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Friday, September 3, 2010
Twenty preseason revelations

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

In three 2009 preseason starts, Jay Cutler was 28-of-44 for 329 yards, two touchdowns and one pick. That 64 percent completion rate and 7.5 yards-per-attempt average belied the 60 percent completion rate and 6.6 YPA (as well as the whopping 26 interceptions) he'd produce once the regular season began.

In his 2009 preseason appearances, Aaron Rodgers went 29-for-41 for 465 yards, six touchdowns and zero picks. And of course in Rodgers' case, tremendous preseason production carried right over into the regular season and he became the most valuable quarterback in fantasy.

The lesson, as if you needed to be reminded, is that preseason stats aren't good indicators of how well a player will perform once Week 1 arrives. Otherwise, Luke McCown's name would be on every fantasy owner's lips right now.

Of course, that doesn't mean we don't learn anything from the yeoman's work many beat reporters do from training camps throughout August, or even occasionally from watching preseason game action. So today, as the preseason has drawn to a close, let's look at 20 storylines that may be quite illustrative as we ready ourselves for the start of the 2010 NFL regular season. And let me be up front here: whereas during the regular season, I do my best to watch every game before I write The Breakdown, that hasn't been possible during the preseason. I've watched a bunch, including some replays on the NFL Network. But I'll admit that in some cases -- and to a far greater extent than once the season starts and I watch game film -- I'm relying on the reporting of other (excellent) football writers.

1. Matt Leinart. In a purely football sense, I think the Cardinals are making a mistake. Has Derek Anderson been substantially better than Leinart? I haven't watched every snap, but not from what I've seen, and the numbers back me up: through three games, Leinart was 19-of-23 for 161 yards, one score and no picks, while Anderson was 31-of-53 for 287 yards, two scores and two picks. Yes, I understand the criticisms of Leinart as a "checkdown Charlie" who doesn't take enough risks with the football. No, the Cardinals didn't move the ball particularly well under Leinart's stewardship. But this is Derek Anderson. We know who this guy is. He has a 52.9 percent completion rate for his career. Last year, that number was 44.5 percent. Sure, he'll take some risks for you; they'll just wind up picked off or rolling around on the sidelines. If this is really the way it's going to go, if Leinart really is toast, it might just be an interpersonal thing. I'm not in Cardinals camp; maybe he's just a jerk. But I feel awful about Anderson as the starter. I'm not moving Larry Fitzgerald down just yet because he's going to get double-digit targets every week. But Steve Breaston and Early Doucet have taken a tumble in my ranks.

2. Maurice Jones-Drew is giving everyone palpitations. MJD was supposed to be the clear No. 3 in all fantasy drafts, no matter what your format. But a lateral meniscus injury in his knee has thrown potential fantasy owners into a swivet. By this point, I think we're all convinced that Jones-Drew didn't have arthroscopic surgery, and that the Jaguars have been holding him out of action simply to rest him. But all thoughts of "safety" in drafting MJD are gone. Might this linger into the season? Might he suffer swelling that could cause him to be routinely questionable? Absolutely. I left Jones-Drew at No. 3 in my overall ranks, but if you're looking for the safer guy, it's probably Ray Rice. Then again, no running back is really safe. Hopefully we've all learned that by now. Incidentally, while he wouldn't have anywhere near the upside MJD does, Rashad Jennings is a guy you should think about drafting in all leagues, regardless of whether you drafted Jones-Drew.

3. Arian Foster looks pretty good. Foster's ADP has jumped more than two rounds in the past week alone, and I understand why: He was a beast against the Cowboys on Saturday night. I already had Foster at No. 53 overall, but I've bumped him up again, ahead of Joseph Addai to No. 47 overall (and No. 23 on my running back list). Steve Slaton's turf toe injury doesn't bode well, and I'm not ready to say Jeremiah Johnson is going to be a serious drain on anyone's value just yet. Foster's one-cut running style blends well with the Texans' O-line and their aerial attack, which tends to have defenses on their heels. Exercise a bit of caution, because we've all been burned by high-upside Houston rushers in the recent past (Slaton, Ahman Green, Ron Dayne, Vernand Morency and Domanick Williams come to mind). But there's reason for excitement for this former undrafted second-year man.
C.J. Spiller
C.J. Spiller has entered the discussion for most valuable fantasy rookie running back this season.

