RotoWire Partners

NFL Barometer: Back Up the Truck

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

Brandon Lloyd, WR, NE – The next time someone says "there's only one ball to go around in New England," it is your obligation to punch them in the face. Lloyd followed offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in his return to the Patriots this offseason, giving quarterback Tom Brady a much-needed downfield threat. Considering the damage Lloyd was able to do over the last two seasons primarily with Kyle Orton and Sam Bradford throwing him passes, it's surprising that his ADP (76.3) didn't creep closer to the top-50 this summer. Last season, Brady threw 122 passes in the direction of Deion Branch and Chad Johnson. Without taking away a target from Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez, Lloyd could assume those looks and opportunities and essentially avoid hurting the value of the Pats' key pass-catchers. For what it's worth, 122 targets would have ranked 16th among wide receivers last season and four of the top 10 fantasy receivers (points per game, minimum 12 games played) – Jordy Nelson, Marques Colston, Julio Jones and Greg Jennings – were targeted fewer than 122 times in 2011.

Kevin Ogletree, WR, DAL – Actionable information is limited throughout August, but Wednesday's season opener quickly provided a Week 1 FAAB darling as Ogletree turned a team-high 11 targets from quarterback Tony Romo into eight catches, 114 yards and two touchdowns. Considering that Laurent Robinson ranked 15th in fantasy points among wide receivers last season as the third option on the depth chart for the Cowboys, there's plenty of reason to be intrigued. Keep in mind, however, that Jason Witten was very limited (three targets) after making the leap from doubtful to play in Week 1, and that Miles Austin (four targets) was coming off of a hamstring injury that cost him most of the preseason. Combined, Austin and Dez Bryant have missed 11 games over the last two seasons, and Witten's spleen injury could make him vulnerable to an absence throughout the year. For your enjoyment, the recent track record of receivers with 100-yard, two-TD performances in Week 1 is pretty good.

Quincy Morgan averaged just four catches and 58 yards per game from Week 2-10 that year before finally getting back into the end zone in Week 11 for a Browns squad that featured Tim Couch at quarterback.

Often times that most challenging aspect of making an early-season pickup is figuring out who should be cut to make room. At receiver, the line appears to begin around the No. 40 spot on Jeff's Value Meter ranking of receivers this week. Notable players I would drop for Ogletree include (and are certainly not limited to): Austin Collie, Danny Amendola, Laurent Robinson, Davone Bess, Earl Bennett and Randy Moss. Perhaps after seeing the rest of the Week 1 slate, the line of demarcation will inch up the list. In PPR leagues where volume can close the gap on talent and upside, it's a tougher decision with the likes of Amendola, Bess and Bennett.

Domenik Hixon, WR, NYG – In addition to receiving fewer targets (five) than Ogletree, Hixon will also have to outperform Rueben Randle to maintain hold of the Giants' No. 3 receiver spot. Also keep in mind that Hixon's 2010 and 2011 seasons both end with a torn ACL, so there is huge durability concern here. Even as a second-round pick, it could take Randle some time to adjust to the NFL (he was not targeted in the loss Wednesday night) and earn the trust of the Giants' coaching staff, making Hixon the more intriguing option in deeper leagues that start three receivers for at least the first few weeks of the season.

Jonathan Dwyer, RB, PIT – While the Pittsburgh running back situation is increasingly murky with Isaac Redman battling a hip injury and Rashard Mendenhall working his way back into the mix to take first-team reps in practice this week, Dwyer looks like the intriguing low-cost investment to target initially as it remains unclear how the carries will be distributed Sunday night against Denver. Dwyer turned 28 carries into 147 yards during the preseason, and has managed to impress the coaching staff enough to maintain a roster spot into a third NFL season despite being a sixth-round pick for the Steelers in 2010. Mendenhall's recovery from ACL surgery in January has been much quicker than expected, but roughly eight months post operation, it's difficult to envision a scenario where he immediately returns to a heavy feature back status.

