By Dalton Del Don
Steven Jackson - Returning from a three-game absence and getting a significant workload for the first time since Week 7, Jackson totaled 110 yards Sunday against a Dolphins defense that has played well against the run. He made it through the game OK and appears to finally be over the nagging quad injury, and Jackson is already pining for more touches. The Rams' offense isn't any good, but it's certainly an improved unit with him in the backfield, and since he's such a terrific option as a receiver out of the backfield, he's less dependent on run blocking. Additionally, St. Louis gets the Cardinals, Seahawks and 49ers over the next three games, so he should finish the season strong.
Peyton Hillis - Hillis continued to impress last week, rushing for 129 yards while scoring his fourth touchdown over the past three games. In fact, he was the first player to run for more than 100 yards against the Jets this season. He's proving to be much more than just a short-yardage runner, averaging 4.8 YPC on the year while also catching passes out of the backfield. With little competition for touches, Hillis figures to remain Denver's primary ballcarrier even when Selvin Young returns from his groin injury, and the team has tailored it's ground game to fit Hillis' skill set. The Broncos' poor defense usually leads to a pass-heavy offense and only 15 or so rushing attempts per week, but backed by a high-powered passing attack, Hillis can remain effective when given the opportunity.
Domenik Hixon - Starting in place of Plaxico Burress (hamstring), Hixon hauled in five receptions for 71 yards against a solid Redskins' secondary last week. At 6-2, 182 pounds, Hixon has good speed and has averaged 14.3 YPR. With Burress now also dealing with legal issues as well as injury, Hixon looks like the team's starter for the rest of the season, and with Amani Toomer and Steve Smith better suited as possession receivers, Hixon will act as New York's big play threat. With opposing defenses selling out to stop the Giants' league leading rushing attack, there will be plenty of opportunities for Hixon to exploit single coverage, and he has the skills to do so.
John Carlson - After catching six passes for 105 yards against Dallas last week, Carlson is fast emerging as a legitimate fantasy option in a year devoid of much tight end production. He has good size at 6-5, 251 pounds but also possesses soft hands and terrific route running ability. Matt Hasselbeck has struggled since returning to the lineup, but Seattle's passing attack should improve once the signal caller gets back to form, and Carlson has become a major part of the game plan. With upcoming matchups against the Patriots, Rams and Jets, Carlson also has a highly favorable fantasy playoff schedule.
Brandon Jackson - After Ryan Grant left Sunday's game with a bruised thumb, Jackson took over as Green Bay's primary back and responded with 80 yards rushing on an impressive 7.3 YPC. Although Grant was held out of the entire second half, he expects to return during Week 14 and is still the team's starter. However, in part due to a hamstring injury that has lingered all season and sapped his explosiveness, Grant has gotten just 3.8 YPC while offering nothing as a receiver. Meanwhile, Jackson has averaged a stellar 5.5 YPC while catching at least one pass in every game this year. He simply breaks more tackles than Grant, so even though Jackson is likely to return to the backup role, he should be more involved in the offense moving forward and has major upside if Grant were to miss more time with the injury.
Jason Witten - Fighting through painful broken ribs as well as leaving another game after taking a blow to the head, Witten proved he's feeling much better by catching a team-high nine balls for 115 yards and a touchdown against Seattle last week. Since he played on Thanksgiving, he has 10 days to recover, so Witten should finally be back close to full strength in Week 14. His overall numbers remain down compared to last season, and Dallas' schedule is difficult moving forward, but with Tony Romo back at the helm, there isn't a tight end with more upside from here on out than Witten.
Brian Westbrook - Westbrook blew up last week, totaling 130 yards with four touchdowns against the Cardinals. Before that performance, he had gotten 3.2 YPC or less in six of his past eight games, so this rebound was much needed. Dealing with a serious ankle injury along with a knee problem, Westbrook is unlikely to be 100 percent until the offseason, but he's as tough as they come and will now have extra time to rest after playing on Thanksgiving, so hopefully he can become a reasonable facsimile of his former explosive self. Any fantasy owner fortunate enough to have Westbrook for his Week 15 home matchup against the Browns should reap huge benefits.
Davone Bess - Starting for the second straight game last week, Bess led Miami with six receptions and 84 receiving yards. He was similarly productive during his first start and should remain heavily involved in the offense moving forward following the season-ending knee injury to Greg Camarillo in Week 12. The Dolphins employ a conservative, run-first offense, so there's not a ton of upside with Bess, but since Miami has the Bills, 49ers and Chiefs on its upcoming schedule, he's in position to succeed.
