The Ravens' kicking job is still up for grabs between Shayne Graham and Billy Cundiff. Said special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg, "We have two very good NFL kickers. They've both performed very well all the way through training camp." In the eyes of at least a few Ravens beat reporters, Cundiff has performed just slightly better thus far. ... Commissioner Goodell will meet with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Friday to determine the length of his suspension. Chances are, Roethlisberger will get a game or two cut off his six-game suspension for good summer behavior. Fantasy owners may want to take advantage of the situation now, while Roethlisberger remains a low-level No. 2 fantasy quarterback in most fantasy drafts. If the suspension is reduced, expect his stock to rise. ... Could Peyton Hillis become a factor in Cleveland's backfield? He thinks so. "My game’s pretty much downhill. Whenever my name is called, I’m gonna make plays,” he said. Hillis scored the Browns only rushing touchdown against Detroit last week, and averaged 3.7 yards per carry to Jerome Harrison's 3.1. Harrison and Montario Hardesty remain the favorites to receive the bulk of the carries, but if Hillis continues to play this well he'll only complicate matters for fantasy owners. ... In addressing the media this week, Bengals backup running back Bernard Scott said, "I am hoping my role expands, but if not I am willing to do whatever they want me to do and go out there and try to make plays whenever my number is called.” As vanilla as that quote is, it goes to prove a point -- Scott has shown so much promise in his early stay in Cincinnati that he cannot be ignored, and sooner or later the Bengals coaching staff is going to have to deal with what's becoming a good problem to have. For fantasy owners with Cedric Benson, it soon could become a nightmare.
Buffalo's backfield may soon be back to full strength. Marshawn Lynch (ankle) has been handling carries in practice and admitted he should be fresh for Week 1. The team will test him out in its final preseason game. Said coach Chan Gailey, "It didn't look like there was any residual effect, so we're looking forward to watching him Thursday night." Meanwhile, Fred Jackson is still wearing a hand brace but no longer has his arm in a cast. Jackson said there was a "100%" chance he'd be in the lineup. Gailey wasn't as optimistic. ... Folks in Miami are still concerned with Chad Henne's performance in the team's recent loss to Atlanta. Henne completed 10 of 22 passes and threw a costly interception in the red zone. Fantasy owners shouldn't be concerned in the least bit, however. The Dolphins coaching staff showed its support for Henne this week, and he still can be considered one of the top fantasy sleepers at his position for this season. ... Tom Brady's hot streak? Brandon Spikes' future career in the movie business? No, the best New England story this preseason has been the success had by rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had 66 yards and two scores in the team's last contest. "He’s such a big kid, and it’s hard to tackle him because he’s so strong,” Brady told a Boston Herald reporter. Patriots tight ends have been poisonous to fantasy owners in the past. Looks like that's about to change. ... Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes told New York media this week that he'd like to snag about 20 balls in this week's contest. Holmes also discussed his upcoming four-game suspension: "It's only going to probably set me back if I continue to worry about it." The suspension has caused Holmes to plummet down draftboards this summer, but based on the way Rex Ryan gushed this week about his new star receiver, fantasy owners can have confidence Holmes will see plenty of balls (although not quite 20) in each game after his return.
Much was made of how the shifting umpire could affect Peyton Manning and the Colts offense. Hogwash. Yes, it may slow down Indianapolis, and yes, it may help defenses rotate fresh bodies into the front seven. But it's not going to have a drastic impact on Manning's numbers because, as the veteran showed against Green Bay, even when slowed down he still reads defenses and makes adjustments on the go better than any other passer in the game. ... Despite receiving the go-ahead from his doctor Texans tight end Owen Daniels is still playing it safe. The team is going to hold him out of action this week with the hope he'll be ready for the Week 1 contest. Fantasy owners with Daniels may want to wait until Week 2 to see how the knee is coming along. ... Another AFC South tight end dealing with an injury is Jacksonville's Marcedes Lewis, who many believe was on track for a nice season. Lewis suffered an ankle injury against Tampa Bay after catching two balls for 33. The team is plenty deep behind him, so the injury could cause Lewis to plummet back to fantasy mediocrity. ... Pound-for-pound the best Titans fantasy receiver last Saturday? Kenny Britt, who caught four of the five balls thrown in his direction for 33 yards. Britt still has not flashed the field-stretching plays that made him a popular waiver wire pickup last fall, but it's only a matter of time.
