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Rethinking my rankings

8/23/2013

The first thing you should know is that I really like Christina Applegate.

I mention that up front because the story I am about to tell you might come across as negative toward her, and I don't want it to. Seriously, I think she's awesome. I would completely work with her again in a heartbeat if I were ever asked to.

Yes, again. In case you're not aware, long before I was able to make fantasy sports my living, I was a writer on "Married... with Children." My title was "story editor," which is Hollywood-speak for a low-level writer, but I worked on 28 episodes of the show, co-writing five episodes (getting credit for four, long story), including the 250th episode and the last original episode of the show to air (though not what is considered to be the "final episode"). I loved that show, loved working on it, and the cast was amazing. All of them brilliant (and underappreciated) comedic actors with the ability to turn bad jokes into laughs and good jokes into huge guffaws. There is no questioning their talent. And if you ever wanted a super-cool girl to have a beer with, you could do a lot worse than Christina Applegate.

Our story begins with one of the episodes my writing partner, Eric Abrams, and I wrote. One of the plot lines of this particular episode involved Kelly, who (on the show) was an aspiring actress who often got parts in bad movies with roles like "Biker bimbo No. 5" or some such. Anyway, in our episode, she gets an audition for a role in "Cat Fight: The Movie." It was a female boxing movie. At the time, female boxing had become somewhat popular, and, 250 episodes into "Married...," we were willing to try anything as long as it was somewhat new. So we wrote this scene in which, while at the gym training for the movie, Kelly runs into her archrival, a cut-from-the-same-blond-dye-bottle named Heather. Turns out Heather is up for the same role; they talk trash to each other; and eventually they decide they will box each other for real, with the loser dropping out of the audition, giving the coveted role to the winner. Of course.

I tell you all this because the role of Heather is actually important to our story. If you've seen the show, this won't shock you, but most female guest roles on "Married... with Children" were not very rewarding. They were generally one of two things: an obese woman who came into Al's shoe store and was made fun of by Al and Griff, or a stereotyped bimbo for Al, Jefferson, Griff and/or Bud to ogle and lust after. But this role was different. The role was Kelly's biggest rival, so it was three big scenes with Christina, with lots of funny jokes and insults to deliver and a showy set-piece scene at the end. Sure, it also involved boxing in tight spandex -- I mean, it's still "Married... with Children" -- but whatever. This was a very good guest role, and we got submissions from a higher caliber of actress than was typical. In fact, lots of great actresses auditioned for the role.

Now, one of the cool things about working on "Married..." was that they let the episode's writers be involved every step of the way. You got to sit in on casting, help with the final edit, etc. This is not typical of most shows with lower-level writers.

So, OK, we do the audition, and we see actress after actress vying for this role. Many are very good, but one comes in (I'll call her April) and just knocks it out of the park. She's fantastic. Plays it perfectly between hostile enough to be a real rival to Kelly, but funny enough so that you're enjoying the interplay as insults fly back and forth between them. Plus, she's great-looking, never a bad thing on "Married…" and important to the plot if we're to believe she's a legit rival to Kelly. We've heard these lines, like 20 times in a row, yet she has us legitimately laughing really hard. Audition finishes, we are profuse in our praise to her, she thanks us, the casting agent says, "We'll let you know." We turn to our executive producer.

Me: That's our winner.

Executive producer: Let's see everyone who came by.

Me: Of course, we should see everyone who came in, but April's the clubhouse leader. It's not close.

So, we see the rest of the actresses, and none of them comes close to April. The last girl leaves and the casting director turns to us.

Casting director: What do you think?

Me: Gotta be April. She was the best.

My writing partner: Definitely.

Casting director: I agree.

Executive producer: I think we should hire Lisa.

I'm surprised, and I quickly consult my notes.

Me: Lisa? She was good, but not as good as April. Not even close.

We look to the casting director for help. We're low-level writers, not about to go toe-to-toe with the show's executive producer.

