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Neither of the No. 1 spots for the postseason has been clinched entering Week 17, which is actually a very good thing for fantasy football owners. How many times in the past has the great Peyton Manning been our top option for 16 weeks, only to leave us at the very end? This week, as his Denver Broncos seek home games on the way to meeting the NFC representative in New Jersey in February -- it just sounds odd, no? -- fantasy owners really can rely on Manning and his top weapons. And the same goes for Seattle Seahawks stars Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. No, I don't think Ronnie Hillman and Christine Michael are worthy options this week!
Fantasy analysts far and wide will be asked about teams potentially sitting stars this week, but the fact is in most cases, it's just a guess which players will and will not play the entirety of their games. Only the coaches know, and if anyone out there still trusts an NFL coach, just rewind the ridiculous Dallas Cowboys news conference from Monday and try to figure out whether Tony Romo is playing this week. The point is, don't overthink it. I think Manning, who tossed four touchdown passes in Week 16 and could absolutely duplicate the feat Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, is a terrific play. I think Wilson and Lynch, with a tougher but feasible home matchup against the St. Louis Rams, are also safe plays. It has nothing to do with who got your fantasy team to Week 17. We aren't overly loyal NFL coaches, but in this case, it seems the best options are the best options.
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastDrew Brees will face a Panthers defense that has held opposing quarterbacks to just 8.4 points per game in Carolina this season.
For example, I'm guessing there aren't too many Matthew Stafford owners feeling confident about him today. In fact, your season could be over because of him (trust me, plenty of Stafford owners still won in Week 15, just as not every Jamaal Charles owner won). The Detroit Lions' starter was arguably the No. 3 fantasy quarterback most of the season, but he hasn't played well of late, putting on an Eli Manning-like turnover show Sunday as the team worked on choking away a playoff berth. Of course, one of those games was in a driving snowstorm and the other was against the defending Super Bowl champs. But I ranked Stafford, facing Manning's terrible New York Giants defense at home this week, over Brees and Newton.
I also have Nick Foles (No. 2) and Philip Rivers (No. 3) significantly better for their appealing home matchups against brutal pass defenses. Think everything is Tony Romo's fault? Hey, he's still getting his fantasy points -- we don't judge here! -- and Washington is still giving them up. All these guys rank better than Brees and Newton for me. Brees delivered a seven-point fantasy game in Seattle a few weeks ago. Carolina's defense has permitted only one quarterback to top 17 fantasy points all season. That was Brees, in his safe dome, a few weeks ago. The most fantasy points the Panthers have allowed to a quarterback at home this season is 14. Then there's Newton, who was held to 160 passing yards at New Orleans a few weeks ago, and it wasn't due to venue. Frankly, I can make the case that Brees and Newton aren't even top-10 passers this week.
I understand why fantasy owners stick with their studs, and look, I tend to do this as well when it makes sense. But it's not simply because they're my studs. Season scoring is irrelevant in Week 16! The evidence supports playing Stafford against the Giants 10 times out of 10. I didn't rank Cutler ahead of Brees, but I understand why someone would. When Twitter questions come fast and furious about sitting Brees for Cutler, I can only answer what I would do, since every owner is obviously within rights to follow their gut -- with hopefully some statistical evidence -- and play the guy he wants. It's your team(s)! And while you might ruminate over an incorrect lineup decision for the next few weeks, months or even years, bitter at what might have been, I sure won't. Yeah, it's Foles, Rivers, Stafford, Wilson and even Romo over Brees and Newton for me this week, and I'm not looking back. You shouldn't either, no matter who you start at quarterback.
Quarterback: Cousins checks in at No. 14 for me, which I think is fair. He is still unproven. Sure, he's playing an ACC-level defense, but he's still not a lock. I would use him over the No. 4 quarterback for the season in Andrew Luck, though. Ryan Fitzpatrick is playing well, and with seven more touchdown passes in the final two games, he'll get to 20 for the fourth consecutive year. But it's worth noting the Jaguars aren't exactly "Cowboys-bad" defensively. If Aaron Rodgers is able to start, he'd be my No. 7 quarterback, just in front of Brees and Newton. But don't tell me he belongs top-three because of who he is, where you drafted him, etc. He hasn't played in an NFL game in months.
Brad Mills/USA TODAY SportsRedskins RB Alfred Morris scored 14 fantasy points against this week's opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, back in Week 6.
Running back: The Cowboys aren't merely the worst defense against opposing quarterbacks, but they check in there against running backs, too. As such, Alfred Morris makes my top five, even over the great Adrian Peterson. And I feel good about it! Peterson is no sure thing, folks. There's the risk of re-injury, and the Bengals are among the toughest to run on. I ranked him fifth, but actually don't feel good about that. Ryan Mathews faces the same Oakland defense Jamaal Charles just scored 51 fantasy points against. He's among my top 10 running backs. Amazing how Shane Vereen goes from top-10 among running backs to barely top-20 because Bill Belichick is smart enough to keep defenses guessing. If you liked Vereen last week, like him now. Jordan Todman made quite the jump to top-20 RB, eh? I really doubt Maurice Jones-Drew plays again this season. And trusting Todman is not the same as trusting Kirk Cousins. There's no RB depth. Ben Tate scares me, for health and performance against a Denver team that will score many points. Don't get too excited about Dennis Johnson if he plays.
Wide receiver: Yes, if I owned Josh Gordon and A.J. Green and could play only two receivers, I'd sit Calvin Johnson. He's my No. 3. That's how rankings work. But Megatron will light up the Giants. I like Jordy Nelson regardless of who will be at quarterback for Green Bay. I'm the only one with Anquan Boldin over Michael Crabtree. That wasn't planned, but I think it's premature to expect Crabtree to score every week. Rueben Randle starts with Victor Cruz out, but does it matter if Eli Manning has no time to throw and his passes are errant? I'd rather use the underrated Doug Baldwin.
Some will view the somewhat expected announcement of Washington’s starting quarterback change as more indication of how dysfunctional things have become, the start of mass changes. More Sha-hanigans from coach Mike Shanahan, if you will. Franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III is being benched for the rest of the season and backup Kirk Cousins will get the chance to play Sunday. To some this is outrageous, but I certainly see the point. The team is 3-10 and the franchise player is limping around before and after plays, clearly not 100 percent recovered from shredding a knee a year ago. Sitting him down is doing him a favor.
It’s also doing fantasy owners a favor, though. Sure, perhaps many Griffin fantasy owners are no longer filling out lineups -- though RG III was a top-10 QB most of the season! -- but now there is no debating whether you play Griffin or Andrew Luck, Griffin or Josh McCown (if he even plays). Drop him. His season is over. Keep him in dynasty leagues, because he’ll surely be in my top 10 quarterbacks for 2014, but he can’t help you this month when it’s Cousins and backup Rex Grossman. There’s great opportunity here as well for the intriguing Cousins and his weapons. After all, the next two weeks they face the similarly beleaguered Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys. Did you see the Cowboys pathetically trying to defend the pass Monday night?
I had planned on ranking Griffin outside the top 10 quarterbacks this week (12th, to be exact), and since we’ve seen so little of Cousins, I can’t really exalt him to the same level. In a week I might. After all, Cousins has thrown 73 regular-season passes in his two-year career. The Falcons could make him look like Peyton Manning, but if you’re still around in the fantasy playoffs, that’s a tad risky to rely on. I do think Cousins is a decent larger-league risk, though, considering the talent I think he has and the terrible opponent. He should just be prepared to be sacked a few times, since Griffin wasn’t exactly being protected like, say, Peyton Manning. In a season in which McCown and Nick Foles weren’t owned six weeks ago and now are playoff starters, I simply don't write off backup quarterbacks. Anything is possible.
Focusing on the weapons, I view the change as a positive. Running back Alfred Morris has rushed for a sorry 109 yards the past three games, dropping out of the top 10 for fantasy scoring at his position, and he’s now sixth for the season in rushing yards, but this move makes me like him more. He’s a top-10 guy for me this week. The Falcons have permitted more than 180 rushing yards in three of seven weeks -- and haven’t been great in the other weeks -- and some off-the-radar running backs sputtering against other defenses have really torched them, like the Arizona Cardinals’ Andre Ellington, Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Bobby Rainey and Buffalo Bills’ C.J. Spiller. Morris should thrive Sunday. Similarly, wide receiver Pierre Garcon leads the NFC in receptions and tops NFC wide receivers in yards after the catch. He’s good. Really good. I planned on ranking him in the low teens with Griffin, and won’t back off because it’s Cousins now.
Quarterback: I didn’t ask my colleagues if they’re concerned about the Detroit Lions’ Matthew Stafford, but he’s been a consensus top-4 fantasy QB in the rankings all year, and this week only I have him there. It was one game in a driving snowstorm, and now he’s indoors the rest of the month. Trust him. Trust Tony Romo, too. Terrific matchup for him. Russell Wilson worries me more than he worries my colleagues. I don’t think a cross-country road game in New Jersey is a great matchup, sorry. But I’ve got him 10th. I wouldn’t say I particularly like Tom Brady against Miami, a team that has permitted a league-low four TDs to wide receivers, but he’s ninth for me. I see him finding a way to 15 fantasy points.
