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Footstep Followers
Paul Sandy
August 18, 2004

At this time of year, you can’t go into a sports bar or visit a fantasy football message board without facing a question like “Who’s going to be this year’s Chad Johnson?” Everyone has their theories about which players are one step away from fantasy stardom and which are overrated. With the debates already in full swing, it’s time for an in-depth look at last year’s breakout players and flops, and which players are destined to follow in their footsteps.

Q. Who will be this year’s Chad Johnson?

A. Andre Johnson

Like the Bengals of 2003, the Texans are a team on the rise. Last season, Houston notched victories against Miami and the NFC champion Panthers. They narrowly lost to playoff teams like the Titans and Colts. They took the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots into overtime before losing on an Adam Vinatieri field goal with 41 seconds on the clock.

While the Texans were giving good teams more competition than they’d bargained for, rookie receiver Andre Johnson was opening some eyes. He registered 66 receptions and 976 yards and gave fantasy owners seven games with 70+ receiving yards. All this and his starting quarterback, David Carr, missed four games because of injury.

If it wasn’t for Anquan Boldin, everyone in fantasy land might be looking at Johnson as the best rookie receiver since Randy Moss. At 6’2” and 220 lbs., he’s the prototypical NFL wideout. He catches the ball well in traffic, but also can stretch the field when called upon.

Everyone is a fan of starting fast. That’s one reason you should consider bumping Johnson up a couple notches on your cheat sheet. The Texans open up against the hapless San Diego Chargers, a team that surrendered a league-worst 36 passing touchdowns in 2003. Their Charmin-soft passing schedule continues through the month of October. In fact, the Texans won’t see a pass defense that ranked above 20th last season until Halloween.

Look for the first month and a half of the season to be a springboard to huge success in 2004 for Johnson. While I don’t expect him to match Chad Johnson’s 1,355 receiving yards, the Houston receiver should equal Johnson’s 10 touchdowns and gain around 1,200 yards. The soft-spoken Andre Johnson may not be as vocal as his Cincinnati counterpart, but his actions will speak loudly in 2004, especially if the Texans utilize him more in the deep passing game.

Q. Who will be this year’s Koren Robinson?

A. Javon Walker

Few players have been more hyped this preseason than Javon Walker. Last year, Walker led all Green Bay wideouts with nine receiving touchdowns. He really turned it up a notch toward the end of the season, scoring six of his TDs in the final six games. The future looks bright for Walker. So bright in fact that many fantasy experts are predicting a season that will bring back memories of Sterling Sharpe.

While I won’t disagree that Walker is poised to become a fantasy star, the expectations are a bit too lofty. Walker has an excellent chance to see double digit touchdowns this season. I just don’t see him posting much more than 1,000 yards receiving. Last season the Packers completed the transformation from passing team to rushing team. Green Bay threw the second fewest passes in the NFC last season. With one of the best offensive lines in the NFL still in tact, that philosophy will continue.

A rushing team with an abundance of other receiving options, including Donald Driver, Robert Ferguson, Ahman Green, Tony Fisher and Bubba Franks? It just doesn’t appear that there will be enough balls heading Walker’s way. Like Koren Robinson last season, Walker should be an adequate number two or three fantasy receiver. Just don’t bank your entire season on the hope that he’ll net you 15 fantasy points per week.

Q. Who will be this year’s Anquan Boldin?

A. Roy Williams

Fantasy owners typically steer clear of rookie receivers like lactose intolerant people avoid spoiled milk. But Anquan Boldin may have reshaped that thinking. Never before have we seen more excitement surrounding rookie wide receivers. There are certainly plenty of options. Seven wideouts were chosen in the first round of the NFL draft. But which receiver is most likely to follow in Boldin’s footsteps?

I’m betting on Roy Williams for two reasons. First, his team is terrible. The Detroit Lions have three straight seasons with five wins or less. That means they don’t have anything to lose by starting a rookie wide receiver. Unlike some of the better teams that drafted wideouts this off season, the Lions can afford the rookie mistakes that Williams will make. The Lions are also going to be playing from behind a lot in 2004 and that should have a positive impact on the passing statistics.

Second, Williams is going to be thrust into a featured role in the passing game. The Lions don’t have any proven go-to receivers. The coaching staff needs Williams to be a contributor from the get-go. The single biggest factor in statistical production for a rookie is opportunity. Williams should get plenty of opportunities in 2003. Expect no less than 975 yards receiving and seven touchdowns.

Q. Who will be this year’s Brian Westbrook?

A. T.J. Duckett

For all the hating directed at the running back by committee philosophy, Brian Westbrook actually made it work last year. In a stretch of eight mid-season games, the second-year back scored eight touchdowns, racking up good yardage on the ground and through the air. He was arguably the biggest surprise fantasy running back in 2003. One player who seems likely to follow in Westbrook’s footsteps this year is T.J. Duckett.

