There were so many questions about Joe Flacco when he was coming out of the University of Delaware in 2007. He was big and he could play. In fact, he was setting records for the Fighting Blue Hens. But there were still so many questions about what he could do on an NFL stage.
“He has the God-given ability. He’s 6-6. He has a cannon for an arm. He’s fast for a big guy. And he has ice water in his veins and he makes great game-day decisions,” said K.C. Keeler, Flacco’s college coach, near the end of his prized pupil’s first NFL season. “What else are you looking for?
“I told Cam (Cameron, the Ravens offensive coordinator) and (Ravens coach) John Harbaugh, ‘If this kid’s at USC, we’re having a debate about why he’s not the first overall pick.’”
Flacco, in fact, lasted until the 18th pick of the 2008 draft and he was the second quarterback taken behind Matt Ryan, who went third to the Atlanta Falcons. But Flacco’s already been to the playoffs twice and even to the AFC Championship Game once, as a rookie.
Now, two years later, he’s going to do something else to convince all the skeptics: He’s going to lead the Baltimore Ravens all the way to the championship of Super Bowl XLV.
Jump on the Green Bay Packers’ bandwagon if you want, ride with Brett Favre in Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage one more time, or even keep your faith in the heart-warming story of the Saints. But the 2010 season will belong to the most complete — and most dangerous team — in the NFL. The Ravens have all the ingredients any championship team could want, including a powerful defense, dangerous rushing attack and a scary arsenal of receivers.
The most important ingredient, though, is a quarterback who should take one final step in to the exclusive club of the NFL’s elite.
Actually, you could make a pretty good argument that the 23-year-old Flacco is already there after he completed 63.1 percent of his passes last season for 3,613 yards, 21 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions. He led the Ravens back to the playoffs, one season after leading them to the AFC title game, and his numbers all improved across the board.
He has, as Keeler said, a cannon for an arm. His accuracy has been uncanny and he’s shown a penchant for making all the right throws at the right time. As a rookie, he was asked to stay out of the way of the running game and the defense. Last year, though, Harbaugh unleashed his East Coast version of the Air Coryell offense and let Flacco show everyone what he could do.
Now, just imagine what he can do this year. The Ravens made the trade of the offseason when they acquired receiver Anquan Boldin from the Arizona Cardinals. Then, when they lost newly acquired Donte Stallworth for half the season to a broken foot, they proved they were serious about this Super Bowl thing by signing T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
Add in versatile tight end Todd Heap and running back Ray Rice, who caught 78 passes for 702 yards last year to go with his 1,339 rushing yards, and you have one of the most potent offensive attacks in the NFL. And let’s not forget that the Ravens’ defense ranked third in the entire league in 2009.
So yes, Rex Ryan is guaranteeing Super Bowls in New York, Peyton Manning is still dangerous in Indianapolis, and Jerry Jones believes his Cowboys can win the championship at home. But there’s no better team in the NFL than the Ravens right now. And before it’s all over, Flacco might turn out to be the best quarterback, too.
The rest of my NFL picks
NFC EAST: Washington Redskins
NFC NORTH: Green Bay Packers
NFC SOUTH: Atlanta Falcons
NFC WEST: San Francisco 49ers
NFC WILD CARD: Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings
NFC CHAMPS: Green Bay Packers
AFC EAST: New England Patriots
AFC NORTH: Baltimore Ravens AFC SOUTH: Indianapolis Colts
It took only a month for the Steelers brass to come to the decision that everyone wearing black and yellow had anticipated since the start of camp. By the process of elimination – Ben Roethlisberger’s indiscretions, Byron Leftwich’s injury woes and Charlie Batch’s age – Dixon will take the snaps in the team’s Week 1 contest against the Falcons.
What does this mean for fantasy owners? Very little, I’m afraid.
Last-minute drafts are taking place, and although fantasy owners are always looking for sleepers, pretty much any noteworthy player is known to at least some degree by now.
At the same time, most drafts have probably already happened, and fantasy players are already starting to check the waiver wire to see where they might be able to find help among the guys passed over in their draft. For that reason, I tried to lean a bit toward some free-agent fodder this week, including a player or two who aren’t likely to deliver value right away.
(Starting next week, this space will be devoted to waiver-wire values.)
QB sleeper: David Garrard, Jaguars
I already wrote about this guy in this space last month, but people simply aren’t coming around to the idea of Garrard as fantasy-worthy quarterback. I can only assume that’s a product of folks not looking beyond the most obvious numbers.