Running back: The obvious risk on the Lions’ Reggie Bush is that it’s a Monday game, and he’s listed as questionable. Unless you’ve got Joique Bell or Ray Rice on the bench, you might want to play a Danny Woodhead or Montee Ball on Thursday. I get that. But Reggie made my top 10. Shane Vereen did not. I’m all aboard the bandwagon, but expecting 12 catches or 21 fantasy points each week seems extreme. Still, No. 12 in non-PPR says something. Turns out I am a bit more concerned about the Giants’ Andre Brown than my colleagues, but we’ve all got him in the top 20. Obviously, not the easiest matchup against Seattle, but Brown is legit. Could I see the Vikings’ Toby Gerhart as a top-10 guy if Adrian Peterson sits? Sure. But I could also see the Eagles running up a big lead and making Matt Cassel throw 45 times. The Eagles' D is not bad anymore, despite season totals. Yep, his recent play and the matchup make the Falcons’ Steven Jackson appealing again. I don’t think Spiller’s matchup in Jacksonville is quite as appealing as others think. If Maurice Jones-Drew sits, backup Jordan Todman would not make my top 30.
Wide receiver: Don’t get so scared of a Bears wide receiver facing Joe Haden that you play a lesser guy. Brandon Marshall will be fine. Alshon Jeffery, too. Roddy White made my top 20. That in itself is a feat, and hardly an indication I’m not on board. Just not as on board as others. Sticking with Atlanta, Harry Douglas should punish Washington through the slot. Yep, Dallas is so awful defensively that Jordy Nelson is still in everyone’s top 20, even assuming Matt Flynn is slingin’ the football. In an easier matchup, perhaps I’d like the Patriots' wide receivers more. Maybe next week. You can see from the rankings how much we all believe in the Giants’ Hakeem Nicks. For the first time I can recall, Victor Cruz missed everyone’s top 20, too. Blame Seattle. Blame Eli. Blame A-Rod. I didn’t even rank the Indianapolis Colts' wide receivers who each scored twice in Week 14. It’s still T.Y. Hilton for me.
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsAlex Smith has scored more fantasy points than RG III, Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick, among others.
That's not to say Smith will automatically produce. After all, he produced single digits for fantasy owners on three occasions this season, and a couple of them came in what seemed to be attractive matchups (versus Oakland, at Buffalo). But how many players are truly safe, especially at quarterback? I noted in Tuesday's end-of-season rankings update that as of today, there are seven quarterbacks I would leave active at all times, regardless of matchup, weather, whatever. Smith isn't in that class, but he's in the next tier, and this week the matchup -- and his recent play -- dictates a promotion to the top 10. After all, this guy is top 10 among quarterbacks for the season, so it's not exactly a stretch! This week I don't particularly like the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick (versus Seattle), slumping Indianapolis Colts leader Andrew Luck (at Cincinnati) or inconsistent Redskins hobbler Robert Griffin III (versus Kansas City). The oft-used fantasy line about winning with your best options favors Smith in this case, actually: He has outscored Kaepernick and Griffin, and the way Luck has played of late, that's really no contest. This week Smith is one of the better options, and looking at the rest of December, I don't see a single worrisome matchup (at Oakland, versus Indianapolis, at San Diego). Yes, Alex Smith really can be the quarterback on a fantasy championship team. It's true!
As for Smith's teammates, running back Jamaal Charles is always a strong option, but wide receiver Dwayne Bowe still seems a bit overrated to me. I did not consider him among my top-20 options at the position, for Smith actually has been spreading the target love around quite a bit. Bowe hasn't topped 11 standard fantasy points in a game all season, so he's more flex choice than top choice, if you will. Remember, Charles leads the Chiefs in receiving targets. It's OK to trust a quarterback without also leaning toward his wide receiver options.
Quarterback: In addition to Smith seizing a top-10 spot, Chicago Bears journeyman Josh McCown was in the spot right after him. McCown has thrown for more than 700 passing yards over the past two weeks, and it seems difficult to imagine the Dallas Cowboys -- fantasy's second-easiest D for opposing quarterbacks to pile up the points against -- keeping Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery under control. Go with McCown -- but if Jay Cutler is active, go with him. I really doubt Cutler will play, though. There's a huge disparity on the fantasy staff about the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan this week. I like the matchup at Green Bay, but I ranked him 14th. We have a No. 8 and a No. 24. Wow! I guess, compared to others, the capable (at least to me) Ryan Fitzpatrick is my sleeper at Denver, considering he's my No. 15 option.
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesRay Rice has a favorable matchup this week, but it's tough to trust him, given his play this season.
Running back: Good to see nobody was concerned about the New York Giants' Andre Brown. Tens across the board! My Le'Veon Bell rank is obviously predicated on his playing. If he's active, though, I have no major concerns. It's a concussion, not a balky knee or hamstring. If he's cleared, you're clear. Sure, the last time Ray Rice faced a bad run defense, he did well. But I still don't trust him. He missed my top 20, and it wasn't close. I'd rather use Steven Jackson. I do see Chris Ivory bouncing back this week. I was the only analyst to rank Stevan Ridley, but obviously I'd like some assurance by Sunday that he's going to be active. He's not an RB2, and not a flex. But c'mon, the guy can play.
Wide receiver: It seems a lot of owners are concerned about Josh Gordon because the soap opera that is the Cleveland Browns continues to turn. Someone named Alex Tanney could be starting for them this week. Hey, where's Brian Sipe? He's only 64. My point here about trusting Gordon is that he's talented, and he's playing well, so why do we all assume Tanney (or Caleb Hanie) will be awful? What if Tanney can play? Brian Hoyer got similar treatment. Well, he played well! Don't get cute; stick with Gordon. Stick with Alshon Jeffery, too. He's my No. 10 guy. Don't care who his quarterback will be. I do have some concern about Antonio Brown, considering the Miami Dolphins have permitted just one touchdown to a wide receiver all season. But he's still my No. 15 guy. He should get his yards, and I think he will score, too. I actually think Matt Flynn and the Packers will score points on Atlanta, which is why I ranked Jordy Nelson as a borderline WR2. Others ranked him higher. I'd rather have Harry Douglas. But not Roddy White. As awesome as White was on Sunday (14 fantasy points), forget about where you drafted him. Go with your best options. If you're playoff-bound, he's probably not one of them.
Flynn's arm strength isn't really what scouts would call a strength, but it should be good enough to make at least two and perhaps all three of his main wide receivers relevant for our purposes. In the Week 13 rankings, Flynn barely made our consensus top-20 quarterbacks. I have him 18th. Yeah, I could definitely see 15 fantasy points pending. But the real key is relying on Jordy Nelson, Jarrett Boykin and James Jones. I ranked them 11th, 18th and 25th, respectively, with the latter two marks being the best of the group, signifying a bit more trust. Why not? The Lions have been brutal defensively for months; while the Philadelphia Eagles are permitting the most fantasy points to wide receivers for the season, the recent trends say the Lions are considerably worse. Wide receivers have accrued more than 30 points against Detroit in six of eight games, and 12 touchdown receptions over five outings.
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsMatt Flynn helped spark a rally from a 16-point deficit early in the fourth quarter in the Packers' tie with the Vikings on Sunday.
In other Thursday action, watch the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys pile up the points as well. After all, who is going to stop them? Somehow the Cowboys boast a first-place team despite permitting the most fantasy points to quarterbacks and running backs through 12 weeks, which I can never recall seeing previously. And they're not good against wide receivers or tight ends, either. The Raiders' Matt McGloin continues to have that Nick Foles look about him. He also wasn't supposed to be special -- he wasn't even drafted in real life -- but he has replaced an electric running quarterback who wasn't healthy and has avoided turnovers. As of Tuesday morning, we don't know if wide receiver Denarius Moore will play through a shoulder injury, but if he does, he's a top-25 guy. I like Rod Streater, too. Oh, and Rashad Jennings! No, I'm not terribly concerned about Wally Pipp -- um, I mean Darren McFadden -- getting many touches, if he's even able to suit up. And by the way, the Cowboys will move the ball at will as well. Should be a blast!
Quarterback: The only somewhat odd name in my top 10 this week is the Chicago Bears' Josh McCown, but the Minnesota Vikings surely aren't playing solid defense. McCown edged out the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers for me based on matchup. And it might seem odd that the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick, so productive Monday night, doesn't rank well here. Hey, he's not playing the Redskins defense this week. I also think Alex Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick are better-than-normal plays this week.
