Jackson, Moreno unlikely top-10 RBs

Updated: October 11, 2013, 1:29 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Don't forget I do a twice-weekly podcast called the Fantasy Underground, where Field "Infinite Jest" 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. The two most surprising top-10 RBs so far: I know it seems as though 2013 has been a particularly strange season for running backs. We've seen one supposed No. 1 RB (C.J. Spiller) play barely like a flex, while guys such as Doug Martin, Alfred Morris, Ray Rice and Trent Richardson haven't lived up to their high standards. Some supposed No. 2 RBs have been utter disasters, as Steven Jackson, Stevan Ridley, David Wilson and Maurice Jones-Drew have cratered. But the truth is that there's a fair amount of order so far at the top, with a couple of exceptions:

Fred Jackson is a 32-year-old running back who was supposedly buried behind Spiller. Remember when new Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone told reporters he was going to use Spiller until he vomited? (Never listen to coaches! They lie!) Now we're left in guesswork territory, not knowing whether Jackson is actually the backfield starter. Knowshon Moreno is still only 26 but has been left for dead in the Denver Broncos backfield multiple times in his four-plus-year career. Now he's the unquestioned starter for the NFL's best offense. What do we make of these two players? Are they here to stay?

Moreno's case seems clear cut. Simply put, the two youngsters who were supposed to play ahead of him this year have flamed out. Montee Ball, my preseason pick for Fantasy Rookie of the Year, shows occasional flashes but always seems to make a mistake, whether it's fumbling, failing in blitz pickup, or choosing the wrong hole. Ronnie Hillman has been less terrible than Ball and operates as Moreno's backup, but he mostly has made plays catching the ball in blowouts. Meanwhile, against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 5, Moreno's very first carry was a neon-sign indication that he's entrenched as a starter. On a second-and-20, he was stuffed at the line but kept his balance (the Cowboys challenged that he was down, but lost) and wound up spinning away from traffic to gain 16. Now, anyone who's proclaiming Moreno looks "reborn" and is somehow much faster than we remember him is, I think, whistling Dixie (or not watching tape). Moreno's terrific start is related first and foremost to defenses fearing Peyton Manning. Again and again Sunday, you saw the Cowboys essentially play six men in the box -- four down linemen and two linebackers -- so that when Manning handed to Moreno out of the shotgun, there was a ton of open space. Check out these numbers:

Whereas any other NFL running back occasionally has to face stacked defensive fronts, Moreno almost never does. And tons of open spaces tend to make rushers look like they're spry and elusive. Moreno isn't (which is why I call him "Slowshon"). But as long as he stays healthy -- no sure thing for a player who'd missed 18 of a possible 64 career games entering '13 -- things don't figure to change for Moreno. Thanks to Manning, he's locked in as a must-start in fantasy.

I wish things were so clear for Jackson. First off, we should begin with his injury history: Each of his past two seasons were ended by serious leg injuries, and he's the only RB in the NFL who's 32 or older and has a carry this season. My gut tells me he simply won't last getting 16.4 touches per game. Meanwhile, Spiller is averaging 16.6. Here's how the week-to-week workload has gone:

That, friends, is a platoon, plain and simple. (Spiller was somewhat limited last Thursday because of an ankle injury, but is reportedly healthy again now.) It would be easy for me to complain about how the Bills are using Spiller. His first carry against the Cleveland Browns was a sweep on an inside handoff, pure east/west stuff that makes him look hesitant and slow. But here's a hard truth: With 1:09 left in the second quarter, they ran basically the same play for Jackson, and he knocked it out of the park, decisively turning upfield and creating a 9-yard gain. I think I can make the argument that Jackson is just a better player in close quarters: more decisive, less prone to dancing, obviously bigger and more physical, and perhaps a better fit for a Bills O-line that doesn't create a ton of room.

That said, there's one thing Spiller has that Jackson (and most NFL rushers) doesn't. On his lone good run last Thursday, Spiller rushed right, cut back, saw Barkevious Mingo stymied at the line by Scott Chandler, and saw T.J. Ward fire too quickly up through the hole. And Spiller had the freakish acceleration to push further outside to the left, find tons of running room, and take it to the house. This week, with Thad Lewis under center, you'd expect each Bills RB to get a lot of work. Even against a tough Cincinnati Bengals front seven, I'd be OK using either guy, though I did rank Jackson slightly ahead of Spiller for the first time this season.

2. Deep shots haven't been a path to QB glory: A truism I've often lived by when it comes to fantasy quarterback analysis is: I want the guys who take shots. Winning fantasy football often means harnessing big plays, and so we tend to gravitate toward the bold and away from the game managers. Oddly, though, my impression through five weeks is that the best fantasy QBs aren't swashbuckling all that much. Who are the signal-callers we typically think of in this regard? Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady and Drew Brees come to mind as perennial shot-takers. And last year, Andrew Luck based much of his breakout season on leading the NFL in attempts that traveled 20 yards or more in the air.

