For most leagues, the 2011 fantasy football regular season will be crossing the half-way point this weekend. For some of you, the season might already be over. And for others, you may be comfortably out in front cruising toward the playoffs. Today's column is targeted at the rest of you, those owners battling to climb up a few spots in the standings, or those trying to create some separation from the pack to make a push to the playoffs. The propositions that follow won't be for everyone. Many owners are risk-averse, and take a buy and hold strategy with their guys. I'm much more of a gambler, and have a propensity to make trades. My feeling is there's always an opportunity to get better, to capitalize on the swings in the market.
This week I did an analysis of the remaining schedules for each NFL team, and in this first installment of my observations I'll be breaking down the "playoff push" weeks, 10-13. The criteria for my assessments were: home versus road games, byes, the top and bottom five defenses in rushing and passing yards allowed, and the top and bottom five defenses in standard fantasy points allowed to each of the three positions I'll address. I'm going to provide three quarterbacks, three running backs, and three receivers to target, and corresponding guys whom I may be looking to move. The groupings are intended to be combinations that might be close in trade value, plausible moves, but not necessarily available for straight up deals of course. At least it's a starting point, and hey, the more information the better. Do with it what you will.
Tony Romo - (standard points position rank) 13 - (schedule Weeks 10-13) vs. BUF, at WAS, vs. MIA (Thu), at ARI
So far Romo's season has been a disaster. His Cowboys are a disappointing 2-3, he's been banged up most of the year, and he's had some very public late-game collapses. All that being said, his fantasy numbers aren't terrible and he's just starting to get his weapons healthy at the same time. The "push" schedule is cushy with Buffalo and Miami both ranking in the bottom-five in pass defense, and road contests at Washington and Arizona looking like winable games.
Ben Roethlisberger - 14 - at CIN, bye, at KC, vs. CIN
Big Ben is not considered the same level of passer and fantasy producer as Romo, but his five touchdown outburst should still be fresh in people's minds, and he has favorable matchups the next three weeks to perhaps push their perceived values closer together. You may have to add a sweetener, but with a bye and two games against the Bengals' top-five yardage and points allowed to quarterbacks pass defense, it'd be worth it if you need to finish strong to make the tournament.
Matt Ryan - 16 - vs. NO, vs. TEN, vs. MIN, at HOU
Ryan's value has never been lower. He's shockingly thrown for less than 200 yards in half of his games, and posted multiple touchdown passes in only one contest. Why would you want him, you ask? Well, the law of averages. This team is too talented, as is Ryan, to keep scuffling through the air this badly. Roddy White and Julio Jones should be back to full strength soon, and while the competition isn't soft down the fantasy regular season stretch, the Falcons get three straight home games where traditionally Ryan has excelled.
Tim Tebow - N/A - at KC, vs. NYJ (Thu), at SD, at MIN
I know, I know, how dare I. Trade America's dreamy quarterback just when he gets his chance to shine? If I had the opportunity, yes. Tebow showed his fantasy potential down the stretch last year scoring seven total touchdowns in his three starts. This week at Miami could produce similar results, but I see things getting worse before they get better after that. The trade of Brandon Lloyd affects his already limited passing attack, and with three road games and a home date with the league's toughest pass defense on fantasy quarterbacks, the Jets, Tebow could struggle. I'd get top dollar now while I could.
Mark Sanchez - 11 - vs. NE, at DEN (Thu), vs. BUF, at WAS
The Jets' offense has been pretty miserable so far in 2011, but "the Sanchize" is having his best season by far. He's thrown two touchdowns in four of his six games, and with the running game continuing to struggle it appears that his opportunities to make plays will be plentiful as this thing plays out. In this stretch he gets two of the bottom-five pass defenses, New England and Buffalo, and two of the bottom-five in points allowed to quarterbacks, the Pats and Broncos.