When picking out your fantasy quarterbacks, you probably prefer a guy with more than 15 touchdown passes in each of his two full seasons as starter. Pay closer attention, though, and you’ll realize that the disparity in rushing yardage between Garrard and pretty much the rest of the position closes the passing gap. Aaron Rodgers’ rushing ability is no secret, and yet Garrard has run for 134 more yards over the past two years. Besides Rodgers and Garrard, Jason Campbell is the only other quarterback to have reached 200 yards rushing each of the past two years. (Matt Cassel barely missed in 2008 with 196 yards.)
With his average of 323 yards in two seasons as starter, Garrard carries at least a 12-point edge in rushing numbers into a comparison with just about any other quarterback. Still, he’s barely being drafted (28th on average at FantasyFootballCalculator.com). Don’t be afraid.
RB: James Davis, Browns
Davis is far more likely to get drafted this week than any one prior in 2010, but he won’t go in every fantasy draft. That’s because Peyton Hillis has drawn more attention for his preseason work in Cleveland, and because we’ve seen Hillis produce at the position before in Denver. Davis, however, appeared on his way to becoming a rushing factor as a rookie last year before a shoulder injury in a questionable practice drill ended his season early.
The second-year runner might not bring elite playmaking ability, but he was good enough at Clemson to garner more carries than C.J. Spiller in each of the three seasons that the two shared the backfield. Davis also finished his college career with 47 touchdown runs, including 10 or more in each of his final three seasons. For what it’s worth, an 81-yard touchdown run in the second exhibition game of 2009 was a big part of what opened eyes to his case that year.
Montario Hardesty’s torn ACL made this backfield even more of a muddle for fantasy owners than it appeared before, and although Jerome Harrison should clearly be the first Browns runner drafted, there will be room for production elsewhere. At the late stage Davis can be drafted, you’re either picking handcuffs for your starting backs or buying lottery-ticket types: cheap investments that can provide huge returns. Davis falls squarely within that second group, especially considering that he’ll probably still go undrafted in most fantasy leagues.
Stash him if you can before matchups with Tampa Bay and Kansas City to open the season. If he is to get significant carries early, we could see quick production. If Davis doesn’t get the call much and you need the spot for someone else, he’ll be easy to drop.
WR: Chris Chambers, Chiefs
I didn’t put a whole lot of thought initially into the sleeper potential of Chris Chambers this season, because I figured the numbers he put up after joining the Chiefs last year kind of spoke for themselves. After looking useless through about half a season in San Diego, Chambers moved to Kansas City and caught 36 passes for 608 yards and four touchdowns over the final nine weeks. Those numbers along project to 64 receptions, 1,081 yards and seven scores.
Now, you might be thinking, “Sure, but Dwayne Bowe was hurt and suspended last year.” Taking only the five games in which the two receivers shared the field, though, still leaves one with 19 catches, 358 yards and three touchdowns. That reception total projects to three fewer over a full season, but the touchdown and yards-per-catch rates were higher.
Of course, working with such small samples leaves you far away from numbers that can be converted to reliable full-year expectations. But reliable expectations aren’t necessary at the point Chambers is leaving draft boards (67th receiver in “standard” scoring formats at FF Calculator, 70th in point per reception). Even if you ignore projections and take Chambers’ real 2009 numbers, he was a top 40 wideout across formats.
Bowe appears ready to finally live up to his potential, and Dexter McCluster has created plenty of buzz. A full season with both guys around could certainly cut well into Chambers’ usage, but that gets back to the whole reliable-expectation thing. What are you drafting after Round 12? Backup running backs? Upside rookies? An extra tight end or kicker? In Chambers, at the least, I offer you a veteran receiver with 1,000-yard potential and the kind of leaping ability that makes him an attractive red-zone target. Perhaps that’s why he’s going 34th among receivers on average at RapidDraft.com.
TE: Gary Barnidge, Panthers
First of all, Barnidge is by no means a player you should be considering on draft day unless your league goes very deep. He is, on the other hand, a name to at least be aware of going forward.
Starter Jeff King has been dubbed “clearly the lead dog” at tight end, but King is a limited athlete whom the team has used little outside of the red zone. His “lead dog” status is more a matter of the competitors failing to rise so far than his talent creating separation. The Panthers, however, have Steve Smith and little else in the passing offense. That’s why Barnidge could start to look more attractive as the season wears on.
