AFC Fantasy preview

With June here, it's time to start taking a look at who's where and what they will do when it comes to the upcoming football season. For you fantasy football players, here's a preview of the AFC.

Baltimore Ravens
The 2003 offense was running back Jamal Lewis, tight end Todd Heap and not a lot else. That likely won't change much in 2004, provided Lewis stays out jail. Lewis has been indicted on a federal drug charge, a situation that bears watching very, very closely. If he plays this season, he's a sure-fire top three pick - even though he likely won't approach 2,000 yards again. If Lewis' situation turns bad, bump backup Musa Smith up into your top 20 running backs. Heap remains the team's top target, but the team needs quarterback Kyle Boller to make huge strides in his second season. A knee injury sidelined Boller for half of his rookie season and his only job in the games he played was handing the ball off to Lewis. The Ravens tried to trade for Terrell Owens during the offseason, only to have that thwarted by Owens' desire to play for Philadelphia. To make matters worse, Marcus Robinson and his team-best six TD catches signed with Minnesota as a free agent. Baltimore dealt for Jacksonville's Kevin Johnson on draft day and also grabbed Devard Darling, Clarence Moore and Derek Abney in the draft, hoping one of them can help take the pressure off Heap, something former No. 1 pick Travis Taylor has been unable to do. Darling was the highest pick of the rookies, but keep an eye on Moore, a 6-5, 211-pound receiver who could be a good red zone target. Abney is an excellent return man. Kevin Johnson and returnee Ron Johnson will battle for the starting job opposite Taylor.

Buffalo Bills
While Peerless Price was pretty much a flop last season in Atlanta, there's no doubt the speedy receiver was missed in Buffalo. Needing some speed to play opposite Eric Moulds, the Bills grabbed Lee Evans in the first round of the draft. Evans is a polished speed receiver and will replace Josh Reed on the outside, with Reed likely moving back to the slot, where he was valuable as a rookie in 2002. Bobby Shaw is also familiar with Mularkey's offense and could prosper early in the year. New head coach Mike Mularkey's creativity will be tested with lead-footed QB Drew Bledsoe, who likely only has a couple of seasons left, especially now that QB of the future J.P. Losman is on board. Bledsoe is a good candidate for comeback player of the year after throwing just 11 touchdown passes in 2003. GM Tom Donahoe is feeling pressure to win this season, so Bledsoe will likely be the starter all year. The backfield will be crowded, as well, with 2003 No. 1 draft choice Willis McGahee joining 1,000-yard rusher Travis Henry. Watch McGahee closely in the preseason. If he looks sharp, he could take over for Henry, who has had fumble problems. Henry could be preseason trade bait.

Cincinnati Bengals
The Corey Dillon era is finally over in Cincinnati as the Bengals' all-time leading rusher was dealt to New England. Rudi Johnson nearly cracked 1,000 yards splitting time with Dillon last season, but the team took Chris Perry in the first round of this year's draft, meaning Johnson's may again be in a time-share situation. The same thing won't happen at quarterback. Head coach Marvin Lewis has already named Carson Palmer the team's starting QB ahead of veteran Jon Kitna, the NFL's comeback player of the year in 2003. Palmer, the No. 1-overall pick in last year's draft, spent his entire rookie year on the bench, but he has great weapons to work with. Chad Johnson has emerged as one of the top receivers in the league and Peter Warrick finally found his niche as a nice complimentary player who's a solid No. 3 fantasy receiver. Rookie Kelley Washington got better as the season wore on last year and should be ready to become even more of a critical part of the offense this season. Tight end Matt Schobel could also be a nice sleeper pick.

Cleveland Browns
The Browns liked tight end Kellen Winslow so much they traded their second round pick to move up one spot in the first round to acquire him. You'd better believe Butch Davis will be feeling pressure to make that questionable move look like the right one. The quarterback controversy of a year ago is gone, with Jeff Garcia coming over in free agency from San Francisco. Garcia has had injury problems the past couple of years, so it is questionable how much of an upgrade he is over the Tim Couch-Kelly Holcomb two-headed monster. One thing he will bring is stability as the team will know who the starter is from the get-go. The receivers seemed to suffer the most from the instability at QB, as none of a talented group stepped up. Dennis Northcutt had a decent season, with 62 receptions, but only two touchdowns. After a promising 2002, Quincy Morgan disappointed greatly in 2003. Heading into his third season, Andre Davis might be the best of the lot. While Holcomb will return as the team's backup, the team will release or trade Couch at some point, cutting ties with their 1999 top draft choice. 2002 top draft choice Willam Green will get one more chance, but the team is tired of his off-field problems. The Browns are high on Lee Suggs, who finished the 2003 strong after recovering from injury, and he could replace Green as the starter.

