Last week, Brandon Jackson went from a no-name back-up on his own team, unowned in most fantasy leagues, to the consensus number one waiver selection after just one play - the injury to Ryan Grant. I didn't feature Jackson during the preseason, but the things that made him the top waiver selection - the chance for a feature role on an elite offense - are what I'm constantly emphasizing when evaluating waiver selections. In other words, "can I envision a scenario where this player will become a fantasy starter?" With Jackson, the answer was obviously "yes."
But enough about the past. The question now is "who's the next Brandon Jackson?" As I've indicated in prior articles, I'm partial towards the teams with good offenses. That's the appeal of a guy like Jackson - not only does he have the potential to be a feature back, but he might get starter's carries on one of the NFL's best offenses. Chances are, the top waiver claims in future weeks will fit this description as well.
With this in mind, here are my thoughts entering Week 3.
Josh Freeman, QB, Bucs: The gap between the top-tier QBs and the rest of the league is larger than ever. Quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers keep putting up ridiculous stats, whereas second-tier options like Brett Favre, Vince Young, Carson Palmer, and Joe Flacco are struggling. This, along with the penchant for many coaches to change QBs at the drop of a hat, makes waiver selections among QBs very unappealing. Basically, in my view, you need an established stud at QB or you're going to suffer all season. Among the QBs outside the top 10, the only one who has my attention at all, and even this is a lukewarm endorsement, is Freeman. Don't get me wrong - I think Freeman's four TDs the first two weeks are largely a product of playing subpar pass defenses, and I worry that his supporting cast is a bit inexperienced, especially at WR. But Freeman is the future in Tampa, so he'll be given some rope, and he's starting to show signs of being a franchise QB. I tend to think Freeman is a year or two away, but unlike about half the QBs in the league, Freeman has the potential to grow into something special, perhaps soon. Remember, you never know when a young QB will show significant growth and emerge as a stud. Just don't expect it this week against the Steelers.
Alex Smith, QB, 49ers: I wasn't going to include Smith in this article, but his performance against the Saints was eye-opening. Suddenly, it seems appropriate to note that Smith is surrounded by three current or potential Pro Bowlers on offense (Gore, Davis, and Crabtree) and a good offensive line. The 49ers are still a defense-oriented, run-first team, but like Freeman, Smith is one of the few QBs with a chance to break out. Remember, upside is the key for your bench spots.
Jason Snelling, RB, Falcons: With some backups, we have to speculate about how they'd perform in a starting role. Not so with Snelling. Last week, when Michael Turner was injured, Snelling proved, as he did in 2009, that he can handle the starting role successfully if given the chance. Before the season, I wondered whether Jerious Norwood would relegate Snelling to third string, but it appears Norwood has a significant knee injury. It appears Turner will be back this week, but even if he is, Snelling is one of the highest-upside backups in all of football. Of players likely to be on waivers, Snelling is who I'd claim first overall this week.
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Bills: Last week, I put Lynch in the "Dead to Me" portion of this column, as, sadly, it's clear the Bills offense is not conducive to Lynch being relevant for fantasy purposes. But a funny thing happened last week - the Bills put Lynch in a feature role. Let's be clear, though - I'm not listing Lynch here because of his prospects on the Bills. Admittedly, I don't know for sure whether he was being showcased for a potential trade, but let me put it this way: do you think Chan Gailey gave up on first-round pick C.J. Spiller after just one game? I sure don't. So why do you think Spiller went from the starter in Week 1 to zero carries in Week 2? For me, the answer is clear - the Bills wanted to showcase Lynch for the team they were playing - the Packers. After all, Brandon Jackson is not established as a starting RB, whereas Lynch has a Pro Bowl on his resume. Plus, Lynch played with Aaron Rodgers at Cal, and Rodgers is already on record saying that he'd like to play with Lynch (noting his 9.0 YPC at Cal). I still put Lynch's chances of getting traded at less than 50%, but I'm convinced he'd be a top ten fantasy RB if traded to the Packers. The upside there justifies a roster spot.
Sammy Morris, RB, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB, Patriots: With Laurence Maroney in Denver, there are suddenly just three backs left standing in New England (not including Kevin Faulk, who we all know is just a third down back). Fred Taylor is the starter, and is owned in most leagues, but he's 34 and has virtually no chance of staying healthy all season. If and when Taylor is out of the picture, that leaves Morris and Ellis to vie for starter's carries on a team with a top-tier offense. I'm confident there will come a point this year when Morri and/or Green-Ellis will be started by most fantasy owners.
