Random thoughts having watched as much football as possible through two weeks of the 2011 NFL season:
- The Ravens Week 2 performance is totally inexcusable. Destroying the Steelers means nothing if you lose the following week to the Titans. Joe Flacco must be more consistent if the Ravens are going to be serious Super Bowl contenders. Unfortunately, he's not, so they're not.
- Darren Sproles is making himself a viable play in PPR leagues, but perhaps the bigger story with Sproles is that he's killing the fantasy values of Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas. After Week 1, it was easy to think Ingram and Thomas would fare better in games where the Saints weren't playing from behind, but even when the Saints led against the Bears all game, Ingram and Thomas didn't do much. Both Ingram and Thomas remain high-upside players on a good offense, but they need an injury to a teammate to be worth starting in most formats.
- Aaron Rodgers is making a concerted effort not to run (and to slide when he does). From a real-life perspective, this is good for the Packers, as it will help Rodgers avoid the concussions that have plagued him in prior seasons. From a fantasy perspective, this knocks his value down slightly, as he's not going to accumulate 300 rushing yards and 4-5 rushing TDs like he has the past three years. I realize you're not drafting Rodgers for his rushing, and he's still elite, but without the rushing, he's a notch below a healthy Michael Vick (to the extent that's not an oxymoron) and no more valuable than Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and Tom Brady.
- Speaking of Packers' rushing, the Ryan Grant vs. James Starks debate isn't terribly relevant so long as John Kuhn keeps vulturing the goal-line TDs.
- I'm not sure where Kenny Britt was on my cheatsheets in the preseason, but it was too low.
- Barring injury (to himself or Matthew Stafford), Calvin Johnson is going to score 20 TDs in 2011. In fact, given their ages and talent, Stafford to Johnson could wind up breaking all of the all-time NFL records for hookups between a QB and WR.
- The only NFL team with more points through two weeks than Stafford's Lions? The Buffalo Bills. If you're surprised by that, trust me - nobody is more surprised than me. Anyway, it's time to re-evaluate the Bills. The Raiders are said to have a good front-seven, yet the Bills offensive line, thought to be among the NFL's worst, was fabulous against the Raiders, allowing no sacks and just three QB hits (on 46 Fitzpatrick passes). The Bills defense is still mediocre, though, and I don't think they have the talent or an easy enough schedule (Pats and Jets twice, NFC East) to finish better than 8-8. That said, they're fun to watch, and Bills-Raiders was the game of the year so far, with five lead changes in the fourth quarter. We'll learn more about Buffalo this week with the Patriots coming to town.
- Speaking of the Patriots, they obviously won't keep up this record-setting pace, but I think the bar has been elevated in 2011 (a new "normal," if you will) for two reasons - Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have improved in their second season and the Pats 31st ranked defense will ensure Brady keeps throwing all game. Yes, the defensive stats may be skewed a bit because they played the Chargers in one of their two games, but the Pats made Chad Henne look terrific in Week 1, and Henne didn't do much against the Texans. If the Patriots can't stop the Bills this week, it will be an unbelievable fantasy season for everything Patriots-related.
- The Colts are going to finish 2011 with the NFL's worst rushing defense. Start all your fantasy RBs against them with confidence.
- I'm more concerned about Shonn Greene after Week 2 than I was after Week 1. Against the Cowboys, in a game the Jets were trailing, it wasn't surprising to see Greene struggle to fill the box score, as he doesn't do much in the passing game. Against the Jaguars, though, the Jets were ahead all game, so Greene should have shined. Instead, he posted just 49 yards rushing on 16 carries. A one-yard TD saved his fantasy day, but if Greene doesn't post 100 yards in a game like this, when will he? Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold may have a high ankle sprain, so that won't help in the next few weeks, either. If I owned Greene, I'd play up his Week 2 stat line (to the extent that's possible) and sell for 90 cents on the dollar.
- If I were drafting tomorrow (hint, hint, Scott Pianowski), the only receivers I'd take before Vincent Jackson are Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson.
- When you're evaluating waiver claims in the coming weeks, don't just see which undrafted players have been playing well - also see which drafted players have been cut by your league-mates due to injury or poor performance. If all you're doing is sorting your free agents by fantasy points scored so far in 2011, it's easy to forget players like Daniel Thomas (after sitting out Week 1), Sidney Rice (hasn't played yet due to an injured shoulder), Chad Ochocinco (still getting acclimated to the offense), Lance Moore (just returned from injury), James Jones (buried amidst a sea of weapons in Green Bay but still has upside on that offense if injuries strike), and C.J. Spiller, among countless others.
If you think some of these players are irrelevant, bear in mind - we're only in Week 3. The bye weeks aren't here yet, so that means you should have spaces on your bench for high-upside players when the inevitable injuries happen in Week 3. In other words, you don't want to claim players after they break out - you want them before, even if that means owning someone who hasn't done much so far in 2011.
Anyway, here are some players worth discussing as we enter Week 3. As always, comments welcome.