Casting director: I gotta agree with the guys here. April's your winner.

Executive producer: I hear you, but it's ultimately my call and we're hiring Lisa. (To the casting director) Go hire her, please.

The casting director looks at us and shrugs with a "What are you gonna do?" look. He leaves the room, and we turn to face our boss. Why, we respectfully ask? Did you not just see the same audition we all did? And that's when our boss gave us, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story. "She was too good. That's the problem."

What? He explained. "Look, this is a big Christina episode. We've seen this before. When Christina has to carry the storyline by herself, she gets nervous. And that other woman is too good. If we hire her, she'll come to the stage and she's like a new shiny toy. All the guys on set will be all over her, flirting with her, fawning over her; she's gonna get big laughs, and everyone will be talking about the new girl and ignoring Christina. And when that happens, Christina will get even more nervous and she just retreats. She gets into her own head too much, she's not as confident and we'll get a bad performance out of her. We need someone good and pretty for the role, just not as good or as pretty as our star."

I was shocked by this, of course, but you know what? My boss was right. Now, I should say that I never saw Christina behave like he had described; she was amazing in every episode I worked on. Of course, she was also never put in a situation like this one we were proposing, where she wasn't a rock star, so who knows? My boss had been on the show for a number of years, so I assume he was telling the truth. The key point, and the correct one, is that having a great guest part is nice, but she's our star, she's the one the audience loves, she's the one we need to make look the best.

I had been given new information. With that new information, I re-evaluated what was important, and, although April was amazing, she wasn't right for everything that was needed with the role. The girl we did hire did a solid, professional job;, Christina hit it out of the park; and all was well.

I was thinking of this story this week because, much as I did back in that casting office, I've been re-evaluating things. Given new research, some preseason games, more coaches talking, more data points, more information, more everything, I've been able to re-evaluate certain things. Like my rankings. What I thought once has changed now that I have more info on certain players. So, through the first two games of the preseason, let's talk about guys who have risen in my most recent ranks and guys who have fallen.

The risers

The obscure Patriots: They're not going to be obscure for long. I'm speaking specifically of Zach Sudfeld and Kenbrell Thompkins. Going undrafted a few weeks ago, these guys have shot up my rankings. If just showing up is half the battle, then three-quarters of the battle is showing up with Tom Brady throwing the ball your way. Sudfeld is the biggest climber for me as I now have him as a top-eight fantasy tight end. You heard me.

Did you see this Mike Reiss mailbag about Sudfeld on ESPNBoston.com? In essence, Reiss discusses the possibility of a Rob Gronkowski-Sudfeld tandem. He writes that, although Sudfeld doesn't have the elusiveness of Aaron Hernandez, he does have a bigger catch radius, and 6-foot-7 Sudfeld alongside 6-6 Gronkowski makes for a very interesting red zone package. Sudfeld is tall and athletic and has great hands and a pretty good quarterback, so there's no reason he couldn't put up top-eight numbers. Last year's No. 8 tight end was Owen Daniels, who had 716 yards and six touchdowns. You're telling me Sudfeld can't get that? Last year, the Patriots attempted the third-most passes to tight ends, despite Gronk and Hernandez missing a combined 12 games. And they've thrown the most passes to tight end in the past three years. Again, I ask you... You're telling me Sudfeld can't get 700 yards and 6 TDs? Add in the possibility of him being the Patriot's No. 1 tight end if (when?) Gronk misses time, and the upside is too great to ignore. TE is so deep that, if he doesn't work out, you can find another guy on the waiver wire. But the upside is worth the 12th-round pick, no doubt.

I have less to go on with Thompkins except that he is drawing rave reviews for his practice performance, he played the second-most snaps (behind Danny Amendola) with Brady in their second preseason game and, from what I've seen of him, I'm impressed. He's got a real shot at being the No. 2 receiver behind Amendola and, in the 13th round, where I have Thompkins, that's very much worth a flier.

