Historic starts for Peyton, Graham

Plus: More first-quarter awards, Nicks' woes, Schaub's value

Updated: October 4, 2013, 6:02 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Don't forget I do a twice-weekly podcast called the Fantasy Underground, where Field "Undies Emcee" 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

Three in Depth:

1. Quarter-mark VBD. One particular tweet I'm slightly tired of receiving is the one that goes like this: "You dummy experts recommending I take a running back in the first round! Hasn't anyone ever told you it's a passing league???" And listen, if you were unfortunate enough to have grabbed Ray Rice or C.J. Spiller early, I understand your frustration. But let's all be clear about a few things: (1) Nobody ever denied the NFL is a passing league. It is, at least for now, although historically these things have gone in cycles. (2) The fact that it's a passing league inflates passing numbers across the board. So, when you look at raw fantasy point totals, you're naturally going to see a whole heck of a lot of quarterbacks. (As of Week 4, 14 of the top 20 point earners were QBs.) This is the rising tide that lifts all boats. (3) This is also why looking at raw fantasy point totals is an absolute sucker bet, and it's where the principles of value-based drafting come in. (For an introduction to VBD, here's a primer.) We need a system that compares apples to apples.

In other words: Is Jake Locker really the 20th-most-valuable player in fantasy so far? I would argue not.

Comparing each player to his position's replacement-level player (as defined by VBD), here's how your Fantasy MVP ballot should look through one quarter of the NFL season:

It's worth noting that exactly one QB has led the NFL in VBD points in the past decade: Tom Brady in 2007. That makes Peyton's pace truly historic; if he keeps this up, he'll be fantasy's MVP (and will pass for 64 TDs, which would be some kind of record or something). More pertinent for the current discussion, you'll note that three QBs register in the top 10 and five in the top 20. And exactly one pass-catcher appears in the top 10 (more on him below), with five in the top 20.

That leaves six running backs in the top 10, and 10 in the top 20. Are they the RBs we expected? Not all of them. I'd wager both Detroit Lions RBs aren't going to end up this high. But this overriding premise still stands strong: Value is where the scarcity is. Yes, it's a passing league. And that means if you can find great RBs, you're going to have an advantage.

2. Historical context for Jimmy Graham's start. To say the least, it's rare that a tight end finishes in the VBD top 10. Rare as in, unprecedented in the past decade. Here are the highest-finishing VBD TEs from the past 10 years:

In other words, it just doesn't happen. Now, before the '13 season began, I repeatedly said that taking any tight end in the first or second round of a standard fantasy draft requires him to post a truly historic season. So, if you wanted to bet on Graham producing one of the greatest TE seasons in NFL history, you could go ahead and be my guest and take him that early. But in my experience, wagering on historic seasons tends to be a losing game.

Well, through four weeks, Graham is indeed on a historic pace. If he matches his September output for the rest of the season, he'll wind up with 1,832 receiving yards and 24 TDs. Those totals would easily top the records for a tight end in each category; Gronkowski holds the yardage record at 1,327 and the TD reception record with 17. A little context here: Gronk set those records in '11, and he finished "only" 11th in VBD.

I know it's been extraordinarily fun to own Graham at this point. I own him in a 16-team league, and it's a blast. I'm not calling him a must sell because anyone who has seen the games knows Graham is just deadly on deep jump balls in the end zone. But I don't mind the idea of selling him, if you can get an elite rusher for him (and if you have an acceptable alternative at tight end), because, I'm sorry, as much as I'd like it to, this pace isn't going to keep up. Graham isn't going to score a TD every week. He's not going to challenge Calvin Johnson for the single-season receiving record, which Megatron set last year. Remember way back in Week 1 when he caught four passes for 45 yards against the Atlanta Falcons? If he doesn't score a TD that day, he hurts his fantasy teams, and I get a hundred tweets asking me what's wrong with Jimmy Graham. Bottom line: If someone wanted to offer me Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte or Calvin Johnson for Graham and a middling RB, I would probably do it.

