1. Keep the faith in Frank
It might be a bit early to panic, but Frank Gore's numbers are just awful, and his ankle injury obviously does nothing to help.
Still, while Kendall Hunter has looked more explosive than Gore, the rookie is only averaging 2.7 yards per carry. Considering Gore is averaging just 0.2 yards less per carry despite a burden of 48 more carries, it's not as if Hunter seems close to forcing a committee situation.
Rough as times have been for Gore's owners, they should hold onto him and, if possible, add Hunter. Trading Gore with his value so low is unlikely to net a serious upgrade, and things really can't get much worse. Jim Harbaugh will remain committed to giving him as much work as he can handle, and it's a genuine possibility that Gore has just been stifled by a rough schedule so far.
His own poor numbers have definitely played a role in the rankings, but the Seahawks, Cowboys and Bengals have combined to allow just 3.01 yards per carry this season, all three ranking in the top five in yards per carry allowed. If Gore continues to look bad against a Philadelphia defense that gave up 4.9 yards per carry through Week 4, then it might be time to get desperate.
2. Gauging Hightower and Helu
Roy Helu rightfully is often identified as one of the league's more intriguing big-play threats at running back, but I'm skeptical that he's about to overthrow the Tim Hightower regime in Washington.
The primary premise in the argument for Helu's imminent coup is that Hightower is struggling. A quick glance at Hightower's numbers doesn't seem to dispute this, as he's averaging only 3.54 yard per carry. But Hightower's workload has primarily come against defenses sporting strong run-defense numbers – the Giants, Cardinals and Cowboys have allowed a combined average of just 3.61 yards per carry. How can anyone can conclude that Hightower's numbers are below average beyond a negligible extent? We're talking about a difference of 0.07 yards per carry.
Of course, just because Hightower isn't necessarily below average at the moment doesn't mean that Helu can't do better. Indeed, most would agree that Helu is obviously the more skilled runner. Two factors complicate things for Helu, though.
The first is that Hightower is more skilled in blitz pickup. In an offense that's on pace to throw the ball 608 times, this is important. Helu is a rookie who spent his college career playing in an option-heavy offense that very rarely charged him with the task of protecting a quarterback in the midst of a pro-style dropback.
The second is that Helu doesn't have an extensive history of carrying a big workload. Despite measuring less than 6-foot, he tends to run a bit upright, and he received 20 or more carries only twice last year at Nebraska. He received a bigger workload as a junior in 2009, but by mid-October that year he suffered a shoulder stinger that persisted most of the year, averaging just 3.49 yards per carry in the season's final four games.
Helu likely will have his day as Washington's feature runner, but it probably will take an injury to Hightower (or a Hightower fumbling spree, which wouldn't be shocking) for it to happen in 2011. I think the best-case scenario for Helu is an even carry split with Hightower starting in November or so.
3. How real are the Bills and Raiders?
As long as the starting quarterbacks for both teams stay on the field, I see little reason to sell high on the players who have produced for either squad.
Darren McFadden is untradeable, as he might be the top player in fantasy football this year. Fred Jackson has clearly pulled away from C.J. Spiller in the battle for touches, and since Jackson's talent isn't in question, there's not much reason to believe he can't remain a strong starting option. And given that he entered this year as the only Bills receiver on the radar of opposing defenses, it seems safe to say that Steve Johnson isn't going anywhere, either. Meanwhile, David Nelson looks fully capable of providing high-floor, moderate-ceiling production in Johnson's shadow.
Two players I'm less attached to are Ryan Fitzpatrick and Denarius Moore. The main reason on Fitzpatrick is that most of his owners probably have him as a backup, and if he's still your backup, you might be able to turn his 841 passing yards and nine touchdowns into an upgrade at another position. And while Moore looks like a nice talent for Oakland, he's basically playing the role previously held by Jacoby Ford (hamstring), and there's no guarantee the two will coexist upon Ford's return.
4. If Gates is out, Crayton could pay off in PPR leagues
Antonio Gates (foot) likely to miss some more time, Patrick Crayton might be a decent target for owners looking for help at wideout.
With Gates out of the lineup and Malcom Floyd (groin) hurting against Kansas City, Crayton caught five passes for 49 yards in his first game back from an ankle injury. Floyd's improved health could harm Crayton's role, but both Floyd and Vincent Jackson generally specialize as big-play threats, while Crayton would remain as the sole possession wideout.
Crayton showed good chemistry with Philip Rivers starting in mid-October last year, catching 23 passes for 420 yards and a touchdown over a five-week span before a wrist injury ended his season. If Floyd remains a bit gimpy and defenses zero in on Jackson, Crayton could provide a nice short-term boost at a cheap cost.
5. Smith has skills, but don't overspend
Considering I ranked him only behind A.J. Green and Julio Jones before the 2011 NFL Draft, I expected Torrey Smith to have a productive career.
I certainly didn't, however, expect any 152-yard, three-touchdown games from him during his rookie season. While I was wrong on that front, I nonetheless can't see him coming close to matching his Week 3 effort in any of his remaining rookie games.
Smith fell to the 58th pick in large part because he's a raw route runner. He was extremely productive at Maryland, but he mostly ran two routes, and neither route required much technique. One of his plays was the quick-hitting wide-receiver screen, and the other was the fly route. He wasn't asked to do much else and, as a result, he left college as a mostly one-dimensional deep threat.
Given that all of three of his touchdowns Sunday came on relatively simple deep routes, there's not necessarily much evidence that he has added any dimensions to his game. And given how lethal that one dimension of his game proved to be against St. Louis, you can bet opposing defenses will be careful to remove that dimension from the Baltimore offense.
It would be a disappointment if Smith didn't turn into a Pro Bowl receiver before his career ended, but until he shows the ability to make plays on a variety of routes, he's more of an Anthony Armstrong than a Mike Wallace. And that's not even considering the impact of Lee Evans (foot) stealing targets once he's back on the field.