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Monday, December 1, 2003
Michael Vick's Fantasy Impact

by Graham Hays
ESPN Fantasy Games

Wouldn't it be fitting in the parity-riddled world of NFL football if the majority of fantasy championships are decided by a quarterback awaiting his first start for a team still looking for its third win?

Gamer Focus
In just under 15 minutes on Sunday, Vick had me convinced that he's ready for the "must" start designation in fantasy leagues. I don't care that he plays the 24th-toughest schedule for quarterbacks down the stretch. All I needed to see was the pinpoint 28-yard laser he threw WR Peerless Price while on the run. And the 11-yard scamper on his final drive was a satisfactory glimpse of the current state of his wheels. Look, Jon Kitna, Trent Green, Brett Favre, Brad Johnson and Tom Brady are top 10 fantasy quarterbacks. Are you really ready to play any of them over a healthy Michael Vick? I certainly respect their arms, but I would rather pin my playoff hopes on the arm (and legs) of Vick.
-- Brandon Funston

It remains to be seen how many fantasy postseasons will be affected by Michael Vick -- it's conceivable that most teams who invested a first-round pick in Vick and waited out his return didn't overcome that postseason roadblock -- but it's tough to argue that Vick's return is the biggest fantasy story of the final four weeks.

So how does Vick's return alter the fantasy landscape?

Status: Vick's brief outing against Houston ought to solidify his hold on the starter's job for the final four weeks of the regular season. Showing little rust or trepidation in his two series under center, he completed 8-of-11 passes and scrambled for 16 yards on three carries. Vick took plenty of shots from the Texans and came out unscathed.

Schedule: It's fine that fantasy owners can expect Vick to start the next four games, but will he be able to get anything done? The Falcons finish with home games against Carolina and Jacksonville, as well as road games against Indianapolis and Tampa Bay. None of the four opponents rank in the bottom third of run defenses, with Jacksonville and Carolina ranking in the top eight.

And it doesn't get much better against the pass. Both the Colts and Bucs rank in the top eight against the pass, while Jacksonville has stiffened significantly in recent weeks -- limiting six of seven opposing quarterbacks to 13 or fewer fantasy points.

Despite Vick's past success against at least one opponent -- two of his nine 20-point performances last season came at the expense of the Panthers -- it's not a schedule conducive to a quick fantasy recovery for Atlanta's stagnant offense. Vick is the league's most exciting player, but he's not a miracle worker. At least not all the time.

Peerless Price
Wide Receiver
Atlanta Falcons

Supporting Cast: Remember Peerless Price? The big-ticket free agent was expected to break out a career year catching bombs from Vick. Instead, he's struggled to make an impact on the receiving end of oft-misguided throws from Doug Johnson and Kurt Kittner. As a result, he's a free agent in three percent of ESPN leagues and on the bench in most of the rest. But as with Plaxico Burress in Pittsburgh last season, a change of quarterbacks may be all that's needed to shake the bust label. Price caught one pass in nine drives with Doug Johnson at quarterback on Sunday but picked up three catches for 39 yards in Vick's two series.

Vick is likely the team's top rushing threat, but at least T.J. Duckett doesn't have much competition for the second spot. With Warrick Dunn out for the year, Duckett scored a touchdown and logged 12 of the 19 carries that didn't go to a quarterback against Houston. Vick's scrambling will keep Duckett from getting 20 carries, but given the latter's goal line productivity -- six rushing touchdowns in the last five games -- he could be a productive fantasy play with just 15-16 carries in an offense that finally scares people through the air.

Fantasy Lineup Verdict
Vick: You've waited this long, so Vick is pretty much an automatic start, although any signs of trouble against Carolina in Week 14 might be reason to sit him against at least Tampa Bay. Not that the Bucs are exactly on top of their game these days, but it's still the team that made Vick look like a fantasy mortal in two games last season.

Price: It's time to let Price out of the doghouse. Carolina is the weakest pass defense of the four remaining opponents, so give Price at least a week to prove his chemistry with Vick is the real deal.

Duckett: Last season proved that Vick isn't a running back's best friend in fantasy football, but Duckett has been too good at getting in the endzone -- and Dan Reeves may be too hesitant to call Vick's number in short yardage -- to sit now.

Brian Finneran: Unless Vick suddenly morphs into a pocket passer, there won't be enough production for two receivers to do a lot of fantasy damage. And Price is the man for now.