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Ah, trade deadline day. When fantasy nation's collective mind turns to thoughts of trophies.
You've got a winning record. You're cruising along. But there's a niggling notion in the back of your brain. Something's not quite right with your fantasy team. You're vulnerable. Dangit, you're vulnerable!
Sometimes, like a gun-shy cowboy or a sack-drunk quarterback, you start seeing problems that aren't actually there. I mean, Aaron Rodgers is pretty good. If he's leading your fantasy squad, I think you're probably going to be OK. But other times, you might be the owner of a fine won-loss record, but you know the truth: disaster lurks. You're a wide receiver shy. You can't rely on your tight end. You've been lucky at running back. Or you have a suspicion that the good fortune that has shone on you for three months is but a mirage.
And so you contemplate trades. Can you deal away surplus at one position to fill holes at another? Can you sell high on a player you don't truly believe in? Can you buy low at exactly the right moment? There's science to this process, yes, but there's also a heck of a lot of art.
I wish I could tell you I know exactly which players will disappoint you come December. But if I had that ability, I'd live in Las Vegas. Still, I have combed over NFL teams' schedules in Weeks 14 through 17 (ESPN.com's standard-league fantasy playoffs), and I've got my finger as near to the pulse of fantasy trends as most folks. I'm willing to make a few educated guesses. So in this article, let's look at 10 players to deal away, and tomorrow, I'll find you 10 players to trade for. I'll probably wind up being wrong on a few of them, but hopefully on the whole you'll benefit from making trades involving these players.
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers. Rivers has posted 17 or more fantasy points in five of his nine starts, which isn't terrible. But he still sits only 12th in QB fantasy points for the season, which is extremely disappointing for a signal-caller that everyone at least put inside their top six this summer. Rivers swears he's not hurt, and that he's this close to turning it around. Maybe. The Chargers offense is usually a well-oiled machine, and it wouldn't be a shock to see it recover. But I haven't seen enough of the old, accurate Rivers to recommend keeping him, and if someone in your league wants to buy on name value and the possibility of a bounce-back, I say do it. In particular, Week 15 and 16 matchups versus the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions look to me like games in which Rivers will be on the run behind his embattled offensive line. I'm guessing he finishes outside his positional top 10 by the end of the year, a shocking development for a guy in his prime who was No. 5 last season.
Steven Jackson, RB, St. Louis Rams. Jackson has three straight games of more than 100 yards rushing, and has been healthier than I expected since Week 6 or so. Jackson is right back to nearly being a top 10 back in touches from scrimmage this season despite missing most of three games nursing a quad injury, and his workload over the past five games has been second to only Arian Foster. (Jackson has the most carries in the NFL in that span.) That's already a pretty decent reason to think about selling the bruising Jackson, who's 28 and has the most touches from scrimmage of any running back over the past five-plus seasons. Then you look at his schedule from Weeks 14 to 17: @SEA, CIN, @PIT, SF. All four of those run defenses are in the top 11 in preventing RBs from scoring fantasy points over the past five weeks. There's not a plus matchup in the bunch. Hey, Jackson's a horse. But I'm skeptical he keeps this up.
Shonn Greene, RB, New York Jets. Since a dismal effort in Week 4 versus the Baltimore Ravens, Greene has been slow and steady. He's still stuck on only two TDs for the season (and none since Week 5), but he's got at least 75 yards from scrimmage in five straight games, as the Jets have stopped monkeying around with their other backs and have given Greene at least 15 touches (and an average of 20 touches) per game over that span. It could be easy to peddle this guy as the focal point of a "ground and pound" offense that's stayed persistent with the run lately, and one that faces a few weak-looking rush defenses (Denver Broncos, Buffalo Bills, Washington Redskins) in the next three weeks. But I don't like the way Greene's fantasy playoff schedule shapes up in Weeks 15 and 17, when he'll face a suddenly stronger Philadelphia Eagles run defense (they've allowed 3, 8, 19 and 6 fantasy points to opposing RBs in their past four games) and a consistently strong Dolphins run D. Not only that, but I just think it's getting tougher and tougher to justify Greene's lack of TDs. He has scored six times in 37 career regular-season games. Eesh.
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks. In back-to-back weeks, against the supposedly stout run defenses of the Dallas Cowboys and the Baltimore Ravens, Lynch has gone off to the tune of 40 combined fantasy points, 244 yards rushing, 66 yards receiving and two TDs. Why, it's a career renaissance in Seattle! Sorry, I'm not buying. You might be able to get even more for Lynch after he takes on the Rams in Week 11, but why risk it? He's got a balky back that's already caused him to miss a game, his offensive line is ravaged by injury and not particularly talented, and his 3.9 yards per carry reflects his pedestrian situation. Lynch is doing this through sheer dint of will and volume, and that's not a great sign for a guy with an achy back. I'll also add in nasty matchups against the Chicago Bears in Week 15 and the San Francisco 49ers in Week 16. I'd worry that fantasy teams relying on Lynch to get them through those weeks will wind up disappointed.
