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NFL Barometer: AP Going UP

Derek VanRiper

Derek VanRiper

Derek is the Senior Baseball Editor for RotoWire.com, where he's been a two-time finalist for the FSWA's Baseball Writer of the Year award, and winner of the Best Football Article on the Web (2009) and Best Baseball Article on the Web (2010) awards. Derek also co-hosts RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (XM 87, Sirius 210) from 11a-2p ET on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Upgrades

Adrian Peterson, RB, MIN - With a return to practice in pads Tuesday, Peterson could make an appearance in the Vikings' third preseason game as he continues his return from a torn ACL. Approaching the eight-month mark in his rehab, Peterson is ahead of schedule, but he still isn't on the receiving end of contact during practice as the immediate plan includes monitoring his ability to cut and react. As is the case with many running backs coming off the board after the first 10 picks in most drafts, Peterson is entering the season with a decent amount of risk. Comparatively, his elite ceiling outweighs the best-case scenarios for the likes of Trent Richardson, Marshawn Lynch and Matt Forte, and it's quickly becoming easier to make a case for Peterson ahead of the aforementioned backs as well as DeMarco Murray and Maurice Jones-Drew (as his holdout drags on). As the most valuable member of a rebuilding roster, the Vikings have little to gain by mortgaging their future and rushing Peterson back too quickly and his progress appears to be a sign that he'll be ready to handle at least a share of the workload with Toby Gerhart against Jacksonville in Week 1.

Donald Brown, RB, IND - Colts head coach Chuck Pagano named Brown the team's clear-cut No. 1 running back, after suggesting in June that the fourth-year back is an every down option. A former first-round pick, Brown struggled to stay on the field during his first two seasons before playing in all 16 games in 2011 and picking up an impressive 4.8 YPC. While Andrew Luck may have more polish than the typical rookie quarterback, the lack of threats in the passing game at receiver behind Reggie Wayne and tight end Coby Fleener should open up opportunities for Brown to make contributions hauling in passes out of the backfield. Available outside of the top-60 in many leagues based on his current ADP, Brown possesses legitimate RB2 potential for those who elect to wait on a second running back in the first five rounds on draft day.

Cedric Benson, RB, GB - The Packers were scrambling with James Starks (turf toe, week-to-week) and Alex Green (limited snaps while recovering from an ACL tear) unable to handle a heavy workload, and general manager Ted Thompson elected to sign Benson over former starter Ryan Grant. Moving into a pass-heavy offense in Green Bay, Benson won't finish anywhere near the 300 carries/year he was getting in Cincinnati. Further, his track record as a receiver doesn't suggest that the Packers will make him in asset as a pass-catcher out of the backfield either. Nothing is guaranteed, as Benson inked a one-year deal for the league minimum and could simply be let go before Week 1 if he's unable to impress during the final three weeks of the preseason. However, getting 12-15 carries each week in an offense that spends a lot of time in the red zone could enable Benson to exceed expectations this season. If the price remains low (ADP: 105.12), he should serve as a useful depth option capable of being used when injuries or bye weeks strike.

D.J. Ware, RB, NYG - With word that rookie David Wilson is struggling to grasp the playbook, Ware is gaining ground in the battle to pick up additional carries following the offseason departure of Brandon Jacobs. Further, Ware was used before Wilson in the preseason opener against the Jaguars, picking up 30 yards on five carries including a two-yard touchdown run. In terms of skill set, Wilson is nearly a clone of Ahmad Bradshaw with his combination of explosiveness and power in a small frame, so he may better suited to replace Bradshaw in the event of an injury, whereas Ware could carve out a short-yardage and occasional goal-line role as a more physical complement in the No. 2 spot when Bradshaw is healthy.

Hakeem Nicks, WR, NYG - Nicks appears to be inching closer to solidifying his availability for the Giants' season opener, as he was removed from the PUP list earlier this week before rejoining his teammates for practice. It would hardly be surprising to see Nicks and Victor Cruz both finish among the league's top-10 receivers again this season, but the masses have been targeting Cruz as the third receiver off the board (ADP: 23.53) while Nicks has slipped nearly two rounds further (ADP: 41.39) in many drafts. Cruz demonstrated more big-play ability last season including 24 catches of 20-plus yards, and seven catches of 40-plus, while Nicks finished 16 and five, respectively. The preference here for Nicks is two-fold - the aforementioned lower price tag, and the share of red-zone targets he was given last season. In close, Eli Manning targeted Nicks 15 times last season, while looking Cruz's way just eight times inside the 20-yard line. Ultimately, Nicks' chances of being a double-digit contributor in touchdowns is greater if that distribution holds up.

