by Jeff West
December 31, 2003
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    This is the final 2003 installment of Directions.  This article will discuss those players (quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers) who "Headed North" (fantasy performers who merit recognition), "Went South" (fantasy underachievers), or "Ran East-West" (fantasy players worth watching for 2004).

"Headed North"

Quarterbacks

    1. Peyton Manning:  What can you say about Manning?  Another 4000-yard passing year?  This is his fifth in a row.  His 29 touchdowns?  Yawn.  That's becoming average for him.  Sixteen games started?  Manning has started every game in his six-year NFL career.  The thing that sets this season apart for Manning is his interceptions.  He averaged 20 interceptions a year until this year when he cut that number in half.  Manning was clearly the most productive and reliable QB in 2003.

    2. Trent Green:  It was a toss-up between Green and Daunte Culpepper, but I'll give the nod to Green because he avoided injury and caused his owners a few less headaches than Culpepper.  Green is the only QB not named Manning to throw for more than 4000 yards this season.  Furthermore, Green protected the ball well throwing only 12 interceptions and losing only one fumble all season.  Green also posted a perfect 158.3 QB rating in week 15.

    Honorable Mention - Jon Kitna:  Kitna nearly led the Bengals to the NFL post-season before the team bungled in week 17 against the Browns.  Kitna threw for 3591 yards and 26 touchdown passes in 2003.  Many owners predicted that Kitna would be lucky to last half the season with number one pick Carson Palmer waiting in the wings.  Kitna wasn't the most spectacular QB in 2003, but when his numbers are compared to the quarterbacks drafted much earlier (Gannon, Vick, McNabb, Bledsoe), he is definitely deserving of mention here.

Running Backs

    1. Priest Holmes:  The biggest story before the season started, Priest Holmes had to answer questions about his injury and his contract.  Many feared that Priest suffered the same injury that ended Bo Jackson's career.  Even when Priest played in early pre-season games and showed he was healthy, there was concern of a holdout over contract disputes.  For those who took the risk of drafting Priest early, he paid off in spades.  He broke the single-season touchdown record with 27 (all rushing).  He added more than 1400 rushing yards and nearly 700 receiving yards.  Furthermore, he had big games down the stretch, when play-off teams needed him most.

    2. Ahman Green:  Green slipped into the second round of many fantasy drafts because owners feared potential injuries and sweat-induced fumbilitis.  Green answered his critics by rushing for nearly 1900 yards and totalling 20 touchdowns.  He did not miss any games and only lost five fumbles on the season.  He also had big games in weeks 16 and 17 for his happy owners.

    Honorable Mention - Domanick Davis:  Many fantasy owners had never even heard of this rookie until he totalled 129 yards of offense in a loss to Tennessee in week 6.  Even then, interest in Davis was limited to bye-week back-up status.  When he exploded with nearly 200 yards of offense in week 7 and two rushing touchdowns in week 8, Davis became an instant starter for many fantasy teams.  He finished the year with an impressive 1031 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.

Wide Receivers

    1. Randy Moss:  Before the season, some WR debate focused on which of the "Triumvirate" (Harrison, Moss, Owens) was best.  Clearly, this season, Randy Moss separated himself from the others.  He posted career highs in receptions (111), receiving yards (1632), and tied a career high with 17 touchdown catches.

    2. Torry Holt:  No one caught more passes or had as many receiving yards this season as Torry Holt.  Despite playing opposite a top-20 receiver in Isaac Bruce, Holt managed to grab 117 passes for 1696 yards and 12 touchdowns.  Holt showed the hands and speed that should launch him into the elite echelon of wideouts.

    Honorable Mention - Anquan Boldin:  Much like Domanick Davis, Boldin was not on anyone's fantasy roster to begin the season.  However Boldin wasted little time in letting people know he was legit.  In week 1, Boldin had ten catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns against the Lions, outdueling Charles Rogers who was considered the top WR prospect entering the NFL in 2003.  While he did come down quickly after week 1, he finished the season strong and set a rookie record with 101 receptions.

"Went South"

Quarterbacks

    1. Rich Gannon:  In 2002, Gannon topped many fantasy leagues in total fantasy points.  He led his Raiders to the Super Bowl and led his owners to fantasy championships.  The 2002 NFL MVP was among the top quarterbacks selected in most fantasy drafts in 2003.  Owners seemed content after a solid week 1, but began to grumble when he posted back to back poor outings in the subsequent weeks.  In week 4 he had an excellent game against San Diego, but may have already been replaced by panicky owners.  It was all downhill from there as he posted two more duds before getting hurt and ending his season in week 7.

    2. Michael Vick:  The first quarterback selected in many early drafts, Vick broke his leg in a pre-season game and would miss 11 regular season games before returning in week 13.  Even when he returned, he showed some signs of rust.  Aside from 141 rushing yards against Carolina, he did little to excite his owners.

    Honorable Mention - Drew Brees:  The San Diego QB was expected by many to have a break-out year in 2003.  Not only did he already have one of the best backs in the league in LaDainian Tomlinson, but the team also added stud wideout David Boston and fullback Lorenzo Neal to the offense.  Despite the weapons on offense, Brees only had two good outings the entire season.  Brees struggled so much that he lost the starting job to Doug Flutie midway through the season.  For the season he threw only 11 touchdowns to 15 interceptions.

