Last week, the Yahoo! Sports fantasy trio reviewed the downtrodden players of 2003 who are looking to rise like the Phoenix of lore this coming season. With a full slate of preseason games on the docket for the weekend and several sloppy contests in the rearview mirror (390 combined penalty yards in two games on Thursday night), Matt Romig, Brandon Funston and yours truly, Mike Harmon, scoured the reports from camps, checked the tapes and offer insight on who may fall back to earth from their lofty perches set in 2003.
Q:Which QB who experienced a career year in 2003 will fall back to earth in 2004?
Behind a suspect offensive line, Brad Johnson will struggle to reach the '03 numbers that made him a top 10 fantasy QB (3,811 yards, 26 TDs). In addition to problems up front, Johnson is dealing with a new set of parts at the skill positions in Charlie Garner, Joey Galloway, Tim Brown, etc. It would be foolish to assume that it won't take some time for these guys to gel.
Jon Kitna already returned to terra firma after Carson Palmer was named the starter in Cincinnati. That leaves Matt Hasselbeck (career highs in everything), Brett Favre (career-high completion percentage), Steve McNair (career-best TD mark) and Brad Johnson (career-high TDs) as starters who reached new heights in 2003. Johnson is poised for the biggest fall. The Tampa Bay wide receiver situation is a mess right now. Deep threat Keenan McCardell is holding out. Possession guy Joe Jurevicius is hurt. Tim Brown isn't the answer. Goal-line option Mike Alstott is back, so he and newcomer Charlie Garner should get more red-zone touches, particularly if Johnson approaches his 2003 total of 21 interceptions.
Jon Kitna has already been designated the official clipboard holder to start the season, so he's eliminated from consideration here. I'm gonna walk out on a limb and target Trent Green of Kansas City as the guy to return to earth in 2004. The Chiefs took the "if it ain't broke" approach this offseason, failing to retool any portion of the offense. Ten starters return, with lineman John Tait as the only defection. The Chiefs did draft WR Samie Parker out of Oregon and he will battle for a spot in a crowded and unspectacular collection of receivers. In recent published reports, Priest Holmes gave serious thought to retirement this offseason and Tony Gonzalez has a stress fracture in his foot (not considered serious at this time, but virtually every initial injury report save Jon Jansen's has been wrong thus far, so who knows). I think this is the year that it turns south for the 34-year old Green.
Q: Which RB who experienced a career year in 2003 will fall back to earth in 2004?
I'm a big fan of Brian Westbrook's skills. I simply love his game. But I can't help but think that he is a poor bet to reach even 10 touchdowns this season, let alone equaling the 13 he accrued last season. Only four of Westbrook's touchdowns came from within 10 yards. The other nine came from 15 yards and beyond. Breaking that many long runs is a tough act to follow, especially when defenses are finally wise to him. And Correll Buckhalter is going to handle goal-line duties, so the long way is going to often be Westbrook's only way to pay dirt. Certainly Westbrook is a good bet for 1,000 rushing yards, but he may wind up with only half as many scores as a year ago.
Since we're in an election year, let's talk about the virtues of running unopposed. Try to name the No. 2 back in San Diego or Seattle. Not that easy, is it? There is comfort in knowing that your guy isn't looking over his shoulder, and that's a luxury a lot of second-tier running backs don't have. In a recent Yahoo! Sports experts draft, the first back who is sure to start the season No. 2 on the depth chart to be drafted was DeShaun Foster. Word out of Carolina camp is that he's looking fit and healthy and the team is exploring ways to get him more involved. That could mean a lot of things, but one certainty is that Foster will cut into Stephen Davis' 22.7 carry-per-game average. Davis won't fall off the fantasy radar, but a repeat of his career-best yardage total is out of the question.
Carolina's playoff run was a wake up call to John Fox, as he watched the speedy DeShaun Foster roll up almost six yards per carry. Foster looks good in training camp and appears primed to wrestle carries away from the incumbent Stephen Davis. Additionally, Foster is a better receiver out of the backfield and his speed changes the complexion of the game. Finally, the Panthers offensive line has been obliterated with an injury to Bruce Nelson and the sudden retirement of Adam Meadows. They return only one starter from the Super Bowl season. So life will be difficult between the tackles for Davis, offering another reason to work the speedy Foster on the corners.
Q: Which WR who experienced a career year in 2003 will fall back to earth in 2004?
I suspect that the first half of the season will be tough on Chad Johnson (90 catches, 1,355 yards, 10 TDs in '03). He is going to be dealing with the growing pains of a new quarterback in Carson Palmer. And for that reason, the Bengals loaded up the backfield (Rudi Johnson and Chris Perry) in an attempt to rely on the run early while Palmer gets seasoning. If Palmer hits his stride, the team is likely to give him more passing leeway down the stretch and Johnson should then see his numbers pick up. QB Jon Kitna may also take over the reins if Palmer is seriously struggling. Either way, a slow start will keep Johnson's numbers below what he achieved in '03.