Denver Broncos
Can the Broncos do it again? Clinton Portis was traded to Washington to acquire cornerback Champ Bailey and a second-round draft pick. The early favorite to replace Portis as the team's feature back is second-round pick Tatum Bell of Oklahoma State, a slasher in the Terrell Davis mold. Given the team's track record with running backs, Bell is an early favorite to be the top offensive rookie in fantasy football. Mike Anderson and Quentin Griffin could also figure into the mix, but make no mistake about it, the starting job will be Bell's to lose. Ed McCaffrey has retired, which means the team needs Ashley Lelie to step into a more prominent role. Those who drafted Lelie on speculation last season came away disappointed. But don't pass on him because of last season's so-so numbers. Lelie has star written all over him. He'd better or teams will really try to lock down on Rod Smith, who's still effective despite getting up in years. He's a solid No. 2 fantasy receiver. The team's other second-round pick, Darius Watts, a wide receiver out of Marshall, will step into the team's No. 3 receiver role. While McCaffrey retired, Shannon Sharpe decided against it, meaning the future Hall of Famer will remain one of the top tight ends available. Jake Plummer will be the beneficiary, provided he can stay healthy all season. After making every start in the previous two seasons in Arizona, Plummer missed five starts in 2003. But he put up solid numbers in those 11 starts and is a nice option in the second tier of fantasy QBs.

Houston Texans
Houston's offense made huge improvements in 2003 and it's a good thing, because the team has done nothing to upgrade that side of the ball during the offseason. The draft was spend fortifying the defense, but the team feels it has the nucleus of a solid offense. Quarterback David Carr is still prone to mistakes, but immediately formed a nice bond with receiver Andre Johnson, the team's top pick in last year's draft. The Texans need Carr to take the next step in his maturation, something that would be welcome among fantasy owners. Johnson should improve on his rookie numbers of 66 catches for 976 yards and four touchdowns. But don't get too excited, Dom Capers still likes to run the ball. He'll do that with second-year running back Domanick Davis, who was a poor man's Marshall Faulk last season after taking over the starting job midway through the year. Davis broke 1,000 yards and scored eight TDs, while catching 47 passes. He should be even better playing a full season. Receivers Corey Bradford and Jabar Gaffney will have a big game here and there, but aren't consistent enough to trust. Billy Miller had another solid season at tight end and isn't a bad option once the big names are off the board.

Indianapolis Colts
If you want to win a fantasy title, it doesn't hurt to have a Colts player or two on your roster. Peyton Manning remains one of the top fantasy options in the league, as does wide receiver Marvin Harrison. Former No. 1-pick Reggie Wayne also came into his own as a wideout last season, grabbing 68 passes for 838 yards and seven TDs and is a nice No. 3 option to stash on your roster. Tight end Marcus Pollard had another solid season, but look for last year's first-rounder Dallas Clark to steal some of his thunder this season. Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore loves to use two-tight end sets, so both could have good value. Running back Edgerrin James had some ups and downs coming back from tearing his knee up two seasons ago, but should be fully recovered in 2004. Even so, he wasn't bad in 2003, going over 1,200 yards with 11 touchdowns and 51 catches for nearly 300 more yards. James will miss a game here and there, so picking up backup Dominic Rhodes probably isn't a bad idea. Same thing goes for No. 3 receiver Troy Walters, who's capable of stepping in and making things happen if an injury occurs. But the team revolves around Manning, who's making 4,000-yard seasons the norm. He added another 29 touchdown passes last season and threw just 10 picks. Placekicker Mike Vanderjagt is as sure a thing in the league.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Among the worst news for fantasy owners during the draft was Jacksonville's pick of running back Greg Jones in the second round. The pick of the bruising Jones will likely take over the goalline duties from Fred Taylor, who has put his injury-riddled past behind him. Taylor's still a top pick among running backs, but if you take him, you'd better grab Jones, too. Wide receiver Jimmy Smith is no longer a top fantasy wideout and a drug suspension and rookie Byron Leftwich's struggles last season only made those problems worse. Look for Smith to put up better numbers than his 54 catches last season, but don't set the bar too high. Top draft pick Reggie Williams will move right into the starting lineup and provide Leftwich with a big red zone target, while Troy Edwards, who came over a few games into the season after being released by St. Louis will likely move into the slot. With Mark Brunell now in Washington, Leftwich will be the man no matter what. He threw 14 touchdown passes last season, but also had 16 interceptions and fumbled 11 times, a sign he's holding onto the ball too long. Leftwich is a tough customer, but holding onto the ball too long in the NFL will land you on the bench with broken bones. David Garrard is a talented, but unproven backup who's worth stashing on your bench if you must take Leftwich.

