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FANTASY FORECAST: DON'T EXPECT SLUMP FROM MOSS

It's no wonder purple Minnesota Vikings jerseys bearing the No. 84 have become one of the NFL's top sellers.

Receiver Randy Moss took the fantasy football world by storm last season, and there's no reason to expect his flame to start flickering any time soon.

Moss caught an NFL rookie-record 17 touchdowns among his 69 receptions for 1,313 yards, even though he began last season as his team's third option, behind Cris Carter and Jake Reed.

Reed played in only the first 11 games before his season ended because of back surgery to repair a herniated disk. Not surprisingly, Moss' numbers skyrocketed in the second half of the season. In his final nine games, including postseason, Moss caught 47 balls for 862 yards and 13 TDs.

This year, the news only should get better for Moss. First, he will never be a third option again. And if he maintains anything close to the pace he set as a rookie, he's a lock to become one of the 10 most prolific pass catchers in NFL history.

The 10 top receivers (based on total number of receptions) in league history entering this season caught an average of 12.4 more passes in their second pro years for an average of 252 more yards and nearly four more scores.

If Moss shows only average improvement, as compared to the other elite receivers, he's on target for 81 catches, 1,566 yards and 21 TDs in '99.

Sure, it's only a statistical projection. But it's also a solid case for Moss to merit strong consideration as the top pick in any fantasy league draft.

Here are some more draft-day hints:

Quarterbacks

Strategy: Stick with players from passing teams and always give an edge to a quarterback who can run the ball, especially down near the goal line. Passing yardage is on the decline league-wide, as there were only 42 300-yard passing performances last season. QBs are the most injury-prone players on the board, so always draft the backup to your starter.

Top 10: 1-Brett Favre, Green Bay; 2-Steve Young, San Francisco; 3-Jake Plummer, Arizona; 4-Mark Brunell, Jacksonville; 5-Drew Bledsoe, New England; 6-Randall Cunningham, Minnesota; 7-Peyton Manning, Indianapolis; 8-Vinny Testaverde, N.Y. Jets; 9-Doug Flutie, Buffalo; 10-Chris Chandler, Atlanta.

Avoid: San Diego quarterbacks; Billy Joe Hobert, New Orleans; Troy Aikman, Dallas; Kerry Collins, New York Giants; Doug Pederson, Philadelphia.

Sleeper: With Kevin Gilbride in as the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator, Kordell Stewart may return to his '97 form.

Rookie Stars: Don't bet the farm on any of this year's rookie class, but Chicago's Cade McNown and Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb are the best bets to become an effective starter the quickest. If you're in a "keeper" league, take Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper.

Sorting the Bills: Expect better-than-average production from Flutie, but if you draft him, make Rob Johnson a priority in the middle rounds.

Running backs

Strategy: There's enough depth here for every owner to take at least one quality back. Taking two backs with the potential score 10 to 12 TDs and rush for 1,000 yards in the early rounds is sound planning.

Top 15: 1-Terrell Davis, Denver; 2-Jamal Anderson, Atlanta; 3-Fred Taylor, Jacksonville; 4-Dorsey Levens, Green Bay; 5-Curtis Martin, N.Y. Jets; 6-Eddie George, Tennessee; 7-Ricky Watters, Seattle; 8-Marshall Faulk, St. Louis; 9-Emmitt Smith, Dallas; 10-Natrone Means, San Diego; 11-Jerome Bettis, Pittsburgh; 12-Ricky Williams, New Orleans; 13-Antowain Smith, Buffalo; 14-Corey Dillon, Cincinnati; 15-Edgerrin James, Indianapolis.

Avoid: James Stewart, Jacksonville; Lawrence Phillips, San Francisco; Chris Warren, Dallas; any Carolina running back.

Sleeper: If Antowain Smith's groin doesn't allow him to get through the season healthy, look for Jonathan Linton to be the beneficiary.

Rookie star: The Batavia Muckdogs' loss was every fantasy football owners' gain. Williams, an ex-outfielder who had 2,327 rushing yards and 30 TDs last season at Texas, will learn on the job for the Saints.

