The 2009 NFL Regular Season kicks off in a couple hours, and while most of you have already drafted your fantasy teams, I have made a few observations about various players around the league. Some are established or future stars, others have been past disappointments, and others could be new on your radar. If you feel your team has holes at different positions, then read below for some input on a few players who could positively impact your season down the road.
(QB) Kyle Orton – Call me crazy, but I am optimistic Kyle Orton will have a solid fantasy season in Denver this year for several reasons: First, the Broncos, by and large, have an offensive line superior to the Bears and will provide better pass protection than Orton received in Chicago last year. Second, Denver’s receiving corps trumps Chicago’s in talent, experience and depth. Brandon Marshall is a beast, Eddie Royal showed great promise after a 91-catch rookie season, Brandon Stokley provides a steady veteran presence and has no fear of going over the middle, and even Jabar Gaffney, as Denver’s WR4, has impressed coaches early on with his toughness. In Chicago, the wide receiver talent gets a little murky after Devin Hester (although I am a fan of Earl Bennett as a sleeper - you'll see below). Third, the Bears run more of a ball-control offense behind stud RB Matt Forte. Denver will not be as likely to feed rookie RB Knowshon Moreno the ball 25 times every game, yet Moreno will establish enough of an on-field presence that should keep defenses honest more so than, say Selvin Young, Michael Pittman or Peyton Hillis did in 2008. Finally, Denver plays in the god-awful AFC West, a once-proud division that currently sports three of the ten worst franchises in the NFL. This means a relatively easy divisional schedule, and in virtually every other game, the Broncos will be forced to pass more than previous seasons since they’ll be trailing more often in 2009.
(RB) Steven Jackson – Jackson can re-establish himself as a poor man’s Marshall Faulk this season if he can stay healthy for 16 games. While Jackson is more of a power runner than Faulk was, he has equally soft hands, plays behind an improved Ram offensive line from a year ago, and will be the focal point of the offense, much like Faulk was in his heyday. Although the Rams’ NFC West foes have improved defensively, 60-70 catches for Jackson, 1500 total yards and a dozen touchdowns should not be considered out of the question as far as projections go. The Rams should at least double, if not triple their win total (two) from last year, and Jackson can expect to play with more leads in 2009 than he did in 2008. Finally, the lack of depth at running back in St. Louis means that Jackson will be relied on to carry a bigger load than most feature backs, which are a dying breed in the brutal NFL. A repeat of 2006 may be a little much to ask for, but I would expect Jackson to at least approach those numbers this season.
(RB) Kevin Smith – Even though the Lions as a unit were as bad as their 2008 record would indicate, it would be difficult to pin the blame on then-rookie Kevin Smith. In his second season, Smith plays for a Lion team that is not only hungry and angry after serving as both the consummate NFL punching bag and laughing stock, but has improved as a team and faces a last-place schedule this season. First, #1 draft pick Matthew Stafford can’t be any worse a quarterback than Dante Culpepper was last year, and Stafford has already established a nice chemistry with Calvin Johnson, the one wideout drafted by the Lions in the first round that the front office can actually be proud of. This newfound success of Stafford-to-Megatron would keep opponents from stacking eight in the box against Smith. With Scott Linehan (who coached Steven Jackson in his magical 2006 season) calling offensive plays for the Lions, Smith will be an integral part of the short passing game, and could easily surpass his 2008 total of 39 receptions. Also, Smith is similar to Jackson in that Smith is an every-down back with a shortage of talent behind him on the depth chart, he excels at picking up the blitz, and is not afraid of a large workload. Furthermore, Smith is reportedly looking quicker after dropping to his college playing weight of 210 pounds. Last but certainly not least, Smith gained the trust of the coaching staff when he only fumbled ONCE last year in spite of 277 touches for a winless team.
(WR) Earl Bennett – I’ll go ahead and say it now: Earl Bennett could be 2009’s Eddie Royal. At 6’0” and a shade over 200 lbs, Bennett has both the size to muscle for the ball, as well as the quickness to get open downfield. He played together with new Bear QB Jay Cutler at Vanderbilt, and has rekindled that relationship on the practice field. Devin Hester looks to be the burner that stretches the field, but Bennett could establish himself as a legitimate possession threat given that defenses will be likely keying on Hester and TE Greg Olsen. Cutler will open up the Chicago offense in 2009, and Bennett will be a direct beneficiary. If you’re not happy with your WR4 or WR5, pick up Bennett off the waiver wire, and watch him mature week by week this year.
(TE) Jermichael Finley – This may be your last chance to hop on the Jermichael bandwagon before you’re forced to spend a waiver pick on him. After the Packers engage in a possible shootout with the Bears Week 1, Finley may be gone from the free agent pool. While Jermichael still has some learning to do in his blocking game, he has wowed the Packer coaching staff with his receiving abilities and his athleticism. He is still locked into a timeshare with incumbent starter Donald Lee, but the depth chart appears to be trending toward Lee establishing himself as more of a blocking TE, while Finley becomes a favorite mid-range and red zone target for QB Aaron Rodgers. RB Ryan Grant hasn’t really been established as a prototypical goal-line back thus far in his career, and based on what we’ve seen in the 2009 preseason from the Packers, fireworks are in store this season in Titletown. Finley may not have TE1 value as I type this, but keep him on your radar, because you may need him down the stretch.