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The bye weeks, and thus the era of the lean market, are over. In some sense, this first week after two months of byes can be seen as one of the most influential of the entire Gridiron Challenge campaign, because investments are now uninterrupted by scheduling, leaving production as the sole determinant.
It's during this stretch run that we must strike a balance between pursuing immediate point production and enduring margins. For example, I've had Arian Foster in my portfolio for several weeks now and enjoy a healthy discount for his services given that I invested in him just after his bye week, a time when his ownership and pricing were deflated. This week, however, I'm more apt to consider other options given his somewhat unfavorable matchup against a stout New York Jets rush defense that allows less than 90 yards on the ground per game. Does this mean that you should assuredly cut bait on Foster and dismiss the earned margin? Not necessarily, but it does indicate that no matter the margin, the matchup is just as, if not more, important to consider. After all, there are no rewards for collecting the greatest discounts, just the most points. Consider some of the names below as savvy targets for your portfolio.
A positional breakdown and investment guide
Quarterback: Steady, and often prolific, production has seen Kyle Orton and Michael Vick join the upper crust of the signal-caller market, thinning out the middle tier for talent. In their wake are some quality alternatives, although, it's a group that is seemingly more matchup-dependent than Orton or Vick. Essentially, you can max out your budget on elite arms like Rivers and Rodgers and likely assure yourself great production from such a duo, but you are also then arguably compromising the rest of your roster given the disproportionate amount of dough you've placed behind center. This week seems like an ideal time to pair an expensive elite with one of the many middle-tier matchup plays, several of whom I discuss below.
Mark Sanchez, QB, New York Jets (6.2 price tag): The overwhelming reason to roster Sanchez this week is his opponent; the ever-exploitable Houston Texans, a team that now claims the second-worst defense in the league, only thanks to what Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles did to the Washington Redskins this past Monday night. If you need some more anecdotes as to how ripe this matchup is for Sanchez and company, the Houston Chronicle's John McClain (not of the "Die Hard" franchise, but still a fearsome scribe) recently wrote that the "Texans' pass defense is the worst I've seen in more than 30 years of covering the NFL."
Jon Kitna, QB, Dallas Cowboys (5.9 price tag): For the adventurous discount hunter, Kitna makes for a nice risk/reward play as he faces a Lions defense that has allowed more than 15 fantasy points to opposing signal-callers in six of nine games to date. This is also somewhat of a momentum play, as it appears the talented Cowboys roster is finally coming together after months of inconsistent effort and production.
Vince Young, QB, Tennessee Titans (5.0 price tag): The Redskins, even before the Vick outburst, were decidedly generous to the pass. And while the Titans' offense still lives on the legs of Chris Johnson, the Redskins' makeup should compel the staff to get Young and Randy Moss on the same page with a series of vertical attempts. Save major coin on a player like Young and spend big elsewhere.
Running Back: A lean year for stud backs has the productive few priced in an extremely expensive range. This position sees more consolidated than any other, as three elite and expensive backs are owned in more than 20 percent of portfolios -- Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster -- while no other runner is owned in more than 10 percent of portfolios. This signals that for most investors that this is the least adventurous position; one where the majority of shoppers are content to pay for the star tailbacks. This also means that with so many investors tied to just a few elites that daring shoppers can make up ground if and when one of the expensive options falter. Much like the quarterback position, you can do well for yourself by pairing an elite commodity with an upside play, striking a balance between trusted production and potential for netting margins.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs (6.5 price tag): While no pronounced discount exists with Charles, he remains a good buy as he's still priced well below the top tier of commodities. His patient takeover of the workload has advanced in reason weeks, claiming a vast majority of the work in last week's blowout loss to the Denver Broncos. Considering that Charles now has the appropriate touches and a savory matchup with the Cardinals, a defense that gives up the second most fantasy points to opposing tailbacks, there are few better buys on this week's marketplace.
Wide Receiver: Great values exist at the wideout position. If you choose to go elite at quarterback and tailback you can still enjoy some promising options given some of the low-end pricing that can be exploited. Thanks to blend of suspensions, injuries and just plain old emergence, we can choose from the likes of Santonio Holmes, Malcom Floyd and Wes Welker, all at reasonable price points.
Anquan Boldin, WR, Baltimore Ravens (5.7 price tag): Despite Carolina's tandem of solid corners, I still have confidence that Boldin's uniquely physical style and Joe Flacco's trust of him in the red zone make for a good buy this week.
Santonio Holmes, WR, New York Jets (5.3 price tag): Houston. That's really all I should have to say for you to be convinced that a huge outing could be in the works here. Of the 11 significant defensive statistics, the Texans are ranked 28th or worse in eight of them.
Tight End: Jacob Tamme remains among the best deals on the market. Endurance and injuries could be a concern for the plug-in dynamo, given his amazing workload over the past several contests, but his reasonable price makes up for the apparent risk. With Antonio Gates still gimpy and likely to be limited going forward, the argument for shilling out six or even in the high fives for a tight end seems foolish to me. Instead, seek out values like Todd Heap, Benjamin Watson or the aforementioned Tamme and spend at more rewarding, and predictable, positions.
Defense: I consider defenses, outside of say the Steelers, but even they have proven to be fallible, in the same way many evaluate kickers; purely based on matchup. That said, Baltimore and Kansas City both make for great acquisitions as they face sloppy passing games and struggling and depleted backfields.
Baltimore Ravens Defense (4.9 price tag): Both the win bonus and some savory sack and turnover numbers should emerge from this choice matchup as a motivated Ravens defense continues its tour of the NFC South.
Kicker: If I were able to discern which kicker would go off each week I'd probably have a column dedicated to the position. We'd call it "Just for Kicks." Which would be sad, but also somewhat remarkable if I were actually able to decipher this position. From what I can gather, I like Jacksonville's Josh Scobee to be busy this week, if only because of the Jaguars' talented, but flawed offense, and their matchup with a bend-but-don't-break Cleveland defense.
My team, "I'm a Man, I'm Forte," has scored 1,178 points good for the 93.4th percentile.
QB: Mark Sanchez, New York Jets: 138 year-to-date points; 6.2 (locked price)/ 6.2 (market price)
QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers: 88 points; 6.2/6.2
RB: Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs: 118 points; 5.9/6.5
RB: Peyton Hillis, Cleveland Browns, 143 points; 6.5/6.5
WR: Marques Colston, New Orleans Saints: 67 points; 5.7/5.7
WR: Hakeem Nicks, New York Giants: 123 points; 6.1/6.5
TE: Jacob Tamme, Indianapolis Colts: 35 points; 5.0/5.1
K: Ryan Longwell, Minnesota Vikings; 47 points; 3.4/3.7
DEF: Baltimore Ravens, 76 points; 4.9/4.9
Jim McCormick is fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com, as well as the producer of the Washington Post's "Behind the Helmet" series. You can reach him with your questions and comments on Twitter @JMcCormickESPN