We're still in the land of small sample sizes (something that vexes hyperbolic NFL analysts who desperately wish to proclaim this team "talent-less" or that division "horrible"). Nevertheless, the numbers seem to back up my impression that the best fantasy QBs aren't the ones firing it as deep so far in '13:

Outside of Rodgers, Brees and Luck, this isn't exactly a murderers' row of fantasy awesomeness. Last season, the only QB who finished in the top 10 in per-game attempts of 20 or more air yards who didn't finish as a top-20 fantasy QB was Michael Vick, and he missed six starts.

Is this a real change, or is it just the proverbial small sample size? And if it is a real change -- if downfield passing is now more the domain of the come-from-behind losers, rather than the swashbuckling winners -- does it imply a change in the way we evaluate our fantasy QBs? I'm not entirely sure. But I do know that nobody should mistake Peyton Manning and his late-career explosion in '13 for someone who's making huge long throws. Manning has averaged only 4.2 such attempts per game so far this season. That's not exactly Alex Smith territory (Smith has a grand total of nine such attempts in five games!), nor is it a condemnation of Peyton's arm strength, about which I raised questions this summer. Rather, it's an indication that Mr. Manning can hurt you without even having to bring out the big guns.

3. The vexing case of T.Y. Hilton: It would be so much easier if Darrius Heyward-Bey didn't possess the power to hypnotize coaches, wouldn't it? DHB is the Indianapolis Colts' No. 2 wideout. You don't like it. I don't like it. But for the moment, there's no escaping it. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton calls a lot of two-wide, and when he does, Hilton mostly sits. Here's the distribution of Colts formation types through five games:

Now, the Colts aren't the San Francisco 49ers (who run only 27 percent of their offense out of three-plus-WR sets) or Houston Texans (30.9 percent), but they do rank 11th in lowest percentage of three-WR sets used. For context, the Green Bay Packers run 90 percent of their offense with three-plus wideouts, and the Philadelphia Eagles do it 81.4 percent of the time. Consider that Luck is tied for 18th in pass attempts out of three-wide formations. Also consider that Hilton has run exactly 11 routes out of two-WR sets, while Reggie Wayne has run 47 and DHB has run 27. Listen, Hilton's a talented player. He runs really fast. But I hope this avalanche of numbers convinces you of one thing: No. 3 wideouts aren't created equal. James Jones plays nearly twice as many snaps as Hilton.

Of course, you don't have to be on the field more than half the time to make a fantasy impact. In fact, Hilton accomplishes this regularly. He has given you two terrific days in five games so far this year: Week 2, when he scored 12 fantasy points while racking up 124 yards, and Week 5, when he managed five grabs for 140 yards and two TDs. It's clearly not impossible for a playmaker with Hilton's raw speed to put less-than-optimal usage to great effect. Unfortunately, Hilton also has frustrated his owners with three duds, during which he managed a combined seven fantasy points.

So how do you solve a problem like Hilton? Do you just rank him as you would any other feast-or-famine speed player, like, say, Mike Wallace or DeSean Jackson? My fellow ESPN rankers seem to believe so, as they view Hilton as a must-start in just about all leagues. I guess I'm just more conservative. I absolutely believe Hilton can ride a good-if-not-elite number of snaps to some more strong fantasy days this season. But I don't believe a WR who's not on the field for half his team's snaps is likely to be week-to-week consistent.

Hey, maybe there's hope. Hilton's bomb TD reception in the first quarter Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks (against Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, who miscommunicated on the coverage) came from a two-WR formation, with Wayne wide left and Hilton slot right. Maybe the Colts will watch the Week 5 tape and decide Hilton needs to be out there more two-wide. But at the moment, they apparently prefer DHB's blocking ability to Hilton's dash. I'm quite sure writing all this will cue a huge Week 6 for Hilton in a strong matchup versus the San Diego Chargers, and launch a cavalcade of sarcastic tweets aimed at me. But I stand by what I'm saying: Unless his usage changes, Hilton is tough to trust on a consistent standard fantasy league squad. Feast. Or. Famine.

Five in brief

[+] EnlargeStafford
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMatthew Stafford is still startable without Calvin Johnson, but with a considerably lower ceiling.

4. Matthew Stafford needs Megatron? Shocker! The Detroit Lions have tried so many receivers opposite Calvin Johnson, I've told my sister to stay close to her phone. (Hey, she's got wheels.) If you choose to believe that Kris Durham's six catches over the past two weeks (including a touchdown!) are an indication of glory to come, that's your prerogative. Kevin Ogletree is in Detroit now. Ryan Broyles' big ascension to full-time work resulted in two catches last week. Nate Burleson is still out with his shattered arm. Pat Edwards is healthy and dropped a would-be deep-strike TD in Week 5. Listen, in large part, the Lions passing game can thrive almost no matter who the WRs are, because Stafford is going to throw a whole bunch of screens and short-middle hooks and crosses. The yards will tend to be there for this QB. But there are times when Stafford needs the bigger strike, and in fact is setting up the bigger strike with all the small stuff. And against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, those deeper strikes to wideouts didn't go well. Broyles had the only truly top-notch catch on a longer, patented-Stafford-zippy throw; otherwise, Stafford was having to throw to wideouts who either couldn't catch it or weren't open. Stafford tossed nine passes to WRs that traveled 10 or more yards in the air. Five were aimed at Durham, and he caught one of them (for his late TD). Broyles caught his only one. Edwards failed to catch all three of his. As I said, Stafford will probably put up yardage numbers against any defense (he tossed for 262 versus the Pack). But to ramp up into the fantasy upper echelon? Megatron needs to be in there.

