As the 2009 NFL preseason gets underway, every football journalist wants to be the first one to break the story on someone who they feel could be the next Adrian Peterson or Jerry Rice. While reading early positive reviews of football players can be encouraging in that they can provide an early read on who to target in your fantasy football draft, it’s important to remember that these guys are facing backups and non-roster invitees while wearing shorts in the sweltering August conditions of training camp. In other words, it’s too early to identify your surprise 1600-yard, 13-TD WR or RB before the first full week of preseason games takes place. However, one of the purposes of this piece is to at least cast a light on these featured players, as well as suggest players you should avoid drafting this year for various reasons. Last but not least, we have a group of players who could provide you with good value in the middle to late rounds of your draft. Some of the players on the latter list are former members of the so-called “Sexy Hype Machine”, but didn’t quite live up to the hype their stellar past pre-seasons helped to create.
As previously mentioned, this is the list of pre-season fantasy darlings. Any of these guys could be 2009’s version of Chris Johnson, but this early into the season, nothing is certain yet. Simply keep an eye on the August performances of these individuals, and the ones that continue to shine into September will be the ones you’ll want to target, and might possibly have to reach a little early for, on draft day.
QB - Matt Ryan (Atl) – Ever since his first NFL pass that turned into a 62-yard touchdown, Ryan made quite a splash in his 2008 rookie campaign. Now that Roddy White is signed and practicing after a holdout that lingered into two-a-day practices, Ryan has two top-tier receiving options in his arsenal that would make most signal callers drool. The Falcons signed future Hall-of-Fame TE Tony Gonzalez this offseason as a free agent. Even at 33 years old, Gonzalez can still deliver premier production, as he is coming off a second consecutive 90-catch, 1000-yard season. Don’t worry too much about the loss of slot receiver Harry Douglas this season, the Falcons recently signed veterans Marty Booker and Robert Ferguson, who can provide extensive depth and experience, if not a 4.3 40-yard-dash time.
QB - Matt Schaub (Hou) – As someone who reaped the benefits of his 400-yard fantasy playoff performance against Green Bay last year, feel free to label me a card-carrying member of the Schaub for President fan club. Regardless of my affinity, Houston has once again become fertile ground for fantasy football players, hearkening back to Warren Moon’s run-and-shoot heyday of the early 1990’s. Not only is all-world WR Andre Johnson the one WR who wouldn’t draw guffaws if he were drafted ahead of Larry Fitzgerald, but RB Steve Slaton has provided enough talent and production to force defenses from playing nickel and dime defenses on first and second down. Furthermore, WR Kevin Walter made great strides in gaining Schaub’s confidence last year, as well as another quality season from undervalued TE Owen Daniels, who you can probably draft a full three rounds after Kellen Winslow. With Sage Rosenfels now in Minnesota and no longer breathing down Schaub’s neck for playing time, 2009 is the year to grab Schaub as a great QB1, or as a member of an unbeatable 2 QB-headed monster.
QB - Trent Edwards (Buf) - Unless you’ve spent the summer in Azerbaijan, you probably heard that Terrell Owens was released from the Cowboys, and as his agent Drew Rosenhaus sought greener pastures for Owens, he found that his only, er, best option was Buffalo. Now that Owens is paired with burner Lee Evans, this tandem could help create the most interesting football season in Buffalo since Thurman Thomas and Jim Kelly retired. With Edwards firmly entrenched as the starting QB coupled with question marks in the running game stemming from Marshawn Lynch’s suspension, this sequence of events could lead to a big year for Edwards. His name may not jump off your roster like a Brady or Brees, but he could be one of the better fantasy QB2s in the NFL this year if T.O. maintains his best behavior, as he traditionally has in his first year with a new team.
RB - Maurice Jones-Drew (Jax) - Finally, Fred Taylor has moved onto New England, and MJD sits atop the running back depth chart in Jacksonville. He has always been the goal line back as well as a force in PPR leagues. Well, reports out of Jaguar camp have now said that the UCLA alum has been occasionally lining up as a wideout in an effort to minimize the eventual pounding he’ll take this year. His speed, power, soft hands, and new role are what make me believe that he, not Adrian Peterson, should be the #1 overall fantasy pick this year.
RB - Knowshon Moreno (Den) - For all the questionable moves that the Broncos made during the tumultuous 2009 offseason, this draft acquisition could make all the pessimism of losing a franchise QB hurt a lot less for Denver fans. Not only has he shot up the depth chart during the preseason to the point where he is expected to start the first exhibition game against the 49ers, but it looks like Moreno will be on track to start at tailback Week 1 as well. He’s young and fast with fresh legs, and he has career backup Correll Buckhalter and Raider castoff Lamont Jordan as his primary competition. Factor in the Broncos’ excellent offensive line, WRs Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal preventing teams from stacking eight in the box, and this could be an incredible rookie season for Moreno. If he’s available in the sixth round and I’m debating between a WR2 or a RB3, rest assured he’s mine.