Steve Slaton - Thought of as more of a change-of-pace back coming out of West Virginia, Slaton has already accrued 214 touches this season as Houston has been forced to rely heavily on him. The team gave him just four carries in Week 10 because his body was wearing down, but he's responded with two huge games since, including a 182-yard, two-TD performance last Monday night. He's elusive as a runner and explosive as a receiver, averaging an impressive 5.0 YPC on the year. Salton has a strong passing attack working for him and two highly favorable upcoming matchups against the Packers and Raiders. He's still at risk of breaking down, but with Ahman Green (knee) out for the season, he'll continue to get as many touches as he can handle. Slaton is a terrific keeper property and looks like a second-round pick in fantasy leagues next season.
Marion Barber - Barber left last week's game after a player stepped on his foot, resulting in a dislocated right pinkie toe. An MRI revealed no fractures, and owner Jerry Jones believes the injury is going to be manageable, but Barber looked awfully tentative when he tried to play through the problem in Week 13. He's officially listed as day-to-day and is an extremely tough competitor, but he's also not expected to practice much (if at all) this week. Moreover, the Cowboys' upcoming schedule features the Steelers, Giants and Ravens - three of the toughest run defenses in football.
Wes Welker - Welker left Sunday's game after taking a vicious hit by Pittsburgh's Ryan Clark and did not return. It was the first time he failed to catch at least six passes since Dec. 23 of last year. It's unknown just how severe his injury is, but it's safe to assume he suffered a concussion, so his status moving forward is uncertain.
Justin Gage - Gage was a popular pickup in fantasy circles after racking up 147 receiving yards with two scores during Week 11, but other than that aberration, he hasn't topped 50 yards in a game since Week 4. Even during a highly favorable matchup against a leaky Lions' secondary in which Tennessee put up 47 points last week, Gage caught just two balls for 40 yards and was barely targeted. The Titans win by playing strong defense and running the football, and when Kerry Collins is forced to pass, he typically spreads the wealth, so Gage should remain inconsistent.
Braylon Edwards - Downgraded more than once this season, Edwards' value has hit a new low after Derek Anderson suffered a season-ending knee injury last week. Not that Anderson was playing well, but he at least has the arm strength to attack downfield from time to time, whereas new starter Ken Dorsey is more of a dink and dunk type. Dorsey has gotten a miserable 5.4 YPA during his career, so an already horrible quarterback situation in Cleveland figures to only get worse. Edwards is on pace to finish the season with 56 receptions, 929 yards and four touchdowns.
Trent Edwards - After getting back on track with a terrific performance in Week 12 (8.5 YPA, four TDs, zero INTs), Edwards regressed badly last week, completing just 47.6 percent of his passes while getting a paltry 5.3 YPA facing a suspect San Francisco secondary. To make matters worse, he then missed the second half with a groin injury. The groin was very sore Monday, and he's questionable to play against the Dolphins in Toronto this week. After a fantastic start to the year, Edwards' YPA has steadily dropped, and he's committed more turnovers (14) than touchdowns (13) this season.
Kyle Orton - Since returning from an ankle injury in Week 11, Orton has played terribly over a three-game stretch, getting just 5.0 YPA with a 2:3 TD:INT ratio despite facing the Rams and Vikings over the past two weeks - two highly favorable matchups. All those positive gains he showed in the beginning of the season seem like a distant memory, and Orton simply can't be counted on in fantasy leagues right now. Greg Olsen's value takes a major hit as a result as well.
Clinton Portis - There's no questioning Portis' talent or heart, and he belongs in MVP discussions, but the heavy workload appears to be catching up to him. He's played admirably through the pain, and last week's poor outing (22 rushing yards, 2.0 YPC) can at least partially be blamed on the opponent (Giants). However, Portis is dealing with a number of injuries and is clearly not 100 percent. Even after receiving a lighter workload - he's gotten 15 carries or fewer in three of his past four games - he's still on pace to finish the year with 340 rushing attempts. He led the NFL with 325 carries last year, so he's a candidate to break down. Moreover, Washington gets the Ravens and Eagles in two of their next three games, so there won't be a whole lot of room to run.
Article first appeared 12/2/08