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News-Herald Assistant Sports Editor Kevin Kleps doesn’t just write headlines and stories. He also checks on his fantasy sports teams. A lot. See if the moves and news from the world of sports affect your fantasy teams.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Fantasy focus: LaDainian Tomlinson

It's possible you blame him for your 2008 fantasy season going downhill faster than a contract extension given by Randy Lerner.

Your lasting image of him might be that of the sullen running back, standing on the sideline, visor masking his eyes, in the biggest playoff game of his life, watching as his Chargers lost to the Patriots in the 2008 AFC championship game.

You could even call him washed up.

Whatever your feelings, even the biggest Chargers hater has to think LaDainian Tomlinson deserves better than this.

By all accounts, he's a good guy. He seems to be well-liked by his teammates, the fans and the media.

And what's mattered quite a bit to us: In eight NFL seasons, he's rushed for 11,760 yards and 126 touchdowns, and caught 510 passes for 3,801 yards and 15 scores. That's an average season of 1,470 rushing yards, 64 receptions for 475 yards and 18 total TDs.

He's the best fantasy player this decade -- and it's not even debatable.

And now, less than five months before he turns 30 -- the age at which many running backs' careers go the way of the current economy -- he's transforming into the 2003 Marshall Faulk.

That season, at age 30, Faulk -- L.T. before L.T., if you will -- rushed for 818 yards, caught 45 passes for 290 yards and scored 11 TDs in as many games. In 2008, L.T., at age 29, rushed for 1,110 yards, caught 52 passes for 426 yards and scored 12 TDs in 16 games.

In 2004, Faulk rushed for 774 yards and three TDs. A year later, in his final NFL season, he ran for 292 yards as Steven Jackson's backup.

L.T. seems to have more fuel in the tank at this stage of his career than Faulk. Still, his ability to be a top-10, or even top-20, running back next year is a legitimate question, especially after sitting out the Chargers' elimination game in each of the last two postseasons.

With a salary-cap figure of $8.79 million and a 2009 salary of $6.725 million, it's understandable that the Chargers would hope Tomlinson takes a pay cut, or even that they're contemplating life without L.T. -- one with the electric, soon-to-be-free-agent Darren Sproles sharing carries with a yet-to-identified hammer in the mold of LenDale White.

None of that excuses what happened last week, when Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, responding to a post by Tomlinson on his Web site that said he hoped to end his career in San Diego, said the following to the San Diego Union-Tribune: "I have no intentions of leaving San Diego. San Diego is where my GM career started and where I'd like it to end. I also have nothing but love and the utmost respect for the team, the players and the Spanos family. I have absolutely no control over how long I will be with the Chargers."

The comments were understandably interpreted as Smith mocking Tomlinson. The outrage was such that Smith apologized and reached out to Tomlinson this week to smooth things over.

Smith's flub might weaken any contractual stance the Chargers were planning to take against one of their best players ever. Or it might be a sign of things to come -- the post-L.T. era, one that could get under way even before the player who ranks second all-time in rushing TDs reaches the big 3-0.

In a blog near the end of the regular season, I asked fantasy owners who drafted L.T. two questions: At which point in the first round did you draft him, and did you make the playoffs?

As I expected, the overwhelming majority of the owners who responded said they selected L.T. first overall. What I didn't expect was the majority of those who posted comments on the site or e-mailed said they made the playoffs, and many were the first or second seed in the postseason. Since Tomlinson wasn't Tomlinson in 2008, and since you usually can't afford the No. 1 overall pick in the draft to have a down year, I figured the responses would be much more negative.

The sentiments of Josh, who wrote in a comment at the end of the blog, "What a waste! ... L.T. was an absolute disappointment," were in the minority.

What will be the majority feeling heading into 2009: L.T. will be viewed as a No. 2 running back at best. The position got much younger, thanks to an outstanding rookie class, in 2008, and the TD machine of the decade is ancient by the standard set at his position.

In the list of the best keepers at each position, a link you can find to the right of this post, I ranked Tomlinson No. 20 at running back.

That seems too low for a five-time Pro Bowler who will go down as one of the greats at his position.

Until you consider his age. And his contract. And his dwindling numbers.

