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Thursday, September 25, 2008
Called Out! Week 4 rankings reaction

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

The bye weeks might be upon us, but there's no such thing as a bye week for our four experts! Even in this tougher, drained-player-pool week, Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris, Eric Karabell and Erik Kuselias poured everything they had into their Week 4 rankings … and now, it's my turn to go tear them to shreds. Shall we?

Cockcroft: First up this week, and riding high off a 3-0 start in the "Caveman League" -- why did you join that one, by the way? -- it's Matthew Berry!

Drew Brees
Brees is losing his weapons at a near Seattle Seahawk rate.

Matthew, I think a lot of Drew Brees owners might be worried with Jeremy Shockey joining Marques Colston on the shelf, and David Patten about to join them if his groin limits him Sunday. You're not troubled, apparently; you've got Brees as your No. 1 quarterback for the week. Now, to be fair, you're consistent, with Reggie Bush your No. 2 running back. But does Bush's presence alone really make Brees tops in our game for Week 4? Who the heck else is the guy going to throw to?

Berry: He's done just fine without Colston and last week threw for 421 yards. Only 75 of them went to Shockey. They are at home in a game that will be a shootout. Brees is currently the fourth-best quarterback in fantasy so it's not much of a stretch at all. I'm amazed others aren't high on him, as well. David Patten, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem, Devery Henderson and Billy Miller can all catch passes, and Brees is familiar with all of them. He'll spread it around and, of course, he still has Bush to catch a bunch of swing passes. The Saints' porous defense is the Brees owner's best friend.

Cockcroft: True, the Saints D will never allow a blowout, so that offense will be on full blast most of the year.

Wait, wait, wait, I just stumbled across this wild, crazy ranking; Larry Johnson at 28th against the Broncos?! No way. I don't even like the guy and I can't see him being barely a flex play. No one else had him lower than 12th. Admit it, did the caveman do that ranking?

Berry: Here's what I wrote about my LJ ranking in "Love / Hate" this week:

"Before you leap out of your chair to fire off an angry e-mail about what a moron I am and how awesome LJ is, stop me when I say something crazy: The Broncos are one of the hottest offenses in the NFL right now. In fact, they are second in the NFL to the Cowboys in total yards per game. They are going to get a big lead and get it early on the Chiefs. Which means [the Chiefs] will have to abandon the run. In Johnson's one home game this year against an AFC West team that supposedly is easy to run on, he had just 22 yards against the Raiders. No. Thanks."

Just because no one else had him lower than 12 doesn't mean anything to me other than my fellow rankers are nuts on this one. Johnson will be a lot closer to 28 than he will be to 12 this week, trust me.

Cockcroft: We shall surely see, though I doubt I'm sitting the guy. Still, I get it, and I'll give you this, again, you're consistent, you've got the Broncos' defense No. 5 for the week. The LJ ranking begins to make sense then, not that I agree with you necessarily. What do you see in that defense? It has done nothing exciting thus far.

Berry: No, the Denver defense hasn't. But neither has the Chiefs' offense. I mean, the Falcons' defense -- worse than the Broncos -- scored 15 fantasy points against them last week. Now, I did this ranking before the Tyler Thigpen-is-being-benched news came out. With Huard in there, I would downgrade the Denver defense a little. But yes, the Broncos are the hottest offense in the NFL. They will get up, they will get up big, forcing K.C. to play desperate. And that team isn't built for desperate. I say the final score is 38-7, Denver.

Cockcroft: Wouldn't shock me … but LJ gets the touchdown! Ha!

In a week of curious, bold calls on your part, I have to think having Donald Driver fourth and Greg Jennings 18th must be a matter of you seeing something in the one-on-one matchups in the Tampa secondary. All our other three rankers had Jennings higher than Driver, and Jennings leads, 36-21, in fantasy points through three games.

Berry: You are correct -- this is entirely a matchup call. Tampa Bay's Cover 2 defense is as good a version of that as there is in the league. They can get pressure with their front four, meaning seven guys will be back in coverage. Considering this game is on the road, it'll be fairly low-scoring for the Packers. That said, the one way you attack a Cover 2 is in the middle of the field. One of the most effective plays against the Cover 2 is the slant, which Driver runs as well as anyone in the league. Expect a lot of short passes to Driver, especially with Grant finding no room.

