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NFL Barometer: Return to Elite Status

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.

We're nearing a point in the season where the results of a draft would be radically different than what would have unfolded just one month ago.

To that end, I want to review the Average Draft Position (ADP) data from the NFFC this summer to gauge just how much some players' value has shifted over one-third of the season.

For these purposes, injured players are largely removed from the conversation.

Quarterbacks

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Eli Manning, NYG (9th, 53.2)
Ben Roethlisberger, PIT (12th, 75.9)
Robert Griffin III, WAS (13th, 80.69)
Andrew Luck, IND (20th, 117.94)
Andy Dalton, CIN (21st, 120.60)

Manning and the Giants have 22 pass plays of 20+ yards this season, and while his 8.0 YPA is a slight step back, he's on pace to throw a career-high 630 passes in 2012. Helping his cause is that the Giants' pass defense is abysmal, allowing the second-highest YPA (8.8) to opposing passers through the first five games. If that trend continues, Manning should continue to air it out each week, while the eventual return of Hakeem Nicks can only help his efforts.

If I were drafting again today, Manning would be at least fourth on my QB rankings, ahead of Cam Newton, Michael Vick, Tony Romo and Matt Ryan who were all being selected earlier in most drafts this summer.

What year will it be when fantasy owners properly value Roethlisberger? He's matching the per-game production of Cam Newton and Michael Vick to this point. The former was a late first-round selection in some leagues. The earliest Roethlisberger went in any NFFC draft was 56 overall, every quarterback ahead of him on the NFFC ADP list had an earliest mark of 38th overall or higher.

The pre-canned analysis from previous and other current mobile quarterbacks will be applied to Griffin after his Week 5 concussion. Somehow, he's passed the league mandated tests and is on track to return to the lineup right away Sunday against the Vikings. Prior to leaving early against the Falcons, Griffin was on pace to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in his rookie season. After getting blasted on an ill-advised attempt to pick up extra yardage on a play where there was little to gain, Griffin took two hits in one from Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon while trying to slide to safety.

Luck currently ranks third among quarterbacks in fantasy points per game (Brees, Ryan). The talking heads were right when calling him a once-in-a-decade type prospect prior to April's draft.

Dalton vs. Philip Rivers for the rest of the season, who do you take? It has more to do with the former's surprisingly useful weapons behind A.J. Green and terrible pass defense creating a reliable need for him to throw than anything else. I'm still leaning Rivers (8.9, 9.1 and 8.4 YPC in Weeks 2, 4 and 5), but it's closer than I ever would have thought.

Downgrades

Aaron Rodgers, GB (1st, 3.7)
Matthew Stafford, DET (4th, 12.6)
Matt Schaub, HOU (15th, 94.9)
Josh Freeman, TAM (18th, 109.7)
Sam Bradford, STL (23rd, 143.0)

Drew Brees is on pace to attempt 755 passes this season. His offensive line keeps him upright, Rodgers' does not. Is the Packers' offense out of sync because of the loss of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin? The Saints' ability to pile up yards through the air might argue 'no' as their reduced coaching staff hasn't had a significant impact on the New Orleans offense. The blocking and the absence/inconsistency of Greg Jennings due to injury are bigger issues for the Packers. Even with his disappointing start, Rodgers is seventh among quarterbacks in fantasy points, and that is while carrying the lowest YPA of his career (6.9). It's still a good bet that he'll finish among the top five players at his position this season when it's all said and done, especially with the loss of running back Cedric Benson for the next eight-plus weeks.

Although Mikel Leshoure has emerged as a credible threat for the Lions' running game, Stafford is currently on track to throw 692 passes this season (29 more attempts than 2011). While there is one tough matchup (San Francisco, Week 2) on his game log thus far, Stafford's 3:4 TD:INT and 6.8 YPA (he was at 7.6 last season) are brutal and it's becoming increasingly apparent that the Lions lack an average second option in the passing game behind Calvin Johnson. At this point, would it be a surprise if Stafford finished the year out of the top-10 at his position? Joe Flacco and Ryan Fitzpatrick have been better on a per-game basis thus far.

The Texans look like a team poised for a very deep playoff run, but Schaub's arm is far down the list of things Houston will lean on to pile up wins. The front seven is very good and the secondary is opportunistic, while the offense has an excellent tandem of running backs with Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Add it all up, and you get a team that will be protecting a lot of second-half leads and limiting the number of times Schaub has to throw most weeks. The Week 6 matchup against the Packers could easily turn into a shootout, but the rest of the AFC South simply cannot compete with the Texans as currently constructed. Schaub may struggle to finish the season as a top-20 fantasy quarterback.

Anyone buying Freeman at this point? No step forward from last season yet, and that's with the addition of Vincent Jackson.