I love Duckett’s potential this season. Although he’s a different style running back than Westbrook, I believe he too can become a major fantasy contributor despite playing in a running back by committee situation.

Last year, Duckett closed out his season with nine touchdowns in his final nine games. When Warrick Dunn went down with an injury in Weeks 13-17, Duckett was at his best. Assuming your league uses the typical fantasy scoring method, had you started the 250-lb. back at the end of last season, he would’ve rewarded you with the following scores: 11, 11, 13, 9, and 15. Solid points and solid production.

Look for Duckett’s numbers to climb even higher in 2004. Michael Vick is coming back from injury and should ignite the Atlanta offense. That will mean more opportunities for Duckett who is itching to become the Falcons true workhorse running back this season. “ Honestly, I've been a little disappointed in myself,” said Duckett in an report. “I don't want to look back on this year and be disappointed again. It's time to turn it up. I think this is probably the most aggressive I've ever been in getting ready for a season.”

If Duckett is available to your team in the fourth or fifth round, don’t hesitate to pounce on him. He should deliver the goods to the tune of 1,100 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.

Q. Who will be this year’s Domanick Davis?

A. Steven Jackson

When it comes to rookie running backs, all eyes are focused on Detroit. Kevin Jones has all but been declared the starter. I expect him to accomplish great things in 2004, but my hunch is running back Steven Jackson is going to end the season as the top rookie running back.

The end is near for Marshall Faulk. His knees are shot. And for a running back, when the knees go, the retirement party is never too far off. Just ask Terrell Davis. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch said it best when it reported that “Faulk has undergone so many knee surgeries over his career that they basically have become an afterthought.” At 31 years of age and with 10 games on turf this season, Faulk is very likely at the point where every creak and crack of his joints has him pondering whether he’s better off on the operating table or in a hammock sipping margaritas.

With Faulk’s knees like a ticking time bomb, the door – and the practice time – are wide open for Steven Jackson. Another bonus for Jackson is that Faulk’s other back up, Lamar Gordon, suffered an injury of his own. Gordon had surgery on his left ankle in early August and will likely miss the entire preseason.

At 6’1” 230 lbs., Jackson is the classic workhorse running back. After the draft, head coach Mike Martz was downright giddy about landing Jackson. “He’s a physical back with speed,” said Martz. “He’s got that jump-cut. He’s a terrific receiver out of the backfield, and he’s a very willing pass-blocker.” Since training camp, the reviews have been less positive. Martz indicated Jackson had “a long, long way to go.” But what rookie doesn’t? It’s still early and that could easily be coach-speak to motivate his running back of the future.

Although many people believe Jackson’s value hinges on Faulk’s health, I expect he will get touches no matter what. Martz realizes that Faulk hasn’t played a complete season in four years. To keep his former MVP healthy, he’ll have to reduce his workload. Count on Jackson spelling Faulk frequently, possibly even at the goal line. And if Faulk gets injured early in the season, look out.

Q. Who will be this year’s Rich Gannon?

A. Steve McNair

For the first time in his career, Steve McNair is overrated on most fantasy football cheat sheets. In the past few seasons, McNair has been the quintessential sixth round quarterback. However, winning the MVP award last season has elevated him in the minds of some experts. I’ve seen him ranked as high as fourth among QBs. That’s much too high for a guy who has never thrown more than 24 touchdowns in a season.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not predicting a total statistical collapse like the one Gannon had last year. I just don’t think McNair will repeat his MVP stats from 2003.

The argument can be made that Tennessee morphed into a passing team last season, but the fact is they ranked ninth in the NFL in rushing attempts per game. Believe it or not, McNair’s fantasy scoring climbed less than one point per game – 15.56 per game in 2002 versus 16.50 in 2003 (according to scoring). His strength, of course, was a lofty QB rating and only seven interceptions. Unfortunately, in most leagues those stats don’t mean squat.

One reason why McNair might not live up to his high ranking is that the Titans have by many accounts taken a step backward this off season. Say what you will about Eddie George, but don’t argue that his presence in the backfield didn’t impact McNair. With George’s departure, Tennessee will likely turn to Chris Brown and/or Antowain Smith. Brown has shown flashes of talent, but he only has 56 career carries, never rushing more than 12 times in a single game. He has yet to prove that he can be a capable pass blocker on a full time basis. That alone is cause for concern because of McNair’s tendency to get nicked up. Smith is a journeyman who’s clearly on the downside of his career. I’m not confident that either option will be an improvement for the Titan’s offense or McNair’s statistics.

McNair had 3,246 yards and 24 touchdowns in 14 games in 2003. Look for 3,300 yards and 21 touchdowns this season across a full schedule. That drop-off combined with higher expectations spells disappointment for owners who reach for McNair in the third or fourth round.