Expected blitz of NFL news means a timeout on baseball

ON FANTASY SPORTS

The Kickoff

June 15, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER

I hate NFL minicamps.

The bottom line is I'm a baseball guy. Always have been, always will be. So it galls me every year when the minutiae of the NFL preseason pushes my first love from the headlines. I can accept the NFL's uberpopularity. Pro football is a great television sport, and those who sell it know how to make every game seem like an event.

But minicamp? Ugh.

That mini-rant aside, I can't deny the oncoming rush of football. Fantasy owners are pondering keeper lists, and mock drafts are popping up around the Internet. So I suppose I ought to capitulate and offer a few thoughts.

The fantasy intrigue will start right at the top of many drafts. Who's No. 1? Larry Johnson or Shaun Alexander? Alexander is the more proven commodity and a tremendous touchdown producer. Johnson was last season's kingmaker as he vaulted from backup status to one of the great nine-game stretches any running back has ever produced (1,351 rushing yards and 17 total touchdowns would be a great full season).

My early money is on Johnson. He's the younger, fresher guy, he plays in a great run offense and even when teams knew he was coming near the end of last season, they couldn't stop him. But don't let a mediocre Super Bowl performance fool you on Alexander. If Johnson is No. 1, the Seattle Seahawks' veteran is 1A.

LaDainian Tomlinson is an easy third choice, followed by Clinton Portis and Tiki Barber. Portis doesn't break as many long runs as the elite guys, and the New York Giants don't always use Barber in goal-line situations. Edgerrin James should slot in next based on last season's production, but he has a ton of carries under his belt, so I suspect his numbers will tumble this season or next. I think I prefer Cincinnati Bengals workhorse Rudi Johnson.

Of course, the running back many will wonder about most is rookie Reggie Bush.

I was debating a buddy the other day about Bush. The eyes don't lie. He's great. But how will the New Orleans Saints use him? I'd guess 12 to 15 carries and six or eight passes a game combined with some return opportunities. That should give Bush plenty of chances to score eight or 10 touchdowns. And such production would make him a second- or third-round talent with the upside to have a Gale Sayers-type debut. He'll also look great on the team highlight video and after all, this fantasy thing is supposed to be fun.

The belief that running backs are the only commodities worth drafting in the first round seems to be spreading. I generally agree with drafting a runner in each of the first two rounds.

Quarterback is shaping up to be a fascinating position this season. Peyton Manning remains the one sure bet, but his chief fantasy rivals from recent seasons, Carson Palmer and Daunte Culpepper, are returning from serious knee injuries. Palmer at least seems a safe bet to maintain his production if his knee appears to be healthy in the preseason. But Culpepper was off his game last season even before tearing ligaments, and he'll be adjusting to a new team.

Palmer would still be on my keeper list, especially if I could hold onto him beyond 2007. Culpepper? I definitely wouldn't keep him, but he could be a huge value in some leagues on draft day. The preseason should tell us more about both. If you draft an injury-prone quarterback, make sure you pick a second quarterback higher than you might otherwise.

The next tier of reliable quarterbacks, such as Tom Brady, Donovan McNabb and Matt Hasselbeck, probably won't go until the fifth round or so. Don't reach for them, because none afford you much advantage.

Randy Moss and Terrell Owens are still the most discussed names among receivers. Moss had probably his worst full season in his Oakland Raiders debut, and Owens lost all fantasy value once the Philadelphia Eagles severed ties with him. But both showed their old big-play skills at times. I expect a modest rebound from Moss and a bigger one from Owens, who has always played great when trying to prove the naysayers wrong. I wouldn't reach past a solid runner to grab either.

Those two, along with Steve Smith, Torry Holt, Chad Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, are all viable second-round picks.

Among the tight ends, Antonio Gates continues to make us wonder whether he merits a second-round pick. Maybe not quite, but he affords such an advantage over his position mates that he's kind of like a great-hitting catcher in fantasy baseball.

Some key position battles to watch during training camp include Ron Dayne vs. Tatum Bell in Denver and Dominic Rhodes vs. Joseph Addai in Indianapolis. Both teams have produced huge rushing totals in recent seasons, so the lead back in each case becomes a good fantasy bet.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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