Sure, Bradford's 7.0 YPA is a step forward, but the loss of Danny Amendola, general lack of other weapons and struggles of Steven Jackson will significantly limit the Rams' number of trips to the red zone. Would you take Bradford over any of the lower-end rookie quarterbacks currently starting (Brandon Weeden, Ryan Tannehill or Russell Wilson)? I wouldn't.

Running Backs

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Trent Richardson, CLE (10th, 21.4)
Jamaal Charles, KC (14th, 26.9)
Reggie Bush, MIA (19th, 50.3)
Stevan Ridley, NE (31st, 86.5)
Alfred Morris, WAS (71st, 262.95)

Even with a 3.7 YPC, Richardson is everything Chris Johnson owners were hoping for in the first half of Round 1. He's only going to get better.

Charles is second only to Arian Foster in fantasy points among running backs. Peyton Hillis is becoming an afterthought, and YPC marks of 7.1, 5.2 and 4.5 over the last three games are very impressive. Even more impressive, is that Charles has tipped the 30-carry mark twice during that span.

While Bush is unlikely to ever get back to his 2006 and 2007 reception numbers (88 and 73, respectively), he's quietly racked up 1,503 yards on his last 302 carries. A top-10 running back with at fringe top-20 back price tag.

As my colleague Kevin Payne pointed out during the show Wednesday, Ridley's recent issues hanging on to the ball could jeopardize his hold on the bulk of the carries in the New England backfield. Skills wise, he's displayed the vision, speed and power necessary to be a top-10 back as long as he keeps himself in position to continue averaging 20 carries per game.

Yes, I was generally avoiding the Redskins' running back situation because of the lack of trust regarding Mike Shanahan's decision-making process. Having any of the other Washington backs on your roster feels a lot like getting saddled with the Old Maid card, doesn't it? Morris doesn't do much as a receiver out of the backfield (similar to Ridley), but health permitting should continue to hang around in the top-10 among running backs given his monopoly of the workload in D.C.

Downgrades

Chris Johnson, TEN (4th, 8.3)
Steven Jackson, STL (15th, 33.8)
Doug Martin, TAM (18th, 45.5)
Shonn Greene, NYJ (22nd, 65.9)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, CIN (23rd, 66.1)

Too many pixels have been spilled on the failings of CJ2K this season. There are no fewer than 20 running backs I would draft ahead of him, which likely pushes him into the Round 5 or 6 range in a re-draft today and even that may be generous. That Week 4 explosion against Houston (141 yards, 5.6 YPC) is the only saving grace right now. Otherwise, he's in Shonn Greene territory.

Maybe the groin injury has been a significant limiting factor for Jackson thus far, but Shaun Draughn and Pierre Thomas have equalled his production thus far. The NFC West is deceptively tough for running backs, but that wasn't really a secret going into the season. How much has value slipped? In the Stopa Law Firm League (12-team, 0.5 PPR), Dalton Del Don turned down Jackson for Eric Decker (context his other backs are Frank Gore, Fred Jackson, Shonn Greene, Ben Tate and Brandon Bolden and he's loaded at receiver).

Who gets drafted first today? Jackson or Johnson?

Martin is probably the least crushing of these downgrades, but 3.5 YPC and very few holes to run through behind the Bucs' offensive line have limited his effectiveness to this point. To make matters worse, head coach Greg Schiano has suggested the potential for LeGarrette Blount to take on an increased role. Tampa Bay's offense currently ranks 30th in the NFL in yards per game (276.0).

Greene piled up 94 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries against the Bills in Week 1. It's the same Buffalo defense that has allowed 5.7 YPC this season, and Greene topped out at 3.5 against them. Bilal Powell's snap count has gradually increased in recent weeks, and a change seems very likely in the near future. There's nothing to see here.

As far as Green-Ellis goes, little has changed since I wrote him up last week. Bernard Scott suffered a season-ending injury, so there is even less competition for carries for the Law Firm than there is for Greene in New York.

**Yes, Darren McFadden was the next back in this group if it went six deep. Still think there's more there in terms of rebound potential than there is with these options, however.

Wide Receivers

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Victor Cruz, NYG (9th, 28.7)
Miles Austin, DAL (19th, 49.4)
Demaryius Thomas, DEN (20th, 50.8)
Reggie Wayne, IND (29th, 77.7)
Brian Hartline, MIA (78th, 255.2)

My only reservation about Cruz as the second receiver off the board is that he's not the only game in town when Hakeem Nicks is healthy. Even still, the Giants' passing attack has firmly positioned itself among the league's best and both could be top-10 in per-game production at the position.