Kansas City Chiefs
Remember before last season when there were questions about Priest Holmes' health? Seem silly now, don't they. If you were one of the lucky ones who benefited from a drop in Holmes' draft stock, congratulations. Just knows that it won't happen again. If Holmes isn't one of the top two or three picks in your draft, you're playing with a bunch of rubes. While he might not score 27 touchdowns again as he did last season, 20 is not out of the question. Quarterback Trent Green topped 4,000 yards passing with 24 touchdowns, proving to be a solid starter in most fantasy leagues. That Green threw for 4,000 yards is amazing when you look at the team's receiving corps. Outside of tight end Tony Gonzalez, who remains one of the top players at his position, the rest of the receivers are basically nothing more than off-week fill-ins. Maybe fourth-round draft pick Sammie Parker can push Eddie Kennison or Johnnie Morton to the bench, but it's unlikely, at least this season. But the speedster is somebody to watch in keeper leagues. As long as Dante Hall is doing his thing in a Chiefs' uniform, Kansas City's special teams unit will be one of the league's best.

Miami Dolphins
Let the A.J. Feeley-Jay Fielder battle begin. The Dolphins keep trying to replace Fielder and every year he holds off whomever they bring in. Last year it was Brian Griese. This year the team traded a second round pick to Philadelphia for Feeley. But while Fielder's nothing great, sooner or later the Dolphins have to look at their roster and realize nothing short of Peyton Manning or Michael Vick is going to make their hodgepodge of receivers - outside of talented Chris Chambers - any good. Chambers will continue to put up solid numbers regardless of which quarterback wins the team's starting job - or if it signs Kurt Warner or Kerry Collins. David Boston was acquired in a trade with San Diego, but since he's as big as most tight ends, he should count as one. He has an occasional big game, but doesn't play with any kind of consistency. Tight end Randy McMichael is one of the best receivers at his position and continues to improve. Don't forget about him on draft day. Running back Ricky Williams took a beating in 2003 behind a terrible Miami offensive line and didn't really get rolling until late in the season. By then, he had pretty much ruined the playoff chances of owners who had taken him in the first round. But Williams has too much talent not to bounce back this season. You just have to wonder how long he can continue to carry the ball 25 to 30 times per game given his running style?

New England Patriots
The defending Super Bowl champs finally got themselves a running back, acquiring Corey Dillon from Cincinnati. Dillon's had some minor injury problems in recent years, but he's still a big-time player capable of carrying an offense. Be glad to get him at the end of the first round of your draft. With Dillon on board, downgrade Kevin Faulk, who put up decent rushing and receiving numbers in 2003. Dillon's presence, however, could take some of those short touchdown passes away from Tom Brady. Even so, Brady's not a bad QB option. Just realize he's a lot like Troy Aikman in that his team's win but he doesn't always put up monster numbers. Brady has been very durable, though, something that's a big plus. Deion Branch slowly but surely took over the No. 1 receiving job from veteran Troy Brown, who disappeared for long stretches. Having now played on two Super Bowl teams, Branch can't be considered a sleeper, but look for him to break 1,000 yards for the first time in his career in 2004. But Brady likes to spread the ball around too much to recommend any of the other Pats receivers, even though Brown, David Givens and Bethel Johnson have talent. Tight end Daniel Graham caught 38 passes and four touchdowns, while backup Christian Fauria had 28 and two. But the team selected speedy Ben Watson with the second of its two first-round draft picks, so the tight end position bears watching in New England. Brady likes to use his tight ends, so whomever wins the job holds value.