Knowshon Moreno was back at Broncos practice this week, but the bigger news -- so was tackle Ryan Clady. The Broncos are a much different team without Clady on the field; good thing the tackle is expected to play on Thursday at Minnesota. ... San Diego coach Norv Turner has done nothing but praise rookie running back Ryan Matthews since he joined camp. Said Turner this week, "He doesn't get rattled and doesn’t get really excited. He expects to gain yards, whether he has to run over you or around you." Turner has pumped up premier fantasy backs before (ahem, Emmitt Smith, anyone?), so fantasy owners should consider Turner's comments one-part PR and one-part encouragement. ... The Contra Costa Times released an article this week profiling the blossoming relationship between quarterback Jason Campbell and tight end Zach Miller. Said coach Tom Cable in the story, "There's a comfort level there with both of them, whether it be in third down or the red zone. Certainly Zach and Jason's relationship is flourishing." Hmmm, wonder if Campbell has introduced himself to the rest of the Raiders receivers yet. He'll need them when defenses take Miller away. ... The Chiefs are using Dexter McCluster at receiver and as the quarterback in their version of the Wildcat. The team is excited to have the versatile rookie but feels it must be creative to get the most life out of him. Said coach Todd Haley, “My job becomes: ‘OK, the guy can’t play 120 plays in a game.' What can he play? What is the best thing for the team?” On this sorry team, coach? The best thing might just be to give McCluster the ball early and save the worrying for a time when you have a team worth worrying about.
Cowboys wide receiver Roy Williams missed practice on Wednesday with a bad back and hip injury. On that same day the team welcomed back rookie Dez Bryant. Don't worry, Roy. Dez will keep your spot warm while you're gone. Just don't expect it back when you return. ... Depending on Donovan McNabb's recovery time, the team may have to turn to (gulp!) Rex Grossman to start the 2010 season against Dallas. That could be a scary situation for any fantasy owner carrying a Redskins player on their roster. Grossman has completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in the past two seasons, with more interceptions (three) than touchdowns (two). Not good, Redskins fans, not good. ... The Giants' loss of backup quarterback Jim Sorgi could be a bigger deal than fantasy owners care to admit. Sure, Sorgi has no value, but if Manning continues to take a beating and, heaven forbid, misses time in the lineup, the rest of the team's skill players would see their fantasy stock plummet. New York has virtually no good options behind Manning now and the market for quality backup quarterbacks is sparse. Think Kurt Warner would consider a return to the Big Apple? (read: plenty of sarcasm). ... Two things we've learned about the all-important Philadelphia quarterback situation this summer: (a) Kevin Kolb isn't ready to be a fantasy stud quite yet, and (b) the team will use Michal Vick under center more than anyone anticipated. For fantasy owners, it's all bad news.
What can be made of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler's reported romance with MTV star Kristin Cavallari? If true, it's trouble, regardless of what Cutler says (or denies). In the last decade, think about how many famous women have brought good luck to their football-playing boyfriends. I'll give you Kim Kardashian. After that it's all distractions and poor play. ... Virtually every publication likes Green Bay to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, in large part due to the emergence of young stars like tight end Jermichael Finley. But while fantasy owners drool over Finley they should not forget "old man" Donald Driver, who received a two-year contract this offseason and has played surprisingly well. Driver caught a touchdown and matched Finley's target total (eight) in last week's win over Indianapolis. ... Here's a number for fantasy owners to chew on: 2.5. That was Kevin Smith's average per carry last week against Detroit. Among the Lions top five rushers, Smith was the only back to average fewer than 4.5 yards. Not only is he in jeopardy of losing his place on the field; his name plate may no longer rest over his locker if this continues. ... Adrian Peterson got a free pass last week thanks to Brett Favre's horrible showing. Hidden behind Favre's two interceptions were Peterson's 11 carries for 37 yards, 24 of which came on one run. That means the Vikings back gained just 1.3 yards per carry on his other 10 carries against the Seahawks.
Panthers rookie wide receiver Brandon LaFell is making a serious push to be the starting receiver opposite Steve Smith. One reason he must be viewed as a serious contender for the job is his big-play potential. In each of the last two contests, LaFell has averaged 15 or more yards per catch in limited action. ... It was not much of a surprise when Tampa Bay cut Derrick Ward this week. The veteran back had not lived up to expectations since arriving from New York. However, what is a surprise is that the Buccaneers genuinely seem content heading into the season with what they have. Said coach Raheem Morris, "We've got Cadillac, who we're happy to have. And also we have Insurance Graham back there playing running back for us and he's able to carry the ball as well." Fantasy owners know better; no back on this club is worth much. ... Fantasy owners know better than to get too excited about Saints reserve back Chris Ivory, who is helping to fill a hole created by all of the team's injuries in the backfield. Then again, they should know better than to completely ignore any Saints skilled player, either. Not only did he turn a short catch into a nifty 76-yard touchdown run last week, but he carried the ball 11 times. The team is set with Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush in the backfield, but the coaching staff loves to use multiple weapons, and Ivory could earn some time if he plays as well as he did against San Diego. ... Last week's game against Miami served as a true test for Atlanta's offense. All of the stars played a considerable number of snaps. The bad news is that most of them did not play exceptionally well. Michael Turner carried 16 times but gained just 47 yards; Matt Ryan completed just 50 percent of his throws. The only star was wide receiver Roddy White, who was thrown to 12 times and caught six balls, including a touchdown.
