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Eyes of the Guru - Week 1

Week one is finally upon us! The long wait is over and it's time to put all those long hour of preparation into action. Our teams are built and there is nothing else we can do at this point to get ready, so it's time to move on to the next step in the quest for the gold. Building the team is half the battle but managing it through the season's injuries, by weeks and unexpected turns is equally important. Just as the pre-season EOTG targeted the team building process, the weekly offerings will be there to lend a hand with in season decisions. In this column I will do my best to cover ANYTHING that could be pertinent to your success, from team tendencies that might help with lineup decisions to sleeper starters and of course guys to pick up along the way. Much has changed in the past month so lets get on with it..

Baltimore Ravens
Early in the pre-season it was reported that safeties SS Ed Reed and FS Will Demps would switch positions. The logic here being that it would give Reed even more opportunity to make big plays. Based on that news a lot of owners moved Demps well up on their draft lists thinking that he would be closer to the line and more involved in run support thus improving his tackle production. That's all nice in theory but it never happened. Demps has not been playing SS. He started all 4 preseason games at his usual FS position and there is no reason to believe he will be any more productive in the new scheme than he was in the past... The late addition of Peter Boulware adds yet another playmaker to an already rich lineup. Boulware has been fighting injuries over the past couple of years which had a lot of teams hesitant to make him an offer. He didn't play until the final pre-season game when he saw a little action and recorded a sack. The interesting factor here is that Boulware was not playing SLB as most anticipated when he was signed. Instead he was lining up as a rush end. This makes a lot of sense for Baltimore considering they have not been overly impressed with Anthony Weaver as an every down end. Weaver just doesn't give then an explosive pass rush. There weren't enough plays to see a trend but I expect Weaver will move inside most of the time in passing situations allowing Boulware to be a rush specialist thus limiting the number of plays he will get. If he can stay healthy Boulware has the potential to be a decent fantasy option. He won't make a lot of tackles but could post excellent sack totals... Tommy Polley has impressed as the replacement for Ed Hartwell but he still has little chance of being a fantasy option while in the shadow of Lewis. Tuck Polley away in your memory, if Lewis goes down he will be a great pickup.

Arizona Cardinals
After spending most of last season seemingly in the dog house, all DE Calvin Pace did this preseason was to step up with 4 sacks (team leading I believe). This becomes particularly interesting considering Bert Berry hasn't practiced for several days and missed the last game with a "sore back". The organization hasn't made a big deal of it or released any details, so chances are he is just resting and will be a go for the opener but you never know. Pace only went 1-0-0 as a starter against Denver in the final pre-season game. Was that because he only played a couple of series like the rest of the "starters" or did he play a lot and just not do much? If Berry is going to be out a while they wouldn't want to risk a "starter". It's a situation to keep an eye on at the least. Pace was hot for a while last season then vanished from the lineup for no apparent reason. He has some upside... A few days before before Gerald Hayes went down with a knee injury, Lance Mitchell was promoted to backup MLB. However when Hayes was hurt, the staff turned to an experienced option in James Darling instead. Hayes is expected to miss at least the first few weeks of the regular season and we all know how unpredictable knee sprains are. Darling led the club in tackles through the first 3 weeks of the pre-season and could be a good pickup if you are thin. Mitchell looked good against Denver, leading the club with 6 tackles. I believe he is the future for them but it looks like he may not get his shot for a while. Orlando Huff continues to cling to the WLB job but he hasn't really had any competition with Darling playing in the middle. This is not a settled situation by any stretch.

Atlanta Falcons
Defensive end Brady Smith was able to return to the lineup for the final warm up game and will be back in the starting lineup for the opener. Smith is a marginal fantasy option in most leagues but his presence is a plus for the unit... It looks like Keion Carpenter has won the battle with Ronnie Heard for the SS job. Neither of these guys is going to set the world on fire but Carpenter might make a 5th DB in a 16 team league.

