback play this week. Warner played brilliantly in preseason action, completing a pin-point accurate 73.3 percent of his passes. Most importantly, he was only sacked two times. The 49ers were a dung heap defensively in '05 giving up a fantasy high 22.8 points-per-game to opposing quarterbacks in performance leagues. Last year, Warner torched San Fran for 354 yards and a touchdown in Week 13. With a gaudy 107.5 QB rating in indoor games, the 35-year-old gunslinger will pay huge dividends as the Cardinals christen their new space-age stadium.
Thomas Jones, Chi, RB – Opponent: at GB
Fearless Forecast: 27 Carries, 125 YDs, TD, 3 REC, 18 YDs
Notes: Just as I predicted back in June, Jones is penciled in as the Week 1 starter. In six career games, the versatile Bears' back has roared against the Packers, averaging 102.7 yards-per-game while totaling four touchdowns. The Green Bay first-string offense looked inefficient in preseason play and given the dominating Chicago defense, Jones will be Lovie Smith's cheese slicer in the fourth quarter as the Bears salt away the clock. If you're a Jones owner concerned about Cedric Benson, don't be. Listed as questionable, Benson's shoulder still is not at full strength. If Benson does play, anticipate a modest 5-10 carries. My eighth-best running back play this week, count on Jones as a strong No. 2.
Chris Brown, Ten, RB – Opponent: NYJ
Fearless Forecast: 19 carries, 82 YDs, TD, 4 REC, 21 YDs
Notes: Amid unfounded rumors of losing his job two weeks ago, Brown will deliver a load of opening week goodies in Nashville. Last year, the Jets allowed a staggering 136.6 rushing yards and 1.1 touchdowns per game and the installation of a 3-4 scheme for a marginally talented front surely won't help matters in '06. Titans head coach Jeff Fisher wants to pound opponents into submission this season and establish a 35-40 carry backfield carousel. Given Brown's large 6-foot-3 stature and powerful upright running style he is the Titans primary goal-line option who will surprise in Week 1.
Reche Caldwell, NE, WR – Opponent: Buf
Fearless Forecast: 6 receptions, 77 YDs
Notes: Ignore the feminine first name, Caldwell will post manly numbers this week. With Deion Branch's monetary situation getting messier and messier with each passing day, Caldwell enters the season at the top of the Patriots wide receiver depth chart. Tom Brady can make any receiver look good and has 17 touchdown passes in 10 career games against the Bills, meaning Caldwell has a good shot of finding pay-dirt. Most likely, he will be the secondary option to top receiver, tight end Benjamin Watson, but the former Charger is a solid intermediate target that can exploit defensive backs for adequate chunks of yards. Consider him a serviceable No. 3 wideout in 14-team and larger leagues.
Keyshawn Johnson, Car, WR – Opponent: Atl
Fearless Forecast: 7 receptions, 92 YDs. TD
Notes: Jake Delhomme better get Me-Shawn the damn ball. With Steve Smith a 50/50 shot at suiting up on Sunday after tweaking his other hamstring in practice on Tuesday, Johnson should see an expanded role. Even if Smith starts against the Falcons, Panthers head coach John Fox will be cautious with his prized receiver to prevent further damage. This means that Johnson will be leaned on heavily and emerge a solid No. 3 wide receiver option for fantasy owners. Given Delhomme's past success against the Falcons – he threw for four scores in two games against the ATL last year – look for No. 19 to see a substantial increase in targets en route to a big opening week.
Leonard Pope, Ari, TE – Opponent: SF
Fearless Forecast: 3 REC, 32 YDs, TD
Notes: At 6-foot-8, Pope is a saguaro cactus in the red zone. Cardinals head coach Denny Green has said he wants to utilize more tight end sets this season, especially in goal-line situations. Pope's athleticism and sure-handedness was showcased in small spurts in preseason play as he tallied six receptions for 40 yards and a touchdown. This week, the rookie faces a San Francisco secondary that allowed the seventh-most fantasy points to opposing tight ends in '05. For those deep leaguers in need of a tight end reach, bow down to the desert Pope.
