During the past four weeks, there are seven players in the NFL that are averaging 10 or more targets per game. Some of the names, you probably would expect: Mike Williams, Anquan Boldin and Dwayne Bowe. Loyal readers of this column might not be surprised to see Darrius Heyward-Bey, Kellen Winslow and Pierre Garcon as members of this group. The seventh member of this group, Greg Little, is probably a shock to even the greatest NFL die-hard fans living outside of the Greater Cleveland area.
A trendy deep sleeper entering this season, the Cleveland Browns rookie wide receiver should be something larger than a blip on your fantasy radar; he should be on the verge of being added to your fantasy squad. While his fantasy points for each of his past four games (5, 7, 3 and 2) aren't overly impressive, at this point of the season you should also be concerned with the quantity of opportunities for players on teams that appear to be dropping from playoff contention.
The Browns are sitting at 3-4 and find themselves two games behind the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals and 2½ games behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North. Despite the fact that the Browns have five games remaining against those three teams, it's pretty safe to say that this year will remain in the "rebuilding" category.
In case you haven't noticed, Colt McCoy has thrown the ball 286 times this season, which means he's averaging almost 41 passing attempts per game. Only three quarterbacks have more passing attempts: Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford and Cam Newton. While McCoy isn't in the class of the other three, his production has been severely hampered by his 5.7 yards per attempt, which is the third-lowest among starting quarterbacks, besting only Blaine Gabbert and Tim Tebow.
What you should read from this is that the Browns are using this season to evaluate just how good McCoy can be. They will continue to let McCoy air it out, which will serve to accelerate his growth and give the Browns' scouting staff time to make a definitive determination on whether McCoy can be the face of the franchise. As this occurs, it is a logical jump to expect the Browns to foster a growth of chemistry between Little and McCoy. Based on the fact that Little was targeted just 4.3 times per game in the season's first three games and 10.0 times per game in his past three games, it's apparent that process has begun, which means it's time to increase Little's ownership rate in ESPN.com leagues from the current 6.4 percent to something more significant.
Receiving yardage is variable because so much of it is dependent on where the quarterback elects to throw the ball. The variations in the number of times a player is targeted by his quarterback may greatly alter a player's value. It's important to look at the underlying target metric on a weekly basis to determine which stud performances were flukes and which dud performances can be written off to a bad day. With that in mind, the table below not only lists those players who are averaging seven targets a game during the past four weeks, but also provides the standard deviation of the game numbers. Players with a low deviation have a similar number of targets each game, while players with larger deviations have larger swings in the number of targets seen on a game-to-game basis.
The following is a list of players who are averaging seven or more targets per game during the past four weeks. An "N/A" designation in the standard deviation column simply means the player's data set does not have enough points to have a standard deviation determined.
Most Targets, Past 4 Weeks
Some general observations on last weekend's games:
Sidney Rice, Seattle Seahawks (14 targets, 7 receptions, 102 yards): A return to Tarvaris Jackson under center for the Seahawks meant good things for Rice. Having made a name for himself playing with the Minnesota Vikings with Brett Favre, Rice's production has been the definition of inconsistent, which means that his value isn't indicative of his talent. He's a great buy-low candidate.
Eddie Royal (13 targets, 6 receptions, 41 yards) and Eric Decker, Denver Broncos (12 targets, 6 receptions, 72 yards): While Tim Tebow completed just 46 percent of his throws Sunday, Royal and Decker were both frequent targets. Decker just missed a touchdown early in the game, as he failed to get both feet down on what seemed like a really nice throw from Tebow. While it's currently popular to view Tebow as an awful quarterback, be mindful of the fact that he didn't look this bad during his two starts last season, so Decker and Royal could be usable going forward.
Anquan Boldin, Baltimore Ravens (12 targets, 7 receptions, 145 yards): As bad as Joe Flacco looked during the first half of what was supposed to be an easy matchup versus the Arizona Cardinals, Flacco was aces in the second half by primarily playing pitch and catch with Boldin. Flacco and Boldin worked the back-shoulder throw as well as any duo in the league, which might mean an increase in Boldin's value going forward.