Andy Dalton - 19 - vs. PIT, at BAL, vs. CLE, at PIT
Dalton has been a nice fantasy surprise so far in his rookie campaign, and the last three games he's put up serviceable numbers. The flash and success of his connection-mate A.J. Green, and the Bengals' 4-2 record, could work to inflate his value. In this brutal stretch Dalton has to face the league's best pass defense twice, a road game at the Ravens who allow the second-least points to quarterbacks, and a Browns' team that is in the top-five in passing yards and quarterback fantasy points allowed. Just to top things off, he's on a bye this week and then has back-to-back road games before that stretch even starts. Ouch.
Maurice Jones-Drew - 13 - at IND, at CLE, vs. HOU, vs. SD (Mon)
So far in 2011 MJD has been vanilla pudding, taste just fine and will fill you up, but there's nothing exciting going on. He's only scored two touchdowns and has had a much more limited role in the passing game than in year's past. The play of overwhelmed rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert has had a lot to do with Jones-Drew's lack of production, but here's hoping there's some development in the coming weeks. At the least MJD will continue to be the focal point of the offense, and he gets the Swiss-cheese Colts' run defense in Week 10 and back-to-back home games including a Monday Nighter against San Diego for the final push.
Ahmad Bradshaw - 8 - at SF, vs. PHI, at NO (Mon), vs. GB
Before last week's 104-yard, three touchdown outburst, Bradshaw had received more than 15 carries, and rushed for over 59 yards, once each. I love him as a player, but for fantasy purposes he's a sell high right now. Brandon Jacobs will return at some point, and when he does he'll resume the vulture role he plays so well. The "push" weeks set up with games against two of the league's toughest run defenses, San Francisco and Green Bay, and also includes a Monday Night jaunt to the Super Dome which could be tough sledding as well.
Chris Johnson - 25 - at CAR, at ATL, vs. TB, at BUF
CJ2K has undoubtedly been a giant thorn in the side of every owner who drafted him this fall. To date, he's averaging a pathetic 3.0 yards-per-carry and has scored one measly touchdown. The good news is, his team is winning games, in his last two contests he posted his first 100-yard effort and then his first score, he's coming off a bye, and gets three straight home games coming up here. For the "push" weeks, he gets two games against bottom-five rush defenses, Carolina and Buffalo, a game on the track in Atlanta, and a home clash with Tampa Bay. Now's the time to capitalize on the frustration of owner's who suffered through Johnson's worst stretch of his career.
Beanie Wells - 12 - at PHI, at SF, at STL, vs. DAL
The former Ohio State standout has been spectacular so far in his third season with the Cardinals. He's scored in each of the four games he's played, is leading the NFC in rushing yards-per-game, and is averaging a robust 4.8 yards-per-carry. So what's not to like? Well, history I suppose. He's never had more than 176 carries and has a past littered with injury issues, so it's a risk to think that he'll hold up the rest of the way. The schedule gets a lot tougher as well. The last four weeks of the fantasy regular season consist of three road contests, and two against the top-five in rush defense, San Francisco and Dallas. Granted, he also has two against the bottom-five in points allowed to running backs, Philly and St. Louis, but he also has games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore before he hits this stretch.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis - 14 - at NYJ, vs. KC (Mon), at PHI, vs. IND
"The Lawfirm" has had an up-and-down 2011, but the Patriots have been dedicated to leaning on him as their workhorse in the running game, and he continues to find his way into the endzone with regularity. As the weather gets colder, and his schedule gets lighter, I expect Green-Ellis to be a more consistent producer in the Patriots' prolific offense. After a bye week and a tough matchup at Pittsburgh, he gets two games against the league's bottom-five in rushing defense, New York and Indianapolis, two against the bottom-five in points allowed, the Jets and Eagles, and a home Monday Nighter against the Chiefs.
Darren Sprolles - 15 - at ATL, bye, vs. NYG (Mon), vs. DET
"Mighty Mouse" was one of my favorite cartoons, and the NFL-version is one of my favorite players. Living in San Diego the last five years it's been immeasurably enjoyable to watch his skills be fully utilized in New Orleans. I'm not sure I'd have the inclination to trade Sprolles in PPR leagues, as he leads all running backs with 39 receptions, but in traditional leagues his Week 11 bye and Week 13 matchup with Detroit could be killers if you're on the bubble to make the playoffs in your league come crunch time. His lack of rushing attempts is a concern as well.