Cincinnati Bengals
Rookie Odell Thurman is settling in as the starter at MLB but it just may be that Brian Simmons is the better fantasy option at this point. Simmons has been more productive in the preseason box scores and is the veteran presence on a very young unit. Simmons is on the field every play while Thurman is coming off in some passing situations. That said, the long term potential for Thurman is huge. He has been very impressive, especially against the run... David Pollack's holdout cost him the starting job for the opener but it won't take him long to move past Landon Johnson. It's not that Johnson isn't any good, he just doesn't bring the same big play potential and doesn't fit the mould of what Marvin Lewis wants at the position... The Bengals really have problems at safety. Madieu Williams is a stud but they need 2 of them. Kim Herring was holding down the fort until the shoulder injury landed him on IR. They promoted transplanted corner Kevin Kaesviharn to starter but he's not a very physical guy and is best suited to play FS. Cincy signed Ifeanyi Ohalete of waivers to fill the roster void. Its not a stretch to think he might see significant action at some point. Unfortunately there weren't any real good options available in the final cuts so they are going to have to make due with what they have.

Carolina Panthers
Early in the preseason there was a lot of speculation about where Thomas Davis would play. All those arguments are resolved by the teams injury situation. Davis spent a few days at SLB after Brandon Short was hurt but that ended when safety Colin Branch was lost for the season with a knee injury. Davis is now back at SS and will remain there. Chris Draft will fill in at SLB until Short is able to return which is expected to happen within the next week or two. He might even be active for the opener.

Cleveland Browns

A lot of fantasy owners (myself included) have been high on SS Sean Jones this year. I strongly suggest you not include him in your week 1 starting lineup. There are reports out of Cleveland that the club plans to "rotate" Jones, Chris Crocker and Brian Russell at the safety positions. Even more telling is the fact that Crocker started the final 2 preseason games at SS while Russell started them all at FS. When a coach says "rotation" it can mean anything and usually doesn't mean equal playing time. Crocker played well last season and was a productive fantasy option as well. It wouldn't be such a big surprise if he hangs onto the job for a while and he could even prove a good free agent pickup. Jones is a talented player with a ton of potential. He may still be the man, especially in the long run, but he made a lot of "youthful" mistakes while working with the first unit early in the preseason. This is not all unexpected considering he is for all practical purposes still a rookie. Don't take the chance on starting him in week 1, and keep a sharp eye on this situation.

Detroit Lions
The Teddy Lehman situation isn't looking good for us at this point. The good news is that he has been moved back to MLB where he belongs, the bad news is that he's backing up Earl Holmes, and the real bad news is that he injured. Lehman has missed a couple of weeks with a sprained knee that seems to be healing slow. There has been no date set for an expected return. Neither Holmes nor James Davis have been particularly impressive and I still have a hard time swallowing the fact that the coaching staff doesn't realize Lehman should be on the field. I'll be even more amazed if he isn't starting before mid season (providing of course he can get healthy)... Kalimba Edwards started the final 2 pre-season contests at DE in place of James Hall who was sidelined with a shoulder injury. Hall returned to practice on August 31st and is expected to be ready for the opener.

Houston Texans
We need to keep an eye on the Texans SS situation. Glenn Earl is supposed to be the starter at the position but has missed much of camp and the pre-season with a dislocated shoulder. Meanwhile rookie 6th round pick CC Brown has taken advantage of his opportunity to work with the first team and has looked pretty solid. The Texans D hasn't looked very good in general during the preseason so whoever lands the SS job could be very productive for us. Right now Earl is still officially listed as the starter but its noteworthy that when he did finally play in the final pre-season game, he didn't start... Neither Kailee Wong nor Morlon Greenwood were at all impressive during pre-season action though Greenwood did make a bigger impact in the box scores. These guys were high on a lot of sleeper lists so the week 1 box score is a highly anticipated one.