Finally, I'll just say that the whole New England offense looks awesome so far this preseason, so I've moved Brady and Amendola up some, as well. I already had Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen pretty high, so they stayed put.

Michael Vick: Am I allowed to publicly discuss the fantasy prospects of Michael Vick yet? Is the moratorium over? Look, health is and always will be the issue with Vick, but now that he officially has been named the starter by head coach Chip Kelly, I moved him to 13th among quarterbacks. Between the running and the passing, Vick is the only quarterback going outside the top 10 who has legitimate top-five upside. The players around him, the high-tempo offense Kelly wants to run and his own talent make Vick (once again) a high-risk, high-reward player. I wouldn't want Vick as my No. 1 quarterback in a 10- or 12-team league, but as my No. 2 or in a deeper or two-QB league? Love the upside.

Golden Tate: I don't buy into the whole contract year thing, but given that this is Tate's walk year and consistency and maturity have been issues of his before, I believe what I hear from the local media covering the Seahawks. There has been a shift in Tate's attitude and focus. Percy Harvin's injury has helped Tate make his way up the depth chart, and, after a year in which he caught seven (or six, if you're a Packers fan) touchdowns, he's ready to take the next step in his fourth NFL season. The skills are there; he has looked great in limited preseason action; and, although I have him ranked as a 10th-rounder, right now he'll cost you just a 12th-rounder.

Maurice Jones-Drew: Guys, he's healthy. He's less than 12 months removed from leading the NFL in rushing. Whatever you think of the Jaguars' pass attack, it's better than it was in 2011, with the emergence of Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon (who will serve a four-game suspension to start the season, but that just means he'll be rested come Week 5!). When MJD led the NFL in rushing in 2011, the leading receiver of the Jags was Marcedes Lewis with 460 yards. MJD was third with 374 yards! Yeah. He won't see nearly as many eight-man boxes, and he keeps creeping up my ranks. I have him at 13 (he's currently going in the third round), and I suspect he'll be top-10 for me before the preseason ends.

Middle-round running backs: This just in! The earth is round, and there's a shortage of good running backs! So, chances are you're grabbing one or two backs in the middle rounds as your flex, for bench depth and upside plays, or as your starter if you screwed up the early rounds (Darren McFadden owners, I'm looking at you). Here are some of the middle-round guys I've moved up:

Daryl Richardson: He's going to be the starter, and, more important, I believe he'll keep the job and have success on an offense that's going to be better than you think. Not amazing, just better than you think.

Ahmad Bradshaw: Pep Hamilton ran the ball 55 percent of the time he was the offensive coordinator at Stanford with Andrew Luck as his quarterback. He wants to run the ball, and he doesn't want to get his quarterback killed, the way he was hit last year. Enter Bradshaw, who is a very good blocking back on a one-year contract. In other words, Bradshaw has something to prove and the Colts don't care if they run him into the ground.

Eddie Lacy: Think he has looked great so far, and it's not as though the Packers will lack in red zone opportunities.

Andre Brown: The Giants trust Brown more in pass protection, and he will be the red zone back, as well. This will be more of a time share than David Wilson owners want to admit to themselves. Still believe in Wilson's talent, but Brown is going to have flex value -- below flex prices.

DeAngelo Williams: Jonathan Stewart ain't right, and it's gonna be a long time before he is. Williams isn't what he once was, but he can still be very productive in this league and the price is right.

Mark Ingram: Finally healthy, I liked what I saw against the Raiders in their preseason game. Reports out of New Orleans are that they want to use Ingram even more, and people are so sick of him that he goes really cheap in drafts. Post-hype sleeper.

Giovani Bernard: He's even converting short touchdowns in the preseason! A sneaky good PPR play, he'll be more involved in the offense than you might think, even if BenJarvus Green-Ellis gets the early downs and red zone work. Every time I see him, I like him a little bit more and he scooches up the ranks.