Cockcroft: Well, if that's the case, I'd wonder why both receivers aren't ranked lower. The Bucs do defend the pass better than their No. 27 ranking in passing yards per game (237.7) indicates. I think they're pretty underrated.

Next up, decked out in a "nyah, nyah, my team made the playoffs and yours didn't" -- eh, I can live with missing once every decade and a half -- it's Christopher Harris!

Brian Westbrook 31st! That's barely even a flex-play ranking in a 12-team league, and you had Correll Buckhalter higher, at No. 28. I have to assume you heavily factor the likelihood of a guy playing before you do your initial ranks, because none of the other guys had Westbrook outside of the top 10?

Harris: Pretty simple: If he plays a full accompaniment of snaps, sure, he's a top-10 back. But I know Westbrook's injury history, and apparently so do our projections, which also have Westbrook down for subpar production because of his ankle injury. We reassess our rankings on Friday, and I'll be glad to put Westbrook back where he belongs if it seems obvious he's going to be fine. He missed practice on Wednesday but did tell reporters he'd be "fine" to play. If he practices Thursday and Friday, no worries. If he doesn't get back out on the practice field? Big-time worries.

Cockcroft: Agreed, and I seem to remember a game last year where Westbrook was OK to play, OK to play, OK to play, and then when it came time to play, he wasn't OK. Still, might it not make more sense to just assume full health in the initial ranks?

Harris: On Wednesday morning, I'm ranking players based on exactly what I know at that point. Westbrook goes on a radio station and tells them he has a high ankle sprain, and I know for a fact you can't play on a high ankle sprain. But you'll note I didn't leave Westbrook off entirely, which means I gave him some of Philly's carries against a rugged Chicago run defense. I'm not consciously going low on Westbrook to raise a red flag. As of today, I think he's going to be limited.

Cockcroft: Well, then, if Westbrook gets the full go-ahead before your Friday update, where do you think you would rank him?

Harris: Hmmm. I think I'd probably have him around ninth or so. The Bears' front line has been pretty tough, while they've been surprisingly soft lately against the pass, and even if Westbrook plays, I think we have to factor in some risk of a reinjury or just too much pain to keep running. Buckhalter would tumble from where I have him, but not all the way off the list.

Selvin Young
Young has two 100-yard games in his career, both against the Chiefs.

Cockcroft: I wonder where Buckhalter might fall in comparison to, say, Michael Pittman. You had Pittman 46th, despite his success in goal-line situations thus far, and his favorable matchup against the Chiefs. Really? You actually like Selvin Young (22) and Andre Hall (40) better? I don't. Well, maybe Young, but it's close.

Harris: Pittman has 44 yards on 19 carries this year. That's a 2.3 yards-per-carry average. He's awful. Sooner or later, Denver is going to realize Pittman isn't a good short-yardage back. (Ryan Torain returning at the season's midway point should take care of that.) By your logic, we should have Pittman projected for 21 touchdowns this year. My thought is he's only likely to get six or seven scores all season, and he's already got four. These things even out. Starting a pure goal-line back from a team that already uses two other better running backs is fantasy suicide. Are you also suggesting people run out and start T.J. Duckett in Week 5?

Cockcroft: Well, Duckett faces the Giants in Week 5. And I think we can both agree that the Chiefs are, simply put, not the Giants.

Besides, and to be fair, part of the reason Pittman's yards-per-carry average is so low is that 10 of his 19 carries have come in goal-line situations, within five yards of his opponents' end zone, where defensive fronts stiffen up and -- obviously -- there aren't many yards to be had to pad his rate statistics. Still, I'd agree that he's not much more talented than Duckett; it's merely, to me, that the Chiefs have been awful thus far.

One more question, you were the only one of our four rankers to not rank Billy Miller. Everyone else had him in the top 11. Not really a Miller fan, but I'm a little curious about your take on how things shake out in New Orleans in the short term, specifically whether there's any appeal in Miller, or another guy -- maybe Robert Meachem?

