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Friday, October 19, 2012
Updated: October 20, 5:39 PM ET
Is Andre Johnson still elite?

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

This week on the Fantasy Underground podcast (also available on iTunes), Field Yates and I discussed Chris Johnson, Matthew Stafford, Doug Martin, Felix Jones, Antonio Brown, Mike Williams, William Powell and Josh Gordon. So you won't find discussions of those players here. Here are 10 other topics:

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

Five In Depth

1. What's Eating Andre Johnson? If you'd told any experienced fantasy owner that Andre Johnson would be tied for 30th in fantasy points among wide receivers after six weeks, they would have assumed that AJ had gotten hurt. That Johnson isn't even the highest-scoring WR named Andre (come on down, Andre Roberts) is a sharp punch to the gut. Things were better in Week 6 in a blowout loss to the Green Bay Packers, as AJ had a season-high 12 targets, but he failed to find the end zone and is stuck on a pace for just five TDs.

Interestingly, the game tape shows that the Packers came out for Sunday night's first play in a single-safety-high defense. It was just one play (Green Bay went to its two-deep shell on the very next snap), but if I'm Matt Schaub, I would take a shot to Johnson every single time I saw one safety back. (On this particular play, the target went to Owen Daniels.) When this game was competitive, Schaub clearly did endeavor to keep AJ involved, but it was exclusively via short passing. Now, some of that is inevitable. Packers corners were playing soft and off for most of the first half, giving up shorter hooks and outs and then tackling him. But heck, at this point I think Johnson's fantasy owners will take that, and of course, that's how you wind up with eight catches for 75 yards. We'll take 8-for-75 every single day of the week and simply hope that Johnson finds his way into the end zone every so often.

Andre Johnson
Andre Johnson's numbers so far are mildly disappointing, but he's still got plenty of good games ahead of him.

If I'd written up AJ before Week 6, I'd have expressed more concern, because previously it hadn't been a priority to keep him involved on every possession. I don't think we can be so reductive as to say, "Oh, the Houston Texans were playing crummy teams in the season's first month and they didn't have to throw." In the first and second quarters even against bad teams, the way you build a lead can be by throwing. For example, against the Jacksonville Jaguars back in Week 2, yes, there was more safety help on AJ's side, but the corners were playing just as far off, and Schaub looked for Daniels almost by default. Seeing the renewed emphasis on AJ even when the game was tight Sunday night is heartening.

In the end, though, Johnson's status as an elite fantasy option rests on two things: his ability to make big plays and his ability to score TDs. I think the TDs will come, but there's really no proof: TDs aren't predictable. But in order to make chunk plays with AJ, the Texans probably need to throw it to him deep, which they haven't done. Alarmingly, he has only six targets all season that have traveled more than 20 yards in the air. Last year he had 11 in basically six games. It's not that some other wideout or even Daniels is replacing Johnson's deep targets. Nobody is getting them. Schaub has only 14 such shots this year, as opposed to the 33 he took in 10 games last year. That's why there's some legit reason for concern about whether AJ is still super-elite. Still, as soon as this week against a Baltimore Ravens defense missing its only proven corner (Lardarius Webb), the increased AJ workload, even on shorter stuff, should continue to pay off. I'm not selling low on this guy, and he's in my starting lineup.

2. Peyton Manning's Deep Ball. After Week 2, I wrote about Manning and claimed that "the conversation about Manning's arm strength -- which was exacerbated when the Denver Post reported that Brock Osweiler was warming up to throw a Hail Mary if needed -- is probably overstated" and "it's revisionist history to proclaim that Manning always threw tight spirals with the Indianapolis Colts." Three games later, we don't hear too much clamoring about Peyton's arm strength anymore, do we?

I can go two ways on this. Maybe there was some legit concern that after all those neck surgeries, people really were watching Manning throw and thinking, "Boy, he doesn't have the deep ball anymore." Or maybe the knee-jerk analysts did what they always do, which is look at the results (in this case a three-INT first half against the Atlanta Falcons), assume something is terribly wrong, and then work backward to retrofit a convenient solution. You can make up your mind which was the case after that Week 2 Monday night game. All I can say is having watched every throw the guy has made on tape, I don't see any appreciable difference between his arm strength now and "way back when." Does that mean he's back to being "the perfect QB"? Not at all. In my opinion, he's jumpier in the pocket than he used to be, and stronger pass defenses have been able to bait him into the occasional mental error. But his arm? His arm is fine.