San Francisco’s 233-pound sixth round rookie Anthony Dixon carried 21 times last week and caught three passes. The 49ers are sure to keep Brian Westbrook, but Dixon will get the No. 3 job, and his size could earn him a role, possibly in short-yardage situations to save Gore’s legs. … Fantasy experts will argue that too much is being made of Sam Bradford’s performance against New England last week, and for the most part that’s true – rookie success in the preseason is often misleading. But in Bradford’s case there might be more to it. The Rams appear ready to hand him the job, and everyone knows this team will need to pass early and often to play from behind. Bradford could be an upgrade of Matthew Stafford’s 2009 rookie campaign, which puts the Rams’ No. 1 overall pick just inside the realm of fantasy relevance. … It’s September and Mike Williams is still alive and well in Seattle. Fantasy owners have been slow to respond but Williams has clearly been Seattle’s best receiver in camp this summer (just saying). … The Cardinals have drama on their hands with the Matt Leinart-Derek Anderson fiasco. Some would say it’s a non-issue – most fantasy owners were prepared to skip past both players in their drafts. But so long as Leinart feels he has earned the job, and Anderson remains in the picture, this situation will be a distraction, which will ultimately spoil into the legitimate fantasy prospects Arizona does have on its roster.
The predominant school of thought surrounding young receivers has been to temper expectations from a fantasy perspective until they are entering at least their third year in the pros. While this certainly has been the case for some wideouts over the years, most recently with Sidney Rice and Mike Sims-Walker in 2009, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. In fact, fantasy owners who ignore rookie wide receivers will miss the boat on some guys.
Don't be calling Alex Smith a bust quite yet, folks.
My inclination through the first few weeks of this column has been to move down the list of sleeper candidates to generally go deeper into the average draft positions to point out value. At some point, though, you can get too deep to be useful to the majority of fantasy leagues.
So, this time around I’m going to lean more toward players going earlier … just not early enough.
QB sleeper: Alex Smith, 49ers
It’s not wrong to label Smith a bust in the NFL so far. Five years after he was drafted first overall, Smith has started for a full season only once and sits with six more career interceptions than touchdown passes. Then again, to apply the bust label and ignore Smith would be a mistake.
Between the myriad offensive coordinators and the serious shoulder injury — not to mention the sheer pressure that comes with being drafted first overall — Smith has dealt with quite a bit to date. That’s why it wasn’t hard to feel good for him last year when he took over for the final 11 games (starting 10) and looked like a worthwhile quarterback. Smith posted six games with two touchdown passes or more. He also endured three multiple-interception outings, but each came against a defense (Tennessee, Arizona and Philadelphia) that ranked among the top eight in the league in picks.
Perhaps most important, Smith finally benefited from the emergence of two high-quality targets: tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Add wide receiver Josh Morgan, who has more physical ability than his numbers have yet indicated, and running back Frank Gore, and you suddenly have a pretty attractive stable of options.
Smith’s numbers from last year project to 26 touchdowns over a full season (as well as 17 interceptions, which would have tied for sixth most in 2009). He doesn’t need to reach that to be a good fantasy backup, and that position allows the fantasy owner to more easily play the matchups. Smith is going as just the 18th quarterback at RapidDraft.com, but I’d take him over Matthew Stafford and I think he has more to work with than Chad Henne (each of whom regularly goes earlier).
Jamaal Charles might slip out of Round 1, but Round 2? C'mon!
RB sleeper: Jamaal Charles, Chiefs
I can understand if you don’t want to draft this guy in the first round. I don’t agree with it — especially in point-per-reception formats – but I can understand if you simply like another running back a bit better.
What I can’t understand is Charles falling all the way to the start of Round 3 in that format, and I’ve been seeing that a lot. We’re talking about a guy who was better than any other fantasy back in the league not named Chris Johnson over the eight games he finally took the lead role last year. Charles finished among the dozen at his position despite carrying the ball just 190 times and not garnering more than six attempts in a game before Week 10.
Do you really think Thomas Jones is going to usurp that kind of value? I don’t care what the August depth chart says, this isn’t about who’s starting. Anyone in charge of winning football games in Kansas City is well aware that his biggest weapon is Charles.
