In February, I sat down for an interview with Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who was coming off a Pro Bowl season. I told him to make a plea why he should be a Top 5 Fantasy wide receiver in 2010, and here's what he said.
"I'm going to keep getting better," Jackson proclaimed. "I believe in hard work. I have that work ethic in me. There are things that I do well, but I also want to work on the small details of being a good receiver. I have a great quarterback, and we're always going to have a balanced running game. And with Antonio Gates in the middle I'm going to have one-on-one matchups. I'm scrappy, and I'm a fighter. I'm going to go out there and give you my best effort every Sunday."
Um, Vincent, when you say every Sunday, is that beginning in Week 4?
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Things have changed dramatically for Jackson since February. He has threatened to hold out for 10 games based on his contract -- he would need to show up for at least six games to accrue a year of service time, which would put him on the field in Week 12 following San Diego's bye in Week 10. On top of that, Jackson was suspended for three games for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy as it relates to his second DUI conviction in as many years.
The Chargers offense was already in a state of transition following LaDainian Tomlinson's release, and now Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill, also a potential holdout, could be out for most of the season. It makes things in San Diego quite interesting this year.
Philip Rivers would take a hit without Jackson and McNeill, but he would still be a No. 1 Fantasy quarterback. Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee would see a huge boost in value at wide receiver, and Gates would remain a No. 1 Fantasy tight end.
At running back, the Chargers addressed the loss of Tomlinson by drafting Ryan Mathews in the first round, and he has the makings of a star. Darren Sproles will also see an increase in value, and he's worth a late-round pick in all leagues.
The Chargers offense should still be explosive with or without Jackson or McNeill, but most Fantasy owners would rather see the entire San Diego offense intact. It would make for a much better season if everyone was on the field beginning in Week 1.
Sleeper ... Malcom Floyd, WR
Floyd should be considered a sleeper whether or not Jackson ends up on the field in Week 4. Floyd is ready to take the next step in his career. Now, if Jackson stands by his word to hold out for the first 10 games of the season, Floyd's value would rise significantly since he would become the No. 1 wide receiver, but the Chargers were already counting on Floyd to improve.
Last year, the Chargers released Chris Chambers in the middle of the season to give Floyd a larger role. Floyd responded with a career season with 45 catches for 776 yards, but he scored only one touchdown. Those stats should increase across the board. Keep an eye on what happens with Jackson throughout the offseason, and you will see Floyd continue to move up the rankings. With Jackson out, Floyd would be considered a strong No. 3 Fantasy option worth a mid-round pick. If Jackson ends his holdout and is just out for the first three games, then Floyd would be a No. 4 Fantasy wide receiver worth a late-round pick, but we would still be high on him, especially early in the year.
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Breakout ... Ryan Mathews, RB
Rarely do rookie running backs get this much love in Fantasy, but Mathews has the chance to be special. He's stepping into a situation that should allow him to succeed right away. Tomlinson is gone and Mathews is expected to start. He will share carries with Sproles, but coach Norv Turner has already said Mathews will get the majority of touches.
We're excited about Mathews based on how Turner has done with running backs in his career, having worked with Emmitt Smith, Ricky Williams, Frank Gore and Tomlinson as a head coach or offensive coordinator. All have had amazing seasons under Turner, and Mathews could be next. We have Mathews ranked as a Top 15 Fantasy running back, and he's worth drafting as early as Round 2 in all leagues. Some owners will draft Mathews in Round 1, which is a little high, but the potential is there for Mathews to be an elite Fantasy option from the beginning of his career. He was a star at Fresno State with 1,808 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns in 2009, and he should be a star in the NFL.
Late-round flier ... Legedu Naanee, WR
Naanee will see a big increase in Fantasy value if Jackson decides to miss the first 10 games of the season because of his contract. That makes Naanee worth the risk with a late-round pick. We expect Floyd to benefit the most if Jackson is out, but Naanee was another San Diego receiver who had a career year in 2009 with 24 catches for 242 yards and two touchdowns. Naanee's development was also part of the reason the Chargers released Chris Chambers last year.
Naanee will be the No. 3 wide receiver if Jackson shows up following his suspension, but he would start if Jackson stays out for the first 10 games. It's not like Rivers will only throw the ball to Gates, which is why we're high on Floyd and Naanee. So when you're looking at those late-round sleepers, put Naanee on the list. The Chargers are still going to throw the ball at will, and Naanee should benefit this season.
Mathews is going to enjoy the NFL early in the season with games against the Chiefs, Jaguars, Seahawks, Raiders and Rams in five of San Diego's first six games. He also should help Fantasy owners at playoff time with a matchup against the Raiders in Week 13 and the Chiefs in Week 14. The first potential game for Jackson would be Week 4 against Arizona based on his three-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. But if he remains a holdout until Week 12, then he would debut against the Colts.
Training camp topics
When will they show up? That's what everyone wants to know, and we're talking, of course, about Jackson and McNeill.
Rivers would like to have both in camp, but McNeill might be more important since he protects the blind side. The Chargers will miss Jackson as well, but look for Floyd and Naanee, as well as Buster Davis and Josh Reed, to help fill the void. There's also Pro Bowl tight end Gates, and Sproles is a capable receiver out of the backfield.
We also want to see how Mathews looks in making the transition from college star to the NFL, but we expect him to be fine. He's someone that Fantasy owners are excited about as he attempts to replace the departed Tomlinson.
The Chargers offense should continue to be explosive this season, but it would be better with Jackson and McNeill in the fold. Those two players, however, could have Fantasy owners on edge throughout training camp waiting to find out what their plans are to start the season.
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