By Dalton Del Don
Steve Slaton - After running for 100 yards against a tough Titans defense last week, Slaton has broken the century mark rushing in three straight games and four out of his last five contests. The rookie has shown surprising power for his 5-9, 201-pound frame, and he also possesses plenty of burst and explosiveness. While there are still question marks whether he can carry a full workload over 16 games, he's impressed while receiving 20-plus carries in each of the past four weeks, so he'll clearly enter 2009 as Houston's primary back. Despite never getting more than 18 carries in a game until Week 12, Slaton is on pace to finish the year with 1,634 total yards and 10 touchdowns. With a high-powered passing attack also on his side, Slaton deserves to be a top-10 pick in fantasy leagues next year.
Calvin Johnson - Despite having to play with some of the worst quarterbacks in the league, Johnson is on pace to finish 2008 with 1,331 receiving yards and 11 scores. Constant double and sometimes even triple teams haven't slowed the second-year wideout, who even hit paydirt last week against an Indy secondary that entered having allowed just four passing TDs on the year. For receivers who have recorded at least 50 receptions this season, Johnson's 17.9 yards per catch is the second highest mark in football. People 6-5, 235 pounds simply aren't supposed to be this fast. Since he's still just a sophomore, it's safe to assume Johnson can get even better, and the Lions' QB situation has nowhere to go but up. He's a top-10 talent in the NFL.
Maurice Jones-Drew - Hurt by an underachieving Jacksonville offense, Jones-Drew has been somewhat of a disappointment this season, rushing for just 655 yards through 15 weeks. Still, his 54 receptions and 484 receiving yards are already career-highs and help make up for the lackluster 4.3 YPC, and he's also scored 14 touchdowns. Moreover, Fred Taylor's season-ending thumb injury leaves the Jaguars' backfield all to Jones-Drew over the rest of the year, which is nice since he has received 20 carries in just one game this season. Taylor averaged just 3.9 YPC in 2008, is about to turn 33 years old and has accrued 2,428 career rushing attempts, so it would make sense if the team cut ties with him during the offseason. Jones-Drew may only be 5-7, but he's plenty strong enough to carry the full workload. If given the opportunity, a monstrous 2009 season could be in store.
Marshawn Lynch - While the rest of his team has taken a nosedive, going 1-7 over the last eight games, Lynch continues to run hard, averaging 5.8 YPC over the past three games, including an impressive 127 rushing yards against the Jets last week. While his 4.1 YPC career mark is unimpressive, Lynch has helped offset that by becoming a major part of the passing game this season, already recording 47 catches. Despite the offense crumbling around him, especially since J.P. Losman has taken over quarterback duties, Lynch has averaged 5.3 YPC over the past five games, so his strong finish is a good sign for 2009. Although the Broncos' defense has improved against the run of late, he gets a highly favorable matchup this week in Denver.
Tarvaris Jackson - Since taking over for Gus Frerotte (back) midway through the game in Week 14, Jackson has gotten a remarkable 9.9 YPA with a 5:0 TD:INT ratio over the last six quarters. The surprising performances have come against the Lions and Cardinals, two of the NFL's worst secondaries, but he's still impressed nevertheless, even showing nice touch on the longball. He's set to get yet another start this week against a middling Atlanta secondary, and there's officially a quarterback controversy brewing in Minnesota. It should be noted Jackson has disappointed throughout his career, but maybe all that time watching from the sidelines this season helped him truly turn the corner.
Pierre Thomas - After totaling 146 yards with two touchdowns against a solid Bears defense in Chicago last week, Thomas deserves yet another upgrade. It helped that Reggie Bush barely saw the field after apparently aggravating his knee injury, but there are rumblings his benching might have also been performance based, as he and coach Sean Payton appear to be at odds. Still, the injury could also be serious enough to sideline him for the final two games of the season, leaving Thomas as the team's primary back. Last week marked the first time all year Thomas was given 20-plus carries in a game, yet he's somehow compiled 11 touchdowns anyway. He's got an excellent combination of power and speed and should be New Orleans' No. 1 running back for years to come, giving him significant upside. With a Week 16 matchup against a Lions defense that has allowed 4.9 YPC and an NFL-high 26 rushing scores, Thomas should finish the season strong.
