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Thursday, October 8, 2009
Updated: October 9, 3:29 PM ET
Called Out: Where's Fred Jackson?

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

It's a tough week to be a fantasy owner with a top-10 quarterback -- four of them hail from the four teams hitting their bye week.

Eric Karabell, one of our four rankers, recently pointed this out in his blog, and no reason to beat his point to death. So, naturally, quarterback seems it would be a position where I'd be calling out the guys on their rankings, right?

Wrong. This week, I kicked off Called Out with a quarterback inquiry -- a very relevant one in fact, being that the man in question is one of my preferred sleepers of Week 5. But what turned out most shocking was that besides that one signal-caller, it was the running backs who wound up most debated for the week.

That's right, in a week where the quarterback position might be particularly problematic for most fantasy owners, Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris, Karabell and Erik Kuselias, our four weekly ranking experts, are surprisingly of one mind on how to rank and evaluate the potential fill-ins.

It's all the other positions about which they were dead wrong. Let's get started poking holes in those rankings, shall we?

Seneca Wallace
Seneca Wallace isn't as bad a fantasy option as you might think.

10. Karabell ranks Seneca Wallace as his No. 15 quarterback. Bold move, and I like it; hence, it starts us off at No. 10 in terms of shock value. Those who read my Instant Replay might recall my recommendation to pick Wallace up for a one-week matchup play, and given the chance to rank, I probably would have slotted him around there, too. Still, I know what some people are saying when they read this: "Seneca Wallace? Really?"

"I like what I've seen from Wallace so far," Karabell says. "I wrote about him in a recent Karablog when we knew Matt Hasselbeck was out, and was surprised to see his numbers as a fill-in the past few years were not that bad. The Jacksonville Jaguars have allowed the most passing yards in the NFL this season, and one would think the Seattle Seahawks know this, too. Whoever starts for the Seahawks at quarterback should be successful. I think it will be Wallace."

Here are those numbers: In 14 career starts, Wallace has averaged 201.2 passing yards with 21 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. Suddenly, dismissing him outright seems like a silly thought.

9. Kuselias has confidence in Marion Barber's health, apparently, ranking the running back No. 4 at his position. Here's my concern: Tashard Choice had 19 touches to "starter" Barber's 13 in Week 4, and I'm sure I could find at least 10 other running backs more likely to get 20-plus touches with favorable matchups. It's really a question of opportunity.

"Barber played last week and the Dallas Cowboys didn't let him loose, but they should this week," Kuselias says. "He participated in practice Wednesday without limitation. Felix Jones is out again, and even if Barber is less than 100 percent, you don't need to be against the Kansas City Chiefs. I think the leg holds up. Barber will feel like he has something to prove. He has a touchdown in all three games he has played this season, so he's a good bet to find the end zone. The Giants ran for 156 yards against this defense last week; Barber should have a nice day."

Agreed … I just prefer to have him do it as more my No. 2 or flex.

8. Berry ranks T.J. Houshmandzadeh fourth among wide receivers for a curious reason, one that might conflict with a previous topic! So here's that question: Does Hasselbeck play, or is it Wallace? I'm pro-Seahawks passing offense either way, accounting for the Jaguars' dreadful secondary and complete absence of a pass rush, but even with that, it's hard to thrust possession-man Houshmandzadeh into the top 10 at his position.

"I realize it's high, but I'm expecting Hasselbeck back this week and he looks for TJ," Berry says. "The Jaguars rank 31st versus the pass and 12th versus the run, which means more passing and, with Hasselbeck back, more to TJ. Note I also have Nate Burleson ranked pretty high -- I like the Seahawks' passing game quite a bit this week, especially considering the Jags have to travel all the way west to Seattle. That's a long trip for a team that's really struggling on defense."

Good point on the travel time, but to reiterate my earlier comment, I don't care which quarterback is in there, I think the Seahawks get their numbers.

7. We've got differing opinions on facing the San Francisco 49ers' defense as a matchup for an opposing offensive player. On one hand, Karabell is confident enough in the Atlanta Falcons to rank Roddy White fifth among wide receivers. On the other, Kuselias has Michael Turner -- a top-3 overall pick in the preseason -- ranked 18th among running backs. My problem with the matchup, more than anything, is that the game is being played in San Francisco, not Atlanta. Ugh. The Niners have played lock-down defense in both home games thus far.

"Maybe I'm too trusting of my original top-10 wide receiver picks, but White isn't off to that awful a start," Karabell says. "Yes, the matchup against the 49ers isn't the easiest one for him, but I've got a hunch, and I'm going with it. White averaged 86 receptions and nearly 1,300 yards the past two seasons. He's going to get better."

"Turner should be decent in Week 5 when he plays at San Francisco," Kuselias says. "Consider him a No. 2 running back. Ranking him 18th isn't as much about him as it is about loving some other matchups, guys like Rashard Mendenhall versus Detroit, Marshawn Lynch versus Cleveland, Jerome Harrison versus Buffalo …"

6. Harris has yet to commence drinking the Mike Sims-Walker Kool-Aid, ranking him 17th among wide receivers. It's understandable, considering Sims-Walker is a member of a previously conservative pass attack. Still, through four weeks (one of which he was barely involved in) he ranks 12th among wide receivers in receptions (19), 15th in targets (31) and fifth in fantasy points (43). Christopher, no way to convince you of even a slightly higher rank?

