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Tuesday, October 12, 2010
2010 fantasy football rankings update

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Listed below are updated rankings for the four major skills positions, defense/special teams and the top 100 players, accounting only for projected fantasy value from Week 6 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

Top 40 Quarterbacks

• News that Aaron Rodgers might miss Week 6 with a concussion is enough to drop him a spot in the quarterback rankings, and nine spots in the overall ranks, but his own health isn't the only reason for his slightly diminished stock. It's the injuries to his teammates that might prove problematic, between the season-ending ankle injury to running back Ryan Grant and now knee surgery that will cost tight end Jermichael Finley three to six weeks. In case you haven't noticed, opponents were already dropping back extra safeties to neutralize Greg Jennings and the deep ball; with Finley out, they might only do so with increasing frequency. Rodgers has only one completion of 40-plus yards in his first five games and is averaging 7.3 yards per attempt; last season he had 17 completions of 40-plus yards and averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, in spite of being sacked 50 times.

• I promised a top-10 ranking for Kyle Orton in my Sunday "Instant Replay," and I'm delivering. Weeks 6 and 7 matchups against the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders might scare you, but be aware that those defenses have allowed the 11th- and ninth-most fantasy points per game to opposing quarterbacks so far. In addition, the Denver Broncos face only one team that ranks beneath 19th: the San Diego Chargers (32nd, and they'll battle them twice). That Week 16 fantasy-championship matchup against the Houston Texans sure looks appealing.

• It took only one game for Brett Favre and Randy Moss to get into the swing of things, and don't think for a second that Moss' acquisition isn't huge for Favre's fantasy value. Favre's accuracy has diminished and he lacked the diversity in his arsenal before Moss arrived, but Moss' addition will address the latter enough to make up for some of the former. If you watched that Monday night contest, you noticed that Favre is still making some surprisingly wild throws, but check the final numbers: 264 yards, three touchdowns, one interception. Do you really care how he gets the numbers (or whether he even wins) so long as they keep coming?

• Ranking the Detroit Lions quarterbacks is immensely difficult, because if we knew Shaun Hill was going to be their starter the final 11 games, he'd warrant a ranking as high as 19th. Instead, we get the recycled line, "next week might be Matthew Stafford's return week," and that keeps Hill from being a remotely trustworthy long-term investment. That the Lions' bye arrives in Week 7 probably means Stafford won't see the field until Week 8, and even then, there's no telling how his right shoulder separation will affect his on-field performance. With a matchup against the New York Giants' vicious pass rush due up next, it might be a month (or longer) before we can remotely consider starting any Lions quarterback.

• I feel for Sam Bradford, whose precision should one day make him one of the most attractive assets in fantasy. Entering Week 5, he was on pace to set a new rookie record for passing yards (3,776) and post the second-most passing touchdowns by a freshman (24). Why is that significant? Mark Clayton's season-ending torn patellar tendon robs Bradford of his favorite target, a true deep threat who could stretch the field. Now Bradford has to choose among Danny Amendola, Daniel Fells, Brandon Gibson, Mardy Gilyard, Darcy Johnson and Laurent Robinson, not one of them the kind of playmaker Clayton was. Bradford might have bordered upon fantasy-backup status before the Clayton injury, and it's not unthinkable he might find chemistry with someone else, but I just no longer see the prospect of the explosive matchup. At best, Bradford looks like a start-at-home-only-against-the-truly-bad-defenses/desperation-bye-weeks quarterback.

Top 60 Running Backs

• We talk a lot about value tiers on these pages, and there's a bit of symmetry to the ones at running back this week; I see each of the top three tiers being exactly seven players deep. While Ray Rice moves up to fourth coming off a 159-total yard, two-touchdown breakout performance, and fresh-off-the-bye Rashard Mendenhall drops to seventh, I see them as being awfully similar in value. If there's anything to take from changes within the top seven, it's that Rice has finally earned his first-round status. His first four weeks' schedule was grueling, but look at what's left: @NE, BUF, bye, MIA, @ATL, @CAR, TB, PIT, @HOU, NO, @CLE, CIN. Only two of those teams ranks among the 10 best in terms of preventing fantasy points to running backs, and five of them rank among the 10 worst.

• Consider the next seven running backs "Tier 2," meaning Jamaal Charles' drop from 11th to 12th is more a matter of minor shuffling within that group than a knock on his future value. His Week 5 was the first in which he looked like the starting running back he was late in 2009, and if you liked Rice's schedule, check Charles': @HOU, JAC, BUF, @OAK, @DEN, ARI, @SEA, DEN, @SD, @STL, TEN, OAK. Five of those defenses rank among the 10 worst in terms of fantasy points per game allowed to opposing running backs (including three of the bottom four), and four of these favorable matchups come in the next six weeks alone.

