Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Big Rotowski: T. Jones, Austin rising
By Christopher Harris
Editor's note: These rankings are meant to capture fantasy value from today through the end of the NFL regular season. We'll publish them every Tuesday during the season to help you decide about trades and waiver-wire acquisitions; as such, this list won't always reflect news that comes out later in the week. And remember, every Wednesday you'll find week-specific rankings to help you set your lineup.
Notes: My rank of Aaron Rodgers appears to be the most eagerly anticipated thing I do each week; I easily get more comments and questions (some collegial, some profane) about Rodgers than anything else. Yes, yes, I know he's a top-five fantasy quarterback so far this year. But no, I'm not ready to rank him there, not until the Packers' offensive line shows it can block better defenses. Big numbers against the Lions and Browns the past two weeks were terrific for Rodgers' fantasy owners, and I had him ranked quite highly for both games. But I'm recalling the Green Bay O-line's performance in Minneapolis last month with trepidation. If Rodgers stays upright throughout Sunday's game, I promise, I'm willing to reconsider my current thinking.
What happened to Matt Ryan against the Cowboys? That was just a weird performance. The Falcons came out blazing, scoring their first opening-drive touchdown of the season, and then Ryan was suddenly under siege. After going without being sacked in four straight games, he was dropped four times by the Cowboys, and pressured many more. My lowering of him here is simply about some rather sudden questions about that Falcons offensive line.
I didn't think Jay Cutler played that terribly (considering the Bears lost 45-10), but facts are facts, and now he's got five interceptions the past two games, and 10 on the season. Two of those picks came while his team was down huge in the second half, when Cutler had no choice but to make things happen, so it's not fair to completely torch him. Still, the Bears are starting to fade on defense, and while Cutler earned his rep as the guy who can keep up even when the other team is scoring in droves, he hasn't really shown those chops yet in the Windy City.
Tony Romo really could be anywhere from, say, eighth to 15th on this list. My end scores for the quarterbacks really are that tight. What boosts him is the ascension of Miles Austin to presumptive No. 1 status in Dallas, which adds a vertical element to the Cowboys offense that's been lacking. What limits Romo is his tendency to fall into half-long funks in which he can't hit the broad side of a barn, yet keeps forcing it. That didn't happen against the Falcons this week, but I'm betting it will happen a couple more times this year.
Alex Smith has officially taken over for the overmatched Shaun Hill; I was never a Hill booster (had him 24th in my preseason ranks), and Smith's bigger arm probably means deeper targets for the 49ers receivers. Still, this is Alex Smith we're talking about. I suppose a Cedric Benson-like resurrection is possible (although, to be resurrected, don't you have to have been "up" to begin with?), but it's more likely that Smith produces more awkward, inconsistent play, and in a run-first offense, that doesn't sound very interesting for fantasy leagues.
Trent Edwards has been cleared to practice, but for the moment it appears Ryan Fitzpatrick will keep the starting quarterback job in Buffalo. Edwards doesn't have a cannon, but his arm is significantly bigger than Fitzpatrick's, meaning this offense will probably be even less vertical.
The Titans hadn't announced Vince Young as their Week 8 starter as of this writing, but Jeff Fisher was noncommittal, whereas in previous weeks he'd defended Kerry Collins to the last. The writing is on the wall.
Josh Johnson was benched for Josh Freeman in London, and Freeman's first dropback resulted in a sack. Get used to it, kid.
The Panthers hadn't announced what they'll do with the execrable Jake Delhomme as of this writing, but how can they go back to him and look their fans in the eye? Carolina beat reporters seem to think Matt Moore would get the first call over A.J. Feeley.
Notes: Thomas Jones is the prime beneficiary of Leon Washington's season-ending injury; while Shonn Greene looked excellent racking up huge fantasy points in garbage time, he's no replacement for Washington. He's not a fluid pass-catcher, and he's not quick in space. To me, that means Jones stays in on more third downs, and probably sees an uptick in receptions. I don't love his skill, but I love his situation. The only rub could be that Greene might get goal-line looks, in order to save Jones some wear and tear.
The Forte Vortex I wrote about last week only gets worse, as Matt Forte got just six carries Sunday. Six! Alas, you're stuck with him. Plus his schedule after the Browns next week looks kind of problematic: Cardinals, 49ers, Eagles and Vikings. The Bears won't get blown out like that every week, but that doesn't mean Forte isn't one of the biggest busts of 2009.
Rashard Mendenhall was announced as the full-time starter the day after I did these ranks last week, so his uptick is the result of that, not his mediocre performance (highlighted by a potentially costly fumble) versus the Vikings.
Because Brian Westbrook's concussion happened late Monday, it's tough for me to bake it into these ranks. For the moment, I assumed he wouldn't miss additional time, though that's obviously unclear right now.
Turns out it was a pretty good call asking you to bench Marion Barber if you could afford it last week. You can never predict touchdowns, obviously, so the fact that Barber didn't get in the end zone makes me look smart here, but I maintain even if he'd gotten in (the closest he got was the Falcons' 16-yard line), it was still the right call. He didn't look good. Maybe it's the injured quad, maybe it's rust, but Barber owners have to be very concerned. Surprisingly, it was Felix Jones, not Tashard Choice, who helped wreck Barber's fantasy day with 10 touches (to Barber's 15).