L.T. could surprise us all and have a big 2009. Or he could be Eddie George, post-Tennessee, the one who played the final year of his career in Dallas -- a season that began with George at the less-than-magical age of 30.

Of the two scenarios, would the former surprise you more than the latter?

If the answer is yes, you also have your answer of what to expect from L.T. next season.

Go in with low expectations, and hope to be surprised.

By now, as a Browns fan, that should be a familiar exercise.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Two for Tuesday: Fantasy NBA

We're obsessed with lists. Fans, reporters, columnists, bloggers, draft gurus, fantasy freaks, Web sites that insist Minka Kelly is hotter than Halle Berry, as if anyone is hotter than Halle Berry.

OK, maybe I'm revealing a little too much here. Anyway, a list can be an essential (read: lazy) way of doing a blog. There are also times lists are relevant. Hopefully, this will be more of the latter and much less of the former.

We'll try to do this on a weekly basis, especially during football season.

Until then, we'll concentrate on baseball and the NBA.

1. Tracy McGrady just played back-to-back games.

That shouldn't be news for an NBA player. Unless said player is the notoriously brittle T-Mac, who until Monday hadn't played back-to-back games since Dec. 22 and 23.

Apparently, Rockets coach Rick Adelman joined fantasy owners in getting tired of McGrady's habit of skipping any part of the schedule that had Houston playing on consecutive days. The Rockets recommended McGrady rest his ailing knee until he was healthy enough to play consistently, and after missing six games, T-Mac returned to Houston's lineup Sunday.

In a combined 68 minutes against the Pistons and Knicks on Sunday and Monday, McGrady scored a combined 35 points and added 10 assists and eight rebounds. Those are numbers you can expect from McGrady, even when he's playing on one leg. Numbers that are also common: His 13-for-34 shooting line (38.2 percent) in the two games.

At this stage of his career, McGrady -- who had missed a combined 62 games the previous three seasons -- is a decent scorer who will also get you five rebounds, five assists and one or two steals per game.

He's no longer a 25-point threat, as his 15.5 scoring average is on pace to be his worst since 1999-2000, when he played with his cousin, Vince Carter, in Toronto. McGrady's 4.5 rebounding average is his worst since his rookie year.

Still, in deeper leagues, a player who's averaging 15.5 points, 4.5 boards, 5 assists, 1.2 steals and is shooting 82.1 percent from the free-throw line is worth starting during weeks in which he is scheduled to play three or four games.

If you do play McGrady, though, be prepared to have your field-goal percentage suffer. He is shooting only 38.8 percent from the field this season, and his shooting percentages since 2003-04 read like this: 41.7, 43.1, 40.6, 43.1, 41.9 and 38.8.

If field-goal percentage is a category you need in order to win each week, McGrady should be a reserve or be traded to an owner who might somehow overlook he or she isn't getting the T-Mac from 2002-03.

Otherwise, he should be safe to start when he's scheduled to play at least three games in a given week. Just know he's going to get injured again, and if you're really unlucky, it will happen on a Monday night and you'll be stuck with him in your lineup all week (not that I'm bitter or anything).

2. Ramon Sessions is valuable again.

After averaging 15.6 points, 5.8 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game, while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 80.9 percent from the line, in November, the Bucks -- being the Bucks -- relegated the second-year guard to the bench for much of December and January.

Luke Ridnour played decently as the starting point guard, but that didn't adequately explain Session's lack of minutes.

If you kept him on your roster, you were rewarded when it was announced Michael Redd would miss the rest of the season because of a knee injury.

With Redd out, Sessions started alongside Ridnour on Monday against Minnesota and had 18 points, four rebounds, two assists and three steals in 33 minutes. He was 7-for-12 from the field and 4-for-5 from the free-throw line.

If he continues to start, and he should, he's worth starting in fantasy. Sessions won't help you in the 3-point area -- he is only 5-for-29 from beyond the arc this season -- but he will score, rebound decently for a guard and be good for four or five assists and one or two steals per game.

He's worth using as a utility player in fantasy, and you might be surprised to know he's available in most leagues.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Top fantasy football keepers: Tight ends

As far as bad years go, Kellen Winslow Jr.'s 2008 ranked somewhere between a new-and-improved Britney Spears and a getting-creepy-like-her-big-brother Janet Jackson.

