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Friday, August 10, 2007
Washington Redskins fantasy team preview

By Christopher Harris

The Washington Post reports that to celebrate the 21st birthday of his fiancée, Washington tight end Chris Cooley and his father-in-law-to-be "threw back 21 shots of Jim Beam bourbon. Apiece." And that just about sums up the 2006 season for the Washington Potomac Drainage Basin Indigenous Persons (as columnist Gregg Easterbrook rightly refers to them).

Or, to quote another famous scholar, "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son."

A year after delivering a surprise playoff appearance, coach Joe Gibbs mustered no magic, and his oft-injured team finished a woeful 5-11. First-year starting quarterback Jason Campbell, replacing Mark Brunell, wasn't terrible but was inconsistent, and Santana Moss posted just 790 yards receiving, his worst total since he's been a starter. Clinton Portis got hurt a couple of times and played in only eight games, ceding carries to Ladell Betts, who posted his first 1,000-yard rushing season and accounted for 1,599 yards despite starting only nine games. The defense was banged up and dreadful, especially when rushing the passer. Gregg Williams defenses are supposed to be sack-happy, but Washington managed only 19 sacks in '06, worst in the league and a mere 42 behind NFL-leading San Diego. The team also intercepted a league-low six passes, which seems borderline impossible, but there you have it. The big-ticket acquisitions of Andre Carter and Antwaan Randle El led to very little production, and much-heralded secondary names like Shawn Springs and Carlos Rogers were well nigh invisible.

The problem in the Potomac Drainage Basin now is that nothing much has changed in 2007. The team imported some defensive has-beens, for some reason drafted another big-hitting safety and generally showed fiscal restraint for the first time in recent memory. The offense might open up a bit, which would be good fantasy news and could lead to some useful fantasy entities. But as a whole, the team will struggle again.

Key Additions
Derrick Blaylock (RB)
Corey Bradford (WR)
Jason Fabini (OL)
London Fletcher-Baker (LB)
Ross Tucker (OL)
LaRon Landry (DB)

Key Losses
T.J. Duckett (RB)
David Patten (WR)
Derrick Dockery (OL)
Adam Archuleta (DB)
John Hall (PK)

Probable Lineup QB: Jason Campbell
RB1: Clinton Portis
RB2: Ladell Betts
WR1: Santana Moss
WR2: Brandon Lloyd
WR3: Antwaan Randle El
TE: Chris Cooley
K: Shaun Suisham

Key Backups/Position Battles

Brunell was typically awful, leading the team to a 3-6 record last year before mercifully getting benched in favor of Campbell, and now he's pulling down a game check as a well-paid backup. His 2006 highlight was breaking the league record for consecutive completions (22). Yippee. His arm strength gone, Brunell will be the fantasy non-factor in 2007 that he's deserved to be the past couple of years. Todd Collins is the third-string man, although Casey Bramlet could push him.

Running Backs
Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts don't exactly form a platoon, but without question, Betts will cut into Portis' fantasy value. And he should: Betts was a stud last season, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, catching 53 passes, breaking into a lot of long runs and earning a big contract extension ($5.5 million guaranteed), which certifies that he'll be a large part of the offense again this season. What Betts doesn't do well is run from in close; he had zero red-zone scores last year and only five touchdowns. So if Portis is healthy, he's the short-yardage man. If he is not, fullbacks Mike Sellers (who scored eight touchdowns two years ago) or Rock Cartwright could vulture scores from Betts. Free-agent acquisition Derrick Blaylock has played in Al Saunders offenses before, but without an injury, it's hard to imagine him being fantasy-relevant.

Wide Receivers
Yuck. This receiving corps was disappointing last year and didn't get any better for '07. Randle El never has caught more than 47 passes in a season, and that total came in 2002, his rookie year, so it's hard to know what Gibbs and owner Dan Snyder were thinking giving him big guaranteed money last season. He's an adequate slot guy but shouldn't be owned in any but the deepest leagues. Brandon Lloyd has a big mouth and crummy hands that got him benched by the end of '06, and other than an eight-game stretch for the '05 49ers, he's barely been an adequate pro. Stay away from him and from James Thrash, whose speed is gone and who is nothing but a fourth receiver.

