Running backs in focus

Keep eye on Spiller, Bernard, Rodgers; plus new defensive metrics, top corners

Updated: September 27, 2013, 1:49 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Don't forget I do a twice-weekly podcast called the Fantasy Underground, where Field "Mr. Brussels Sprouts" Yates and I discuss what we've seen on film, and how it relates to your fantasy team. Subscribe on iTunes; that way you'll never miss a show! And while you're at it, follow me on Twitter at @CHarrisESPN. All right, let's get to today's topics:

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

Four in depth

1. C.J. Spiller leads the RB wrecking crew. Of course it has been frustrating seeing prospective No. 2 fantasy backs such as Steven Jackson, Stevan Ridley and David Wilson give you next to nothing for three weeks. Most of their owners spent second-round picks on those players, and have gotten bupkis. But really, it's the failing first-rounders who've doomed the most fantasy squads. Of the consensus top-10 RBs, Ray Rice and C.J. Spiller have been worst, with Trent Richardson just about as offensive, and Arian Foster and Alfred Morris disappointing, but not devastating. (The other five -- Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Doug Martin, Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy -- have been just fine.) Rice's excuse is a Week 2 hip injury, and he reportedly has a good chance to suit up Sunday in a favorable matchup versus the Buffalo Bills. And going in the other direction? Spiller is the most vexing of all. The question is: Does Spiller represent a "sell" or a "buy" right now?

I'm a buyer. You can't argue Spiller has lost speed, or cutting ability, or vision. On rare occasions through three games, those have all been evident. So the problem here has been some combination of three things: (1) an underperforming offensive line; (2) bad Bills play calling; and/or (3) Spiller falling prey to the "Chris Johnson Syndrome," whereby he seems to shy away from "tougher" runs, trying to only hit homers. What does the tape show?

[+] EnlargeC.J. Spiller
AP Photo/Seth WenigC.J. Spiller was limited to just 9 yards on 10 carries against the Jets.

First off, clever Bills fans know not to be panicked about Fred Jackson "outperforming" Spiller. Jackson's numbers (11 touches, 109 yards) against the New York Jets last week look terrific, and then you watch his first carry, which was utterly stuffed at the line. Jackson plunged into the sea of humanity, about three seconds passed, and then Jackson emerged around the pile and took off. This unrepeatable play went for 59 of Jackson's 72 rushing yards, and frankly mostly showed off his lack of speed, as there's no question a more spry back would've scored a TD, and not been caught from behind. I'm not saying Jackson stinks, because he doesn't; he's a yeoman at this point in his career. He'll get more of the workload than I believed he would. He's going to be a drain, there's no question. But he's not going to be the engine that makes this running game go. That still has to be Spiller.

Has Spiller become some kind of finesse back, as was often pinned on Johnson last season? I don't think so. I'll admit, the times a Bills RB makes a really physical, punishing run, it's usually Jackson. He's apt to take on a linebacker at the second level, and try to deliver the blow. Spiller is more apt to try to use his quickness to cut around that guy. I guess if I had one wish for Spiller, it'd be to emulate the veteran in that regard. But the fact is: Neither back reached the second level much at all last week against the Jets. This O-line can get overpowered against staunch front sevens, and this week versus the Baltimore Ravens could be another such game. But I said the same thing about Week 2 versus the Carolina Panthers, and Spiller was terrific in that game. Plus he's one of those guys who just needs one big play to make his week, and he's got so much ability, that can happen no matter the opponent.

2. Which cornerbacks should you fear? So far this year, my Twitter feed has been mercifully light on CB panic, as in: "Oh, no! I've got Larry Fitzgerald facing Darrelle Revis this week, should I bench him for Lestar Jean?" I view this as a sign of progress, as it has been a rare corner over the years who automatically altered the fate of a fantasy wideout. The facts are these: (a) nobody plays man coverage all the time; (b) depending on formation, even the most reliable corners will begin a play well off the line of scrimmage even if they are matched up against an opponent's top guy; (c) when offenses see an elite corner constantly trying to take away their best outside threat with press coverage, they'll move that threat around (into the slot, in a bunch, etc.). The notion that having your WR "face off" against any corner means you automatically bench that WR has always been overrated.