There was Staphgate -- the Browns' Does He or Does He Not? Debate of the Year (it turns out the answers were: He does, and the GM had an even worse year than the tight end) -- along with the unhappiness about his contract and the ankle injury that wiped out the last four games of his season.

The end result: 43 catches for 428 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games. Take away Winslow's 10-catch, 111-yard, two-TD Thursday night peformance against Denver on Nov. 6, and he had 33 receptions for 317 yards and one TD in nine games. The Broncos game was the only one in which Winslow had more than 64 yards receiving.

The player drafted five spots ahead of Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 -- one who had a combined 171 receptions in 2006 and '07 -- was less valuable in fantasy than Visanthe Shiancoe.

If you had Winslow in one of your leagues, you've moved on. If you had Winslow in a keeper league in which you hold on to more than a few players -- especially ones in which you can only keep a certain number of high draft picks -- the former Miami Hurricane could cause you to be second-guessed as if you were Phil Savage.

I wouldn't consider Winslow an upper-echelon keeper at his position. There are too many questions -- the contract, the Browns' lack of direction, the health of the body of a 25-year-old who's 35 in NFL years - and six much better options.

For now, Junior will have to settle for the second tier of fantasy starters at tight end.

All of which brings us to our top 10 keepers at the position heading into 2009:

1. Jason Witten, Cowboys (age 26): Terrell Owens can complain all he wants, but there's a reason Witten is the Cowboys' top target. He has a combined 177 receptions for 2,097 yards and 11 TDs the last two seasons. In point-per-reception leagues, he's equivalent to playing an upper-echelon No. 2 receiver at tight end.

2. Tony Gonzalez, Chiefs (32): He'll turn 33 next month, but he's only gotten better as he's gotten older. The Chiefs can't settle on a quarterback (we can only hope our favorite Chanticleer, Tyler Thigpen, gets the call next season), and they've won six of their last 32 games. In that span, Gonzalez has caught 195 passes for 2,230 yards and 15 TDs. If you're keeping one of these guys for just a year, I'd rather have Gonzalez than Witten.

3. Dallas Clark, Colts (29): He got the big contract, then backed it up with 77 catches for 848 yards and six TDs. Clark had 11 scores in 2007.

4. Antonio Gates, Chargers (28): It's tough deciding between Clark and Gates, but the latter was a shell of himself in 2008. He should be better next season. Will he be the player who averaged 79 receptions for 993 yards and scored 41 TDs from 2004-2007? Doubtful.

5. Chris Cooley, Redskins (26): He had a better year blogging than he did playing, although he wasn't too shabby on the field, either (83 catches for 849 yards). The negative: After scoring a combined 27 TDs the previous four years, he had one in 2008.

6. John Carlson, Seahawks (24): The rookie from Notre Dame was impressive in the second half of the season and could crack the top five at his position this year.

7. Kellen Winslow Jr., Browns (25): A full year with Brady Quinn starting would excite K2 nearly as much as the ladies who wear the pink No. 10 jerseys on game days.

8. Owen Daniels, Texans (26): In PPR leagues, his 133 receptions for 1,630 yards the last two seasons are certainly start-worthy. He needs to improve upon his five TDs in that span.

9. Greg Olsen, Bears (23): He scored three touchdowns in his last four games and finished his second season with 54 catches for 574 yards and five TDs. He could be among the top six this year.

10. Zach Miller, Raiders (23): This 2007 draft classmate had more receptions (56) and yards (778) than Olsen, but scored four fewer TDs and has JaMarcus Russell throwing to him for the foreseeable future.

Deserves better: The Steelers' Heath Miller is only 26 and scored a combined 21 TDs from 2005-07. Still, he wasn't much better than a low-level No. 1 tight end in 2008.

Names to remember: The Jets' Dustin Keller, 24, had 48 receptions for 535 yards and three TDs as a rookie, and Denver's Tony Sheffler, 25, has a combined 89 catches for 1,194 yards and eight TDs the last two seasons. Both could be among the top 10 at their position this year. ... Same goes for Anthony Fasano, 24, who had seven TDs in his first season in Miami. ... Brent Celek, 24, of the Eagles followed a quiet regular season with a huge postseason (19 catches for 151 yards and three TDs in as many games).

