BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB, NE – With only a modest 209 rushing attempts this season (16 running backs have more), Green-Ellis has yet to reach 1,000 yards on the ground. However, his 12 touchdowns are tied for the second most in the NFL. Green-Ellis doesn’t offer much as a receiver, and he has received 20 carries in just two games all year (his season high is 21), so he will present an interesting dilemma at draft tables in 2011. Assuming the Pats don’t bring in a new back, Green-Ellis has as much scoring potential as any RB in the league playing in New England’s versatile offense. Remember, those 12 scores came after not being involved much in the first two games of the season, and Green-Ellis still has not fumbled a single time in his career. I would love to see what his numbers would look like if the Patriots made him a true workhorse.
Matt Cassel, QB, KC – Cassel finished Sunday’s win with a 70.6 completion percentage, a 9.2 YPA mark and a 3:0 TD:INT ratio. After throwing just 16 touchdowns and 16 picks last season, Cassel has posted a 27:5 TD:INT ratio over 14 games in 2010. He has also cut his sack percentage in half and fumbled 11 fewer times this year compared to last. Cassel has benefited from a terrific rushing attack and an easy schedule, but he might be the most improved player in the NFL.
Ryan Mathews, RB, SD – Despite his team’s overall struggles, Mathews totaled 83 yards and a touchdown on just 15 touches in Week 16. It was obviously too little, too late for most fantasy owners, but the key here is Mathews passed the eye test,; and if you squint, he may even resemble a young LaDainian Tomlinson. However, Tomlinson has been one of the most durable backs in league history, whereas Mathews has been anything but during his rookie campaign. Still, a nagging ankle injury has been the biggest issue – he has not suffered from a plethora of ailments - and because the problem was clearly more serious than originally reported, his YPC average at the end of the season should be taken with a grain a salt. Mike Tolbert could certainly remain a factor next season, even if it’s only at the goal line, but San Diego traded up to take Mathews with the 12th pick for a reason. If he can remain healthy in 2011, he will likely be the team’s workhorse. Mathews will be the very definition of buy low next year, and you probably won’t have to fight anyone who was burnt by him in 2010.
Jay Cutler, QB, CHI – After throwing an egregious pick-six, Cutler picked apart a strong Jets’ secondary Sunday, averaging 8.6 YPA and throwing for three touchdowns despite completing just 13 passes. Cutler has now totaled seven touchdowns over the past two games, providing strong production for fantasy owners when it mattered most (although many probably had him benched against the Jets). Cutler hasn’t put up the gaudy yardage totals we expected under Mike Martz, but his 7.9 YPA average and 90.6 QB rating are both career highs, which is all the more impressive considering he has worked with a middling wide receiver corps in a Chicago environment not conducive for passing. Cutler’s performance against the Jets was highly impressive.
Jerome Simpson, WR, CIN – Simpson took advantage of absences by Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco Sunday, hauling in six passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns in the Bengals’ win over the Chargers. Simpson, extremely raw coming out of Coastal Carolina as a second-round pick in 2008, came in with just three catches in his career. However, he seemed to grow up quickly in Week 16, considering his effort came against a San Diego secondary that entered ranked among the best in the NFL (although it was somewhat skewed thanks to an easy schedule). Let’s not overreact to one game - it’s clear Simpson has a long way to go - but he was a highlight reel machine in college; and with Owens and Ochocinco both unlikely to be in Cincinnati in 2011, he is a terrific chip to hold onto in dynasty leagues.
