Bilal Powell, RB, NYJ
The Jets were expected to hand the starting running back role to Chris Ivory after giving New Orleans a fourth-round pick for the talented but injury-prone runner, but Powell has decisively run away with the starting job, and not just because of Ivory’s endless hamstring troubles. Powell is providing rookie quarterback Geno Smith with a decent safety valve in the passing game, securing eight of his 14 targets for 66 yards; and he even caught some fire as runner against Buffalo on Sunday, taking 27 carries for 149 yards. Opposing defenses will likely clamp down against the run and dare Smith to beat them through the air, so Powell will probably struggle to reliably post a rushing average of more than four yards per carry. However, he's on pace for 1,557 yards from scrimmage right now. He probably needs to be owned in any league with more than eight teams.
Giovani Bernard, RB, CIN
The verdict is in: Bernard is better than BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and the Bengals are beginning to notice. Bernard's carry count has gone from four to eight to 10 in the last three weeks, and his target count in the passing game went from two in the first two games to four against the Packers on Sunday. Bernard has 110 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries (5.0 YPC), and six catches for 84 yards and a touchdown on eight targets. BJGE, meanwhile, has just 129 yards and two touchdowns on 46 carries (2.8 YPC) and two catches for nine yards on two targets. Cincinnati might tap the brakes on Bernard’s workload if they establish safe leads, but other than maybe a Week 15 road match against Pittsburgh, there isn't a single pushover on Cincinnati's schedule. Bernard is no less than a strong flex option for the foreseeable future.
Brandon Bolden, RB, NE
With Shane Vereen (wrist) out until at least Week 11, there is a big opportunity for a New England running back to establish himself as the new elusive, pass-catching complement to power runners Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount. Bolden is clearly the top candidate, and not just by default. Bolden was one of the SEC’s most skilled pass-catching runners while playing at Mississippi, and he finally got a chance to show those skills against Tampa Bay on Sunday. He earned six targets, turning them into five catches for 49 yards. He also reminded everyone of his superior explosiveness to Ridley and Blount by taking three carries for 51 yards. Bolden should probably be owned in most or all leagues that have 12 or more teams, because he has the talent to produce in the role previously held by Vereen.
Ryan Broyles, WR, DET
Broyles’ surgically-repaired ACL might be a bit of a time bomb – the Lions held him out of the first two weeks and monitored his play count in Week 3 to limit irritation in the knee – but with Nate Burleson out indefinitely due to a broken arm, Detroit will be forced to give Broyles all he can handle. There’s little doubt that Broyles is a talented player with the skill set necessary to thrive in Detroit’s pass-happy offense, so there is short-term appeal here at the very least. He caught each of his three targets against Washington on Sunday, totaling 34 yards despite playing just 17 snaps. Even if Detroit continues to limit his play count, Broyles’ advantage in talent over fellow wideouts Kris Durham and Patrick Edwards means he’ll earn a disproportionate number of targets while he’s on the field.
Austin Pettis, WR, STL
It’s slightly puzzling, for a couple reasons, that the Rams remain so committed to Pettis. First, he has averaged just 5.2 yards per target (114 yards on 22 looks); and second, fellow wideout Brian Quick, a player the Rams selected 33rd overall in 2012, is healthy and on the roster. However, Pettis doesn’t seem to be losing ground in the St. Louis offense, and deep-league owners might as well capitalize on his usage while St. Louis lets him on the field. Sam Bradford values Pettis as a short-yardage and red-zone target, and Pettis heads into Week 4 with 13 catches and two touchdowns as a result.
Stevan Ridley, RB, NE
It seems as if something has to give with Ridley’s surprising streak of ineffectiveness in 2013 – there’s no doubt that he holds a significant talent advantage over LeGarrette Blount, and Shane Vereen (wrist) is out until at least Week 11 – but coach Bill Belichick has stubbornly clung to his belief that Ridley can’t be trusted after fumbling in Week 1. There's nothing especially rational about that – Blount fumbled nine times on just 385 carries from 2010 to 2011, after all – but Belichick’s mind is not easily changed. Ridley should get his workhorse role back after just one big game or one big mistake from Blount, but Ridley’s owners paid an RB2 price tag for him in most cases, and they’re playing with fire while starting him in the meantime.
Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, WR, TB
Simply put, Josh Freeman has been one of the worst quarterbacks in the league in 2013. Freeman’s showing has been one of the worst of any quarterback in recent memory, particularly when you consider the fact that he has one of the league’s elite wideout duos in Jackson and Williams. Freeman has two touchdowns and three interceptions through three games, and he's averaging just 6.1 yards per pass while completing 45.7 percent of his passes. Great as they are, Jackson and Williams can’t live up to their expected standards when their quarterback is playing like that. It’s somewhat of a miracle that the two have combined for 391 yards and a touchdown to this point, and it’s not easy to see a light at the end of this tunnel.
C.J. Spiller, RB, BUF
Three weeks into the season, there might not be a more costly disappointment in fantasy football than Spiller. Typically secured with a top-six pick, Spiller has tallied just 153 yards (3.6 YPC) on the ground and 29 yards, on nine catches, through the air. Beyond that, he has fumbled three times, losing one, and has yet to find the end zone. At the same time, Spiller’s 32-year-old backup, Fred Jackson, has 169 yards (5.3 YPC) and a touchdown on the ground to go along with 113 yards on 13 catches. It’s easy to see who has been more effective up to this point, and to make matters worse, a quadriceps injury suffered against the Jets on Sunday makes Spiller’s short-term forecast even blurrier. It seems unlikely that most Spiller owners could get a worthwhile trade offer with Spiller’s value about as low as it could possibly be, so it’s probably best to hold in most cases. However, he’s a shaky fantasy start for the time being.
Rashard Mendenhall, RB, ARZ
Mendenhall has never been more than average as a starting NFL runner, and in recent years injuries have started to limit his utility even further. He dealt with a knee injury for much of the preseason, and then played through a hamstring issue in Week 2 before a toe injury limited him in Week 3. This is all in addition to a January of 2012 ACL tear and Achilles tendon troubles later in 2012. Mendenhall lost 115 snaps to the duo of Andre Ellington and Alfonso Smith through the first two weeks of the year, so he’s far from a workhorse in an Arizona offense that’s hit-or-miss thanks to its poor offensive line. With average production in a part-time role in an offense that can’t block, Mendenhall’s owners can merely hope for RB4 production in most situations.
Jared Cook, TE, STL
Cook is a big, fast pass-catching option who plays a prominent role in an offense that has thrown 141 passes in the first three weeks. However, he has been largely invisible since a dominant Week 1 showing in which he caught seven passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns. The Rams spread the ball around often, with Tavon Austin, Austin Pettis, Lance Kendricks, Daryl Richardson, Chris Givens and Isaiah Pead combining for 69 catches heading into Week 4, and that means inconsistent production for Cook. Cook still looks like a good bet to finish the year as a top-12 tight end, but hopes of him turning into an elite fantasy commodity are quickly fading.