One might think the names on a free agent list in a fantasy football league are far less relevant and not as important by the time Week 16 arrives, but I would argue that is hardly the case, especially this season. On the contrary, as those owning Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Dwayne Bowe have found out in recent weeks, players like Tim Tebow, Donald Brown and Jacoby Ford could end up deciding fantasy championships.
Of course, while fantasy owners were given fair warning about Rodgers not playing in Week 15 and Bowe's situation with recuperating quarterback Matt Cassel had been well chronicled, there's not much you can do when the Minnesota Vikings announce an hour or so before Monday's contest that one of the top players in the game is actually being deemed inactive. Yes, amid all the Brett Favre and weather hoopla surrounding the Monday night tilt, Peterson's absence ends up the biggest difference maker in fantasy. I was caught off-guard, but having owned backup Toby Gerhart, I was able to salvage enough points to win. I know many others were not as fortunate. Yo, Adrian ... boo!
But one team's misfortune tends to be another's windfall, and Gerhart becomes one of the prime pickups for Week 16. I don't know if Peterson will play Sunday night in Philadelphia -- we didn't know he'd sit Monday until dinner time! -- but it certainly makes sense for the Vikings to allow their top player ample time to heal from his knee/ankle/thigh injuries. I can't imagine Favre will foolishly drag his battered body out for another game, either. Peterson isn't winning a rushing title, there's no consecutive games streak, the games are on the road, why bother?
It very well could be Joe Webb and Gerhart handling things and when I'm offered the chance to rely on a rookie quarterback or running back, with each getting opportunity, I'll take the running back. Hey, Gerhart looked capable rushing 16 times for 77 yards, and he has a nice college resume'. He can catch passes as well. While his fumble Monday meant that he finished with a pedestrian six fantasy points, that's still six more points than Peterson earned. Looking ahead to this week, the Eagles don't stop the run quite like the Bears do.
Anyway, we should know later in the week the progress, if any, Peterson is making. Of course, he's not the only injured running back to watch, and that creates fantasy opportunity. Here are other prime running back pickups of this week, all unowned in more leagues than not (disqualifying the 62 percent owned Donald Brown of the Indianapolis Colts), followed by a position-by-position free agent primer:
Derrick Ward, RB, Houston Texans: Like Gerhart, he may or may not get a chance this week. On the other hand, he's older and has disappointed fantasy owners numerous times since his breakout 2008 campaign. Arian Foster leads the NFL in rushing and only the awesome Michael Vick has more fantasy points this season, but Foster left Sunday's game with muscle spasms in his glutes. It's a wonderful matchup against the Denver Broncos this week, and if we know Foster can't go, Ward would become a prime flex choice. Of course, if Foster can play, he might be our top running back of the week.
Tashard Choice, RB, Dallas Cowboys: I can't think of a better way to spend Christmas night than watching Choice tear up the Arizona Cardinals' defense, can you? Choice has scored in two of the past three weeks, getting 16 fantasy points against the Colts and 14 more against the Washington Redskins this past Sunday. Only the Broncos allow more fantasy points to running backs than the Cardinals, and while Felix Jones is still in the picture, Choice is the one who scores the touchdowns. Frankly, it's a tad embarrassing it took this long for him to get consistent opportunity.
Lance Ball, RB, Denver Broncos: Who? This is Knowshon Moreno's backup, and while he certainly didn't impress this past weekend, gaining a mere 20 yards on 15 carries, it would seem unlikely Moreno would be pushed into action. The Broncos are, after all, going with a rookie quarterback, and Moreno has solidified his place as the 2011 starter. Ball, an undrafted free agent with moderate college statistics at Maryland, and then part of the depth puzzle with the Colts in 2008, isn't someone I would trust in Week 16, not like I would Ward or Choice, but some of you might be digging deeper. Plus, the Broncos face the Texans. Any statistic seems possible!
Quarterbacks: I blogged about Tebow on Monday, so let's not belabor the point. While I personally can't trust a rookie in a fantasy playoff matchup, I sure don't want to see my opponent use Tebow, either. And it couldn't be a better matchup. Among the passers owned in fewer than half of ESPN's leagues whom I'd trust more are David Garrard (facing the Redskins), Chad Henne (Lions), Jon Kitna (Cardinals), Rex Grossman (Jaguars) and Jason Campbell (Colts). Also, don't forget about the Lions' Shaun Hill. His broken right index finger is apparently healed and he might start this week. Hill has averaged nearly 20 points in his past six full games.
Running backs: Maurice Morris comes off a 100-yard, 17-fantasy-point game, albeit with the aid of overtime, but still, I think we have to rank him ahead of rookie Jahvid Best. Morris does not have a good matchup against the Miami Dolphins, however. I'd also take a look, in deep leagues, at Dominic Rhodes. He's back! And while I also blogged about Donald Brown on Monday, Rhodes received nine carries in tandem and clearly leapfrogged Javarris James in the hierarchy. Rhodes might matter these last two weeks. Chris Ivory of the New Orleans Saints has fallen below the 50 percent ownership threshold, which is a mistake if he's able to perform this week. Reggie Bush lost four yards on his four rushing attempts. Don't cut Ivory.
Wide receivers: With Terrell Owens going on IR with a knee injury, and Chad Ochocinco's foot hurting, we could see a healthy dose of Andre Caldwell. There's not a ton to like about Carson Palmer and the Cincinnati Bengals' passing offense, but Caldwell should see opportunity. As for the Colts, I'm not necessarily rooting for Austin Collie to sit, but this fellow is piling on the concussions. Blair White should be relevant the final two weeks, games the Colts will need to win. Meanwhile, let's not overrate the Rex Grossman performance for the Redskins, even though his four touchdown passes represented double the best Donovan McNabb output. However, he made Santana Moss and Anthony Armstrong relevant. Armstrong is the one not owned in many leagues. Jacoby Ford of the Oakland Raiders, Emmanuel Sanders of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Brian Robiskie of the Cleveland Browns are also intriguing and very much available.
Good luck with your free agent pickups this week!