Misdirection play with L. Johnson is an end-around his first instincts

The Baltimore Sun

I'm a hypocrite.

There's really no other way to put it, given that I picked Larry Johnson third overall in a recent draft after telling you all for the past two months to do the exact opposite.

But this points to an interesting dichotomy in fantasy sports. These games are ideological exercises, ones in which the greatest satisfaction comes from charting an imaginative course and having it pay off with smashing victory. On the other hand, they're games and you want to win, even if that means following the dullest strategy imaginable.

I believe strongly in the merits of statistical analysis. When history tells me that backs who carry 370 times in a season decline drastically the next year, I listen. I'd rather hang my fantasy fate on such evidence than on the supposition that a player has "something to prove."

Well, Johnson carried 416 times last year. Combine that with his declining offensive line and I spent the summer growing more convinced that he was headed for a big fall.

But here's the thing. The leading alternatives, Frank Gore and Joseph Addai, scared me just as much. Gore's broken hand in the preseason reminded me how brittle he has been since his college days at Miami. And Addai has never posted a dominant season as a feature back, even though he excelled in part-time duty last year.

Confronted with these uncertainties, I kept staring at Johnson's 4,292 total yards and 40 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Even if he fell way off, he might be good for 1,700 yards and 14 touchdowns, I reasoned. Addai has never approached either plateau, and Gore scored only nine touchdowns in his 2006 breakout.

So I wimped out and took the guy who's probably on the way down instead of the two are probably on the way up.

Aside from that burst of conservatism, I was quite happy with my first fantasy draft of the year.

Marvin Harrison, the top receiver on my board, went 22nd overall, and I grabbed Washington's Clinton Portis early in the third round. I know Portis is injury-prone, but he's one year away from being a top-five back. I also drafted his backup, Ladell Betts.

I next added Green Bay receiver Donald Driver, who might have fallen a bit due to injury concerns but who rarely disappoints when he's in the lineup.

Quarterback drafting broke exactly as I expected, with owners grabbing the top guys higher than many "expert" rankings suggested. With no prized runners or receivers left on the board, I was happy to pick Donovan McNabb in the fifth round (surprisingly, a few spots after Vince Young).

The more I think about McNabb, the more I like him. Is he injury-prone? Sure. But in recent years he has produced at a rate that only Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer can match. Tell me I can have McNabb two rounds lower than Tom Brady and I'll take that bargain every time, especially when I grabbed a future star in Denver's Jay Cutler as my backup.

For similar reasons, I was happy to take former Maryland star Vernon Davis as my tight end. Davis hasn't showed that he can be an NFL star, but he's an amazing athlete in the middle of an improving San Francisco offense. And at a low-scoring position such as tight end, I'd rather have a guy who could suddenly shoot to the top of the rankings than a solid plugger such as Washington's Chris Cooley or Dallas' Jason Witten.

I added receiver depth in Washington's Santana Moss, who went from overrated last year to underrated this year, and Seattle's D.J. Hackett, who made my preseason breakout list.

I rounded things out with the reliable Matt Stover at kicker and a Jacksonville defense that might not challenge the Ravens or Bears but seems a sure bet to rank in the NFL top 10.

So there's your glimpse inside one columnist's draft - a gutless first-round pick followed by sound additions at receiver and running back and some quarterback picks I liked a lot.

Enough with fantasy football. Here are a few baseball observations. If you're in a keeper league and considering a late waiver pickup and the choice is between Yankees rookie Ian Kennedy, who excelled in his first performance, and Boston's Clay Buchholz, who no-hit the Orioles, take Buchholz.

Kennedy has terrific control but lacks the stuff to fool big leaguers start after start. Buchholz is one of the five best pitching prospects in the game. It's hard to predict short-term performance with any certainty, but Buchholz is the better bet.

On a more provincial note, has anyone recognized Nick Markakis' all-around excellence as a fantasy performer? Markakis doesn't dominate in any category, but he helps you in all five. He could finish with a .300 average, 20 homers, 20 steals and close to 100 runs and RBIs. That's a $25 player or better, but I still don't think he's regarded that highly by most owners.


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