Miles Austin - 15 - vs. BUF, at WAS, vs. MIA (Thu), at ARI
Austin has been terrific when on the field, but that has been the problem so far this season. He missed two games with a hamstring injury and already had his bye week, which could have his owners in a tough spot. He claims he's 100 percent recovered from the injury and now is the time to get him. He has two soft matchups the next three weeks with home dates against St. Louis and Seattle, and then for the "push" he gets Buffalo and Miami at home, both of whom are in the bottom-five in pass defense.
Mike Wallace - 3 - at CIN, bye, at KC, vs. CIN
This is probably where people are going to start thinking I'm crazy. And that may be true, but remember these suggestions are for owners who aren't certain they'll make the playoffs and need all the help they can get in Weeks 10-13. Wallace has been amazing, and remarkably, he was on pace through the first three games to reach his lofty goal of 2,000 yards. Things have slowed a bit recently, as Pittsburgh has gotten back to their ground game some, and now Wallace is dealing with a hamstring issue. It would take a leap of faith, but if you could get a player of Austin's caliber, I'd do it. The two matchups against Cincinnati's top-five ranked pass defense and second-stingiest unit on wide receivers, combined with the pesky Week 11 bye might result in Wallace letting you down when you need him most.
Santonio Holmes - 22 - vs. NE, at DEN (Thu), vs. BUF, at WAS
Holmes was in the news for all the wrong reasons last week after degrading his offensive line, but he followed up the tomfoolery with a solid game collecting 63 yards and a score. It was the second consecutive week he payed a visit to the endzone. Six weeks in, it's looking more and more like the Jets' offense just isn't going to get the ground game going, and will therefore have to lean on the passing attack moving forward. Both Buffalo and New England rank in the bottom-five in pass defense and the Pats and Broncos give up the second, and third-most points to wide outs. Things are looking up for Holmes.
A.J. Green - 6 - vs. PIT, at BAL, vs. CLE, at PIT
To this point in his rookie season, Green has exceeded all expectations. He ranks in the top-ten in catches, yards, and touchdowns. There's really no questioning his talent, but if you're counting on him to carry you those last four weeks, it might not work out so well. Three of the four games are against defenses in the top-five in limiting wide receivers, including two against the top unit in Pittsburgh, and the other game is at Baltimore, who has the NFL's top scoring defense. Lastly, is the rookie wall which could play a factor for Green and his quarterback Dalton, and the bad weather that will be rolling into Cincinnati soon.
Percy Harvin - 35 - at GB (Mon), vs. OAK, at ATL, vs. DEN
Harvin has been remarkably average so far this year working with a washed-up Donovan McNabb as his quarterback. Starting this week, he gets a new leash on life with rookie first-round pick Christian Ponder taking over under center. It's not the ideal solution, but it would be hard to imagine things getting worse and Harvin is too dynamic a playmaker to stay this quiet all year. In Weeks 10-13 he gets two of the bottom-five pass defenses, Green Bay and Oakland, and a home game versus Denver, who is in the bottom-five in fantasy points allowed to receivers.
Eric Decker - 18 - at KC, vs NYJ (Thu), at SD, at MIN
Decker has been a nice surprise in fantasy so far this year, but there have been two developments on his team the last two weeks that have soured my expectations for him the rest of the season. Tim Tebow was named the starting quarterback, which might help the Broncos get victories, but is unlikely to result in more passing plays. Secondly, Brandon Lloyd was traded to St. Louis. On the surface this would seem to be a good thing for Decker implying more targets, but it's also going to result in added attention and double coverage from opposing defenses. This particular stretch of games lines up three roadies, a matchup with the Jets' top-five pass defense, and one against the Chargers, who are in the top-five in checking receivers. He could develop a rapport with Tebow and shine in the feature role, I'd rather not bet on it if I could help it.
In Part II of this analysis, I'll report on my observations from the fantasy playoff schedules, Weeks 14-16.