- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has been one of the most consistent, durable tight ends over the past eight seasons, but Wednesday's disconcerting news about him having a lacerated spleen and internal bleeding is scary, and enough to send fantasy owners looking elsewhere. Yes, it's possible Witten returns for Week 1 and performs as well as ever, but this situation isn't like that of San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews, who similarly could return from his broken clavicle for September games.
There just aren't enough reliable running backs for fantasy owners to count on this season, but that is not the case at tight end, where some of my favorite late-round sleepers reside. Plus, Mathews has first-round upside; Witten does not.
Witten's stock takes a considerably larger hit than Mathews' stock, for example, and this is certainly reflected in my updated rankings, where Witten went from a safe sixth-round pick to eighth among tight ends and barely top 100 overall. He's now behind Jermichael Finley and Tony Gonzalez (who I seem to be getting in all my drafts). It's nothing against Witten personally, of course, but we need to be realistic about his value.
Frankly, depending on the size of the league and whether I thought my other flex options were such that I might consider using a tight end at that position -- that's new this year within ESPN Fantasy games! -- I might keep bypassing Witten. The risk just isn't worth the reward. He wasn't going to be Rob Gronkowski, after all, and other tight ends also catch many passes. It's hardly uncommon for Witten owners to whine about his lack of touchdown prowess, or being streaky. Miss a game or two or play at a reduced level and I like Brandon Pettigrew, Jared Cook and Jacob Tamme better, too. Tight end is deep this year, no matter the format.
Obviously we'll keep a close eye on Witten's progress, but the latest news has him missing the entire preseason, and Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said it's premature to discuss Week 1. We should all want Witten healthy, for his sake first, because this is a serious injury, one suffered in Monday's preseason game against the Oakland Raiders on what appeared to be a casual hit. It's certainly possible Witten becomes a bit too ignored in drafts the next few weeks, and becomes a sleeper, so don't be too cautious.
As for how the Cowboys potentially move on, I wouldn't call fill-in tight ends John Phillips or James Hanna fantasy-worthy yet, but it's reasonable to wonder about quarterback Tony Romo, who relies on Witten. ESPN Stats & Info reports Romo has completed 72.3 percent of his passes thrown in Witten's direction since 2009, the fourth highest completion percentage among QB/TE combinations in that span. With wide receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin giving many of us pause lately, and running back DeMarco Murray having only seven NFL starts to his name, one can see how the Dallas offense looks potentially sketchy in September. For now, though, I'll leave Romo's stock alone.
Witten's drop in the rankings is clear, but here are some other players who have seen their stock rise and fall recently, either in the average live draft results (ADP) or simple perception. Here is last week's ADP blog entry, too, and you'll see the names change.
Movin' on up
Kevin Smith, RB, Detroit Lions: Smith is not moving up in ADP yet, but the news that Jahvid Best has a six-week date with the PUP list should change that soon. Smith has been running with the first team for a while. Whether he can stay healthy is another (potentially problematic) issue.
Austin Collie, WR, Indianapolis Colts: Rookie Andrew Luck is the quarterback on the move up, and from one preseason game fantasy owners have apparently determined Collie is more valuable now, as well. I happen to agree, at least in theory. Collie's ADP is up 30 spots in a week, and I just hope he can avoid a future concussion.
Vincent Brown, WR, Chargers: Brown remains one of my sleepers, as there is ample opportunity here with Vincent Jackson gone and question marks such as Malcom Floyd and Robert Meachem presumably starting, but he seems to be rising a bit too much due to one preseason performance. He's probably fourth on the depth chart, behind Eddie Royal, as well.
Others: I blogged about the Cedric Benson signing in Green Bay this week, and no player has seen his ADP stock rise as much. ... Rumors about free-agent receiver Plaxico Burress meeting with the New England Patriots were enough to interest fantasy owners, but it's worth noting that New England is not a perfect fit for him to be a fantasy star. ... Why is Matt Cassel rising so precipitously in ADP? Did he suddenly become good? ... Underrated New York Giants tight end Martellus Bennett has moved into Round 15.
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: This is not surprising, as I suspect prospective Martin owners simply presumed LeGarrette Blount would just go away, but this is and was expected to be a time-share, at least initially. I'll likely break this situation down in greater detail soon, but it seems odd the rookie Martin would drop a round (into the eighth) due to news that isn't really news.
Santana Moss, WR, Washington Redskins: Perhaps people are suddenly realizing he's 33 years old, or are confusing him with Randy Moss, a new San Francisco 49ers weapon also dropping in drafts. I wouldn't call Santana Moss a must-have, or even standard league-worthy, but I don't see what has changed recently. He should start. Only Chad Johnson has fallen more among wide receivers over the past week.
LaMichael James, RB, 49ers: There's nothing wrong with Frank Gore, despite the fact the 49ers seemed to add many running back options to aid him. I wouldn't call James the handcuff here, either, and the fact James was featured as a returner in the preseason opener is indication his duties at running back are likely to be minor, causing owners to avoid him.
Others: Goodbye, Chad Johnson. He's actually third among players falling, behind James Starks (hello, Cedric Benson) and Mikel Leshoure. I think Leshoure will end up a sleeper for sure. ... The Chargers' Mathews is falling way too far for my taste, down to pick 38. He's not going to be out that long, people. ... The only quarterback notably dropping is Mark Sanchez. It'd be nice if the Jets were featured once in a while, eh? ... After a big rush to get Terrell Owens upon his Seattle signing, he's dropping again, but so is Sidney Rice. ... The only tight end among the top 50 fallers in the past week is Jacob Tamme, which is not only odd, but wrong.
Eric Karabell looks at the most notable risers and fallers in the fantasy live draft results and determines what Jason Witten's spleen injury should do to his value.