Of course, that doesn't mean all coverage matchups are created equally, and there have already been cases this season where we've seen corners stick to the other team's best wideout enough to disrupt that WR's fantasy fortunes. Here are the best such performers I've seen this year; trepidation, but not panic, is allowed when your guy squares off against one of these four corners:

[+] EnlargeAnquan Boldin
AP Photo/John FroschauerRichard Sherman had his way with Anquan Boldin in Week 2 and can really lock down on a star wideout when needed.

Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks: You saw him dominate Anquan Boldin in Week 2, to the point where Boldin apparently became more fixated on trying to run Sherman into the ground than actually make a play. You may have missed him on Steve Smith in Week 1, where I counted only twice when Cam Newton threw it to Smith when Sherman was on him (once was a completion, once was a near-pick). That's not to say Sherman was always on Smith, because he wasn't. But Sherman is a utility belt of a player who can "play sides" at times, but who can follow your best WR around the field when he needs to.

Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns: Haden tracked Mike Wallace across the offensive formation when he could in Week 1, and did a terrific job, but as I say, it's never as simple as one-on-one for an entire game (there were definitely times when Wallace was covered by Buster Skrine). In Week 2, Haden definitely didn't follow Torrey Smith; he made a couple of nice plays on Smith when the two were matched up, but he covered other players too. The fact is, though, that the Browns are one of the NFL's more difficult matchups for No. 1 WRs solely because of Haden. His in-air body control is sick.

Aqib Talib, New England Patriots: Talib mostly plays sides: He's the Pats' left corner. In Week 3 against Vincent Jackson, though, I saw Talib trailing V-Jax across the defensive secondary on slants and crosses, making life miserable for Jackson. Frankly, I think New England has a little too much confidence in Alfonzo Dennard, who makes the occasional spectacular play but also commits mental errors that make you wince; if the Pats played sides a little less, I think they might be better off.

Brent Grimes, Miami Dolphins: Grimes' best game came in Week 2 against the Indianapolis Colts; he mostly plays the left side to be sure, but you won't find many players with the ball skills Grimes showed in that game, taking on the likes of Reggie Wayne and (more often) T.Y. Hilton. He belongs on the short list of players opposing QBs are starting to avoid.

Finally, I'll also give an honorary mention to Patrick Peterson. I'll wager no corner has played more straight-up man on a single receiver than Peterson did versus Calvin Johnson in Week 2. Unfortunately for Peterson, that didn't go well: Megatron wound up with six grabs, 116 yards and two TDs. Against mere mortals, Peterson is most often the Arizona Cardinals' right corner, but he's got the mano-a-mano thing in his tool kit.

3. All-in for Gio. Giovani Bernard is tied with Doug Martin as fantasy's No. 8 RB through three weeks and is inside the VBD overall top 20, but he's also got 20 fewer touches than any other man inside the top 10. So take his nice fantasy start with a grain of salt. (Three touchdowns help.) The fact remains, however, that Bernard -- the first rusher taken in April's draft -- has used his limited workload to show the full package: speed, agility, a bit of power, and open-field danger that ranks with the best of them. When we're talking about Gio's fantasy potential for the rest of 2013, we're officially not talking about his raw ability. We're talking about opportunity.

I'm not in the Cincinnati Bengals coaching room. I know that BenJarvus Green-Ellis is still fairly young (28) and is respected for being a north/south power runner and having strong ball security (though he lost a fumble that was returned for a TD last week). I don't envision a scenario where BJGE gets eliminated from the game plan. But the Bengals have to know what they've got in Bernard. He's as exciting as they come when he gets in space. He also delivers a blow when he has to. I loved his first-quarter, 3-yard gain deep in his own territory in Week 3, converting a third-and-2. The play was designed to go left, but the hole closed up. Gio cut hard away from the trouble, and tried to get around the left edge. But two defenders were waiting for him, and he had no choice: He powered through them to barely get the first-down yardage. It wasn't a highlight-reel play by any stretch, but it showed off everything this kid has.

