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IT'S BEEN SAID (in these pages, as a matter of fact) that there are two givens in the NFL: David (the Titans receiver), and Panthers running back DeShaun Foster's getting hurt. Everything else is pure guesswork. But the 2006 NFL season has come into focus thanks to Fantasy Plus's football-shaped crystal ball. If you look into it, this is what you'll see:
Is there such a thing as a steal in the first round? Sure there is. Bengals running back Rudi Johnson will rush for 1,700 yards and 17 touchdowns and have a better season than at least one of the Big Three of Shaun Alexander, Larry Johnson and LaDainian Tomlinson. (Bet on Tomlinson's being the one that Rudi Johnson outplays.) As a bargain, Rams running back Steven Jackson will not be far behind Rudi Johnson.
> The biggest draft-day steal will be the Patriots' Laurence Maroney, who'll rush for 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns, be named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year over fellow running backs Reggie Bush of the Saints and DeAngelo Williams of the Panthers, and make fantasy owners who passed on him utter some naughty words. Bush will have a decent season--1,200 yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns--and ESPN will show every one of his touches from the season opener against the Browns within the first five minutes of NFL PrimeTime. Williams's shiftiness and speed will be too enticing for Carolina to keep him on the bench, regardless of the veteran Foster's health.
> The Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald will lead the league in receptions, pushing 110, but the Bengals' Chad Johnson will top him in yards, touchdowns and creative end zone celebrations, rewarding those who rate him as the No. 1 receiver.
> The second-best draft-day bargain will be Bengals quarterback Carson (My Knee Is Fine) Palmer, who will pass for 3,500 yards and 33 touchdowns and lead the league's most prolific offense. But Palmer will not win the league's MVP award. That will go to Peyton Manning after a 4,000-yard, 35-touchdown season for a Colts team that will finish with the AFC's best record.
> Manning's brother Eli, however, will be a better draft-day bargain than his sibling, bouncing back from last year's rough second half. The Redskins aging gunner, Mark Brunell, will not be so fortunate.
> The left shoulder of Redskins running back Clinton Portis, which he partially dislocated in the preseason opener, will bother him the entire year, making him a serious liability--and making Monday mornings in Washington much less entertaining. But Portis's injury will not make T.J. Duckett a viable fantasy starter, even in the largest leagues.
> By halftime of Week 2 Cardinals running back Edgerrin James will wonder why he left Indianapolis and the Colts' brutally efficient offensive line. James will be one of the biggest disappointments of 2006.
> Terrell Owens and Hines Ward, who have hamstring problems, will wrestle with their injuries all season and not put up numbers worthy of elite fantasy receivers. A bad hammy to a wideout is the equivalent of Kryptonite to Superman.
> Twelve tight ends-- Chris Cooley, Alge Crumpler, Vernon Davis, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez, Todd Heap, Randy McMichael, Heath Miller, Jeremy Shockey, Ben Troupe, Ben Watson and Jason Witten--will have at least six touchdown grabs (only seven had that many last season), making 2006 the Year of the Tight End. Miller will challenge Gates for the TD lead at the position.