Dwayne Bowe, WR, Kansas City Chiefs. Matt Cassel required hand surgery after Sunday's loss to the Denver Broncos, and will be out indefinitely. That means Tyler Palko will start under center against the New England Patriots on Monday night. While in general I tend to think any time a QB is going up against that Patriots defense makes for a potentially tasty matchup, you'd have to have stones to use Palko, and the Chiefs' aerial weapons seem destined to suffer as well. As K.C. inevitably sinks back into the AFC West morass, there's a chance rookie Ricky Stanzi gets looks under center, and none of this sounds like a recipe for success for Bowe, Steven Breaston or Jon Baldwin. I'm not telling you to dump Bowe on some poor sap who hasn't heard the news yet about Cassel. That's mean. But you can sell your fellow owner on Bowe's talent potentially winning out against the odds. (After all, didn't Larry Fitzgerald just have a big week with John Skelton throwing him the rock?) The truth is, though, I don't like this situation for Bowe at all.
Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons. You know what doesn't sound good to me? A 22-year-old kid who played three collegiate seasons potentially hitting the rookie wall just as his hamstrings seem to be abandoning him, and playing a December schedule against tough pass defenses. Jones missed two games with an injured hammy earlier in the year, tweaked his other hammy in practice last week, and then had to leave Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints in the first half and couldn't return. Play all this down to receiver-needy teams in your league, and point to Jones averaging an impressive 16.6 yards per reception, which puts him well among the top 20 wideouts so far this year. He's already got three 100-yard receiving games, and a two-TD game. In truth, I think Roddy White reasserts himself as December rolls around, though with a schedule that consists of the tough Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars pass defenses in Weeks 14 and 15 and neutral matchups against the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers thereafter, I won't be surprised if the Falcons stick mostly to the run.
Eric Decker, WR, Denver Broncos. Decker has a TD in three straight games and has seven scores overall this season, making him a candidate for Sleeper of the Year. I just can't see it continuing. The Broncos can't possibly maintain a 55-to-8 run/pass ratio going forward (that's the insanely run-heavy game plan Denver used to beat the Chiefs in Week 10), but with Tim Tebow under center (and it certainly does look like he'll be under center for a good long while now), it's hard to envision enough downfield passing to make any Broncos receiver startable. I grant you, defenses are apt to nearly faint with surprise when Tebow goes play-action, as the K.C. defense did on Decker's long score. But I can't stake my fantasy playoff fate on the possibility of one valuable throw per game aimed to my starting receiver. Point to Decker's numbers, and deal him.
Mike Williams, WR, Buccaneers. I'm not sure how much you're likely to get for Williams, who finished 12th in fantasy points among receivers in '10, but who currently sits tied for 58th. But maybe you can use him as a throw-in in a larger deal, and convince your trading partner that they're getting a high-upside lottery ticket with a proven history. The truth is that I can't believe how dissimilar the Bucs' offense looks this year compared to last. Josh Freeman has less time, looks more skittish in the pocket, has far worse accuracy, and defenses are sitting on Williams and forcing others to beat them. With a fantasy playoff schedule that looks like this -- @JAC, DAL, @CAR, @ATL -- there isn't a positive matchup in the bunch. Never say never, but I find it hard to believe Williams will be anything but disappointing the rest of the way.
Antonio Gates, TE, San Diego Chargers. Listen, obviously Gates is a valuable fantasy commodity. I'm not trying to tell you he's a bum, or that he belongs outside fantasy's top five tight ends going forward. But I don't like what I see from him when he runs. He's slow off the line, slow getting out of breaks, and slow after the catch. He's still got fantastic hands and his quarterback's undying trust, so the targets and receptions are likely to be there. But will we see Gates-esque production, the kind that Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski seem to be providing most weeks? I have my doubts. Plus San Diego plays a skein of defenses in the fantasy playoffs that have defended opposing tight ends well over the past month: BUF, BAL, @DET, @OAK. Don't give Gates away. But if you can get something great for him, I'd consider it.
Jets Defense. Similarly, you're not giving away this elite unit. It's scored the second-most fantasy points in the game so far this year, having produced sacks and turnovers at a high rate. But this group has also given up 30-plus scoreboard points four times in nine contests. That's a shaky number, which makes you believe perhaps the emperor's clothes aren't quite as sparkly as they're reputed to be. Yes, Darrelle Revis is amazing, David Harris is a great thumper, and Aaron Maybin has been a revelation as a pass rusher over the past month. But who else really stands out as a great player? The secondary, in particular, has all kinds of problems, even if you accept Antonio Cromartie as an above-average player, which I'm not sure I'm prepared to do. Given a schedule that includes back-to-back fantasy-unfriendly offenses in Weeks 15 and 16 (the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants), I'm worried at least a one-week blowup could be in the offing, the kind that can submarine a fantasy favorite. As with Gates, I'm not necessarily looking to get out from under the Jets' D. But if someone comes calling, or if I can sweeten the pot to get a truly elite player? I'd have to think about that.
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. He is also the author of the newly published football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com.