New York Jets
Curtis Martin has to slow down one of these years, right? The future Hall of Famer got off to a ridiculously slow start last season when QB Chad Pennington was out with a broken wrist, but rebounded to finish with more than 1,300 yards. But Martin scored just two touchdown. The 10-year vet is on the downside of his career. Proceed with caution. This may be the year to grab backup running back Lamont Jordan. Pennington, meanwhile, missed six games and finished with 2,139 yards and 13 touchdowns. Don't be fooled by the hype surrounding Pennington. He's no fantasy star. Wide receiver Santana Moss, on the other hand, is. Moss is only going to get better, so grab him early. Justin McCareins comes over from Tennessee as a free agent after a breakout season to provide a much more reliable second option than either Curtis Conway or Wayne Chrbet. Chrbet is back as the third receiver, but Conway is gone. Anthony Becht is a decent tight end.

Oakland Raiders
It's no coincidence Oakland and old both begin with the letter O. The only thing that has gotten younger with this team is its offensive line. Everything else reeks of Ben Gay. Quarterback Rich Gannon is now 37 and coming off an injury-riddled year. The team was so unconvinced Gannon could regain his 2002 form it signed former Giants starter Kerry Collins. Wide receivers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown will turn 42 and 37 this season. There are plenty of better options at wide receiver than Rice or Brown, let somebody else make that mistake. Jerry Porter had a hernia operation early in the season last year and never lived up to the big postseason he had in the 2002 season. He'll be counted on this season to take a more prominent role in the offense. Much will depend on the healthy of Gannon, who was among the biggest disappointments in the league last season. If he doesn't rebound, the rest of the offense will suffer. Running back Charlie Garner signed with Tampa Bay in free agency, but Tyrone Wheatley remains. Second-year man Justin Fargas or Amos Zereoue, signed after being released by the Steelers, are decent players, but nothing special. Keep an eye on speedy rookie wideout Johnny Morant.

Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers wanted Phillip Rivers in the draft, but were more than happy to grab Ben Roethlisberger to be their quarterback of the future. Unlike Eli Manning and Rivers, who landed with the Giants and Chargers, respectively, Roethlisberger won't be asked to start immediately. He'll likely spend most of the year behind Tommy Maddox, who had an up-and-down season behind a banged up offensive line. The Steelers hope the line will be better to provide Maddox with more time to throw to a talented group of receivers, headed by Hines Ward, one of the top-five fantasy receivers in the league. Plaxico Burress had an off year, but is heading into a contract year, so expect big things, especially if the running game gets going. Slot man Antwaan Randle El matched Kansas City's Dante Hall with two punt return touchdowns. Amos Zereoue was released during the offseason and replaced by Duce Staley. Expext Staley to get the bulk of the carries this season as the team begins to phase out Jerome Bettis. Bettis can still have a good day against the dregs of the league, but no longer has the quickness to hit the hole. After an injury-riddled 2003 season, tight end Jay Riemersma should catch 40 passes this season.

San Diego Chargers
Phillip Rivers was considered the quarterback in this draft who was the most ready to step in and play well now. Of course with San Diego's roster, it would be tough for any quarterback to play well. Running back LaDanian Tomlinson is the best weapon in the league not named Priest Holmes. Tomlinson rushed for 1,645 yards and 13 scores and caught 100 passes for another 725 yards and four more touchdowns. That's a fantasy stud. David Boston caught 70 passes in his first year with the team but was shipped to Miami after several clashes with management. Kevin Dyson was signed as a free agent, but spent most of 2003 injured on Carolina's roster. He's the only proven commodity on the roster at receiver, however. Kassim Osgood and Reche Caldwell will battle for the other starting spot, but neither is recommended at this point. Keep an eye on tight end Antonio Gates, however. The former Kent State power forward will have a breakout season.

Tennessee Titans
Steve McNair is the Titans' offense. He doesn't run like he used to and he gets banged up every year, but don't forget about him on draft day. Nobody does more with less. Running back Eddie George continues to slip past 1,000 yards every season, but it takes him more and more carries to do so. This could be the season he starts getting phased out of the offense, with Chris Brown stealing some carries. Wide receiver Derrick Mason continues to be a strong fantasy player, but with Justin McCareins now with the Jets, the team needs a second option. Keep an eye on Tyrone Calico, a second-year receiver who should beat out Drew Bennett for a starting spot. Tight end Frank Wycheck has retired, Erron Kinney's the main tight end in this offense anyway. The team selected tight end Ben Troupe in the draft, but since the Titans like to use two tight ends, he shouldn't bother Kinney much.

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