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Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Free-agent finds: Week 7

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

When the New England Patriots have a bye week, everyone can exhale.

No, it's no fun when you have to sit Tom Brady or Wes Welker. But everyone else? Heck, having the Pats on bye can save us all from ourselves.

I do lots of radio interviews over the course of the week and appear on a bunch of TV shows on which I'm asked a constant stream of questions regarding BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Stevan Ridley, Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Can we trust them? Should we bench them? How can we ever start them if their usage is going to be so maddening? Bill Belichick is certainly not the fantasy owner's friend. In the history of football, there might never have been an offense so explosive yet with so few reliable individual players.

For one week, anyway, you can file away your questions. Come up with alternatives. Breathe easy. Because once Week 8 comes, you're going to have to start pulling out your hair all over again.

Week 7 byes: 49ers, Bengals, Bills, Eagles, Giants, Patriots.

Standard ESPN League Finds

Carson Palmer, QB, Oakland Raiders (Pending trade, owned in 0.2 percent of leagues). The Cincinnati Bengals' stubbornness finally paid off, as they found a trading partner willing to give up a ton for Palmer. Jason Campbell's broken collarbone set the stage for Oakland to deal a first-round pick in the 2012 draft along with a conditional pick in '13 for the disgruntled Palmer. It was way too much for the Raiders to give up for a QB whose arm strength has never been the same since an elbow injury a few years back, but there's no question that Palmer is miles better than Kyle Boller would've been in relief of Campbell.

Palmer, still only 31, reunites with former Bengals receivers coach Hue Jackson, who's now the head man in Oakland, so he'll hit the ground running in this offense. But Palmer hasn't shown the wing to consistently get the ball down the field for several seasons, so let's not go calling this a reinvention of those famous vertical Raiders attacks. Palmer will be a No. 2 fantasy QB most weeks until further notice: He's worth picking up for the signal-caller-needy, but not a must-start in any format. The best news here is for the Raiders' young receivers. They would've lost all semblance of value with Boller throwing them the rock.

DeMarco Murray
DeMarco Murray averaged just 3.2 yards a carry against the Patriots but looks to do more against the Rams if Felix Jones can't go.

DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas Cowboys (owned in 3.3 percent of ESPN.com leagues). It sounds as though a high-ankle sprain will keep Felix Jones out for multiple weeks, and although it's premature to say the Cowboys will completely hand their starting gig over to this rookie rusher, it's no stretch to say that Murray looked like a better player than Tashard Choice this past week against the Patriots. Choice fumbled away a key first-quarter red-zone possession after a New England turnover and had five carries for 14 yards, but Murray looked powerful and steady as he put up 32 yards on 10 carries. There's a platoon brewing in Big D, it would seem, but, at the moment, the guy I'd prefer to own is Murray. But on the inconceivable chance I could be wrong (hey, it's happened), Choice is probably addable, too.

Jackie Battle, RB, Kansas City Chiefs (26.3 percent). Just a reminder that Battle was awfully good carrying it 19 times for 119 yards two weeks ago against the Indianapolis Colts. He has another pretty tasty matchup against the Raiders in Week 7, and Todd Haley has talked him up as a lead back the past few days. Thomas Jones and Dexter McCluster also will be in the mix, but bruising Battle can continue to be a pretty nice fill-in, and you don't find many potential NFL No. 1 rushers on the waiver wire. I mentioned Battle in last week's Free Agent Finds column, but this is a waiver period when we should see his ownership in ESPN.com standard leagues spike.

Maurice Morris, RB, Detroit Lions (0.4 percent). Jahvid Best suffered a concussion near the end of Detroit's first loss and his status for Week 7 is up in the air. Considering Best also had a concussion in the preseason, the thought here is that the Lions won't take any chances with him, and he'll sit Sunday. That's likely to lead to a backfield mishmash, but I remember last year as Best struggled with turf toe injuries as the season went along, Morris produced some pretty decent efforts, and he wound up with five rushing scores. Newly acquired Ronnie Brown (15.0 percent) could get some action, too, though he's new to Scott Linehan's system. He could be in line for short-yardage work right away, as could Keiland Williams (0.4 percent). But remember: The Lions are currently 27th in the NFL in rush attempts per game, so it's not likely you see any of these guys go crazy against the Falcons this week. In the short term, while Brown climbs the learning curve, I tentatively expect Morris to be the team's leading RB. But Brown is worth a look for the desperate, too.

