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Burning Questions and Bold Predictions

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After an offseason filled with bounty scandals, holdouts and past fantasy studs trying to return from major injuries, the fantasy football season is finally upon us. We had a lot of questions to start with and many of them were answered in the preseason.

Can Peyton Manning return to form in his comeback year? He’s looked good enough in the preseason, especially in his 10-for-12, 122 passing yards, two touchdown performance against the 49ers, in only one quarter of work. By the end of the summer, Manning was being drafted as the 9th overall QB, right before Philip Rivers and Jay Cutler. He still doesn’t have the same arm strength he once had but he’s also as accurate as he’s ever been and if the Broncos' receivers can cut down on their drops, he can still be good enough. I’d still like to see Manning play a couple full regular season games though before I feel super good about things.

Beyond Manning though, one of the biggest offseason questions was answered last weekend, as Maurice Jones Drew finally ended his holdout. During the month of August, and with each passing week MJD didn’t show up, his draft value kept plummeting. His final ADP at the end of August was towards the end of the 2nd round/start of the 3rd.

Even though there are already reports coming out on Sunday that Jaguars Coach Mularkey was impressed with how MJD had stayed in shape, we can still expect a slow start for Jones-Drew. We’ve already heard all summer about the long history of running back holdouts who’ve disappointed when they reported back, most recently Chris Johnson.

I’m willing to give MJD a bigger benefit of the doubt than I may have given Johnson but I still think the first 2-3 games of the season may be rough for MJD owners. If you drafted him in the 1st round, you’re going to be disappointed. If you scooped him up in the middle/end of the 2nd round though, he should get the train rolling eventually and he’ll be a passable value in that spot.

After all, he’s coming back to an improved Jaguars offense, which has a quarterback whose slowly starting to improve and a legitimate playmaker in Justin Blackmon. If owners can tough it out over the first couple weeks, MJD could become a strong option, especially in the 2nd half of the season. He almost instantly becomes a great buy-low option after the first couple weeks, if he ends up struggling straight out the gate.

We also got some answers in regards to two of 2011’s biggest fantasy studs: Cam Newton and Jordy Nelson. One of the big themes of the summer was questioning whether Newton or Nelson could repeat last year’s success. Newton has been dogged by worries that he’ll have a sophomore slump and regress. Nelson, on the other hand, has been labeled with the “1-year wonder” tag because he went bonkers in his 4th year but hadn’t done much before that.

Playing without his No. 1 receiver Steve Smith, Cam Newton’s preseason numbers still managed to look decent as he showed off his versatility with five rushes for 32 yards. With the emergence of Brandon Lafell and Greg Olsen, Newton should be fine this year. As long as his owners aren’t expecting a carbon copy of last season’s banana numbers but something close to it, Newton owners can rest easy.

I have even more faith in Jordy Nelson than I have in Cam Newton. Nelson has had a great training camp and continues to be one of Aaron Rodgers’ favorite targets, which was in plain evidence when Nelson caught a 20-yard touchdown pass in Week 2 of the preseason, outflanking top cornerback Joe Haden in the process. Nothing in Nelson’s situation has changed for the negative since last year and he still has the best fantasy football quarterback throwing to him. He’s actually one of the draft’s better values at his final ADP of the end of the 3rd round. Definitely more of a value than Newton's ADP, which is in the middle of the 2nd.

So with the preseason answering some of our questions, unfortunately, there are still a great many burning questions that need to be answered. The first question we're tackling is the case of the alleged Comeback Player of 2012, former 1st overall pick Chris Johnson.

Judgment Year for Chris Johnson

One of the preseason narratives we’ve all seemed to accept is that Chris Johnson is headed for a bounce-back year. We’ve all read the glowing reports over the summer about how much he’s back to looking like his “old self”, how great he’s been in training camp and what great shape he’s in now after rededicating himself to the game.

More powerful than the constant barrage of positive CJ stories over the summer, is the specter of his 2009 season; over 2,000 yards rushing, 503 receiving yards and 16 total touchdowns. I think as a community, we all want CJ to return to his old self, especially in a day and age where great, game changing running backs are so rare. So when we were inundated with positive CJ propaganda over the summer, all of us accepted it with a smile on our faces and hoped for the best.

And yet, looking at his preseason output thus far, there’s a lot of room for concern. After his five carry, eight rushing yards, two dropped passes performance in Week 1 of the preseason, a little bit of the shine was taken off of CJ’s comeback year. We quickly forgot about it though after CJ’s 46 rushing yards, two touchdown game in Week 2 of the preseason and all was well in the world.

The very next week though, Johnson was back to his old, new self, going for 27 rushing yards on 13 carries against the Cardinals. Johnson’s final YPC for the preseason stands at 2.89. This is not 1st round material, nor is it the return to form we were expecting. It gets even worse if you start to look beyond the numbers.

Last season, CJ owners were despondent after nearly nine weeks of mediocre and disappointing play from him. He sank many an owner’s season. Then, in Week 10, the “old” CJ returned and he blew up for 130 rushing yards and a touchdown against the Panthers. Two weeks later he went bonkers against the Bucanneers for 190 rushing yards and then the following week against the Bills he erupted for 153 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

And that was the last meaningful contribution CJ owners would see from him for the rest of the season. In his final four games, he wound up with 195 yards, on 56 attempts; a paltry 3.48 YPC. He only was able to resurrect his old ways when he played against teams with very suspect run defense like the Panthers, Bills and Buccaneers. Going back to the future for a moment, we now take a deeper look at CJ’s disappointing 2012 preseason and see that the only team he performed well against was the Tampa Bay Bucs, ranked 28th in run defense last year.

Looking at Chris Johnson’s 2012 schedule, I see tasty matchups like the Colts twice and a game against the Bills, though I think the Bills' run defense should be improved from last year with the presence of All-Pro Mario Williams. Since Johnson only seems to perform against “ideal” opponents these days, what’s going to happen for the other 10 games on his schedule?

Chris Johnson was once matchup-proof, what we all expect from our fantasy studs, especially those we draft in the 1st round. I’m going to need to see some good performances against legitimate defenses before I anoint Chris Johnson the Comeback Kid. Thus far, after an entire offseason, training camp and preseason, I have yet to see anything that indicates that the old Chris Johnson is coming back.



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