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Friday, December 20, 2013
Make choices you can live with

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

Don't forget I do a twice-weekly podcast called the Fantasy Underground, where Field "Forgiving Arian Foster" Yates and I discuss what we've seen on film and how it relates to your fantasy team. Subscribe on iTunes; that way you'll never miss a show!

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

All right, let's get to today's topics:

Four In Depth

1. The Finals: I've got one final thing for you as you embark upon your fantasy Super Bowl: I don't know. I don't know whether, in his third professional start, Kirk Cousins will decimate an awful Dallas Cowboys defense. I don't know if a mediocre Detroit Lions defense will, by definition, rack up big points because of a matchup with Eli Manning. I don't know if Ray Rice takes advantage of delicious matchup against the New England Patriots. I don't know if Danny Amendola is suddenly trustworthy because he gave you one good game that happened to correspond with the absence of Rob Gronkowski. I don't know if Adrian Peterson's foot injury is going to haunt him even if he's able to suit up. I don't know if the weather in City X is going to mess you over or if a playoff scenario will cause a team to bench its studs at halftime. I don't know if Andre Johnson bounces back from an awful Week 15 because Matt Schaub will be under center or in spite of that fact. I don't know if Andre Holmes can keep this up, I don't know if Matthew Stafford now suddenly stinks, and I don't know if Ryan Tannehill is now suddenly great. I don't know, I don't know, I don't know.

Of course, I'm glad to give you my opinions, and my opinions are embedded in our weekly ranks. Yes, I was aware of all these situations, and hundreds more, when I made my ranks. But the maddening thing about fantasy football is that, in a one- or two-week scenario, it's difficult to predict exactly what's going to happen. I don't have Rosicrucian insights. I'm not in any locker rooms (and if I was, it would mean I worked for a team and I wouldn't tell you stuff anyway). All I can communicate is who I'd start, but that doesn't mean I'm right. In the end, your championship lineup decisions have to come down to your gut.

Call it personal philosophy. Call it individual risk tolerance. Call it your sniffer. But if you look at the Miami Dolphins defense heading into a huge game against the Buffalo Bills -- who are playing out the string and starting Thaddeus Lewis under center -- and believe it's a can't-miss situation, you should pick them up and start them. If you believe in Cousins, ditto. If the whole Peterson foot thing just feels wrong to you, sit him.

I don't mean: It's your team, do what you want! I mean: As the sample size gets smaller -- and there's no smaller sample size than a one-week championship game -- we're all guessing. Baseball is soothing because it has hundreds and hundreds of replicable batter/hitter confrontations where eventually everything regresses to the mean. Even a full NFL season offers a bit of solace in that, over 16 games, flaws mostly reveal themselves and excellence does the same. But one week? You know this: Nearly anyone can look unbeatable for one week.

Drew Brees
Drew Brees passed for 313 yards and four touchdowns two weeks ago against the Panthers.

I know the way my gut works: If I'm in a league final (and I'm fortunate enough to be in one this weekend), I have a difficult time justifying benching a star player for someone with a good matchup. Do I like Drew Brees having to go to Carolina? I do not. Am I ready to start Cousins over him? I am not. But if you are, it doesn't mean you're dumb. It just means you have a different sniffer than I. If I bench Brees and he goes off, I won't be able to live with myself. If I bench Cousins and he goes off, well, I played the guy I think is a better player and it didn't work out. That doesn't tick me off nearly as much. But everyone is different in this regard.

So take a look at the ranks and you'll see what I think. Then figure out whether the risk of toppling the apple cart is worth it. You're not dumb if you do. You're not wimpy if you don't. It just comes down to what you can live with. And good luck!

2. Beast Mode: Disengaged? Now, all that said, if you have Marshawn Lynch on your fantasy team and you're in the Super Bowl, start him. I don't care that the Arizona Cardinals are my No. 1 fantasy defense against RBs (removing 8.4 fantasy points per game from the average RB corps it's faced over the past five weeks). Even on good fantasy teams, some lineup decisions based on matchups are legit, but benching Lynch would fall under the category of "too cute by half."

But here's a question worth asking: Are we potentially seeing the end of days for Lynch as an elite fantasy back?

By the 2014 season, he'll be only 28, but since his rookie year in 2007, Lynch is fourth among running backs in carries, and in the past three seasons, he's No. 1. He is on pace to register a three-year average of 299 totes per season. Here's a list of the 15 RBs who averaged at least that many carries in a three-year span since 2005 and how they fared the next season:

Literally no RB in this swath of recent history has seen his carries go up after such an intense three-year workload, and on average, these 15 men have lost nearly 91 carries, often because of injury.

We know Lynch is an almost impossibly physical player who invites as much contact as any rusher alive, and while his fantasy production has been almost impeccable all season, including last week's effort against the New York Giants in which he made crucial plays in the receiving game, there are some warning signs. Look at the performance of 2013's top 10 rushers in fantasy over the past five weeks:

Players who become overly TD-dependent can be scary; if they happen not to find the end zone, they can hurt you. Watch Lynch's tape over the past month and you see a distressing amount of "stuffage"; he is still a beast and still has impressive runs, but chunk plays have been fewer. Oh, he still has acceleration and daunting lateral agility for a 215-pound man, and I daresay if these statistical red flags weren't waving I wouldn't be able to look at Lynch's tape and locate any real signs he's entering a decline. But I also daresay if we looked hard at Shaun Alexander's late-season 2005 tape (a season in which he ran for 1,880 yards and 27 TDs), we wouldn't see signs there either.