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers: Yes, Newton struggled a bit with three INTs, but I've now seen Newton post terrific fantasy stats against a bad defense (Cardinals) and a good one (Packers). I'd say I want to wait and see how he performs in games where the Panthers are ahead and run a lot, but I doubt that's going to happen much in 2011 (or even if it does, perhaps in Week 3 against the Jaguars, Newton will likely have a lot to do with the Panthers having gotten the lead). For me, Newton has become an every-week fantasy starter. Given his rushing ability, I'd play him above QBs like Eli Manning. (If that sounds like I'm recanting from my opinion last week, it's not. Things change quickly in the NFL, and we have to adjust our opinions accordingly.)
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Bills: When you watch Fitzpatrick play, there's nothing about him that makes you go "wow." His arm strength is average at best. He's not terribly accurate. He's not fleet afoot. Yet Fitzpatrick keeps managing to get the job done. I don't see Fitzpatrick as an every-week fantasy starter, but, then again, the Bills didn't see him as an every-week starter until just recently, either. Keep an eye on the Bills offensive line - if they manage to keep Fitzpatrick on his feet, as they did in Week 2, Fitzpatrick might win the NFL's Most Improved Player award. Of course, Matthew Stafford may have something to say about that as well.
Daniel Thomas, RB, Dolphins: Last week, a subscriber asked in the comments if he should cut Thomas. I said "no," as I think his upside is too high to justify cutting him. Thomas' stat line in Week 2 wasn't great (18 carries, 107 yards, no TDs), but it shows what I had in mind, particularly when you compare his stats to those of teammate Reggie Bush (21 total yards). To put it in perspective, I just told a friend I'd rather own Thomas than James Starks (splitting carries with Ryan Grant and John Kuhn is vulturing goal-line TDs).
Tashard Choice and DeMarco Murray, RB, Cowboys: Felix Jones is hurt already (shocking, I know). Given the Cowboys depth chart, it seems Choice is next in line for touches, but Murray is the highly-touted rookie with the higher ceiling. So who do you choose? Before you answer, think about the Cowboys situation right now. Tony Romo has injured/broken ribs, so you know the Cowboys are going to emphasize blitz pickups by RBs now more than ever. Undoubtedly, Choice is better in that area than the rookie, so expect Choice to be given more playing time than Murray in the short term. Since Jones' injury isn't a season-ender, Choice is the clear choice here.
Dexter McCluster, Thomas Jones, and Le'Ron McClain, RBs, Chiefs: A subscriber asked me during the preseason to evaluate McCluster, and I opined that I didn't think he had the upside of an every-week fantasy starter even if Jamaal Charles were to get injured and miss the entire season. Unfortunately for Charles' owners, it looks like we're about to put my opinion to the test. In my view, McCluster is too small and not durable enough to get the touches necessary to be a weekly fantasy starter. The Chiefs' other options, though, aren't any better, as Thomas Jones is old and slow and McClain is a backup (albeit one who could steal a short-yardage TD or two). If forced to choose between the three, I'd go with McCluster, as if I'm wrong about his workload, he's explosive enough to be relevant for fantasy purposes. However, I fear this is a lost season for the Chiefs, both in real life and fantasy, as I doubt any Chiefs RB will emerge as a fantasy darling, even in Charles' absence.
Roy Helu, RB, Redskins: Tim Hightower has been okay so far in 2011, but given his mediocre career so far, I wouldn't be surprised to see Mike Shanahan jump on any minor injury or mistake by Hightower as justification to vault Helu into the starting role. Though he was just a fourth-round pick, the Redskins traded up to get him, and Helu looked good in Week 2 (10 carries for 74 yards, 3 catches for 38 yards).
Isaac Redman, RB, Steelers: I see Redman as one play away (a Rashard Mendenhall injury) from being a top-15 fantasy RB. And as last week's stats showed, if you're desperate for a RB, Redman could be useful in a good matchup even with Mendenhall around. This week's matchup against the Colts pathetic run defense certainly qualifies.
C.J. Spiller, RB, Bills: Spiller is behind Fred Jackson on the Bills depth chart and is receiving the touches of a backup, but he's looked really good so far in 2011 in limited action (a TD in Week 1, 63 yards on 4 carries in Week 2). A first-round draft pick in 2009, Spiller's upside suddenly looks higher than ever on an emerging Bills offense, yet he's unowned in the majority of leagues. Of course, Spiller needs an injury to Jackson for that upside to pan out in 2011.
A.J. Green, WR, Bengals: I didn't think a rookie WR on a bad offense with a rookie QB would become relevant in fantasy football in 2011. Oops. Green turned 14 targets in Week 2 into 10 catches, 124 yards, and a TD. Better yet, Green and Andy Dalton seem talented enough to repeat this type of performance, and the Bengals should be behind on the scoreboard often enough that they'll have plenty of chances to do so.
Chad Ochocinco, WR, Patriots: By no means would I be starting Ochocinco, who isn't playing enough to justify a starting spot. Given the Patriots prolific offense, I can't see cutting Ochocinco though, either, as I suspect many owners will do this week. Find a spot on your bench for arguably the Pats' most talented wideout and hope he emerges later in the year.