In this year’s Football Outsiders Almanac, Mike Tanier said Barnidge “could be the first real weapon the team has had at that position since Wesley Walls.” (For anyone who doesn’t remember, Walls averaged 57.5 receptions from 1995 through 1999 and made five total Pro Bowls as a Panther.) Barnidge has a ways to go before being in sight of that level, but he has already shown some big-play ability. Three of his 12 catches last year went for 20 yards or more, with two tallying at least 40 yards. Two-thirds of his receptions went for first downs, and he added another 51-yard catch in this year’s third exhibition game.
Barnidge won’t start for the Panthers right away, which is why he’s not worth draft-day consideration. Much can change after the season begins, though, particularly when a coach and general manager could be feeling some heat in their seats. If Barnidge starts to get more looks, don’t be afraid to stash him. Dynasty leaguers with a spot should go ahead and take a chance.
The big names in Cincinnati are on offense, but there are plenty of reasons to take a shot on the Bengals defense. For starters, the team ranked sixth in points allowed last season. Granted, the schedule gets significantly harder in the wake of a division title, but you’ve at least got something going if you allow less than 20 points through a whole NFL season.
The pass rush wasn’t terribly impressive last year but presents reason for optimism. Antwan Odom – who led the team in sacks in 2009 despite being lost for the season in Week 6 – returns. Also, among the Bengals’ 15 sacks in exhibition games this year were 4.5 for rookie DT Geno Atkins, 3.0 for Michael Johnson and 2.0 for DT Pat Sims. Last year’s Bengals line left room for pass-rush help to step into the middle, and Johnson was a 2009 third-round pick with first-round ability. If even one of those three can carry their impact over to this regular season, it could provide a sack boost.
No boost is needed at corner, where Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph make up one of the league’s best cover tandems. Over the past three years, they have 25 interceptions combined. The real wild card here, though, could be the return game.
The Bengals managed to rank second in punt-return average last year but didn’t get a touchdown there. The kick-return game did find the end zone once but ranked just 22nd in return average. Both areas should be stronger this season with Adam (I ain’t Pacman no more) Jones around, to go with rookie Jordan Shipley, Bernard Scott (who averaged 31.5 yards on 16 kick returns last year and scored the touchdown) and Quan Cosby. More than one of those guys could handle primary return duties for many teams, and a couple more scores in this area could drastically improve Cincinnati’s fantasy total.
The Bengals, meanwhile, are being drafted as a backup unit or fringe starter on average.
Matt Schauf is the senior football writer for RapidDraft.com. Challenge him there now in free fantasy football.
The Ravens' kicking job is still up for grabs between Shayne Graham and Billy Cundiff. Said special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, "We have two very good NFL kickers. They've both performed very well all the way through training camp." In the eyes of at least a few Ravens beat reporters, Cundiff has performed just slightly better thus far. ... Commissioner Goodell will meet with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Friday to determine the length of his suspension. Chances are, Roethlisberger will get a game or two cut off his six-game suspension for good summer behavior. Fantasy owners may want to take advantage of the situation now, while Roethlisberger remains a low-level No. 2 fantasy quarterback in most fantasy drafts. If the suspension is reduced, expect his stock to rise. ... Could Peyton Hillis become a factor in Cleveland's backfield? He thinks so. "My game’s pretty much downhill. Whenever my name is called, I’m gonna make plays,” he said. Hillis scored the Browns only rushing touchdown against Detroit last week, and averaged 3.7 yards per carry to Jerome Harrison's 3.1. Harrison and Montario Hardesty remain the favorites to receive the bulk of the carries, but if Hillis continues to play this well he'll only complicate matters for fantasy owners. ... In addressing the media this week, Bengals backup running back Bernard Scott said, "I am hoping my role expands, but if not I am willing to do whatever they want me to do and go out there and try to make plays whenever my number is called.” As vanilla as that quote is, it goes to prove a point -- Scott has shown so much promise in his early stay in Cincinnati that he cannot be ignored, and sooner or later the Bengals coaching staff is going to have to deal with what's becoming a good problem to have. For fantasy owners with Cedric Benson, it soon could become a nightmare.