Running back: The main theme here is the injuries. I ranked the Bears' Matt Forte, Broncos' Knowshon Moreno, Rams' Zac Stacy, New York Jets' Chris Ivory and Chargers' Ryan Mathews as if all are playing. Perhaps that's optimistic, but they're each varying levels of really productive. I will say that if any of them sits, I don't really like any of the backups. Michael Bush and his historic 1.6 yards-per-carry average make for a terrible option. Montee Ball and Stevan Ridley have more in common than most realize. Benny Cunningham ran for 100 yards in relief of Stacy last week, but let's just say many of us could run wild on that Bears defense. Cunningham is no star, and neither is Bilal Powell. But Danny Woodhead yeah, if Mathews sits, Woodhead could force his way into the top 20. As for Ridley, Scrooge Belichick could opt to bury him forever because of the fumbles, but I ranked Ridley 25th. The Patriots should handle the Texans, so why not give Ridley touches? There seems little risk even if he does cough up the football. I ranked Shane Vereen better but I doubt he gets 15 rushing attempts. None of us ranked the Miami Dolphins' Lamar Miller as if Daniel Thomas was out. But don't drop Miller.
Jim O'Connor/USA TODAY SportsHe hasn't done much of late, but don't sit Victor Cruz this week.
Wide receiver: The temptation is there to sit the Giants' Victor Cruz because he did little against Dallas. But did you see what Anquan Boldin did against the Redskins, Cruz's next foe? Don't bury him, and deep leaguers should watch Rueben Randle. I trust the Indianapolis Colts' T.Y. Hilton will be fine, actually. Those past two games were on the road, and with some dome teams, it really does matter. Now if Hilton and Andrew Luck lay another egg against the Tennessee Titans, all bets are off. I continue to be perplexed at the trust everyone has in the Seattle Seahawks' Percy Harvin. I think there are far safer choices, and they have upside, too. Detroit's Nate Burleson has become beloved, if Twitter and this week's SportsNation chat and Spreecast are any indication, which I find odd. He seems more like a "WR4" for me. By the way, if you didn't see my Tuesday Spreecast with colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft, in which Tristan mistakenly said his favorite food was Green Bay Casserole, I'd check it out!
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsRashad Jennings has rushed for 340 yards over his past three games.
If it sounds strange that Jennings could go from irrelevant to nearly an RB1 so quickly, well, you haven't been paying attention to the strange running back position this wacky season. Quarterback and wide receiver performance has been fairly predictable. Sure, there's the occasional shocker, the unsung youngster becoming reliable (Mike Glennon, Alshon Jeffery) and the safe veteran becoming unreliable (Eli Manning, Mike Wallace), but at running back, half of the original top 10 tortured fantasy owners, and new names -- or old names resurfacing -- became impact plays in minutes. Guys like Jennings, Zac Stacy, Andre Brown, Ben Tate and Bobby Rainey have become instant stars. Just look at the rankings! Rainey is our No. 21 running back, and two weeks ago he was unranked.
These guys are saving fantasy owners. Jennings, for all his underachieving in Jacksonville, has provided a pair of 20-plus-point (standard scoring) fantasy efforts this month. Johnson and the Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch are the only other running backs to do this in November. So if you're wondering how Rashad Jennings nearly made my top 10, well, that's how!
With the way the annoying running back position has gone this season, perhaps this sets us all up for Jennings to rush 13 times for 6 yards, like C.J. Spiller did in Week 11, or worse yet, to simply lose the touches to Darren McFadden, the brittle starter whose balky hamstring opened this opportunity for Jennings, an overlooked free-agent signing, in the first place. Wait, McFadden's hurt? No way! Yes, it's true, as shocking as that seems. And McFadden's history of returning slowly from injuries is well established. Raiders coach Dennis Allen told reporters Monday that Jennings "has earned the right to carry the ball he's going to get his touches," which is awesome, but we should be conditioned by now to never believe a coach. Suuuuuure, and Andre Brown will be worked back in slowly. Regardless, I don't see McFadden playing this week, and Jennings, who has totaled 176, 107 and 148 yards the past three weeks, gets to face a Titans defense that allows nearly 20 points per game to opposing running backs, fifth-most in the NFL, and has permitted two touchdowns to running backs in each of the past five games! What could go wrong?
Well, in the name of Andre Ellington, Brian Leonard, Steven Jackson, Lamar Miller and, of course, Trent Richardson, let's not answer that last question. Things go awry constantly. But based on the information we do know, Rashad Jennings, one of the most added players over the past seven days but still available in a good 40 percent of standard leagues, is a very nice play this week. Believe it!
Quarterback: I liked the way Raiders quarterback and Penn State product Matt McGloin played in his starting debut, but the Titans are far more difficult to throw against. If McGloin keeps the job over Terrelle Pryor, I could see the occasional top-20 ranking for him in future weeks. Just not in Week 12. I keep sounding the bell for Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie Glennon, the guy with five 15-point fantasy performances in six weeks -- has your starting QB done this? -- and he reaches top-10 status for me this week as he heads to Detroit. The Lions can be thrown on, in case you haven't noticed. Vincent Jackson has to be licking his proverbial chops. Drew Brees over Peyton Manning this week? Oh, Brees plays the Falcons. Ah, makes sense! I'd probably start Shane Falco against the Falcons. I'm not off the Colin Kaepernick bandwagon, but the Redskins aren't the defensive sieve they were two months ago (when they faced a healthy Michael Vick, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford). I just like 10 other quarterbacks better than Kaepernick. If Case Keenum was playing at Seattle, he wouldn't be my No. 13 QB. It's Jacksonville. And with the backlash on Keenum being yanked for Matt Schaub, I doubt that happens again. Sorry, but I cannot trust the erratic Carson Palmer like my colleagues are. Don't we have sufficient evidence of his inconsistency?
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltOf course you start Adrian Peterson this week (if he plays), but curb your expectations.
Running back: You bet I'm hedging just a bit on the great Adrian Peterson and his groin injury that he claims has him at 65 percent. Of course, given his immense upside, I still had to rank him third. But I could see him sitting out half the game again when Scott Tolzien blows up the Vikings' sorry defense. By the way, I ranked Toby Gerhart, just in case, but if it's clear that Peterson is fine by Friday, I'll remove him. Zac Stacy is our No. 6 running back. Could you have imagined that in September? I'm sticking with Reggie Bush. He's obviously very sorry he fumbled the ball, but the Lions did nothing in the second half with him benched. He's still a top-10 RB to me. The Ravens can be run on, Chris Ivory can run, and it's clear he's the lead ball carrier now. Bilal Powell better not get 25 touches! Shane Vereen is essentially in a platoon with LeGarrette Blount. Vereen catches the ball, Blount runs it. But Stevan Ridley is safe. I think. Is Steven Jackson a top-30 running back? How can he be considered one, given his body of work this season? Give me the emerging Chris Ogbonnaya instead.
Wide receiver: There's so much depth here that it's tough to suddenly exalt an ordinary option over safe ones. The top 20 is typical. I like Harry Douglas, Jarrett Boykin, James Jones and Hakeem Nicks more than most. Tolzien, all jokes aside, has been fine throwing the football, but the Vikings haven't been fine defending it. And no, I don't think Roddy White is better than Douglas. As for Nicks, watch the Cowboys and Giants put up 30-plus points against each other. Dwayne Bowe as a potential flex? Well, the matchup against the Chargers is kind. But I'm hesitant to consider him a flex option. Nate Burleson and Miles Austin are both expected to play this week. Of course, I ranked them 49th and 50th, respectively. Let's just say you shouldn't tear up your roster to get them active.
Matthew J. Lee/Getty ImagesFacts are facts: Tom Brady has scored in the single digits (standard fantasy scoring) in three of his past five games.
I'm actually a tad surprised in the confidence others have in Brady this week as his New England Patriots travel to face those defensive-minded Panthers on Monday night. The Panthers are good. Really good. No team has allowed fewer fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks and wide receivers, and only a handful allow fewer fantasy points to running backs. Sure, the Patriots scored 55 points at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers in their last game, and many a fantasy owner will blindly trust future Hall of Famer Brady, who threw for 432 yards and four touchdowns that fine day. But he's still not even close to a top-10 quarterback in fantasy scoring for the season, and he has the toughest matchup out there.
The Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks play great defense, but check out the Panthers. Last week they went across the country to San Francisco and held Colin Kaepernick, who incidentally has only one fewer fantasy point than Brady this season, to 91 passing yards and just two fantasy points. In fact, the Panthers haven't allowed more than 15 fantasy points to any quarterback in a game this season! I grant you that they haven't played Drew Brees or the good Manning, but still. Meanwhile, Brady has more than 15 points in a mere two of nine games. Sorry, give me Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie Mike Glennon instead; before Monday night, he had four consecutive performances of 15 fantasy points or better, and now he faces the terrible Atlanta Falcons. Big, big matchup difference there. This isn't about historical achievements or loyalty. It's about Week 11 fantasy points.