Running Backs

    1. Ricky Williams:  Williams rushed for 1372 yards and 9 touchdowns on the season.  With those stats it may seem ridiculous to consider him a fantasy bust.  Last season, Williams had 1853 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns with nine less carries than this season.  He was probably the first player chosen in most fantasy drafts based on similar, if not increased, expectations for this season.  Clearly he did not live up to those expectations and proved to be terrible value with the first pick.

    2. Corey Dillon:  Dillon was taken as early as the end of the first round in many drafts and was considered a viable number one fantasy back.  Despite the team's success, Dillon started slow this season and was not able to break 100 rushing yards in a game until week 12, the only time he did so in 2003.  Furthermore, he did not score a touchdown after week 7, ending the season with only two scores.  Dillon finished the season with 541 rushing yards (or 41 more rushing yards than Jamal Lewis had in two games against the Browns this season) and paved the way for Rudi Johnson as the tailback of the Bengal future.

    Honorable Mention - Tiki Barber:  Much was expected out of the Giant offense and Barber this year.  Many owners had Barber ranked among the top running backs in the league coming off his 1387-yard, 11-TD performance in 2002.  He did manage 1216 yards this season, but only produced two rushing scores on the season.  Furthermore, Barber continued to have trouble holding onto the ball as he coughed it up nine times in 2003.

Wide Receivers

    1. Eric Moulds:  Ever since he came into the league, Eric Moulds has performed well in even years and not so well in odd years.  2003 was no exception.  He posted his lowest yardage total (780) since 1997 and caught only one touchdown the entire season.  Making matters even worse, he was ranked as high as number four among receivers on many draft boards prior to the season.

    2. Donald Driver:  Driver emerged as the Packers best receiver in 2002.  He quickly became Brett Favre's favorite target last year and the two seemed to develop the rapport so important in a successful offense.  Driver was not ignored in the 2003 draft and was selected as the number one wideout for many owners.  This year, however, Driver seemed to be missing in action, collecting a meager 621 receiving yards and two touchdown receptions.

    Honorable Mention - Plaxico Burress:  Of all the receivers who seemed likely to break into the Triumvirate in 2003, Burress's name would have been the one most-often mentioned.  He was coming off a 1325-yard receiving year and had become Tommy Maddox's favorite target.  With two 100+ yard receiving games in weeks 1 and 2 of 2003, there was an anticipation of greatness for Burress by his owners.  Then the unthinkable happened.  Nine games went by until he reached 100 yards again.  Ten games until he scored again.  In fact, in 25% of the games he played this year he had only one reception.  Meanwhile, the struggling Steelers were still able to get the ball to Hines Ward who finished with great numbers.

"Ran East-West"

Quarterbacks

    In Seattle, Matt Hasselbeck has emerged as one of the top fantasy signal-callers in the game.  With plenty of offensive firepower at his disposal, he should continue to produce.  Rex Grossman grabbed the starting job in Chicago late in the season and produced nicely for a rookie.  If Chicago hires an offensive-minded coach in the off-season, look for Grossman to benefit.  Joey Harrington may finally have his year in 2004.  He has the talent.  If he gets another receiver to start opposite Charles Rogers and some semblance of a running game, he could put up big numbers.  Keep an eye on the QB situation in Cincinnati.  If Carson Palmer gets the starting nod in 2004, he could have a remarkable season.  He has outstanding weapons at nearly every offensive position.

Running Backs

    Restricted Free-Agent Kevan Barlow will be signed to a new contract in the off-season.  The Niners will offer him a one-year deal and let him test the market.  They won't be able to match any huge offers (which he may receive), but will at least get a 1st and 3rd round pick as compensation if they lose him.  He should be a top 10 back wherever he plays next season.  Domanick Davis will be ranked very highly on fantasy cheat sheets next season as he proved he could produce in Houston.  With a healthy David Carr and a more-experienced Andre Johnson, Davis could have a great season in 2004.  With Duce Staley's likely departure in the off-season, look for the Eagles to rely even more on Brian Westbrook.  He has the speed and quickness to be an elite back and scored 13 touchdowns in a shared-role this season, but his durability will still be a question mark.  Rudi Johnson should be a first-round selection in fantasy drafts next season if Corey Dillon departs.  He has one of the best offensive lines in the NFL in front of him.

Wide Receivers

    Javon Walker has made some huge strides in 2003 and appears to have replaced Donald Driver as Favre's go-to guy.  Walker is big and athletic and, perhaps most importantly, will be entering his third year (the year many receivers take that "next step") in 2004.  Deion Branch (another third-year pro in 2004) became the Patriots big-play threat towards the end of 2003.  If the Pats can improve their running game for 2004, Branch could be the recipient and have a breakout season.  Santana Moss exploded onto the scene in 2003, then just as quickly disappeared.  Look for this year's experience, plus the possible addition of another WR threat in the off-season, to allow Chad Pennington and Moss to work their magic in 2004.  Another WR entering his third year in 2004 is Denver wideout Ashley Lelie.  He showed some glimpses of his ability this year, but had to adjust to new quarterbacks throughout the season.  Next year he and Jake Plummer should contribute to fantasy owners' happiness.

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