Titus Young, DET - Bumping Young up the cheat sheet is more indicative of the Lions' unstable situation at running back than the, "Young has been one of the 'biggest standouts' thus far during camp..." nugget from the Detroit Free Press earlier this week. As a rookie, four of Young's 48 receptions went for 40-plus yards and his breakaway speed makes him a threat to score from long distances, necessary to contribute in the TD department on a team with Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew as options in the red zone. With rookie Ryan Broyles still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in November, Young and Nate Burleson have an early-season opportunity to solidify their standing on the depth chart before the talented Oklahoma product will be ready to contribute. Perhaps the extra motivation of Broyles lurking over their shoulder has led to the increased performances from Young and Burleson this summer.

Downgrades

Ryan Mathews, RB, SD - Mathews suffered a fractured clavicle on his first carry of the preseason, and is facing a four-to-six week absence after having surgery August 10. While Mathews has publicly suggested that he will be ready for the season opener, head coach Norv Turner and suggestions from the medically-minded types point to the longer end of the timetable being the more likely outcome. It's an unfortunate turn of events for Mathews, who was being considered by many as the fourth running back off the board before suffering the injury. With the threat of a couple of missed games, he should be moved outside of the top-25 overall, and it's uncertain if Mathews will immediately take on 20-plus carries per game upon rejoining the lineup. A corresponding upgrade would typically accompany the loss of a starting running back in Norv Turner's offense, but it looks like the Chargers are going with a fun-house timeshare involving Ronnie Brown, Jackie Battle and Curtis Brinkley for the time being.

Roy Helu, RB, WAS - The Redskins have limited Helu's workload recently due to a bout of Achilles tendinitis. It's an injury that will simply linger without the appropriate rest, and even if he were fully healthy there are concerns about his role in Mike Shanahan's offense. Evan Royster appears to be clawing his way into a larger share of the load for Washington after starting the first preseason game, while Tim Hightower is still working his way back from a torn ACL. For the risk involved, Helu's ADP is simply too high (66.56) to gamble on him, while Royster is available much later (148.40) even as his stock improves. By now, the uncertain nature of Shanahan's distribution of carries each week has given many owners pause when considering an investment in a Redskins running back, but the best approach continues to be targeting the cheapest option as a lottery ticket.

Denarius Moore, WR, OAK - Moore has been unable to completely shake a hamstring injury that first cropped up during minicamp in June. Unfortunately, as a speedy receiver it's the type of ailment that can significantly lower his value, as he relies heavily on his elusiveness to make big plays down field. As a rookie last season, Moore took 12 of his 33 receptions for 20-plus yards and five of those catches went for 40-plus. It bodes well for Moore that Jacoby Ford struggled in the preseason opener and appears to be in a battle for the No. 3 receiver spot anyway, but those targeting Moore as a bench receiver option with upside should temper the early-season expectations as he works his way back to health.

Jason Witten, TE, DAL - Witten suffered a lacerated spleen in the Cowboys' preseason opener Monday and his availability for Week 1 is in doubt as he may require surgery to remove it. At the very least, it's worth keeping tabs on this situation if Witten avoid the procedure as he will still be questionable for the September 5 opener (a Wednesday) against the Giants. For now, Witten faces a period of 7-to-10 days of rest, which may ultimately provide enough of an indication as to how much he's able to heal before the final decision on surgery comes down. An absence for Witten would leave extra targets for the Dallas wideouts, particularly in the red zone, but missed time during the regular season would temporarily hurt the value of quarterback Tony Romo.

Kevin Kolb, QB, ARI - It's hard to believe, but Kolb appears to be losing his hold on the starting quarterback spot in his training camp battle with John Skelton. The Cards gave up plenty to acquire Kolb from Philadelphia after the 2010 season, including cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick before handing the unproven quarterback a contract including $20 million guaranteed. To this point, Kolb has been unable to shake his reputation as a system player due to the offense he played in at the University of Houston, and subsequently during his time with the Eagles. His failure in the NFL since departing the QB-friendly system of Andy Reid in Philadelphia will undoubtedly lead to A.J. Feeley comps barring a rapid turnaround.

Follow me on Twitter @DerekVanRiper.