It's certainly possible that Brady's performance in his last game translates to 20-plus fantasy points against the Panthers and the rest of the way, but I'm selling here. After all, comparing Kaepernick to Brady is apples to oranges. I just think by Week 11 -- and really, six weeks earlier -- we dispense with the deep past and the preseason rankings and trust the cold, hard facts. The Patriots, lest we forget, have struggled offensively this season, save for their last game. The Panthers, meanwhile, have dominated defensively. Perhaps Stevan Ridley breaks a long run or scores a touchdown to validate his performance. He did, after all, make my top 20 running backs, though somewhat due to the fact that I simply couldn't find 20 others I liked. But Danny Amendola or Aaron Dobson against this defense? I'll pass. I'll stick with Rob Gronkowski, since the Panthers haven't been as awesome against that position, and Gronk is, when he's on the field at least, special. But be wary of his teammates.
Quarterback: Peyton Manning scares me, I have to admit. I trust that he's healthy enough this week to produce worthy numbers against the awesome Chiefs, but you bet I'd make sure I had a strong backup for December. The way he's limping around, I think it's more than Manning's Week 17 that is in jeopardy. Philly's Foles isn't in my top 10 because he's "hot." I don't buy the whole "hot quarterback" thing. Ask anyone who fell for the Andy Dalton act a few weeks ago about that. But I like Foles' matchup this week, and while he was awfully fortunate on a few of his passes at Green Bay, he's not turning the ball over, either. I also don't buy home/road splits. Playing well at home is not a skill. Why Glennon? Well, look at the Falcons! Not to mention the Buccaneers aren't going to waste the awesome skills of Vincent Jackson. This doesn't mean Glennon is better than Tom Brady; it simply means he's a better option for Week 11. Matchups matter, folks. I'm off the Terrelle Pryor bandwagon. He threw so poorly in Week 10 -- even by his standards -- that I'm wondering when Matthew McGloin will come in. It'd probably take an injury for that to happen.
Jim Brown/USA TODAY SportsThere's no reason for concern that Jamaal Charles is facing the league's fourth-best run defense in terms of rushing yards allowed.
Running back: I wouldn't go out of my way to sit Knowshon Moreno, but yeah, facing that Chiefs defense matters. You bet it does. Someone asked me about sitting Jamaal Charles, noting that the Broncos do well against the run. You know why that is? Because the Broncos score so much that other teams have to pass to keep up. This week, though, the Chiefs will run the ball. Andre Brown, Ben Tate and Chris Ivory are top-20 running backs this week. Think about that. Hey, in their cases, opportunity meets matchup. Don't shy away from Miami's Lamar Miller. Yeah, he was awful on Monday, but he's just inconsistent. He's not Trent Richardson. And the Dolphins have nice matchups the rest of the season. Miller will matter. Don't sit him because of one bad game. I nearly ranked Bernard Pierce better than Ray Rice. What's the risk? Rice is doing very little. I actually think it'll be a more equal timeshare this week. I don't care how good the matchup is for Richardson. Has anyone been watching him play? I felt dirty ranking him at all. He has 99 rushing yards in his past four games! If the Patriots were playing an average defense, I'd like Shane Vereen as a potential top-35 guy. They're not, as previously detailed. You're making a mistake if you're relying on Mark Ingram. Sell high. Quickly.
Wide receiver: Percy Harvin hasn't played a game all season. I see the upside and the revenge angle against his former Minnesota Vikings teammates, but top-20 receiver? No. I'm not confident he plays a lot. I'm not even confident he plays. Give me Golden Tate instead, definitely, and if I miss Harvin's Tavon Austin-like breakout performance, so be it. I understand those arguing this is the week Dwayne Bowe does something good (on the field), because it could be a shootout in Denver. But I don't think it will be a shootout. Part of the reason I like Josh McCown this week is because Alshon Jeffery is so good; he's such a great complement to Brandon Marshall. If Brady had those weapons, the opposing defense wouldn't matter as much. Similarly, the Bears can't stop the passing game. Torrey Smith is scoring a touchdown this week. I should have ranked Marlon Brown in the top 40, too.
We're at roughly the midpoint of the NFL season and the highest-scoring New York Giants running back this season has scored 29 fantasy points. That's in eight games! You know, the Tennessee Titans' Chris Johnson and the St. Louis Rams' Zac Stacy scored 29 standard fantasy points in Week 9 alone! But don't fret, fantasy owners and Big Blue fans, because here comes fantasy stud Andre Brown to save the day, the season, unemployment, world hunger, all problems in one shot. Yes, everyone loves Brown, the 26-year-old wide body from NC State with all of 75 career rushing attempts for five NFL franchises, the guy people have been asking about for more than a month. Let's unilaterally start him in Week 10!
The Week 10 rankings are posted and suffice to say, there didn't appear to be any proclamations of immediate Brown love from us, but I placed him 29th at running back, in line with others. We just don't know whether Brown, yet to play in an NFL game this season due to breaking his leg in the final preseason game back in August -- why was he playing at all? -- will see 18 rushing attempts or three. In fact, as of this writing, he still hasn't been activated off the injured reserve list at all. It's always a risk. The fact Brown ended up in potential flex range at all is attributable to the mess around him, frankly. I mean, c'mon, 29 fantasy points in eight weeks? That's the Brandon Jacobs total. The entire Giants corps at this sad position, once a sign of their ample offensive strength, has scored 89 fantasy points, with retreads Peyton Hillis and Jacobs providing the lone individual double-digit fantasy outings, with Hillis' 13 points in Week 7 and Jacobs netting 22 the week prior. Thanks a lot, David Wilson.
I'm on board with Brown making an impact for this team both this week and beyond, and remain surprised he's owned in a mere 21 percent of ESPN standard formats. Colleague Christopher Harris wrote about Brown in his free-agent pickups column this week, and I concur with his assessment. Brown should be a factor right away, and potentially more in future weeks. If you're feeling greedy and want to use Brown over one of the many disappointments out there, like the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Rice, the Indianapolis Colts' Trent Richardson or the San Diego Chargers' Ryan Mathews, I won't argue. Rice has 13 fantasy points the past three games combined. Richardson last topped five fantasy points in Week 4. Mathews, everyone seems to forget, provided consecutive 100-yard rushing games before his Week 9 stinker. Could Brown outscore all of them? Sure, he definitely could. Make the best decisions for your team, and dream bigger if you desire.
Quarterback: You'll see Green Bay Packers starter Seneca Wallace -- wow, it's been Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre and one game from Matt Flynn for like 50 years there -- didn't fare so well in the rankings, but if you're in a pinch, I doubt he plays miserably at home. I trust a few of his weapons, too. ... I did not rank the Chicago Bears' Jay Cutler. I doubt he's ready to play. If he does, he'd go 14th for me, right before the great Nick Foles. I do think capable fill-in Josh McCown is a top-20 option. ... Trust Matt Ryan against Seattle? Well, every week crazy things do happen. And the Seahawks didn't exactly control rookie Mike Glennon in Week 9. But wouldn't you prefer to trust Glennon against Miami? Glennon has four consecutive games of 15 or more fantasy points. Does your QB? ... The Buffalo Bills' EJ Manuel is scheduled to return, but I'm not ready to trust him.
Running back: The fantasy MVP at the midpoint gallantly returns from his bye week to run over the San Diego Chargers! Welcome back, Knowshon Moreno, top-10 pick! ... Three of us ranked the Bills' C.J. Spiller one spot over his quality teammate Fred Jackson. If that doesn't show the closeness of the decision should you own both players, I'm not sure what does. ... None of us ranked the Buccaneers' Doug Martin. The Buccaneers, in their infinite winless wisdom, continue to say Martin could play this Monday night. I've got rookie Mike James, who destroyed the Seahawks for 166 total yards last game, at No. 18. If Martin is deemed healthy enough to play, and I doubt we know this before the weekend, it would alter the rank. ... I feel like I ranked the Arizona Cardinals' Andre Ellington a bit too well. Is he really a top-20 guy? Colleague Harris doesn't think so. I do believe Rashard Mendenhall is the BenJarvus Green-Ellis of this situation. ... By the way, if Mike James can run on Seattle, why can't Steven Jackson? He didn't look so bad in Week 9. ... Don't discard Ryan Mathews from one game. He's not consistent, but still, don't simply ignore the good performances. ... For deeper picks, I seem to like Mike Tolbert, Mark Ingram and sleeper Denard Robinson more than others.
Wide receiver: Check out the rankings on the Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown. I thought ranking him sixth would look odd, but colleague Tristan Cockcroft had him second. So I asked Tristan why: "He's seventh in targets per game among full-timers (9.88), has 39 in the past four weeks (sixth most) and is playing a Bills defense that by my grades is by far the best for that specific position -- teams' WRs combined average 10 FPTS more against the Bills than against a league-average defense. I always say play the matchups at WR; this is my bold pick of Week 10." Sounds good to me! ... Cockcroft also felt really good about Jordy Nelson, placing him fifth. Hey, Seneca Wallace does have NFL experience, and periods of success. Now I'm thinking I've ranked Nelson too poorly at 13th. ... So, rumor is the great Roddy White might play this week! Awesome! Back to the top 10! Or 42nd. I'm not trusting him, but Harry Douglas stays in my top 20. ... With no Justin Blackmon to take targets away, the Jacksonville Jaguars' Cecil Shorts makes my top 20. Shorts was already seeing double-digit targets each week. It should go up. ... The New Orleans Saints' Marques Colston is no lock to play, but I'm assuming he will and ranked him 30th. It has to get better than what we've seen.
