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Risky Prospects
8/1/07

Risk. Ask a group of people to define what the word means, and you’ll probably get very similar answers. Change the question to ask how risky something specific is, however, and you’ll likely receive as many different responses as the number of people you talk to. The world of fantasy football is no different. As a result, before I provide my thoughts on the “riskiest” picks for the upcoming season at each offensive skill position, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss my approach.

My analysis starts with a look at the average draft position (ADP )of players at each position based on early pre-season mock drafts. I then narrow my choices to those players regularly being drafted as fantasy starters in twelve to fourteen team leagues. While certain reserves can be “risky” picks, the down-side to their flaming-out over the course of the season is simply not as great as the result of severe underperformance by a player you expected to plug into your line-up all year long. Finally, for each player I look at the chances that he will put up the numbers that an owner could expect from a player drafted in his ADP spot. This can take into account injury history, teammates, offense, coach, attitude – anything that I think could adversely affect his chances to rack up the numbers owners thus far seem to be expecting.

The end results of the above analysis are the following lists by position. Remember, I am not predicting these players will fail to post good numbers, but rather list of players who, for one reason or another are more of a gamble than others which will likely be available. If you are anything like me, that’s still enough to justify discounting them to some extent come draft day.

Quarterback

Donovan McNabb (PHI) Ė There is no question that McNabb, when on the top of his game, is one of the best and most productive QBís in the league. That being said, there are a lot of reasons to think he wonít be there all that much this year. First, of course, there is the injury history. He has played in all 16 games only three times in his eight year career and has missed at least a quarter of his teamís games in half of those seasons (including missing at least six games i each of the last two years.) This season, even if he manages to play all 16 games, will it be at 100%? Not likely. As he is recovering from a serious ACL injury, itís legitimate to question how his mobility will be affected. This goes beyond asking how many fewer rushing yards heíll rack up, as it also impacts how effective he is at avoiding the rush. Add to the above rumors that he is growing discontent in Philly and indications that the Philly fans are growing disenchanted with him and you have the makings of a potentially bad situation.

Vince Young (TEN) Ė In early mock drafts, the talented Titan has been going off the boards as the eighth to twelfth QB selected in most leagues, with his name being called as early as the fifth round and as late as the ninth. Even the low end of that range constitutes a high risk. Say what you will about Youngís obvious gifts, they donít change the fact that football is a team sport. He canít rack up passing yards if he has no targets that can get open, and he canít let his legs do the running if he doesnít have blockers opening lanes or other offensive threats spreading the defense. This year Youngís supporting cast is even worse than last year, and last seasonís stats (high-light reel plays notwithstanding) were far from spectacular. Itís hard to see Young taking a significant step forward in his productions this season, and to the extent he can pad those stats with the occasional long TD run, that may be great for a week, but what about all the other games when he doesnít? In the end, a team with Young as its QB1 is a team thatís beatable.

Jay Cutler (DEN) Ė Another member of last seasonís talented rookie class, Cutler is going a bit later in mock drafts than Young, and is regularly one of the last, if not the last, starting fantasy QB taken in twelve or fourteen team leagues. There is little chance he will justify his selection in front of such names as Brett Favre, Jake Delhomme, or Ben Roethlisberger, yet that is exactly whatís happening. This is a young man who has completed a total of 81 passes in his NFL career, and almost a third of those (including five of his nine TDís) were to receivers (WR Rod Smith and TE Tony Scheffler) who may not be starting the season with him due to injury. Cutlerís lack of game experience and lack of an established rapport with his receivers will give Coach Shanahan more reasons than he needs to build his offense around Travis Henry and the running game. All of these elements put together do not an effective starting fantasy QB make.

Honorable Mention

Matt Leinart (AZ) Ė Another overvalued sophomore, Leinartís downside is not as worrisome as Youngís or Cutlerís. Leinartís fantastic array of targets will help him get out of the trouble he will regularly get himself into.

Tony Romo (DAL) -- Terrell Owens is his #1 receiver. Need I say more?

Running Back

Larry Johnson (KC) Ė In many leagues this season, the number two overall selection will be Larry Johnson. Those owners are leaving themselves open to a disastrous fantasy season. There are so many reasons to be skeptical of a huge year from LJ Ė and that was even before the rumblings of a potential contract holdout. On that topic, it seems increasingly clear that this is not an idle threat. Remember that LJís relationship with the Chiefs has been rocky from almost the day he was drafted, and this contract dispute only feeds his feeling that the team disrespects him. Moreover, he has leverage and he knows it. He is this offense. On the flip-side, however, the Chiefs are historically unwilling to pay out big bucks for any player, and may be ready to play chicken with LJ right up to the start of the season. Even missing training camp, however, could lead to big problems. RBs (and, indeed, almost all players) who miss training camp tend to be more likely to suffer injury during the year. Since LJ also carried the ball over 400 times last season Ė another factor that has historically resulted in increased injuries Ė his owners should get ready for a long season of checking the Chiefís injury report. Of course, even if LJ stays healthy, he is not in an ideal situation for huge numbers. His offensive line has been shedding pro-bowl caliber linemen in recent years and with first year starter Brodie Croyle likely to be under center throwing to unimpressive receivers on the flanks, defenses will be stacking the line to shut LJ down.

Laurence Maroney (NE) -- In virtually every mock draft this season, Maroney is going in the middle to late first round as a teamís RB1. This despite the fact that even though he was splitting carries with Corey Dillon in New England last year, Maroney still managed to get himself dinged up on a regular basis, missing three games entirely. By yearís end he needed shoulder surgery, and even now there is still some question whether he will be ready for training camp. This does not paint the image of the most durable back in the league. Also, while itís now true that Dillon is out of the picture, any expected increase in Maroneyís production may be offset to a certain extent by the teamís increased reliance on the passing game. A team generally doesnít go out and get receivers the likes of Randy Moss and Dante Stallworth just to turn around and pound the ball on the ground.

