Can you trust Rice, Andre Johnson?

Updated: October 18, 2013, 12:51 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Don't forget I do a twice-weekly podcast called the Fantasy Underground, where Field "Don't Call Me T.J." 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. Breaking down Ray Rice. You want to talk about alarming numbers? Rice has them. He's averaging 2.8 yards per carry this season. (If Trent Richardson did that, there'd be a riot.) He's on pace for 53 catches, which would be his lowest total since his rookie year. And his "contact" metrics are awful. According to ESPN Stats & Info, of 42 qualified running backs, Rice is 37th in average yards before contact, and 39th in average yards after contact. He's 32nd in fantasy points among RBs; his 19-fantasy-point outing against the Miami Dolphins two weeks ago (during which he averaged 2.7 yards per carry) accounted for more than half his points all season.

The Baltimore Ravens' very first offensive snap against the Green Bay Packers last week illustrates so much of what's going wrong here. The Ravens came out in a formation that screamed "Run!": unbalanced to the left side, with Billy Bajema set back in the tight end slot and extra guard Ricky Wagner on Bajema's outside. The Pack responded with eight in the box. Rice didn't have a fullback in front of him, so we were looking at 7-on-8 for the Ravens, and you've got to be rolling pretty good on offense to make this work. In fact, if I'm Joe Flacco, I'm strongly considering checking out of this play, even if there would only be two receivers running routes. Anyway, Flacco stays in this simple run to the left, and left guard Kelechi Osemele gets to the second level but whiffs on A.J. Hawk. Adding to the problem is that Marlon Brown is asked to dive in all the way from the outside and block Morgan Burnett, which is basically impossible unless Burnett decides to wait for him. Rice has nowhere to go. It doesn't matter if his hip feels great. It's a 2-yard gain.

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Doug Kapustin/MCT via Getty ImagesRay Rice had little success running the ball against the Green Bay Packers.

On the Ravens' second play, Flacco was entirely at fault, looking downfield for too long and finding nothing, delaying before he finally threw a screen to Rice; by the time he threw the pass, Jamari Lattimore was all over Rice. And yes, I'll give Rice some blame: There was a second-quarter run (at 9:13, for those of you who have GameRewind), when if Rice had seen how far upfield Mike Neal had taken his pass rush, he would've cut left and found a huge hole. Instead, he plowed straight ahead for no gain.

But make no mistake: This is mostly not about Ray Rice. There are crazy breakdowns up and down this Ravens offensive line. How does a middle linebacker simply get ignored on a sweep, and meet Rice in the backfield? How does Flacco check to plays when Vonta Leach is not in to lead block, and the Pack is showing pure run blitz? Johnny Jolly's return has been a nice story for the Packers, but there's just no excuse, on a second-and-goal from the 2, for Jolly to be slicing into the backfield to meet Rice (Wagner was the culprit on that one). And Leach himself did a crummy job on the third-down play around the right side (though it would've been called back for a Wagner holding penalty had Rice scored).

OK, so it's mostly not Rice's fault, plus he's reportedly healthier now after dealing with that hip injury. But this is cold comfort for those who invested in Rice as a first-round pick. They want production. Is there potential for better results moving forward? That, unfortunately, is where I have to be more equivocal, because it's about whether John Harbaugh can get his line to play better. The Pittsburgh Steelers, this week' opponent, are not the same run-defense team you remember. The New York Jets didn't get in the end zone against them last week and only had 83 yards rushing, but they were awfully close to some bigger running plays (including some read-option plays when if the opposite choice had been made, a big play would've resulted). But by the same token, the Jets' line is playing better right now than the Ravens'. The good news is that Rice probably mostly isn't at fault here. The bad news is we need to see better work in front of him to feel confident. I lowered Rice to No. 13 in my RB ranks this week, his low mark for the season. I'm still probably starting him and hoping for better. But I admit better isn't automatically coming.

2. Has Andre Johnson really been a disappointment? Clearly when the consensus preseason No. 9 fantasy wideout (and my No. 8) currently sits at 33rd in fantasy points per game among WRs, disappointed people abound. The Houston Texans' quarterback situation has grown morose, with Matt Schaub playing poorly and now sitting in favor of Case Keenum this week against a difficult Kansas City Chiefs defense. There's enough reason to panic on AJ. But I'm not there yet.

Check out the leaders in receiving yards per team game played so far this year:

One of these things is not like the other. Johnson ranks eighth in WR receiving yards per game -- and third in WR receptions per game -- but because he hasn't found the end zone, the overall results look gnarly. As you can see in this week's WR ranks, I'm the only one still treating AJ like a No. 1 fantasy wideout. And that's understandable! The touchdowns haven't been there, and the Texans' QB situation is a mess.

