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Working the Wire: This Year's Top Teams Have Great Balance

Mark Stopa

Mark Stopa

Mark Stopa has been sharing his fantasy insights for Rotowire since 2007. Mark is the 2010 and 2012 Staff Picks champion (eat your heart out, Chris Liss) and won Rotowire's 14-team Staff League II in consecutive seasons. He roots for the Bills and has season tickets on the second row, press level to the Rays.

Remember 2011, when the three best teams most of the season - the Patriots, Packers, and Saints - had flashy passing games and historically bad defenses? 2012 could not be more different. The NFL's three best teams - the Texans, Patriots, and 49ers - are also the most balanced. I see a large chasm between the Pats, 49ers, and Texans and the fourth-best team, whoever it may be, a group that includes the unbeaten Falcons. So my spin on the Liss "how many teams versus the field" argument is this... if I could have the Patriots, 49ers, and Texans, I'd let you take the next five of your choice, presumably the Ravens, Bears, Falcons, Giants, and Steelers. If we then alternated picks, I'd feel comfortable with the bet.

It's time to stop blaming the refs and the tough opening schedule; the Packers are in trouble. Aaron Rodgers isn't completing anything downfield, and even if you want to blame the offensive line, Jordy Nelson looks like just another receiver without the downfield strikes. With a trip to Houston on tap, 2-4 is staring Green Bay in the face. I'd still pick the Packers over the 4-1 Vikings on a neutral field, but the fact that I have to pause before answering shows how much Minnesota has risen and how far the Packers have fallen in just five weeks. Let Minnesota's resurgence be another reminder (the Texans from a couple years ago being another) that it's always possible to fix a bad pass defense in one offseason.

Reggie Wayne has quite the luck (pun intended), going from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck as his quarterback. In fairness, it's not just Luck - an awful Colts defense has Luck on pace to throw more than 700 times. That's why I don't see Wayne as a sell-high and, if anything, I'd be looking at Donnie Avery and T.Y. Hilton in deeper leagues. I particularly like the Colts secondary options this week if Antonio Cromartie, who just Andre Johnson look washed up, shadows Wayne.

We've always distinguished Tim Tebow as a much better fantasy quarterback than a real-life player. Is it time to make the same distinction with Cam Newton? How much would you like Newton in fantasy if he didn't run? That throw on fourth and goal with the game on the line - a ten yard throw that short-hopped the intended target by two yards - was the worst throw I've seen in the NFL this season.

The next time a flashy young running back has a solid game and there are whispers he may unseat the starter, let's remember Andre Brown. The problem wasn't Brown's rushing ability - he has plenty of that - and it wasn't even his injury, though that obviously didn't help. Brown's problem was that the Giants didn't trust he could adequately protect Eli Manning on passing downs. Going forward, let's never forget that the health/safety of the franchise quarterback is always going to be paramount for any team, even if a young running back looks great between the tackles.

I've done well in Staff Picks so far in 2012, but suggesting the "over" in Kansas City as my "favorite bet of the year" was a brutal pill to swallow. The Chiefs have been a sieve on defense, having played every game in the 50s, yet held an emerging Ravens offense without a touchdown. For me, that's the craziest outcome all year. I apologize profusely to anyone I led astray... just remember, any prognosticator's favorite bets are still "gambles." Also, whether it's setting a fantasy lineup or placing a bet at the window, we may give suggestions, but ultimately it's your team/money.

The past two weeks, the Bills defense has allowed 97 points. I could quote some insane passing yards or rushing stats, but they don't do the suckitude justice. Instead, check out the drive chart for Bills' opponents in the second half of their last two games: punt, TD, TD, TD, TD, TD, TD, FG, TD, TD, TD, TD. Yes, that's 10 touchdowns and a field goal in 12 drives (and the field goal was at the end of the Patriots game where they were basically running out the clock). Meanwhile, over that same two-week period, the Cardinals have allowed 17 sacks, and the run-blocking is so bad that Ryan Williams is jealous of Chris Johnson's offensive line in Tennessee. This week, with the Bills headed to Arizona, we'll get to see who sucks worse - the Bills defense or the Cardinals offensive line. More thoughts, below.

Michael Vick got married this summer. When he and his wife have a baby, do you think his wife will let Vick hold him/her? "Now, Michael, we've talked about this. We can't risk you dropping our baby like you drop the football. Sit on the couch and I'll let you hold the baby as long as you promise not to stand up."