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

LeBron or Kobe? In this case, it's not close

LeBron or Kobe?

The high-flying, 6-foot-8, 260-pound face of the league and corporate darling, or the reigning NBA MVP who owns the fourth quarter but not the public's trust?

We've seen the endless debates on "SportsCenter," "Around the Horn," "First Take" and any ESPN program I might be overlooking.

From a fantasy perspective, however, there is no need for a panel, back-and-forth shouting and/or Stephen A. Smith.

It's LeBron in a landslide.

And in this race, Kobe has to settle for being No. 3.

If you take nine of the most common fantasy categories -- field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage, 3-pointers made, points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and turnovers -- James gets the best of Bryant in six of them.

Only three of the categories are even comparable -- Kobe's 51-48 edge in 3-pointers made and 2.93-3.13 advantage in turnovers, and LeBron's 27.6-27.0 scoring discrepancy.

James is a much better shooter (49.7 to 47.6 in field-goal percentage; remember, this is fantasy), rebounder (7.2 to 5.6), passer (6.6 to 5.1 in assists), thief (2.1 to 1.3 in steals) and shot-blocker (1.3 to 0.4). The only significant advantage Bryant has is his free-throw accuracy (85.8 to 77.7 percent).

In fact, James' best competition for top of the fantasy heap might come from Hornets point guard Chris Paul, who was drafted first overall in some leagues.

James has a 5-4 edge on Paul in the nine categories, winning points, rebounds, blocks, 3-pointers and field-goal percentage. Paul is the league's best in assists (11.1) and steals (2.7), and is better than James in turnovers (by .03) and free-throw percentage.

If you pit Paul and Bryant head-to-head, the Association's best point guard gets the better of the Lakers star in five of nine categories.

The halfway point of the NBA season won't stop Screaming A. and Skip Bayless from disagreeing. But we don't have to join in.

The better topic to discuss: Bryant or Dwyane Wade?

That one is much closer. Stay tuned for a future post.

Unless ESPN2 beats me to it.

Football notes: We'll complete our best-keeper series this week by ranking the best tight ends (maybe there was a better way to phrase that). Next week, we'll address reader responses to the LaDainian Tomlinson dilemma we discussed in a blog during the fantasy season.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Top fantasy football keepers: Wide receivers

Ever watch an NFL game and think to yourself, “I wish that player was on my team”?

If you’re reading this blog, the answer is undoubtedly yes.

Well, Larry Fitzgerald has been that guy for me during the postseason. The size, the speed, the ability to outleap any defensive back — there’s a lot to like.

So much so that Fitzgerald and fellow beast/wide receiver Andre Johnson are going to leave fantasy owners with some very difficult decisions in the middle of the first round this year.

In point-per-reception leagues, Johnson and Fitzgerald outscored every running back but DeAngelo Williams (who, depending on the scoring system, likely finished third overall — ahead of Fitzgerald but behind Drew Brees and Johnson).

When it’s your turn in Round 1, assuming Adrian Peterson is off the board, do you select Michael Turner, Steve Slaton or Matt Forte and hope their 2008 season was a sign of much more to come? Or do you take the sure thing — the 100-catch, 1,400-yard wideouts who should score at least 10 touchdowns?

Decisions, decisions.

Not so tough: The top two receivers in our list of the best keepers.

1. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals (age 25): His averages the last two seasons: 98 catches, 1,420 yards, 11 TDs. Fitzgerald has had 96 or more receptions for 1,400 or more yards and at least 10 TDs in three of the last four seasons.

2. Andre Johnson, Texans (27): His 2008 numbers (115 catches for 1,575 yards and eight TDs) were better than Fitzgerald’s, but the latter has been more consistent and less injury-prone.

3. Calvin Johnson, Lions (23): How good is he going to be? Here’s a hint: Johnson had 78 receptions for 1,331 yards and 12 TDs for an 0-16 team with Dan Orlovsky, Daunte Culpepper, Jon Kitna and Drew Stanton at quarterback.

4. Brandon Marshall, Broncos (24): Turns out that one-game suspension to start the season didn’t mean much. Marshall, who had 104 catches for 1,265 yards, just needs to improve upon his six touchdowns.