The great thing about AJ in theory is that you can do anything with him. Heaven knows he can go deep. But he's also intelligent enough to know -- as on his first catch in the first quarter last week against the St. Louis Rams -- that when the corner nominally covering him blitzes, he should break off his route into a short cross, which Schaub hit for a 19-yard gain. His second catch, with the game still close, he had Matt Giordano right on his back, but caught a post-up play anyway, adding to the notion that even when he's covered, he's open. Would I like to see Johnson get loose on a long one to add to his 12 career TDs of 40-plus yards? I sure would; so far this season he's got only four targets that have traveled more than 20 yards in the air. (Last year he had 24.)

As I've said, clearly the major problem is AJ's lack of TDs. Here's a breakdown of where he's scored from during his career:

Basically, he'll get you from anywhere. But of course he hasn't yet this year, and that's been frustrating. Instead, DeAndre Hopkins has five red zone targets (to Johnson's three) and the only red zone score among Houston receivers, while Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham have accounted for 12 such targets and five such scores. And what adds to this issue is how frequently the Texans have turned the ball over, and had recent games get out of control on them as a result.

But really, there's just nothing you see on tape -- or in the numbers -- to make you believe Johnson is anything other than himself. I know this Chiefs matchup looks bad. I know Keenum is the starter, and his next regular-season NFL throw will be his first. But I'm keeping AJ in a fantasy lineup. He's just that much better than all but a handful of players who play his position, and healthy, I just can't bench him. Not yet, anyway.

3. What do you do with a breakout like Keenan Allen? You could actually argue that at the moment, Allen is the exact opposite of Andre Johnson. He's red-hot. He's found the end zone and topped 100 yards receiving in each of the past two games. So just as there's a temptation to forget exactly who Andre Johnson is and what he's capable of, there's a temptation to believe that it will ever be thus for Allen. And let's be clear: While I'm not succumbing to that notion, this is very much a player I like. As I've written elsewhere, Allen was my second-favorite wideout at this year's combine, someone no less than Bill Polian compared to Reggie Wayne. I do like this player, very much.

[+] EnlargeKeenan Allen
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziKeenan Allen did score the only TD on Monday night, but can you count on him consistently the rest of the way?

So this comes down more to philosophy. At what point do we start treating a rookie wideout like he's a clear fantasy starter? I think it's pretty clear based on this week's ranks (and, um, my entire career) that my threshold is higher than most folks'. Allen did a nice job running around the Indianapolis Colts' secondary on Monday night, but realize that every one of his catches except for his TD was some kind of underneath route. Seven of his nine catches traveled fewer than 5 yards in the air. That's not a knock on Allen, but the next step in his development will be to prove that he can do more than excel when a defense is laying way back. By contrast, Vincent Brown is used more as a downfield threat when Philip Rivers throws it outside.

The bottom line, though, is that it's just really difficult for rookie wideouts to stay week-to-week consistent. Here's a list of rookie wideouts who scored double-digit fantasy points in a game last year and then followed that up with zero the next week: Alshon Jeffery (twice), Justin Blackmon, Stephen Hill, Chris Givens, Ryan Broyles, Mohamed Sanu, Brian Quick and LaVon Brazill. This year Kenbrell Thompkins, DeAndre Hopkins, Tavon Austin, Aaron Dobson, Justin Hunter, Robert Woods, Terrance Williams and Kenny Stills have all had roller-coaster fantasy rides, too. It's not like it's impossible for Allen to become a trusted fantasy weapon. But history tells me it's more likely that Brown will step up one week, Allen the next, and then neither will do anything as Antonio Gates takes a lead role.

That said, I understand that the Jacksonville Jaguars appear to be a nice matchup for the entire San Diego Chargers passing game. They did a good job limiting the (perhaps merciful) Denver Broncos' stable of WRs last week, but gave it up to the Rams and Seattle Seahawks in the two previous weeks. I absolutely understand the temptation of wanting to bet with a winning streak. Just remember what happened to Jeffery this year, after posting 15 catches for 325 yards in back-to-back weeks and entering a delicious Thursday night matchup against the New York Giants. He caught one pass for 27 yards.

