As we head into Week 4 of the NFL season, the theme of this article will change just a bit. I'm still going to target players with upside, as you never know when they'll break out. Last week, for instance, a subscriber asked me if I had given up on Lance Moore. I answered with an emphatic "no," and Moore finally showed why. You can't give up on guys like Moore, Pierre Garcon (if anyone cut him, make him your first waiver claim), and other high-upside players on good offenses. To the greatest extent possible, keep stashing these guys on your bench.
That said, Week 4 means the start of bye weeks. We have to bench our stars (this week it's Tony Romo, Adrian Peterson, Miles Austin, Jamaal Charles, Thomas Jones, Dwayne Bowe, Visanthe Shiancoe, Kellen Winslow, Vikings D, and Cowboys D) and we need someone to start in their place, so we can't use all our bench spots on high-upside players - we need someone to start in Week 4. No matter the league format, we'll all be forced to start someone we just claimed on waivers. Deciding who can make or break your fantasy season. Who do you choose?
This is when I start studying the stats of NFL defenses. Which teams struggle against the run? Which teams give out passing yards like candy on Halloween? The usual caveats about small sample sizes apply, but some trends are emerging. For instance, the Jaguars have allowed a league-high 9.9 YPA (that's an insane figure, BTW) and 7 passing TDs. The Texans are similarly inept, giving up a league-high 368 yards per game and 6 TDs. The Lions (8.3 YPA) and Patriots (7.5 YPA, 7 TDs allowed) also strike me as teams whose pass defenses can be exploited. What intrigues me about the Patriots is they've played three mediocre at best passing offenses (Bengals, Jets, Bills), yet they're still among the worst in the league statistically. The Lions are much less of a surprise - I've been suggesting QBs and WRs against them for three years now, and it seems little has changed.
Bruce Gradkowski, QB, Raiders: Lost in the midst of Sebastian Janikowski's attempt to out-choke Garrett Hartley was the solid play of Gradkowski. He's obviously not an elite NFL quarterback, but he's at least league average, and that's more than the Raiders can say about any of their QBs in recent memory. This week, the Raiders should be playing from behind against a Texans team that can be had through the air. If you have to bench Tony Romo this week, you could do worse than Gradkowski. There's even some long-term upside here, as the Raiders have some young, speedy receivers and Gradkowski may grow into the position.
Chad Henne, QB, Dolphins: Henne looked good on Sunday night against a solid Jets defense. This week, he gets a Patriots defense that I already profiled, above. As long as the Dolphins game-plan to score 30 (realizing they'll have to keep pace with Brady), and don't try to wildcat themselves to a victory, Henne should be good for 250 yards and 2 TDs.
Peyton Hillis, RB, Browns: This is my brother's first year playing fantasy football, and this weekend he asked me for advice. I saw he had Hillis in his starting lineup (in a 10-team league) and encouraged him to bench Hillis because they were playing the Ravens. He stubbornly noted that Hillis had scored two straight weeks and started him anyway. After a breakout performance against the Ravens, what can I say? In retrospect, there were three reasons I was wrong: Jerome Harrison's late scratch, the Ravens run defense isn't as good as the name brand suggests (4.7 YPC), and Hillis is better than I realized. Hillis is still unowned in some leagues; make him your top waiver priority if he's available. I still don't see Hillis as a stud, but he's getting goal line touches and feature carries, and that's more than most RBs can say.
LeGarrette Blount, RB, Bucs: It's been a carousel for the Bucs at backup running back, with Kareem Huggins, Kregg Lumpkin, Earnest Graham, and Blount all in the mix at one point or another (plus Derrick Ward if you want to go back to the preseason). This battle matters, too, even on a below average offense, because Cadillac Williams has struggled mightily (2.5 YPC). Right now, it looks like Blount is the RB to own, perhaps even above Cadillac, as he scored last week and is rumored to be worked into the offense during the Bucs bye this week. Blount is riskier than Cadillac in that he's still second string, but Blount's ceiling is higher.
Ryan Torain, RB, Redskins: Remember everything I said about Keiland Williams last week? It all applies, but to Torain, not Williams. This shouldn't surprise us, since Mike Shanahan has always liked Torain, but Torain went from the practice squad to the backup tailback in one week. All that stands between Torain and significant carries is the aging, oft-injured Clinton Portis.
Louis Murphy, WR, Raiders: Murphy looks like Gradkowski's top option, and he gets the Texans porous secondary this week. Receivers from the University of Florida haven't fared well in the NFL, but Murphy may buck the trend.
Earl Bennett, WR, Bears: Is there room on the Jay Cutler bandwagon? If so, consider me on board. The Bears WR situation reminds me a bit of the Saints - there are too many able bodies, even on a good offense, for all of them to be fantasy starters. The upside is obvious, though, especially if injuries strike. Bennett is slowly moving up the food chain - Devin Aromashodu was inactive on Monday against the Packers, and Devin Hester is inconsistent at best.
Devin Thomas, WR, Redskins: Santana Moss has been a stud through three weeks, but Joey Galloway has just 3 catches through three games.
Dustin Keller, TE, Jets: This week's matchup is a good one for Keller, against a bad Bills team, but forget matchups - Keller looks like a top-5 tight end. Despite his emergence, Keller is unowned in more than half of ESPN leagues. Keller is going to be the top waiver claims in a lot of leagues this week.
Saints D/ST: The Saints are due for a bounce-back and they have the perfect recipe for it this week - a home matchup against a Panthers offense that looked like a bad college team last week.
Dead to Me:
Kevin Kolb, QB, Eagles: Michael Vick is going to win Comeback Player of the Year, and at this rate he may go to the Pro Bowl. Vick is more injury-prone than most starting QBs, given the number of hits he takes with his running style, but Kolb is not worth stashing at this point.
David Garrard, QB, Jaguars: David Garrard had three TDs in Week 1, but he has five INTs and just one TD since. He's too inconsistent to be used for fantasy purposes. I'm not quite ready to put Mike Sims-Walker in this category, but Garrard's struggles have made MSW very unreliable (10 catches Week 2, 3 total fantasy points the other two weeks).
Brett Favre, QB, Vikings: Last week, I said I'd give Favre another week, since he was playing the Lions historically bad pass defense (greater than 8.0 YPA the past 2(+) seasons). I shouldn't have waited. With the Vikings on a bye this week, I think it's safe to cut Favre. I'll re-evaluate that if/when Sidney Rice returns, but until then, Favre is dead to me for fantasy purposes.
Tashard Choice, RB, Cowboys: I suggested Choice in the preseason, but I'm ready to cut bait now. The problem isn't just that Choice remains third string - it's that the Cowboys haven't been able to run the ball with Marion Barber or Felix Jones. That inability tells me the upside for Choice isn't terribly high even if Barber or Jones got hurt.
Mohamed Massaquoi, WR, Browns: This just in: the Browns stink. Like I said about Steve Breaston last week, there may be some games where Massaquoi does something, but I highly doubt he is someone I'll regret not having on my team.
Patriots D/ST: If you can't exploit a good matchup at home against the Bills, what good are you?