"Um, I believe we had almost this same conversation about Percy Harvin a couple times after Weeks 1 and 2?" Harris says. "Listen, I was touting Mike Walker before the others had heard of him. I like the guy, though he's incredibly injury-prone. And he does have a pretty good matchup against that Seahawks secondary. But Seattle isn't nearly as gracious to opposing quarterbacks and receivers as the Tennessee Titans have been. And what were MSW's numbers before last week? Twelve catches on 20 targets, 187 yards and a score. He has one ballistic game against the league's worst secondary (and take away the two scores and it wasn't even that ballistic), and now he's the No. 3 receiver in fantasy for a week? C'mon. It's a classic overreaction. Garrard played well in Week 4, but he was basically awful before then, piling up counting stats through sheer volume. And now MSW ain't sneaking up on anyone. Putting him at No. 17 (as I've done this week) indicates he's a good fill-in, and someone you can play if your regular has been disappointing -- it means he could pop another long score. Putting him No. 3 means he's better than Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald: in other words, someone who's ready to be his team's dominant target, the focus of his team's offense, someone who doesn't need to score a touchdown to be pretty much guaranteed of a very nice fantasy day. I don't believe MSW is close to there."

I wholeheartedly agree with you on Sims-Walker's health risk, and if memory serves, I think we even had discussed him during his brief hot spell last season. My hedging comment in Instant Replay -- that Sims-Walker is looking "fairly close" to being a reliable every-week fantasy play -- tells you I've still got my doubts, but the facts might dispute his belonging among the more reliable receiver class.

Consider this: From Weeks 2 to 4, Sims-Walker had more receptions and targets than Moss or Johnson in two of three weeks, and he has averaged more receptions and targets per game than either of them or Fitzgerald during that three-week span. Small sample size, yes, but I'm investing for as long as MSW is healthy.

Ronnie Brown
Ronnie Brown is averaging 72.7 yards per game in seven career contests against the Jets.

5. The group is apparently divided on Ronnie Brown. Two experts like the matchup versus the New York Jets, as Harris and Karabell ranked him 10th and ninth, while the other two don't, as Berry and Kuselias placed him 26th and 20th. How the heck do we settle this debate?! Simple: Let's ask 'em why.

"Just a feeling that Rex Ryan is going to do everything possible to stop Ronnie Brown and take his chances with Chad Henne," Berry says. "The Jets have shut down Steve Slaton and kept Chris Johnson out of the end zone, so while I still have Brown as a borderline start, I don't love him this week."

"A couple weeks ago, I tried to tell everyone that the Jets weren't an all-time-great defense, and that good running backs could do good work against them," Harris says. "Chris Johnson and Pierre Thomas proved it."

"Brown is the No. 3 running back in fantasy, so I don't think it's unusual to make him a top-10 running back here, even against the Jets," Karabell says. "Rex Ryan's crew is 13th against the run, which is only slightly better than average."

"Rex Ryan is a defensive mastermind," Kuselias says. "He's going to force Chad Henne to beat him, which means the Jets' No. 1 goal will be to shut down Ronnie Brown. They're going to load the box, stop the run, and say, 'Chad, good luck.'"

OK, so maybe that didn't get us anywhere. I'll be our tiebreaker: The Jets held Brown to 123 yards on 24 total touches in two meetings in 2008, keeping him out of the end zone, and they limited the aforementioned Johnson and Thomas to 183 yards and one score (neither more than 100) the past two weeks combined. And I side with Kuselias regarding Rex Ryan. I'd be hard-pressed to rank Brown beneath No. 2 status -- he'd still crack my top 20 -- but I'm setting up station on the perimeter of the Berry/Kuselias camp.

4. Harris is very pro-Cincinnati Bengals, in spite of a road matchup at the Baltimore Ravens. He has Cedric Benson ranked 14th among running backs, seven spots higher than anyone else, and Chad Ochocinco sixth among wide receivers, more than 10 spots higher than the group's average ranking. Somehow both of those seem too optimistic -- at least five spots apiece too high -- to me.

"Berry had Benson No. 2 last week and No. 21 this week," Harris says. "I'm not picking on him specifically, but especially in the platoon-happy NFL, matchups can't possibly mean that much. At some point, you like a player or you don't, because more than anything else, fantasy football is about opportunity, and then whether or not the guy follows through on that opportunity is often a matter of luck. How can you say a player is one of the best options in football one week, and an absolute must-bench the next, especially when he has been pretty consistent? I don't buy it.

"Could Benson get stuffed? Sure. He's not getting to 100 yards, we know that -- 39 straight games for the Ravens not allowing one of those. But is it so overwhelmingly impossible for an opposing rusher to score a touchdown against 'em? Ask Sammy Morris. Benson is playing well, and he's pretty much got a job to himself. Those are guys you want to keep starting.

