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Listed below are updated rankings for the four major skill positions, defense/special teams and the top 100 players, accounting only for projected fantasy value from Week 4 forward. These rankings are published every Tuesday, meaning they won't always reflect news that breaks late in the week. For week-specific rankings to help you set your lineup, check back on Wednesday.
Quick click by position, for easy reference:
Top 40 Quarterbacks | Top 60 Running Backs | Top 60 Wide Receivers
Top 30 Tight Ends | Top 32 Defense/Special Teams | Top 100 Overall
• Ben Roethlisberger became eligible to rejoin the Pittsburgh Steelers at 12:01 a.m. Monday morning, and with that, it's time to begin ranking him where we would have in the preseason had he been eligible for all 16 games: among the top 10 quarterbacks. Roethlisberger and his Steelers are on bye in Week 5, but that's a positive for both quarterback and team; they get an extra seven days to practice and recapture past chemistry. Let's average his 2007-09 per-game numbers: 234.4 passing yards, 1.63 touchdowns, 0.83 interceptions; that's a 3,750-yard, 26-TD, 13-interception 16-game pace. In the history of the NFL, only 22 quarterbacks have had a season with at least as good as those numbers in each of those three categories. Roethlisberger also has one of the more underrated deep threats in all of football (Mike Wallace), a trusty, veteran possession receiver (Hines Ward), a reliable pass-catching tight end (Heath Miller) and a Pro Bowl-caliber running back (Rashard Mendenhall) to provide balance to the offense. There's often a perception that a slow-starting team becomes a slow-finishing team, but in the case of the Steelers, there was really one question -- the quarterback position -- that has now been answered. It's time to significantly upgrade this squad.
• Let's await results of Jay Cutler's concussion tests before making any brash ranking decisions, but the level of penetration the New York Giants' defense -- and don't ignore how injury-plagued their defensive front was -- had with the Chicago Bears' offensive line shouldn't go unnoticed. The Giants sacked Cutler nine times -- and sorry, but even Ferris Bueller can't change that number -- in half a game, and that makes me recall this excellent statistical tidbit from the preseason: One quarterback has started all 16 games in just four of the 10 seasons in which Mike Martz has been an NFL head coach or offensive coordinator. The Bears allowed 35 sacks last season and are on pace for 72 this year. Cutler will have his memorable fantasy days, like his 20-spot in the opener against the Detroit Lions, but he's also going to have his stinkers, where he's either an interception machine or, as he did Sunday night, misses snaps after taking a rough hit. Heck, he might even have his 57-start streak snapped at some point. Overall Cutler is still a top 10-capable passer, but it still means accepting his highs and lows.
• Speaking of injuries that impact the rankings, Michael Vick's rib-cartilage issue threatens not only his Week 5, but perhaps Week 6 and beyond, and that's enough to drop him out of the top 10, though he remains noticeably ahead of prospective fill-in Kevin Kolb. When I hear comments like "week to week" from Andy Reid, or reports that Vick might have cracked cartilage between his second and third ribs, I can't help but worry. This remains Vick's job when healthy, but he might range between 10th and 15th on these rankings all year, primarily because his aggressive approach puts him at greater risk of bumps and bruises than a typical quarterback.
• Talk of an imminent quarterback controversy in Jacksonville might have been quashed by David Garrard's unraveling of the Indianapolis Colts' secondary, but don't take the waiver claim of Trent Edwards lightly. Edwards' conservative approach fits with the Jaguars, while Garrard, outside of Week 4, has been too erratic for fantasy owners' tastes. Garrard also has only two road games of at least 200 yards and two scores passing in his past 18, and it's tough to trust a quarterback when he's completely unusable on the road.
• It's time to declare Arian Foster a top-shelf fantasy running back, and as you'll see, he's ranked ahead of some pretty darned impressive names: Ray Rice, Steven Jackson and Michael Turner, to name three. Foster earned that status despite his first-quarter benching on Sunday, primarily because of how he responded to head coach Gary Kubiak's decision; he didn't whine, mope or mail the game in, instead pounding the Oakland Raiders' defense to the tune of 187 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. Known for his unpredictable approach to the running-back position, Kubiak was pleased with Foster's efforts. "We all have responsibilities, and he neglected some of his," Kubiak told the Houston Texans' website. "When that happens, you have to pay a price. I'm disappointed in him, but I'm also very proud of him for the way he played today."
