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Four Downs: Sizing up the Falcons' WRs

9/30/2012

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is a gifted talent with the ability to become the best in the game, but after four weeks of football, Jones has made fantasy owners happy only half the time. On Sunday, Jones caught just one of his eight targets, for 30 yards, or three standard fantasy points. Meanwhile, his older colleague Roddy White exploded for 169 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns. It's still a bit early to make season assumptions, but White is and pretty much has always been consistently productive, even when he doesn't have a big game. Jones, however, has been inconsistent and occasionally nonexistent, and fantasy owners are noticing.

The fantasy implications here for a pair of universally owned and potentially top-10 wide receivers on a real-life 4-0 team is that perhaps Jones isn't yet the fantasy monster we thought he was, and White could be underrated. I'll continue to rank Jones well, perhaps among the top 10 on a weekly basis, with the Falcons' offense rolling along like it is. Matt Ryan is playing like a top-5 quarterback, rumors of Michael Turner's demise seem to be greatly exaggerated and Tony Gonzalez is still rocking. There's just a seemingly palpable difference when comparing Jones and White, one that makes me feel better about having gone against popular opinion in ranking White better in the preseason. It looks to be time others reconsider the order of the Atlanta hierarchy, as well.

Consider the facts: Jones followed up his electrifying Week 1 performance at the Kansas City Chiefs (22 fantasy points) with a one-point effort against the Denver Broncos. In Week 3, Jones rebounded for 67 yards and a touchdown (12 fantasy points) against the San Diego Chargers. And then on Sunday fantasy owners got just three points from him. That's 16 fantasy points in the past three weeks, with two stinkers; Donald Jones of the Buffalo Bills had 15 points Sunday alone. If you own Julio Jones, you got little help two of these three weeks, an up-and-down pattern that was easy to overlook when he was a rookie, and in fairness one he seemed to overcome later in the season.

Then there's White, who I ranked ahead of Jones in preseason drafts, more because I trusted the reliable targets leader over the upstart youngster. I wasn't concerned about Jones. I'm only partially worried now, not enough to sell high or rank him outside the top 20 anytime soon. But check White's four-week run, and you'll see there are no games with one fantasy point or one reception, or both. White scored eight fantasy points in Week 1, followed it with 16 points against Denver, five points in San Diego and then Sunday's 28-point explosion. White's consistency is one reason he's so beloved. There's reason to love both Atlanta wide receivers, though apparently not in the same week, and surely Jones will have big weeks, but in my next end-of-season rankings, White is going back in front of Jones, for consistency's sake, and each will be in the top 10.

Second down: Nobody rushed for more yards Sunday (entering the Sunday night game) than -- you guessed it -- polarizing Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson. He exploded for 141 yards on 25 attempts (he finished with 15 fantasy points) despite facing arguably the AFC's top defense in the Houston Texans, and doing so having gained a grand total of 45 rushing yards on 33 attempts the first three weeks. I ranked Johnson poorly for Week 4, knowing those things, accepting that I'd miss his first good game, whenever it came. I just felt it was tough to trust Johnson until he produced a game like this. Now that he has, should fantasy owners trust him? Could the big change in performance really be related to the change in quarterback, with youngster Jake Locker likely out a while with a shoulder injury and veteran Matt Hasselbeck taking over? That seems too simplistic. Johnson will face another difficult matchup, at least on paper, at the Minnesota Vikings in Week 5, but he will return to my top 20 running backs -- barely -- in the season and weekly rankings, because the ability was always there. Now we've finally seen him perform well. Week 4 was your warning not to miss future outings like this one.

Third down: New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley was coming off a rough Week 3 outing, with three fantasy points, but he didn't disappoint Sunday, rushing for 106 yards and scoring two touchdowns, for 22 fantasy points. Of course, this performance won't stop Ridley owners from whining about a potential time-share with undrafted rookie Brandon Bolden, after he rambled for 137 rushing yards and one score in the same game, one in which the Patriots ran up 52 points on the beleaguered Buffalo Bills. While Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan gets picked on the most for altering his running back plans on a whim, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has had his moments over the years, as well. Ridley owners need not worry, as this was Bolden's first taste of significant snaps, and it happened in a blowout win. Don't rush to the free-agent wire to sign him, but I admit that as much as I like Ridley and regard him as a clear top-20 running back for the season, there's an Alfred Morris-type concern deep in the back of my mind that the coach wouldn't need much prodding to change things. For now, enjoy both Ridley and Morris, though.

Fourth down: Do make a free-agent claim on Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline, who had the biggest day of any wide receiver this season with 31 fantasy points Sunday, catching 12 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown, and doing so on a cool 19 targets. Remember Danny Amendola in Week 2 (15 receptions, 160 yards, 16 targets)? Well, Hartline topped it, even the targets. The Dolphins aren't the Green Bay Packers or New Orleans Saints, so don't expect this type of production consistently, but he has been rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill's top target so far. The Ohio State product doesn't have Julio Jones-like skills by any means, and his Sunday touchdown was only his sixth receiving score in 48 career games, but there's Amendola-type upside in point-per-reception formats, and he's nearly halfway to 1,000 receiving yards already. Look for Hartline to be a popular, and deserving, free-agent add this week, and among my top 30 wide receivers for Week 5 when the Dolphins return to the road to face the Cincinnati Bengals.