[+] EnlargeHakeem Nicks
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsHakeem Nicks has a mere 12 receptions through four games.

3. What's the skinny on Hakeem Nicks? Nate Ravitz gave me a call this week and suggested Nicks as a topic for the Thursday edition of the Fantasy Underground podcast, and, although we had already decided to do a faux awards show for the one-quarter mark of the season, Nicks did come up, as a player producer Drew Brooks believes will bounce back. I am not so sanguine on the subject. But I didn't really get a chance to weigh in on Nate's question: Is Nicks showing a lack of separation that might help explain his atrocious start?

I clicked through the coaches' tape of every snap from the New York Giants' loss against the Kansas City Chiefs last week, trying to get a sense of Nicks' speed. The thing to realize first off, of course, is that speed was never Nicks' calling card: He ran a 4.63 at the '09 combine and has never been a field stretcher. But that doesn't mean he wasn't quick out of his breaks. And for sure, there were times Sunday when he didn't look quick on change-of-direction, as on his very first target, when Eli Manning's throw wasn't perfect but Nicks didn't really even give him a window on the deep out because he wasn't going super-hard on his out cut. Next up, Nicks did beat Dunta Robinson on a subtle out-and-up, but then let a bomb go right through his hands (the play wouldn't have counted because of offensive holding, but still, catch the ball). (By the way, how bad does Robinson look? Remember when he was considered an elite corner? Oy.)

On Nicks' first catch, a poor throw by Manning, Nicks went up and fought for a ball on the sideline. But Nicks returned the poor play on a second-quarter sack, running a short cross from the left side and just not pushing it very hard, causing Eli to hitch and allowing the defense to pop the QB in the mouth. Against "off" coverage, Nicks can run a slant and get the ball in the middle of the field, as we saw on his final two catches of the second quarter, but we've yet to witness Nicks freight-train his way through a defense; the Chiefs were OK with him making short plays and tackling him with linebackers and safeties between the hashes.

But I don't want to get carried away with the anti-Nicks talk. Manning took shots to him in the second half, even while the game was still quite competitive. At 10-7 down, Nicks saw a quartet of deeper looks (one of which admittedly should never have been thrown and was picked off, perhaps because Nicks broke off his route prematurely), including one back-shoulder throw on which the WR made a fine catch but which was called back by another holding call. Usage wasn't Nicks' problem in Week 4. And Eli bears the brunt of some "pressing" throws, when he forced it late to Nicks when he probably wasn't open.

The truth is, though, that the Chiefs seemed content to play man-on-man against Nicks without safety help over the top, daring Manning to beat them. He couldn't. That's telling. Any objective observer would agree that the Giants' primary problem is the offensive line; Manning can't get into one of his patented rhythms because every other play he's being rushed into throwing the ball before he's ready or is taking a sack. And again, Nicks isn't required to be a burner to be "himself." But my answer is: Nicks does perhaps look a bit slower coming out of his breaks. If he can't take advantage of a sweet matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday to help him get back on track, well, it just might not happen for him this year.

Five in Brief:

4. First-annual "Undies" Award winners. Listen to Thursday's Fantasy Underground podcast for all the juicy and hilarious details, during which I was apparently mean to everybody. (Not an uncommon accusation.) But in case you don't have the time, or you're just not a podcast person, here were the Undie Awards that Field, Drew and I gave for September, with an eye toward the rest of the season. (Spoilers ahead! If you plan on listening to the podcast, skip down!)