I'm already on record as stating I'm fascinated by the Cincinnati Bengals – both as a fantasy analyst and a fan. They may take the next step this year or completely disintegrate. Chad Johnson is an intriguing fantasy pick. Do you want your No. 1 wideout running routes for a QB who has never thrown a pass in an NFL game? A big year is not out of the question – just look at Randy Moss teaming with Daunte Culpepper in 2000. Growing pains are just as likely (Rod Smith had just four TDs with Brian Griese in 1999). Drafting Johnson is a vote of confidence for Palmer, and that's a vote I'm not willing to cast.
Let me preface this analysis by saying that I do not expect this guy to become merely an average receiver. But, I'm thinking that there's no way that Torry Holt can possibly match last season's absurd yardage and reception totals (117 catches, 1,696 yards). First, Marc Bulger showed shaky decision-making skills in pressure positions. He'll be under the gun a lot in 2004, as offensive lineman Kyle Turley is already on the shelf, and behemoth Orlando Pace refuses to sign his one-year franchise contract.
Teams will focus their attention on slowing down Holt (we'll see how much the illegal chucking call gets made in the regular season), opening the door for sleeper receiver Shaun McDonald and Dane Looker to vulture some looks. I'm looking for a return to the mere mortal totals of 90 catches, 1,100-1,200 yards and eight scores this season.
Emmitt Smith is a terrible bet to last the season at his age. He went down with a shoulder injury last season, and some ailment is likely to wind up impeding his fantasy value this time around. But even a healthy Smith will likely only yield 50-60 rushing yards a week and a touchdown every two or three weeks. He's squarely a No. 3 fantasy back who you'll hope has a throwback performance in those weeks you must use him because of byes.
I see a lot of 13-carry, 37-yard games in Smith's immediate future. Smith simply cannot carry the ball 20-plus times per week and there is no reason to think that Arizona will be able to establish an effective running game. For a No. 3 fantasy back I'd rather draft potential (Chris Perry, Willis McGahee, DaShaun Foster) or a goal-line option (Mike Alstott, Moe Williams, Jerome Bettis). There is something to be said for having a starting job, but this is one backfield I'll avoid entirely.
Emmitt hit the field in 2003 for the Cardinals and amassed an amazing 90 carries. Do you sense the enthusiasm in my words? Yeah, I didn't think so. Before his shoulder injury relegated him to the inactive list for the middle of the season, Smith's top rushing total was a paltry 64 yards against the hapless Detroit Lions defense. He hasn't registered double-digit touchdowns since 1999 and has only 10 over the last three seasons.
If you want to pay tribute to him, go buy some trading cards, a retro jersey or a video copy of Dallas' Super Bowl victories. Mr. Peabody, Sherman and the WABAC Machine aren't here to return you to the glory years. Look to goal-line thieves like Moe Williams and Jerome Bettis, potential committeemen Willis McGahee, DeShaun Foster and Tatum Bell and watch the development of the resurrected Ron Dayne, instead.
Q: Tim Brown has left the crowded receiving corps of Oakland for the injury-depleted situation in Tampa Bay. Does he now become a fantasy option?
No. And I'm tempted to leave my response at that. But for the sake of column etiquette, I'll add the obvious: He's too old. He's too slow. And he has too much competition at receiver to be anything more than a secondary option.
Tim Brown has missed one NFL game since the 1989 season. That's an incredible run, but one that should have come to an end after the 2003 season. Brown's value is limited to those leagues that award points for receptions, but even then there are better options out there.
"You'll get no laurel crown for outrunning a burro." – Martial
That quote pretty much sums it up. Brown is past his prime and has lost a step, maybe three. Unless you're the commissioner and have the ability to alter the number of points per reception to five per catch, Tim Brown is the fantasy wide receiver equivalent of the shiny red button on the classic episode of Ren & Stimpy. The snazzy new uniform and reunion with Jon Gruden makes you take a temporary pause from your senses, and you want to touch it, but later realize that you would decimate your championship dreams. With a cast replete with the injury-riddled (Joe Jurevicius) and malcontented (holdout Keenan McCardell) receivers and operating alongside a suspect offensive line, look away. There are plenty of other options at wide receiver.
Keep an eye on Yahoo! Sports for the latest news on this weekend's preseason activity. There will undoubtedly be some players who begin to stake their claim for a starting position, those that abdicate their role with poor play and, of course, the inevitable injuries. We'll be watching.