Need statistical proof? Here's what Manning's numbers look like when he attempts throws to different depths:

That 11-for-21 performance on passes traveling more than 20 yards in the air is the second-best completion rate in the NFL, behind only the 7-for-13 performance of Alex Smith before Thursday night's game. You're not hearing any talking-head questions about Manning's arm strength right now because he entered his bye week coming off a stirring second-half comeback Monday night. But even if the Denver Broncos struggle and those questions start up again, don't you believe them.

3. Deep-Ball Receivers. While we're thinking of pass attempts that travel different depths, let's take a look at the wideouts who've gotten the most work on throws that have traveled more than 20 yards in the air. While this profile of player won't always automatically lead to fantasy glory, it doesn't hurt. After all, "downfield" equals "more chunk yardage" and "long-TD potential." For the purposes of this chart, I'm including only WRs with at least 20 total targets so far in '12:

Here they are: Your ultimate boom-or-busters. Only five of these 10 players are on the every-week starter radar screen: the Smiths, the Jacksons and Floyd. As their owners can attest, owning these guys can be an up-and-down affair. The reason is obvious: It's harder to connect on the deep stuff, and sometimes it just isn't there. But when it is there, the rewards are big.

Of the five remaining WRs here, for the moment Hixon really only has a fantasy role if and when Hakeem Nicks is limited, and Meachem and Henderson have each shown up for exactly one game, perhaps something they learned while huddling on the bench back in their halcyon days together with the New Orleans Saints. Givens and Baldwin are intriguing young players whom dynasty leaguers already value highly.

From a fantasy strategy perspective, I like the idea of pairing one of those five possible starters (the Smiths, the Jacksons and Floyd) with a steadier wideout -- a Wes Welker or a Percy Harvin -- for an optimal balance of upside and risk. A player like Welker may wind up with precisely the same number of fantasy points as a player like Vincent Jackson, but on a weekly basis they're likely to take vastly different paths getting there.

4. Does "Slot" Equal "Safe"? I just made a point about balancing a risky WR with a "safer" one, but how does one locate a "safe" receiver? Retroactively, you can certainly look at week-by-week point performance to find the guys with less variability by looking at the smallest standard deviations among the top 40 fantasy WRs to date:

However, with only five or six games' worth of data for each of these players, I'm not sure if this list isn't simply a better representation of "guys who haven't scored very many touchdowns yet." After all, Floyd appears both on the "deep-ball specialist" list above and this list of small standard deviations. The explanation for that is partly that Floyd is a consistent element in the San Diego Chargers' offense, but it's also partly that he hasn't scored a TD since Week 1, so his point totals have been consistently pedestrian.

Maybe the "safer" receivers are the guys who line up in the slot. That's where high-volume receptions WRs tend to roam, running routes that are most easily completed by even noodle-armed QBs. According to ProFootballFocus.com, here are the 10 leading slot WRs so far this season in terms of actual catches made after lining up in the slot:

I'm not sure we've done much to prove that these players are safer, but it's a happy accident to discover that four of the current top five WRs in fantasy have run more than 60 percent of their routes from the slot! We're still constrained by a small sample size, where a couple TDs can skew things wildly. Still, remove Amendola (who didn't play for most of Week 5 and all of Week 6 because of injury), and our remaining list of nine has some pretty stereotypically "safe" names (Welker, Cruz, Wayne, Cobb, Harvin), albeit ones who've actually performed with great upside so far in '12. For me, that list is a who's who of safe wide receivers, such as it is.

A couple ancillary notes: Even with Nicks out, Cruz is running a strong majority of his snaps from the slot. To date, because Nicks hasn't been playing at full strength (or at all), this hasn't hurt Cruz's upside: He's got a whopping six TDs. However, one argument for the repeatability of Cruz's immense '11 season was that he'd run more as an outside receiver, and that isn't happening. I don't know that we'll ever get to see Nicks playing at full strength for a long stretch this season, so maybe this assertion is academic, but I'm still skeptical Cruz would be a top-10 fantasy WR in his current role with a star outside receiver also playing for the New York Giants.