Having J.J. Watt on the defensive line on passing downs is like having a normal lineman hold up a fishing net with each hand. And that's how offensive coaches should prepare when they play the Texans - have a practice squad lineman hold up two fishing nets. I'm serious. Forget defensive accolades - Watt is in the conversation with Calvin Johnson for the most valuable player in the NFL who doesn't play quarterback. Not that race matters, but I can scarcely remember the last time a caucasian who did not play quarterback was this dominant in the NFL. That might be a good radio topic, Chris Liss - when is the last time we saw a caucasian, non-QB dominate to this degree in the NFL?

The Jets weren't able to pull out a victory, but I loved their aggressive attitude - fake punt deep in their own end, going for it on fourth down, a surprise onside kick. That's how you play when you know you're an underdog. Well done, Rex Ryan.

I get that both of Mark Sanchez's interceptions were batted balls, but don't his backers get tire of defending someone who can't complete half his passes? If a Jets QB is going to complete under 50% of his throws, why not just go with Tebow already?

We've been wondering for much of the past two seasons what is wrong with Philip Rivers. Watching Sunday night's game, I convinced myself of the answer. Two things have been different for Rivers since 2011 - Darren Sproles is no longer giving him cheap yards, having departed for New Orleans after the 2010 season, and Antonio Gates is now "just a guy." The stats Rivers posted from 2008-2010 were insane - 8.6 YPA, 92 TDs vs. just 33 INTs - but don't expect that production again until he gets better weapons around him.

Despite his Week 5 breakout, Robert Meachem is not that weapon. Meachem had six catches for 92 yards all season coming into Sunday's game (that's six catches for 92 yards over *four games*). Yet with several top wideouts on a bye, many fantasy owners were forced to start him in deeper leagues. Naturally, Meachem exploded with two first-half touchdowns. This was a hard enough pill to swallow in normal circumstances, but fantasy owners who were leading their matchup heading into the Sunday night affair and then lost because of Meachem, it had to be particularly brutal. One matchup in Stopa Law Firm league changed with Meachem's breakout (thankfully, not mine). If you were in that boat, feel free to let off some steam in the comments.

Please don't ask about Santana Moss in the comments. Please. Anyone can score on a busted coverage, much like Joseph Morgan did for the Saints two weeks ago. Were you rushing to waivers to claim Morgan? No, you weren't - so don't do so for Moss.

The defenses I'm picking on for fantasy purposes, particularly during the bye weeks:

Bills: 5.7 YPC, 9 rushing TDs; 8.4 YPA, 12 passing TDs
Saints: 5.0 YPC, 7 rushing TDs; 8.6 YPA, 104.5 QB rating
Titans: 12 passing TDs, 112.3 QB rating
Bucs: 9.0 YPA, 345 yards/game
Redskins: 8.2 YPA, 13 passing TDs
Raiders: 9 passing TDs, zero INTs, 3 sacks, 113.4 QB rating
Bengals: 100.8 QB rating even though three of their five games were against the Jaguars, Dolphins, and Browns , 7 rushing TDs

Am I the only one who thinks this whole "48 straight games with a passing TD" thing is overplayed? I mean, I don't see that as being in the same conversation as the all-time record for passing yards in a season. Maybe it's just me.

Seattle's decision to intentionally take a safety with one minute remaining, up 16-10, was one of the more interesting strategic decisions of 2012. Getting to punt from the 35 instead of the 18 gave Seattle 17 yards more of field position, and Carolina still needed a touchdown with the score 16-12. But if Carolina got that touchdown quickly, and went ahead 19-16, an ensuing Seahawks field goal would have only tied the score instead of given Seattle the win. With only a minute left, I think the extra 17 yards justified the decision, but even if you disagree, you have to applaud Pete Carroll for doing what he thought gave his team the best chance to win. I wish we saw more of this, both from head coaches and broadcasters.

Here are my suggested waiver claims for Week 6. Rememeber to bench your Bears, Saints, Panthers, and Jaguars, and keep stashing upside guys on your bench.

Kevin Kolb, QB, Cardinals: The Cardinals inability to run, combined with a Bills defense that has struggled mightily against the pass, makes Kolb a solid spot-starter this week. If Alex Smith can go for 300(+) and 3 TDs against this defense, why can't Kolb?