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsRyan Mathews has scored double-digit fantasy points in three of his past four games.
We're roughly halfway through the season, and recent trends mean more than 2012 statistics at this point. I don't care what the Dallas Cowboys' DeMarco Murray is capable of, because he's not reliable, even those rare moments he's healthy. Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson could explode on a bad Rams defense -- which, by the way, just controlled Marshawn Lynch -- but he's hardly reliable. Let's face it, Mathews isn't reliable, either. But he has run well of late, he's coming off a bye week and these Chargers are a different team than in previous seasons. Nobody looks twice when quarterback Philip Rivers ends up among our top 10 at his position, and this week he's my No. 5 guy, as the Redskins aren't exactly strong against the pass, either (fifth-most fantasy points allowed to opposing quarterbacks). As I was ranking him there, I thought about it for a second, realizing how erratic and turnover-prone the guy had been in prior seasons, but why does that matter anymore? These Chargers are fantasy-friendly!
Perhaps there were no Chargers anyone really wanted to select in preseason drafts -- my hand is raised, except for maybe Vincent Brown, who has done little -- but now Rivers is the No. 8 fantasy scorer for the season, Mathews has four double-digit fantasy efforts (the same as Adrian Peterson, incidentally), and rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen has emerged as a solid WR2 option and my No. 15 choice. The argument can be made that Antonio Gates is a top-2 or 3 tight end not only this week, but the rest of the season, knowing the Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski situations. I can't say I'll trust Mathews and Allen and perhaps Rivers all weeks, but against the Redskins, a team that allowed about the quickest five touchdowns Sunday to turn an exciting lead in Denver into a blowout loss, it all works.
Quarterback: Why did I nearly rank Cam Newton as the top quarterback this week? Well, last year he skewered the Atlanta Falcons for 36 and 30 fantasy points. That's why! I feel like we all ranked Andy Dalton too well, knowing that this three-game stretch is unsustainable. Doesn't matter what you think of the Oakland Raiders' defense; you just can't rely on Nick Foles or the Philly offense. I'm not overly concerned about the Chicago Bears' offense with Josh McCown at quarterback. Given his weapons, he's top-20 for me this week.
Running back: What seems more odd, Ryan Mathews in the top 10, or Fred Jackson? Hey, they're putting up numbers. Is Chris Johnson? I ranked C.J. Spiller better than he deserves, and I know it. He might not even play. But I can't give up on his upside. I trust Arian Foster as a top-10 running back if he plays. And I think he will be playing. Lamar Miller is a pain to own, but it's hard to argue against top-20 potential. The guy has top-10 potential, really. For this week, he's my No. 20, and probably deserved better against a Bengals defense that opposing running backs have owned of late. We're all probably being a bit harsh in ranking the Falcons' Steven Jackson so poorly. It's not as though the players ranked ahead of him, such as Darren Sproles, are doing much. Clearly I like Pierre Thomas more than my colleagues, even against a Jets team that is tough to run on. Well, I'm probably more focused on the lack of other top-20 options. And Thomas does catch passes.
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY Sports Packers receiver Jarrett Boykin followed up his big game in Week 7 (versus Cleveland) with a respectable 89-receiving-yard day (in Minnesota).
Wide receiver: Don't worry about Dez Bryant and the most overplayed non-story of the season. We aren't. The Cowboys aren't. Amazing talent will have a big game. I do worry about DeSean Jackson getting few targets or not caring when he gets them. Not a top-10 WR for me. I don't see the Packers' Jarrett Boykin simply going away, even if James Jones plays, which is no lock. Marvin Jones will likely be mighty overrated by fantasy owners this week. Add him, play him over the likes of Mike Wallace if you want, but be realistic, too. Also be realistic about the Seahawks' Percy Harvin. Those expecting immediate, top-10 numbers will be disappointed. Seattle's offense didn't struggle against the Rams because Harvin wasn't there. I'm skeptical about relying on any Patriots wide receiver. One can do worse than Eddie Royal, based on the matchup.
Tight end: I think it's a bit dangerous to assume the Saints' Jimmy Graham will simply score two touchdowns every week. Not saying I sit him, but he's not my No. 1, knowing what the team is thinking. There's downside for a zero, too. Three teams are permitting 10 or more fantasy points per game to tight ends (Cardinals, Dolphins, Packers), and since I'm not too concerned about McCown, I'm similarly optimistic on Martellus Bennett as a top-10 option. Meanwhile, the Steelers are second-toughest to accrue fantasy points again. That doesn't mean Gronkowski will struggle, but if you have Jordan Reed or Antonio Gates, you don't have to start Gronk.
The difference is that the running back position is far worse in terms of depth and reliable assets than we could have imagined even two months ago. Jackson was scheduled to practice Wednesday, which is heartwarmingly optimistic, but fantasy owners are so desperate that if we get assured word later in the week that he's playing Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, I'm guessing he'll be in many lineups. Perhaps too many.
Let's rewind a bit. My concerns about Jackson were pretty clear, and they've come to fruition so far. It wasn't merely that 30-year-old running backs tend to see a decline in performance once they hit that magical age -- I'll let you know if my ability to blog effectively is hampered when I, ahem, hit 30 -- but it also gets tougher to recover from injuries. This is a hamstring injury, and there are varying degrees of those. But given Jackson's age, comparing his affliction with, say, 27-year-old Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, who might not miss any games despite his hamstring problem, is not wise.
Jackson looked fine in Week 1 rushing for 77 yards on 11 carries against the New Orleans Saints, a defense that figured to be a patsy but has actually thrived, then got hurt in Week 2 after only a few plays. It's tough to read into anything we saw the first two weeks performance-wise, so I harken back to the preseason concerns.
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesWhen we last saw Steven Jackson (Sept. 15), he was limping off the field with a hamstring injury.
I ranked Jackson 21st at his position for this week, and that's assuming he plays and receives a generous workload. If Jackson misses the game, that's pretty much the ballpark ranking I would assign for him when he does return.
The Falcons figure to use the guy quite a bit to run the ball; as a team, the disappointing 2-4 Falcons are last in the NFL in rushing yards and have the fewest attempts. Three teams have more than twice as many attempts. Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling combined for 30 rushing yards in Week 7, each averaging two yards per tote.
Jackson will get opportunities, but I'd say his fantasy upside is modestly lower than it was in August, when I initially ranked him 15th among running backs (while others had him in the top 10).
Rodgers has 25 receptions, tied for seventh-most among running backs. Don't expect that theme to change. In fact, Rodgers remains a decent flex option -- I put him 25th among running backs -- regardless of Jackson's situation.
With six NFL teams on bye this week and next, that forces fantasy owners to play options they normally would ignore. Heck, I was forced to rank myriad options I'd usually ignore. It seems like Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller long ago wore out his top-20 welcome, but I couldn't find 20 running backs I preferred more for this week. Youngster Zac Stacy, the man apparently replacing Jackson in St. Louis, has 49 rushing attempts in three weeks with nary a touchdown, but that warranted top-20 status from the staff. Dallas Cowboys rook Joseph Randle has 30 carries in two weeks, and even he fared better in our ranks.
I can understand why a fantasy owner would rely on Jackson this week; in fact, I'll be forced to do so in one deep league in which he was a keeper and I didn't have many RB choices available. But I remain a bit skeptical in terms of his overall value. Hmm, might not be a bad time to try to trade Jackson before he plays another game, if the wishful thinking value meter is high for someone else!
Quarterback: We rank 25 quarterbacks each week, and this week there are only 26 starters! So it is that Jason Campbell, replacing the horrid Brandon Weeden in Cleveland, is my No. 25. No, I don't feel good about it at all. Who missed? Kellen Clemens against Seattle. Hard to see that going well. My top 10 quarterbacks nearly match the consensus, but I did like Alex Smith a bit more than the others and Carson Palmer a bit less.
John Grieshop/Getty ImagesBengals rookie Gio Bernard has averaged 15.6 touches per game in the past five games.
Running back: It's tough to find 20 decent running backs to fill the top 20. I took a small leap of faith on Darren Sproles and Giovani Bernard for my top 15, though. When in doubt, go with the guys who catch the football, too. I understand why DeAngelo Williams made our top 20, but really, he hasn't done much in a month. I'm close to thinking Mike Tolbert is a better fantasy asset. As for Mike James, I have no idea what he'll do, so I couldn't make him a top-20 running back. Could he get 18 touches and score a touchdown? Sure he could. Could he get eight touches and share with Brian Leonard? Yep. I went with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Lamar Miller instead. I trust them more, which is saying something. I ranked Peyton Hillis 33rd and Brandon Jacobs 34th, but I urge you to ignore these guys. As for lower-ranked threats, I remain hopeful Dallas' Lance Dunbar matters. Supposedly he is playing this week. I also think it's interesting the Raiders talked up Marcel Reece this week, so I ranked him.
