Rocky Mountain high: Plummer, Lelie show promise in DenverPosted: Wednesday August 06, 2003 3:45 PM
By Richard Harris, Special to SI.com
Jake Plummer, QB, Broncos: Known for being highly erratic, Plummer is one of the wild cards in this year’s draft. During his six-year tenure in Arizona, he had flashes of brilliance in between interceptions. He threw for more than 3,600 yards in 1998 and 2001 and produced at least 20 total touchdowns in 1998 and 2002. He was especially effective late in ballgames, engineering 21 fourth-quarter comebacks.
Having watched John Elway, Denver fans can appreciate the value of a QB who can lead comebacks, and Plummer has many of the traits (mobility, daring, the ability to make something out of nothing) that made Elway special. While Plummer is no Elway, the reports from Broncos training camp, including a recent one by SI’s Peter King, have been nothing but positive. The prevailing feeling is that Plummer is fitting in well with his new teammates and that his play is sharp. The rave reviews, combined with the fact that he is now playing on a team with a number of offensive weapons, leads to the conclusion that Plummer will have the best year of his career and be a viable fantasy starter this season.
Ashley Lelie, WR, Broncos: One of the weapons that Plummer will have at his disposal is Lelie, the 19th overall pick in the 2002 draft. Lelie possess all the attributes -- good size (6-3, 200), excellent speed (4.3), tremendous athleticism and a solid work ethic -– needed to become an elite receiver in the NFL. He is poised to move into the starting lineup past the aging Ed McCaffrey, who is still dealing with the aftereffects of offseason groin surgery. As a rookie, Lelie caught 35 passes for 525 yards (15.0 average) and two touchdowns, and he could easily double those numbers as a starter this season.
Peter Warrick, WR, Bengals: The fourth overall pick of the 2000 draft, Warrick is generally considered a first-round bust, but many receivers need three or four years to develop, and this should be the year he breaks out. In his first three seasons, Warrick has averaged a modest 58 receptions, 622 receiving yards, and four touchdowns. He was dedicated in the offseason, and he reported to camp in the best shape of his career. It should also help that Jon Kitna will open the season as the starting quarterback -- Warrick has had to play with four starting QBs in three years.
In the second half last year, Kitna and the Bengals' offense were effective, scoring at least 20 points in six of their last eight games. Despite missing one of those games with a bruised lung, Warrick scored five of his six touchdowns over that span. At a recent intra-squad scrimmage, Warrick picked up where he left, catching six balls for 154 yards and two touchdowns.
Thomas Jones, RB, Buccaneers: The seventh overall pick of the 2000 draft, Jones has a chance to resurrect his career in Tampa Bay. Despite having a nice combination of size and speed, Jones was unable to secure the starting job in Arizona due to a tentative running style and nagging injuries. In three years with the Cardinals, Jones never rushed for more than 520 yards in a season, averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, and scored only nine total touchdowns. Now Jones is battling Michael Pittman for the starting tailback job in Tampa Bay. The pair went through the same competition in Arizona, and Pittman eventually won the job.
However, with Pittman still facing possible jail time and a suspension from the league for domestic abuse charges, Jones could be the primary ball carrier for the Bucs by default this season. Then again, Jones might win the job outright, as he was one of the top performers in the Bucs’ preseason opener against the Jets, rushing for 43 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries and catching two passes for 23 yards.
Keep an Eye on
Marcel Shipp, RB, Cardinals: Emmitt Smith has been on a steady statistical decline since 1999, and moving to Arizona is not likely to help the 34-year-old back since the Cardinals will be one of the weakest teams in the league this season. Shipp, on the other hand, was fairly impressive last year while playing for the lowly Cards. The third-year undrafted free agent began the 2002 season sharing playing time with Thomas Jones before taking over full-time when Jones was lost for the season due to injury. In 15 games (six starts), Shipp ran for 834 yards and eight touchdowns on 188 carries (4.4 average) and caught 38 passes for 413 yards and three scores.
This season, Shipp is expected to begin the season backing up Smith, but there is a good chance that he will eventually take over as the starting tailback. At a minimum, Shipp should be heavily involved in the passing game; Smith has never been much of a receiver and has had fewer than 200 receiving yards in five consecutive seasons. In addition, the Cardinals have almost no experience at wide receiver, so the backs and tight ends will likely be frequent targets for QB Jeff Blake.