Blaine Gabbert, QB, JAC – The Jags did not have a receiver or tight end catch 50 passes or rack up 500 receiving yards last season. To say that the talent cupboard at wideout was bare would be an understatement. After earning a lot of hype as a PPR option in position for a heavy volume of targets, Mike Thomas was a huge disappointment last season as the Jags' No. 1 receiver. Marcedes Lewis was a shell of the player he was in 2010 (700 yards, 10 TDs). The arrival of Justin Blackmon and the signing of Laurent Robinson were a big step in the right direction, despite concerns about the latter's ability to stay healthy and produce in a more prominent role. Thomas should actually benefit from the presence of Blackmon and Robinson as well, with the chance to work out of the slot and see less attention from opposing defenses. Nevertheless, Gabbert looked lost as a rookie a year ago and the combination of poor talent around him and a lockout-shortened summer to prepare did not help his cause. This is not a plea to consider him as a top-20 quarterback, but a reminder that as a starter on a team that features a defense that has ranked in the bottom-third of the league in points allowed in three of the last four seasons, Gabbert should be considered rosterable and even usable in very deep leagues (two-QB formats) with the improving weapons at his disposal.

Downgrades

Marshawn Lynch, RB, SEA – Outside of a walkthrough Wednesday, Lynch has been limited in practice for a couple of weeks due back spasms. As Jeff Stotts pointed out Tuesday on RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today, back spasms are not an injury, but instead a symptom of an injury. The Seahawks have not provided much in the way of details yet regarding the cause of Lynch's issues, but as a runner with a physical style, it could prove very difficult for him to avoid aggravating his back throughout the season. Lynch will likely be a game-time decision for the season opener Sunday, leaving rookie Robert Turbin in position for a significant role in Week 1. More importantly, the potential for Lynch's injury to linger could make him a staple on the injury report all season and limit his effectiveness throughout the early weeks of game action.

Kevin Smith, RB, DET – Although Smith is positioned for a two-game run as the Lions' primary running back, there should once again be concern about his durability after an ankle injury recently cost him a week of practice and an appearance in the final preseason game (although, that was probably unlikely anyway). Mikel Leshoure will be eligible to return from suspension in Week 3, and Keiland Williams looks like a potential goal-line vulture to deal with in the short term. Smith exceeded the expectations of many as an in-season pickup by the Lions a season ago, averaging a career-high 4.9 YPC and 22 receptions in limited action. A juicy matchup in Week 1 against the Rams (4.8 YPC allowed last season) is followed up by a very difficult one against the Niners in Week 2 (3.5 YPC allowed, three rushing TDs). Don't be surprised if the opener is the high point this season for Smith before his value quickly fades in the coming weeks.

David Wilson, RB, NYG – Unless you're in an eight-team league, cutting Wilson is not the appropriate response here despite the initial setback. After losing a fumble, Wilson was limited to special teams duty returning kicks in his NFL debut. Ahmad Bradshaw dominated the workload split 17 carries to two, while Wilson was not targeted by Eli Manning out of the backfield. For a young running back, fumbling early in the first game is a lot like an unproven closer blowing a couple of saves in early April. As the NBC broadcast pointed out last night, Williams fumbled once every 41 carries at Virginia Tech, but the Giants were undoubtedly aware of that when they drafted him at the end of Round 1 in April. Short term, it may cost Wilson the opportunity to push his way into becoming a flex option in deeper leagues, but he remains the high upside back to stash away in the event of a Bradshaw injury.

Nate Washington, WR, TEN – Washington's 1,000-yard season has been overlooked by many, and while he lines up for an excellent matchup against the Patriots in Week 1, Kenny Britt was only suspended one game by commissioner Roger Goodell for his offseason DUI arrest. In some matchups, Washington will still be a useful option this season, but it's very unlikely that he'll match the 121 targets that he collected last season with Britt back in the mix and Kendall Wright joining the receiving corps as well. Washington averaged seven catches and 86 yards per game in the three contests Britt played in last season, so his role shouldn't dry up completely. It's just a better bet that he will land somewhere in the 50-55 reception range this season after hauling in 74 passes a year ago.

Kevin Kolb, QB, ARI – Kolb has become the first player to make two appearances on the downgrade section of the Barometer in 2012 after officially losing the starting quarterback spot to John Skelton last week. It seems like he's been in Arizona for more than one season, but Kolb's body of work with the Cards includes all of nine starts (3-6), a 7.7 YPA and 9:8 TD:INT in 2011. Now entering his third season, Skelton has apparently shown enough throughout the offseason and training camp to wrestle the job away despite a 7.0 YPA last season and higher interception rate (5.1%) than Kolb (3.2%). Interestingly enough, the Cards were 6-2 in the eight games Skelton played last season (seven were starts, and he quickly entered in Week 13 after Kolb departed with a concussion). Further, Larry Fitzgerald caught 42 passes for 753 yards and six touchdowns in the eight games Skelton played, while that production slipped to 38 catches for 658 yards and two scores with Kolb at the helm.

Follow me on Twitter @DerekVanRiper.