The fallers

Arian Foster: From No. 2 to No. 6. I reserve the right to change this rank (and probably will) multiple times before the start of the season. But when it's Aug. 20 and you still haven't gotten on a field, well, that raises some flags. The marks against him: the usage (most touches the past three years), the declining yards per carry, the presence of Ben Tate, the knowledge that the Texans have Super Bowl aspirations so they'll be super-cautious with him, plus all the injury concerns. That's enough for me to feel nervous about taking him at No. 2, especially when you have lots of good, safer options to choose from. He has been hurt early on before and turned in monster seasons, so I wouldn't be shocked if he did it again. Certainly he and the Texans have the talent. And hey, I have him at No. 6. Still pretty high, but not at No. 2. At 2, he gives me the heebie-jeebies, which is too a fantasy football term.

DeMarco Murray: We know he's injury prone; we know the Cowboys don't run that much (31st in the NFL in rush attempts last year); and we're not sure that will improve a ton now that Bill Callahan is calling the plays (Jason Garrett is still the head coach). But this story from ESPN Dallas is what gave me pause. In it, they describe Lance Dunbar having a "Darren Sproles" type role with Dallas. Now, Dunbar got hurt and might miss a game or two into the regular season, but still... It tells me that, in the abstract, they don't want Murray to be a three-down back and that he won't be as involved in the passing game as some initially thought. And again, they don't run. Plus, you know, the whole injury thing.

The rookie running backs (except Lacy and Bernard): I still expect Montee Ball to be the Broncos' red zone back, but Ronnie Hillman is still in the mix and Knowshon Moreno did a very good job last year, so he might be involved, as well. At this point, nothing suggests that Ball has the every-down job to himself, but he's being drafted as if he does. Meanwhile, I was down on Le'Veon Bell before the injury, but, now that he's missing six weeks, he is borderline undraftable in 10-team non-keeper leagues. The Steelers had trouble running the ball last year (3.7 yards per attempt, 28th in NFL, and only four teams had fewer rushing touchdowns than the Steelers); the offensive line problems don't appear to be solved; and, with no Mike Wallace to stretch defenses (will Markus Wheaton step up?), expect defenses to cheat up more. Add in Todd Haley's offense that wants to throw and the expected use of Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman and this is a situation I do not want to be involved in for fantasy. I increased the ranks on Dwyer and Redman (in that order), but, man, this does not look pretty.

Trendy post-draft rookie sleeper Zac Stacy has done nothing this preseason, and the job is Richardson's. Stacy doesn't make my top 200 for re-draft leagues and the same can be said for Johnathan Franklin, who has Lacy and DuJuan Harris in front of him. I'm still ranking Franklin for now, but much lower than I did right after the NFL draft.

Vernon Davis: I'm lowering him partially because of the emergence of tight ends such as Sudfeld and Jordan Cameron with even more upside but also because of where you have to draft Davis, in the sixth. I remind you of these numbers: 14, zero, one, zero, one, two, zero. Those were his fantasy point totals after Colin Kaepernick took over. Yes, now there's no Crabtree and Davis had a great postseason, but we have no idea what the loss of Crabtree will do to Davis' production. It could be negative just as easily as it could be positive. Plus, all this talk of Davis lining up wide has people excited about him, but did you know he actually lined up as a "wide receiver" last year some? Per ESPN Stats & Information, he had 242 snaps last year when he lined up as a wideout. The result? Twelve receptions, zero touchdowns, 200 yards. Small sample size, sure, but then again, so was the postseason.

Darren McFadden: OK, I know, it's easy. He's injury prone. He was bad last year. Yeah, yeah, but the fact still remains that it's true. Did you see that game against the Saints? Seven sacks? McFadden gaining just 17 yards on five carries (3.4 yards per carry)? That offensive line looked brutal, and the loss of left tackle Jared Veldheer is bigger than you probably realize. I've seen McFadden go at the end of the second round in some drafts. I've now ranked him outside my top 70. I still might be too high on him.

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