RB - Ronnie Brown (Mia) - “It’s the sport of kings…better than diamond rings…football.” Nobody in the NFL made greater strides or saw their fantasy value skyrocket from the implementation of the “Wildcat” offense than runnin’ Ronnie (for those of you too young to remember/know, the first line of this post was an excerpt from the song from the movie Wildcats from…1986 – dang, I’m old, but I digress). In addition to being the featured back in Miami, Brown figures to be a bigger part of the Dolphins’ passing game this year. Since backup Ricky Williams is a year older and two steps slower, Brown will be counted on to move the ball both between the tackles as well as those unusual Wildcat sweeps…assuming he stays healthy.
WR - DeSean Jackson (Phi) - Jackson had some memorable highlights and lowlights in his 2008 rookie campaign, but if the amount of praise he has been given from teammates and coaches since training camp began is any indication, he figures to be an extremely valuable asset to fantasy football teams as well as the Eagles. Last season, he was considered a decent WR3 in a 12-team league, but that figures to change. Jackson is the consummate triple-threat as he had multiple rushing attempts in five games last year, and can also return punts. Based on the reports coming from Eagles camp, he should undoubtedly become the #1 passing option for Donovan McNabb, and his explosiveness could lead to DeSean doubling, or possibly tripling his TD output from his first year. Since the hype machine surrounding Jackson is no secret, you may need to spend a 5th or 6th round pick if you want him on your squad this year.
WR - Calvin Johnson (Det) - CalJohn, take me away! Lion fans have hope this year that, in addition to their team actually making it into the win column in 2009, that Calvin Johnson may be the best receiver in football not wearing a Cardinals jersey. Johnson has three things going for him: 1) At a very fast and strong 6’5”, 235, he fits the profile as a prototypical physical receiver who can muscle for the ball even in coverage. 2) He has a new quarterback who, unlike Dan Orlovsky, supposedly doesn’t run out of the back of the end zone. As soon as the coaching staff comes to their senses and begins playing #1 draft pick Matt Stafford, Johnson will flourish. 3) The Lions will be trailing virtually every opponent at some point in every game, so their passing attack will be their primary offense for the majority of every game. You’ll probably need to take CalJohn once Fitz and Andre Johnson are off the board in the late 2nd/early 3rd round.
WR - Percy Harvin (Min) - Harvin’s playmaking ability has drawn rave reviews, and he figures to become a dynamic part of the Viking offense this year. That said, he has three factors working against him. 1) Unretired legend Brett Favre hasn't had sufficient preseason time to get in sync with his receivers 2) Make no mistake: this is Adrian Peterson’s team. Harvin is, at best, the third receiving option behind WRs Bernard Berrian and TE Visanthe Shiancoe (bear in mind this is a run-first offense). Harvin will begin his NFL career as a kick returner and a slot receiver. Even though the hype machine is in full gear for Harvin, don’t get sucked in and take him too early. In fact, let someone else use a mid-round pick on Harvin.
TE - Dallas Clark (Ind) - With Marvin Harrison gone from Indianapolis, Clark becomes Peyton Manning's primary mid-range target, as well as the best receiving option over the middle. Since WR Anthony Gonzalez will replace Harrison at flanker, Clark will line up in the slot in three-receiver formations. As Manning and Clark get reacquainted this preseason, their timing has been described as "downright scary." 80 catches, 900 yards and 8 TDs are very attainable for Dallas in 2009. He should be one of the first four TEs off the board, as he can put up WR2 numbers, and rarely gets shut out of the Colt passing game.
TE - Greg Olson (Chi) - The former Hurricane has turned many a head in the preseason thus far. Slated to be Jay Cutler’s favorite medium-range target, Olson has the hands and ability to excel as a TE1 this season. The Bears’ revised playbook reportedly has a slew of plays which feature Olsen as the top read, and the coaching staff has reported that this third-year player is “read to explode” after a 54-catch, 5 TD campaign in 2008. A gifted quarterback like Cutler can only help Olsen’s value, so don’t be afraid to draft him before, say, Kellen Winslow, Jeremy Shockey, or Owen Daniels.
TE - Jason Witten (Dal) - It’s no secret that Witten and Cowboy QB Tony Romo are best buddies who design plays together after hours. And it’s also no secret that former Cowboy malcontent Terrell Owens has left for, um, greener pastures in Buffalo. But the fact that the Cowboys don’t appear to have a wideout who will step up and take over as the WR1 in that offense leads me to believe that Witten is in for a monster season in 2009. Romo has proven that he will feed Witten the ball as if he were breastfeeding a newborn when the defense allows, so don’t be shocked if Witten matches or exceeds his monster 2007 season of 96-1145-7. Personally, he’s my TE1 this year.