DeMarco Murray, RB, DAL - If Felix Jones remains in the mix after returning from injury it would hardly be the first time a coach plays a less deserving veteran over a superior younger player. However, while a timeshare can’t be ruled out, I’d have a hard time not treating Murray as a top-10 fantasy back right now, especially if his involvement as a receiver Sunday is a sign of things to come. Murray looks like an absolute stud, and while Dallas’ offense has been very disappointing, it should improve moving forward. Jones has reached 5.0 YPC in just two of his past 16 games played. Murray has averaged 6.3 or better in each of the last three contests, the final coming against a Seattle team that entered with the NFL’s top run defense. Murray’s 3.9 yards after contact average leads the NFL (minimum 75 rushing attempts). He certainly appears to be the real deal.
Julio Jones, WR, ATL - Jones is already a star and is well on his way to being a future superstar – his 50-yard touchdown Sunday, while triple-teamed, was absolutely ridiculous. And while the Colts’ secondary is a joke and took terrible angles trying to make a tackle, Jones’ 80-yarder was highly impressive as well. It’s not a no-brainer or anything, but I’d prefer Jones over Roddy White in fantasy leagues moving forward. If you remove the contest he left early with an injury, Jones has averaged 94.6 yards per game this season, which would rank fifth best in the NFL among active receivers (Kenny Britt averaged more, but he’s on IR).
Roy Helu, RB, WAS – Helu served as the feature back in Week 9 and hauled in a whopping 14 catches on 17 targets. Washington’s offense is definitely worse with John Beck starting over Rex Grossman, but Helu looks like a third running back option for fantasy purposes – with the potential to be much more. Let’s just hope a healthy Tashard Choice doesn’t randomly find his way into the mix.
Tim Tebow, QB, DEN – While there was some concern Tebow could be benched in Week 9 after another weak performance, his leash just got a lot longer after his showing in a victory over the Raiders. Tebow totaled 242 yards and two touchdowns, and he did not turn the ball over and was only sacked twice. It’s rare to see a quarterback average nearly four more yards per rush attempt than per pass, but so was the case Sunday (5.9 YPA versus 9.8 YPC). Tebow has averaged 73.2 rushing yards as a starter during his brief career. Michael Vick has averaged 54.0 in his. For all his faults – he really is tremendously inaccurate - Tebow still possesses significant fantasy upside as long as he’s starting.
Ben Tate, RB, HOU - Tate doesn’t have a catch since Week 3 and has had a fumbling problem this season, but he’s obviously quite talented and plays in the NFL’s best running system. Without question he’d be a top-5 fantasy back if Arian Foster were to go down; but even in a backup role, he has averaged 75.5 rushing yards over his past four games and has surpassed 100 yards in two of his past three. He’s a decent flex play even with Foster healthy.
Reggie Bush, RB, MIA – Bush has totaled 262 yards over his past two games, averaging 7.5 yards per touch. The important aspect is that Bush has remained heavily involved even with Daniel Thomas back in action. While Bush hasn’t received 20 touches since Week 1, his 4.9 YPC average is well above his career mark of 4.1, and he’s on pace to approach 50 receptions.
Jake Ballard, TE, NYG – Ballard has averaged 68.6 yards over his past four games, which would rank fourth among tight ends over the entire season. He has also scored two touchdowns over that span and has emerged as a TE1 for fantasy purposes. His two catches on the Giants’ final drive Sunday - one on third down and 10 and also the game-winning touchdown - were huge. Eli Manning clearly relies on him, and the loss of Kevin Boss has proved meaningless; same with Steve Smith. Eighteen of Ballard’s 23 catches this year have gone for first downs, and his 17.2 YPR average ranks first among all tight ends in the NFL.
Jordy Nelson, WR, GB – Nelson appears to be fairly volatile, as he has recorded fewer than 55 receiving yards with no touchdowns in three of eight games this year. Still, all receivers are somewhat inconsistent, and even as Green Bay’s third receiver (at least sometimes), he’s on pace to finish with 1,140 yards and 10 touchdowns. The fact he’s also on pace for fewer than 60 receptions indicates he is reliant upon big plays, but with Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball, there shouldn’t be concern he will suddenly become invisible. Nelson is a more than worthy WR3 for fantasy purposes.
Vincent Jackson, WR, SD – Jackson had not reached 50 receiving yards in a game since Week 4, but he erupted against the Packers on Sunday for 141 yards and three touchdowns. He’s seemingly always battling injuries, but even with Philip Rivers having a down year, Jackson is still on pace to finish with 1,226 yards and 12 touchdowns. His second half could easily be much more productive than his first, and at least more consistent. He remains a top-10 fantasy wide receiver.
Brent Celek, TE, PHI – Celek averaged six catches and 63.3 yards over the past three games while also scoring two touchdowns. More importantly, he was targeted nine times in each of those contests and has clearly become more involved in the offense than at any other time since Michael Vick took over as the starter. As a result, he should be treated as a TE1 for fantasy purposes until proven otherwise.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, OAK – Heyward-Bey averaged 96.3 receiving yards in the four games prior to the Raiders’ Week 8 bye; but for whatever reason, he exited the bye week as the fifth receiver on the depth chart. No reasonable explanation has been given, so this is either a random cover-up, or a decision by the coaches that makes little sense on the surface. Either way, Heyward-Bey has gone from a WR2 to a potential drop in fantasy leagues. The best way to treat the Raiders’ receiving situation is to take a wait-and-see approach, but it has been frustrating. As of right now, Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford have more value than DHB.
Miles Austin, WR, DAL – I’m not sure if it’s good or bad news that Austin’s latest hamstring pull was on a different leg than the one that has plagued him throughout the 2011 season. Either way, it’s not exactly encouraging. He’s looking at yet another multiple-week absence, so it’s safe to say he’s going to go down as one of the most disappointing fantasy players this year.
Curtis Painter, QB, IND - After posting a 4:0 TD:INT ratio while averaging 9.8 YPA over Weeks 3 and 4, Painter has posted a 1:5 TD:INT ratio with a 4.7 YPA average over his last four games. He will get another chance after being benched last week, but it’s clear Painter will be leading one of the worst passing attacks in the NFL.
Vernon Davis, TE, SF – After scoring 20 touchdowns over the past two seasons, Davis has been a big disappointment in 2011. He has been asked to block a lot more than normal with the 49ers relying on a strong running game and an improved defense. San Francisco’s schedule gets a bit tougher over the rest of the season, so the team may be forced to throw more than they would like. Davis a possible buy-low candidate - even in Alex Smith’s down times, the two have had a good rapport.
Dallas Clark, TE, IND – Clark’s injury looks serious, and it could cost him a few weeks or even the rest of the season. He was already a fantasy disappointment beforehand, but the injury saps him of any remaining short-term value. Be sure to find a fill-in – or a replacement.
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