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Four Downs: Locker steps up for Titans

12/11/2011

Tennessee Titans rookie Jake Locker wasn't the only reserve quarterback to play well Sunday -- John Skelton and Joe Webb were impressive, as well -- but he's certainly the most interesting heading into Week 15, and not only because he will likely get to face the winless Indianapolis Colts. Locker hasn't played very much in his first season, but Titans fans and fantasy owners have now seen a pair of impressive relief performances, and want to see what the University of Washington product can do as a starter.

Veteran Matt Hasselbeck, the second-most added quarterback in the past week, likely due to the potential shootout matchup with the New Orleans Saints, left early Sunday with a calf injury, and has a Monday MRI pending. There's little question Locker, the No. 8 overall draft pick, is the team's future, and the future threw for 282 yards and a touchdown in three quarters against the Saints, while also running six times for 36 yards and another score. Way back in Week 11 at the Atlanta Falcons, Locker tossed a pair of touchdown passes in relief, as well.

For perspective, Hasselbeck last threw for as many as 220 passing yards in Week 9, and he's not a runner. Hasselbeck also has struggled notably of late, totaling 14 fantasy points in Weeks 11-13. Locker's 24 standard fantasy points not only topped anything Hasselbeck had done this season, but were topped in Week 14 (entering Sunday night) by only Matt Ryan and Mark Sanchez (and tied him with Tom Brady). His time is here, and fantasy owners who targeted a struggling Hasselbeck based on the Saints matchup are going to be interested in the rookie considering the Colts matchup. In a deeper league, it's tough to blame them.

Then again, we haven't seen Locker start a game at the NFL level, and even against the Colts things might not go quite as planned -- the Colts don't stop the run, either, so Chris Johnson could go nuts -- but Locker certainly seemed to play Sunday unlike most inexperienced rookies. As Titans guard Jake Scott said: "Jake played well. He played composed. He made good decisions, he moved us down the field [four] times. He did his job as well as you could expect."

For most fantasy owners the playoffs began this week, and perhaps no owner in a standard league would need to consider a free-agent pickup in the first place. There are at least 12 safer, reliable options for Week 15. But those in deeper formats will need to consider Locker, assuming he gets the opportunity. Consider that in ESPN standard leagues, only 10 quarterbacks were active in more than half of leagues; Hasselbeck was active in nearly 20 percent of leagues. Those owners should explore other options regardless of his health. Other owners relied on Carson Palmer, Josh Freeman, Andy Dalton and Michael Vick and nobody in that crew -- including Vick, who faces the New York Jets in Week 15 -- played well in Week 14. The Colts are pretty bad. If the Titans let Locker play, this could work out well in fantasy.

Second down: Speaking of rookies, Atlanta Falcons speedster Julio Jones showed his best -- and worst -- in one performance, leaving fantasy owners tantalized. Jones has been dropping too many of Matt Ryan's passes lately, and Sunday was no different, but the Alabama product also scored touchdowns on two of the three passes he did haul in. Jones, targeted eight times, scored on plays of 17 and 75 yards in the fourth quarter. His 22 fantasy points tied with Marques Colston atop the fantasy leaderboard heading into the Sunday night game. Jones, who missed playing time in November with a hamstring injury, now has a pair of 20-plus fantasy performances this season. For perspective, Calvin Johnson, the top fantasy wide receiver for the season, has only three 20-point outings, and none since Week 4. Jones appears to be on the cusp of stardom, but was active in only 19.2 percent of leagues this week, barely among the 40 most popular wide receivers. Jones should be closer to the top 20 at his position.

Third down: Meanwhile, second-year wide receiver Demaryius Thomas of the Denver Broncos was also impressive, catching seven passes from Tim Tebow for 78 yards and a touchdown. Thomas was targeted 13 times, second on Sunday to only Percy Harvin of the Minnesota Vikings (15 targets). While there was some reason for Thomas skepticism in Week 13, when teammate Eric Decker saw more defensive attention and Thomas broke free for 144 receiving yards and two touchdowns on only four receptions against the Vikings, Week 14 was different. Tebow was clearly looking for the Georgia Tech product. Like Julio Jones, Thomas can be inconsistent in terms of focus, but his ability is not in question. With a tasty matchup against the New England Patriots pending in Week 15, Thomas looks like a potential top 20 wide receiver option.

Fourth down: Finally, Green Bay Packers veteran running back Ryan Grant broke through for his best game since the 2009 season, rushing 10 times for 85 yards Sunday. He exploded for a 47-yard touchdown jaunt minutes into the 46-16 blowout win over the Oakland Raiders, and added a 6-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. With starter James Starks inactive with an ankle injury, Grant stepped up, scoring his first touchdowns of the season. He showed speed and burst that certainly seemed missing just a week prior, when he ran 13 times for 29 yards against the New York Giants. Grant was added in more than 8 percent of leagues for this week based on his opportunity, and active in 24.7 percent of leagues. Only Maurice Jones-Drew and Shonn Greene scored more fantasy points at running back. Considering Grant entered Week 14 with 31 fantasy points all season, fantasy owners shouldn't assume the old Grant, the one who ran for 1,253 yards and scored 11 touchdowns in 2009, is necessarily back, but if Starks misses Week 15, Grant is a reasonable flex option.