Buffalo's backfield may soon be back to full strength. Marshawn Lynch (ankle) has been handling carries in practice and admitted he should be fresh for Week 1. The team will test him out in its final preseason game. Said coach Chan Gailey, "It didn't look like there was any residual effect, so we're looking forward to watching him Thursday night." Meanwhile, Fred Jackson is still wearing a hand brace but no longer has his arm in a cast. Jackson said there was a "100%" chance he'd be in the lineup. Gailey wasn't as optimistic. ... Folks in Miami are still concerned with Chad Henne's performance in the team's recent loss to Atlanta. Henne completed 10 of 22 passes and threw a costly interception in the red zone. Fantasy owners shouldn't be concerned in the least bit, however. The Dolphins coaching staff showed its support for Henne this week, and he still can be considered one of the top fantasy sleepers at his position for this season. ... Tom Brady's hot streak? Brandon Spikes' future career in the movie business? No, the best New England story this preseason has been the success had by rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had 66 yards and two scores in the team's last contest. "He’s such a big kid, and it’s hard to tackle him because he’s so strong,” Brady told a Boston Herald reporter. Patriots tight ends have been poisonous to fantasy owners in the past. Looks like that's about to change. ... Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes told New York media this week that he'd like to snag about 20 balls in this week's contest. Holmes also discussed his upcoming four-game suspension: "It's only going to probably set me back if I continue to worry about it." The suspension has caused Holmes to plummet down draftboards this summer, but based on the way Rex Ryan gushed this week about his new star receiver, fantasy owners can have confidence Holmes will see plenty of balls (although not quite 20) in each game after his return.
Much was made of how the shifting umpire could affect Peyton Manning and the Colts offense. Hogwash. Yes, it may slow down Indianapolis, and yes, it may help defenses rotate fresh bodies into the front seven. But it's not going to have a drastic impact on Manning's numbers because, as the veteran showed against Green Bay, even when slowed down he still reads defenses and makes adjustments on the go better than any other passer in the game. ... Despite receiving the go-ahead from his doctor Texans tight end Owen Daniels is still playing it safe. The team is going to hold him out of action this week with the hope he'll be ready for the Week 1 contest. Fantasy owners with Daniels may want to wait until Week 2 to see how the knee is coming along. ... Another AFC South tight end dealing with an injury is Jacksonville's Marcedes Lewis, who many believe was on track for a nice season. Lewis suffered an ankle injury against Tampa Bay after catching two balls for 33. The team is plenty deep behind him, so the injury could cause Lewis to plummet back to fantasy mediocrity. ... Pound-for-pound the best Titans fantasy receiver last Saturday? Kenny Britt, who caught four of the five balls thrown in his direction for 33 yards. Britt still has not flashed the field-stretching plays that made him a popular waiver wire pickup last fall, but it's only a matter of time.
Knowshon Moreno was back at Broncos practice this week, but the bigger news -- so was tackle Ryan Clady. The Broncos are a much different team without Clady on the field; good thing the tackle is expected to play on Thursday at Minnesota. ... San Diego coach Norv Turner has done nothing but praise rookie running back Ryan Matthews since he joined camp. Said Turner this week, "He doesn't get rattled and doesn’t get really excited. He expects to gain yards, whether he has to run over you or around you." Turner has pumped up premier fantasy backs before (ahem, Emmitt Smith, anyone?), so fantasy owners should consider Turner's comments one-part PR and one-part encouragement. ... The Contra Costa Times released an article this week profiling the blossoming relationship between quarterback Jason Campbell and tight end Zach Miller. Said coach Tom Cable in the story, "There's a comfort level there with both of them, whether it be in third down or the red zone. Certainly Zach and Jason's relationship is flourishing." Hmmm, wonder if Campbell has introduced himself to the rest of the Raiders receivers yet. He'll need them when defenses take Miller away. ... The Chiefs are using Dexter McCluster at receiver and as the quarterback in their version of the Wildcat. The team is excited to have the versatile rookie but feels it must be creative to get the most life out of him. Said coach Todd Haley, “My job becomes: ‘OK, the guy can’t play 120 plays in a game.' What can he play? What is the best thing for the team?” On this sorry team, coach? The best thing might just be to give McCluster the ball early and save the worrying for a time when you have a team worth worrying about.
Cowboys wide receiver Roy Williams missed practice on Wednesday with a bad back and hip injury. On that same day the team welcomed back rookie Dez Bryant. Don't worry, Roy. Dez will keep your spot warm while you're gone. Just don't expect it back when you return. ... Depending on Donovan McNabb's recovery time, the team may have to turn to (gulp!) Rex Grossman to start the 2010 season against Dallas. That could be a scary situation for any fantasy owner carrying a Redskins player on their roster. Grossman has completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in the past two seasons, with more interceptions (three) than touchdowns (two). Not good, Redskins fans, not good. ... The Giants' loss of backup quarterback Jim Sorgi could be a bigger deal than fantasy owners care to admit. Sure, Sorgi has no value, but if Manning continues to take a beating and, heaven forbid, misses time in the lineup, the rest of the team's skill players would see their fantasy stock plummet. New York has virtually no good options behind Manning now and the market for quality backup quarterbacks is sparse. Think Kurt Warner would consider a return to the Big Apple? (read: plenty of sarcasm). ... Two things we've learned about the all-important Philadelphia quarterback situation this summer: (a) Kevin Kolb isn't ready to be a fantasy stud quite yet, and (b) the team will use Michal Vick under center more than anyone anticipated. For fantasy owners, it's all bad news.
