Believe in Ridley, Romo, Newton

Playoff question marks; what's wrong with tight ends, receiving running backs

Updated: December 14, 2012, 4:00 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

This week on the Fantasy Underground podcast (also available on iTunes), Field Yates and I talked about Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Pierre Garcon, Vick Ballard, Montell Owens and the impact of Cam Cameron's firing. I also gave a list of five overvalued players for 2013. Here are 10 other topics:

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

Five In Depth

1. Ten Downfield WRs. Fourteen weeks into the season, a fantasy analyst has to have a foot in two camps: sizing up the changing December landscape to help those still alive in their playoffs and looking ahead.

For me, a methodology that works on both levels is analyzing wideout target characteristics. Which wide receivers are getting the most looks down the field, and has that changed lately? Big plays can be the lifeblood of big fantasy upsets, as anyone who has been riding the Cecil Shorts bandwagon knows well.

Here are the 10 players who have seen the most targets that have traveled more than 20 yards in the air and their success rates on those throws:

Seeing both Tampa Bay Buccaneers wideouts in the top five is most illustrative. Josh Freeman has taken many big shots, a philosophy that offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan brought over from Eli Manning and the New York Giants. If we want to get a clue about Wallace's disappointing season, it comes in the form of a poor conversion rate on deep throws; the Pittsburgh Steelers' deep threat had only 22 such targets in 16 games last season, so the notion that Todd Haley won't call the deep ball seems misguided. I should also note that Larry Fitzgerald is 13th on the list of targets that travel more than 20 yards but that he has caught only one such target. One-for-20! Think those Arizona Cardinals quarterbacks have struggled?

Now let's look at the past three weeks to get a sense of who is potentially getting hot down the field lately, since all NFL teams have finished with their bye weeks:

There's another look at Fitz's futility and proof that Megatron eats deep double coverage for a midday snack. How about Lance Moore getting lost deeper in coverages lately, perhaps as compensation for Jimmy Graham's struggles? Rice is avoiding concussions after big hits and beginning to look like the guy Brett Favre used to such great downfield effect in 2009. Plus, for all the deep speed T.Y. Hilton has, Avery is getting more downfield use lately, though he'd do better if he didn't let long passes carom off his facemask, as he did in Week 14.

2. Why I Have Faith in Stevan Ridley. Believe me, I don't like it any more than you. I'm programmed to mistrust Bill Belichick (and, for that matter, Mike Shanahan) when it comes to running backs. Sunday night's matchup against the San Francisco 49ers presents a nasty challenge to the New England Patriots running game. Can Ridley really continue his stellar fantasy play against one of the NFL's roughest front sevens?

In a word: Yes. And this is absolutely not about me disrespecting the Niners D. It has consistently been rough on opposing rushers. By my metrics, it has held opposing backs below their average fantasy-point outputs in each of the past four contests; you have to go back to Week 10 and Steven Jackson's surprise 101-yard, one-TD output at Candlestick to find a running back who outdid his moving average.

No, this is more about believing in -- or being suckered by, depending on your perspective -- the Pats' commitment to running and to Ridley. He is not a breakaway runner and depends on volume to get on a roll, but Ridley is a powerful slasher who reminds me of a later-career Corey Dillon (i.e., without the top-end speed). Ridley's matchup Monday night against the Houston Texans was also supposed to be Kryptonite, and he didn't sweat much, racking up 72 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. The game was out of reach early, and Ridley didn't have a carry after the 7:23 mark of the fourth quarter.

Heck, the Pats have faced some pretty decent run defenses lately, and it hasn't affected Ridley:

My defensive ranks involve how good a defense is at preventing an opposing rusher from reaching his average fantasy-point output over the past five weeks; by that measure, I have the 49ers at No. 6. From a top-level perspective, they're a greater challenge than anyone on this game log except Houston, so I understand my fellow ESPN.com rankers' skepticism when it comes to Ridley. But I think back to the BenJarvus Green-Ellis days in New England, when a short touchdown was in the offing just about every week. There just aren't enough safe running back options around the league to sit Ridley, a player who benefits from a huge workload and a high-octane, TD-crazy offense, just like the Law Firm used to do.