• That second tier of fantasy running backs -- Nos. 11-20 -- continues to be a sketchy bunch, at least comparative to the group ahead of them, and injuries are having a profound impact upon those rankings. Javhid Best had a so-so Week 4 after battling a toe injury throughout the practice week. LeSean McCoy might have been a top-10 candidate, if not for a fractured rib that could cost him a game or more. Pierre Thomas, the New Orleans Saints' most suited running back for a workhorse role, missed Week 4 with an ankle injury. Knowshon Moreno continues to be hobbled by a hamstring injury, and it's unclear whether he'll be available come Week 5; even then, his Denver Broncos face treacherous matchups against the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets the next two weeks. Potential is what's driving that group's rankings, and I can say that up-and-comers like Ahmad Bradshaw and LaDainian Tomlinson (who'd have guessed he'd ever be called an "up-and-comer" at this stage of his career) could be justifiable options at as high as No. 11, while someone like red-hot Peyton Hillis might be only a lucky break away from a ranking in the high-teens. This position is still very much in flux.
• I'm also quite in favor of two injury-prone backs just outside the top 20 as possible top-15 candidates for the season: Beanie Wells of the Arizona Cardinals and Darren McFadden of the Raiders. Wells, who missed the first two weeks with a knee injury, has yet to hit his stride and thus far has had his role limited by the team's miserable passing game. However, he remains a breakout candidate with a favorable schedule if the Cardinals find greater consistency under Max Hall. McFadden, meanwhile, set the fantasy world ablaze with four stunning performances to begin his 2010, but now he's battling a hamstring injury that threatens to cost him a game or more. Considering his injury history, Run DMC could be absent for just long enough to permit Michael Bush, a comparably skilled back in his own right, a chance to steal back a substantial part of the rushing work.
• The San Diego Chargers' backfield is similarly muddled, as Ryan Mathews took a back seat to Mike Tolbert in his return to the lineup. Tolbert's skills in short-yardage situation make him a probable threat in red zone situations and might mean, at best, Mathews' share in any given week might be no better than 60/40. Despite coach Norv Turner's comments that Mathews remains his starter, I'm ranking Tolbert higher because he's the back with the greater touchdown potential. The two are fairly interchangeable right now, however, and I wouldn't be confident with either as more than a flex play.
• Ryan Torain's stock soars after word that Clinton Portis suffered a groin injury late in Week 4; I'll say now that I think a healthy Torain may wrest the starting role from Portis by Thanksgiving, if a decision on the job comes down to pure on-field performance between now and then. Remember, Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan was the man who drafted Torain, back when he was with the Denver Broncos in 2008. There's some history here, and Shanahan has made no secret of how highly he regards Torain's skills.
• To those who read much into Willis McGahee's 14 carries for 39 yards and a score, as well as his start over Ray Rice, I say this: I'm not buying. Rice reported no issues with his knee after totaling nine touches in a backup role -- and remember that he was pressed into starter's duty after McGahee and Le'Ron McClain both got hurt -- and was merely being protected after making a remarkably quick recovery from a somewhat significant Week 3 injury. Rice's skills trump those of either of his backups, and much of his sluggish start was the product of a treacherous schedule. Having McGahee as a handcuff is a smart move for owners who can afford that luxury, but I'm no believer McGahee is capable of handling an every-down job.
• Let's talk fallout from the Marshawn Lynch trade: First off, I'll point out that I wasn't pro-Lynch before the deal, and I'm certainly not following the deal, being that I don't see his upside being much greater than a flex-play type in Seattle, or at least not as much as it could be elsewhere. Putting Lynch aside, who wins? I think it's Fred Jackson; he has proven capable of handling at least an even share of the rushing chores, and he's more trustworthy on passing downs of the Buffalo Bills' two backs. Everyone will hop on the C.J. Spiller bandwagon, and that's a fair thing to do, but I think Jackson might be every bit as productive from this point forward. Who loses? It's Justin Forsett, for sure. He'll have to serve as a change-of-pace back at best, and while he'll probably be more involved than you think -- one of the main reasons I'm not as pro-Lynch -- he's now a handcuff, and a weaker one at that.
• What you're probably going to notice first is that the Steelers' top two wide receivers, Hines Ward and Mike Wallace, both moved up in the rankings, despite their combined three fantasy points, the team's combined 126 yards and zero scores passing in Week 4, and the team's Week 5 bye status. Remember, though, that's not how rankings work; if the player's prospects improve for future weeks despite a lackluster most recent box-score line, then his ranking improves accordingly. In this case, the return of Ben Roethlisberger, mentioned above, boosts both receivers' stock. Consider that in their past five games working with Roethlisberger, Ward has averaged 8.6 targets, 5.8 catches and 64.4 receiving yards per contest and Wallace 2.2, 3.8 and 51.2, and remember that in each of those games, Santonio Holmes was present to impact the target splits (especially evident in Wallace's). In their past five games working with quarterbacks not named Roethlisberger, Ward has averaged 5.0 targets, 3.0 catches and 42.4 receiving yards and Wallace 4.6, 1.8 and 42.2, so clearly Roethlisberger's presence has a profound impact on the passing game. This might, in fact, be your final buy-low opportunity for either receiver.