What can be made of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler's reported romance with MTV star Kristin Cavallari? If true, it's trouble, regardless of what Cutler says (or denies). In the last decade, think about how many famous women have brought good luck to their football-playing boyfriends. I'll give you Kim Kardashian. After that it's all distractions and poor play. ... Virtually every publication likes Green Bay to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, in large part due to the emergence of young stars like tight end Jermichael Finley. But while fantasy owners drool over Finley they should not forget "old man" Donald Driver, who received a two-year contract this offseason and has played surprisingly well. Driver caught a touchdown and matched Finley's target total (eight) in last week's win over Indianapolis. ... Here's a number for fantasy owners to chew on: 2.5. That was Kevin Smith's average per carry last week against Detroit. Among the Lions top five rushers, Smith was the only back to average fewer than 4.5 yards. Not only is he in jeopardy of losing his place on the field; his name plate may no longer rest over his locker if this continues. ... Adrian Peterson got a free pass last week thanks to Brett Favre's horrible showing. Hidden behind Favre's two interceptions were Peterson's 11 carries for 37 yards, 24 of which came on one run. That means the Vikings back gained just 1.3 yards per carry on his other 10 carries against the Seahawks.
Panthers rookie wide receiver Brandon LaFell is making a serious push to be the starting receiver opposite Steve Smith. One reason he must be viewed as a serious contender for the job is his big-play potential. In each of the last two contests, LaFell has averaged 15 or more yards per catch in limited action. ... It was not much of a surprise when Tampa Bay cut Derrick Ward this week. The veteran back had not lived up to expectations since arriving from New York. However, what is a surprise is that the Buccaneers genuinely seem content heading into the season with what they have. Said coach Raheem Morris, "We've got Cadillac, who we're happy to have. And also we have Insurance Graham back there playing running back for us and he's able to carry the ball as well." Fantasy owners know better; no back on this club is worth much. ... Fantasy owners know better than to get too excited about Saints reserve back Chris Ivory, who is helping to fill a hole created by all of the team's injuries in the backfield. Then again, they should know better than to completely ignore any Saints skilled player, either. Not only did he turn a short catch into a nifty 76-yard touchdown run last week, but he carried the ball 11 times. The team is set with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush in the backfield, but the coaching staff loves to use multiple weapons, and Ivory could earn some time if he plays as well as he did against San Diego. ... Last week's game against Miami served as a true test for Atlanta's offense. All of the stars played a considerable number of snaps. The bad news is that most of them did not play exceptionally well. Michael Turner carried 16 times but gained just 47 yards; Matt Ryan completed just 50 percent of his throws. The only star was wide receiver Roddy White, who was thrown to 12 times and caught six balls, including a touchdown.
San Francisco’s 233-pound sixth round rookie Anthony Dixon carried 21 times last week and caught three passes. The 49ers are sure to keep Brian Westbrook, but Dixon will get the No. 3 job, and his size could earn him a role, possibly in short-yardage situations to save Gore’s legs. … Fantasy experts will argue that too much is being made of Sam Bradford’s performance against New England last week, and for the most part that’s true – rookie success in the preseason is often misleading. But in Bradford’s case there might be more to it. The Rams appear ready to hand him the job, and everyone knows this team will need to pass early and often to play from behind. Bradford could be an upgrade of Matthew Stafford’s 2009 rookie campaign, which puts the Rams’ No. 1 overall pick just inside the realm of fantasy relevance. … It’s September and Mike Williams is still alive and well in Seattle. Fantasy owners have been slow to respond but Williams has clearly been Seattle’s best receiver in camp this summer (just saying). … The Cardinals have drama on their hands with the Matt Leinart-Derek Anderson fiasco. Some would say it’s a non-issue – most fantasy owners were prepared to skip past both players in their drafts. But so long as Leinart feels he has earned the job, and Anderson remains in the picture, this situation will be a distraction, which will ultimately spoil into the legitimate fantasy prospects Arizona does have on its roster.