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5 Minute Guide

Blanket coverage of the Fantasy Football field for 2006

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SI's 2006 Fantasy Preview
Larry Johnson.
Larry Johnson.
David Bergman/SI
PETER KING: I THINK ...

There's a ridiculous overemphasis on running backs in fantasy football. Running backs in the NFL are eminently more replaceable than quarterbacks, left tackles and pass rushers, yet when you look at the mock fantasy drafts this summer, you see backs like Tiki Barber ranked ahead of Peyton Manning. Absurd.

MY ADVICE: Buck the trend. Let's say I'm in a 12-team league, drafting in the middle of the pack. I take Manning with my first pick, thinking he's going to take essentially every snap -- he always does -- and if he puts up average numbers, based on his past four seasons (33 touchdowns, 4,193 yards), all I have to do at running back is be pretty good. And over the next three rounds I'm going to get three of these six backs: Ronnie Brown, Tatum Bell, Brian Westbrook, Chester Taylor, Laurence Maroney and DeAngelo Williams. I'll cobble together a receiving corps -- and I'll be in the money in December.

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THE INSIDE MAN

Training camps have yet to open, but SI's fantasy expert, Jeffri Chadiha, is already gathering valuable news

LJ'S CATCHING ON Any fantasy owner can see the value in Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, who ran for 1,750 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2005. But here's what makes Johnson even more attractive this season: He should be playing more on passing downs. Kansas City often sat him in those situations last season because Johnson didn't block well enough to consistently pick up blitzes. But Johnson is committed to proving himself in that area, and Chiefs coaches believe that he'll improve as he gets more experience.

What this means for fantasy owners is that Johnson -- who has 56 career receptions -- could become more of a pass-catching threat. That doesn't mean he'll catch 70 balls, as Priest Holmes did in his prime. But if Johnson can grab 50 or 60, he'll be even more dangerous. He'll also become a lock as the No. 1 running back in fantasy football.

MICHAEL VICK: THE TIME IS NOW The Falcons' quarterback should become a more consistent passer and a less frustrating fantasy performer this season. He has spent more off-season time developing chemistry with his two improving young receivers, Michael Jenkins and Roddy White. Jenkins, a first-round pick in 2004, is especially intriguing. He has finally learned to catch the ball away from his body and use his 6'4" frame to shield defenders from passes. He could become a valuable red-zone target for Vick.

JAMES HOLDS THE LINE New Cardinals running back Edgerrin James is convinced that the problems that plagued Arizona's offensive line in 2005 -- when the Cards ranked last in the NFL in rushing -- can be easily fixed. He says the line's major problem wasn't lack of talent, it was breakdowns in communication among its members. James thinks that under new line coach Steve Loney, who spent the last four years with the Vikings, the unit will be more in sync, which means he should have more running room than any Arizona back in recent memory. Look for him to be just as steady as he was in Indianapolis.

RAVENS OPPONENTS IN A HEAP OF TROUBLE Baltimore tight end Todd Heap should quickly become a favorite target of new quarterback Steve McNair. First, McNair loves throwing to the tight end. Second, Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Fassel loved feeding the ball to tight end Jeremy Shockey when Fassel coached the Giants a few years ago. Finally, Heap is a Pro Bowl talent. In light of those factors, he becomes the third-best fantasy tight end behind Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez.

EPIC STRUGGLES

The first requisite for fantasy success: drafting players who are actually going to get the ball. Here are five key position battles to watch next month.

STEELERS NO. 2 receiver First-round pick Santonio Holmes will challenge veteran Cedrick Wilson for the chance to replace departed Super Bowl standout Antwaan Randle El.

JAGUARS TIGHT END Veteran Kyle Brady will open the season as the starter, but skilled first-round pick Marcedes Lewis should earn playing time on a team in need of receiving options.

BILLS QUARTERBACK Despite his shaky performance last year, J.P. Losman has a slight edge over Kelly Holcomb. Neither will be a top-tier fantasy option, but the race is worth following if you covet star receiver Lee Evans.

BEARS RUNNING BACK Thomas Jones skipped the team's off-season workouts because he was unhappy with his contract, creating an opportunity for Cedric Benson -- who was expected to compete for the top job in '05 before he held out.

PATRIOTS KICKER With Adam Vinatieri gone, the Pats will have a new leg to convert scoring chances for their seventh-rated offense. The Falcons, whose offense ranked 12th last year, also have a kicker battle worth watching. -- Bill Syken

MEN IN MOTION

Everyone knows about T.O.'s taking his act to Dallas and Daunte's moving to Miami. Here are five other off-season changes that will tilt the fantasy landscape.

Mr. Saunders Goes to Washington Running back Clinton Portis is ecstatic about Al Saunders, the Redskins' new offensive guru and the architect of the Chiefs' juggernaut.

Vikings Add Punch Minnesota made former Seahawk Steve Hutchinson the league's highest-paid guard -- good news for Vikings running back Chester Taylor.

San Diego Switches Though few fantasy players will risk a high pick on unproven QB Philip Rivers, he still looms as a key figure, i.e., the guy getting the ball to the game's top tight end, Antonio Gates.

Motown Revs Up New Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz, late of the Greatest Show on Turf, will bring life to an offense that ranked 27th in the league last year.

Saints Shake Out Caution to anyone investing a high pick in a New Orleans skill-position player: The Saints' reconfigured offensive line could have five new starters. -- Bill Syken

THE TO-DO (AND DON'T-DO) LIST

BACK UP YOUR FRANCHISE PLAYERS Nothing can derail a championship season quicker than a torn ACL or a pulled hamstring, so if you happen to land, say, LaDainian Tomlinson, make sure to get his backup (that's Michael Turner), as long as he doesn't cost you a high draft pick.

BEWARE HOT FREE-AGENT RECEIVERS Usually when an unclaimed wideout has a 100-yard day, everyone rushes to grab him. The reality is that a receiver's big game can often be the result of a favorable matchup, so the chances of his emerging as a regular contributor are slim.

PILLAGE, PILLAGE, PILLAGE Early in the season some team will most likely suffer a major injury and will need depth. This is your chance to raid that team's roster for its best player, thereby upgrading your team significantly. In return, you trade two reserves (or maybe one starter and one reserve). You'll come out ahead every time.

RESIST OVERMANAGING Every week you'll find yourself studying your roster and that week's matchups, trying to decide which players to start. This is O.K., to a degree. What is not O.K. is asking yourself, Should I start Peyton Manning against the Patriots? The answer is yes. Always start your best players each week, no matter the opponent.

LOOK AHEAD Once you get a sense of which NFL teams have the best and worst defenses, cast an eye toward the final weeks of the season and try to determine which players will have favorable matchups in that span. Any midseason deal you pull should be made with those matchups in mind, because they'll be a major factor in your playoff run. -- Gene Menez

Issue date: July 24, 2006

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