New England Defense – Opponent: Buf
Fearless Forecast: 10 Points Allowed, 4 Sacks, 3 Turnovers
Notes: Given J.P. Losman's uncanny ability to hit opposing safeties square in the numbers, the Pats are a great plug n' play this week. Riddled by injures a season ago, the Patriots should return to prominence this season as a dependable No. 1 defensive unit. Even if All-Pro linebacker Teddy Bruschi is forced to sit this one out, they should easily compile superb fantasy numbers against a deplorable Losman who was sacked nine times and notched four turnovers on 124 preseason snaps. Available in roughly half of Yahoo! leagues, they are a top-five fantasy defense this week possibly sitting on your league's waiver wire.
WEEK 1 FANTASY LAMES
Concerned about this week's matchups? The Noise lists five players you should designate for clipboard duty. Here are this week's lame candidates:
Michael Vick, Atl, QB – Opponent:at Car
Fearless Forecast: 165 YDs, INT, 6 carries, 28 YDs
Notes: The Vick air and ground show will be stymied again in Charlotte. In two games against the Panthers in '05, Ron Mexico tallied zero touchdowns, averaged a paltry 143 passing yards, threw three picks and was sacked seven times. Likely better than they were a year ago, the punishing Panthers front was one of only seven squads that did not allow a quarterback rushing touchdown last season. Unless you play in an anti-fantasy league, avoid him at all costs.
Brett Favre, GB, QB – Opponent: Chi
Fearless Forecast: 225 YDs, 2 INTs
Notes: In recent years, Favre's numbers against the Monsters of the Midway have been dreadful. Once considered a Bear killer earlier in his career, Favre was mauled by the league's top defense a season ago, posting a gut-wrenching 0:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio in two contests. The steadfast Bears secondary led by cornerback Nathan Vasher will once again prove deadly for an ancient quarterback who presses too hard. This will be the first of many potholes for Favre and the Packers faithful this season.
Julius Jones, Dal, RB – Opponent: at Jax
Fearless Forecast: 16 carries, 52 YDs, 2 REC, 11 YDs
Notes: Owning Jones this season will be more painful than seeing your wife attempt to give birth to an eight-pound bundle of joy without the benefits of drugs. The delicate flower in Bill Parcells' three-ring running back circus, Jones will be ambushed by a Jaguars D that yielded a microscopic four touchdowns in 16 games last season. With Marion Barber III the primary option in goal-line and third-down sets, this juice will sour against one of the league's elite defenses.
Kevin Jones, Det, RB – Opponent: Sea
Fearless Forecast: 17 carries, 58 YDs, 3 REC, 18 YDs
Notes: If you're a grand-thinking KJ believer, end the misery now by banging your head repeatedly on a keyboard. Expected to total only 15-20 carries per game and lose occasional touches on third down to Brian Calhoun, Jones is not poised for a major production leap. Matched against a stiff Seahawks defense that was second in red-zone touchdown percentage and fifth in rushing yards allowed last year, Jones' prospects for a strong start are gloomy. For Week 1, put him in the same class as Wali Lundy – a reasonable flex option that is bound to dissatisfy.
Andre Johnson, Hou, WR – Opponent: Phi
Fearless Forecast: 4 REC, 47 YDs
Notes: The start to Johnson's season will make fantasy owners relive the tortuous first 11 weeks of 2005 when he failed to register a 100-yard game. Don't be suckered by blind optimism in Week 1. This past offseason the Eagles upgraded their defensive line in the hopes of letting Jevon "The Freak" Kearse run loose. If the Philly improvements pay instant dividends and they carry over the trench aggressiveness shown in the preseason, David Carr will once again be covered in grass stains. The small windows of opportunity likely afforded to Carr will inevitably hinder Johnson's chances of an impact Sunday. Don't let this Texan spur you.
Scanning media reports with a fine-toothed comb, the Noise puts his fantasy spin on various tasty tidbits.
Washington's Clinton Portis is listed as questionable for Monday night's clash against Minnesota due to a shoulder separation suffered in Week 1 of the preseason. Ladell Betts is expected to get the starting nod if Portis is inactive.
Spin:The fantasy football equivalent of the Suri Cruise picture fiasco, any news surrounding Portis' injured shoulder is an ultimate priority. Despite missing practice on Tuesday, an optimistic Joe Gibbs commented on Wednesday that his prized back was "making real progress." At print time, the flamboyant running back's status for the opener is still cloudy. Because Portis is a tough, rugged player that typically can endure pain, I would expect him to be in pads on Monday night. However, if he does start, do not anticipate anything more than 90 total yards and a touchdown. Led by a healthy Kelvin Williams, the Vikings are a formidable foe in the trenches and destined to improve drastically on their 19th rushing D ranking from '05. Take the risk only if the news is definitive.