Sorting the Bills: Smith's health is a concern, so don't forget about Thurman Thomas, who's bound to be around well into the middle rounds.

Wide receivers

Strategy: San Francisco's Jerry Rice is no longer the marquee man but there's still plenty of talent to go around. Stay away from quarterback/receiver tandems whenever possible for two reasons: a poor offensive game burns you in two places and the bye week is a killer.

Top 15: 1-Randy Moss, Minnesota; 2-Antonio Freeman, Green Bay; 3-Terrell Owens, San Francisco; 4-Keyshawn Johnson, N.Y. Jets; 5-Eric Moulds, Buffalo; 6-Joey Galloway, Seattle; 7-Jimmy Smith, Jacksonville; 8-Cris Carter, Minnesota; 9-Terry Glenn, New England; 10-Herman Moore, Detroit; 11-Marvin Harrison, Indianapolis; 12-Jerry Rice, San Francisco; 13-Tim Brown, Oakland; 14-Terance Mathis, Atlanta; 15-Rod Smith, Denver.

Avoid: Isaac Bruce, St. Louis; Andre Rison, Kansas City; Carl Pickens, Cincinnati; Tony Martin, Miami.

Warning: Galloway's holdout makes him a risky choice but still worth gambling on.

Sleeper: Indianapolis' E.G. Green will benefit both from double-teaming of teammate Marvin Harrison and the continued development of Peyton Manning.

Rookie star: David Boston caught 34 career TD passes at Ohio State and arrives in Arizona in a perfect situation. Sorting the Bills: Moulds, an emerging superstar, is probably the best fantasy pick among the Bills.

Tight ends

Strategy: This position is lean and mean. If you don't get one of the top two early, sit back and take the best of what's left in the later rounds.

Top 10: 1-Shannon Sharpe, Denver; 2-Ben Coates, New England; 3-Cam Cleeland, New Orleans; 4-Kyle Brady, Jacksonville; 5-O.J. Santiago, Atlanta; 6-Freddie Jones, San Diego; 7-Rickey Dudley, Oakland; 8-Tony Gonzalez, Kansas City; 9-Wesley Walls, Carolina; 10-Mark Chmura, Green Bay.

Avoid: Pete Mitchell, N.Y. Giants; David LaFleur, Dallas; Troy Drayton, Miami.

Warning: Two among the top 10 constitute risky business. Cleeland will miss at least the first two games and possibly three months with bone spurs. Chmura is also risky because of a bulging disk in his neck.

Sleeper: Chmura's injury problems may mean more playing time and a greater role for Green Bay's Tyrone Davis.

Rookie star: Don't expect any of them to twinkle in '99 but Minnesota's Jim Kleinsasser, from Division II North Dakota, should get some opportunities as a backup to Andrew Glover.

Sorting the Bills: Riemersma took a lot of fantasy owners by surprise with six TDs as a part-timer in '98. The job is his now but that doesn't guarantee he'll match last year's numbers.

Kickers

Strategy: This isn't rocket science. Kickers on strong offensive teams are who you're after. There's never a need to rush into drafting a kicker.

Top 10: 1-Gary Anderson, Minnesota; 2-Jason Elam, Denver; 3-Mike Hollis, Jacksonville; 4-John Hall, N.Y. Jets; 5-Ryan Longwell, Green Bay; 6-Steve Christie, Buffalo; 7-Todd Peterson, Seattle; 8-Morten Andersen, Atlanta; 9-Al Del Greco, Tennessee; 10-Adam Vinatieri, New England.

Avoid: Jeff Jaeger, Chicago; Doug Pelfrey, Cincinnati; Phil Dawson, Cleveland.

Sorting the Bills: Christie, who scored 140 points and attempted 41 field goals last season, remains a rock-solid pick.

Defense/special teams

Strategy: This pick is always a crap shoot, but good teams that hold leads a lot are the ticket. Top 10: 1-Seattle Seahawks; 2-Miami Dolphins; 3-Atlanta Falcons; 4-Jacksonville Jaguars; 5-N.Y. Jets; 6-Minnesota Vikings; 7-Denver Broncos; 8-Green Bay Packers; 9-San Francisco 49ers; 10-Dallas Cowboys.

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