Jesse Holley, WR, Cowboys: Miles Austin's hamstring is said to have him shelved through Week 5, and Dez Bryant missed Week 2, so Holley has a short-term window of fantasy relevance. He caught 96 yards worth of passes after Austin left on Sunday and just missed a TD (getting chased down at the 1 in what became an interesting moment for gamblers, as if he had scored, the Cowboys would have covered the three-point spread, but the tackle and subsequent FG resulted in a push). If you're hurting at WR in Week 3, Holley seems as good a flyer as any, especially if Bryant remains sidelined.
Eric Decker, WR, Broncos: I would have recommended Decker last week if I knew Brandon Lloyd would miss Week 2. Sigh. Make sure you keep an eye on Lloyd's progress this week, as the Broncos' lack of receivers obviously improves Decker's value.
David Nelson, WR, Bills: Last week, I put Donald Jones in this space because he's higher on the Bills depth chart than Nelson. After two straight weeks where Nelson got more targets and more production, I've re-evaluated. Nelson is the second-best option in an emerging Buffalo passing offense (especially with Roscoe Parrish's injury) and should be used accordingly. Nelson's value is highest in PPR formats, as he's a big target over the middle.
Denarius Moore, WR, Raiders: It's hard to imagine, but a rookie, fifth-round draft choice for the Raiders has put himself on the fantasy radar. Moore made a couple of terrific receptions on 50-50 balls against the Bills and since the options above him on the depth chart are hardly well-established, he may have earned himself more playing time. At worst, Moore is worth stashing and seeing what happens in deeper leagues.
Tim Tebow, WR, Broncos: This may sound like a joke, but it's not. There are a billion different types of fantasy leagues out there - check your league's eligibility requirements. If Tebow qualifies as a WR (since that's where he played on Sunday, exclusively, albeit for one play), then he could have terrific value later in the year as a fantasy WR if he's playing QB for the Broncos. After all, we all know fantasy QBs score more than WRs, so if you can start a real-life QB as your fantasy WR, that's a nice coup, especially if that QB runs like Tebow does. There's a lot of "what if's" there, but remember - this is a waiver article; most players are full of "what if's."
Fred Davis, TE, Redskins: The touchdown Davis scored in Week 2, off play action on the goal line, is the type that many second-string TEs score during the course of a season, and the Cardinals are hardly a stout defense. That said, that's two straight weeks that Davis has performed well despite Chris Cooley's presence, so I can't ignore him any more. In a season where it seems like 25 TEs have top-10 upside, consider Davis going forward - just prepare yourself for possible frustration if Cooley has a good game.
Dustin Keller, TE, Jets: The Jets seem more intent on throwing this year, and the injury to Nick Mangold may mandate that going forward. Mark Sanchez has always had a decent rapport with Keller, and despite Dallas Clark's garbage-time TD in Week 2, I'd rather own Keller than Clark going forward.
Nick Novak, K, and Chargers D/ST: I see the Colts, Chiefs, and Seahawks as the worst teams in football right now (amazing since they all made the playoffs in 2010). This week, coming off a disappointing loss in New England, the Chargers should take out their frustrations at home against a Chiefs team that has to realize its 2011 season is over.
Dead to Me:
Matt Cassel, QB, Chiefs: If he can't post stats in garbage time against the Bills or Lions, when will he? The Chiefs' injuries, coupled with the emergence of QBs like Cam Newton and Ryan Fitzpatrick, has rendered Cassel useless for fantasy purposes in 2011 except for 2-QB leagues.
Jaguars Passing Offense: Cutting your starting QB less than a week before the start of the season is never a good sign, and Week 2 we saw why. It's hard to see any Jaguar WR or TE being fantasy relevant unless the Jaguars start getting better play from the quarterback position. Given what they have on the roster, I doubt that will happen in 2011.
All Seahawks except Sidney Rice: I came really close to burying Rice, who hasn't played so far this year and may have a torn labrum. However, Rice is one of about 10-12 WRs in the NFL who are physical freaks, so he has the potential to emerge this season if he can get healthy. The rest of the Seahawks, though, are a mess with little chance of a turnaround. (That means nobody on this team is ever going to be an every-week fantasy starter in 2011, i.e. nobody is going to be useful for fantasy purposes except in deep leagues or emergency situations.) If the Seahawks didn't play in such an awful division, I'd consider them the frontrunners in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes.
Return Men Against the Raiders: Sebastian Janikowski's strong leg is a real weapon for the Raiders on kickoffs, as every kickoff he's had in 2011 has been a touchback. As a result, he completely eliminates the opposing team's kickoff return game. Remember this if you play in a league that counts return yards.
(For those keeping track at home, I've now buried Matt Cassel, the Vikings passing game, the Jaguars passing game, all Colts except Reggie Wayne, all Seahawks except Sidney Rice, and return men against the Raiders. I reserve the right to revive any of these players from the dead as circumstances warrant, but so far, they all remain six feet under.)