As any Baltimore sports fan can tell you, we've reached the time of year when many people switch their attention from baseball to football.
This sometimes irks me, as I don't love the pigskin enough to obsess over every August workout. But I've written so much about Cal Ripken in the past 10 days that I'm actually quite relieved to talk about another sport.
So let's look at a few interesting questions headed into the fantasy football season.
Steven Jackson or Larry Johnson at No. 2? Given the near consensus on the top overall pick, this seems to be the first-round question of the moment. In baseball, I tend to advocate drafting the guy with the more proven track record. That theory would suggest Johnson, who's posted two great seasons to Jackson's one. But in football, with its shorter career spans, it's more important to predict when wear and tear will send a star hurtling off the statistical cliff. One of the most reliable precursors for running back drop-off is an unusually heavy workload. In recent seasons, backs who've carried more than 370 times have almost invariably suffered greatly the following year. Johnson carried 416 times in 2006. Do I know he'll fall off big-time in 2007? No, but I'm pretty sure it'll happen this year or next year, and given that Jackson carried only 346 times and is a wonderful receiver to boot, I'll bet on him.
Given the workload concerns, might Johnson drop even more? The Kansas City Chiefs star probably won't fall below No. 3 in most leagues, but I also would take Frank Gore above him. Gore racks up great per-carry averages, has suffered relatively little wear and is the best player in an improving offense. He didn't score many touchdowns last year, but that strikes me as a fluke. I'd be thrilled to get him at No. 4 or No. 5 overall. I'd also be pretty thrilled to have a shot at Joseph Addai, Laurence Maroney or Brian Westbrook later in the first round, because I won't be shocked if they all outproduce Johnson this year. Yes, I take the workload issue very seriously.
Who's the best receiver? I tell you, it's a wide-open field. Terrell Owens is Mr. Touchdown but he's getting older, and who knows about Tony Romo or Wade Phillips in Dallas. Steve Smith and Chad Johnson are great big-play guys, but both tailed off a bit last season. Larry Fitzgerald looked like a coming ace, but he didn't live up to expectations in 2006. Shake it all up and I'll take the ever-reliable Marvin Harrison. He's a conditioning nut who remains the favorite target of the league's most productive quarterback. He doesn't have bad seasons and won't shame you if you take him late in the first round.
Who's the best candidate for a post-hype breakout? It would be hard to find a more hyped rookie than Reggie Bush in 2006. So when he didn't come out and go all Gale Sayers on the league, many owners were disappointed. There's a lot to like here, however. Bush came on as the season progressed, and he plays for a surprisingly excellent New Orleans Saints offense with a quarterback who knows how to hit him on the short slants that can turn into big plays. He's not the feature back who will score you 15 touchdowns, but he could easily accumulate 1,800 rushing and receiving yards and 10-12 touchdowns, which would make him a bargain late in the second round. I'd stick Ronnie Brown on this list, as well.
Would you rather have Vince Young or Matt Leinart in Year 2? K.C. Joyner at ESPN.com does a terrific job charting quarterback decision making, and he found that Young made a greater percentage of bad passing choices than any quarterback in the league last year. That runs contrary to the hype and may lead some to expect a breakout that isn't coming. Leinart showed greater accuracy and, despite similar interception numbers, attempted fewer dumb throws, by Joyner's reckoning. We can't forget the legs. They'll keep Young ahead of Leinart on fantasy charts for the time being. But in a league that rewards accuracy, I'd bet on Leinart to be the more productive player by 2010.
Are there any rookies worth owning this year? Calvin Johnson will be the Bush of this year because of his freaky physical ability. But the Detroit Lions already have a top receiver in Roy Williams and few rookie wide-outs dominate right away, so don't go nuts and make Johnson your lead or even second option. I don't see the same superstar upside in Buffalo Bills running back Marshawn Lynch, but he should get to play right away, and backs often adjust fairly quickly. He could be a nice fit for your team's swing runner/receiver spot. I also love Adrian Peterson, though he'll lose carries to Chester Taylor in Minnesota this season. Avoid the quarterbacks.
Speaking of quarterbacks, which second-tier guy do you want? I'm going to piggyback on the smart guys at Pro Football Prospectus and say Byron Leftwich. He is in shape, playing for a contract, continues to show good accuracy and will be leading a solid team. He should be available pretty low but could start the majority of your team's games this season.