Indianapolis Colts

It's no secret that the Colts were a bit undermanned at the LB positions so the trade for former Titans MLB Rocky Calmus shouldn't be a shock. What is tough to figure out at this point however, is where he will fit into the plan. Injuries have plagued him over the past couple of years but when healthy he was good enough to be the Titans starter. Gary Brackett has done a decent job for the Colts through the pre-season and is a great coverage LB. He is however, lacking a nasty streak the good run stuffing middle backers have. Calmus on the other hand is strong against the run. Last season it was Rob Morris on run downs and Brackett in passing situations. Might we see more of the same with Calmus on early downs? As long as he can stay healthy Calmus should have some role... Avoid the Colts safeties this weekend at all cost. The club is "hopeful" FS safety Bob Sanders will be able to play in the opener after missing the last couple of weeks with a leg injury. Mike Doss is suspended which leaves inexperienced Gerome Sapp to fill the hole. With or without Sanders in the mix we need to be watching SS Joseph Jefferson in this one. He's a converted corner who has a couple of weeks to prove he can be the starter before Doss comes back.

Green Bay Packers
Throughout the pre-season the Packers linebacker situation was UGly with a capital UG! While they are still hurting a little for depth, the 12th hour trade that landed former Rams first round pick Robert Thomas will go a long way toward fixing the problem. In one fell swoop all the pieces fell into place. Na'il Diggs will now return to his accustomed SLB position full time while Thomas takes over the WLB job and will soon be playing on an every down basis. Thomas fell out of grace in St. Louis last season but the one thing he did get from his time there is experience at all 3 linebacker positions. He's a quality player and will solidify the Green Bay LB corps. The Packers WLB position has been fantasy friendly over the past several years. This has gone largely un-noticed due to the production being spread among several players. Thomas is likely to generate a flurry of early season waiver activity. If you're needy at LB, try to beat everyone to the punch on this one. Diggs may not play in the opener as he recovers from a sprained knee and Thomas may not start the opener as he is still learning the scheme but will play. Paris Lenon will likely get the call at SLB and Roy Manning could see some action at WLB... On the down side for the Packers, KGB hasn't practiced since injuring his neck on August 26th. They aren't making a big deal out of this so it may not be an issue but until we see the injury report we probably shouldn't count on him... Rookie Nick Collins has secured the starting FS job while Mark Roman will get the call at SS.

Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings are very pleased with the transition E.J. Henderson has made from middle to WLB and he has locked down the starting job at the position. Henderson is a good football player with a lot of fantasy potential and has landed in a quality situation. He went undrafted in a lot of leagues but like Robert Thomas will likely create a flurry of waiver wire activity over the first couple of weeks.

Kansas City Chiefs
It took until the final pre-season game but we finally got a look at the Chiefs starting linebackers. After all the speculation about who will play where, Kawika Mitchell has held off Boomer Grigsby at MLB while rookie Derrick Johnson will start at left outside and Kendrell Bell at right outside. The Chiefs don't play a traditional strong/weak LB. Instead Johnson and Bell will stay on their side of the field regardless of the offensive formation. This means Bell will be on the weak side the majority of the time which should give him an advantage in the box scores. The club rested Bell's bad shoulder all through camp and the pre-season so he would be ready for the opener. The question now is can he stay healthy and/or is he in good enough playing condition to play a whole game? If Bell doesn't come out of the gate on fire in the first couple of weeks I wouldn't over react and cut him. Unless/until he gets hurt again, he will be productive. Johnson is showing signs of being one of those rare players who can overcome the SLB handicap and still be fantasy friendly. Consider that and the fact that he will actually be the WLB about 25% of the time and its easy to see both he and Bell posting good numbers. Mitchell is the wild card. He was a solid fantasy option down the stretch last season but isn't strong in coverage and may lose some snaps in passing situations... Greg Wesley has earned the starting FS position prompting Jerome woods to ask for his release. Wesley has actually outshined Sammy Knight during the preseason and looks like he could remain a very solid fantasy option despite the move to FS... Jimmy Wilkerson beat out Chiefs '04 sack leader Jared Allen and free agent addition Carlos Hall for the starting job opposite Eric Hicks at DE. Wilkerson didn't have a big statistical pre-season and will likely end up in a time share with Allen who may evolve into a pass rush specialist.

Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins spent all of training camp and the whole preseason moving rookie Channing Crowder around as their top backup at linebacker. When it was all done they decided he is simply too good to be sitting on the bench waiting for someone to get injured. There are conflicting reports as to what role he will have in the opening day defense. One reports claims Crowder has been named the starting SLB for the opener while a later one states he will have a role in certain packages. SLB is the position Crowder worked at the least since joining the team but he has adapted so well and learned so fast everywhere else that the coaching staff is very confident he can play wherever they need him. It's safe to assume that at the very least Crowder will play ILB when the Dolphins use their new 3-4 package. Beyond that its all guess work. Chances are Crowder won't make a big fantasy splash in this situation but he won't be stuck there forever. If he produces well his role will increase. This kid is the real thing so even if he doesn't make a big box score splash as a rookie, look out next year... Third year pro Yeremiah Bell has claimed the Dolphins starting FS job for the opener. Miami hasn't produced a top quality fantasy DB in many moons so this news may not be very important but then you just never know.

New York Giants
MLB Antonio Pierce is getting all the fantasy love at linebacker for the Giants but keep an eye on 10 year veteran Carlos Emmons. Yes it's true that Emmons has never been a fantasy factor previously in his career but then he's never played in a situation that would allow him to be. Emmons has been a very good strong side linebacker since joining the league but will finally get his shot at a fantasy friendly position. The Giants WLB position has produced near or over 100 solo stops in each of the past 3 seasons. The last player to finish a complete 16 game season at the position was Dhani Jones who went 93-27-3 in '03. By the way, his previous career best had been 60 solo stops. When the club entered camp Barrett Green was supposed to be manning the WLB position but he has missed nearly all of camp and the pre-season with an injury. Green claims to be ready to play but Tom Coughlin either isn't buying it or he just wants to see how the defense looks with Emmons at the position. If things go well Green may have a real tough time reclaiming the job.

New York Jets
The big IDP news out of Jets camp heading into week 1 is the promotion of rookie Kerry Rhodes to the starting lineup. There has been a lot of talk and excitement about this kid over the past few weeks but even so Oliver Celestine started all 4 preseason games ahead of the rook. The straw that broke the camels back was apparently Rhodes pre-season league tying third interception in the final contest. The Jets don't play a typical SS/FS alignment, instead they have been playing right and left as some clubs do with their outside linebackers. Eric Coleman will lineup on the right which is the weak or free safety side the majority of the time while Rhodes will play on the left. There are only so many tackles to go around and Vilma will soak up a lot of them but the Jets safeties have a history of strong production so Rhodes is certainly a player to keep an eye on.

St. Louis Rams
It looks like Michael Hawthorne has come away from the pre-season with the starting FS job in St. Louis. While that news is interesting, the important factor here is that Adam Archuleta has moved back to strong safety. It comes as no surprise that he led the club in tackles for the preseason and considering the crew the Rams have assembled at LB, Archuleta is likely to lead the club at the end of the regular season as well... Speaking of those linebackers, the coaching staff has finally settled on the opening day starting alignment. Pisa Tinoisamoa has switched over to SLB, Dexter Coakley steps in at WLB and Chris Claiborne will get the call in the middle. None of these guys has ever been the least bit impressive in fantasy terms and after the musical chairs at linebacker last season in St. Louis, we could be in for more of the same.

