- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005

With a week left before the start of the NFL season, most fantasy football players — if they have not yet drafted a team or two — are doing their final crunch before assembling a roster.

And most owners will spend that time pouring over and ranking running backs.

Why?

Running backs traditionally have been the crown jewel of fantasy football stars. Most scoring systems favor a top back because he has the ability to gain yardage consistently on the ground and through the air. Backs also can score both ways.

And many scoring systems make yards for backs more valuable than yards for receivers — say, giving a point for 10 rushing yards and a point for 15 receiving yards. In fact, the league the Fool has participated in for nearly a decade gives double value to rushing touchdowns — making a top back a priority (and also explaining the Fool’s ability to have a losing record despite having Peyton Manning under center).

That has created a tendency for preseason fantasy publications and online columns to overhype the importance of the running back, creating an “I need gas in Maryland”-type frenzy. Check those online mock drafts and you will see back after back getting scooped up long before the names Manning, Moss, Culpepper and T.O. are called. In a recent keeper league draft, noted knuckleheads Ricky Williams and Travis Henry, as well as a couple rookie backs fighting for playing time, were selected ahead of established wideouts like Muhsin Muhammad, Amani Toomer, Lee Evans and Eric Moulds.

The Fool’s point? While scrounging for running back scraps, fantasy football owners often don’t put in the research necessary to find the receiving gems that can put a team over the top.

So instead of listing running backs and quarterbacks, the Fool will attempt to guide you through the best wide receivers, breaking them down into their own special groups.

Pass catching perfection

Marvin Harrison, Colts — The Fool favors Harrison over his flashier peers because he’s the safer pick. Obviously, Harrison will play in the controlled dome environment with the best quarterback in the game in one of the league’s most explosive offenses. And unlike some other wideouts, he’s not looking to renegotiate his new contract. Instead, Harrison will focus on hauling in more perfect Peyton Manning passes. Book him for a seventh consecutive season with more than 1,100 yards and 10 or more touchdowns.

Torry Holt, Rams — Always a deep threat since arriving in St. Louis, Holt has become more of a scoring threat over the last two seasons, getting in the end zone 24 times in that span — one more touchdown than he had in his first four years. While the Rams aren’t piling up numbers like they did in Kurt Warner’s heyday, they still will score in bunches in a division in which defense remains an afterthought. Holt should be a lock for at least 10 more touchdowns.

Hines Ward, Steelers — His yardage and touchdowns suffered a bit last season because the team focused on running the ball to make its rookie quarterback comfortable. But Ward should have a larger role in the offense this season; Ben Roethlisberger has a year under his belt, the running backs are either injured or young and the Steelers’ other top wideout, Plaxico Burress, departed via free agency. Expect Ward, who is playing for a new contract, to put up numbers close to the 95 catches, 10 touchdowns and 1,163 yards he had in 2003.

Fast and furious

These guys are so good, but they give wideouts a bad name.

Terrell Owens, Eagles — As much as the Fool would like to ignore him, he can’t; Owens, when he’s focused, can be the best fantasy receiver in the game. Just look what he did in 14 games before getting injured last season: 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns. And he followed that with his memorable Super Bowl performance. But can you trust him to stick around for even that many games this season? Will his next tantrum be his ticket out of town? If you can get T.O. after the second round, he’s worth the gamble — and could end up a steal.

Randy Moss, Raiders — The most talented receiver in the game, by a slim margin over Owens. But there are a few warning signs. One, Moss has played significantly better on turf than grass, and he spent the first seven years of his career playing in the friendly confines of the Metrodome. Spending literally all season outdoors — the Raiders will play no games this season indoors or on turf. That will affect Moss’ numbers. Secondly, the NFL likely will keep an even closer eye than usual on Moss thanks to his “I might have fun” with marijuana admission on television. If you draft Moss and he decides to have his smoky brand of fun, it will leave you in quite a funk.

Chad Johnson, Bengals — Not nearly as volatile as the aforementioned trouble twins, Johnson’s antics merely seem to draw the ire of the “No Fun League” official. Johnson has put up sparkling numbers with two different quarterbacks in Cincinnati, and they didn’t dip with first-year starter Carson Palmer under center last season. As long as his fines for celebrating don’t turn into suspensions, Johnson can be counted on to play all 16 games and haul in nearly 100 passes and 10 touchdowns.

Fine catches

The rest of these receivers, such as the Seahawks’ Darrell Jackson and the Colts’ Reggie Wayne, don’t dominate the headlines and highlights as much as their brethren, but they still fill up the stat sheet. Wayne took his game to the next level last season (1,210 yards and 12 TDs), and it should remain there. Jackson has held on in Seattle to become Matt Hasselbeck’s top target, scoring 16 touchdowns and averaging more than 1,100 yards over the last two seasons.

You should get similar contributions from veteran Isaac Bruce in St. Louis, who doesn’t score as much as he used to but remains a lock for more than 1,000 yards. Joe Horn of the Saints is comparable to Bruce, though he gets more looks in the red zone (28 touchdowns over the last three years as opposed to 18 for Bruce).

Two other veterans to watch: Laveranues Coles of the Jets and Derrick Mason of the Ravens. Both landed in new situations this season, and Coles — cast away from the Redskins and returned to quarterback Chad Pennington in New York — appears to have gotten the better end of that deal. But if Baltimore quarterback Kyle Boller can get his game to a semirespectable level, Mason could produce top-flight numbers. He has had four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and has 20 touchdowns over the last three years.

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