5. Roddy White, Falcons (27): White has a combined 171 receptions for 2,584 yards the last two seasons, the 26-year-old Turner ran for 1,741 yards and 18 TDs in his first season in Atlanta, and Matt Ryan was an MVP candidate as a rookie quarterback. It's no longer a bad thing to have multiple Falcons on your team.

6. Greg Jennings, Packers (25): His TD total dropped from 12 to nine in his third season, but he more than made up for it by catching 80 passes for 1,292 yards.

7. Steve Smith, Panthers (29): He throws a mean punch, and he’s also capable of racking up 1,421 yards despite being suspended for the first two games of the season.

8. Anquan Boldin, Cardinals (28): He only needed 12 games to accumulate 89 receptions, 1,038 yards and 11 TDs. If he continues to ask for a new contract, it should be an interesting offseason, especially with 1,000-yard, 25-year-old receiver Steve Breaston waiting in the wings.

9. Reggie Wayne, Colts (30): If he produces as he did in 2007 (104 receptions, 1,510 yards and 10 TDs), this ranking is a little low. Even in a “down” year, Wayne had 82 receptions for 1,145 yards.

10. Wes Welker, Patriots (27): In PPR leagues, it never hurts to have a player who has caught 112 and 111 passes for 1,175 and 1,165 yards the last two seasons.

11. Randy Moss, Patriots (31): If you’re playing for 2009, he’s among the best. If you’re one of those keeper-league owners who’s looking two years ahead (and if so, why?), this ranking is too high.

12. Eddie Royal, Broncos (22): A repeat of his 91-catch season seems about right, but he should do much better than 980 yards and five TDs.

13. Marques Colston, Saints (25): Before holding his 10-game numbers from 2008 against him, remember he had 98 catches for 1,202 yards and 11 TDs in 2007 and caught 70 passes and scored eight times as a rookie in ’06.

14. DeSean Jackson, Eagles (22): He scored only two TDs as a rookie, but Jackson, who had 62 receptions for 912 yards, should be Donovan McNabb’s best receiver since his good buddy Terrell Owens.

15. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs (24): His receptions increased from 70 to 86 in his second year. We can only hope he’ll still have Tyler Thigpen throwing to him next season.

16. Lance Moore, Saints (25): This ranking is a gamble for a Toledo product who had all of 33 career receptions before being one of fantasy’s biggest surprises in his third year.

17. Terrell Owens, Cowboys (35): Whether or not he stays in Dallas is up for debate. What can’t be questioned: His ability to divide a locker room, all while catching 80 passes for 1,200 yards and double-digit TDs.

18. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Bengals (31): His yardage (from 1,143 to 904) and TD totals (from 12 to four) dropped in 2008, but he is likely to leave as a free agent, which should help his fantasy value — especially if he goes to, say, Indianapolis.

19. Anthony Gonzalez, Colts (24): Assuming Marvin Harrison is released and Houshmandzadeh isn’t added, this former Buckeye should post big numbers opposite Wayne.

20. Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers (27): If Moore is a gamble, Bryant is Charles Barkley in Vegas for a three-day weekend. Regardless, I’m willing to take a chance on a player who was among fantasy’s best seven or eight receivers last season.

Deserves better: Santana Moss is only 29 and has the numbers to crack the top 20, but I can’t get past his disappointing 2007 and 2006 seasons.

Names to remember: The aforementioned Breaston had 77 receptions for 1,006 yards as the Cardinals’ third receiver. If he starts, he’s a top-15 receiver. ... Vincent Jackson outproduced Chris Chambers and Antonio Gates in his fourth season with the Chargers. He should catch at least 70 passes in 2009.

Brownie bits: The 2007 Braylon Edwards would’ve cracked the top 10 on this list. The 2008 Edwards, whose on-field drops were exceeded only by his practice-field flop (an injury suffered while racing a teammate barefooted? Donte Stallworth’s biggest contribution to the Browns in 2008 was partially curtailing Edwards’ season before it started), isn't in the top 30. I wouldn’t be surprised if Edwards was very good next season. I also wouldn’t be shocked if he was on your bench by Week 3.

Next: Tight ends

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Top fantasy football keepers: Running backs

Three rookies ranked among the top 10 fantasy running backs in 2008.

Rare? Yes.