Fred Davis, TE, Washington Redskins (47.3 percent). I've mentioned him in an earlier edition of Free Agent Finds, but it bears repeating: Fred Davis is a top-10 fantasy tight end. Please add him. Chris Cooley will miss multiple games because of a badly fractured index finger, so Davis has absolutely no competition for looks at the position. Against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, he had six catches for 95 yards, production that won't be atypical for him going forward. He's an excellent downfield threat in an offense that sometimes struggles to find such things.

David Nelson, WR, Buffalo Bills (45.9 percent). Buffalo is on a bye, so you're obviously not getting immediate returns from Nelson in Week 7, but I think he bears mentioning again in this space because his first experience as an NFL outside receiver went pretty well. He had six targets and four catches for 62 yards versus the New York Giants on Sunday, plus, he drew a downfield pass interference penalty. In other words, the transition from the slot to the outside was relatively seamless, and although he won't be threatening Steve Johnson for primacy in that Bills pass offense any time soon, there's good reason to believe Nelson can stick in the starting lineup in a fairly valuable role. He's worth adding in all leagues now.

Demaryius Thomas
Demaryius Thomas is still recovering from a torn Achilles, but will have more opportunities after the Brandon Lloyd trade.

Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos (0.3 percent). Eric Decker looks like the Broncos' new No. 1 receiver for the moment, if only because he stands at the crossroads of health and opportunity. Long term, however, I view Decker as a strong No. 2 receiver and think Thomas has the makings of a No. 1. Can that happen as soon as this season? I'd tend to think not because Thomas has a long road back after tearing an Achilles this past winter, and there are plenty of other candidates to steal looks. But Thomas is expected to play in Week 7 versus the Dolphins. Eddie Royal also will return from injury this week and is a pretty good bet to get first crack starting opposite Decker. But Thomas is the potential freak here: a 6-foot-3, 229-pound beast with fantastic straight-ahead speed and leaping ability. There's a 90 percent chance he won't do enough to be a fantasy starter this year. But that 10 percent chance is worth gambling on if you have a roster spot available because he has that No. 1 upside.

C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills (64.8 percent). Spiller is owned in a lot of leagues and has been a pretty big disappointment. I included him on my 10 Flag-Planted Players list this summer, before any of us knew Fred Jackson would decide to be the Fantasy MVP through six weeks, and Spiller hasn't averaged even three carries per game. But those in PPR leagues should take note because Chan Gailey says he anticipates using Spiller at wideout for the immediate future. Injuries to Donald Jones and Roscoe Parrish have left Buffalo thin at receiver, and Spiller got a bit of work as a pass-catcher moving all around various formations versus the Giants on Sunday, grabbing five throws for 39 yards. The Bills are off this week, but if you're desperate for RB help in a league where you get points for catches, check and make sure Spiller isn't on your league's waiver wire.

Dallas Cowboys defense (24.8 percent). Color me surprised that this unit was able to go into Tom Brady's lair and register 10 fantasy points without scoring a fluke TD. Four turnovers and three sacks, plus allowing "only" 371 total yards and 20 points is a truly respectable showing. Now, any Dallas fan knows that this team can't stand prosperity and can lay an egg at any moment. But this week, in a home game against the St. Louis Rams, I'm willing to take my chances. Owned in less than a quarter of ESPN.com leagues, this almost certainly will be a top-10 unit, especially if Sam Bradford can't play. A.J. Feeley would make a tasty aperitif for DeMarcus Ware.

Other acceptable bye substitutes, about whom I've written in previous weeks: Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Tennessee Titans (51.2 percent); Earnest Graham, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (66.0 percent); Tashard Choice, RB, Dallas Cowboys (1.4 percent); Ben Tate, RB, Houston Texans (52.3 percent); Delone Carter, RB, Indianapolis Colts (33.8 percent); Donald Brown, RB, Indianapolis Colts (1.6 percent); Montario Hardesty, RB, Cleveland Browns (15.4 percent); Greg Little, WR, Cleveland Browns (8.0 percent); Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Oakland Raiders (51.4 percent).