4. Ryan Mathews is still No. 1, but … If there's one rookie to draft, it's still clearly Mathews, who may have had a couple of short-yardage bumps in the road in the Chargers' second game, but otherwise has lived up to his billing: he's powerful, has a bit of wiggle and makes the most of his runs. But C.J. Spiller and Jahvid Best have each made claims to fantasy starter-hood, something that seemed impossible a month ago. The scripts for these guys are eerily similar: injured veterans ahead of them, questions about their size, eye-opening performances against first-team defenses. Spiller has benefited from Fred Jackson's broken hand to grab the Bills' starting job, though Marshawn Lynch will likely get worked into the season opener. Best has taken advantage of the fact Kevin Smith is nowhere close to a factor while still recovering from his torn ACL, and is so clearly the Lions' starter that they took him out of their third preseason game after the first drive (on which he accounted for 61 yards on two plays). These are two similar-sized players with amazing quickness, but they need to avoid big hits like the plague. I give Best the bigger upside because there's really nobody else in Detroit, but Spiller will probably be used in a safer manner, and thus looks like a surer bet to get through the full season.

5. Offensive line woes. It's futile to watch a few preseason plays and decide you understand how good an O-line is going to be. You never know when an offense is trying something new (or very old), whether a rookie has snuck into the starting lineup to give him a taste of first-string life, or if the quarterback is just having an off series. But when the problems stretch into multiple games, well, it's at least time to take notice. In particular, the O-lines for the Cowboys, Eagles and Bears have looked just terrible no matter what their teams have tried. Jay Cutler has been sacked 10 times in 16 drives, and has talked about "trust issues." Tony Romo got sacked five times and looked consistently out of sorts. Kevin Kolb seemed to be leaping backward to avoid rushers on half his throws, and Philly once again looks terrible in the red zone. I'm not downgrading these guys or their offenses just yet. But I'll be watching. It's especially worrisome for the highly touted Cowboys' skill players, who could struggle in the early going because of injuries to guys like Marc Colombo, Alex Barron and Sam Young (though Colombo and Barron may be ready Week 1).

6. The Seahawks belong in a different category, woes-wise. Not only is the O-line a question in Seattle, as it consistently was last year, but the entire offense just looks like a fantasy wasteland. There was some nice rhythm against the Packers a couple of weeks ago, but really nothing to speak of (other than the seemingly weekly Mike Williams appearance) against the Vikings last Saturday. Left tackle Russell Okung, the No. 6 overall pick in April's draft, sounds unlikely to play Week 1 because of a high-ankle sprain. Rookie Golden Tate reportedly looks lost, and didn't play until the fourth quarter against Minnesota. Supposed "fantasy sleeper" Leon Washington is back to returning kicks again, a job he's good at, but a job that always limited his upside with the Jets. John Carlson has been invisible. Before Thursday night's game, no running back had come close to breaking anything long, and Pete Carroll seems quite committee-oriented. In my opinion, Justin Forsett and T.J. Houshmandzadeh are being severely overdrafted in the seventh and ninth rounds (respectively) of a 10-team draft.

7. Jerome Harrison has been terrible. Harrison fumbled three times in the Browns' two preseason games leading up to Thursday night, to go along with 71 yards on 23 carries. When Montario Hardesty suffered a knee injury early in training camp, everyone thought Harrison had clearly ascended to Cleveland's No. 1 spot again, but suffice it to say Harrison hasn't taken advantage. Plus if you take away a single 71-yard December run against the Chiefs in Week 15, his season yards-per-carry average would've been 4.1; there were only three games out of the 13 he played last season where he averaged better than 4 yards per carry. Unfortunately it appears that Hardesty injured his other knee Thursday night and was seen with a brace on, so it's unclear whether anyone can take advantage of Harrison's struggles. Maybe Hardesty. Maybe James Davis. Maybe Peyton Hillis. Maybe some combination of all of them. Regardless, I'm not excited about Harrison this fall.

