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Theory vs. Reality

Every fantasy owner has heard the conventional wisdom--why Peyton Manning will be better, why LaDainian Tomlinson will be worse. But is it true?
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STOP US if you'veheard this one before: Peyton Manning will have a big year for the Coltsbecause, with Edgerrin James gone, he'll need to throw more often. Or this one:LaDainian Tomlinson's rushing numbers will suffer because opposing defenses canstack the line against Philip Rivers, the Chargers' inexperienced quarterback.Those are just two of a slew of assumptions bandied about by fantasy owners whoseem to be "in the know"--notions tossed around in bars and over theInternet, spreading like germs in a second-grade classroom. But are theorieslike these valid? SI's team of NFL insiders canvassed the games, practicefields and locker rooms to find out.

Fantasy Theory1

Steve McNair willsignificantly improve the receiving numbers of Mark Clayton and DerrickMason.

REALITY Though notthe athletic quarterback he once was, McNair, 33, is a marked upgrade over KyleBoller, who's now the Ravens' backup. McNair has completed at least 60% of hispasses in every season since 1999; in three years Boller has never been above58.4%. Mason (eight catches for 93 yards in two games), with whom McNairconnected for 29 TDs during eight years in Tennessee, will certainly benefit.Clayton's numbers should get a boost too, though he remains a marginal fantasycommodity.

The biggestbeneficiary, however, will be tight end Todd Heap, who caught a team-high fivepasses for 46 yards in the Ravens' opener and added five catches for 17 yardsand a touchdown on Sunday against the Raiders. Over his career McNair has shownan affinity for throwing to the tight end; 31% of his completions (728 of 2,338at week's end) have gone to players at that position. "Steve's going toobviously look Todd's way a lot," says former Titans tight end FrankWycheck. "I predict big numbers."

Fantasy Theory2

Donovan McNabb'snumbers will suffer without Terrell Owens.

REALITY Unlessyour TV and computer have been disconnected, you know that the Eagles' McNabbhasn't exactly missed T.O. so far, passing for 664 yards and five touchdowns intwo games. The key questions: Will this trend continue, or are McNabb's numbersinflated because he faced two poor pass defenses (Titans and Giants)? Theconsensus from on-the-scene reporters who have been watching McNabb sincetraining camp: He's the goods.

Even before Owensbrought his trash-talking, abs-crunching circus to Philly, McNabb performedlike a top-tier QB, throwing for 3,365 yards in 2000 and 25 TDs the next year.Owens's arrival in '04 helped drive McNabb's stats to career highs (3,875 yardsand 31 TDs). McNabb's drop-off last year was largely attributed to T.O.'sdeparture in November, but the quarterback was also playing with a sportshernia that caused him to miss the last seven games. Now healthy, the29-year-old McNabb is back to making plays on the run, throwing across his bodyand spreading the ball around the field (20 completions to wide receivers, 17to running backs and 14 to tight ends through Sunday). "He's healthy andconfident," Philly coach Andy Reid says. "He knows he has his wholegame back."

Fantasy Theory3

Larry Johnsonwon't be as productive this season behind a line with two new tackles.

REALITY Though theman whom many touted as the No. 1 fantasy player entering the season was a bitslow out of the gate behind a rebuilt offensive line (68 yards on 17 carries inWeek 1), there's no need to panic. True, perennial All-Pro left tackle WillieRoaf retired just before the season, and John Welbourn, who started the lastnine games of '05 at right tackle, unexpectedly retired in June. But during hissensational streak last year--he averaged 156 yards over his last eightgames--Johnson worked mainly inside, behind guards Will Shields and BrianWaters and center Casey Wiegmann. Shields and Waters were sidelined for much ofthe preseason with foot and ankle injuries, respectively, and right tackleKevin Sampson missed the season opener with a hamstring injury. So Sunday'sgame in Denver marked the first time this season that Kansas City had its newstarting O-line intact. The result: Johnson ran for 126 yards.

Fantasy Theory4

With EdgerrinJames gone, Peyton Manning will put up even more sensational numbers.

REALITY Manning isessentially an on-field offensive coordinator, often changing plays at the linedepending on the defense. But when the play can go either way, says Colts coachTony Dungy, "a lot of times he wants to throw it." It's reasonable toconclude that without the sensational legs of James in the backfield, many moreof those 50-50 looks will become pass plays. And through two games the numbershave supported that: Manning has averaged 39.5 throws for 338 yards, up from28.3 and 234.2 last season. That includes Sunday's 43--24 rout of the Texans,the sort of game in which a quarterback is usually handing off to grind downthe clock.

