Tatum Bell has packed his bags and headed off to Denver to help fill a gap in the Broncos' injury-depleted backfield. Will this partnership be better the second time around? Larry Johnson will be active for the Chiefs this week, and just in time, as the ankle problem ailing Jamaal Charles has him questionable for Sunday. Warrick Dunn is feeling better, and the Buccaneers have to be happy about that, since Earnest Graham's knee sprain may keep him sidelined this week.
Games of musical chairs are being played at running back everywhere around the league. Who else will be stepping into or out of your fantasy rotation this week? Based on early practice reports, here's what we're hearing on the injury front so far:
Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins: Portis has a grade 2 medial collateral ligament (MCL) sprain that could sideline him this week, according to the Washington Post. We all know that Portis has been taking his share of hits with his big workload so far this year and has proved extremely resilient, but a grade 2 MCL sprain is a compromising injury for a running back.
The Post reports that Portis said on John Thompson's radio show that he was having more pain in his knee late last week, which led to further evaluation and the ultimate diagnosis. Portis also stated that as of Tuesday he was just starting to bend his knee and could not fully straighten it, either. This is not unusual for an MCL injury, as some of the ligament fibers are stretched when the knee is bent and others are stretched when the knee is extended. As the ligament is trying to heal, it is important not to overstretch those fibers, so initially the knee is restricted from the extremes of the range of motion.
If Portis was still lacking range of motion Tuesday, it's almost impossible to imagine that he could regain full motion and have enough strength and stability to perform in a game. Remember Willie Parker just returned (against the Redskins, in fact) after missing about a month with a similar injury. LaDainian Tomlinson tried to play in the 2007 AFC Championship game but lasted only a few plays because of a grade 2 MCL injury. Running backs' rapid directional changes stress the MCL significantly, and pain or a sense of instability will render them far less effective. This injury typically requires a few weeks of recovery, but a grade 2 (moderate) sprain represents a big range in terms of the extent of damage to the tissue -- the time frame for recovery is not automatic. If Portis is able to participate in practice late in the week, it bodes well for an earlier recovery, but even then, it would be a big surprise to see him in the lineup Sunday.
Tony Romo, QB, and Felix Jones, RB, Cowboys: The Cowboys are excited that Romo is back under center this week -- right on time, based on projections made after Romo first broke the little finger on his throwing hand. According to the Cowboys' official Web site, Romo returned to practice Monday and is throwing with "more zip on the ball," coach Wade Phillips said. Everything is pointing toward Romo's practicing all week and starting Sunday. He'll likely be a bit rusty after missing a month, but his finger should be on its way to being well healed. It was a wise decision for the Cowboys to allow Romo to rest and let his finger heal properly, ensuring less risk of complications for his throwing hand down the road. It will be a tough contest against the Redskins, but you can count on Romo's throwing the ball plenty.
The Cowboys' running game, however, may still be without the services of Felix Jones. Jones missed practice Monday, as he is still recovering from his hamstring injury. Missing the first day of practice after a bye week is not a good sign, but the first news of Jones' injury (that it was located closer to the knee) suggested that it could take longer to heal fully. For his part, Jones told the Cowboys' official Web site that he is very close to ready and hopes to return to practice Wednesday and play Sunday. He was able to run full speed last week but has worked solely on the side so far. If Jones demonstrates that he can go full speed in practice toward the latter part of the week, then he has a chance to play. That play, however, is likely to be limited, as the team is likely to ease him back so as not to risk re-injury. Fantasy owners should have a backup in place, though -- you know how finicky these muscle strains can be, especially as an athlete pushes himself toward full gear.
Tight end Jason Witten returned to practice Monday and is feeling better. Expect him back in the lineup Sunday, probably with some extra cushion around his still-healing rib, as he's a favorite Romo target.
Some other players to keep an eye on as the week progresses:
• The Broncos have added Tatum Bell to their roster. Bell and fullback Peyton Hillis are basically the only backs left standing. Selvin Young aggravated his groin injury in the Thursday night game and is unlikely to be available for a while. Meanwhile, tight end Tony Scheffler showed that he could play, but he was clearly still hurting. Hopefully the longer stretch between games this week will help him.
• Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and receiver Deion Branch could both be back in the lineup this week. The Seattle Times reports that coach Mike Holmgren is "cautiously optimistic" that they will be ready. Hasselbeck has regained strength in his leg, which allowed him to return to practice. Given the extent of his time off and the fact that he may not be at full strength (or in game shape), temper any expectations about what Hasselbeck can deliver. Meanwhile, Branch has recently been dealing with a painful bruised heel, which, along with a still-recovering ACL-reconstructed knee on the other side, has kept him out of the lineup for most of the season. As ESPN's John Clayton points out, though, the Seahawks have just released receiver Keary Colbert, a sign that Holmgren's optimism about Branch's return is well-founded. By Friday we should have a better indication as to what both players can do, but it's looking promising.
• Over in Pittsburgh, coach Mike Tomlin has taken a slightly different approach this week when it comes to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Tomlin wants to see Roethlisberger practice more early in the week before he commits to him as the Sunday starter. Roethlisberger, who suffered an acromioclavicular joint sprain in the season opener, has been nagged by the shoulder throughout the season, a condition that has not been helped by being knocked down and sacked. The trend has been for Roethlisberger to rest his arm to varying degrees during the week, practice some Friday then play Sunday. The trend has also been that Roethlisberger's performance declines as the game goes on, especially in the fourth quarter. There are likely multiple reasons for this, including some poor decision-making on Roethlisberger's part, which he openly acknowledges. But it is also probable that his shoulder plays a role in his ineffectiveness late in the game. As he takes a beating over the 60-minute contest, any pain or swelling that he incurs in the shoulder will make it more difficult for the muscles around the shoulder to function properly. This will in turn affect his throwing, limiting both his distance and his accuracy. Perhaps Tomlin's notion of seeing Roethlisberger in practice more is not a bad one from an injury perspective, in that if he is fatiguing in practice, it may be a good indicator that he will struggle to complete a game. And then there are all the other obvious benefits of practicing with the team throughout the week. And what about "Fast" Willie Parker? He may be wearing a harness for his injured shoulder, but he is expected to practice Wednesday and play Sunday.
• Bears quarterback Kyle Orton is determined to return to the field Sunday, but will he be able to do it? We don't know yet because the Bears will have their first practice Wednesday. Although his determination is admirable, it will really come down to functionality. Can he move effectively enough on that ankle to justify a start? This may come down to another game-time decision, but we should have a better clue by Friday. Stay tuned.
• Good early news for Steven Jackson fantasy owners. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reporting that Jackson was on the practice field Wednesday morning sharing first-team reps in 11-on-11 drills with teammate Antonio Pittman, who started last week in place of the injured Jackson. The fact that Jackson was running through team drills is a good sign that his quad is recovering, but it is still early. Coach Jim Haslett has made it clear that Jackson will need to go through a full practice at full speed before he is allowed to play, but this is the best start to a practice week that Jackson has had since the injury. Friday will be critical.
• Everyone is excited in Tampa Bay. Running back Carnell Williams, coming off a devastating injury (torn patellar tendon) more than a year ago, has worked extremely hard to get himself back to the playing field. Well, all that hard work has paid off. The Buccaneers have decided to activate Williams off the physically unable to perform list, and the move has come just in time. Teammate Earnest Graham is dealing with a knee sprain that will likely sideline him this week, as he has not been able to return to practice. Warrick Dunn, who missed the Bucs' last contest with a pinched nerve, has returned to practice and is hopeful that he'll play this weekend. Don't expect much from Cadillac at first; he will be brought back very gradually as his recovery is still in progress. By the time fantasy playoffs roll around, though, he could become a worthy flex player. You may want to grab him before anyone else notices.
As usual, practice throughout the week will give us a better hint as to what the final status of these players will be heading into Week 11. See you Friday at the injury chat, and we'll have the latest injury updates affecting Week 11 in the Saturday blog!