Tight Ends
Washington continues to be a very friendly place for tight ends; Chris Cooley has to rank well inside the top 10 at the position league-wide. Because Cooley's such a good receiver, and because Campbell will look to him so frequently, no other tight ends on this team will be worth drafting.

Key Games/Bye

Week 1 Miami Dolphins
Week 4 Bye
Week 5 Detroit Lions
Week 6 @ Green Bay Packers
Week 7 Arizona Cardinals
Week 12 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Week 14 Chicago Bears
Week 15 @ New York Giants
Week 16 @ Minnesota Vikings
Week 17 Dallas Cowboys

What to Look for in 2007

Jason Campbell gives this team hope; he's only 2-5 as a starter, but he threw a touchdown pass every week he started last year, and his quarterback rating was a respectable 76.5. Plus, unlike Mark Brunell, Campbell has the physical tools that theoretically should be able to help him stretch the field. That said, because of a startlingly thin receiving crew, Campbell can't be your No. 1 quarterback. Draft him as a bye-week backup with more upside than most.

This squad will do its fantasy damage on the ground. It begins with a very good pair of bookend tackles: Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels. (Samuels suffered a sprained MCL in camp but is expected to be back for Week 1.) Losing left guard Derrick Dockery, who's a masher, hurts, and I don't see a great fill-in option; either Todd Wade, who flopped for the Texans before needing knee surgery last year, or Mike Pucillo, a career backup center, will replace Dockery. But if it stays healthy, this O-line is really good and will lead Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts to very fantasy-worthy seasons. The problem, of course, is the presence of two good backs in D.C. If he stays healthy, Portis is the more valuable property because he's a touchdown maker and Betts isn't. But Betts is a fantastic receiver who'll play most third downs, have a ton of value in point-per-reception leagues and snatch just enough carries to keep Portis from being a first-round pick. And of course there's the question of Portis' health; he's already missed substantial time in camp because of a bad knee and, as of this writing, was headed to see Dr. James Andrews to get himself checked out. Keep an ear to the ground.

Only Santana Moss is draftable among the receivers, and while his speed and sheer talent keep him inside my positional top 20, I'm not wildly enthusiastic about his prospects, if only because he has so little help. Moss battled hamstring injuries in '06 and caught just 54 of his 102 targets, primarily because he wasn't able to get open deep. Assuming he's healthy, that should change in '07, and with Campbell's big arm under center, Moss can regain his reputation as one of the biggest-play receivers in the game. There easily are 15 other receivers I'd rather have. But Moss really is it for Washington. There's no reason to draft Antwaan Randle El; if he's going to be worth that big contract, it'll be because Washington uses him in the prototypical "slash" role, which would make him a better "real-life" player than "fantasy" player. Brandon Lloyd is a head case. James Thrash is slow.

The best fantasy player on this team is Mr. 21 Shots himself, Chris Cooley. I received countless e-mails complaining about my ranking Cooley so high among tight ends over the first five weeks of '06, but when Campbell took over, Cooley took off. In Washington's final 11 games, Cooley caught 42 passes for 585 yards and six touchdowns, putting him squarely in the higher echelon of tight ends during that span. There's no reason he can't continue that kind of production going forward; he should be drafted somewhere between sixth and eighth at his position.

Finally, there's the defense, which can't help but be a little better in '07. London Fletcher-Baker is entering his 10th year, but he should help what was a bad middle linebacking spot last season. Neither Fred Smoot nor David Macklin should start at cornerback, but at least they provide much-needed depth. And for all his overlap with Sean Taylor (both in terms of skills and future contract needs), first-round pick LaRon Landry will be a positive influence. Still, it's hard to imagine that this defense suddenly will go from the worst sacking and intercepting team in football to one of the best. Stay away.

Bottom Line

Washington might be bad again this year, but there are fantasy players worth drafting. Cooley, Portis, Betts and Moss will be owned in all leagues, and if one of the rushers gets hurt (Portis has an early line on that distinction), the other leaps into the top 10. It'll be another long season in the Potomac Drainage Basin, perhaps Joe Gibbs' last. But the clever fantasy football drafter still can have some fun this year singing along with "Hail To The Indigenous Persons."

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for You can e-mail him here.