Deeper League Finds

Danario Alexander
Danario Alexander showed No. 1 receiver ability Sunday, but he gets bumped down a bit after the Rams acquired Brandon Lloyd.

Danario Alexander, WR, St. Louis Rams (4.4 percent). The Brandon Lloyd trade renders Alexander's sleeper status somewhat moot. I liked what I saw from Danario -- albeit mostly in a come-from-behind, mop-up situation -- on Sunday's game tape: This kid isn't just a downfield flyer. He's also a tough receiver at the point of the catch who'll go over the middle, and, at 6-5, 217 pounds, he's no fun to tackle. As I said before the Rams traded for Lloyd, I was ready to proclaim Alexander as a waiver-acquisition candidate in all leagues. But now there's not even a guarantee he'll play in two-receiver sets, as St. Louis also likes Brandon Gibson. Deep leaguers can add him; everyone else should put him on watch.

Eddie Royal, WR, Denver Broncos (0.6 percent). With Lloyd gone, the Denver offense is in flux, to put it mildly. Obviously, Tim Tebow is the biggest story, and we'll have to discover on the fly whether he can make fantasy stars out of any wideouts with his funky delivery. But Royal looks ready to return from his partially torn groin and is a decent bet to start opposite Eric Decker in two-receiver sets while Demaryius Thomas gets his legs under him. As I mentioned above, Thomas is my favorite to break out, and eventually I think Royal will gravitate back to the slot alignment that best suits his talents. Deep leaguers can take a shot on him, regardless.

Greg Salas, WR, St. Louis Rams (0.0 percent). Remember Danny Amendola? Salas is a rookie and isn't nearly as polished as injured Amendola, but he is apparently the new slot receiver in St. Louis. On Sunday, he had 10 targets and eight catches for 77 yards, and although things won't always be so rosy (especially if Sam Bradford can't play this week against the Cowboys because of his high-ankle sprain), Salas likely is headed for quite a lot of looks. He's probably not a great option in standard-scoring leagues, but if you're in a deeper PPR format, this is a kid worth taking a chance on. As the others battle for outside receiving spots, it seems likely that Salas is locked into the slot for the moment.

John Beck
John Beck replaced an ineffective Rex Grossman this past week and even ran for a TD.

John Beck, QB, Washington Redskins (0.4 percent). The Redskins just can't go back to Rex Grossman. Can they? Grossman was at his gunslinging worst versus the Eagles on Sunday, crushing any hope of a comeback in D.C. by tossing three third-quarter interceptions. Mike and Kyle Shanahan talked up Beck all summer, to the point that I was convinced he would win the Week 1 starting job, but I think this kind of performance from Grossman is really all the Shanni need to make a change. Beck ran for a score versus Philly, but that's not necessarily his game. He doesn't have great weaponry and, in his brief regular-season NFL history, has shown extreme jitters in the pocket. I have doubts this will go well, but if you're in a two-QB league, you can do worse.

Christian Ponder, QB, Minnesota Vikings (0.1 percent). You know that stuff I just wrote about Grossman? Doesn't that go double for Donovan McNabb? No, his numbers from Sunday night's blowout loss to the Chicago Bears don't look horrible: 19-of-24 for 177 yards, no TDs and no INTs. But he was sacked five times, basically giving himself up after barely being hit on a couple of occasions, including once on a safety. And if a guy completing nearly 80 percent of his throws can be said to be inaccurate, Donny Football was inaccurate. He rarely hit his guys in stride and had a few more of his patented bounce-at-your-feet tosses. Ponder wasn't much better in his fourth-quarter cameo, and the Vikings are headed for a 3-13 type of season. They have a terribly constructed receiving corps and an average-at-best offensive line. But again, if you're in a two-QB league, Ponder is worth an add just because I have to believe he'll be starting as soon as this week against Green Bay.

Other acceptable bye substitutes for deep leaguers, about whom I've written in previous weeks: Bernard Scott, RB, Cincinnati Bengals (5.0 percent); Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle Seahawks (12.2 percent); Torrey Smith, WR, Baltimore Ravens (22.2 percent); Jacoby Jones, WR, Houston Texans (10.5 percent); Jared Cook, TE, Tennessee Titans (6.0 percent).

Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.