Four in brief:

4. Is this finally Eli Manning's week? If it's ever going to happen for Eli, you'd think Monday night at home against the Minnesota Vikings would be the time. Manning posted 28 fantasy points Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys, back when we didn't know he was about to turn into the living embodiment of Marc Wilson. Since then, he's gone 10, 3, 7, 15 and 7. But the Vikes have yet to hold a single QB this year under his five-week moving average, and have lost the best player in their secondary, Harrison Smith, to turf toe. What's left behind is a mess. Left corner Josh Robinson just can't play and neither can strong safety Jamarca Sanford. Brandon LaFell's TD last week was the easiest 79-yard score you'll ever see, because nobody covered him running up the right sideline. Maybe -- maybe! -- the Giants' offensive line play from last Thursday against the Chicago Bears can carry over, and Manning can get some confidence back. Do I expect it to happen? "Expect" is a strong word when it comes to Eli. But we know he's capable. I would call him my Hail Mary Special this week: He could hurt you again, but he could also save you if you're in need of a big effort.

5. Stevan Ridley will torture you. Will Stevan Ridley torture you? Stevan Ridley just tortured you! I was going to write a longer bit on the way the New England Patriots used their RBs back in '09 and '10, and how I'm worried that '13 will soon be reminiscent of that week-to-week fantasy nightmare. But perhaps it's simply best to choose optimism. I'm not saying Ridley is going to solve the Jets, who boast a fearsome front (Sheldon Richardson and Damon "Snacks" Harrison are most imposing against the run). I'm really talking about workload. The Pats' primary rusher through six games has gone like this: Shane Vereen, Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, Ridley, Blount, Ridley. Awesome. Ridley did play well against in Week 6 against the New Orleans Saints, but I don't particularly believe the game plan was to feature him. After all, Blount started and got the entire first series, Brandon Bolden got the second series, and Ridley got the third. It was only after he ripped off an 18-yarder on his first carry that New England's coaches evidently got the picture. (And to be fair, Ridley was coming off an inactive week because of a knee injury.) Will the team come into this Jets game with the mentality that they want to feature Ridley, or that they want to find the hot hand again? I wish I knew. I ranked Ridley 20th among RBs despite the tough opponent. But if we don't see him much, you can expect a long disquisition in this space next week.

6. Another reason not to panic on Torrey Smith. I'm on record as saying that Joe Flacco is having kind of a crummy year, and I didn't particularly think he played well last week in a loss against the Packers, despite his 342 passing yards. Smith certainly didn't enjoy the day; he had one catch for 12 yards, while such immortals as Tandon Doss lit it up. Smith's first target came in the second quarter, and was an ugly throw far down the field, while Smith was totally open but Flacco just missed him short. On the very next play, Flacco scrambled right and heaved one really deep, and Smith made a ridiculous catch, but was just barely out of bounds. The Pack played two safeties deep an awful lot of the time, not necessarily rolling help Smith's way, but definitely keeping someone extra on his side of the field. It wasn't a concerted "shutdown" effort, and maybe that's a little worrisome, that Smith can have such a quiet day without pure double-teams hindering him. But the fact remains that Smith is by far the most targeted WR in the NFL on passes that travel 20 yards or more in the air. He's got 19 such targets; the next-closest man is A.J. Green with 14. Deep shots aren't everything, but they help, because it really only takes one such connection to make your WR's fantasy day worthwhile. Despite his slow Week 6, Smith is 12th in fantasy points at his position, so he's had lots of worthwhile days.

7. Any more questions about Carson Palmer? "[Palmer] holds the football too long and takes too many shots, and his decision making is now perennially suspect." These are the words I wrote this spring after the Arizona Cardinals traded for Palmer, as I gave the thumbs-down to the transaction. Palmer just got to play his first national TV game with Arizona, and I assume you now understand why I penned that review. Granted, his offensive line is awful, but that's all the more reason you can't just fling the ball around. His first pick Thursday night was underthrown and deflected into Earl Thomas' hands. His second (which should've been a pick-six) was just ill-advised and misdirected, underpowered and off his back foot. Nobody is denying that Palmer occasionally looks good, like some gray-scale reproduction of his early-2000s self. And yeah, he's probably better than the cavalcade of John Skeltons and Ryan Lindleys. But not much! And the larger point is that every season that goes by when future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald doesn't have an above-average signal-caller is a wasted season for the organization. No, there probably wasn't a good answer in the '13 draft, and maybe there weren't any other attractive options available for trade. But if the Cards don't take a long look at a first-round quarterback and/or free agent Jay Cutler this winter, they're truly hopeless. Fitzgerald is a shadow of himself right now because of his hamstring injuries, but Palmer's presence pretty much ensures that Fitz will be nowhere close to the No. 1 fantasy WR it seemed he might be in September.

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