Wide receiver: Harry Douglas, top-20 wide receiver. It's true! A few guys joining Douglas in WR2 range who might not deserve it are Marques Colston, Larry Fitzgerald and Josh Gordon. I think Colston has to do better than the two total fantasy points he's produced in his past two games. He and the Saints face Buffalo, which is a good thing. I think Fitzgerald is capable of more consistency, and I like his matchup as well (Atlanta). With Gordon, well, I've seen Campbell play before, and I still think if half the 12 targets Gordon regularly sees can be caught, he can turn into something. Gordon is very good. I admit I might have under-ranked Jarrett Boykin, Terrance Williams and Rueben Randle. I just think it's far from safe that their quarterbacks get them many targets. Finally, I haven't given up on James Jones playing or Hakeem Nicks improving.
Yes, it looks odd, but Lacy is getting a ton of touches, and I think it's time we dispense with two things: (1) the Packers can run now that they have someone capable of big things; and (2) not all rookies are unreliable. If we can't rely on rookie running backs, frankly, then there aren't enough running backs to rely on. In fact, there probably aren't anyway. Lacy missed Week 3 because of a concussion and the team was on bye the week after, and since then he has 24 touches in each of two Packers wins, averaging 110 yards rushing. This is a new Packers team, and Lacy is the focal point of the offense, not Aaron Rodgers and his wide receivers. The Packers are 10th in the league in rushing offense, and 12th on the passing side, and if anything, that difference is about to become greater.
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsSure, Jordy Nelson now must be considered the top wide receiver option in Green Bay, but he has a tough matchup this week.
Nelson's biggest problem this week is Haden. As such, it's a tad risky to assume his targets will simply rise to top levels just because the team's depth has been threatened. And no, it doesn't mean someone like Jarrett Boykin -- whom a few of us ranked (albeit barely) -- will take over instead. Nelson begins the week seventh among wide receivers in standard scoring, but tied for 40th in targets. He overcame this odd ratio in 2011, when he scored 15 touchdowns, and perhaps he does it again. I'm just being a bit cautious on this one. Hakeem Nicks should have a big game against the Minnesota Vikings, and with trade talks surrounding the pending free agent, you bet I think he has something to prove. How about Reggie Wayne against his former quarterback Sunday night? There's a big game coming. And when's the last time a Browns wide receiver ranked ahead of any Packers option? Well, Josh Gordon is really good, and while I like the Packers defense this week, Gordon should still post solid numbers.
Lacy, of course, isn't the lone rookie fantasy owners are forced to rely on. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Le'Veon Bell is in a similar situation, but with a lesser offensive line and quarterback. Still, he's close to weekly RB2 status. The St. Louis Rams' Zac Stacy has consecutive weeks of many rushing attempts as well, and fits well as a flex choice. The Cincinnati Bengals' Giovani Bernard and Arizona Cardinals' Andre Ellington remain in timeshares, but are clear top-20 options in PPR formats. Yeah, we've also seen what happened to Denver Broncos disappointment Montee Ball, but that has nothing to do with the other guys. The Packers' Lacy has looked really good of late. It's time to trust him.
Quarterback: I can't recall the last time Rodgers wasn't among my top five passers in the rankings, but it happened this week. No matter, you're starting him anyway. Are you starting Tom Brady? The Rob Gronkowski circus is never-ending, and the highest rank by the staff this week on Brady was 10th. We all liked Robert Griffin III more -- he's running well now! -- and three of us went with the Chicago Bears' Jay Cutler. Now that's telling. Need a fill-in for Drew Brees (by week)? Eli Manning is good for a few interceptions per week, but he should also tally 300 passing yards and a few scores on the Vikings. Josh Freeman should make his Vikings debut, and you can't get a better matchup. He makes the top 20 for three of us. Glad I kept him as my backup quarterback in a 20-team league even after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers cut him!
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireChris Johnson remains among Eric's top 20 running backs despite having what many perceive to be a tough matchup this week (the 49ers).
Running back: The Dallas Cowboys will rely on rookie Joseph Randle in a sweet matchup in Philadelphia, but I couldn't consider him for top-20 status. He's raw and didn't look good in Week 6. Tony Romo will have no such issues. The rank I might feel the worst about? Indy's Trent Richardson at 14. He's no Knowshon Moreno, but I couldn't rank Stevan Ridley or DeAngelo Williams, despite the latter's matchup, better. Good luck with your RB2 this week! Chris Johnson looks awful running the ball, and I'm sure the opposing San Francisco 49ers have noticed. So why is Johnson in my top 20? The 49ers are permitting the 10th-most fantasy points to running backs, and it would be so Johnson-like for him to break out in what appears to be the toughest matchup. Still, I ranked him 18th, so I didn't exactly go overboard, either. Later, I seem to like Maurice Jones-Drew, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Jacquizz Rodgers more than my colleagues. Sometimes it's all about the touches. Each is capable of a touchdown.
Wide receiver: It again seems strange to see the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson missing everyone's top five, but the stats don't lie. I'm going with Antonio Brown in my top 10 because only eight defenses allow more fantasy points to wide receivers than the Baltimore Ravens, and clearly the targets are there. Larry Fitzgerald against the Seahawks and with a hamstring injury doesn't seem like a fair fight, but Fitz looked good totaling 117 receiving yards and a score in San Fran last week. I'm not an "always trust your studs" fellow, but they play Thursday, so you'll know early if he's active. If this was a Monday game, I'd sit him based on the risk. Many Alshon Jeffery owners are likely to sit their recent free-agent pickup because he did little in Week 6. Well, he didn't get to face the Redskins defense! Perfect opportunity to acquire Jeffery at a lower rate with a great matchup pending. People might wonder why I ranked Greg Jennings at No. 25, despite having one decent game all season. I like Freeman, who is erratic and mistake-prone but has a strong arm, to find him, and I like the Giants to let it all happen.
The fact is that as of Wednesday, Gronkowski still wasn't a full participant in the team's practices as he recovers from arm and back injuries. The Patriots host the Saints in a 4:25 p.m. ET tilt Sunday and, well, let's just say I'd be really careful in relying on Gronkowski for this week. I ranked him in the top 10, but the other fellows in that class are pretty obvious plays, and most will perform in earlier games. You might find it too much of a risk to wait on Gronkowski, a fact that is also reflected in Tristan H. Cockcroft's rankings this week.
AP Photo/Charles KrupaWill Tom Brady (right) get star tight end Rob Gronkowski back this week? We might not know for sure until Sunday afternoon.
Let's face it, Patriots coach Bill Belichick doesn't seem in full control of this situation, either. The Patriots have managed to win four of five games heading into this showdown with Drew Brees and what has become a solid, respectable Saints defense, but they've done so with the worst production from tight end in the NFL. Preseason fave Zach Sudfeld never caught a pass -- that's about the worst August misread in fantasy circles I can recall -- and is now a buried New York Jet. Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan, not quite household names, have five receptions between them as Tom Brady's lone tight end targets.
And the Saints are no joke. They've hardly faced juggernaut offenses, but no team has scored 20 points on them. They're eighth toughest for opposing quarterbacks to accrue fantasy points against -- and Brady is coming off a miserable five-point fantasy performance -- and at tight end, the Saints are permitting 5.6 fantasy points per game, also among the 10 best. A healthy, thriving Gronkowski would be a no-brainer play regardless of foe, but this isn't that situation. I don't see Brady as a surefire play, either, which is why he barely made the staff top 10. I think Gronk ultimately catches a few passes, and if he scores a touchdown, then he's worth it. If not, then he's no better than Greg Olsen, which is pretty telling.
I'm betting many Gronkowski owners -- he's owned in all leagues -- would like to redo their draft when it comes to Gronk and the tight end position. The Patriots already have played five games, more than a third of the fantasy regular season, and that fifth-round fantasy pick could have been spent on something else to help the first month-plus. It's too late to go back now, of course, and I'll stop a bit short of selling on one of the game's most dynamic players today and "taking your best offer," but the fact is this situation worries me. I feel Gronkowski is doomed to disappoint on Sunday -- if he even plays -- and we're unlikely to see the fellow who warranted fantasy MVP consideration in 2011, and thrived the first half of last season. Yeah, I'd consider another tight end Sunday -- perhaps 10 others -- and several other for the rest of this season. There's reward at the end of the risk, but quite a bit of each.