Remarkable? Even more so when you consider Chris Johnson, Matt Forte and Steve Slaton were the fifth, sixth and 10th running backs, respectively, selected in the NFL draft last April.

That led to third-round (Forte) and middle-round (Johnson and Slaton) steals in the fake drafts last August and September.

And it’s led to owners in keeper leagues kicking themselves for taking a chance on the wrong rookie running backs — Oakland’s Darren McFadden, Dallas’ Felix Jones and Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall were all first-round picks last April — or believing the likes of LenDale White, Ahman Green or Adrian Peterson (not that Adrian Peterson) were better options than Johnson, Slaton and Forte prior to the season.

In point-per-reception leagues, Forte, Slaton and Johnson are among the top eight or 10 players overall entering 2009.

How to separate the three? Let’s break it down with our top 20 keepers at fantasy’s most important position.

1. Adrian Peterson, Vikings (age 23): If you want a back who’s going to rack up 60 or 70 catches, he’s not your guy. If you want a back who, if healthy, is going to rush for 1,800 to 2,000 yards and score 12 to 15 touchdowns, he’s the one.

2. Steve Slaton, Texans (23): He’s more explosive than Forte (Slaton averaged 4.8 yards per carry, and Forte 3.9) and doesn’t lose goal-line carries to LenDale White, as does Johnson. Choosing a back after Peterson is an extremely tough call, but I’d go with the Texan who had 1,659 total yards and 50 catches as a rookie.

3. Michael Turner, Falcons (26): Like Peterson, he won’t give you many bonus points in the receiving area. Like Peterson, he’ll run for a lot of yards and make up for it by totaling at least 16 scores.

4. Matt Forte, Bears (23): His 64 receptions led all running backs, and his 1,715 total yards and 12 touchdowns (four receiving) weren’t bad, either.

5. DeAngelo Williams, Panthers (25): His 2008 production (1,518 yards rushing, 5.5 yards per carry, 20 TDs) was every bit as surprising as the aforementioned rookies. The only drawback: He will still share carries with the promising Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers’ first-round back in 2008 who scored 10 TDs and averaged 4.6 yards per carry.

6. Chris Johnson, Texans (23): He’s the most explosive of the three rookies, but he’s also the least likely to help you in leagues that rely heavily on touchdowns. Johnson had 10 TDs last season — five fewer than White, his backfield mate.

7. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars (23): Don’t let his 824 rushing yards fool you. Jones-Drew scored 14 TDs and caught 62 passes last season. He’ll also start next season, since Fred Taylor’s days in Jacksonville are expected to be over.

8. Marion Barber, Cowboys (25): With Julius Jones (Barber’s version of Fred Taylor) gone, last season was supposed to his best. But Barber couldn’t stay healthy, and a rookie (Tashard Choice) was the Cowboys’ best back in the second half of the season. I’d expect Barber to get back to being the TD machine owners knew and loved in 2006 and ’07.

9. Frank Gore, 49ers (25): He was injured at a bad time last season (fantasy playoff time), but don’t let that prevent you from keeping this dual threat who should get even more touches with Mike Singletary in charge.

10. Brian Westbrook, Eagles (29): You know he’s going to be beat up. You know there are going to be weeks he drives you crazy. But you also know he’s going to catch five or six passes a game and score almost a touchdown per contest.

11. Steven Jackson, Rams (25): In 2006, when he rushed for 1,528 yards, caught 90 passes for 806 yards and tallied 16 TDs, he seemed like the second coming of Marshall Faulk. Now, he’s barely a 1,000-yard rusher who’s played 12 games in each of the last two seasons. The guess for 2009: Less Faulk, more Marshawn Lynch or Ronnie Brown.

12. Brandon Jacobs, Giants (26): If he stays in New York/New Jersey, he’s a top-flight back who should reach the end zone once a game. If he leaves in free agency, his value drops.

13. Marshawn Lynch, Bills (22): His second NFL season wasn’t much better than his first. I’d prefer to start next season with Lynch as my second back, not my first.

14. Ronnie Brown, Dolphins (27): For all his promise, he still hasn’t rushed for more than 1,008 yards in a season. Next year is as good a time as any.

