By Dalton Del Don
Rashard Mendenhall, RB, PIT – After struggling with ball security throughout the preseason, Mendenhall has seen just 10 carries over the first three games this year and none since Week 1. However, with news of Willie Parker's knee injury, he's about to get all the work he can handle as starter. Mendenhall averaged 4.1 YPC when not fumbling during the exhibition games, so he's not completely incapable. After all, he totaled 1,999 yards with 19 touchdowns last year for Illinois, making him worthy of a first-round pick. The Steelers are a strong team that prefers to go run-heavy, so he's in a fantastic situation. The length of time Parker will be sidelined remains a mystery, but since he was already ruled out of the next game at the beginning of the week, it looks like the injury could be significant.
Steve Slaton, RB, HOU – After rushing for 166 yards on 6.4 YPC against a stout Tennessee defense last week, Slaton has been named Houston's No. 1 tailback. He's only 5-9, but at 201 pounds, he's strong enough to carry the majority of the workload. The Texans' offense has struggled early on against some tough defenses, but Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson are capable of turning it around in a big way, giving Slaton plenty of upside.
Chris Perry, RB, CIN – The Bengals have sputtered badly on offense, and Perry has averaged only 3.0 YPC this season, but there's still reason for optimism. Perry is getting nearly all of the carries in Cincinnati's backfield, and it must be noted the team's first three games have come against brutal competition. The schedule eases up starting this week against Cleveland, and expect Perry to be better utilized in the passing game moving forward. Chris Henry's imminent return should also improve the unit as a whole. There will always be durability concerns regarding Perry, but patient fantasy owners will be rewarded if he can remain healthy.
Ronnie Brown, RB, Dolphins – After rushing for 117 yards and totaling five touchdowns during Week 3, it's easy to see why Brown gets the upgrade. Ricky Williams remains involved in the offense, but Brown has already staked his claim as the team's starter, so look for him to keep getting more of the work as he distances himself from last year's knee injury. Don't forget, Brown was fantasy football's No. 1 back before getting hurt, and Miami improved its offensive line and quarterback play over the offseason, so there's plenty of potential, even though he's playing for what appears to be a poor team. With few options in the passing game, expect Miami to remain run-heavy while also getting Brown more involved as a receiver out of the backfield.
Antonio Bryant, WR, TB – Injuries have thrust Bryant into the starting lineup, and he responded with 10 catches for 138 yards Sunday. Of course, Brian Griese isn't going to throw the ball 67 times every week, but Bryant's 19 targets reveal just how important he is to the offense. He's always dealt with off-field issues, but Bryant is more explosive than Ike Hilliard or Michael Clayton, so expect him to remain in the starting lineup even when Joey Galloway returns. Whoever starts at split end in a Jon Gruden led offense often puts up highly productive stats.
Julius Jones, RB, SEA – After averaging just 3.6 YPC while playing for a potent Dallas offense last year, Jones has bounced back in 2008, rushing for 267 yards with two scores over the past two games. While Jones has looked better this season, both of those performances came at home against soft defenses, so temper expectations. Jones isn't active in the passing game, has lost some goal-line work to T.J. Duckett and Maurice Morris is expected to return after the team's Week 4 bye, so he qualifies as a sell-high candidate.
J.T. O'Sullivan, QB, SF – Three games into the 2008 season, O'Sullivan has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for a remarkable 9.4 YPA. That's been accompanied by only three touchdown tosses, and it's surprising to see a Mike Martz offense average just 25 passing attempts per game. But if O'Sullivan remains that efficient, plenty of scores are sure to follow. The schedule has been easy, but that's hardly an oddity while playing in the NFC West, and O'Sullivan is well versed in the Martz system, having played in Detroit last year. He has the upside of a top-eight fantasy quarterback this year.
Correll Buckhalter, RB, PHI – Buckhalter totaled 87 yards with a touchdown on just 16 touches after replacing an injured Brian Westbrook last week. It's still unclear how long the ankle sprain will keep Westbrook out of the lineup, but Philadelphia has been playing terrific defense, and Donovan McNabb looks like he's back to Pro Bowl form, so Buckhalter's in a good spot.