Quarterback: Well, it seems like any player against the New York Giants is a worthy play, so if you have the Chicago Bears' Jay Cutler, this week, it seems like a prime time to use him. I thought about him for my top 10, but then I remember the fact that even the Giants can intercept a pass or two. I didn't rank the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III quite as strongly as others, because I don't think he's leading his team to 51 points. Or even 31 points. He's not Peyton Manning. He's still in my top 10, though. Important week for Colin Kaepernick. He's not in anyone's top 10 anymore but can alter opinions this week. One can do worse than use Chad Henne and Mike Glennon this week. Henne will need to throw 50 times to keep up with Manning, and Glennon is at home against Philly. Upset special there.
AP Photo/David J. PhillipLook for Arian Foster to have a big game in Week 6.
Running back: Arian Foster is going to eat up the St. Louis Rams this week. One has to think he gets many carries against a bad rush defense. And you'll see Philly's LeSean McCoy didn't fare so well in the rankings. It's on the road, and he did little once Michael Vick left Sunday's game. Still, he's in the top 10, just not the top three. Foster is. Three of the four rankers went with Fred Jackson over C.J. Spiller, including myself. Very interesting. Still buying low on Spiller? I am, but I am thinking twice about it. I'm wary about Stevan Ridley, but this isn't like the Gronkowski situation. The word is Ridley is likely to play, and he should get plenty of touches. I don't see Rashad Jennings as even a decent play at Kansas City this week, even if he plays. I'd prefer Marcel Reece. And nobody ranked Darren McFadden. Andre Ellington ended up ranked about the same as teammate Rashard Mendenhall, but the bottom line with the Arizona running backs is that neither is a great option in San Francisco.
Wide receiver: Two rankers chose Cecil Shorts over Justin Blackmon, which means two did not. Interesting, eh? I'll say this: I don't think the Jaguars can win in Denver, but I do think both wide receivers can put up top-30 numbers, probably better. Each was ranked in the top 30. A few weeks ago, Vincent Jackson was a top-10 guy. Now he's barely top 20 against a terrible Philly D. I'm thinking, however, that I've underrated Jackson at 19 this week. Same with Andre Johnson. The Matt Schaub interceptions aren't charged to him, and I'm thoroughly unimpressed with the Rams' defense. Liking Keenan Allen this week, as well as Terrance Williams, though there is considerable depth at wide receiver this week, more than normal.
OK, so who is starting for the Rams' tasty matchup against the winless Jacksonville Jaguars? Well, Richardson didn't supply that critical piece of information, but certainly Isaiah Pead figures to be in the equation, or perhaps Benny Cunningham. Pead did not play in Week 4, and it apparently wasn't due to injury.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher told reporters that Pead was a surprise inactive for the Week 4 game -- it was on Thursday, and it went poorly for the Rams against the San Francisco 49ers -- so rookie wide receiver Tavon Austin could get more snaps at running back. Huh? Austin, a top-10 NFL draft pick who ended up getting nary a rushing attempt, has enough problems learning to play wide receiver in the NFL. I applaud the sentiment to get the quick playmaker more touches, perhaps in the way the Minnesota Vikings achieved with Percy Harvin -- um, remember him? -- a year ago, but so far, Austin has just four rushes in four games for 10 yards, and his 23 fantasy points with standard wide receiver numbers ranks him after 49 others at his spot, including ignored teammate Austin Pettis. I have little doubt Austin's future is bright, but even with the Jaguars up next, he ended up ranked 40th by our staff for Week 5.
AP Photo/David RichardSecond-year man Isaiah Pead has just 17 carries in 17 career games with the Rams.
Pead has intriguing upside, I suppose, especially in this matchup, but there's no way I want to rely on him when Richardson, who I really liked a month ago, managed to average just 2.7 yards per rush through four games. Last week, he ran for 16 yards on 12 carries. Surely a foot injury hasn't helped, but neither has the offensive line or, for the past two games, the erratic play of quarterback Sam Bradford and his all-or-nothing weapons.
The Rams are 1-3 and trending downward, and I'll be honest, I'm not choosing them in my Eliminator Pool this week. It's a trap game, even at home against a team that has scored 31 points this season. The Detroit Lions scored 30 first-half points in Week 4.
Pead has become the Rams running back I want this week, but I can't rank him near the class of utterly disappointing running backs such as David Wilson and Stevan Ridley. Those guys are incredibly in the top 25 for Week 5 -- guilty! -- because there are frighteningly few options and three top-10 running backs are on bye. Is Pead a decent add in case things work out? Sure, perhaps he explodes for 100 rushing yards Sunday and becomes a popular add next week. The Jaguars have permitted the 10th-most fantasy points to running backs this season. You know which team has allowed the most? That's right, it's the Rams. Maurice Jones-Drew is my No. 13 running back for the week. Pead is safely outside my top 30 for Sunday because it's impossible to know whether he gets 20 touches or two, and when in doubt, that's the number to look at entering a game. Richardson will be involved as well, I presume, and Cunningham, too. So far it hasn't really mattered whom the Rams use at running back, and it might not matter much this week either.
Quarterback: The staff seldom disagrees about who the top-10 passers are. Indy's Andrew Luck is a clear downgrade this week against the Seattle Seahawks. We all think Terrelle Pryor is a darn good option, even though he's listed as questionable and his game starts minutes before midnight ET Sunday. That start time is just ridiculous. Make sure Pryor is going to be active before you pass on your early Sunday choices, even Eli Manning or Matt Schaub.
AP Photo/Jack DempseyKnowshon Moreno has broken into Eric's top 10 at running back.
Running back: Here it gets trickier, starting with the Buffalo Bills situation Thursday. I did not rank C.J. Spiller. I don't know for sure if he plays or not, but if he does, he wouldn't make my top 15. I expect Fred Jackson to play, and he is top-20. Point is, if Spiller does play, he's not an awesome fantasy start. And I don't expect much from Tashard Choice, even if he gets a lot of carries. The Browns are fifth toughest to accrue running back fantasy points against. Knowshon Moreno is top-10, though. What more proof do we need? Rookie Montee Ball gets garbage-time carries, and that's it. Expecting those carries each week is risky. How does David Wilson earn a No. 21 rank? Two reasons: One, the Eagles can't defend. The Giants did cut Da'Rel Scott, which should garner Wilson more touches. And two, find me 21 better running back plays this week. Go ahead. They don't exist. Wilson looked reasonable in Week 4 and is a reasonable RB2 this week. Good luck relying on Darren McFadden. I doubt he plays. He rarely has been called a quick healer in the past. But you can't take the risk with the game starting so late. And before you get excited about Rashad Jennings, remember that, ahem, he's Rashad Jennings.
Wide receiver: Hakeem Nicks fans seem awfully excited about Sunday's matchup with Philly, but Nicks really hasn't done much lately. Yes, it's an enticing matchup, but it's tough to view him as a top-20 receiver. Hey, Justin Blackmon is starting this week! Hey, he's still not a top-30 option! Roddy White plays every week, but now he's ranked worse than Jeremy Kerley, Nate Washington and Blackmon. How embarrassing. This isn't the matchup to get him going. Nearly half my top 10 receivers this week are Broncos and Packers. That Lions-Packers game should be a blast. Just don't expect much from Ryan Broyles after he burned many of you in Week 4. I didn't even rank him. It's not looking likely that Rob Gronkowski plays this week, but Danny Amendola could. If you're an Amendola owner, don't overrate him. He is barely top 20 but is over Julian Edelman. I don't think rookie Kenbrell Thompkins is hurt much by injured teammates returning, though. They're not deep threats like he is.
After all, check out what Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer did just a few days ago. Few people even knew who he was, but would wide receiver Josh Gordon have been able to produce monster numbers with Brandon Weeden at the helm? It's not necessarily a recommendation of the quarterback -- statistically or in a supporting role -- to continue trusting those who score the all-important touchdowns and rack up the fantasy numbers. Plus -- as I often say when I refer to Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer and his stud receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, and before him the likes of Denarius Moore and Chad Johnson -- the receivers don't get charged with the interceptions. Don't consider Hoyer or Glennon reasonable fantasy options in 10- or 12-team leagues from the get-go, but don't totally dismiss the possibility that they will get there, and don't automatically downgrade their weapons.
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesThe Bucs' change at quarterback shouldn't affect Doug Martin; he remains a top-10 running back.
Ultimately, the erratic Freeman was not among my top 25 quarterbacks for this week's matchup against Palmer's Cardinals anyway, and neither is Glennon, the tall, strong-armed third-rounder from North Carolina State who will take over for the rest of the season. Freeman's work is done, fortunately. Glennon doesn't need to be Dan Fouts to keep Martin, Jackson and fellow wide receiver Mike Williams relevant, but then again, it's hard to imagine anyone making poorer decisions than the physically capable Freeman was. Martin remains safely among my top 10 running backs. He has managed to generate double-digit fantasy points in all three games despite his team failing to reach 20 actual points in a contest. Martin is getting a ton of touches -- he's first in rushing attempts, second in rushing yards and has 13 receiving targets -- and that should continue.