Cedric Benson (CHI) Ė While none of the running backs going as RB2s for their fantasy squads are absent some questions, Benson has done the least to show that he is worthy of such a spot. His first two seasons have been marred by injury and his yards per carry failed to improve in his sophomore year. Add to this that he is simply not a threat to provide much yardage through the passing game and you have a rather unattractive package. Fantasy owners are apparently willing to take the risk that his increased workload with the departure of Thomas Jones will catapult him to solid RB2 status. When there are other proven #2 fantasy backs like Jones, Edgerrin James or even Clinton Portis available around the time Benson is being selected, however, why would you take a chance on a guy who only might be a good RB2?

Honorable Mention

Deuce McAllister (NO) Ė As Reggie Bush gets more and more touches, the sometimes brittle McAllister may find his opportunities to excel disappearing.

Brandon Jacobs (NYG) Ė There is a lot of upside here, but also some risk. If Jacobs fails to produce early, Coach Coughlin may work Reuben Droughns into the line-up for more carries.

LaDainian Tomlinson (SD) Ė OK, OK, there really isnít much risk here, but I would point out that itís rare that the consensus pre-season #1 fantasy pick actually ends the season as the best fantasy player.

Wide Receivers

Terrell Owens (DAL) Ė Any list of the riskiest fantasy selections simply has to include T.O. He is one of those special players with a seemingly endless capacity for finding new ways to frustrate his owners. Can he put up astounding numbers? Yes. Can he win you games single-handedly? Certainly. Can he be a huge part of a fantasy championship run? Absolutely. Can he have an off-game that leads to a tirade directed at coaches, fans, other players and the team mascot, followed by pouting to the media, disappearances from practices and a suspension for action detrimental to the team? You bet.

Javon Walker (DEN) Ė After having successfully bounced back from a torn ACL with 1084 yards and eight TDís in his first season with the Broncos, Walker is regularly going as the ninth or tenth WR selected in early mock drafts. Obviously these owners expect him to step up over last yearís numbers and deliver the 1200+ yards and double-digit TDís that you need out of your WR1. Is that a reasonable expectation? I wouldnít bet on it. Before Jay Cutler took over signal calling in Denver last season, Walker averaged 4.7 receptions, 77.9 yards and .6 TDís per game. After Cutlerís promotion, his numbers dropped to 3.6 receptions, 46 yards and .2 TDís per game. Thatís worrisome, to say the least. Add to this the expectation that Coach Shanahan will be relying on Travis Henry and the running game to drive the offense, and it seems safer to expect Walker to turn in a fair WR2 season.

Darrell Jackson (SF) Ė Regularly being selected as a fantasy WR2, Jackson is benefitting from the expectation that he will be the number one target for the still-developing Alex Smith in San Francisco. That may be the case early in the season, but itís unlikely to stay that way. Not only is Jackson apparently still feeling the effects of last seasonís turf toe injury, but there is also the fact he suffers from a chronic case of the dropsies. It wonít take long for Smith to lose trust in Jackson if, even when he is on the field, he canít hang on to the ball. There are clear reasons why Seattle was willing to let him go for only a fourth rounder. They are the same reasons you should consider other wide-outs on your draft day.

Honorable Mention

Marques Colston (NO) Ė This sophomore receiver had an incredible rookie campaign, and has all the skills. Still, his lack of experience could result in a sophomore slump that has him falling short of WR1 numbers, yet that is where he is currently being drafted.

Tight Ends

Jeremy Shockey (NYG) Ė While certainly not as coveted as Antonio gates, Shockey is clearly slotted at or near the top of the second tier of fantasy TEs. As such, while you may not have to use one of your first four picks to snag him, you will almost certainly have to use a fifth rounder. Thatís awfully high given the real question marks about the Giantsí offense coming into this season. While the G-men express outward confidence that they will be able to compensate for Tiki Barberís retirement and that Eli Manning will continue to mature as a QB, neither is guaranteed. If either of those two scenarios fails to come about, the Giantsí offense could see dramatic changes. While that could mean better things for Shockey, it could also mean worse.

Randy McMichael (STL) Ė A solid, if unspectacular player in Miami, McMichael is receiving a lot of attention in mock drafts as a starting fantasy TE. While his numbers in Miami may have justified making him the eighth to twelfth TE selected in the draft, itís not a very safe assumption that he will post similar numbers in St. Louis, let alone exceed them. Last season, despite the Rams finishing third in league in passing yards with 4,328, a paltry 333 of them were from completions to the TE. While the Rams will undoubtedly try to use the position more now that they have a player of McMichaelís caliber on the roster, if they donít change things up enough, a pick used on McMichael is in serious danger of being a pick wasted.

Alge Crumpler (ATL) Ė While Michael Vickís legal troubles and inconsistency have had him falling in mock drafts, Crumplerís value seems to have stayed level. While he is clearly the top weapon in the Falconsí air attack, itís still unclear just who will be throwing him the ball this season and how the team as a whole will react to the media circus that will surround them as long as Vick continues to face federal charges. If this doesnít make Crumpler a risky pick, I donít know what does.

Honorable Mention

Kellen Winslow (CLE) Ė Though he played all 16 games last season, injury risk for Winslow still seems higher than other tight-ends. Add to that the uncertainty at the Brownís QB position and Winslow is a high-reward, but higher-than-average risk player.