• The next thing you might notice is that a player who sat out Week 4 because of injury remains No. 1 on the list. Despite his ankle injury, Andre Johnson still has skills that match or exceed those of any other wide receiver in football. Despite a so-so first three weeks, Johnson ranks eighth at his position in both targets (29) and catches (19) and 10th in receiving yards (255). If we're to assume he's healthy for Week 5, why should we drop him in the rankings just because of one missed game that's now in the rearview? Check out Johnson's next five matchups: NYG, KC, @IND, SD, @JAC. There isn't anything in a single one of those secondaries I see with the skills to contain a playmaker like this. Johnson might return with a vengeance.
• I cautioned in Sunday's "Instant Replay" that people shouldn't be too quick to shift the focus from Chad Ochocinco to Terrell Owens just because the latter had by far the best game from either player to date, and as you can see by my rankings, I'm sticking by the statement. Owens' role is expanding, particularly with Jordan Shipley ailing, but T.O.'s Week 4 outburst was every bit as much a matter of poor play by Sheldon Brown and double coverage by the Cleveland Browns as it was a shift in the receiver pecking order. That's the way it goes sometimes with teams with two stud receivers; one week, the opponent focuses on containing one while the other goes off, in another week it's vice versa. Here's a great example: The Bengals battle the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 5, and Aqib Talib might now be every bit as likely to shadow Owens as Ochocinco. (Remember, Owens burned Talib on a long touchdown last season when the former played for the Buffalo Bills. Think Talib has forgotten?) I still regard Ochocinco as the better overall player; he's younger but is a veteran to the offense, so if he's the Week 5 star, no one should be shocked.
• Speaking of Holmes, who was referred to above, he's the other big-name fantasy player who became eligible to return to action on Monday morning. However, while Roethlisberger's return will instantly inject some life in a floundering Steelers pass attack, Holmes walks into a Jets offense that's firing on all cylinders and so far hasn't looked at all like it needs him. Braylon Edwards is coming off one of the best stretches of his career and Dustin Keller looks like he's developing into one of the league's premier tight ends, so it's anyone's guess how -- specifically how quickly -- Holmes will get acclimated. One might think Mark Sanchez's willingness to take the occasional deep shot with Edwards signals positive things ahead for Holmes, but then why wouldn't Sanchez continue to trust Edwards in those spots? It's part of why Edwards only moves up five spots, to No. 30, while Holmes remains mired at No. 37. I've got a hunch that three weeks from now, one of them will rank 20th-25th and the other almost 50th. On raw talent, give me Holmes having the better ranking, but I'm no longer quite as certain it'll happen.
• Louis Murphy deserves plenty of credit for his improvements in this, his sophomore season, but the true breakout star in the Raiders' offense looks like it might very well be tight end Zach Miller. People are starting to catch onto Murphy's chemistry with new quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, but how about Miller's? In Gradkowski's past six starts, Miller has been targeted 60 times and caught 36 of those for 447 yards and three touchdowns. Miller also has three red-zone targets the past two weeks combined, as sure a sign of his elite fantasy potential as anything. His ceiling might involve making a run for top-five status.
• Miller won't be catching Jermichael Finley in terms of fantasy points, however, barring catastrophic injury to the latter. With Green Bay Packers opponents aiming to take the deep pass out of the equation, Finley has been getting open routinely on underneath routes, capitalizing from increased work out of the slot. The Packers have been brilliant shifting him around to throw defenses off track; he might be the most consistent of their pass-catchers in terms of targets from week to week. That's what I like to see from a tight end.
• Speaking of defenses creating opportunities for the tight end, Lions opponents consistently seem to be double-teaming Calvin Johnson, leaving the middle of the field wide open for their talented tight-end duo of Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew. Both Lions are tied for fourth at the position with 30 targets, which is plenty in terms of presenting opportunities, but there's going to come a point when one sees fewer looks, and that's when Nate Burleson is able to return to the lineup. It's tough to pick between them; Scheffler has the experience but Pettigrew the upside, and if there's anything that hints which it might be, I think it's this: Scheffler (4) is the one with more red zone targets (Pettigrew has 1).