15. Joseph Addai, Colts (25): It’s never a good sign when Dominic Rhodes has a better year than a 2006 first-round pick whose rushing yards have decreased each of the last three seasons. Addai wasn’t even worth starting last season, but he should at least be a worthwhile No. 2 back in 2009.

16. Ryan Grant, Packers (26): Did any back have a worse 1,200-yard season? Grant scored just five touchdowns, averaged only 3.9 yards per carry and failed to rush for 70 yards seven times. That said, he was great once he assumed the starting role as a rookie in 2007 and he was hampered by injuries for the majority of ’08. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a No. 1 back next season.

17. Clinton Portis, Redskins (27): Like Gore, he let us fans of the fake game down by being a shell of himself in the second half of the season. Eventually, his 2,052 carries in seven seasons are going to catch up with him. Will it be in 2009? If I knew the answer, I’d have drafted Forte and Slaton in the second and third rounds last year.

18. Pierre Thomas, Saints (24): Reggie Bush can’t stay healthy, and Thomas — who rushed for 266 yards, caught 11 passes for 92 yards and scored five TDs from Weeks 14 to 16 last season — is much better suited to be a featured back.

19. Kevin Smith, Lions (22): This rookie third-round pick wasn’t as productive as Forte, Slaton and Johnson, but he wasn’t McFadden, either. Smith played for the worst team in NFL history and still managed to run for 975 yards, catch 39 passes and score eight TDs. He should be a No. 2 back next season.

20. LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers (29): How the mighty have fallen. We’ll touch on this much more in a future blog, but Tomlinson will be among the biggest question marks fantasy owners will face prior to next year. That is, unless you’re a member of the L.T.-is-finished group that is gaining believers by the day.

Deserves better: Thomas Jones had a career year with the Jets, scoring 15 touchdowns, rushing for 1,312 yards and catching 36 passes. The bad: Jones will turn 31 prior to next season, an age that generally isn’t kind to running backs, especially ones approaching 2,000 career carries.

Names to remember: Darren Sproles will be an unrestricted free agent if the Chargers don’t re-sign him, and he’s proven he’s capable of getting 15 to 20 touches and doubling as a dynamic special-teamer. With Tomlinson declining, the Chargers probably can’t afford to let him go. ... LeRon McClain is the Ravens’ best back, and at age 24, his best days should be ahead of him. He rushed for 982 yards and scored 12 TDs in 2008.

Brownie bits: After a productive 2007 season, Jamal Lewis regressed in ’08, averaging 3.6 yards per carry and scoring just four touchdowns. His days as a featured back appear to be nearing an end. Jerome Harrison is an intriguing option, but he has all of 77 carries in three seasons.

Next: Wide receivers

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Top fantasy football keepers: Quarterbacks

Tom Brady’s 2008 season ended even more quickly than a Browns fan’s thoughts of another 10-win season (for those keeping track at home, the latter occurred in Week 2, after yet another loss to the Steelers).

While Brady had more time to spend with a supermodel in between knee surgeries, Bill Belichick was nice enough to provide fantasy owners with another worthy option at quarterback.

Matt Cassel, best known for being Matt Leinart’s backup at USC, made owners wait 10 weeks, then made himself a lot of money with a six-game stretch in which he threw for 1,815 yards and 14 touchdowns from Weeks 11-16.

In Weeks 15 and 16, when most leagues hold their semifinal and championship games, Cassel threw for 563 yards and seven scores.

If he was on your team (hint: not the Patriots) during its championship run, you probably are more inclined to look for Cassel when you’re on the clock in eight months.

By then, you will have a much better idea if he’ll continue to fill Brady’s considerable shoes in New England, or whether he will be starting somewhere else — minus Randy Moss and Wes Welker as targets.

Until then, if you have Cassel as an option in keeper leagues, a difficult decision awaits.

ESPN recently reported the Pats plan to place the franchise tag on Cassel, which would guarantee the 25-year-old more than $14 million if he doesn’t sign a long-term contract first.

That would mean New England would have about $29 million tied up in two quarterbacks, since Brady is due to count approximately $15 million toward the salary cap next season.

Feasible, especially with Belichick in charge and the cap expected to reach $123 million next season? Yes.

Likely? Think Romeo Crennel against the Steelers or the Lions vs. USC.

If Brady’s injury rehab doesn’t go as planned, the Pats have to keep both QBs.