It's a small sample size, but so far, the numbers bear out a decent physicality for Bernard, at least as it relates to the Law Firm's:

Thus far, BJGE has five carries inside an opponent's 10, while Bernard has three; inside the 5, that tally is 4-2. So while Green-Ellis will definitely still be in the mix for bunny TDs, it is a mix. Bernard is involved too (and they each scored a short one in Week 3). I'm a buyer of Bernard as at least an every-week flex, and possibly a strong No. 2 RB right away. The Law Firm isn't going anywhere for now, and that's a limiting factor. But Gio is legit.

(For a more detailed analysis of Bernard's game, check out this week's Fantasy Underground Film Room.)

4. My defense metrics make their season debut. Three games gives us enough data to start getting a sense about good and bad matchups. ESPN's Fantasy Points Against tool is a nice starting place to look at where the tasty opponents might be, but it oversimplifies the problem. Sure, the New York Giants look like they're awful against opposing fantasy QBs, but they've played Tony Romo, Peyton Manning and Cam Newton. Compare them to the Cleveland Browns, who've faced Ryan Tannehill, Joe Flacco and Christian Ponder. Can we really look at their raw fantasy points allowed and conclude the Giants are significantly worse?

I don't think so, which is why I compare a fantasy defense's performance to their opponents' averages. The Giants have faced three tough guys; have they allowed more or fewer points than those tough guys usually score? The Browns have faced three relative cupcakes; have they been able to hold those cupcakes to their low averages? Clearly, these are only metrics, and they don't tell the entire story. But couple them with film-watching and we start to get a sense of which preconceptions about NFL defenses have turned out to be untrue.

Here are the best and worst defenses against opposing fantasy QBs over the first three weeks:

This helps explain why we could see an aerial show in the Chargers/Cowboys game Sunday, and why Philip Rivers could be a sneaky bye-week fill-in if you're an Aaron Rodgers or Cam Newton owner. And it also could bode poorly for an Eli Manning bounce back in Kansas City.

Here are the best and worst defenses against opposing fantasy RBs through three weeks:

Here, maybe, is an explanation of why the Steelers have been good against QBs: because they've been bad against RBs. I'm not sure I buy that the Broncos are stinky against the run, especially because they shut down Darren McFadden so thoroughly Monday night until garbage time. (Stats do sometimes lie!) It's also interesting to note that the Seahawks would have shown up in both lists, but they allowed garbage-time points against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week. Remove the second half of that blowout, and the Seahawks would be top-five versus RBs as well as QBs. I'll occasionally publish updates to these metrics as the season progresses.

Four in brief

5. Take the Quizz. I've rarely been as surprised by game tape as I was watching Jacquizz Rodgers in Week 3 against the Miami Dolphins. In Week 2, I saw Quizz look just awful against the St. Louis Rams, bouncing off his own linemen and defensive players, and never getting traction. But boy, he looked absolutely fantastic in Miami: decisive, quick, fast, and actually tough to bring down on occasion. With Steven Jackson out, it was Rodgers' biggest NFL workload and his best statistical day, and frankly it stunned me. I was absolutely of the opinion that at 5-foot-6, he's just too small to be a between-the-tackles runner. And to be honest, his one goal-line carry Sunday was kind of sad, because he's not going to plow through a pile no matter what. Plus Jason Snelling gets involved in the passing game and in short yardage. But I feel as though this was a revelation for Rodgers. Suddenly I'm less afraid of the Atlanta Falcons running game, and in a tight spot, I'd strongly consider using Quizz.