Ryan Torain, RB, DEN – Torain is currently sidelined with an elbow injury that should keep him off the field until after the team's Week 8 bye, but forward thinking fantasy owners in deeper leagues should be stashing him now. No one has emerged as the primary ballcarrier in Denver, as not one back has received more than 11 carries in a game this season. The team has averaged 4.8 YPC, so the ground game remains a strength. Torain's injury was to his arm, not legs, so he should be able to come back strong and in shape. Additionally, before going down, coach Mike Shanahan was effusive in his praise of the rookie runner, so there's a strong possibility he emerges as the team's No. 1 back over the second half of the season.
Derek Anderson, QB, CLE – The Browns have faced a difficult early season schedule, but Anderson's slump is officially past worrisome. He's currently sporting a 46.2 completion percentage with a 4.4 YPA and a 2:5 TD:INT ratio while also taking eight sacks. This after he got just 6.2 YPA over the final eight games of last season. As a result, coach Romeo Crennel is considering a switch at quarterback to Brady Quinn, whose reps in practice increased this week. Anderson has a fine matchup Week 4 against the Bengals, but if he gets off to a slow start, don't be surprised if the change happens Sunday. With the Browns weapons on offense, Quinn would become an immediate fantasy asset if given the starting job.
Kevin Smith, RB, DET – Smith has done solid work in the passing game, but his 3.5 YPC this year leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, he took a seat during the second half of last week's game against San Francisco, only to watch Rudi Johnson total 131 yards and a touchdown on just 17 touches. Johnson looked great and appears to be completely over his hamstring problems, so at minimum, Smith is looking at a timeshare once Detroit comes off its Week 4 bye.
Marc Bulger, QB, STL – After getting just 5.8 YPA and taking 11 sacks this season, the Rams have benched Bulger in favor of 38-year-old Trent Green. The offensive line and wide receivers haven't done him any favors, but Bulger is coming off the worst season in his career. Instead of a bounce back, the offense has actually been even worse this year, and while Bulger is likely to get the starting job back at some point, he's not going to help you in the near term.
Vernon Davis, TE, SF – Davis may have all the physical talent in the world, but that's yet to translate to productive stats on the football field. Despite successful quarterback play, Davis has just four catches for 68 yards through three games this season, continuing a career-long theme of disappointment. Mike Martz has never featured the tight end in his system, and he's asked Davis to do more blocking than route-running so far, evidenced by the season total of just 12 targets.
Matt Cassel, QB, NE – Maybe spending all that FAAB on New England's new starting quarterback wasn't such a good idea, after all. Cassel has completed a high percentage of his passes, but that's because he rarely looks downfield and attempts only the dink and dunk variety. Sunday's 4.2 YPA against a leaky Dolphins secondary is glaringly bad. It's possible he improves with increased reps, and coach Bill Belichick will surely put him in position to succeed, but the early signs point to a future quarterback change in New England.
Jeremy Shockey, TE, NO - Shockey is set to undergo sports hernia surgery and is expected to miss three to six weeks. The injury has reportedly been bothering him for quite some time, but it was aggravated in Sunday's loss to the Broncos. Shockey is a talented tight end, but he simply can't stay healthy.
Brandon Jacobs, RB, NYG – Despite an incredibly favorable home matchup against the Bengals, Jacobs mustered just 2.5 YPC on Sunday. His season mark of 4.9 YPC is fine, but he's completely useless in the passing game and has averaged just 16.6 carries per game, mainly because of Derrick Ward's (6.8 YPC) effectiveness. Ahmad Bradshaw, who is extremely talented in his own right, figures to be more involved moving forward as well. Jacobs may be more likely to stay healthy with a lessened workload, but it will be hard to rack up big stats while seeing such limited touches.
Jon Kitna, QB, DET – With a 50.0 completion percentage and a 4.9 YPA mark against a beatable San Francisco secondary last week, Kitna's job security has officially become an issue. He also suffered a sprained knee late in the contest as well. He'll have the bye week to heal, but his performance this year (6.6 YPA, 5:5 TD:INT ratio) gives the team plenty of reason to see what Drew Stanton can do. Expect the change to happen at some point this season.
Article first appeared 9/23/08