I'm not predicting a crater job for Lynch in 2014. In fact, with the RB carnage around him among the supposed "elites" this year, it's hard to imagine he won't be a top-five option again in August. But to say there's no risk would be to whistle past the graveyard.

3. Rashad Jennings may be for real: My favorite RB revelation of this season is Zac Stacy. I've made the Frank Gore comparison a jillion times, but I might as well keep doing it until it sinks in; I think if Stacy stays healthy, he's going to be a fantasy household name for years. But whereas the excuse for not fully understanding Stacy's potential came from not seeing many Vanderbilt games last year, Rashad Jennings' shocking second half is almost inexplicable.

Devotees of my Super-Deep Sleeper column might remember I picked Jennings in 2009, when he was a Jacksonville Jaguars seventh-round rookie. It was difficult to ignore his measurables. At 6-foot-1 and 231 pounds, Jennings did 29 reps at his combine -- most from any RB -- and is generally acknowledged to run in the mid-4.5s (though he was slower than that at the combine). He was considered a potential second-round draft prospect in '09 but reportedly fell because scouts feared he wasn't going to be a tough enough inside runner. (Ahem.) Also, he was already 24 years old when he got drafted. At the time, what I liked about Jennings was his raw ability and the fallow depth-chart situation behind Maurice Jones-Drew. Alas, in his four seasons in Jacksonville, he looked unready to be a feature back. It wasn't just a lack of talent around him; Jennings made mental errors, couldn't stay healthy and basically just flopped.

But since Darren McFadden got hurt in Week 9, Jennings has produced great results. In the six games he's played since then (missing Week 14 because of a concussion), he has averaged 22 touches and 116.5 scrimmage yards per game, has scored six TDs and is fantasy's No. 4 RB. But listen, players have gotten hot and then faded into oblivion in the past (hi, Samkon Gado!), and statistics can lie. What does the tape show on Jennings?

I don't want to sell Jennings to you as a "special" talent. He's not. But I think he's more than merely average. Jennings isn't the guy to make people miss, and you don't see an awful lot of runs where he really sticks his foot in the ground hard and zips through a closing hole. You would expect a guy this big and strong to be a handful to tackle, and unlike during most of his tenure in Jacksonville, he really is now. ESPN Stats & Info has him tied for second among qualified running backs in yards-after-contact per carry, and that's with only 10 of his 149 rushes going for 10 yards or more (a percentage that lands him 39th out of 49 qualified RBs). Then again, go back to Week 11 against the Houston Texans and watch the third-quarter play where Jennings takes a direct snap, gets through a hole, bowls over Danieal Manning and outruns four defensive backs for an 80-yard TD. No, you wouldn't say Jennings has great quickness or acceleration by NFL standards, but when he gets up a head of steam, he's faster than most RBs his size.

We should also mention that Jennings has done this in an awful situation. The Oakland Raiders' offensive line isn't the historically bad unit we fretted it might be this summer, but it's probably bottom five in run blocking. And QB is a mess, with Terrelle Pryor falling out of favor and Matt McGloin submitting one of the worst performances of the NFL season last week against the Kansas City Chiefs. (Pretty amazing considering the Raiders scored 31 points, but really, it has to be seen to be believed.) The men Jennings most reminds me of are Chris Ivory and Andre Brown, and that could be his neighborhood come next season, depending where he lands. He'll be a free agent, and for his sake, I hope he finds a legitimate chance at early-down touches in a place that isn't Oakland.

4. Just when you thought you knew everything about the "big-play" NFL: Your eyes aren't tricking you: It's a passing league. For the fifth consecutive year, quarterbacks are on pace to register more pass attempts than the previous season. But I noticed something interesting about those five seasons, namely that, leaguewide, completion percentage is actually up this year despite the increased number of throws:

You'll notice that, over the past two seasons, leaguewide average yards at the catch has decreased; from 2011 to this year, it's diminished more than 5 percent. That jibes with the chart below, which presents the highest WR average-yards-at-the-catch seasons over the past six years. Notice how few of this year's qualified wideouts are represented:

Only Kenny Stills' 13.6 yards-at-the-catch average registers among the top 20 Y@C seasons from the past six years. I guess since Malcom Floyd appears three times on this list, you could argue his season-ending injury skews things a bit, but even someone like Vincent Jackson, who's been a reliable deliverer of at least 13.7 Y@C during his career, currently sits at 11.6. Josh Gordon? He's at 11.4. Alshon Jeffery? 11.1. DeSean Jackson? In Chip Kelly's offense, he's at 10.7.