Jordan Shipley
Every pass thrown Jordan Shipley's way is one not going to either Chad Ochocinco or Terrell Owens.
8. The Bengals WRs have competition from an unlikely source. I've admitted I was too low on Terrell Owens to begin training camp; all preseason evidence indicates that the Bengals are fairly committed to getting him the ball. That said, I'd still much rather have Chad Ochocinco once the games start counting, because I don't have faith in Owens' ability to get open down the field. That said, something other than big-time questions about Carson Palmer's throwing arm (which hasn't exactly shone in preseason action) has started to make me leery of drafting anyone in this passing offense. That something is rookie Jordan Shipley. Shipley has beaten out Andre Caldwell for the slot-receiving job in Cincinnati, and looks like an actual late-round option in point-per-reception leagues. Through four preseason games heading into Thursday night, Shipley had 13 grabs for 112 yards. He's not likely to be a 10-team-league fantasy factor because he's probably not much of an end zone option, but Shipley (and to some extent fellow rookie Jermaine Gresham) looks like an attractive checkdown option for Palmer. If double-digit targets go to Shipley and Gresham combined each week, that certainly lowers the value of Ochocinco and Owens.

9. Kenny Britt isn't worth your time. I've lowered Britt to No. 35 on my wideout list, and part of me wonders if that's low enough. Justin Gage has been out with an injured thumb, giving Britt plenty of chances to run with the first team in Tennessee, but Britt hasn't done much with the opportunity. In addition to coming off a late-summer traffic violation (for driving with a revoked license), Britt chose an appearance on "Monday Night Football" to drop a pass and then kick the ball into the stands in frustration. Concerns about this kid's maturity are well founded, and right now it can't matter to Jeff Fisher that Britt is the most physically talented receiver he has. Once Gage is back, it seems both he and Nate Washington will be ahead of Britt on the depth chart. It'll take an in-season change of heart for Britt to sniff fantasy starting lineups.

10. Kyle Orton has been impressive. Maybe we'll be able to file this along with Cutler's '09 preseason, but Orton has made talk of Brady Quinn or Tim Tebow getting significant time under center moot this summer; in the Broncos' first three games, he went 33-of-49 for 341 yards, four scores and two picks. I've been tempted all summer to completely write off the Denver passing game, but the loss of Brandon Marshall doesn't seem to have totally derailed Orton, at least not yet. Am I drafting him -- or any of his wideouts -- to be a fantasy starter? Definitely not. Jabar Gaffney looks like the best fantasy option here, but I've seen some people treating him as though he's a top-30 guy, and I don't see that at all. Still, it would be good news for Knowshon Moreno's value if Orton can keep the Denver offense balanced.

And here are 10 more quick-hit observations:

11. The Patriots' defense has a chance to be truly horrible.

12. Antonio Cromartie looks miscast as the Jets' top corner with Darrelle Revis still out.

13. My worries about Matt Moore look well-founded so far, especially with Jeff Otah still out.

14. Who'd have thought Vernon Davis would suddenly become a voice of reason in 49ers camp?

15. Aaron Rodgers looks great, but if either Chad Clifton or Mark Tauscher gets hurt, Rodgers will be under constant fire.

16. Jacoby Jones is making me look pretty good so far.

17. Mike Thomas may be short, but he's locked in as an outside receiver in Jacksonville.

18. It doesn't look like Mike Wallace cares who's throwing him the ball; he makes a big play every week.

19. Bernard Berrian isn't playing like anything close to a fantasy factor right now.

20. Robert Meachem can't stay on the field, and Devery Henderson looks like the legit No. 2 wideout in New Orleans. And don't forget Lance Moore.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy and follow him at www.twitter.com/writerboyESPN.