Cedric Benson - Facing a solid Washington defense, Benson surprised by totaling 161 yards last week. That effort included yet another disappointing 3.5 YPC mark, and his season 3.1 YPC is unacceptable. Still, he's getting all the carries and while Benson can't be trusted, a Week 16 matchup versus the Browns is enticing for desperate fantasy owners. Cleveland has allowed 4.5 YPC on the season.
Reggie Bush - As if Bush's recurring knee injury isn't worrisome enough, his long-term outlook in New Orleans is in serious doubt. He can remain plenty effective as a situational player and an extreme valuable commodity in PPR formats, but the Saints would be wise to realize they are better off giving Pierre Thomas the majority of carries. Throughout their careers, Bush has averaged 3.7 YPC and 7.5 yards per catch, whereas Thomas has gotten 4.8 YPC and 9.1 yards per catch. The finesse Saints also desperately need the physicality Thomas brings to the table. Bush is simply never going to be the star most expected him to become when coming out of USC.
Ronnie Brown - It's hard to complain with 10 touchdowns through 14 games one year removed from serious knee surgery, but Brown has been a disappointment after a big start to the season. It's not necessarily his fault, as Miami's use of him as been puzzling. After racking up 39 receptions for 389 yards through seven games last year, Brown has barely half that amount in both categories in twice the amount of games in 2008. Moreover, he's only averaged 13.9 carries on the year, whereas Ricky Williams has averaged 9.9 carries. This despite Brown getting 4.8 YPC over the past five games, while Williams has gotten 3.8 YPC over that time frame. The committee approach has really ruined what could have been a stellar fantasy season from Brown.
Jason Campbell - Campbell didn't turn the ball over last week, but producing just one offensive touchdown with 6.0 YPA is unacceptable against a porous Bengals defense. After a surprisingly strong start to the season in which he got 7.6 YPA with an 8:0 TD:INT ratio, he's gotten a paltry 5.6 YPA with a 4:6 TD:INT ratio over the six games since then. There simply is little to like about his long-term outlook, and with Jim Zorn possibly coaching his way out of Washington, there's also a chance the QB will have to learn yet another system in 2009. The Redskins need to address the quarterback position during the offseason.
J.P. Losman - A free agent at year's end, Losman was given a chance to improve his stock after replacing an injured Trent Edwards (groin) in Week 13. Instead, he may have played himself right out of the league, getting a microscopic 4.4 YPA with a 2:6 TD:turnover ratio while also taking 10 sacks over three games against weak secondaries. Over his last 15 games, Losman has posted an 8:15 TD:INT ratio. Edwards can't return soon enough for Buffalo, and Losman should be ecstatic if he somehow is given a backup job next season.
Marion Barber - Barber returned to action last week after missing one game with toe and calf injuries. Facing a tough Giants front seven, he was only able to muster two rushing yards on eight carries. The injury didn't noticeably slow him, but Barber was a bit tentative, and it's a problem that's clearly going to linger. Meanwhile, Tashard Choice has emerged with consecutive big performances, totaling 309 yards on just 41 touches against stout Pittsburgh and New York defenses. Choice is easily the most explosive option in Dallas' backfield right now, but with an upcoming matchup against the Ravens, neither back can be safely used during fantasy crunch time, especially not Barber.
Eli Manning - Over the last two games, Manning has gotten just 5.0 YPA with a 1:2 TD:INT ratio. His interception percentage has drastically improved in 2008, and his current 6.8 YPA mark also ties a career-high. However, the loss of Plaxico Burress is significant, as the team lacks options in the passing attack. Steve Smith is a solid possession receiver, but Amani Toomer is 34 years old and in decline, and Domenik Hixon has been hobbled by an ankle injury. Despite having the NFL's best team through 13 weeks, the Giants' offense has all of a sudden become much easier to defend.
Kerry Collins - Not that Collins was ever lighting it up this season, but he's been wildly inaccurate of late, and Tennessee's Super Bowl chances have taken a hit as a result. He's still difficult to sack, but Collins has posted just a 54.0 completion percentage over the last four games and has been picked off three times over the last two weeks after throwing just four interceptions over the season's first 12 games. Considering his last three opponents were Detroit, Cleveland and Houston, this is a major concern moving forward.
Article first appeared 12/16/08