Jackson (ribs) and Williams (leg) are a bit beaten up physically and questionable for Sunday's game, but both are expected to play. Well, I ranked each the way I normally would, which is to say Jackson is a borderline top-10 WR option, and the underrated Williams belongs in the top 30. Why change now? Jackson led the league in average yards at the catch a season ago, just like in his San Diego Chargers days, and Glennon shouldn't have a deleterious effect there. Glennon has yet to throw an NFL pass, and nobody will credit him for being mobile -- Freeman provided some rushing numbers previously -- but Jackson is good enough to make plays regardless of who's throwing him the ball. Plus, what if Glennon is really good? Everyone who dismissed Russell Wilson a year ago would like a do-over. I got laughed at for projecting Terrelle Pryor in my top 20 last month. And look at Hoyer so far! Hey, I like this quarterback change for the Buccaneers, and for fantasy as well.
Quarterback: Remember the bye weeks! Two of the top five quarterbacks are off in Week 4, meaning that your opponent might be starting a Pryor, Hoyer or Glennon. That might not be such great news for you after all! Pryor (concussion) is questionable for this week, though I love the matchup. If Matt Flynn starts, he would not make my top 25 quarterbacks. Don't assume whoever faces the New Orleans Saints will simply produce top numbers. It hasn't happened yet. I like the Miami Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill, but he didn't make my top 20.
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezKnowshon Moreno got only 13 touches in Week 3, but it was more due to the situation than the player.
Running back: People are getting a bit too down on Denver Broncos option Knowshon Moreno for his poor statistical outing Monday. Yes, Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman played better, but the victory was never in doubt. Moreno didn't need to play much. He's still their top guy, and he's a top-20 RB in my book. I'm not overrating how average Darren Sproles has looked so far, but I'm not too concerned about his tough matchup with Miami. Still top-20 for me. Ahmad Bradshaw owners must be really confused at this point. We all ranked Trent Richardson as a starter, and three of us consider Bradshaw a lesser play than Ryan Mathews, just to add some perspective. Hey, most people wanted to cut Bradshaw after the trade. He's not a bad flex. I haven't totally given up on Daryl Richardson, but I liked 36 other running backs better this week. One of them was his teammate Isaiah Pead. Hey, Richardson had opportunities. I also expect a spirited return to dominant defense for the embarrassed 49ers.
Wide receiver: I also like Anquan Boldin to bounce back against the Rams. Top-20 WR for me. Josh Gordon is a borderline top-20 wide receiver this week, certainly with upside. I just don't like the Ohio matchup for him. The Redskins can't defend. It's why Denarius Moore got a nice bump from me this week, and I could see using Rod Streater in a deep league. Lot of questions about Julian Edelman's value should tight end Rob Gronkowski suit up. I don't think it hurts Edelman one bit. I think when Danny Amendola comes back, it does. Yes, I ranked three Broncos wide receivers among my top 10. Why try to guess which one won't have a big game? All three should against the Eagles. We all seem to like Torrey Smith of the Ravens more than usual for this week at Buffalo. I couldn't go as high as No. 12, though. Smith does seem on the verge of a really big performance, having reached 85-plus yards in all three games.
As you make lineup adjustments to account for injured running backs -- Jackson, the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Rice and the Detroit Lions' Reggie Bush, to name a few -- try to avoid overrating situations like the one in Atlanta. We've seen enough of the diminutive and mostly disappointing Rodgers to know that opportunity doesn't trump talent here. Rodgers does damage in open space, like on screen passes and kick returns, but he hasn't been effective as a pure rusher, and we shouldn't expect that to change now.
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsJust because he's in line to get more of the Falcons' backfield touches this week doesn't mean Jacquizz Rodgers is a sure-fire fantasy starter.
Plus, it was apparent Sunday that the Falcons didn't even want to run the ball after Jackson left the game. Look, if Seattle Seahawks rookie Christine Michael ever saw major opportunity, well, sign me up. As for Rodgers and perhaps Jason Snelling, well, excuse me while I yawn.
My lack of statistical excitement isn't confined to the healthy Falcons running backs. Green Bay Packers rookie Eddie Lacy (concussion) has already been ruled out for Week 3, and everyone and their mailman is adding James Starks. I'm actually OK with that. Add the guys who are getting opportunity. But I'm hardly looking to activate Starks unless my other options are equally underwhelming. Starks had a big second half against the defensively awful Washington Redskins in a blowout win Sunday, but he's not a reborn player. In Starks' first 23 regular-season games, he scored two touchdowns and never topped 85 rushing yards. He hasn't duplicated his playoff magic, which was really just one wild-card game anyway. In other words, he doesn't possess the skills or upside of Lacy, so don't assume he effectively replaces him. Frankly, I expect the Falcons and Packers to throw the ball a ton this week with their backup running backs supplying little offense. It's why Rodgers and Starks aren't among my top 30 running backs this week.
There's a difference in Baltimore and Detroit in that those backups are more proven commodities. Bernard Pierce averaged 4.9 yards per carry as a rookie last year, hitting holes with authority and speed and looking like a future top-10 running back should opportunity arise. We don't know yet if Rice is out for Week 3 because of a strained hip flexor. Perhaps Rice and Pierce will split duties like Arian Foster and Ben Tate with the Houston Texans, deflating value all around. I'm not sure I've ever ranked Rice as barely a top-20 running back, but hey, he's not 100 percent healthy and can't be expected to carry a full workload. It's like Roddy White in Atlanta, who missed my top 30 wide receivers. Name value can get overrated, but be realistic with statistical expectations. In Detroit, Joique Bell is really good, a Rodgers-type catching the ball but also large enough to score rushing touchdowns. If we knew Rice and/or Bush would not play this weekend, it's reasonable to exalt their backups to starting status. Even now with the playing time ambiguity, I rank Pierce/Bell better than Rodgers and Starks, and if they're starting, they're top-20 for me.
Quarterback: I wouldn't panic if you own the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton, the New England Patriots' Tom Brady, the Redskins' Robert Griffin III or the Seahawks' Russell Wilson. These guys ended up in my 8-11 rankings spots, starters for me. Yes, the Kansas City Chiefs' Alex Smith and Arizona Cardinals' Carson Palmer have the shiny matchups -- against the woeful defense of the Philadelphia Eagles and actually somewhat sturdy New Orleans Saints, respectively -- but I'm sticking with what I drafted. Newton isn't suddenly bad now. He finished fourth in overall scoring a year ago. He's running less, like Griffin, but for different reasons. He should remain a fantasy starter. Brady might or might not get tight end Rob Gronkowski back this week -- I ranked Gronk second at TE, just in case -- but I still rely on him. Garbage-time statistics count just the same as first-quarter ones, for all you Griffin complainers. And Wilson doesn't have to face the San Francisco 49ers again for a while. This week it's the Jacksonville Jaguars. Come on.
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezKnowshon Moreno is currently tied for seventh among running backs in ESPN standard scoring as he prepares to face the Raiders.
Running back: I can't say I thought I'd be ranking Denver Broncos veteran Knowshon Moreno in my top 15 at any point this season, but there he is for a satisfying home matchup with the Oakland Raiders. It doesn't mean rookie Montee Ball won't ever take over the Broncos' lead-back duties, but Moreno is the man today. It's hard to trust the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew with a sprained ankle and a tough matchup. The Seahawks have allowed 10 points this season. The Jaguars have scored 11. Stay away. If you own Stevan Ridley, you're perfectly within your rights to never play him again. But he made my top 20 this week. I feel less confident in New York Giants afterthought David Wilson, though I ranked him better than Rodgers and Starks. Know why? He is better. The Giants are 0-2. Just give the kid 25 touches already. I like Cincinnati Bengals rookie Giovani Bernard a tad better than BenJarvus Green-Ellis for fantasy purposes, but I think we know the team is treating this as a timeshare. Neither is more than a flex choice. As for Atlanta's Jackson, he's 30 years old. It's the reason I avoided him in all drafts. It generally takes older players longer to recover from injury.
Wide receiver: No surprises in my top 10, though DeSean Jackson has forced his way in. At this point, we should rely on Michael Vick and Jackson while they're a lethal combination. Of course, no running back or wide receiver has more standard fantasy points than Jackson, who is tied with Eddie Royal at 41 points. Royal is my No. 30 wide receiver. As with Starks, add him, but aim to trade him. Starks will be the better flex play based on expected touches, though. Everyone loves Julian Edelman again this week, but why would his Week 3 numbers be significantly different than Week 2? Sure, in PPR formats, he's top-10. In standard leagues, he's not top-20 for me. I might never like the Chiefs' Dwayne Bowe more than I do against Philly's sorry secondary. Same with Washington's Pierre Garcon against Detroit. So what if most of his numbers come after halftime? Some might want the likes of rookies Tavon Austin and DeAndre Hopkins ranked considerably better. There's so much wide receiver depth that it's tough to move them ahead of still-viable veterans such as Mike Wallace and Anquan Boldin. And yes, many of you should be using wide receivers at the flex spot by now.