If Brady is their Week 1 starter, I would expect Cassel to be traded for some considerably high draft picks.

All of which is a very belated way of introducing our top 10 keepers at quarterback — with apologies to Gisele Bundchen, whose man barely makes the cut.

1. Peyton Manning, Colts (age 32): Yes, Drew Brees was better in 2008. I’m also well aware, depending on your scoring system, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Kurt Warner and Jay Cutler might have been, too. But you always know what you’re getting with the NFL MVP — 4,000-plus yards, 28 or more TDs and 10-12 interceptions. Even better: First-round playoff exits don’t count against you.

2. Drew Brees, Saints (30 on Jan. 15): He almost surpassed Dan Marino’s yardage record, and the 34 TDs weren’t bad, either.

3. Jay Cutler, Broncos (25): Mike Shanahan’s firing might hurt, but you have to figure Cutler will only get better in his fourth season.

4. Philip Rivers, Chargers (27): He and Cutler might not like each other, but their stats are so close it’s tough to tell the difference between the 2006 draft classmates.

5. Aaron Rodgers, Packers (25): Not a bad first season as the starter in Green Bay, all while replacing a legend: 4,038 yards, 28 TDs, 13 interceptions and four rushing scores.

6. Tony Romo, Cowboys (28): He’s got Jessica Simpson at home and Terrell Owens at work. One is a catch, one has problems catching, and both look way better than Romo in December. Thanks, I’ll be here a couple times a week.

7. Matt Ryan, Falcons (23): He started every game as a rookie and threw for 3,639 yards. And his top three weapons — Roddy White (27), Michael Turner (27 on Feb. 13) and Jerious Norwood (25) — are all 27 or younger.

8. Matt Cassel, Patriots (26): He’s a much better option if he’s still the starter in New England and not Minnesota.

9. Donovan McNabb, Eagles (32): You would have to be in a pretty deep keeper league to get this far down the list.

10. Tom Brady, Patriots (31): If he’s anywhere near 100 percent, he’s No. 1 on this list. If not, the Pats have Cassel and he still has Gisele.

Deserves better: Super Bowl XLII MVP Eli Manning is a keeper in the real league, but not in ours. His TD and yardage statistics are almost identical the last three seasons — you can expect between 21 and 24 TDs and 3,200 and 3,400 yards. That’s more than enough for a team that loves to run the ball and has a very good defense. For us in the fake game, that’s more like an upper-level No. 2 QB.

Name to remember: Tyler Thigpen. Our favorite former Coastal Carolina Chanticleer had two or more TD passes five times from Week 8 to 16 (throwing for 15 scores and running for two more in that span). If he’s the Chiefs’ starter heading into next season, he merits a look as a No. 1 fantasy QB.

Brownie bit: Considering Eric Mangini didn’t even mention Brady Quinn by name in his introductory news conference, there’s no word on whether he agrees with Crennel that Quinn is the Browns’ future at the position. Vote of confidence or not, Quinn is no better than a No. 2 QB in fantasy — and that would have to be a league with more than 10 teams.

Next: Running backs

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Finders, keepers

If you've made it this far, hopefully you're familiar with the fantasy football blog we debuted in the sports section of this Web site in 2008.

Where you find this blog has changed, but the premise has not.

We'll try to keep this fun -- this is fantasy football, baseball and basketball, after all -- but also satisfy the hard-core, wanna-be general manager in each one of us. You know, the one who spends an inordinate amount of time playing these games year-round, so much so that we sometimes get so caught up in our fake games that we forget there is a real game going on right in front of us.

During the football season, we'll answer your questions, give start-and-sit advice, analyze recent trends and give a comprehensive playlist for the big three positions (quarterback, running back and wide receiver).

The rest of the year is up to you. I'm assuming many of you play fantasy baseball, and we'll delve into that as spring training begins. Until then, I want to hear from you.

Do you play fantasy basketball? If so, it is just to pass the time after football ends or until baseball begins?

In the next few days, we'll try to extend the fantasy football season as long as possible by addressing the top keepers at each position.

We'll start with the quarterbacks, then get to running backs, wide receivers and tight ends.

Until then, keep reading. And if you have any blog ideas, send an e-mail to or post a comment on this site.