Maybe we just took for granted how much fun owning Marvin Harrison was. If you didn't get 100 catches every year, the final number wasn't far off, and the monster yard totals and double-digit touchdowns were also very attractive, making Harrison one of the most coveted wide receivers -- if not the most coveted -- this decade.
Of course, the Marvin Harrison we see running routes in preseason games this month might or might not be the same version, the surefire Hall of Famer who went to the Pro Bowl every season until this past one. How far are you willing to go to find out?
There's a time and place to select most starting wide receivers in fantasy football. The third wide receiver for the Patriots might get taken before the first 49er or Bear, and that's OK. The key is to know when to pull that trigger and pick the guy you want. In the case of Harrison, it really doesn't all come down to his knees, but which pick you need to spend to find out. At 36, and coming off surgery on one of the knees and trying to let the other one heal on its own, let's just say you'll look silly if you draft Harrison where he's used to being selected in fantasy drafts, in the top 20 -- but at the same time, he can't be written off, either.
I was in a draft two months ago and Harrison was still on the board in round seven of a 10-team league, and I pounced. Value is the name of the game, and there's very little risk in taking someone with this type of track record if you've already filled your starting lineup and then some. The problem is, you'll probably have to bite the bullet much earlier in your upcoming drafts if you want Harrison, and it's not easy to know when the time is right. Even in recent drafts I've done, the spot Harrison goes has generally been because there's an owner in each league who either doubts the validity of his knee problems, or just doesn't want to know, and overdrafts him. I also saw him go in the fourth round, and I thought that was too early. Can we really say assuredly he can't bounce back to prior levels? I say we can't. Harrison is a wild card this season.
Harrison made his bones in the NFL by running pinpoint routes, using quickness to find seams in the defense before and after getting the football, and with his sure hands. Having Peyton Manning slinging the ball to him also hasn't hurt. Lacking knee strength would surely hamper at least one of those attributes Harrison brings to the table, so it is important to watch him perform in the preseason, not so much to check his stats, but just to watch him run. So far, with two games down, Harrison has not been favoring his knees, and he's been used as he normally would in the preseason, which is to say cautiously. Hey, the guy is 36, after all. The Colts were going to exercise restraint with him anyway, but Harrison hasn't appeared to need any help.
I don't think there's any question the changing of the guard has happened to the passing game in Indy. Reggie Wayne was, for years, a strong No. 2 Colts wideout but a No. 1 in the hearts of fantasy owners, and with Harrison missing 11 games last season, Wayne seemed to have little problem reaching career-best stats. In fact, with Randy Moss likely to drop off at least some, and Terrell Owens turning 34 recently, one could make the case Wayne is the top wide receiver in some leagues, especially keeper formats. I'd probably throw Braylon Edwards and Larry Fitzgerald into that keeper conversation, as each has four years on Wayne. Regardless, the Colts don't need Harrison to return to the years of 100 receptions and 1,200 yards. Anthony Gonzalez emerged as a rookie, showing the ability to thrive out of the slot like Brandon Stokley used to, as well as lining up outside and complementing Wayne that way when Harrison wasn't available. Fantasy owners might still harbor ill will toward Harrison -- since his expected return from the sprained left knee was a popular, but disappointing, weekly topic that never came to fruition -- but don't let that cloud his actual value.
There is room for three wide receivers in Indianapolis, assuming Manning and his balky knee aren't a problem. There's a possibility Manning will not be ready for Week 1, and this might be just as impactful to Harrison's value as shoddy knees for a 36-year-old. I'm going to assume iron man Manning doesn't miss any games, putting the onus on Harrison to produce directly on the wide receiver himself.
We can't possibly know what the old man's knees feel like; all we can do is go by what we know of the surgeries, listen to what Harrison says and watch his mannerisms. Football players recover from arthroscopic knee surgery all the time, even in their mid-30s, and Harrison seems to be progressing nicely. In a vacuum I'd say if you can steal Harrison after the first six rounds of your draft, that would be terrific value. However, if Harrison is being relied upon as a top-20 wide receiver, and a top-50 pick, I would not call that smart value. We rank Harrison No. 25 among wide receivers, which seems about right for someone who still brings upside, but could also be a bust and struggle to stay on the field. Your best bet as a fantasy owner is to realize the right time to take the risk, and reap the reward.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can e-mail him here.