Harris: I don't find Miller appealing fantasywise -- I suppose you could make the argument that he's in the right place at the right time, but the fact that he could never beat out Eric Johnson last year doesn't exactly speak volumes for him. It seems every week you "take me to task" on a "hot" tight end that "all the other rankers" are "really high on" and then that tight end "goes out" and "sucks really hard."

Cockcroft: OK, I was wrong on John Carlson. Guess I didn't learn my lesson with the last hotshot rookie Seahawks tight end -- Jerramy Stevens.

Harris: I don't view Miller as a fantasy starter in any league right now, though I'm willing to be proven wrong. As for who'll benefit from the absence of Shockey and Colston -- and possibly David Patten, who has a bad groin -- I'd say it's time to take a hard look at Meachem, who actually played very well in Denver last week.

Cockcroft: Exactly. Still my mega-sleeper, that Meachem!

Next up, and for some strange reason, he's got a Mets voodoo doll in his back pocket -- go figure -- it's Eric Karabell!

Ben Roethlisberger 18th. Wow. That's some real hate. For the record, I get it, I agree with it, and our projections seem to, as well. But 18th in a six-team bye week!

Ben Roethlisberger
Rothlisberger is battling shoulder and hand trouble, but the Ravens' D may prove harder to overcome.

Karabell: I don't hate Big Ben, I just hate the matchup against the Ravens, with him being beaten up, and with a fumbling running back replacing the guy who might have led the league in rushing. Why rank a quarterback based on rep? Roethlisberger is probably going to have a tough night, and it wouldn't shock me if Byron Leftwich plays quite a bit. Plus, the way the Eagles blitzed like crazy, look for other teams to follow the blueprint.

Cockcroft: I can't believe I'm starting J.T. O'Sullivan over him this week. No, actually, I can. Heck, I did it last week. I want no part of the Steelers in Week 4.

Karabell: I kind of expect the Ravens and Steelers to score about 12 total points.

Cockcroft: Well, that explains ranking Todd Heap 20th. Everyone else had him a top-10 guy and, again, it's a six-team bye week.

Karabell: Really, if someone ranks Heap in the top 10 tight ends, aren't they merely basing this on reputation? I saw that Heap's ownership was dropping a bit, and he's no longer 100 percent owned. I have no problem with this. Heap has three catches ... this season. Why would he all of a sudden break out against the Steelers? It's clear Joe Flacco does not need Heap as a security blanket at all. And I can't buy into Heap when I know he's liable to get hurt pretty much any week. Hey, I did rank him. Just not well.

Cockcroft: Heap could almost single-handedly keep the sports-medicine profession in business, I'd think. Though Ahman Green sure does his part. Can't fault the ranking though, so apparently, 2-for-2 on agreeing with you this week. So far.

Surely, though, the batting average slips to .667 once we get to your Broncos defense ranking -- No. 4! You weren't alone; Berry also had them a top-five unit. I don't get it; I know the Chiefs are an awful team, but the Broncos aren't that good on defense. What do you see there? Berry even predicted a final score, what's yours?

Karabell: Well, if Berry ranked the Broncos where I did, then I know am right on! He and I see the greatness in a bad defense -- and let's not quibble here, it's not a good defense these days -- that gets to face a bad offense. That bad offense matters more. And let's not quibble, the Chiefs could go with a new starting quarterback for the fourth straight week if they had one, and it wouldn't matter. Where's Joe Montana, Steve DeBerg and Lenny Dawson? I see turnovers. Not just the apple turnovers I had for breakfast, but nice pigskin turnovers with Damon Huard or Tyler Thigpen -- doesn't much matter which -- giving the ball away. And I like to take chances on defenses. A week ago in this very space, I said the 49ers' defense would do well, and it scored 12 points against the Jon Kitna Turnover Overdrive. Broncos 35, Chiefs 10.

Cockcroft: That you did, with San Francisco last week, but I just can't bring myself to jump from shoddy defense to shoddy defense from week to week. The Bengals taught everyone that lesson last season; from 20 points against the Ravens in Week 1 to a minus score against the Browns in Week 2.

