On Thursday, the Kansas City Chiefs opened their practices to the media for the first time. Yet there was no chance to view Larry Johnson, who missed the second half of the 2007 season with a broken foot. Chiefs coach Herm Edwards, however, emphasized there was no reason for alarm.
"I took him out," Edwards told the Kansas City Star. He worked hard three days [in] practice. He's been running, he's been finishing his runs. He's fine."
Edwards maintained Johnson is now healthy and that he participated in the team's first three offseason workouts this week. When rain caused the team to practice indoors Thursday, Edwards held Johnson out as a precaution because of the artificial turf. According to the Star, people close to Johnson have said his foot has healed and he looked close to his past form in workouts earlier this week. "He practiced good for three days," Edwards added.
Fantasy leaguers, however, should not get overly excited about Johnson's outlook for 2008 and should temper their expectations. Some readers have already asked if Johnson is worth a first-rounder again this year. Highly experienced fantasy players may scoff at such notions, but it's not surprising that some owners will still base their expectations on pre-2007 performances. Fantasy players are always looking for the draft choice that makes them look smarter than the rest of their league members. So if they can nimbly pluck Johnson when no one else wants him, and he responds with a fine season, his owners will be very happy.
Johnson is only two seasons removed from a two-year stretch that saw him rush for over 1,700 yards in each campaign and score 37 total touchdowns. Last year, he rushed for over 100 yards three times between Weeks 3 and 7, so he did show some flashes of his pre-2007 self before he was injured. So there is obvious potential for a rebound season in 2008. Yet there are some certain factors consider before you overrate Johnson for the upcoming year.
An experienced pro football follower knows you'll hear mostly positive stories coming out of early workouts. It's going to be some time before we see Johnson in actual exhibition games, when we can all eyeball him better and see just how "fully healed" he is. Hearing some hyperbole in late May isn't about to make me put Johnson back in first-round territory, not even close. Last season around this time, we were all wondering about the recovery of Shaun Alexander from a major foot injury, and many experts, including myself, overrated him for 2007. Johnson's career seems unlikely to take the same sharp downward turn as Alexander's, yet I remain firm that he is a risky pick for 2008.
Two of Johnson's distinctive traits as a runner, his good vision and outstanding strength, won't be lost. Yet we still have to wait to see if or how much he loses in terms of explosion and acceleration. Will Johnson be able to plant and burst forward with the same confidence as in the past? Those are questions better answered by Stephania Bell, yet they are still legitimate concerns for any fantasy owner that will cause me to exercise great caution regarding Johnson on draft day.
Johnson's supporting cast is also a great area of concern. The once-vaunted offensive line, once a source of pride in Chiefs country, is now apparently in a rebuilding mode. A rebounding and recovering Johnson is not going to be helped much if other teams get consistent penetration into the backfield. It's a lot to ask of Johnson not only to regain much of his past form on a foot that will be under a microscope, but also to create his own running room in many situations.
There's also the very questionable passing game that is still a source of real concern in Kansas City. Sure, Chiefs followers have already heard positive reports about Brodie Croyle in early workouts, but we heard even more glowing reports about him last summer, and it was apparent he is not going to scare any defenses yet. While Dwayne Bowe was a revelation and newcomer Devard Darling has some sleeper potential, the Chiefs' passing game still does not strike fear in any defense, even though Tony Gonzalez remains a prime target.
Defenses certainly will key on Johnson, and will dare Croyle to beat them, which I certainly do not believe he is ready to do often at this point of his career. With the current state of the offensive line, opposing players can get into the backfield quickly quite often, which can only hinder Johnson's production. The Kansas City offense will sputter, which means Johnson will not get the opportunities to regularly finish off scoring drives. Last season, he scored three times in eight games, and his owners from last year painfully remember the fact that he did not find the end zone during the first five weeks.
Johnson does have the ability and determination to at least deliver a respectable comeback season, yet it's far from a sure thing, so I would personally not consider taking him until the fourth round in most yearly leagues, and I can see many owners being more comfortable taking him in the fifth. I certainly would not retain him in most keeper leagues, where two or three choices should be reserved for safer selections.
In terms of targeting possible injury replacements/handcuffs in the later rounds, Kolby Smith is second on the depth chart, but he was only adequate overall in Johnson's place last season. Rookie Jamaal Charles has more upside and can easily vault past Smith in the pecking order if given the chance to play often at some point during the upcoming season.
Matthew Harris (Tallahassee, Fla.): In my keeper league, we can retain three players, and I am definitely keeping Adrian Peterson and Steven Jackson. For my third guy, I've got the choice of Matt Hasselbeck, Marques Colston or Wes Welker. I was leaning towards Welker.
Engel: First, congratulations on heading into the 2008 season with what will be possibly the best running back duo in your league. As for your keepers, Hasselbeck is a solid and sometimes spectacular fantasy quarterback, but I would not retain him over a top wide receiver, especially Colston. While Welker is an excellent No. 2 fantasy wide receiver and a No. 1 guy in point-per-reception leagues, he is not quite on the level of Colston, who catches a lot of passes himself and is the clear top target in the New Orleans passing game. In New England, the ball tends to be spread out among different pass catchers, while Colston is more of a consistent scoring threat and certain top target for his quarterback. Colston will catch nearly as many balls as Welker and will outperform him in yardage and touchdowns, so I would not recommend Welker over Colston.
Brian (New York): I have the second pick in a 10-team, point-per-reception league. I'm leaning towards Adrian Peterson but I am also considering Steven Jackson or Brian Westbrook. Also, coming back in the second round I like to target the top wide receiver left. Who would you take out of these three: Reggie Wayne, Braylon Edwards, Larry Fitzgerald.
Engel: In a PPR league, I would take both Westbrook and Jackson over Peterson, who isn't as much of a proven receiving threat as the other two guys. It's very tough to decide between Jackson and Westbrook in this format, but the Eagles running back is an elite fantasy player in any type of scoring system, and he's an absolute stud in PPR formats. I'll take Westbrook in the tight call. As for your second-rounder, it's much too early to speculate on who will fall to you, especially when you never know for sure what other owners will be thinking. Just go with the flow, and have your list of the top wide receivers ready and just take the best one remaining when it's your turn in the second round. There is a very realistic chance at least two of those receivers could be off the board if you pick late in the second round, so don't speculate too much on what will happen ahead of time. You must adjust on the go instead of trying to project draft outcomes. Of the three you listed, though, I like Wayne best, as he has clearly taken over as Peyton Manning's No. 1 guy, and Edwards second, as he has clearly arrived as a top-level fantasy wide receiver. Fitzgerald, however, has his best years ahead of him and is an outstanding consolation pick if you don't land the other two wideouts.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.