"As for Ochocinco, that's much easier to defend. You can throw on the Ravens. The Chiefs did. The Chargers did. The Patriots did. Baltimore has small corners, and they're playing a lot of zone. Plus, before 2008's lost season, the Ravens never made a practice of shutting Ocho out to the point where you wouldn't start him. Going into '08, he had seven career touchdowns, about 80 yards per game and 15.5 yards per catch in 14 career games against Baltimore."

3. Berry ranks Glen Coffee fifth among running backs, and I refuse to make any bad "Coffee" puns in this space. Problem is, Coffee seemed to sleepwalk through an easy matchup in Week 4, so I can't see why he's any more likely to dominate the Falcons than he was the Rams. I like the guy; I just think he's more of a mid-teens type of option based on so-so recent returns.

"It might be a bit high, but if he gets in the end zone, it's a different story," Berry says. "And I think it will be. You know the 49ers are going to run to keep the Falcons' offense off the field. Coffee had over 100 total yards last week and he's at home. By the way, the Falcons are top 10 in fantasy points allowed to opposing running backs."

2. Harris ranks Tim Hightower 27th -- a number a little askew being that Hightower ranks 19th among running backs in terms of both fantasy points per game (10.0) and touches per game (17.3), and will be facing a Houston Texans defense that has allowed the third-most fantasy points per game to opposing running backs (27.5). Hightower is actually a strong No. 2 running back in my mind this week, perhaps even with a shot at a top-10 point total.

"I think you're overestimating both Hightower's ability and his opportunities," Harris says. "Where did his fantasy points come from the first three weeks? The dump-off passing game. He has 25 targets and just 32 carries. And he's got 172 yards receiving and just 109 yards rushing -- a milquetoast 3.4 yards per carry. Coming out of their bye, I expect to see the Cardinals try to get back to their downfield passing game, which they've all but abandoned for three games. That'll mean fewer catches for Hightower, which will mean less involvement. In addition, I think you're discounting the notion that the team wants Beanie Wells to succeed. I like Hightower as a short-yardage option, but Arizona would have a better team if Wells won the feature job. They know that."

Hey, I never said Hightower was a great real-life player, but fantasy certainly rewards him handsomely. Fifty-seven targets-plus-carries still equals 19.0 "opportunities" per game; look what Thomas Jones did with 20 in Week 1. (To save you the time, he totaled 107 yards and two scores, for 22 fantasy points.)

1. None of our experts recognizes Fred Jackson's greatness. It's my No. 1 shocker of the week for two reasons: One, it's a more worthy matchup for both Buffalo Bills running backs than Nos. 17 and 23 status, and two, frankly I'm amazed that, between the two Bills backs, all four experts ranked Marshawn Lynch higher (he earned that No. 17 average). Wait, wait, wait … Lynch, he of the 47 total yards and 0.5 yards-per-carry average in Week 4, deserves more fantasy consideration this week than Jackson, he of the 68 and 4.7?

Fred Jackson
Does Fred Jackson really deserve to be the second-best fantasy back in Buffalo?

"In his first game back, Lynch got more touches -- it was only one more, but still -- a good sign," Berry says. "My feelings are that the Bills crush the Cleveland Browns in this one and as a result they run a lot, especially near the goal line, which means Lynch. Incidentally, last week, Lynch had five receptions for 43 yards and Jackson had only three receptions for 26 yards. So it's only one week, but it's all we have to go on. Lynch is actually more involved in the passing game than people thought he would be."

"Jackson looked better last week running the ball, but my concern is that Lynch got six targets to Jackson's five in the passing game," Harris says. "I was under the impression that screens and such would still be the domain of Jackson. If in his 'getting-worked-in' game Lynch supplanted Jackson in targets, I worry what might come going forward. I'll be watching this game against the Browns closely, though -- if Jackson looks like the better player again, I'll be willing to be swayed."

Very, very fair point, and if I'm wrong, you probably pinpointed the reason. That said, Jackson ranks first among running backs in targets (25) and second in receptions (18). I have a hard time believing the Bills' plans shift so quickly.

"You're not wrong. Nor are you right," Karabell says. "If I could have ranked both of them 20.5, I would have. But I couldn't, so I flipped a coin and made one of them 20, the other 21. They feel like flex options to me, in any order. There just isn't any logical reason to like one of them considerably over the other."

"Lynch had one fewer carry than Jackson, but hadn't played in three games," Kuselias says. "He caught two more balls than Jackson. Last year, while sharing the ball with Jackson, Lynch crushed the Browns at home for 119 rushing yards and 58 receiving yards with a touchdown catch. He faces those same Browns again in Week 5, though this time they're actually worse than last season. The Browns are ranked 31st against the run, giving up an average of 176.8 rushing yards per game."

Sorry, Erik, this is fantasy football; we play for the now, not the "back-then." Still Jackson for me all the way -- I say he's a high-No. 2 to Lynch's flex status.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.