Peyton Hillis leaps into "Tier 3" after finding the end zone for the fifth consecutive week to begin the season. Though he might not feel a "safe" weekly starter to some, my No. 18 ranking should help coax people into believing he's a solid No. 2 running back, one of the more well-rounded runners in the league. Check the stats: He's 14th in rushing yards (350), fourth in receptions (20) and fifth in targets (25). If you play in a PPR league, he's just about a must-start at this point.

• Week 5 offered some hope that Ryan Mathews might yet recapture the starting job in San Diego. Mike Tolbert did manage a 4-yard touchdown, but he also fumbled on his only other goal-line carry of the game, and totaled just 11 yards on 12 carries for the day. Then there was a late-Sunday report by the San Diego Union-Tribune, which noted that Mathews might take over the gig as soon as Week 6, assuming he makes it through the practice week unscathed and absorbs the game plan. "I think Ryan will be our lead guy," Chargers coach Norv Turner told the paper. "That's why he's here." Could there be stronger evidence that the Chargers have merely been conservative with Mathews' ankle injury? The rookie is averaging 5.1 yards per carry thus far, so clearly he has the skills to make up for his lofty draft price. I'm moving him ahead of Tolbert, and I bet it's for good.

• It's going to be one tough situation to read in Oakland once Darren McFadden's hamstring heals, as Michael Bush managed a 100-yard game and handled 29 touches admirably despite having previously missed time with a thumb injury himself. Bush was a sleeper of mine in the preseason; I regarded him as the more skilled of the two backs, which explains how he soars up the rankings this week. But McFadden still scores the higher ranking, albeit in the flex-play range, as the Raiders might not be quick to take a job from him lost only to short-term injury. Now, if that hammy becomes a lingering issue, all bets are off ...

• While Ryan Torain's first start for the Washington Redskins was forgettable, let's be careful not to condemn his fantasy prospects based upon one mere game. While it's true that coach Mike Shanahan tends to be quick to shuffle the deck at running back, he lacks a clearly more talented option right now, what with Clinton Portis out for a minimum of one month. A Week 6 matchup against the Indianapolis Colts might be just what Torain needs to shine, and a week from now, people might be quick to suggest he belongs in the top 20. I think he's definitely a flex play for now, and there's the potential for more.

• Portis, incidentally, scores a No. 58 ranking this week, but I was sorely tempted to drop him from the list, being that he's out four to six weeks with a third-degree groin separation. I'm not convinced we'll see him start another game this season; he's now 29 years old and in the final guaranteed year of his deal, and might be no more productive a running back than Torain at this stage of his career.

Top 60 Wide Receivers

• The debate over "who is the No. 1 wide receiver in fantasy" is no longer an easy one. Andre Johnson's ankle is just troublesome enough that he's not automatic, Roddy White's complete lack of a complementary receiver is a concern, Randy Moss' focus has wavered from game to game this season and Reggie Wayne is in an offense with too many weapons to cut into his target total. That leaves Miles Austin, a sizeable, speedy receiver with at least nine catches and 140 yards in three different games this season. Any of the five is a worthy choice; I'm going with the No. 1 target in the loaded offense, one with a tremendous track record in terms of consistency the past calendar year.

• Greg Jennings had to be the toughest player to rank of anyone in football this week. On one hand, the fact defenses are throwing a ton of Cover 2 at him is severely capping his numbers. On the other, that the Green Bay Packers' receiving corps is rapidly thinning out means Aaron Rodgers will need to lean more on him in the coming weeks. The former has me thinking he probably belongs a lot closer to 20th than 10th, but the latter has me optimistic he can still be a weekly fantasy No. 2.

• Sometimes you need to be reactionary in fantasy football; Brandon Lloyd is an excellent example. While Kyle Orton has spread things around through five games, the numbers don't lie: Lloyd leads the team in targets (54) and has been targeted in double digits in each of the past three weeks. In short, he's being regarded a clear No. 1 receiver in Denver, in what has been one of the league's most potent pass attacks to date. Lloyd probably won't finish second at his position in fantasy points, but there's little doubt he's a top-20 fantasy wide receiver at this point.

Steve Smith's rapidly plummeting fantasy stock is directly tied to the status of his ankle; a Gaston Gazette report suggests he might not even be ready in time for the Carolina Panthers' Week 7 game. That the Panthers claimed Devin Thomas off waivers on Monday points toward that being true.