Finally, we should also note that the only player on our top-10 slot list who doesn't run a majority of his snaps from the slot is Calvin Johnson. That tells us the Detroit Lions are committed to getting Megatron the ball in a ton of different ways, and while more slot snaps might mean fewer chances at big plays, it should also mean a steady stream of weekly targets.

5. Is Andy Dalton an Every Week Fantasy Starter? Field Yates and I discussed Dalton on the Fantasy Underground podcast after Week 3, and we concluded that despite a couple strong weeks of production after a terrible season opener, the Cincinnati Bengals' passing offense was too dink-and-dunk for Dalton to keep it up.

Well, in two of three games since, he's kept it up. Since our conversation, Dalton has 21, 11 and 19 fantasy points, averaging 286 yards passing, two TDs and two-plus turnovers per game. I get a lot of questions about Dalton: Why don't I consider him for my QB top-10 list? Why would I fear Week 7's game against a depleted Pittsburgh Steelers defense? Don't I feel any brotherhood with a fellow redhead?

Andy Dalton
Andy Dalton may have a great wideout in A.J. Green, but is he completing many passes to other Bengals?

Listen, first of all, I ranked Dalton 11th among QBs this week. It's a bye-depleted skein of games, and the Steelers have been a roughly neutral opponent for opposing fantasy quarterbacks this season. But the larger point holds: I'm not that into Dalton. Since we discussed him on our podcast, Dalton has thrown 12 of 77 passes (15.6 percent) that have traveled more than 20 yards in the air. That's an improvement over his first weeks, but he still sits at 9.7 percent for the season, almost exactly the same number he posted in his rookie season, when he was 24th among QBs in that stat. As I seem to say a lot in this column, throwing it down the field doesn't automatically mean fantasy greatness and failure to do so doesn't mean you stink. But your margin for error is smaller.

How has Dalton done as well as he's done in '12? A.J. Green is a big ol' eraser for sure, and that's an argument in favor of Dalton's fantasy stock: Green made a circus catch over the middle in the second quarter of last week's game, a pass Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward would've picked off, and Green pretty much caught a jump ball over a staggering Joe Haden for a 57-yard TD bomb down 34-17 late. In addition, we should mention the Bengals' O-line, which according to ProFootballFocus has allowed seven sacks but only 26 hurries, and those 33 total pressures are second fewest in the NFL. But Dalton has also done it with several short-catch-long-run plays that are tough to repeat. In addition, with the game still in reach last week (down 27-17), Dalton threw a lazy pick-six to a poaching Sheldon Brown, a case when he had time to wait and throw it farther, but latched on to Brandon Tate as a target. And in situations where his pocket eventually does break down, my sense is that Dalton just isn't all that effective.

It was good to see Dalton make a few big completions where the throw was a major part of the yardage gained last week, because that hasn't often been the case with him. But I can't get on board with Dalton as an above-average fantasy QB when everyone is off bye, because too much dink-and-dunk combined with too many turnovers (11 in six games) isn't a recipe for fantasy glory.

Five In Brief

6. Buy "Low" on Adrian Peterson. I know, I know, I've totally changed my tune from this summer. But that's what you have to do when the evidence proves you wrong. There's never been a RB who's come back from a late-season torn ACL like All Day, and maybe there never will be again. (Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL seven days after Peterson, he couldn't play in the season's first three games, and now he's dealing with an Achilles injury that could be related to his knee.) Anyway, I can quibble with AP's tape at the fringes -- maybe he's not quite as hard a cutter as he was in previous seasons -- but overall he's just been excellent, and I'm allowing myself to return to my pure love for the guy. He's No. 8 among RBs in fantasy scoring so far, but his play has actually been better than that: He's got only two rushing TDs. While it's a legit concern that Harvin steals red zone carries every so often, I'm not at all concerned about it. Peterson has six carries inside an opponent's 5, which ties him for third in the NFL. More revealingly, he has nine runs of 15 yards or more, which ties him with Stevan Ridley for most in the league. If someone in your league wants to trade you Peterson as though he's some diminished version of himself, I say jump on it.