Ricky Williams took a couple direct-snap Wildcat plays to the house Sunday, and his huge fantasy day has a lot of folks buzzing about him as being a must-start every week. I'm not so sure. He got only nine carries in that game, and three of them went for scores. It's true that Williams has broken into double-digit carries in half of the Dolphins' games this year, but he's only 29th in the NFL in touches from scrimmage per game, despite being 11th in the league in yards from scrimmage. Now, it's very possible that that touch-per-game count could be on the upswing, which wouldn't necessarily spell great news for Ronnie Brown. But it's also possible that the Williams-direct-snap stuff was a wrinkle we won't see every week.
Mike Bell provided a huge spark in the second half for the Saints, and isn't just a goal-line back. But don't look at that box score and assume he's the starter. Pierre Thomas is still the guy for now; Bell simply got on a roll, and the Saints kept using him. Of course, Bell is also the regular goal-line back, so he's definitely eating into Frenchy's value. Given that Reggie Bush cannibalized a touchdown on a reverse, this whole backfield is kind of a fantasy mess at the moment.
Beanie Wells had 14 carries to Tim Hightower's four Sunday night, plus caught all three of his targets, a sign that the Cardinals are beginning to trust him with more of the offense. He doesn't look great blocking for Kurt Warner, though, and Hightower does seem to have a pretty firm grasp on carries from the 3-yard line in. Ken Wisenhunt says Hightower is still his starter, but clearly, the gap between these guys is narrowing. Wells is the better player.
Fred Jackson, we hardly knew ye. The warning signs came when Marshawn Lynch was so involved in the passing game right away after his suspension, and now Lynch is dominating carries; he had 17 Sunday to just five for Jackson. There'll be weeks when Jackson puts up numbers, because he's a good player. But it's too difficult to guess which games he'll get that opportunity.
I've continued to rank Larry Johnson as though he'll still be a member in good standing of the Chiefs this week. After his much-publicized run-in with the media Monday, that's by no means a sure thing.
Let the Laurence Maroney love continue, while I wait it out on the sidelines. Maroney got a garbage-time 1-yard score Sunday, but looked awful overall. He's just not a good player. I think the Patriots would rather just use Kevin Faulk as a full-timer, but they're too worried he'd wear down.
Notes: Andre Johnson had to leave Sunday's game with a chest injury that in some media outlets has been called a "lung contusion." OK, that doesn't sound great. It's awfully tough to know whether he'll miss next week's game against the Bills; for the moment, I've assumed he won't.
Reggie Wayne came out of the Colts' blowout of the Rams with a groin injury, but came back in the game later. He should be fine.
No word yet on whether Calvin Johnson will play this week. We'll just have to see if he can practice.
Anquan Boldin is testing his owners' patience. For the moment, I think maybe you bench him. He was hobbled Sunday night with that bad ankle, and didn't get much separation.
Miles Austin is still unowned in 15 percent of ESPN.com leagues. Time to remedy that. While there's still a chance he flames out like a shooting star, at the moment he looks like an every-week fantasy starter in Dallas.
Bernard Berrian doesn't think his hamstring injury is a big deal, but remember that he missed a bunch of training camp and the entire preseason with a hamstring problem this summer. Berrian shouldn't be completely overlooked, but the past two weeks Sidney Rice has looked like a better target. He should've had a touchdown Sunday, but it was overturned by a now-infamous phantom tripping call on the Vikings' offensive line.
Mario Manningham had better watch it, or he's going to start losing more playing time. He's shown awful hands for much of the '09 season, and it continued Sunday night. Hakeem Nicks is outplaying him at the moment, and while Nicks' touchdown (his fourth in four games) was a complete fluke on a deflection, it's not far-fetched to imagine the Giants deciding to let Nicks start sometime in the near future.
Lee Evans seems to have more chemistry with Ryan Fitzpatrick than he did with Trent Edwards, or else the Bills feel slightly less compelled to force the ball in to Terrell Owens. T.O. had one bad drop and an embarrassing effort on another pass, whereas Evans was one of the best players on the field Sunday.
Pierre Garcon had eight targets Sunday but only two catches, and showed the rock-like hands that capped expectations for him during August's training camp. I have to believe that if Anthony Gonzalez really is coming back soon (and we really don't know that for sure), Garcon is the guy most in danger of losing playing time. Austin Collie is a natural for the slot, where he just keeps catching touchdowns.
Michael Crabtree played well in his debut, and the Niners tossed it to him six times (Shaun Hill often seemed hypnotized early in the game trying to force it in to Crabtree). Isaac Bruce got the same number of targets, though (six apiece), and Josh Morgan is still on hand. Plus there's the small matter of Vernon Davis as a touchdown machine. Tough to regard any 49ers receiver as a fantasy starter most weeks.
Ted Ginn may have single-handedly destroyed the Dolphins on Sunday with two excruciating drops; one led to a Saints defensive touchdown, and the other killed a possible game-winning drive. He's been benched in Miami, with Brian Hartline likely to take his snaps. Ginn can be dropped in all leagues.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.