Players that will have a significantly improved ‘09

By Chris Burrows

Joe Flacco
Joe Flacco’s Baltimore debut last year turned heads and made fans “Wacko for Flacco” when he led the Ravens to the AFC championship but his mediocre digits (2,971 yards, 14 TD’s, and 12 interceptions) didn’t make him a very viable fantasy starter. 2009, however, should be very kind to Flacco. The Ravens added OT Michael Oher with a first-round pick and Minnesota center Matt Birk—both are major upgrades to a lacking frontline that will give Flacco time to do his thing.

Steven Jackson
No one’s counting on a Rams schedule that stretches into February. Too many losses in too many seasons with cash flow petering out don’t make playoff appearances. However, with a shrunken offense that no longer includes Torry Holt and a new coaching staff leading the charge, the hobbling and penniless Rams will be hitching their hopes to six-year veteran RB Steven Jackson. He’s always delivered impressive stats even in dismal seasons—he topped 1,500 rushing yards in 2006—but Jackson will be one of Marc Bulger’s only options with finesse receiver Holt no longer in the picture and Bulger’s arm increasingly less dependable. Steven Jackson is going to have to produce—he’s the only hope in the Gateway City.

Hines Ward
Hines Ward won’t get any better. I don’t think he can. But the rest of the 20 returning Pittsburgh starters will be hungry for another run to the bowl. And Hines will have no choice but to keep up. No team can claim that much carryover into the next season, and what worked then can only work better next time around with some support from the draft. Ward shows no signs of slowing down in his 12th season. He went the distance leading up to an appearance in the big show last season with 1,043 yards and 7 end zone grabs. There won’t be a championship hangover for Ward—his 12th season will be his best yet.

Frank Gore
2009 is the year of the rebound for the 49ers running back who showed up to camp trimmer than before according to a Sports Illustrated report and hyped for a season under new offensive direction after a dismal 2008. The 49ers are returning to a run-based offense that Gore is familiar with and which he was able to put up huge numbers on in 2006 when he ran for 1,695 yards on 312 carries. In the interceding two seasons Gore ran up much lower yardage because he wasn’t given the ball (only 360 and 240 attempts and 1,102 and 1,036 yards respectively), but 2009 and new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye whose power running style encourages a strong ground offensive should put the ball firmly back into Gore’s hands.

Reggie Bush
Look for Drew Brees and Reggie Bush to be connecting an awful lot in the upcoming season as the disappointing RB looks to silence his critics. In his first three seasons with the Saints Bush was anything but breakout posting 1,550 rushing yards over the three years and an almost identical reception yardage. However, in 2009 expect Brees to utilize Bush more as a rusher as the team looks to step up its run-blocking protection.

Tom Brady
This goes without saying but I will anyway. Pats fans will be encouraged to see Brady play in 15 more games this season than he did in the last (and probably a few more than that). Back off the injured bench and committed to a competitive season, Brady is a shoe-in for top QB in all the land. We don’t even need to go over the stats.

Anthony Gonzalez
Likely filling the void left by a much missed Marvin Harrison, former third sport receiver Anthony Gonzalez will be tracking many more than his total 664 reception yards in 2008. Gonzalez will need to prove his worth if he intends to hold the vacated spot for very long as competition among the receivers will be fierce. The other pass-grabber for the Manning machine is Reggie Wayne who will be useful but won’t likely improve much on his 1,145 reception yards in 2008.

Donovan McNabb
With Jeremy Maclin, Jason Peters and LeSean McCoy now in his arsenal, Donovan McNabb has no choice but to improve in ’09. McNabb was less than hopeful when, after some major departures (Tra Thomas, Brian Dawkins), the Eagles’ ownership was slow to sign anybody in the offseason—he demanded to see that change before signing a contract extension. And it did. Jason Peters, a top left tackle, was salvaged from Buffalo, WR Jeremy Maclin was drafted out of Missouri and rusher LeSean McCoy was drafted from Pittsburgh to sew up a deficiency in the Eagle’s ability to convert on third and shorts. 2008 was generous to the aging McNabb, he netted over 3,900 yards—the most ever in his 12 seasons with the Eagles but saw a dip in his rating that will be helped by an even more capable offense into 2010.

Philip Rivers
He’s improved in every season that he’s played in the NFL, and next season the Charger’s QB will be blocked by two newly drafted linemen and has two top performing rushers—LaDanian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles—at his service once again. Tomlinson himself belongs on this list as he looks to quiet critics concerned with his age and his less than an impressive ’08-’09 that featured an offense based around fourth quarter pass catch-ups. For 2009 look for the ever-improving sixth season vet to make a run at the playoffs. He’d make the perfect sleeper QB for any fantasy team.

Matt Forte
Returning for his sophomore year with the Bears, Matt Forte has nothing to prove. He ran for 1,238 yards and scored a total 12 6-pointers in his first season in Chicago overshadowing the overhyped experiment known as Devin Hester who—to the chagrin of fantasy owners and Chicagoans—was more buck than bang. Forte will be leading the ground charge of the Bear’s newest hype—Jay Cutler—who worked with a long list of Broncos backs last season to accrue a team total of 1,862 rushing yards, and the team nearly led the league in yards per carry with 4.8. Forte is really Cutler’s only choice on the ground (the second most rushing yards for a Bear last season was Kevin Jones who carried for 109 yards). 2009 will be the year of the Cutler-Forte show in Chi-town.