5. Can Matt Schaub really sustain two fantasy wideouts? DeAndre Hopkins had a breakout game in Week 2: seven grabs for 117 yards and a TD. Some -- but not all -- of this production came once Andre Johnson was concussed. Since then, I've ranked Hopkins as a startable deep-league option, at least as a high-upside, scary-downside flex. And he hasn't exactly rewarded me. Against the Baltimore Ravens, he caught a respectable six balls for 60 yards, but, Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, he was limited to two grabs on three targets for 27 yards. Yikes. Hopkins was essentially invisible for wide swaths of the game, beating Brandon Browner man-on-man for his first grab, and catching a short zone route in overtime. Meanwhile, Johnson had 12 targets, as the Seahawks essentially "played sides" so A.J. didn't have to face Richard Sherman all day. No question, it's fair to say Hopkins' workload will fluctuate. But the larger question is Schaub. His game plan in Week 4 was to stay away from the outside receivers, hence early looks to Keshawn Martin, Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham and Arian Foster; when Seattle took that stuff away, Schaub tried his wideouts. He didn't do it well. The San Francisco 49ers present another difficult matchup, although my game plan might actually be to try the corners before anything else. That explains why I gave Hopkins a respectable rank for Week 5 (significantly better than my fellow rankers). But Schaub's Total QBR on throws outside the numbers is tied with Carson Palmer's for 21st in the NFL. So essentially, in evaluating Hopkins, you have to weigh his ability -- which is great -- versus Schaub's slump. For the moment, I'm still giving Hopkins the benefit of the doubt. But I admit I'm wavering.

6. Why am I not higher on the St. Louis Rams' defense? I think Robert Quinn has been very good this year as a pass-rusher, making up for Chris Long's disappointing start. And Janoris Jenkins has been fine in coverage. But there's a reason the Rams have allowed huge games to DeMarco Murray and Frank Gore the past two weeks. I know James Laurinaitis is an announcer's favorite, but he's not good. The safeties are dreadful in run support, constantly taking bad angles. And you can decide Cortland Finnegan is hurt, and that explains his awful play, but he's been as consistently bad as any cornerback in the NFL this year. All this is to say, I know this unit has a dream home matchup against Blaine Gabbert and the Jacksonville Jaguars. And maybe I should swallow my concerns about the Rams' D and recommend it as a streaming solution, as my ESPN rank-mates have. But I'm too chicken. I've seen this group play too poorly. The resistible force is meeting the movable object, and experience tells me that doesn't always work out for the defense. The same holds true for the Giants and Eagles, who are playing each other. I'd rather invest in a unit I think is actually playing well, even if the matchup doesn't look as sweet.

7. Fantasy pain, thy name is Darren Sproles. We all have bad-beat stories, but Sproles provided a doozy Monday night. To be fair, his extraordinary first half, in which he converted eight touches into 124 yards and two TDs, certainly put many fantasy squads on the brink of victory when they didn't believe it was possible. But his final play of the night stung like a son of a gun. Khiry Robinson had been soaking up the garbage-time work, but Sproles entered a 21-point game on third down from the Miami Dolphins' 21. I know in one of my leagues, the Sproles owner was fractions of a point behind and simply needed one more carry and a couple of yards more to notch an improbable victory. Would Sproles get that last necessary fateful touch? Indeed, he would! Drew Brees handed it off to Sproles, who jetted up the middle for 18 yards. The Sproles owner in my league -- and many other across the nation -- had won! If Sproles had simply fallen down, the story would've had a happy ending. But he fumbled. He lost the fumble. And suddenly his final carry was not a positive but a negative. That, friends, is hurtful.

8. Brian Hoyer never looks so good as when Brandon Weeden plays. Hoyer got utterly crushed on a scramble in the first quarter Thursday night, meaning Weeden had to take over at quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. They won, but, with only a few exceptions, the Browns' offense slid right back into molasses. Weeden is just the epitome of the slow-footed, poor-pocket-presence, late-throwing guy you don't need. By comparison, Hoyer looks like that fellow he used to understudy who plays for the New England Patriots. Jordan Cameron and Josh Gordon were starting to look like potential fantasy superstars with Hoyer tossing it to them, but Hoyer tore his ACL on Thursday night and will miss the rest of the season. Does this mean you're benching Cameron and Gordon no matter what next week against the Lions? Well, no. But it definitely should make you pause. Weeden needs to prove he's capable of sustaining every-week-fantasy-starting pass-catchers. He hasn't done it yet in his brief pro career.

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