Larry Ned, RB, Vikings: Originally drafted by the Raiders in the sixth round of the 2002 draft, Ned ended his career at San Diego State ranked as the school’s second all-time leading rusher behind Marshall Faulk with 3,562 yards (and 36 TDs) on 765 carries. Members of the Vikings coaching staff, including head coach Mike Tice, have been dropping hints since training camp began that the 220-pound Ned was a legitimate candidate to replace Michael Bennett. No one took those comments very seriously until last Saturday’s intra-squad scrimmage, when Ned outshined the rest of the team’s backs, gaining 80 yards on 10 carries and scoring two touchdowns.
Despite his impressive performance, Ned has not officially gained any ground, as Doug Chapman still resides atop the depth chart. Chapman, however, may be losing his grip on the top spot, as he has missed some practice time due to a mild hamstring strain. Interestingly, veteran Moe Williams, who is not supposed to be in the starting tailback race that also features rookie Onterrio Smith, is expected to start in this Saturday's exhibition opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Williams, who is the most reliable pass protector of the bunch, will play as long as quarterback Daunte Culpepper is in the game.
Kelly Campbell, WR, Vikings: Another impressive performer at Vikings camp has been Campbell, a second-year undrafted free agent with 4.4 speed. Had it not been for some off-the-field problems, he may have gone as high as the third round in the 2002 draft. Nagged by injuries most of his rookie season, Campbell saw limited action, but he made the most of his playing time, turning three of his 13 receptions into touchdowns. He is currently the No. 3 receiver behind Randy Moss and D’Wayne Bates, but Culpepper thinks that he will have a significant impact this season. “Kelly Campbell is going to be the surprise of the league this year,” the quarterback said recently.
Bubba Franks, TE, Packers: Franks has done nothing personally to hurt his fantasy value, but the recent signing of veteran Wesley Walls does somewhat lower the stock of the Packers’ starting tight end. Lacking speed, Franks’ value comes from his ability to score in the red zone -- the fourth-year pro has averaged eight TD receptions over the past two seasons. The 37-year-old Walls is coming off of three consecutive injury-plagued seasons, and he doesn’t have much fantasy value himself. However, he has always been a threat near the goal line and could steal enough scores to impact negatively on Franks’ numbers.
Stacey Mack, RB, Texans: Mack is expected to be the feature runner for the Texans this season, and based on the average of a sample of recent fantasy drafts, the former Jaguar is being taken in the fifth round. The 238-pound Mack had his best season in 2001, when he started 11 games for an injured Fred Taylor and ran for 877 yards and nine touchdowns and caught 23 passes for 165 yards and a score. Those are very nice numbers for a part-time starter, but it is questionable whether Mack can have the same type of success playing in Houston’s offense, which looked absolutely dreadful in a recent scrimmage with the Dallas Cowboys. With OT Tony Boselli retiring, Houston’s offensive line is not expected to be much better than it was in 2002, and as a team last season, the Texans averaged just 3.2 yards per carry and scored just six rushing touchdowns. In fact, the entire Houston offense scored only 17 touchdowns, seven fewer than Priest Holmes -- and he missed two games!
Amos Zereoue, RB, Steelers: Zereoue, who is battling Jerome Bettis for the starting tailback job in Pittsburgh, sprained his ankle at practice on Tuesday. While he may not be sidelined for very long, those who have written off The Bus may want to think again. Playing in 16 games last season, including five starts for an injured Bettis, Zereoue rushed 762 yards and four scores on 193 carries and caught 42 passes for 341 yards -- all career highs. The fifth-year pro entered training camp favored to win the starting job, as he offered more speed, elusiveness, and big-play ability. However, Zereoue lacks the power and strength of Bettis, who has roughly a 40-pound weight advantage, and despite leading the team in carries last season, he scored five fewer touchdowns than Bettis (9). The bottom line is that the Steelers will probably make use of both players, and the end result will likely be that Zereoue will have more total yardage and Bettis will have the majority of the scores.
Richard Harris is the Senior Writer and Managing Editor for FanatsyFootballExperts.com. His weekly columns have appeared on SI.com, ESPN.com, or USAToday.com over the past five years. FantasyFootballExperts.com provides the essentials for a fantasy football championship, including exclusive articles, customized player rankings, cheat sheets for multiple scoring systems, updated depth charts, injury updates, and weekly matchup analysis.