"I've toldhim, 'You're the best player in the league. So if you're not sure, throw,'"Dungy says. "And I don't think we'll change that part of it whether we getJim Brown back there or not."

Fantasy Theory5

LaDainianTomlinson's productivity will suffer with Philip Rivers at quarterback.

REALITY Tomlinsonis so good that he'd get his numbers even if he were facing the '85 Bears everyweek. And San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer is more than willing to lean onTomlinson until Rivers gets comfortable. In his first career start, the seasonopener against the Raiders, Rivers threw 11 passes. He threw 35 in Week 2against the Titans, but Tomlinson still got 19 carries before taking a breatherin a 40--7 laugher.

Tomlinson, who hasrushed for 202 yards and three TDs through two games, knows his workload isgoing to be heavy. "When you have a young quarterback, you run the footballa lot," he says. "You don't ever want to put a young quarterback in asituation [in which he's likely] to make a turnover unless you have to."All of which just increases LT's fantasy value.

PLAYER RANKINGS

Get the latest NFL news, plus ratings for all fantasyfootball positions and daily injury updates at SI.com/fantasy.

FIRST-AND-10

THINGS WE'VE LEARNED

1 If you have a quarterback or receiver facing theTexans, start him. That's Mark Brunell and Santana Moss this week.

2 If you have a running back facing the Browns, starthim. That's the Ravens' Jamal Lewis this week.

3 The Jets' Laveranues Coles, the highest-scoringreceiver through two weeks, has become a must-start player.

4 Vikings wide receiver Troy Williamson has emerged asquarterback Brad Johnson's favorite target.

5 Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz is not such aquick-fixing mastermind after all.

6 Cardinals running back Edgerrin James is nowhere nearthe same player without the Colts' offensive line.

7 The BILLS' DEFENSE is for real. Considered among thebottom six units entering the season, new coach Dick Jauron's young troops,including linebacker London Fletcher-Baker (59, left), have 10 sacks and twointerceptions through two games.

8 Better to play rookie RBs Laurence Maroney, DeAngeloWilliams and Joseph Addai sooner rather than later.

9 David Carr, Alex Smith and Chad Pennington havebecome viable No. 2 fantasy quarterbacks.

10 Warrick Dunn and Frank Gore were smarter picks thanCadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown.

SECOND-AND-10

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

1 Is Bears quarterback Rex Grossman this good or arethe Packers' and Lions' defenses this bad?

2 Will Falcons quarterback Michael Vick ever be asproductive a passer as he is a rusher?

3 When the Panthers' Steve Smith returns from hishamstring injury, will he be the elite fantasy receiver he was last season?

4 Will CHRIS SIMMS ever get it? The talented Tampa Bayquarterback with the rocket left arm and the golden pedigree has been anunderachiever every year since taking over as the regular starter at Texas sixseasons ago. Last fall he showed at times that, maybe, the light had finallycome on and that he would have a breakthrough year in 2006. But so far he ranks29th in passer rating (40.0), having thrown six interceptions and notouchdowns, and he has continued his troubling tendency to have throws batteddown at the line. Even in the largest leagues Simms has no fantasy value.

5 With Deion Branch now a Seahawk, who loses time--NateBurleson, Bobby Engram or Darrell Jackson?

6 Will rookie Reggie Bush supplant Deuce McAllister asthe Saints' featured running back?

7 Who will be Tom Brady's go-to guy--Troy Brown, RecheCaldwell, Chad Jackson or Ben Watson?

8 Who will emerge as the Titans' featured back--ChrisBrown, Travis Henry or LenDale White?

9 With Terrell Owens sidelined for up to four weeks,which Cowboy will get more balls thrown his way?

10 How much will his dislocated shoulder affect thenumbers of Redskins running back Clinton Portis?

 

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MICHAEL MONTES/WIREIMAGE.COM (MCNAIR)

MCNAIR

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BOB ROSATO (HEAP)

HEAP

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JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (TOMLINSON)

TOMLINSON

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ROBERT E. KLEIN/ICON SMI (FLETCHER-BAKER)

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JOHN AMIS/AP