6. Which New England Patriots WR should you really believe in? Tom Brady has been just fine in past seasons (including 2012) without top outside wideouts. But even with Rob Gronkowski coming back as soon as Sunday night and Danny Amendola likely not far behind him, Tom Terrific is going to need to get something consistent from outside guys. Kenbrell Thompkins got the glory last week with two touchdown catches, but I actually thought Aaron Dobson played better. Thompkins had a drop (and could've been saddled with another had the scorekeeper been in an ornery mood), and in all caught three of seven targets. Meanwhile, Dobson caught seven of 10 targets, four of which went for first downs. On the season, Thompkins has grabbed nine of 28 targets, while Dobson has caught 10 of 20. Obviously, neither has elite conversion numbers, and Dobson's three-drop game happened on a national TV Thursday night game. But I'm not sure what will happen when Brady starts getting people back. I don't think Thompkins is a slam dunk to stay more involved than Dobson. And that's why I'm the only ESPN.com ranker who has Thompkins and Dobson close for Week 4. Everyone else has Thompkins at least eight (and as many as 22!) spots higher.

7. Has age caught up with Tony Gonzalez? It started out really well for Gonzo in Week 3. On the Falcons' first drive, he had four catches for 24 yards, picking up three first downs. Alas, that was literally it for the rest of the game. He didn't even get another target until the fourth quarter -- a shot to the end zone that was intentionally overthrown -- and that was all. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Gonzalez ran 31 routes, the same number as Julio Jones. I reviewed every passing play on the coaches' tape, to try to find a pattern. But you know what's hard to do? Judge whether Matt Ryan should have thrown it to Gonzalez. Does Gonzo separate like a young version of himself? Of course not. But did he do so last year? Nope. I certainly saw plays Sunday where Gonzalez faced a zone and got open in the middle of the field, and just didn't get the ball. I guess Ryan liked matchups elsewhere, and I guess that has happened a bunch this year. Will it keep happening? That's so hard to say. I don't think so. It doesn't make a lot of sense. The Falcons are basically without the "real" version of Roddy White, and are focusing on Jones. Doesn't it make sense that Ryan would try to keep Gonzo involved, too? One thing is for sure: Gonzalez has to do it with volume and end-zone work, because he has no yards-after-catch ability. I'm willing to revisit, but for the moment, I'm continuing to start him. I did drop him to No. 7 among TEs this week, but that's more about Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas producing, and Gronk's possible return.

8. This is what passes for a Colin Kaepernick resurgence? Thursday night started poorly, as the 49ers scuffled through the first quarter on offense and Kap went 2-of-5 for 11 yards and a sack. In particular, ongoing troubles on the left side of the offensive line -- where tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati have had problems with coordination over the past couple of games -- really vexed the Niners. But Staley and Iupati are legit, and ironed out some stuff thereafter. Kaepernick's protection grew steadier, and on the second quarter's first drive he went 3-of-3 for 68 yards and a score. All his skills were on display: his escapability, his ridiculous arm and his smarts. From there, San Francisco cruised, and Kaepernick at least racked up 14 ESPN standard-league points. But is this all there is? Are we back to a hyper-conservative game plan that has Kaepernick throwing 23 times and carrying it on a called running play once? I'm not ready to doom Kap to an Alex Smith game plan just yet. This contest wasn't close in the second half so no QB heroics were required, plus Frank Gore had (rightfully) raised a stink about under-usage in Week 3, and got fed against a Rams D that had just been eviscerated by DeMarco Murray. Still. Wouldn't you like to see the 49ers run the pistol more? Wouldn't you like to see more read-option? Last year, the team sat on those tools for most of the second half, flashing them only occasionally, then ran over the rest of the NFC with them in the playoffs. This time, they're not going to be a surprise, but I don't view them as a gimmick, either. Here's hoping in the next couple of weeks we get to see Kap as a dual threat. It really hasn't been there so far.

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