Even after his terrific postseason run that culminated in a Super Bowl championship, many fantasy owners remain skeptical about Eli Manning. They think he just went on a hot streak, and that he'll return to being inconsistent for fantasy purposes in 2008. I certainly disagree with the naysayers. Manning reached new levels of success last season, and after progressing more than ever at the most important time of the season, he's not about to suddenly take any significant steps backward.
Manning made his mark in the most important games of the schedule, and completely passed his "trial by fire." Much of the art of making predictions in fantasy football is to look at past results while projecting the future. Yet there comes a time with some quarterbacks where the past becomes much less relevant, and you simply have to look to the future. I believe that is the case with Manning, who endured his share of challenges as a starter early in his career, learned from his errors and is moving to the next stage of development in his career.
Manning has all the skills to become an elite fantasy quarterback, and we'll see him enter his prime and begin rising to the top of his position from the fantasy perspective over the next few seasons. At some point in many quarterbacks' careers, a proverbial light goes on in their heads and they simply take their games to the next level. We saw it happen earlier in Matt Hasselbeck's career, when he went from unreliable starter to Pro Bowl performer. Drew Brees looked like a bust early in his pro career, but he came through with a mostly unexpected breakthrough season in 2004 and has never looked back since.
So as we look ahead to the 2008 season, I can't help but think of one quarterback who has all the natural skills to succeed, but has endured some rough struggles while showing only brief flashes of promise early in his career. Is this the year Matt Leinart finally starts living up to expectations? Can he finally become a quality fantasy starter this year?
Entering his third season, Leinart is considered to have the edge in the starting quarterback race in Arizona, despite the fine play of veteran Kurt Warner last year. Leinart is recovering from a significant collarbone injury that ended his 2007 season in October, but all reports indicate that he has recovered well and should be fully ready for the new campaign. It is seemingly Leinart's job to lose for now, as head coach Ken Whisenhunt recently said that he no longer prefers to rotate his quarterbacks like he did in 2007 before Leinart was injured.
"I certainly wouldn't rule something like that out," Whisenhunt told The Arizona Republic. "Last year we did it because we felt it gave us the best chance to win. It wasn't really a thing about who did this better. Obviously, Kurt ran the no huddle better at that time. But Matt is much further along with it."
While the possibility of alternating quarterbacks still exists if Leinart is inconsistent again, it's pretty apparent that he is going to be given the chance to win the job outright in the preseason. Not only has Leinart been working diligently on his mechanics and footwork during the offseason, he also has the pieces in place around him to succeed, or so it seems. He has arguably the best pair of starting wide receivers in the NFL, as well as an offensive line that showed clear signs of being more dependable this year. The Cardinals should also engage in a lot of shootouts in the NFC West this year, and with the running game not being ideally outstanding, Leinart may have to throw a lot on a weekly basis to keep the Cardinals in games.
There may be too much pressure on Leinart this year for him to truly take the next major step forward in his development, but the 2008 season should go a long way toward establishing him as a quality fantasy starter for 2009. During the upcoming season, Leinart will have to face significant challenges and push through them to become a better quarterback. The Cardinals will have to let him pass or fail and live with the results, much as the Giants have done with Manning. Only by gaining experience in critical situations will Leinart become the franchise quarterback the Cardinals want him to be. He's not going to progress sitting on the bench.
Leinart can easily put the off-field distractions from the offseason behind him. Showing he can do that and focus on football can only help him mature and accelerate his development. However, he is going to frustrate fantasy owners at times on the field this season. If Whisenhunt allows him to work through his mistakes as he should, Leinart will have some fine performances that certainly will bode well for his future potential. Yet there will also be times when he plays from behind and scuffles, and the lack of a regularly dependable running game will put him in many adverse passing situations and lead to disappointing outings.
Whether Whisenhunt gives Leinart the freedom not to look over his shoulder at Warner this season remains to be seen, and it would be no shock to see the coach pull Leinart at any time in 2008. No matter what transpires, though, this will be a critical season in Leinart's career. Fantasy players won't be able to rely on him, yet they should hope he gets extensive playing time to boost his appeal for 2009. This year, it's probably better to consider Leinart only as a backup in the final rounds. Yet you should monitor his progress carefully, as the "light may go on" in Leinart's head next year if he can survive the tribulations of the upcoming season.
Final ESPN Fantasy
This will be the final Fantasy Offseason Notebook of 2008, as you can now look forward to the top-notch preseason fantasy coverage you've come to expect from the All-Star team of experts assembled at the Worldwide Leader. That includes the upcoming ESPN Fantasy Football Guide. Nowhere else will you find so many in-depth scouting reports and unique statistical insights.
This is also my final fantasy football column after four memorable years at ESPN. I will be moving on to a new, exciting opportunity in the fantasy industry, and I'll still be in the game. Yet I will always be grateful for the chance to take the great leap to ESPN in 2004. For a football player, the realization of his ultimate career goal is to walk out of the tunnel and onto the turf at an NFL game. For me, my dream was realized when I walked into the ESPN offices at Bristol four years ago, sat down in the cube next to Eric Karabell, and then started writing columns that appeared on ESPN.com. That was when I felt like Vince Papale.
Nothing thrilled me more than when I was able to take my son Sean onto the set of "Baseball Tonight" and see the awe in his young eyes. Thanks to Eric Karabell and Patrick Stiegman for giving me the chance to realize my dream. Thanks to Tristan H. Cockcroft and Brendan Roberts for their enduring friendships. And much thanks to Matthew Berry, who is more than just the TMR to me. He's a longtime buddy. Much gratitude to Pete Becker, Nate Ravitz, Keith Lipscomb, Kevin Rounce, James Quintong and the entire ESPN.com fantasy staff (sorry if I left anyone out). Those guys will continue to live up to the gold standard you have come to expect on this site. Most of all, I thank you, my readers, for allowing me to help you in any way I could. Even if going against my advice helped you win, it was all about helping you reach your goals as well.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.