It's no coincidence that more passes are being completed while wideouts aren't as far down the field. Short passes are easier to complete. And heck, maybe it's not a bad thing for fantasy WRs. If the guys we think of as deep threats are actually partaking in somewhat more conservative passing games, if they have the chops to run screens and short crosses as well as flies and if they can turn those short passes into big gains, well, diversification is good. That said, fantasy owners live for big plays from their wideouts, and big plays usually happen on deep throws, which explains why for the moment Kendall Wright (2013 Y@C average of 5.4) is merely an intriguing prospect rather than a must-start. If this megapassing landscape means less emphasis on deep shots -- fortunately, leaguewide we're on pace for just about the same number of attempts that travel 20 yards in the air, though cumulative QBR on those throws is down -- it could change the way we evaluate fantasy receivers.

Three In Brief

5. What is Chris Ivory? I invoked Ivory's name talking about Jennings, but anybody who has owned Ivory this year knows that isn't necessarily a compliment. Heck, Ivory owners would kill for Jennings-level production right about now. Three total touchdowns all season will do that to you. Yet I went ahead and ranked Ivory No. 22 among RBs this week, which implies I think he can be a decent flex against the Cleveland Browns. I'll say this for Ivory: He's consistent. On film, he looks pretty much the same every week. He's a pounding, straight-ahead runner who wants to get up the field now. You see some of that from Bilal Powell, but you also see him searching while running side to side, not my favorite move for a player without elite skill. Last week versus the Carolina Panthers, Ivory busted an inside handoff on a zone read for 35 yards, but he also stuck his nose in there time and again, running behind a pretty average offensive line and always twisting to deliver the extra hit if he could. For sure, Ivory's workload tends to lessen when the New York Jets fall behind, and it was extraordinarily unawesome for Ivory's fantasy owners to see defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson get two carries from inside the Carolina 2-yard line (scoring on the second one). Still, Ivory has stayed solid in my estimation. He's an above-average player, and in this week's nonterrible matchup, I don't mind using him.

T.Y. Hilton
T.Y. Hilton had a season-high eight catches last week but is still looking for his first TD since Week 9.

6. Trusting T.Y.: One limb onto which I stepped in my receiver rankings was putting Hilton 19th. It's definitely not something I set out to do. In fact, when it came to figuring out his rank, I went back and skimmed through Week 15's Indianapolis Colts game again to see if my impression still stood. It did. On the first Colts play from scrimmage, Hilton, in the slot, gets a WR screen. Third play from scrimmage, Hilton wide left, runs a medium cross, Andrew Luck hits him. First play of Indy's second drive, Hilton wide right, runs a slant, Luck drills him. Later in the first quarter, another WR screen and then a nice little out-route on a 3rd-and-2. Second quarter, in the red zone, Luck tries Hilton on the Texans' 5-yard line but underthrows him. Mid-second quarter, Hilton runs a deep flag out of a bunch formation, Johnathan Joseph holds him, but he still breaks free for a bomb catch of 41 yards. At this point the score was 17-3, and we started seeing a whole lot of Trent Richardson and Tashard Choice running the ball. In the second half, Hilton did get five more targets, catching one for a short gain, but I think the point was proved: The Colts showed they understand their passing game has to go through Hilton. He wound up with 12 targets, tied for his season high, while no other receiver had more than six. I grant you, what could wreck this week's effort against the Chiefs would be too much pass rush in Luck's face. (They did sack Robert Griffin III six times a couple weeks ago.) But I like Hilton's workload and breakaway ability, and if I feel like I need a big-play receiver with a high ceiling, I'm taking that plunge.

7. You don't know how the game is going to go. Stop trying to guess: Sometimes it feels like my job is to tackle crutch arguments one at a time. For the uninitiated, "crutch arguments" are hackneyed reasons you give when you've already made up your mind but want to sound like you have a smart reason. ("He has great chemistry with that receiver"; maybe, but how would you know? "That great second wideout will make it easier for the top wideout to score"; maybe he'll just steal targets? "They wouldn't have drafted him so high if they didn't plan on playing him"; uh-huh.) It's not that crutch arguments are always wrong; it's just that they're not always right. One of the biggest fallacies around is "That game will be a shootout" or "It'll be a defensive struggle." I could make all kinds of detailed, statistics-based arguments for why you don't actually have a definitive handle on how any given game will go, but I'll leave it at this: If you were so good at figuring out "how games are going to go," you would fly to Vegas, bet everything you own on Over/Unders and blow bookmakers out of the water. If it were easy to figure out the total in a game, Vegas wouldn't take bets on it. You don't know. Sometimes you're right. But plenty of times we've all assumed that a game would be a shootout and it wasn't, and plenty of times we've seen a supposed defensive struggle turn into a pinball machine. Make your assessments based on player quality, player workload and, yes, matchups. But please don't tell me you're starting Tony Romo because "it's gonna be a shootout" or that you're sitting Peyton Manning because you're worried "it'll be a blowout" and he won't throw in the second half. Yes, Vegas set that Redskins/Cowboys total higher than usual, meaning it believes there's a chance for more points than usual (or, really, because it believes it can lure money to the Under only by setting a high total). How frequently does a line of 54 go under? Half the time, if Vegas is doing its job! Bottom line: We shouldn't upset our lineup strategies based on how we think a game will play out. We're wrong too often.