7. How Do You Solve a Problem Like Hakeem Nicks? Upon hearing that Nicks was able to practice on back-to-back days this week, I bumped him up to No. 20 on my WR list for the week. I wish I could go higher. The Washington Redskins have been the easiest defense for fantasy WRs to score against over the past five weeks, and Eli Manning will be looking for blood after two garbage performances against his NFC East rival last year. But when we heard Nicks would suit up last week, we assumed it meant he was close to full strength, and many of us put him in our lineups, only to be gob-smacked with three grabs for 44 yards and a postgame assertion that he felt awful running around out there. My fellow ESPN rankers are evidently less concerned about Nicks, with none of them putting him below 13th on their WR lists, so maybe I'm just being a nervous Nellie. Conservative as I tend to be about stuff like this, I'd almost be OK missing a big game from Nicks, provided I have a decent alternative, just to avoid the possibility of getting stuck with another four-fantasy-point outing. But that comes down to personal philosophy. If you can stomach the risk, there aren't many higher-ceilinged players this week. I wouldn't be shocked to see a healthier Nicks score three TDs.

8. A Deep-Sleeper Tight End? I find it interesting that Kellen Davis, who has all of eight catches and 18 fantasy points on the season, has seen significant work down the seam for the Chicago Bears. Davis was a Super-Deep Sleeper of mine this summer, and mostly he's stayed asleep, but in watching some other stuff in Chicago's film this week, I ran across several plays where Jay Cutler decided to take a shot (sometimes ill-advised) at the behemoth Davis streaking down the middle of the field covered by a linebacker. Indeed, according to Stats, LLC, Davis has seven targets that have traveled more than 20 yards in the air; no other tight end has more than five. Of course, the 6-foot-7, 267-pound Davis has caught only two of these throws (for 46 yards and a Week 2 TD in a game the Bears were losing 23-3 to the Packers), so maybe I'm completely barking up the wrong tree. Indeed, catching eight passes on 18 total targets is a crummy conversion rate that might get Davis booted from the game plan. But it's at least interesting to note that the team seems to see the same things I've seen in Davis: that he's another one of these freak TE athletes. I'm not saying add him. I'm just saying let's see if he gets more involved.

9. Brief Evaluation of a Player You've Basically Never Heard of, RB Edition. Baron Batch didn't figure to see much action last Thursday night, but Mendenhall went out with his bad Achilles and Isaac Redman took a shot to his ankle, which meant Batch was pretty much "it" in the second half against the Tennessee Titans. He wasn't awful. He's a smaller, quicker guy, kind of a Willie Parker type without the young-Willie long speed, and there were a couple of times where he made decisive cuts in traffic that got him either good yardage (a 10-yard gain) or a TD (he converted one of two carries from the Titans' 1). Unfortunately, he also seemed to have highly nervous feet, which tends to lead to less decisive runs and more losses; indeed, six of his 10 runs went for 2 yards or fewer, though some blame should also go to a suddenly injury-depleted O-line. Both Mendenhall and Redman have already been ruled out for Sunday, so I expect Jonathan Dwyer to be more of a lead back than Batch. But while Batch isn't a pile-mover, he does have a chance to make plays because of his quickness. In a deep league where you're relying on Mendy, adding Batch to your bench isn't entirely wrongheaded.

10. Brief Evaluation of a Player You've Basically Never Heard of, WR Edition. I mentioned Chris Givens earlier because he's been a "situational deep threat" for the St. Louis Rams over the past month. A rookie, Givens doesn't have more than three catches in an NFL game, so he's another guy you shouldn't be adding just now. But whereas Josh Gordon is getting pub for some deep TDs and is getting misinterpreted as a burner (he's got great speed for his 6-foot-4, 220-pound size, but he's a 4.5 guy), Givens truly is one of the fastest straight-ahead-running young WRs in the NFL. A track burner who fell in the draft because of past knee injuries and complaints about his sizable ego, Givens has proved to be way too fast for Greg Toler, Richard Sherman and the entire Miami Dolphins secondary on deep balls. Don't get me wrong: Gordon -- who could lose playing time this week to a recovered Mohamed Massaquoi and Travis Benjamin -- is a higher-upside prospect because he fits the "Moneyball" pattern of a huge guy who runs quite well. But Givens has Mike Wallace potential someday. He's started running shorter routes, too, and has seen his targets climb from three to five to seven over the past three weeks. Again: Not an addable player, but unlike with Batch, I'm actually excited about Givens' future.