Speaking of those Bengals, plenty of faith you have in them, with T.J. Houshmandzadeh fourth, Carson Palmer sixth and Chad Johnson 11th at their respective positions. Is this week the turning point? Might their buy-low window last only until kickoff?

Karabell: Yeah, I think all those owning Bengals and panicking should wait until Monday. Same with the Browns, too. I think Derek Anderson will be OK, as well as his receivers. I think some of these Ohio players are going to be inconsistent this season, but this is a game where the offense should bloom. "Ocho Cinco" has only a few games like this every season, so now's the time to take advantage.

Cockcroft: I think I'd rather buy low on an "Ocho Cinco" jersey than the actual player in fantasy, bad as he has looked. But point taken.

Last but certainly not least, our very own "EK2" -- Erik Kuselias!

LenDale White
Four TDs in four weeks? That's not shabby Mr. White.

OK, I get it, LenDale White, goal-line back. Sure. And I do love that running game. Love it. Still, the world pretty much assumes that's a terrible matchup for both White and Chris Johnson. Here's my angle: I prefer White, since I think the Vikings can be beaten in goal-line situations. I don't think they'll surrender big-time yards, though. So it makes sense, but that No. 18 ranking does put you a little on an island, the only guy to call him a clear No. 2 back. Might it have been a little too generous?

Kuselias: When all the other guys on our site rated Chris Johnson ahead of LenDale, I stood alone. A little rookie who can't score or a guy who will get just as many touches, and score just about every rushing touchdown? I'll take the latter every time. White should have a TD -- he has scored in every game and has four total -- and around 50 yards rushing. Ten to 11 fantasy points makes you a bad No. 2 or a flex guy, exactly where I ranked him.

Cockcroft: We've definitely got a consistency thing going with the group this week, seeing as you're big on the goal-line back in Tennessee, and apparently the one in Denver, too, with Michael Pittman your top-ranked Broncos back at No. 25. But might it have made more sense to bump up Selvin Young from No. 28 or to rank Andre Hall at all? They're playing the pitiful Chiefs, after all.

Kuselias: I trust Shanny like a lawyer trusts an ex-wife. Unless we're talking Pittman, you simply can't go to war with a running back who:

• Isn't the goal-line back
• Isn't guaranteed to get carries
• Is in an offense that is in a zone throwing the football

Cockcroft: Well, what about Fred Taylor? Surely he, owner of a 100-yard rushing effort last week, warrants better than a No. 33 ranking?

Kuselias: When Fred Taylor scores more than four touchdowns this year, wake me up. He's in a running back-by-committee where he won't score (see DeAngelo Williams, Chris Johnson). As you can tell, I hate these nonscorers and always get the last laugh from guys who think, "This is the week they'll score, I promise!" You want a long shot, go bet the ponies in the fifth at Aqueduct. You want a guy who will help you win, don't bet Fred. I'll take Jones-Drew.

Cockcroft: You're nothing if not consistent, Erik. I will give you that.

But if you had the Chargers your No. 1-ranked defense in the preseason, as seemingly the world did, how can you possibly remain so consistent with them? They have looked nowhere near the same without Shawne Merriman, ranking 19th in fantasy points through three weeks. Even the Raiders aren't that bad.

Kuselias: We have this thing in sports. It's called "Monday Night Football." You should check it out. You would have seen a San Diego defense that dominated. Three sacks, three interceptions, one fumble recovery, a touchdown and allowed some meaningless passes when the game was done or else the J-E-T-S would have been under 200 yards total. Do you really think Oakland will do better? Have you seen JaMarcus Russell? Do you think Fargas will play? Please. San Diego is mad, talented, hot and in a great matchup.

Cockcroft: I have a feeling Mickey might kick me where the sun don't shine if I didn't catch every MNF. Though I admit, I bailed out early when that game looked like it was getting out of hand. And to be fair, all 60 minutes of football count; if the Chargers can't stay consistent until the final whistle, that bothers me. It's improvement, but No. 1-overall improvement? We shall see, and I'll admit if I turn out wrong.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football, baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.