LeGarrette Blount, RB, TB – Blount gained 164 yards on just 18 carries Sunday, and this hurdle was simply one of the best highlights of the 2010 season. Blount has certainly outperformed expectations, but he still has a ton of work to do as a receiver and blocker. Also, while his three fumbles on the year aren’t abnormally high, the Bucs have been critical of the way he carries the ball, making his role as the team’s goal-line back a bit tenuous. The negatives end there - Blount has been one of the most impressive running backs in the league as a rookie, topping all players with 3.8 YPC after contact - and he was not even drafted. In his six starts this season, Blount has averaged 97.0 rushing yards per game. For reference, the NFL’s leading rusher is Arian Foster, who has averaged 95.7 yards per game on the ground. Even more impressive, Blount has put up those numbers despite the fact that Pro Football Focus rated Tampa Bay’s run blocking as the worst in the NFC. If he was more active in the passing game, he’d be a surefire first-round pick in fantasy leagues next year; but as is, he’s still unlikely to last much past the middle of the second round.
Peyton Hillis, RB, CLE – Hillis was possibly the biggest surprise of 2010, going from waiver wire pickup to a player capable of carrying fantasy squads. However, he fizzled at the worst possible time, gaining just 94 total rushing yards over Weeks 15 and 16. After scoring 13 touchdowns over the first 11 games, Hillis has not recorded a TD over the past four contests. Opposing defenses have focused on stopping him more of late, but Hillis is showing some wear after racking up 324 touches this season after coming into the year with just 81 career rushing attempts. Fantasy owners can hardly complain about Hillis’ 2010 season, but they will be left with a bad taste in their mouths.
Steve Smith, WR, CAR – Atrocious quarterback play deserves most of the blame, but Smith is on pace to finish this season with fewer than 600 receiving yards and two touchdowns despite playing in 15 games. Smith has dropped a whopping 10 passes and has caught just 52.9 percent of his targets. Maybe Andrew Luck will help resurrect Smith’s career; but at age 31, Smith is clearly no longer an elite fantasy option.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, BUF – Fitzpatrick proved to be an upgrade over Trent Edwards and impressed by throwing 11 touchdowns over his first four starts this year, but he has since thrown for multiple scores in just two of nine games. After Fitzpatrick’s hot stretch I strongly recommended him, but I’ll freely admit that I was ultimately wrong (feel free to take solace in the fact I personally lost a lot of FAAB dollars by picking him up). Fitzpatrick plays in a tough division and in poor weather conditions often, but he has committed 20 turnovers over 13 games, and both his 57.8 completion percentage and 6.8 YPA mark are pedestrian. New England’s defense has played better of late, but they still deploy a beatable secondary, so Fitzpatrick’s performance Sunday (48.6 completion percentage, 0:3 TD:INT ratio) made it clear Buffalo needs to aim higher at the quarterback position.
Rashad Jennings, RB, JAC – I pegged Jennings for 125 yards and a score in my Game Capsules column last week and easily considered him a top-10 RB option for Week 16. I even started him over Peyton Hillis in a crucial championship game in one of my leagues. An apology is probably in order, but it’s not like I would do anything differently in hindsight. Jennings entered averaging 6.8 YPC on the year, and the Redskins have allowed an NFL-high 4.8 YPC, even after shutting down Jacksonville last week. What are you going to do? I’d have no problem using Jennings again in Week 17. On a side note, Maurice Jones-Drew’s season becomes all that more impressive considering he has been playing on an injured knee all year.
Chris Cooley, TE, WAS – Cooley had four drops before it was even halftime Sunday, including one of the worst of the 2010 season. With 72 catches and 796 receiving yards, Cooley has been anything but a fantasy bust, especially since so many tight ends either got injured or disappointed this year. But his 100 targets are the second most among all tight ends (Jason Witten has 114), so Cooley’s three touchdowns are really disappointing.
Jon Kitna, QB, DAL – Despite a nice matchup, Kitna averaged just 5.8 YPA and somehow managed to throw two pick-sixes against the Cardinals in Week 16. He later left with a hip injury, after which an unknown Stephen McGee came in and nearly led the Cowboys to victory. Kitna actually played reasonably well after Tony Romo was lost for the season, but he killed a lot of fantasy owners relying on him during the championship week. Kitna will be 39 years old next season, so his run, even as a backup, may be finished.