It's Football Time Already?

September 9th. It’s more than just the anniversary of California being admitted into the Union or the date Washington D.C. was formally named that, after our first president George. It’s also the day the fantasy football season begins. Drew Brees and his high powered New Orleans Saints offense will take the field against Adrian Peterson, (probably) Brett Favre, and the Minnesota Vikings. Later that week, my Browns will be 0-1 and all will be well with the world. I can’t wait. Football is almost everyone’s favorite fantasy sport, and with good reason. It requires less attention, less time, and gives everyone a rooting interest when FOX decides to show the Rams vs. the Lions for the 4:15 game. Even though it is definitely the easier of the two big fantasy sports to play, it can still be won or lost through pre-season preparation. There are sleepers and busts at every position, and it’s important to know which players are which to win your league and brag about it while your fantasy baseball team struggles. The following is one sleeper and one bust at every fantasy football position for the upcoming year. All rankings per-position are based on the ESPN pre-season rankings (we needed a constant). I’m omitting first rounders (unless they’re busts) because they’re the obvious guys.

Quarterbacks
Sleeper: Joe Flacco (BAL)
Bust: Brett Favre (MIN)

Third-year quarterback (and fellow University of Delaware Fightin’ Blue Hen alumnus) should expand his command of the Baltimore offense this year and take the leap we all may have expected from him last year. The emergence of Ray Rice last year superseded what we saw from Flacco, but remember he was very solid early on and will only get better with the addition of Anquan Boldin and the further development of Rice. Additionally, Derrick Mason may have struggled to get open against number 1 type corners last year, but this year he should be seeing a lot more of the second best d-backs on opposing teams. That equals a lot of deep balls for the speedy Mason, and Flacco’s big arm should hit him early and often. Flacco was ranked 9th out of all QB’s, but I expect him to be around number 5.

Favre, on the other hand, had a career year last year at age 63 (just kidding, he’s 52. Right?). He’s still playing in the cold NFC North, Sidney Rice won’t take anyone by surprise this year, and he’s another year older. He’s so old that he was topical enough to put in “There’s Something About Mary,” which came out 12 years ago. Someone in your league is going to see the name “Brett Favre” and be excited to own him, don’t let it be you. He’s currently ranked 7, but I’d be pretty surprised if he was in the top 10.

Running Backs
Sleeper: Felix Jones (DAL)
Bust: Cedric Benson (CIN)

Felix Jones is like the favorite son in the family that is the Dallas Cowboys. Everyone knows he’s the favorite, but you can’t admit it so you give some carries to Marion Barber III and tell him he’s just as good, then you throw a bone to Tashard Choice because he needs love too. In the end however, the best always stands out. Jones is by far the most explosive back on the team (he had 5.9 yards per carry to Barber’s 4.4, and choice just won’t get enough touches to matter), so he can score at any time. The Cowboys will also probably be using him a lot more on first and second down, so that means a rise in his reception numbers (he had 19 last year). For those of you in point-per-reception (PPR) leagues, look out. Jones may be that guy who randomly catches 50 passes this year. He’ll finish the year as a top 15 back, despite being ranked 25th currently.

Benson, on the other hand, is like the relative who comes back from rehab and surprises the family with great behavior. He was cast off after a disappointing stint with the Bears, only to reappear with the Bengals and become a top fantasy threat last year. What always happens to that relative though? Well (according to every TV show I’ve ever seen), he gets caught stealing or doing some shady business, only to skip town on the family again. What does this have to do with anything? Benson is not surprising anyone this year. With Chad Johnson Ochocinco threatening to hold out and the world accepting Carson Palmer as what he is (an average quarterback), teams will stack the box on Benson. They’ll game plan for him, and probably be successful. He’s ranked 10th currently, but I’d take him as a late teens or early 20’s RB this season.

Wide Receivers
Sleeper: T.J. Houshmandzadeh (SEA)
Bust: Brandon Marshall (MIA)

T.J. Houshamazilee has come to the point where he’s hated so much because he disappointed last year, so now people don’t expect anything out of him. He’s the 29th ranked receiver, behind Santana Moss and Mike Wallace, which is a bit too low in my opinion. He had decent numbers last year, except he couldn’t score. That’s more the fault of the Seahawks than of Housh, who had an injured QB and a spotty running game for much of the year. Well they signed Leon Washington, who should get a lot of check down receptions out of the backfield and take some pressure of Matt Hasselbeck (or Charlie Whitehurst?). This should also open up the downfield ball. I’m not expecting the world from T.J., just that he’ll be a bottom rung number 2 receiver or a top notch number 3, ranked about number 20 amongst them.

Marshall, on the other hand, killed it last year for Denver. Now he’s in Miami with a big-armed QB and an interesting, gimmicky offense. The problem is he has no real number 2 receiver to take pressure off of him, the Dolphins aren’t going to trust Chad Henne to throw as much as people are hoping, and they are still a run-first team (or a wildcat first team). Marshall, who we’ve learned hates training camp (as evidenced by his punting the ball away during practice last season in Denver), will need to work hard and learn a new system. He’s ranked 5th amongst wide receivers currently, I’m not risking that high of a pick on so many question marks.

Tight Ends
Sleeper: Zach Miller (OAK)
Bust: Kellen Winslow (TB)

Zach Miller was a popular sleeper last year, but people forgot one thing: his QB was Jamarcus Russell. With Russell gone, expect Miller to catch balls (considering they won’t be thrown over his head or at his feet) and score some more TD’s. In general, expect the Raiders’ offense to be better. Miller is currently ranked as the 12th best TE, I’d say he’ll finish in the top 6 or 7.

Kellen Winslow, on the other hand, is a soldier. He’s not only a soldier, he’s a bleeping soldier. Also, he isn’t a terribly good tight end. His QB is most likely Josh Freeman, who doesn’t really have the accuracy you’d want to see out of an NFL quarterback yet. Even though he’ll check down to Winslow a lot, there isn’t a terrible amount of value here. He’s ranked as the 9th best TE, but I’d bet he falls outside the top 12 or 15.

Do your homework early, and do it often. It will help you win your leagues. Why not start with football season now?

Even though it’s a football column, keep the bat on your shoulders.
-Backwards K

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