• When it comes to Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, you might almost want to flip a coin as to which will have the better fantasy game from week to week. T.O. has the edge, having racked up back-to-back 100-yard receiving performances, but I'm not convinced that either will be a trustworthy every-week starter the rest of the way. Blame it on Carson Palmer; Palmer's throws lack the zip they had even three years ago, and his decision-making has been suspect. The Cincinnati Bengals also don't have the easiest schedule for a wide receiver the rest of the way: @ATL, MIA, PIT, @IND, BUF, @NYJ, NO, @PIT, CLE, SD, @BAL. Three of those teams rank among the top three in terms of preventing wide receivers' fantasy points, and seven rank among the league's upper half at it. And while the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets don't rate top-10 in that department, their reputations certainly make them far scarier matchups than their numbers hint.

• Just as quickly as his stock plummeted during the preseason, Kenny Britt's value has risen the past three weeks. He made a pretty catch in the Week 3 game against the New York Giants, and got an expanded opportunity following an injury to Justin Gage a week later. Britt managed four catches for 86 yards and a score on Sunday, but also drew a 35-yard pass interference penalty, and let's not forget the 405 yards and three touchdowns he had the final eight games last season working with Vince Young. Tennessee Titans receivers aren't exactly mainstays in fantasy lineups, but there might yet be some matchups potential here.

• Consider Davone Bess' absence from the Week 5 rankings more of an oversight than a snub; upon further inspection, I see enough to like in terms of opportunity that he's at least roster-worthy, and probably decent matchups play, as well. He has double-digit targets in four of his past 13 games, and has averaged 5.2 receptions during that span. His touchdown production might not please, but the yardage should be consistent, and he's a near top-30 option in PPR leagues.

• It's just about time to give up hope of a Vincent Jackson trade, with the possible exception of the slim chance the St. Louis Rams desperately cough up at least a second-round pick for him before next Tuesday's (Oct. 19) deadline. For fantasy, though, it's officially time to get him out of these rankings, being that in the past week, the Minnesota Vikings (Randy Moss) and New England Patriots (Deion Branch) already made their moves to fill their wide receiver voids. Jackson's owners are plenty frustrated; they can blame San Diego Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, whom the San Diego Union-Tribune reports was demanding first- and second-round picks over the next two drafts from the Patriots.

Top 30 Tight Ends

• Jermichael Finley is scheduled for arthroscopic surgery Tuesday to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, which is a more troubling diagnosis than the initial displaced hamstring ligament reported on Sunday. He's out a minimum of three weeks and might need closer to six; a six-week timetable would put his return at Nov. 23, or two days before Thanksgiving (Week 12). That puts his owners in a tight spot; the bye weeks don't end until Week 10, so he'll gobble up a valuable bench spot in the meantime. I can't possibly justify cutting Finley outright except in the most shallow leagues -- think 10 teams or fewer with small benches -- and his ranking this week is more a matter of placing him behind the players I would cut him for, and ahead of the players I would not cut him for. Remember, this is still a player who could win a playoff-week matchup by himself; even the worst-case scenario has him back in advance of that.

• It's officially time to declare Zach Miller a top-five fantasy tight end, after he managed a third consecutive game with a touchdown and double-digit fantasy points. Don't fret the quarterback controversy in Oakland, either; Miller managed five catches on six targets for 48 yards and a touchdown working with Jason Campbell, so clearly he'll get his numbers regardless of whether Campbell or Bruce Gradkowski is throwing him the ball. What's helping fuel Miller's breakout campaign is improved running-back play; Darren McFadden and now Michael Bush have garnered enough respect from opposing defenses, drawing in the linebackers, to provide Miller a few more windows than in seasons past.

• And there you go, for as long as Kevin Kolb is under center for the Philadelphia Eagles, Brent Celek matters in fantasy. The target totals say it all: Celek managed 4, 5, 6 and 6 targets the first four weeks, the majority of those working with Michael Vick, but with Kolb the quarterback for a full 60 minutes in Week 5, Celek was targeted a team-high nine times. It's not a one-game thing, either, as Celek totaled 20 targets in Kolb's two starts (Weeks 2-3) in 2009. Coach Andy Reid might insist that Vick is his starter when healthy, but two questions regarding that: 1) there are already whispers Vick will be held out again in Week 6, and 2) Vick's aggressive style makes him a greater risk than your typical quarterback to get hurt again. There's enough there to keep Celek roster-worthy.

Jeremy Shockey is back on the fantasy map, what with the New Orleans Saints bruised and battered at running back and leaning more on short-yardage passing accordingly. It's no coincidence that in Shockey's three best games of the season -- Weeks 3-5 -- the Saints were without Reggie Bush for three and Pierre Thomas for two. Still, that means an opportunity was presented to Shockey, he capitalized upon it and as such might still draw Drew Brees' eye in critical situations even after players like Bush and Thomas are healthy. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that Shockey has been healthier this year than he has been at any point previously during his Saints career, and that's another plus.

Top 32 Defense/Special Teams

Top 100 Overall

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.