3. The Decline of the Receiving RB? We have to be careful not to build a one-year phenomenon into a permanent trend, as I discussed last week in regard to elite quarterbacks becoming must-draft first-rounders. But the numbers -- and the "sniff test" -- indicate that 2012 hasn't been a good one for the top pass-catchers out of the backfield. Take the top 10 receiving running backs of last season. Every one of them is on pace to see fewer targets in 2012:

I'll admit the cases of Sproles, McCoy, MJD and Stewart require special analysis because of injuries. Sproles was on pace for 119 targets before he broke a bone in his wrist, and McCoy was on pace for 80 targets before his concussion. However, MJD and Stewart were on pace for lesser receiving seasons even before they got hurt, which would have made 8-of-10 "decliners" on this list (7-of-9 if the retired Tomlinson is removed).

In addition, when you look at this year's top 10 receiving running backs, the raw totals at each slot are lower than their previous season's equivalent:

In other words, seven of 2012's 10 top running backs in terms of pass targets are on pace for lower target totals than the man who finished at their equivalent rank last season.

A league-wide calculation of how many passes have been thrown to running backs is no less illustrative. The NFL is on pace to have 3,206 passes thrown to backs this year. According to research I did using Stats LLC's database, that would be the lowest total in the NFL since 1992. Granted, last season's number was 3,301 targets, which means we've seen "only" a 3 percent drop in a calendar year. But looking at the historical data, you see that throughout the '90s it was common to have 3,800 or 3,900 passes thrown to running backs. Even throughout the '00s, that number was typically in the 3,500 region. So for however pass-happy today's NFL is, there's actually been a radical downturn in the number of passes thrown to running backs in recent years, and that downturn hit a 20-year low this season. That's something to keep in mind as we evaluate elite receiving RBs this December and into the future.

4. Tight Ends Are the New Kickers. Last week in this column, I talked about how the "Year of the Tight End" has fizzled. But I'm not sure I emphasized just how stupid and random this position has been for fantasy owners this season. Sure, you can point to Week 14, when Anthony McCoy was the only tight end to reach 100 yards receiving and Tony Scheffler and Rob Housler were two of the only four tight ends (along with Aaron Hernandez and Jimmy Graham) to see double-digit targets. But none of that is particularly unusual; there are many weeks every season where random TE infiltrators bust into the upper statistical echelons. No, the thing that's been most maddening about this position in 2012 has been the roller coaster nearly every viable tight end has ridden.

I decided to look at the week-to-week "deltas" of each of the current top 20 fantasy tight ends -- that is, how much their fantasy point totals changed from game to game. The results were extraordinary. These 20 men have combined for 234 game-to-game deltas (i.e., Week 1 compared to Week 2 would be one delta, Week 2 compared to Week 3 would be another delta, etc.). That accounts for 12 deltas per player, minus six games lost to injury (Rob Gronkowski has missed three, while Jimmy Graham, Owen Daniels and Antonio Gates have missed one). Of those 234 deltas, 99 of them were six fantasy points or more. That means that on a weekly basis 42 percent of the time, the top 20 tight ends saw their fantasy point totals rise or fall by at least six fantasy points. And 22 percent of the time, they saw their weekly output rise or fall by at least 10 fantasy points. Ridiculous, no? Here are those top 20 TEs:

Wouldn't it almost be better if your fantasy tight end fell off the planet, rather than bouncing up and down on a pogo stick? Now, touchdowns play the biggest factor here, especially with tight ends who tend not to get tons of targets. If you score a touchdown one week and don't the next, you're being punished by this evaluation technique. Yet I still think this helps quantify how unreliable this position has been in 2012. I mean, we're talking changes of 10 fantasy points occurring nearly one-quarter of the time! That can't be explained away only by TDs!

5. The Philosophy of Playoff Risk. I wish I could give you a catchall blanket strategy for how to deal with injury risks in your fantasy playoffs. The fact is that some of the partially broken players you're considering for your lineup this weekend are going to backfire in Week 15. I'm not sure if it'll be Robert Griffin III and his knee, Dez Bryant and his finger, Cecil Shorts and his concussion, Ahmad Bradshaw and his knee, Roddy White and his knee, or Hakeem Nicks and all his lower extremities -- some of those guys (and others) will play valiantly and perform for you, and some will falter. They won't falter because they're not tough -- with few exceptions, every single person who has ever played in the NFL is physically tougher than you or I will ever understand -- but rather because the pain is truly intolerable, because their teams are trying to save them for a future game or because they simply can't move around at full capacity.

