Rivers of dreams

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers may have submarined fantasy seasons in the first half of 2011, making his second half surge inconsequential, but it would be foolish to ignore what the San Diego gunslinger did in the final nine games when drafting this season.

From Week 9 on, Rivers threw for 2,540 yards, 20 touchdowns and just nine interceptions while completing 61.6 percent of his passes and averaging 7.86 yards per attempt. If you extrapolate those numbers out to a full season you get 4,516 yards, 36 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, totals that look a lot better than the 4,624 yards, 27 TDs and 20 INTs that Rivers put up last season.

Prior to last season, Rivers had established himself as an elite fantasy quarterback will three straight dominant seasons, but he underwhelmed with 2,084 yards, seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions in the first seven games of 2011.

My question is, why should we let seven lousy games sour our opinion of Rivers for 2012?

Sure, the Chargers lost Vincent Jackson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency, but Rivers had his best overall season in 2010-11 with Jackson on the sidelines for 11 games due to a contract dispute with the Chargers' front office.

That season, Antonio Gates also missed six games, Malcom Floyd missed five and Rivers spent much of the season throwing passes to Patrick Crayton, Legedu Naanee, Seyi Ajirotutu and Randy McMichael. So a lack of perceived top weapons has never really been a problem for Rivers.

Plus, the Chargers imported 6-foot-2 receiver Robert Meachem from the Saints to stretch the field. Meachem isn't a physical jump-ball artist like Jackson, but he has averaged 16.1 yards per catch on his 141 NFL receptions so he should provide Rivers with a dynamic downfield weapon once the two develop chemistry.

In addition to Meachem, the team signed slot receiver Eddie Royal away from division rival Denver and will also return Floyd and second-year man Vincent Brown, giving Rivers four solid targets to spread the ball around to.

Then there's Gates, who has to be hungry to get back his title as the game's best tight end after Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski lifted it from him last season. The thing is, Gates didn't vacate that spot due to a loss of skill. He has been banged up the last two seasons, missing nine games combined due to several foot ailments but still averaging 780 yards per season and scoring 17 combined TDs.

Reports from Chargers training camp regarding Gates have been extremely positive. According to NFL.com, Gates is "fast, in shape and unable to be covered by a cornerback." Teammate and Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle, who has been playing against Gates in practice since 2007, told ESPN's AFC West beat writer Matt Williamson that Gates "is going to be the best tight end in the NFL this year. The best. You can't guard him ... He hasn't looked this good since my rookie season."

Fantasy owners should be salivating at the chance to draft the Rivers-Gates duo.

And while running back Ryan Mathews' draft stock has soared since former backfield mate and goal-line vulture Mike Tolbert signed with Carolina, Tolbert's exodus may also help Rivers pad his stats in the red zone.

Tolbert scored eight of his 10 touchdowns last season from inside the 10-yard line. As a result, just 10 of Rivers' 27 passing touchdowns came from inside the 10 (37 percent).

Meanwhile, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers threw 22 of his 45 passing TDs (48.9 percent), New Orleans' Drew Brees threw 23 of his 46 passing TDs (50 percent) and New England's Tom Brady tossed 17 of his 39 passing touchdowns (43.6 percent) from inside the 10-yard line.

A few more easy dump-offs into the end zone should allow Rivers to exceed 30 passing touchdowns for the third time in his career, and a healthy Gates and several options at receiver should result in Rivers cutting his interceptions down to the 12-15 range.

With Rivers sitting on the draft board until the seventh round on average (fantasyfootballcalculator.com ADP: 7.02) and going 10th overall among QBs, you should be able to build up your skill positions in the first five or six rounds of the draft and still end up with an elite fantasy quarterback primed for a nice bounce-back season.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Thomas J. Harrigan at tharrigan@sportsnetwork.com.

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