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Four Downs: Peyton Hillis the real deal

9/27/2010

A pair of Peytons went off for fantasy football owners Sunday, but only one of them was active in more than a third of ESPN leagues. The one you surely know is Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, delivering the second-highest score among quarterbacks, behind only Michael Vick. The Peyton fantasy owners need to know better is Cleveland Browns bulldozing running back Peyton Hillis, whose time-share buddy, Jerome Harrison, was deemed inactive for Sunday's game. Hillis exploded for 180 total yards and a touchdown, ranking third among running backs in standard fantasy scoring, behind only Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson.

Until Sunday, it seemed Browns coach Eric Mangini wanted Harrison to be the team's top running back. Regardless of Hillis' early production, Mangini told reporters a few weeks ago, in the aftermath of hotshot rookie Montario Hardesty's tearing his ACL, that he expected Harrison to seize the opportunity. In Week 1, Harrison and Hillis split the carries. In Week 2, Harrison got double the touches of Hillis, but did little with them. Leading up to Sunday's game, Harrison was dealing with a thigh injury, missed a few practices, and then on Sunday morning was ruled out for the game.

It would have made perfect sense for the Browns to pair Hillis with second-year Clemson product James Davis, who has seemed to be knocking on the proverbial door for months, but that's not how things played out. Hillis earned 22 carries against the Baltimore Ravens' stout defense, and led the team with seven receptions as well. Davis saw four rushes. The Ravens' defense had not allowed a touchdown this season and is generally not easy to run all over, but Hillis single-handedly kept his winless, though competitive, team in the game.

While Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Anquan Boldin are the big story today, as noted by colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft in his fine Week 3 Instant Replay, the fact is that those fellows are close to 100 percent owned (due to impatient owners, Flacco was somehow down to 95.3 percent owned). Hillis is owned in 70.5 percent of ESPN leagues, and was active in only 32.5 percent of them this week. That makes sense; the Harrison deactivation was Sunday morning news, and the opponent was the Ravens. I wouldn't have looked at Hillis as more than a flex play. But now, with four teams on bye in Week 4 -- including the Minnesota Vikings and Peterson -- it's possible Hillis becomes a must-start, maybe even a top-10 option.

While I'm still a bit skeptical that Hillis will take this job and produce 23 fantasy points each week, I do like his chances to keep running well and hold off the smaller Harrison, who might soon become as relevant as Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb. In retrospect, it's clear that the fact Mangini loaded up Harrison with an average of 35 rushes per game in Weeks 14-16 last December means nothing now, because like Vick's emergence, the Browns have changed course and gone with the hot hand. With Hillis averaging 5.6 yards per carry and having scored in all three games, so should fantasy owners.

Here are a few more noticeable things from Sunday's action:

Second down: A Dallas Cowboys wide receiver went off Sunday, but it wasn't superstar Miles Austin or the next big thing, rookie Dez Bryant. Remember Roy E. Williams? Yeah, he's still a Cowboy, and after producing five fantasy points the first two weeks combined, he rummaged through the leaky Houston Texans secondary for 117 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Were fantasy owners a bit too excited about Austin and Bryant? Not one bit. Austin will challenge for the honor of fantasy's top wide receiver, especially if Andre Johnson misses time, and Bryant has a nice future. View Williams' big Week 3 as an aberration, one of many we will see with wide receivers this season, and don't pick him up, especially since the Cowboys are off this week.

Third down: I know someone who left his draft with Kolb and Brett Favre at quarterback, and will need to rely on St. Louis Rams rookie Sam Bradford in Week 4. You know what, that might not be such a bad thing at all. Bradford will make mistakes, but the kid engineered an impressive home win over the Washington Redskins on Sunday. He's averaging 10 fantasy points per game, with the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions pending. I'm thinking he'll be near my top 15 -- out of 24 eligible starting quarterbacks -- the next two weeks.

Fourth down: We rarely discuss kickers, and for good reason, but only six kickers are owned in more leagues than Garrett Hartley of the New Orleans Saints. Only six were started in more leagues this week. It's not official that the defending champs will dump the erratic Hartley, who missed a short field goal in overtime Sunday, but that time is coming. I won't bore you with the details of which kickers to add -- close your eyes and see where you click! -- but you must make sure the kicker you own is employed by an NFL team and performing competently. I'm sure some fantasy owners lost in Week 1 when Hartley missed both his field-goal chances, and more will lose in Week 3. We don't discuss kickers much, but you should make sure you have a decent option (i.e., better than Hartley has been).