Back in 2004, a rookie quarterback burst upon the scene for a strong defensive team, with his role being to lead the squad and avoid mistakes. Ben Roethlisberger wasn't the most hyped rookie in the NFL when that season started, nor was he terribly valuable in fantasy football, but he went 13-0 for the Steelers in the regular season and even won a playoff game. The next season he won the Super Bowl.
This year, the Baltimore Ravens enter Monday night against Roethlisberger's Steelers with a 2-0 record and a rookie quarterback entrusted with the same job. Joe Flacco hasn't thrown a touchdown pass yet -- he has run for one -- and he's completed a mere 28 passes in home wins over the struggling Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns, and now he gets a tough test against a top defense, in front of the entire football world. Could Flacco run the table as Roethlisberger did, and help fantasy owners along the way?
One can see similarities between a younger Roethlisberger and Flacco in terms of size, arm strength and maturity, but what fantasy owners really want to know is if the Delaware Blue Hen cannot only make the Ravens big winners, but fantasy players. It's always risky to depend on a rookie quarterback, in real life and in our crazy world, so the easy answer is to be careful, very careful. The longer answer is you should probably look elsewhere to find a fantasy quarterback for this season, and not wait until the Steelers force the 23-year-old into numerous mistakes, thus radically changing his value.
In ESPN standard formats, Flacco is owned in 15 percent of leagues, which ranks him 34th among quarterbacks in ownership. Brady Quinn, who has yet to start a game, is owned in more leagues. So is Vince Young, who might not start another game anytime soon. Tom Brady is owned in 40.4 percent of leagues! He definitely will not start another game in 2008. It certainly appears fantasy owners are aware of Flacco's value, and that he's not likely to be the next Roethlisberger.
The Ravens are a run-first team, much like the Steelers have been for decades, and the Baltimore defense did look impressive in allowing only 10 points in its first two contests. Flacco did not have a good game against the Browns last week, though his team emerged with an easy victory. In Roethlisberger's rookie campaign, he entered Week 2 in relief of Tommy Maddox and threw two touchdown passes. Then he never looked back. By the time he was 6-0, he had thrown nine touchdown passes and only three interceptions. Flacco has the same ability, but in two starts he has been picked off twice. He's not Roethlisberger yet.
Those in keeper leagues should stick with Flacco, assuming the Ravens do. He's their quarterback of the future, and Monday's game will probably go a long way toward determining how long he keeps the starting role this season. If he can lead the team to victory, even with subpar statistics, then he should hold off Troy Smith. If not, then the Ravens might have a quarterback controversy. Either way, it appears fantasy owners are wisely looking elsewhere.
Flacco isn't the only rookie on display in this AFC North battle: Rashard Mendenhall will make his first start at running back, as Willie Parker is out with a sprained knee suffered late in the Week 3 loss to the Eagles. It's easier and more common for running backs to emerge as rookies to become owned and relied upon in fantasy leagues. In fact, we're seeing quite a few first-year players at this position doing quite well, from Matt Forte to Darren McFadden. The Steelers haven't announced whether Parker will miss more than one week, but Mendenhall still makes for a smart pickup, although not a particularly wise play. He's likely to run into problems against the Ravens; Parker, for example, had rushed 46 times for 93 yards in his three previous games against Baltimore, and this is a Steelers offensive trend likely to continue.
Hopefully fantasy owners won't be relying on Flacco or Mendenhall in this Monday night clash.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "Top 100 Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact him by e-mailing him here.