Austin's hamstring issues in training camp likely pushed him down the board for many owners, and that ailment is likely to keep him on the injury report going forward. When called upon, Austin has been excellent through four games (10.3 YPT) and is currently on pace for 12 touchdowns. Drafting today, Austin would almost certainly be treated as a top-10 receiver.

Entering Week 6, Thomas is third only to Hartline and Wayne in receiving yards (505) this season. Thomas leads all receivers with 11 catches of 20+ yards while toting an elite 11.0 YPT mark. Arguably, he's an option in the top-five at his position. Meanwhile, Wayne leads all receivers in fantasy points per game (non-PPR) and is leading the league in targets (60) despite getting a week off for the Colts' bye in Week 6.

With Hartline, he's a 20-25 range receiver when it's all said and done. Unfortunately, I don't play in a league where owners will value him as anything more than that, but three of his five games this season have been disappointing (50, 41, 59 yards no TDs in Weeks 1, 3 and 5) and volatility should be expected as Ryan Tannehill goes through growing pains in Year 1.

Downgrades

Andre Johnson, HOU (4th, 20.6)
Jordy Nelson, GB (11th, 32.6)
Steve Smith, CAR (13th, 36.9)
Dez Bryant, DAL (15th, 39.4)
Greg Little, CLE (37th, 102.0)

For Johnson, the volume simply hasn't been there to this point and while something of a rebound is reasonable as long as he's healthy, the Texans aren't built to rely on their passing game as their defense (which was particularly bad against the pass for years) is much improved and no longer makes the offense shootout prone on a weekly basis.

Perhaps Nelson is just the type of player that needs someone else on the field to draw coverage? Greg Jennings' absence might be a negative, when you consider that Nelson did his damage with very few targets last season.

As bad as it may seem thus far for Steve Smith owners, he's 15th in receiving yards (388) this season and most of the disappointment comes from the lack of touchdowns through five games. The Panthers' play calling is interesting in the same way that gas station hot dogs are interesting. The concern here, is Cam Newton has been much less effective against quality defenses, and Smith's two big games came against the Saints and Bucs' poor secondaries. Look out for tough matchups out of the Week 6 bye with the Cowboys and Bears coming up on the Panthers' slate.

Maybe it's similar to the impact of the improved defense in Houston, where the Cowboys won't have to sling the ball 40-plus times each week? Although, Tony Romo has hit 40, 39 and 43 in the last three games thanks in large part to limited contributions in the running game. Ultimately, I can't justify Bryant over Austin as was the case in most drafts this summer, and there are probably 20 receivers I would take ahead of him right now.

Considering that Brandon Weeden has been better than expected, Little's failure to secure the Browns' top wideout spot is one of the bigger late-round disappointments in the league. With 21 NFL games under his belt, and a YPT below 6.0, Little is toast unless your scoring system rewards drops.

Tight Ends

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Tony Gonzalez, ATL (10th, 92.2)
Owen Daniels, HOU (15th, 129.2)

Even with leads, the Falcons have been more aggressive through the air this season and it should come as little surprise that Matt Ryan is on pace for a career-high 637 passes. In addition to being part of an offense that relies heavily on the pass, Gonzalez has hauled in 39 of his 47 targets this season while carrying his highest YPT (8.3) since 2006. Plenty of great matchups remain on the Falcons' schedule, including four games against the Saints and Bucs. Drafting today, is Gonzalez third behind Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski?

For all of the knocks on the Houston passing game above, Daniels gets an upgrade as he's emerged as the No. 2 option behind Andre Johnson while the likes of Kevin Walter and Keyshawn Martin have limited depth roles. With a target volume through five games (33) that will put him over 100 for the season if he avoids injury, Daniels is back in position to recoup the elite production he teased us with back in 2009.

Downgrades

Jermichael Finley, GB (6th, 66.9)
Brandon Pettigrew, DET (8th, 82.6)

After getting 11 targets in the opener against the Niners, Finley has received just five looks from quarterback Aaron Rodgers in each of the last four games. Although his target conversion rate is up 10 percent (22-for-31), only four of those looks have come in the red zone. Add it all up, and Finley ranks 25th among tight ends in fantasy points per game after ranking seventh in that category last season. Plenty of owners tabbed Finley with the notion he would finish in the top five at his position, but it's hard to imagine more than a fringe top-10 result given the improving depth in the tight end pool.

Check out Pettigrew's numbers since the start of the 2010 season. He's a bit more useful in PPR leagues, but an absolute plodder with the ball in his hands and even less likely to return a profit than Finley. Just seven of Pettigrew's 83 receptions last season went for 20+ yards, while 18 tight ends exceeded that total and many did with fewer catches.

Follow me on Twitter @DerekVanRiper.