But we fantasy players are still left with conundrums, however fake or silly they may be. (Believe me, I do this for a living, I know how fake and silly it is sometimes.) Do we count on the injured player or players or replace them with lesser options?

As I say, I don't have a blanket recommendation. It's such a personal thing. How much risk can you tolerate? Which scenario would bother you more: the one where you start your injured star and he has to leave the game early or the one where you sit him and he goes "wacky-tobaccy"? And how good is your potential replacement? I mean, if I have Bryant and am trying to decide whether to use him, it certainly makes a difference if I have Danario Alexander ready to fill in or Nate Washington. In the former case, I'm more risk-averse because I've got what I figure will be a reliable replacement. In the latter case, I'm more like, "Dude, what's the difference? Might as well give Dez a crack."

Whether I consider myself a favorite or an underdog in my playoff matchup plays a role. If I have a team filled with other high-upside studs, maybe I just want to make sure I get something from the position in question, so I sit Dez. But if I look at my matchup and figure I'm a major underdog, I might be likelier to try and hit a home run, even at the risk of striking out.

I can tell you in regard to the specific players I mentioned, I'd say my level of concern -- from highest concern to lowest -- goes like this: Bradshaw, Bryant, Griffin, Shorts, White. When I ranked players this week, Bradshaw was the guy I really dinged hard for his injury, and as the week has gone on, I've felt more and more like I ought to recommend David Wilson in his stead. However, unless Bradshaw is declared out, it's tough to promise that Wilson gets a full workload. I lowered Bryant a bit from where I'd normally have him but still ranked him as a starter in most fantasy leagues. The other guys I pretty much left where I usually put them, though I acknowledge, for example, that RG III's mobility could be hindered.

In the end, though, this is about your own personal tummy and how much it's bothered by the possibility of fantasy football disaster.

Five In Brief

[+] EnlargeRomo/Bryant
Tim Heitman/US PresswireTony Romo could be in for a big game this week, with or without Dez Bryant.

6. Don't Bench Tony Romo. You may look at Romo's Week 15 matchup against the Steelers and worry, and it's true that Pittsburgh has consistently represented one of the toughest defenses for opposing quarterbacks to face. Before last week's game against the San Diego Chargers, it had held each opposing quarterback below his five-week moving fantasy points average since Week 6. But I don't think it's a coincidence that Philip Rivers produced a decent day Sunday, even if it was a tough performance to predict beforehand. Top corner Ike Taylor missed the contest with a hairline fracture in his leg, and he'll be out this week too. CBs Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen (Taylor's starting fill-in against the Chargers last week) are suffering from hip injuries, and while they might go, they don't figure to be at full health. New nickel corner Curtis Brown was benched last week for ineffective play. Certainly Bryant's finger drama will have a bearing on Romo's performance but not enough for me to fear using the Dallas Cowboys quarterback. He has averaged 45.5 pass attempts per game over the past month, and Dallas shouldn't be afraid to throw it on this group Sunday.

7. Cam Newton Update. I ranked Newton as my No. 1 QB of Week 15, and it felt like an overreaction. Yes, he has exceeded 27 fantasy points in three straight weeks, but he'd gone over 15 points in only four of 10 previous starts and has thrown for 300 yards in a game just thrice. When he doesn't run, he's not an elite fantasy quarterback, and from Week 5 to Week 11, he ran for exactly one touchdown. But there's so much uncertainty with just about every other quarterback at this moment that I was willing to give the red-hot Newton the nod. Yet I want to go back to the anchor piece I wrote for our Draft Kit this summer. I began that article expecting to dislike Newton for this season, viewing his 14 rushing touchdown and insane September 2011 as fool's gold, but the more I looked at it, the more I believed that Newton was a relatively safe second- or third-round draftee. I said his floor was this stat line: 3,500 passing yards, 20 TD passes, 15 INTs, 500 rushing yards and five rushing TDs. At the moment, Big Cam is on pace for 3,963/20/12/788/9. It's true that there have been more ups and downs than his fantasy owners would have liked; if we'd projected his final stat line after Week 11, it would have been 3,832/14/16/630/6. But in VBD terms, even that line would have made Newton a top-five QB last year, and would have made him worthy of a late-second- or early-third-round pick. As I said this summer, the greatest thing about Newton is that he is a rushing quarterback who minimizes risk because of his size. If I'm choosing between him and RG III next year? Wow. I might go Cam, because of the injury factor.

