by Jeff West
September 11, 2004
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    Welcome to another exhilarating season of "Directions".  This weekly article will discuss those players “Heading North” (fantasy value is rising), “Going South” (fantasy value is falling), or “East-West” (fantasy value is still undetermined, but worth watching).  Each week I'll examine a number of players who should merit your fantasy attention.  I'll look at matchups and try to uncover some hidden gems that might be floating around the waiver wire.  I'll also be running a little "Misdirection" at the end of the column, so pay attention.  And now, without any further ado...

    I've noticed that the New Jersey evenings have gotten a fair bit cooler and have even seen a leaf or two fall from the trees.  Sadly, summer is fleeting.  Soon it will be time to leave earlier for work to avoid the school buses, roll that barbecue grill back into the garage for hibernation, and shift the linen pants and silk shirts to the back of the closet to make room for sweaters and corduroy.  Fear not, however, for all this is also an indication that it is football season.  Sure, for an astute fantasy owner, it's football season 12 months a year now.  But all that work from January through August comes to fruition (or failure) now.

    The 2004 NFL off-season has been one of the most exciting ones to date.  We've seen a number of trades, fairly uncommon in the NFL, some important free agent signings, retirements, and returns from retirement.  The NFL has firmly established itself as the top sports league in the United States and garners interest year-round.  Fantasy football continues to grow and grow.  Fantasy football is a billion dollar industry.  That's more than the Gross National Product of many countries in the world.  Even electronics Retailer Best Buy has entered the fantasy football industry by offering a fantasy football challenge.

    By now, you have probably already had your fantasy draft.  There were some very difficult decisions to make.  How early is too early to grab a QB or WR?  With the officials calling defensive pass interference more stringently this fall, QBs and WRs could see a sizeable increase in their fantasy production.  I've heard arguments that the top tier of WRs is so far ahead of the muddled second tier that it might make sense for those with later first round picks to go WR-WR and hope to get lucky with a Chris Brown, Thomas Jones, or Lee Suggs later in the draft.  I've seen a rookie TE taken in the third round in a redraft league.  Whatever situation you faced, I hope you were able to get the players you wanted and needed.  If not, here are some others to keep your eye on as the season opens.

"Heading North" – Players whose fantasy value is rising

    Kansas City, led by Priest Holmes, has had a formidable passing attack the past few years, which was spearheaded by TE Tony Gonzalez.  However, Trent Green threw more than 3000 yards to receivers not named Gonzalez last year, yet none of the Chief WRs were fantasy money.  This year, the Chiefs have been without Johnnie Morton during pre-season and lost Marc Boerigter for the season.  Eddie Kennison has not shown that he can be anything more than a #3 or #4 fantasy WR.  It might be prudent to keep tabs on WR Richard Smith.  Who, you ask?  Smith was an undrafted rookie WR out of Arkansas and was Kansas City's leading receiver during pre-season.  He has been solid during camp, catching everything thrown his way.  Smith should see plenty of playing time this season and is a playmaker.

    Looking for some depth at QB?  History tells us that QBs drop like flies during the regular season.  One blind-side hit and your fantasy season could go up in flames.  If you are unable to grab your starter's handcuff, look to Atlanta where rookie QB Matt Schaub had the best pre-season of any QB.  Much of it had to do with the amount of playing time he received with Michael Vick taking limited snaps because of a hamstring injury, but if Vick is already dealing with injury, how long will it be before he misses regular season time?  Schaub, a rookie third-round pick from Virginia, has looked crisp and has made good decisions in the new west coast offense that Atlanta is running.

    The leading rusher during the pre-season was Rams rookie Steven Jackson.  While it is dangerous to put too much stock into pre-season numbers, his were certainly impressive.  He amassed 323 rushing yards while playing in parts of four games.  Those numbers, extrapolated to a 16-game season amount to nearly 1300 rushing yards.  Of course those numbers came against other teams' second and third teams at times, but they were also done with a second- or third-string offensive line in front of him.  Marshall Faulk is unlikely to remain healthy all season, and, now that Lamar Gordon has been moved to Miami, Jackson will get the call when the inevitable happens.

"Going South" – Players whose fantasy value is slipping

    On paper, Miami seems to have a fairly competent pair of WRs in Chris Chambers and Marty Booker, and they are two talented players that have had recent fantasy success.  However, with a shaky rushing game (Gordon?  Minor?  Morris?) and an unsettled QB (Fiedler?  Feeley?) situation, the Miami offense could challenge for the worst in the NFL this season.  As an aside, for those of you keeping a roster spot open for a triumphant return by Ricky Williams, don't bother.  He has no shot of playing this year.  Even if he does unretire next year (and I'm sure he'll try), he'll miss significant time due to his substance abuse.  Sure, he can appeal, but I guarantee the NFL bigwigs are not in any hurry to let him play again despite his marketability.

