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DANGER! WATCH YOURSELF!

Were you lucky enough to land a top four pick in your fantasy football draft last year? I was. If you did, you probably reacted by saying something to yourself like, “Oh, this is a wonderful day. Now I know I will be able to pick one of the four runningbacks in the top group!” That’s what I said. However, if you were in the fourth spot you most likely flushed that pick down the toilet by selecting Matt Forte … just like I did.

But, don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s not your fault. No one saw that stinker of a season coming out of Forte. It was widely understood across the fantasy football community that the top four picks in last year’s draft would go: Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner, Maurice Jones-Drew and Forte, usually in that order. So, if you were sitting there at four you most likely stepped on the “Forte grenade.” You had to. It was unthinkable to question whether these were the top four picks, almost as if the fantasy gods would strike you down if you deviated from that top group.

But, unfortunately you quickly learned that blindly following those top four rankings destroyed your team. Boy, wouldn’t it have been nice if someone would have questioned that top four group before the draft? Well let us learn a lesson from this nightmare of a pick. There were some warning signs for Forte that we can carry forward to this year as another group of top four runningbacks have emerged as the unquestioned top four picks: Chris Johnson, Peterson, Jones-Drew and Ray Rice. It appears to me no one is even thinking of deviating from this group in the top four … just like last year. But I think there might be a “Forte grenade” in here … just like last year. Let’s look at some of the factors that contributed to Forte’s dreadful season before I reveal my grenade candidate.

Addition of a major offensive player in the offseason:
Forte had a breakout season as a rookie with Kyle Orton as his quarterback (probably the only time you’ll see breakout season and Orton in the same sentence). Coming into last season the Bears traded for Jay Cutler. This was a drastic change for the Bears’ offense, and unfortunately it was a change that obliterated Forte’s value. Most of Forte’s fantasy success came as a direct result of Orton’s futility at the quarterback position. Orton would frequently check down to Forte on many pass plays and Forte caught four touchdowns in 2008. He caught none in 2009 with Cutler at quarterback. Cutler was more interested in forcing the ball down the field, and usually throwing it to the other team.

Poor defensive play/quarterback upgrade:
I combined these two factors because they both led to the same damaging result for Forte: more passing. The Bears’ weak defensive unit (mainly a result from losing Brian Urlacher to injury in Week 1) frequently forced the offense to play from behind. Combine that with a quarterback upgrade from Orton to Cutler and all of a sudden the Bears became a pass-first team. Forte had 316 rushing attempts in 2008. He only had 258 rushing attempts in 2009.

Offensive line issues:
The Bears’ offensive line couldn’t make a hole with a shovel last year. They gave Forte nowhere to run. They brought in Orlando Pace to play tackle and he proved to be past his prime. The addition of Pace forced Frank Omiyale to move inside to left guard where he struggled mightily, lost his job after six games, and then re-entered the starting lineup last November only because the other options were even worse. With a struggling offensive line, Forte never stood a chance.

So as we look at our group of the untouchable top four in 2010 drafts, one grenade candidate jumps out to me with very similar red flags as Forte had. You may have guessed by now that it’s Rice.

The Ravens welcomed Anquan Boldin to their team this offseason. That would be Rice’s major offensive player addition. Though you may think a change at quarterback is a much bigger difference than a change in wide receiver, it is important to take a deeper look at Boldin. He is not a deep threat type of receiver, like a Randy Moss or DeSean Jackson. The Cardinals ran a lot of screens and short slant routes with Boldin. His average yards per catch were 12. Rice’s average was nine. Many of those receptions that made Rice so valuable last year could be headed in Boldin’s direction this year.

The Ravens have had one of the NFL’s most intimidating defenses for nearly a decade. However, that defense has started to show some holes as they have allowed increasingly more rushing yards for three consecutive seasons. And now their aging core defensive studs are another year older. Ed Reed already spent most of last year injured, and the rest of their secondary is a question mark coming into this season. Combine this with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s expressed desire to open up the playbook for Joe Flacco this year and you could have Rice receiving far less rushing attempts. Ravens writers and bloggers have already discussed the expectation of more three-, four and five-wide receiver sets for the offense.

It is hard to find a problem with the Ravens offensive line, but they do have one question mark with Jared Gaither. Gaither has had a roller coaster offseason with a foot injury, multiple trade rumors and complaints of wanting a long-term deal while showing his work ethic does not deserve one. If Gaither can get his act together, the Ravens offensive line should be fine. But if he can’t, the team may struggle at the right tackle position in 2010.

Now, is all of this to say stay away from Rice completely? Certainly not. I like Rice (and if you read my last article, “FUN-tasy Football”, you know I’m all about picking guys you like). I’m just saying don’t take the fantasy football community’s insistence on a top four group as the final word for your draft. If I’m in the four spot I might take a look at some other options like Frank Gore or Michael Turner. Maybe, I take Andre Johnson and lock up my WR1 spot. Or, even selecting a top quarterback like Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees would not be a bad pick at number four overall.

I think Rice will have a fine season. But he does not come without a few question marks. And, those question marks are eerily similar to those that led to Forte’s downfall. But, everybody put Forte in the almighty top four group and ignored his warning signs. But, he was not a top four pick. He was a grenade. Don’t let everybody sell you another “Forte grenade” this year.

Happy drafting!

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