This is a week awash in returned gifts and 50-percent off sales, so I figured I'd try to offer something fresh, not picked over.
At a time when we're bombarded by 2004 year-in-reviews (wardrobe malfunction, anyone?), why not take a peak at what the future has in store?
Look, I'm no mystic just a guy with a computer, some opinions and a little too much down time. Some things are sure to change between now and late summer. Teams will change coaches, players will change teams and, possibly, another herb-worshipping dread-head will call it a career.
But in the meantime, I'm offering up these rankings for those who just can't get enough of this stuff. Enjoy, discuss, disagree and remember it's only seven months until training camp.
Happy New Year. I'm out until the new season.
1) Daunte Culpepper If not for an injury to Randy Moss, we might be talking about Culpepper breaking Dan Marino's touchdown record instead of Peyton Manning. Culpepper threw 18 touchdowns in five games before his main man Moss missed five games, sending the Vikings offense into a brief tailspin and derailing Daunte's chances of keeping up with Manning. On the plus side, Culpepper discovered Nate Burleson, and his 37 TD passes this year is the second-highest total in the past five seasons (behind Manning's 49-and-couting). At 27, Culpepper is only going to get better. He'll be better than anyone else in the game in 2005.
2) Peyton Manning If 2004 taught us anything, it's to respect the quarterback, and none deserves more respect than Mr. Manning. His season-long assault on the record book turned out to be a fantasy windfall for owners who, bummed that they missed out on Clinton Portis and Deuce McAllister, settled for selecting Manning late in the first round. Now who's bumming? Four months and 49 TDs later, Manning is putting the finishing touches on the finest fantasy season of all-time. And as long as Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley hang around, he'll keep putting up huge numbers. The NFL's look-but-don't-touch rules for defensive backs don't hurt, either.
3) LaDanian Tomlinson He showed some signs of wear and tear this season, but he played through an injury and remained one of the most reliable players in the game. Tomlinson leads the league with 17 rushing TDs, with at least one in all but one of the Chargers games this season. He'll be 26 when the 2005 season begins right in the prime of his career and will benefit from playing for an old school, run-first coach like Marty Schottenheimer. Eventually the demands of being a featured back in the NFL are going to catch up with Tomlinson but it won't happen in 2005.
4) Shaun Alexander As long as the Seahawks are in the same division with the Rams, Cardinals and Niners, Alexander will be one of the best backs in football. He's a couple of years older than Tomlinson but has roughly the same number of carries (1,300 and change) in his career. And speaking of dependability, Alexander is the only player with at least 14 rushing touchdowns in each of the last four seasons. Plug him in every week and the wins will follow.
5) Edgerrin James It was just a few years ago that 'The Edge' gold teeth, dreads, attitude and all
was the hottest young RB in the game, a shrewd No. 1 fantasy selection. That was before a major knee injury ended his 2001 season and knocked him down in the draft pick pecking order. Well guess what? He's back and as bad as ever. James's 2,033 all-purpose yards resemble the career numbers he put up pre-injury in 2000, and he's showing no signs of slowing down. The only question is where will he do his damage in 2005. Do the Colts lock him up to a long-term deal? Slap the franchise tag on him? Or does he head closer to home (Tampa Bay, Miami) via free agency?
6) Priest Holmes When this guy is healthy, there's none better. He ran for 21 touchdowns in 2002, 27 in 2003 and was on his way to leading the league in that category for a third consecutive year when a knee injury cut his season short. If he comes back healthy in 2005, he should be near the top again thanks in part to one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. But that's a big 'if.' Holmes has hinted at retirement, and at 31, he's nearing the end of the line. He still has some productive years left, but those 27-TD seasons are a thing of the past.
7) Willis McGahee The second half of the 2004 season gave us a new wave of young running backs, with McGahee leading the way. If you factor out five early season games in which he played sparingly, McGahee's per-game fantasy scoring average ranks fourth among RBs, behind only Holmes, Alexander and Tomlinson. Throw in the fact that he's still not fully recovered from the knee injury he suffered in the Fiesta Bowl two years ago and you've got all the makings of a fantasy stud for years to come.
8) Donovan McNabb McNabb always had the same makeup as Culpepper: big, elusive with a rifle arm. With the arrival of Terrell Owens, he has a comparable weapon at wide receiver. McNabb took a giant leap forward in 2004 and has already reached career highs in passing yards (3,875) and passing TDs (31) to go with a career-best completion percentage of 64.0. At 28, he doesn't figure to slide into decline anytime soon, either, especially now that he's got T.O. on his side.
9) Randy Moss Moss always had silly ability, but he added something this season that elevated him to undisputed top-WR status consistency. In the past, Moss was the kind of guy who might put up three TDs one week, then take the next two off, fine for the stat line, but not so good for your fantasy team. But this season he's showed up on a regular basis, catching at least one score in all but one of the 10 games in which he's caught a pass. He missed some time with an injury this year but played 16 games in each of his six previous seasons, so durability isn't much of an issue. And, he's only 27. Scary.
10) Ahman Green Seven seasons of pounding finally started to catch up with Green, who has been hampered by various ailments this season and slipped back to the pack a bit after his 1,883-yard, 15-TD performance in 2003. One of the biggest problems Green doesn't get enough touches. He had more than 20 carries in six games this season, low for a featured back, because Brett Favre likes to pitch it around and the Packers pitiful defense often got them into shootouts. Green's far from finished, but he's not the player he was in 2003, either.
The next 10 (listed alphabetically): Domanick Davis, Corey Dillon, Brett Favre, Marvin Harrison, Julius Jones, Kevin Jones, Jamal Lewis, Deuce McAllister, Terrell Owens, Michael Vick.
Unlike most teams around the leagues, the Ravens still have something to play for this weekend. But who's going to play? Jamal Lewis is coming off one of the worst outings of his career (14 carries, 26 yards) and is still nursing a sore ankle. The offensive line lost one of its top run blockers, Edwin Mulitalo, with a torn triceps. Todd Heap aggravated his ankle injury and isn't a lock to play. And the Ravens' merry-go-round of receivers seems to have tossed Travis Taylor aside in favor of Randy Hymes. What next?
The most reliable play this week is Lewis, who, despite his spotty performance this season, figures to finish strong against the Dolphins. The Ravens talk a lot about establishing the run, and this looks like a good week for them to go out and do it against the league's 30th-ranked run defense. Miami has allowed an opposing player to rush for more than 120 yards in three consecutive games. If you missed last week's primetime slugfest between the Browns and Dolphins, Cleveland's Lee Suggs went for 143. Lewis should be good for at least 120 and a touchdown or two. Baltimore's prospects aren't good against Miami's top-ranked pass defense. Heap is the only worthwhile option this week in the Ravens passing game, and even he's iffy keep tabs on his ailing ankle.
It's slim pickings for Miami's offense, too. The Ravens have been susceptible to the run against teams with physical offensive lines, but the Dolphins don't fit the bill, and RB Sammy Morris isn't going to strike fear into any defense. Any points will have to come from an unpredictable passing game, where Chris Chambers is a good gamble despite his late-season swoon, and Randy McMichael (18 catches in his past three games) should have a decent day. Keep your expectations low and you won't be disappointed. I think I'll make that my fantasy football motto in 2005.
Dave Alexander is a sports producer at baltimoresun.com. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Season's end forces a look ahead to 2005
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