If the former Pro Bowler is inactive, look for Gibbs to employ the three-pronged attack of Ladell Betts, T.J Duckett and Rock Cartwright. Betts' bulky exterior and all-around abilities makes him the most attractive option of the three in yardage leagues, but confide in him only as a flex play given the nature of the opponent. Beefcake Duckett also carries some fantasy weight. Although still relatively new to the Al Saunders offensive scheme, his break-tackle ability and successful history as a goal-line nemesis makes him a reasonable flex start in deep TD-heavy leagues.
UNLEASH THE BEAST
Upset you don't have a forum to express your disdain for drafting Willis McGahee? Do you question why on earth you're not a fantasy expert? This is the place for you to vent your thoughts, tirades and frustrations. Can you bring the noise?
I'm afraid you're going to be sadly mistaken about your predictions this season for Donte' Stallworth. Too many people see Stallworth as a replacement for T.O. in Philadelphia, and while Stallworth may be as frustrating as Owens was, he isn't nearly as talented or skilled. Almost every year we hear how Stallworth is going to breakout and he never does. And now he's going to a team with a QB who spreads the ball out as much as Tom Brady, and he won't be the number 1, 2, or 3 option in that offense. The number 1 option has to be Westbrook. He racks up a ton of receptions each year and Andy Reid wants to run the ball more this year. The number 2 and 3 options are, in any order, Reggie Brown and L.J. Smith. Both have been there for many years – McNabb trusts them. They know the system and they will be splitting up the looks that used to go to T.O. Don't get me wrong, Stallworth has talent, but he's going from a system where Brooks used to launch deep balls to him, to a more conservative West Coast offense. It will take him time to adjust and like I said, McNabb will look for three other guys before he looks for Donte'. I feel too many people are vaulting this guy into WR2 territory when he probably won't even be worth a roster spot in most leagues.
– Dan, Chicago, Illinois
Noise: Dan, thanks for the smart, insightful opinion on Stallworth. That is, up until you said that he "won't be worth a roster spot in most leagues." Are you kidding me? I guess it's possible in an eight-team league with a five player bench, but get real. Although I don't disagree entirely with your assessment, my take on the Eagles recent acquisition is a bit different.
Yes, Stallworth's skills as a receiver are unmatched when compared to T.O.'s freakish attributes – only a handful of current receivers deserve such an accolade – but he is on the verge of becoming a good, not a great, receiver in Philadelphia. At this point in his career, he is head and shoulders more talented than Reggie Brown and will earn the trust of McNabb as the season progresses. Why are my convictions of Stallworth so firm? Here are a few reasons:
1. Although I agree that Westbrook is option No. 1 as a receiver based on his 57 receptions per season average since 2004, Stallworth possesses the arsenal to be a productive WR1. In his weapons cache: topflight separation speed, excellent ball adjustment skills, leaping ability and body control. His sensational second gear is one of the best in the league and if he can run clean routes for McNabb – a problem he had in New Orleans – he could easily establish new career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns for the fourth consecutive year.
2. Don't be persuaded by Andy Reid's newfound love for the run. Any coach would want to rededicate themselves on the ground after chucking the rock 621 times in the previous season. Remember, Reid's offensive scheme is centered on McNabb and his distribution of the football through the air. Over a five-year period from 2000-2004, the Eagles averaged an insane 33.4 passing attempts per year. That's nearly a full attempt more than the Indianapolis Colts per game pass average from last year. Even if the ground game were more emphasized, Philadelphia would still rank in the top-15 in passing offense.
3. Umm, Stallworth had a breakout season last year. Look at what he's accomplished since 2004. He is one of the rare receivers that currently has upward trending numbers in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns in three consecutive seasons. In '05, he had eight games of at least five receptions and 50 or more receiving yards. Those numbers were comparable to some of the more dependable No. 2s in fantasy, including T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Deion Branch. And he's still only 25-years-old.
The final word: The continued growth and development of Stallworth's game and his eventual primary role in the Philadelphia passing attack will vault him into No. 2 fantasy contention at some point this year. I agree that it will take time for him to get acclimated to Reid's brand of West Coast offense, but I am willing to bet by Week 10, he will be the most targeted receiver in Philly green. With Tennessee, Indianapolis and the Giants on tap late in the season, Stallworth could come up big at critical moments for fantasy owners.