    Cleveland has some exciting players on offense now.  Kellen Winslow could very well end the season as a better fantasy TE than Gonzo.  Lee Suggs should be an excellent RB.  Quincy Morgan, Andre Davis, and Dennis Northcutt are dangerous receivers.  On top of it all, QB Jeff Garcia is now running the offense for the orange and brown.  The only thing missing from this equation is a solid offensive line.  The Cleveland line is very shaky and the aging and fragile Garcia will be hard-pressed to make it through half a season before his back acts up again or he suffers another injury.  A healthy Garcia could do nice things with this offense, however he appears to be on the fast track to the IR.  Be warned and grab Kelly Holcomb as a handcuff while he's still on the waiver wire.

    Tiki Barber put up nearly 1700 yards of total offense last year but he had three times as many fumbles (9) as he did touchdowns (3).  While he was the only back that Fassel felt comfortable using, new head coach Tom Coughlin has seemed to re-awaken Ron Dayne, who had an outstanding off-season and pre-season campaign.  Coughlin won't stand for mistakes, and the first time Tiki fumbles (first game of the season?) look for Dayne to step in.  Some people are still drafting Tiki as their starting fantasy RB.  I just wish I was playing against them.

"East-West" – Players whose fantasy value is still undetermined

    The most hyped rookie to enter the league is, undoubtedly, Larry Fitzgerald.  He was drafted third overall by the Cardinals.  There were some concerns that he would be competing for playing time with last year's rookie of the year in Anquan Boldin, but it now looks like Boldin will miss a sizeable chunk of the season.  Fitzgerald did play in part of the first pre-season game, catching one pass for five yards before seriously spraining his ankle.  He's expected to play in the Cards opening game, but is still recovering from the ankle injury.  Even when the Cards get all three of their young receivers (Fitzgerald, Boldin, and Johnson) healthy and in the fold, they'll be fighting for balls from an unproven quarterback.  Fitzgerald has all the tools to make it in the NFL, so keep an eye on him.  Just don't expect a Boldin-esque season from him in 2004.

    Jake Plummer begins his second season as the Broncos QB.  He is healthy and is more comfortable with Shanahan's offense now.  But things don't necessarily look brighter for Plummer.  He lost his best RB (Clinton Portis) in an off-season trade and his best TE (Shannon Sharpe) to a television studio.  His best WR (Rod Smith) is aging and the best hope at WR (Ashley Lelie) is struggling in pre-season.  His new #1 RB is barely 5'-7" and his new #1 TE is Jeb Putzier.  Plummer has struggled mightily in pre-season and will need to really turn things around in the regular season.  He is a veteran and the Denver offense should start clicking before long, but he will require a critical eye early on.

    Chicago has a new coach and a new attitude.  They also have a new RB in Thomas Jones.  He brings a wealth of talent and potential to his new team.  Stop me if you've heard this one before.  Jones was unable to carry the load in Arizona, unable to beat out Michael Pittman in Arizona and Tampa Bay, and now moves on to Chicago where it appears he has beaten out the incumbent, Anthony Thomas.  Head coach Lovie Smith insists that he sees something in Thomas Jones that he also sees in Marshall Faulk and Priest Holmes.  If he's right, Jones could finally live up to his unfulfilled promise, however, stop me if you've heard this one before.  He'll get a chance early on to prove himself with three straight division matchups.

"Misdirections"

    There were two big stories surrounding the NFL following the end of the 2003 season.  The first big story was the Janet Jackson Boobgate during the halftime show of the Super Bowl.  The league was justifiably embarrassed by this and has vowed to maintain tighter controls over the production of the entertainment acts in the future.

    The second big story was the retirement of Dolphins RB Ricky Williams just prior to the opening of training camp.  Williams, reportedly, was more interested in smoking marijuana than in playing for the Dolphins.  After having spent some time during the off-season touring (and toking) with rocker Lenny Kravitz, Williams decided to hang up his cleats to pursue a more philosophical life.  The NFL must surely have cringed when Williams indicated he has been smoking pot for quite some time now, but has been passing his drug tests by using a cleansing solution which, apparently, is easily obtainable on the internet.

    Why do I bring these two, seemingly different, albeit similarly embarrassing situations to light?  I was watching a pre-season edition of Monday Night Football when they began their hyping of the opening of the NFL regular season on Thursday, September 9th.  The NFL now has a gala event to kick off each season which features a number of entertainers performing prior to the game.  This year, amongst the performers, is Lenny Kravitz.  I wonder if Ricky Williams will get on stage with him and fire up a bong during a cover of American Woman?

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