Training campshave yet to open, but SI's fantasy expert, Jeffri Chadiha, is already gatheringvaluable news
LJ'S CATCHING ONAny fantasy owner can see the value in Chiefs running back Larry Johnson(left), who ran for 1,750 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2005. But here's whatmakes Johnson even more attractive this season: He should be playing more onpassing downs. Kansas City often sat him in those situations last seasonbecause Johnson didn't block well enough to consistently pick up blitzes. ButJohnson is committed to proving himself in that area, and Chiefs coachesbelieve that he'll improve as he gets more experience.
What this meansfor fantasy owners is that Johnson--who has 56 career receptions--could becomemore of a pass-catching threat. That doesn't mean he'll catch 70 balls, asPriest Holmes did in his prime. But if Johnson can grab 50 or 60, he'll be evenmore dangerous. He'll also become a lock as the No. 1 running back in fantasyfootball.
MICHAEL VICK: THETIME IS NOW The Falcons' quarterback (right) should become a more consistentpasser and a less frustrating fantasy performer this season. He has spent moreoff-season time developing chemistry with his two improving young receivers,Michael Jenkins and Roddy White. Jenkins, a first-round pick in 2004, isespecially intriguing. He has finally learned to catch the ball away from hisbody and use his 6'4" frame to shield defenders from passes. He couldbecome a valuable red-zone target for Vick.
JAMES HOLDS THELINE New Cardinals running back Edgerrin James (left) is convinced that theproblems that plagued Arizona's offensive line in 2005--when the Cards rankedlast in the NFL in rushing--can be easily fixed. He says the line's majorproblem wasn't lack of talent, it was breakdowns in communication among itsmembers. James thinks that under new line coach Steve Loney, who spent the lastfour years with the Vikings, the unit will be more in sync, which means heshould have more running room than any Arizona back in recent memory. Look forhim to be just as steady as he was in Indianapolis.
RAVENS OPPONENTSIN A HEAP OF TROUBLE Baltimore tight end Todd Heap should quickly become afavorite target of new quarterback Steve McNair. First, McNair loves throwingto the tight end. Second, Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Fassel loved feedingthe ball to tight end Jeremy Shockey when Fassel coached the Giants a few yearsago. Finally, Heap is a Pro Bowl talent. In light of those factors, he becomesthe third-best fantasy tight end behind Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez.
I THINK ...
THERE'S ARIDICULOUS overemphasis on running backs in fantasy football. Running backs inthe NFL are eminently more replaceable than quarterbacks, left tackles and passrushers, yet when you look at the mock fantasy drafts this summer, you seebacks like Tiki Barber ranked ahead of Peyton Manning. Absurd.
MY ADVICE: Buckthe trend. Let's say I'm in a 12-team league, drafting in the middle of thepack. I take Manning (right) with my first pick, thinking he's going to takeessentially every snap--he always does--and if he puts up average numbers,based on his past four seasons (33 touchdowns, 4,193 yards), all I have to doat running back is be pretty good. And over the next three rounds I'm going toget three of these six backs: Ronnie Brown, Tatum Bell, Brian Westbrook,Chester Taylor, Laurence Maroney and DeAngelo Williams. I'll cobble together areceiving corps--and I'll be in the money in December.
MEN IN MOTION
EVERYONE KNOWSabout T.O.'s taking his act to Dallas and Daunte's moving to Miami. Here arefive other off-season changes that will tilt the fantasy landscape.
Mr. Saunders Goesto Washington Running back Clinton Portis is ecstatic about Al Saunders, theRedskins' new offensive guru and the architect of the Chiefs' juggernaut.
Vikings Add PunchMinnesota made former Seahawk Steve Hutchinson the league's highest-paidguard--good news for Vikings running back Chester Taylor.
San DiegoSwitches Though few fantasy players will risk a high pick on unproven QB PhilipRivers, he still looms as a key figure, i.e., the guy getting the ball to thegame's top tight end, Antonio Gates.
Motown Revs UpNew Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz, late of the Greatest Show on Turf,will bring life to an offense that ranked 27th in the league last year.
Saints Shake OutCaution to anyone investing a high pick in a New Orleans skill-position player:The Saints' reconfigured offensive line could have five new starters.
the firstrequisite for fantasy success: drafting players who are actually going to getthe ball. Here are five key position battles to watch next month.
NO. 2 RECEIVER First-round pick Santonio Holmes will challenge veteran CedrickWilson for the chance to replace departed Super Bowl standout Antwaan RandleEl.
TIGHT END Veteran Kyle Brady will open the season as the starter, but skilledfirst-round pick Marcedes Lewis should earn playing time on a team in need ofreceiving options.
QUARTERBACK Despite his shaky performance last year, J.P. Losman has a slightedge over Kelly Holcomb. Neither will be a top-tier fantasy option, but therace is worth following if you covet star receiver Lee Evans.
RUNNING BACK Thomas Jones skipped the team's off-season workouts because he wasunhappy with his contract, creating an opportunity for Cedric Benson--who wasexpected to compete for the top job in '05 before he held out.
KICKER With Adam Vinatieri gone, the Pats will have a new leg to convertscoring chances for their seventh-rated offense. The Falcons, whose offenseranked 12th last year, also have a kicker battle worth watching.
THE TO-DO (ANDDON'T-DO) LIST
1. BACK UP YOURFRANCHISE PLAYERS Nothing can derail a championship season quicker than a tornACL or a pulled hamstring, so if you happen to land, say, LaDainian Tomlinson,make sure to get his backup (that's Michael Turner), as long as he doesn't costyou a high draft pick.
2. BEWARE HOTFREE-AGENT RECEIVERS Usually when an unclaimed wideout has a 100-yard day,everyone rushes to grab him. The reality is that a receiver's big game canoften be the result of a favorable matchup, so the chances of his emerging as aregular contributor are slim.
3. PILLAGE,PILLAGE, PILLAGE Early in the season some team will most likely suffer a majorinjury and will need depth. This is your chance to raid that team's roster forits best player, thereby upgrading your team significantly. In return, youtrade two reserves (or maybe one starter and one reserve). You'll come outahead every time.
4. RESISTOVERMANAGING Every week you'll find yourself studying your roster and thatweek's matchups, trying to decide which players to start. This is O.K., to adegree. What is not O.K. is asking yourself, Should I start Peyton Manningagainst the Patriots? The answer is yes. Always start your best players eachweek, no matter the opponent.
5. LOOK AHEADOnce you get a sense of which NFL teams have the best and worst defenses, castan eye toward the final weeks of the season and try to determine which playerswill have favorable matchups in that span. Any midseason deal you pull shouldbe made with those matchups in mind, because they'll be a major factor in yourplayoff run. --Gene Menez
For more fantasy news and draft tips go toSI.com/fantasy.
DAVID E. KLUTHO (JOHNSON); HOWARD SCHATZ (CHADIHA); GENE LOWER/SLINGSHOT (JAMES); BOB ROSATO (VICK)
JOHN BIEVER; TODD ROSENBERG/US PRESSWIRE (BENSON)
Jones vs. Benson