Seattle Seahawks
The battle for starting jobs in the Seahawks LB corps has been an interesting one to say the least. Rookie Lofa Tatupu has come away with the MLB job and jumps up the rankings. It seems like an eternity since Seattle last had an established (healthy) starting middle backer who could be counted on to hold the position for an entire season. Apparently Tatupu is that guy for them this year. I wasn't high on this kid originally but after watching him in action during the pre-season I have come around to the Seahawks way of thinking. He is physical enough, has excellent instincts, is very quick and is a sure tackler. It would come as no surprise to see him pile up 90+ solo stops this year. The battle at WLB may have been decided for the opener but the war may not be completely over. Early in the pre-season rookie Leroy Hill was very impressive and was well on his way to earning the job when a minor injury took him out of action for about 3 weeks. This was enough to keep him from gaining much needed experience and playing time while it opened the door for veteran DD Lewis to get the call in week one. Lewis has struggled to stay healthy himself throughout his career and may be nothing more than a seat warmer until Hill can get up to speed. There was no competition for Jamie Sharper at SLB during camp but maybe there should have been. Sharper didn't make a lot of noise leaving some close to the situation questioning if he still has the skills that the organization paid him for. Only time will tell.

San Diego Chargers
Keep an eye on Eric Wilhelm this season. He's officially the backup to Donnie Edwards at ILB but Wilhelm really turned some heads while working with the first team during the preseason when Edwards was dinged. If Donnie were to go down, don't wait to see Wilhelm's first box score or you will find yourself with a lot of competition for his services. Don't be surprised if he pushed Randall Godfrey for the other starting job.

Tennessee Titans
There have been some very interesting developments in Titans camp over the course of the pre-season. Not the least of which is the rise of Kyle Vanden Bosch to starter status at DE. Vanden Bosch had some terrible luck early in his career with the Cardinals when he blew out one knee early in his rookie season only to come back and blow out the other early in his second year. In the little bit of action he did see with Arizona he showed signs of greatness. He's a high motor, lead by example kind of guy who is quickly becoming a leader on this very young defense. Not to mention he was an animal while working with the first team defense during pre-season action. In a little less than 8 quarters of action Vanden Bosch went 8-1-3 and forced a fumble. If he can stay healthy he could very well lead the club in sacks and what history he has in the league suggests his tackle numbers will remain strong as well. In short he could prove a very good pickup for those in need up front. Antwan Odom has secured the other starting DE job with a solid pre-season of his own and could also be a box score surprise... The club sent a huge vote of confidence in the direction of MLB Brad Kassell when they traded Rocky Calmus to the Colts last week. Kassell no longer has to look over his shoulder and has a chance to be very box score productive if he is not pulled on passing downs. In the past SLB Peter Sirmon has handled the passing down duties along with Keith Bulluck but Sirmon is coming off a knee injury and Kassell is better in coverage than Calmus was... Tank Williams returned to practice about two weeks ago after recovering from last year's knee injury and is expected to be the man at SS right from the start. Williams was starting to put up quality numbers last season before the injury and could prove a decent option for us, especially down the road when attrition begins to thin the ranks.

Washington Redskins
When clubs make their final cuts there are always a few surprises. The release of rookie MLB Robert McCune was one of those. McCune was quickly signed to the practice squad and will continue his development there but he obviously didn't play as well as I had expected him to. More importantly at this point is the fact that Lamar Marshall now has no competition for the MLB job. In fact he is the only MLB on the roster. Apparently the Skins believe he is another Antonio Pierce and maybe they are right. They are certainly going to give him a chance to be. This move sends Marshall's stock shooting up. He was undrafted in a lot of leagues and just the nature of his situation makes him a strong pickup candidate... LaVar Arrington owners need not panic with the news that Warrick Holdman will get the start in the opener. Keep in mind that Arrington only returned to practice less than two weeks ago. He is not in condition to play a full game at this point and will be eased back into the full time role. As long as he has no setbacks Arrington should be full time by week 3 if not earlier... With Matt Bowen recovering from a badly bruised chest and Ryan Clark fighting through a sore knee, the Skins are short on options for the first game or two. It looks like they will move FS Pierson Prioleau to SS until one of their walking wounded can return to action. Prioleau won't be the long term answer here and the first guy back between Bowen and Clark will probably have the inside edge on keeping this historically fantasy friendly job. The two were supposed to be competing for the position during camp.

That about covers it for week one. Best of luck to everyone this week and remember to,

Just Win Baby!

John


Contact John by mailing to norton@footballguys.com

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