Obviously, the diminutive back won’t get the same workload this year (161 carries over the final eight games), but he doesn’t have to. Again, last season’s production came via just 190 carries. Charles would need to average just 12.5 a game to reach 200, which would represent less than half of the woeful Chiefs’ rushing workload from last season. Charles’ receptions were solid last year — 12 over his first four games — even when his playing time wasn’t.
There’s some level of risk on just about any player you draft early, but I see more question marks when I look at Rashard Mendenhall and Shonn Greene, for instance, than I do with Charles, who carries a first-round ADP at RapidDraft.com.
WR sleeper: Derrick Mason, Ravens
I suppose it’s possible that I wind up looking stupid on this one. I was, after all, willing to believe in Torry Holt bouncing back a bit in Jacksonville last year. I’m baffled, though, by the wide acceptance of Anquan Boldin continuing to match his Arizona value while Mason slides to the very bottom of starter range (or beyond).
I mentioned this situation last week, so I won’t belabor the point here, but Mason has drawn 121 and 134 targets in Joe Flacco’s two seasons. That marked about 28 percent and 26 percent, respectively, of the team’s total pass attempts for those years. Then there’s the part about him missing zero games since 2002. Sure Boldin is the bigger talent, but there’s something to be said for familiarity and dependability between quarterback and receiver.
Mason and Boldin are often separated by about six rounds in fantasy drafts. I won’t be surprised if at the end of the season they are separated by just that number of receptions … or fewer.
TE sleeper: Benjamin Watson, Browns
I’ve pretty much covered the starter-level tight ends who aren’t getting appreciated enough on draft day, so let me opt here for a backup who could perform like a starter.
Watson has always offered the talent that originally got him drafted in the first round by the Patriots; he just hasn’t ever delivered on it for a full season. For all that disappointment, though — just one season with more than 36 catches — Watson has been a solid touchdown producer and now lands in perhaps the ideal situation.
Cleveland is embarrassingly short at receiver, to the point that the team leaders in receptions last year tied at 34. For what it’s worth, running back Peyton Hillis leads the way in this exhibition season so far with nine. Watson, meanwhile, has caught first-half touchdowns in two of three games.
Now, I’m not one to overrate the fake games, but this is obviously a team in need of receiving options. That’s why it signed a talented tight end with whom coach Eric Mangini was familiar from their Patriot days. Watson has proved a poor bet to make it through the season healthy, but at a backup tight end spot, you aren’t looking for 16 games. If you can get two or three useful weeks, you’ve gotten plenty from a guy who isn’t even picked in the average draft.
D/ST sleeper: Dallas
I strongly dislike the Cowboys (that’s as nicely as I can say it), so I really hope I’m wrong about this defense being worthwhile in fantasy. I don’t really see how that would be the case, though.
Here you have a defense that allowed the second-fewest points in the league last year. It fell 17 sacks from its 2008 total and still ranked seventh in the league. It ranked fourth in fewest yards allowed per carry. In short, the Dallas defense was pretty good last year.
This season, OLB DeMarcus Ware is healthier, after a merely mortal 11 sacks last year — as opposed to 20 in 2008. The starter opposite him, Anthony Spencer, should be in for his best season after coming on late in 2009. Nosetackle Jay Ratliff is reportedly healthier than he’s been in several years. Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman now constitute arguably one of the league’s best corner tandems. The only visible hole seems to be at free safety, but the rest of the unit will make it challenging enough to even test that position.
As an Eagles fan, I want to believe that the Cowboys will keep giving up just as many points as they did to the Texans the other night. As a fantasy owner who prefers to wait on a defense, I’ve ended up with this one a lot.
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They’re circling the wagons in Big D and coach Wade Phillips is talking about treating his team’s final preseason game as if it were Week 1. The offense has struggled to score points and the defense has struggled to slow down opponents in each of the first four contests.
The question now is: Should fantasy owners be at all concerned?
Somebody really needs to blink in the proverbial staring contest currently taking place between Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith and wide receiver Vincent Jackson. If you ask me, Smith needs to get off his high-and-mighty horse and pay the man, or at least allow him to negotiate with other teams.
Thursday’s shootout between fantasy quarterback rivals Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers didn’t disappoint. Within the first three minutes each had a touchdown pass to his credit, and by the end of the contest the pair had combined for 409 yards and five scores.
Most would say Rodgers got the better of his counterpart; the Packers dominated the game and Rodgers had the superior stat line. And in a year in which most fantasy experts prefer Rodgers over all others, that was to be expected. But call me crazy, I still like Manning.