8. Heath Miller Tortures You. The Steelers knew all about garbage time last week. With nine minutes left in the game, the Chargers led 34-10 in one of the weekend's big shockers. Thereafter, Ben Roethlisberger racked up 138 of his 285 yards, and Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown registered meaningless touchdowns -- meaningless, that is, except for their fantasy owners. But it was Miller who broke hearts. From the Chargers' 44 with just over two minutes to play, things started well, with a 13-yard pass to Miller over the middle. A couple plays later, though, from the 27, Big Ben dropped back with 1:46 left and found Miller on a post, hitting him at the 12, watching him run over Corey Lynch and almost get away from Eric Weddle and seeing him stretch the ball toward the goal line. The replay official took a look at it, and I still think Miller might have crossed the plane as his knee touched down, but there wasn't conclusive evidence to overturn the call. So Pittsburgh had it on the 1-inch line. As though to right a karmic wrong, Roethlisberger threw to Miller again, a simple stop route in the end zone. He was wide open, the pass was perfect, and Miller leapt ... and simply dropped the pass. Truly brutal if you were watching that game hoping for garbage points. Brown scored his touchdown on the next play. In the end, I'm firmly of the belief that Roethlisberger's return is a great thing for Miller, but last Sunday afternoon, fantasy was a cruel mistress indeed.

9. Colin Kaepernick's Day. You can't argue with the 50-yard touchdown run that put Sunday's win over the Miami Dolphins out of reach. It's a clear part of why Jim Harbaugh picked Kaepernick over Alex Smith and highlighted the ridiculous acceleration the young quarterback boasts, which is pretty impressive for a 6-foot-4 player. But the 49ers' game plan that day was pure Smith. I counted one attempted bomb that Kaepernick threw on a flea flicker and that Randy Moss probably should have caught at the goal line, but there wasn't a single other pass that traveled more than 20 yards in the air. Only five of his 23 attempts traveled more than 10 yards. The gunslinger from that Monday night Chicago Bears game last month is rarely seen now, yet it was clear during a two-minute drill to end the first half Sunday that Kaepernick absolutely can lead an aggressive passing attack. In a three-minute span, he hit Michael Crabtree on an intermediate out, took an aggressive shot to Moss in the middle of the Dolphins zone and made a smart throw to LaMichael James on a wheel route. Mostly, though, we see the same constipated attack based on throws across the field to the opposite sideline and checkdowns to unexciting underneath stuff. As impressed as I am with what I see in Kaepernick's arm and smarts, I just don't see a fantasy starter in most leagues. If he doesn't run for that touchdown last week, he winds up with seven fantasy points. Maybe someday the reins will come off; heck, maybe they'll have to come off Sunday night in New England. For now, though, the San Francisco offense, while good, just isn't what it could be.

10. Now or Never for C.J. Spiller. For the second straight season, Fred Jackson will end the season on injured reserve. You'll recall that Jackson's broken leg in Week 11 of 2011 was the impetus for Spiller's breakout. From Week 12 forward, Spiller's average contest looked like this: 18 touches for 105 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. Since his huge first two weeks of 2012, Spiller has quietly been something of a fantasy disappointment, with an average line of 13 touches for 85 total yards and zero TDs. Heck, since those first two games, Spiller ranks 18th in the NFL in rush yards, one notch behind the villainous Ryan Mathews. And no matter what Chan Gailey says about his strategy in bad weather, it's hard to watch the game tape from Weeks 13 and 14 and not think that Jackson had re-passed Spiller for the lead RB job. There's been nothing I've seen from Spiller that explains this turn of events. I didn't see him blow any obvious pass protections or lose any fumbles lately. Gailey apparently just really likes Jackson, a Buffalo Bills team leader, and doesn't mind that he is far less explosive than Spiller. But with Jackson out of the picture, Gailey pledged in a news conference that Spiller will be his guy and that Tashard Choice isn't someone he is prepared to rely on for any kind of sizable workload. Has Gailey fibbed about his backfield before? He sure has. But now it feels like he is out of viable options. Spiller should see his biggest opportunity since getting 17 and 18 touches in Jackson's absence during the season's first two games, and I ranked him eighth among running backs this week.