Thirty-two teams, 32 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each NFL team. Be sure to check out all 32 questions.
Larry Johnson is finally signed, sealed and delivered, but is he capable of repeating his 2006 season?
From all the negative talk about Johnson this spring in fantasy circles, you'd think he was some 30-year-old back teetering on the edge of retirement. This is an incredibly big, fast and talented guy who's never been injured, and since he started getting the ball in the middle of 2005 he's done nothing other than rush for over 1,700 yards and 18 scores a season. There's no question LJ totes more risk with him this year than some of the other top fantasy backs. But when the dust settles, he'll exceed 1,600 yards rushing again, and score upwards of 15 touchdowns.
I'll be the first to admit the deck looks a bit stacked against Johnson. First off, there's the offensive line, which lost All-Pro guard Will Shields to retirement this year and Hall of Fame tackle Willie Roaf to retirement last year. The key guy in '07 is Damion McIntosh, who signed a big-money deal to be Roaf Jr. in this offense, but then hurt his knee in camp and will miss the entire preseason. If he doesn't get right, the Chiefs have a whole lot of nothing to replace him. However, if you make the assumption McIntosh will be OK, this line will still be above average, and rather peeved at the lack of respect it's received this offseason. Brian Waters (30), Casey Wiegmann (34) and John Welbourn (31) are grizzled by NFL standards, but they comprise what should be an intimidating interior line. Welbourn is a natural guard who was forced to play tackle last season (after he returned from a drug suspension), Wiegmann hasn't missed a game at center in six years, and Waters is a three-time Pro Bowler who had a 79 consecutive games-played streak halted by a knee injury late last season (he's healed). Get McIntosh back (and it's expected the Chiefs will), and this team's line problems are vastly overstated.
Next, there's LJ's workload, and it's been prodigious. He set a single-season record for carries last season, with 416, and there's good statistical evidence that backs who undergo that kind of punishment in a season are often never the same thereafter. Then again, LaDainian Tomlinson was second in carries last year (albeit at 348), and he has 1,158 more career carries than Johnson. Plus, unlike LJ, LT actually has gotten hurt before, and LJ basically has three years' less wear on him. No, I'm not arguing Johnson should be ahead of Tomlinson (in fact, I'm the guy who argued for LT last year), but I'm saying you can make statistics say an awful lot of things, and not all of 'em are true. LJ's going to take punishment this year, and he's going to get hit a lot in the backfield, and he's going to slow down eventually as a result. I just don't think it's a fait accompli that the slowdown happens this season. In fact, Johnson's massive-carry season came so early in his career, I believe the slowdown won't happen in '07. Heck, I'll agree that this huge contract Johnson just signed will probably come back and bite Kansas City. But not this season.
Next on the concern list come the quarterback situation in Kansas City and the contract holdout. Hey, there's not much I can say to defend the QB situation except to say that Curtis Martin had a couple pretty darned good seasons playing for Herm Edwards when teams pretty much knew all Herm wanted to do was run, and all Chad Pennington could do was hoist softies. Brodie Croyle should be a traffic wreck of a quarterback, and it would certainly be better for LJ if Damon Huard won the job. Either way, though, Herm's going to run, Johnson's going to get stuffed a bunch, but then he's also going to break out a few times a game. And as for the holdout? Please. Ask Emmitt Smith circa 1993 how badly holdouts affect a running back; in 14 games, he rushed for 1,486 yards (for a 5.3 yards-per-carry average). If anything, LJ's rested. By the way, I don't think there's a need to take the Priest Holmes comeback seriously.
I admit it: This column reads like an apologia, and I suppose that's what it is. There are a quite a few things that can go wrong with Larry Johnson in 2007. But what gets lost in all the quibbling about circumstance and surrounding cast is that this guy is a supremely talented back with startlingly few miles on his odometer. He's come a long way from Dick Vermeil's diapers. I believe talent will win out, and there's still nothing scarier than playing against LJ's fantasy team and seeing him get near the corner on the opponent's 15-yard line. He's going in. So, will he exactly match last season's 1,789 rushing yards and 17 scores? Maybe not. But it's going to be darned close.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com.
You can e-mail him here.