Christian Ponder, QB, Vikings: With a surprising, top-five defense and a solid running game, the Vikings aren't asking Ponder to do to much in the offense. But with two elite options in the passing game - Percy Harvin and Kyle Rudolph - Ponder is going to get some stats without playing spectacularly. 20-30 yards rushing per game are nice as well, as is this week's matchup against a bad Redskins defense.

Alex Green, RB, Packers: We're five weeks into the season, and we have yet to see this year's version of Victor Cruz, a waiver wire claim who emerges into fantsy gold. This might be it, folks. Well, I can't be sure, obviously, but this may be my favorite waiver suggestion of the season to date. Elite offense. Mad upside. Young. Explosive. Benson is essentially dead, and if James Starks were any threat, we'd have seen it last year. Go get Green. (Quick aside: Cedric Benson's injury, and the sudden rush to the waiver wire for Green, is what I've been anticipating all year by suggesting you stash guys like Kendall Hunter, Robert Turbin, and Rashad Jennings. I'm not saying I was right - it's not like I was talking about Green last week (though I should have anticipated a Benson injury, sigh). The concept was right, though, and hopefully we see that come to fruition with other backup RBs this year.)

James Starks, RB, Packers: I love Green, but he's unproven and coming off an ACL injury. Starks is the new handcuff, with a greater chance of getting thrust into a big role than many other handcuffs around the NFL. View him as the consolation prize if you can't get Green.

David Wilson, RB, Giants: Wilson has looked explosive two straight weeks despite limited opportunities. If/when Bradshaw gets hurt again, Wilson should get another chance. Stash him.

Kendall Hunter, RB, 49ers: If Frank Gore were to get injured (not an unreasonable proposition), how quick would the rush to the waiver wire be to get Hunter?

Darrius Heyward-Bey and Denarius Moore, WR, Raiders: DHB suffered a nasty concussion two weeks ago, but the Raiders bye was perfectly timed for him. Heyward-Bey and Moore were cut in many leagues because of that bye, so it's time to jump back on board. With a bad Raiders defense, I can see both DHB and Moore as WR3s going forward.

Robert Meachem, WR, Chargers: Any receiver who scores two touchdowns, has a top quarterback, and is on waivers in most leagues merits a mention. Just remember Meachem's breakout came against an awful Saints defense, and he had done absolutely nothing the four games prior.

Josh Gordon, WR, Browns: Brandon Weeden looks competent, Greg Little doesn't, and the Browns get the hapless Bengals defense this week. This is hardly an enthusiastic endorsement, but I'd rather start Gordon than Meachem this week.

Brandon Gibson, WR, Rams: The Rams best receiver with Danny Amendola sidelined won't be Chris Givens, an unpolished rookie. Expect Gibson to pick up some targets in Amendola's absence. I don't expect a big jump in Gibson's production, but if your league is deep enough that Gibson was close to being relevant when Amendola was healthy, the bump in value with Amendola hurt should be just enough to justify claiming him.

Donnie Avery and T.Y. Hilton, WR, Colts: I discussed Avery and Hilton, above, but let me add this... I'd really like one of these guys a lot more if the other got hurt. As it is now, they're similar players competing for targets. There's value for both given the number of passes getting thrown in Indy, but if either diminutive receiver were injured, the other could really take off.

Dolphins D/ST: This defense is legit, allowing just 2.7 YPC, while everyone else in the league allows 3.2 or higher. At home, against a Rams offense without its best offensive player, the Dolphins are a sneaky-good spot start.

Bills D/ST: Is it stupid to ridicule this defense in the intro, suggest Kolb as a waiver claim, and still profile the defense for waivers? Maybe. But I watch the Bills as closely as anyone, and I've seen a unique trend this year. In games the Bills lose, they completely fall apart - hence the blowout losses to the 49ers, Patriots, and Jets. In those games, the train went off the tracks and never came close to going back on. However, in games the Bills won, against the Browns and Chiefs, the Bills defense played quite well. Really, though, this isn't about the Bills - it's all about a Cardinals offense that's allowed 17 sacks the past two weeks. On paper, the Bills still have a good front-four, and with the Cardinals offensive line and Kevin Kolb, there might not be a better bet for 6-7 sacks this week among defenses on waivers.

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