Jason Witten (12 targets, 4 receptions, 28 yards) and Laurent Robinson, Dallas Cowboys (8 targets, 5 receptions, 103 yards): If you want to know how good the Philadelphia Eagles' game plan was, look at these two players. Witten, Tony Romo's go-to security blanket, caught just one-third of the passes thrown his way, while Robinson received as many targets as Dez Bryant and Miles Austin combined. This was a coming-out party for the Eagles' defense, which should have you thinking twice about starting any receivers against the Eagles.
Brent Celek, Philadelphia Eagles (9 targets, 7 receptions, 94 yards): While the Cowboys did a fairly good job at taking away DeSean Jackson and, to a lesser extent, Jeremy Maclin, Michael Vick did an excellent job of involving Celek. That should scare defensive coordinators attempting to game-plan against the Eagles going forward.
Mario Manningham, New York Giants (9 targets, 6 receptions, 63 yards): With Hakeem Nicks getting hurt again, it's nice to see the reemergence of Manningham. While Victor Cruz has been getting all the good publicity for his solid play so far this season, don't discount what Manningham is capable of producing for your fantasy squad.
Doug Baldwin, Seattle Seahawks (8 targets, 5 receptions, 73 yards) and Jonathan Baldwin, Kansas City Chiefs (8 targets, 5 receptions, 82 yards): Though not related, the two Baldwins will be among the most-picked-up players this week. While Jonathan excelled in the Monday Night Football game, Doug did his damage in a game watched by significantly fewer viewers. That exposure will likely lead to a greater ownership percentage surge for Jonathan, who was drafted by the Chiefs in the first round of April's NFL draft. Based on play to date, that doesn't look to be justified, so if you wind up with the undrafted free agent Doug after waivers are processed, you aren't at any sort of a disadvantage.
Jake Ballard, New York Giants (7 targets, 4 receptions, 55 yards): Since becoming part of the Giants' passing scheme four games ago, Ballard is averaging 8.8 fantasy points per game. If he had been doing that since the start of the season, he would rank as the fourth-highest-scoring tight end, ahead of names such as Jermichael Finley and Owen Daniels. Anyone still think he should be owned in just 9.2 percent of ESPN.com leagues?
Big plays, up close
There were nine NFL players who totaled three or more rushes that attained 10 or more yards each in Week 8: Steven Jackson (6), LeSean McCoy (6), Knowshon Moreno (4), Curtis Painter (4), Reggie Bush (3), Frank Gore (3), DeMarco Murray (3), Adrian Peterson (3) and Bernard Scott (3).
Painter's four such rushes Sunday is the same number of big-play rushes Chris Johnson has for the whole season. Have I mentioned before that it's time to bail on Johnson? Of course, coming off a stinker against the league's worst team, Johnson's value is barely worth a share of Enron stock.
Considering that it was evident that the Detroit Lions game-planned to make Tebow throw the ball, it should be viewed as a significant accomplishment that Moreno had four rushes of 10 or more yards. More importantly, none of Moreno's 14 rush attempts resulted in negative yardage.
There were 12 players who were given two or more rushes inside their opponent's 10-yard line: Frank Gore (7), Ray Rice (5), Arian Foster (4), Marshawn Lynch (3), LeSean McCoy (3), Steve Slaton (3), Beanie Wells (3), Donald Brown (2), Steven Jackson (2), Maurice Jones-Drew (2), Rashard Mendenhall (2) and Maurice Morris (2). Of that group, only Mendenhall failed to score.
Wells is by far the best running back in the league from this range this year. For the season, he has 11 attempts that have resulted in seven touchdowns. Wells is a good back, but that level of success is unsustainable, and therefore Wells is overvalued at this point in time.
For the season inside the 10, Gore is more likely to be stuffed for negative yardage (27.8 percent) than to score (22.2 percent). The stuff percentage for Gore is bad, but Mendenhall takes it to a new level, as he's been stuffed on 30.8 percent of his carries in this range. While Gore has enough value away from the goal line to ensure he remains as a viable fantasy back, Mendenhall doesn't. With the presence of Isaac Redman looming on the Steelers' sideline, now is the time to deal Mendenhall before he loses the goal-line touches to Redman.
Ken Daube is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. For game-day insights, follow him on Twitter @KenDaubeESPNFF.