5. The New England Patriots may turn out to be a good RB matchup: The Pats' first game without Vince Wilfork (torn Achilles) was a bit rough from a run-stopping perspective. Perhaps somewhat predictably, it was power back BenJarvus Green-Ellis who took advantage, often slugging up the middle. While Gio Bernard was essentially limited to two good runs (a couple of third-quarter pops that went for 9 and 28 yards), the Law Firm had carries of 14, 13, 5, 5 and 5 on his way to his first above-average fantasy day of the year. On his very first carry, BJGE zipped up the middle as one of Wilfork's replacements, Joe Vellano, was mauled out of the way. Green-Ellis ran 10 yards before a Pats defender touched him. Chris Jones was victimized near the end of the first quarter, showing poor instincts and basically running his way out of a tackle. Brandon Spikes was terrific at linebacker and often made up for the interior-line mistakes, and maybe that will continue. But a run D that did nice work against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons the two weeks prior looked more suspect Sunday. I'm not saying they'll be awful. But it'll be smart to be on alert.

6. Where's this Joe Flacco love coming from? For me, the most surprising rank of the week came at QB, where Flacco got some real love as a possible bye-week fill-in. While Torrey Smith has been a terrific story through the Baltimore Ravens' first five contests, Flacco has not. I acknowledge that last week against the Miami Dolphins, the Super Bowl MVP didn't have either Marlon Brown or Jacoby Jones and still notched 269 yards. And his season totals are weighed down by his five picks against the Bills in Week 4. But his clueless effort on a fourth-quarter third-and-22 from his own 9? He just can't hold the ball that long. He can't allow a defender to get close enough to thwack his elbow from behind, and pop up a pass that almost certainly wasn't going to generate a first down anyway. The resulting pick-six tied the game. It's that tone deafness that has defined Flacco through five games. The fact that the Ravens are 3-2 is a testament to their defense. In their rating of Flacco's passing this year, ProFootballFocus.com has given him negative rankings in four games, and I concur. The Packers were disastrous against the pass Week 1 against Colin Kaepernick, but have shored things up in three games since. For me, despite a strong connection with Smith, Flacco doesn't make a smart one-week investment.

7. I finally endorse Ben Tate, sort of: It's a weird week to say nice things about Tate. He lost a fumble for the second straight game against the Niners, though the score was 31-3 at that point, so it's tough to say he cost Houston the game. (His fumble in Week 4 against the Seahawks up 20-3 on his own 20 was far less forgivable.) And I've been a loud voice doubting the supposed platoon between Tate and Arian Foster all year. But this is a week where I could actually see starting Tate if you're in need of a bye-week flex. The reason? The St. Louis Rams are coming to town. The Rams linebackers struggle against the run, and while the D-line was better last week against the Jacksonville Jaguars, come on. They don't get full marks for that. I'll tell you this: I own Foster backed up by Tate in a 16-team league, and with Lamar Miller on bye, I'm going to use both Texans RBs. This week, that's a pie I don't mind trying to own every slice of. (In addition, if I own him, I'm taking a chance on Andre Johnson as a No. 1 wideout, Matt Schaub's uber-struggles notwithstanding.)

8. Who are you and what have you done with Brandon Jacobs? Make all the excuses you want. The Chicago Bears are missing all their good defensive tackles. The New York Giants got better offensive line play and stayed committed to the run. And certainly, Jacobs doesn't seem as if he can play more than a couple of snaps in a row before needing a rest. But I don't care about any of that. Big Jake ran like a man Thursday night. Look beyond the two short scores; those come and go via the frivolous nature of field position. But Jacobs made a few honest-to-goodness cutbacks, sliding down the line as his linemen fanned out and getting to the corner more than once. Sure, he's a lumbering ox once he gets there, but he did really good work with whatever open space he was given, and wound up with 106 rushing yards. Certainly, there was no hint that this kind of performance was left in Jacobs' body, as he'd carried it 22 times for 48 yards -- and looked positively dreadful on tape -- in his four previous games. Da'Rel Scott left Thursday's game late with an injury, but there's no question he was merely there to spell Jacobs (frequently), and if the Giants have to go sign someone else to do that, they will. The larger point of course is that eventually Andre Brown and maybe (presumably?) David Wilson will return, but that might not happen for a month. Is Jacobs now an add in all leagues? Sheesh. I'm not sure, because it's hard to reconcile Week 6 with all those crummy games before. For one night at least, though, Jake did stir the echoes.

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