Mike Tolbert, RB, Chargers: A subscriber was talking about Tolbert on the Live Blog on Sunday, and with Ryan Mathews' injury, Tolbert is worth discussing. As I see it, if Mathews is healthy, Tolbert has little value in his own right (except in TD-only leagues), but he will steal value from Mathews if he keeps the goal-line gig. If Mathews is hurt, I suppose Tolbert has value, but I'm not sold that a guy with afullback's body is going to become a fantasy starter. To illustrate, here's what Chris Liss said in his offseason profile: "Tolbert is the second string fullback in San Diego, which means the offensive touches will be few and far between." I suppose there is potential on a high-scoring offense, particularly since Norv Turner loves to run inside the 10. But let's put it this way - if anyone wants to make a friendly wager that Tolbert's Week 2 stats (82 rushing yards, 2 TDs) won't be the best single-game stats he sees this year, I'll throw down with you.
Earnest Graham, RB, Bucs: I don't have an explanation on why pre-season sleeper Kareem Huggins hasn't been playing. It may be that if Cadillac Williams were out that Huggis would be given the feature role (and that Graham is better-suited for part-time touches). But right now, what I see is that Graham is performing and Huggins is an afterthought. I realize the Bucs aren't a top-tier offense, but with Cadillac Williams struggling to the tune of 2.6 YPC, a change may not be far off (even if Williams stays healthy).
Chris Ivory, RB, Saints: As I type this, Reggie Bush was just helped off the field, then carted to the locker room. I have no idea how serious his injury is, but if Bush is out a while, then Ivory, once he recovers from his own knee injury, becomes a high-upside backup. I'm not saying Ivory can fill Bush's shoes, or even his role in the Saints offense, but if Bush's injury is significant, then Pierre Thomas is all that stands between Ivory and a big role on an elite offense.
Kevin Walter, WR, Texans: Years ago, no team ever had three receivers on the same team who were all relevant for fantasy purposes. Without researching it, I'd say Kurt Warner's Rams, with Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, and Az Zahir Hakim, were the first. Nowadays, though, many of the teams with elite offenses have three fantasy-relevant WRs. The Colts have Wayne, Garcon, and Collie. The Packers have Jennings, Driver, and Jones. The Texans, who now belong in that same category, have Andre Johnson, Jacoby Jones, and Walter. If it seems like Walter's stats are a fluke (since he had just two TDs in all of 2009), remember that he scored eight times in 2008. On a Texans offense that looks special, Walter can stay relevant all season.
James Jones, WR, Packers: See Kevin Walter. Plus, if you didn't notice how Aaron Rodgers distributed his targets last week, check it out: Jones 7, Jermichael Finley 6, Donald Driver 5, Greg Jennings 5. Rodgers' willingness to throw to the open man, and lack of a "go-to" receiver, helps explain why Jones had 6 TDs last year and Jennings had just 4. I'm not saying Jones is better than Jennings, but if I can get "in" on the Packers offense by making a waiver claim, I'll gladly do so.
David Thomas, TE, Saints: Thomas is fighting for carries among numerous Saints, including fellow TE Jeremy Shockey. Shockey is injury-prone, though, and Thomas' upside is clear. Thomas is sort of an H-back, so if Bush's injury is serious, I could see Thomas getting a few of his touches.
Patriots D/ST: If you like to play the matchups on defense, this week's matchup for the Patriots should have you licking your chops. They get the hapless Bills, who are making a QB change, in Foxboro. The Patriots should be plenty motivated coming off a loss; I see a 38-10 type of game here.
Dead to me:
Bernard Berrian, WR, Vikings: With Sidney Rice out for several weeks, Berrian had a chance to emerge as Brett Favre's go-to target. Instead, Berrian has been absolutely invisible, with just nine targets in two games and three catches for 27 yards. Tellingly, on the potential game-winning drive against the Dolphins, Berrian was nowhere to be seen, with Favre targeting Greg Lewis and Visanthe Shiancoe. If you disagree with me, wait one more week. The Vikings play the Lions this week, and the Lions have been historically bad on pass defense the past 2(+) seasons. If Berrian can't do anything this week, he's done.
Steve Breaston, WR, Cardinals: When a team's offense is so bad that the coach is changing QBs like he changes underwear, the second receiver is the one who suffers most. Larry Fitzgerald is still going to get his, but Breaston's value has fallen through the floor. These aren't the 2009 Cardinals, where Kurt Warner will ensure Breaston's value. I suppose I wouldn't cut Breaston in a deep league, but I'll be surprised if there's a point this season where I wish he was on my team.