- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
An outsider to the fantasy football world might think that by Week 17, ranking fantasy options is a quick and simple exercise because we've been doing this for four months and should have ample evidence of who can and cannot play well. On the contrary, this is the toughest week to predict because there are so many variables, with half the teams showing varying degrees of interest in using their top options. Which key players can fantasy football owners trust to even play in Week 17, let alone play well? This is why many fantasy championships are purposely decided by Week 16 or sooner. Take the underachieving work done by the Philadelphia Eagles on Tuesday night as an example of how quickly things can change.
Had the Eagles handled their business and beaten the seemingly inferior Minnesota Vikings at home, Michael Vick probably would have ranked as fantasy's top quarterback option for Week 17. Instead, thanks to a miserable loss to rookie Joe Webb and friends, this Sunday's Eagles-Dallas Cowboys game has no bearing on postseason seeding, and I doubt Vick will even dress for the game. In fact, I didn't even rank him! I don't really buy into the mindset that this game (and others like it) is "meaningless," because a lot of NFL players want/need to perform at a high level to make a statement. However, we often see unknowns do well. Consider this point, fantasy owners: We have our keeper leagues, but the NFL is the ultimate keeper football league, and guys like Webb want to be a part of it.
As a result, you'll see some unusual names in high places in my Week 17 rankings as well as some key season-long producers either placing far lower than in any previous week or flat-out missing the ranks altogether. Had a battered Vick been able to overcome Philly's pathetic lack of protection and lead his team to victory, his fantasy owners could have counted on another 20-25 points from him Sunday against a bad Dallas defense. Now I think Kevin Kolb will get to enjoy himself instead, so I ranked him just outside the top-10 choices. Heck, it's possible even Kolb might not play the entire game, ceding the second half to rookie Mike Kafka from Northwestern. For the Eagles, this has the feel and importance of a preseason game. There's little reason to endanger Vick, DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and others.
Week 17 is something of a guessing game, and our rankings reflect this. I'm still going to trust the players who got me to this point if I think they are going to be permitted to make their points Sunday. For instance, Peyton Manning is still going to be a monster. Arian Foster should go nuts. And Brandon Lloyd is obviously still interested in reminding his former teams what they are now missing.
For the record, the teams that I think are in the most fantasy disarray for this weekend, meaning it's difficult to expect normal statistical performance from the stars, are the Eagles, New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Bears and New York Jets. In addition, "lottery" teams such as the Houston Texans and Detroit Lions would seem to have little justification in pushing their stud wide receivers Andre Johnson and Calvin Johnson, each due for a premature end to their seasons in terms of health.
Be careful, fantasy owners, and follow the news Sunday morning. You might not want to trust guys like Jerome Harrison and Jerome Simpson, but at least we know they'll be out there making a difference.
Here are a few other thoughts about the odd Week 17 rankings:
One Giant mess: I will discuss Wednesday's breaking news about Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback David Garrard a bit later, but we also found out Wednesday that New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks broke his toe in Sunday's demolition loss. Thus I pulled him from my rankings just hours after ranking him as my No. 5 wide receiver. Yes, the Giants need to win, but I find it hard to believe Nicks will suit up. Mario Manningham moved into my top-20 wide receivers, and I had already trusted running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs more than I thought I would.
Raiding the fridge: Someone in the Oakland Raiders backfield is going to have a big Week 17 game, and I'm hardly sure it will be Darren McFadden, who left last week's game prematurely with either an ankle injury or turf toe, depending on whom you ask. I think Michael Bush could be very valuable this weekend. For now I ranked both players in the top 20, but the injury news will dictate which running back remains there.
Prime time! Just because the St. Louis Rams-Seattle Seahawks tilt represents the league's lone night game, it's no reason to overrate the individual participants in it. These are two sub-.500 teams that have a combined one legitimate fantasy starter (Steven Jackson). Yes, you'll get to watch this game no matter where you live, but I resisted the temptation to make Marshawn Lynch, Danny Amendola and either of the quarterbacks better choices than they normally are. I do like Mike Williams more than I thought I would, even knowing Charlie Whitehurst could end up starting; talent is talent, and the Rams can be thrown on. Even by Whitehurst.
Eric Karabell analyzes this week's tough rankings decisions, including Eagles weapons Michael Vick and DeSean Jackson, the Raiders' running backs and more.