Rev up the engine; here comes the Cadillac. Now that Earnest Graham has been placed on injured reserve after suffering a high ankle sprain Sunday, it looks as if Carnell Williams could make his season debut this week for the Buccaneers. Warrick Dunn will remain the starter, and B.J. Askew is likely to continue to see action as well, but Williams, who has spent more than a year recovering from a torn patellar tendon, says he is ready to roll and may be called on to contribute. Keep in mind that this will be his first game in a year, and set your fantasy expectations accordingly. But if he's available in your league, he could be a good pickup for your fantasy playoffs.
Whom else might you want to watch out for as the fantasy playoffs approach? Based on early practice reports, here's what we're hearing on the injury front so far.
Kellen Winslow, TE, Browns: Winslow injured his right shoulder as the clock wound down on the Browns' Monday night victory over the Bills. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Winslow injured his right shoulder when he was tackled following a big catch and clearly was in discomfort afterward. Winslow underwent an MRI to further assess the injury, and it showed no structural damage. The team is calling it a shoulder sprain.
Last year, Winslow also sustained a shoulder injury, a subluxation (when the shoulder slips quickly out of place but doesn't completely dislocate). Although he had discomfort with the injury, he did not miss any playing time. More importantly, coach Romeo Crennel says that this episode is on the opposite side, so Winslow is not aggravating a previously injured limb. That being said, Winslow, who has dealt with more than his share of serious injuries in a relatively short time frame, doesn't have many uninjured limbs left. We do know based on previous experience that he is one tough athlete, so expect him to try to return to play this week. Of course, we will know more about his status as the weekend approaches and will learn whether he is able to practice by Friday.
Brandon Jacobs, RB, Giants: Jacobs appeared to have escaped any major injury to his knee Sunday. Reports indicated that an MRI showed no structural damage to Jacobs' knee, but Jacobs' own comments on ESPN's "First Take" may have been the most telling. Jacobs acknowledged that his knee didn't feel too bad and that he still hopes to play Sunday, but he indicated that the medical staff might have a different idea (read: rest him). The Giants already have proven they have solid depth in their backfield, and between Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw, they can afford to let Jacobs sit out a game to ensure his availability for the playoffs.
OK, so they might rest him to preserve his status heading into the playoffs, but don't these NFL teams know that fantasy playoffs are starting for many people this week? What is a fantasy owner to do? Well, a prudent owner will start by securing a replacement for Jacobs for this week because he may be able to come to your rescue down the stretch, but he may not be able to help you on Sunday, even if he wants to.
Steven Jackson, RB, Rams: It was supposed to be a one-to-two-week injury. Now it's been five weeks since the initial injury, and Jackson already has been ruled out for Sunday's game against the Bears. This scenario only goes to prove how difficult muscle strains can be to manage during the season, and how much easier it is to take a step backward in the healing process than to make significant forward progress.
Let's look at the good news. Fantasy owners can plan accordingly early in the week. But this is even better news from a medical perspective. By making the decision this early, Jackson faces no pressure to attempt to return in time for Sunday's game. Clearly the muscle tissue in his thigh is still healing, and rest and rehabilitation are the best course of action for him. If blood is present in the tissue, as coach Jim Haslett relayed to the Belleville News-Democrat, clearly it is not ready to be stressed by explosive running. In fact, Jackson saw a specialist for a second opinion this week who basically agreed with the team's original diagnosis and concurred with the plan for continued rest. The plan, it seems, is to rest Jackson this week, then reassess his condition next week.
The not-so-good news is that this situation has become very difficult to predict. Some speculate the Rams will move to shut Jackson down for the remainder of the season, given that they have no chance of making the postseason. I don't expect that to be the case, at least not yet. No player as competitive as Jackson wants to go out on a whimper, and if he can contribute, even in an overall losing effort, he will. The Rams and Haslett also want to try to finish out the season respectfully and won't throw in the towel in Week 12, meaning they want their best players on the field. Still, Jackson's condition could remain slow to heal. If he cannot run at full speed within the next three weeks, he likely wouldn't see any game action. A player whose performance depends on speed and explosiveness cannot play at less than full throttle. Any attempt to do so risks further injury. At this point, Jackson has to understand that because he already experienced a setback when attempting to return too soon. Fantasy owners do not have an easy decision here as to whether to keep Jackson on their roster, but at the very least, they should plan on filling in for him for the next two weeks.
Some other players to keep an eye on as the week progresses
• Another running back named Bell, Mike Bell, that is, has found a job this week because another player went down to injury. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that Saints running back Aaron Stecker was placed on injured reserve after aggravating a hamstring strain. Although Reggie Bush is hopeful to return to action Monday night for the Saints after missing a month following meniscal surgery, the Saints needed the insurance, just in case. Fullback Mike Karney remains sidelined with an MCL sprain and also is likely to miss Monday's game. Bell likely will have little to no fantasy value this week amid the presence of Deuce McAllister, Pierre Thomas and the potential return of Bush. The situation bears watching, though, as McAllister may have a suspension looming in the not-too-distant future.
• Steelers tight end Heath Miller has returned to full practice, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has indicated that he is off the injury report and is likely to return to face the Bengals this week. Miller has been recovering from a high ankle sprain and has missed two games as a result. He is still on the early side of recovery, so it remains to be seen how much he will contribute. The Steelers play Thursday night, so keep that in mind when setting fantasy lineups.
• If you picked up Cowboys receiver Miles Austin as a flex player for your lineup, it's time to find a replacement. The Dallas Morning News is reporting that Austin suffered a lateral collateral ligament sprain and could be out anywhere from two to four weeks. This is the same injury that Vikings running back Adrian Peterson suffered last year. Although this is one of the less frequently sprained knee ligaments (it reinforces the outer aspect of the knee joint), allowing full healing is critical in preserving overall knee stability. This is especially true for Austin, who suffered an MCL sprain at the outset of the 2008 season. Austin looked to be challenging Patrick Crayton on the depth chart, but at this point, Crayton looks to have that spot back behind Terrell Owens and Roy Williams. Meanwhile, it is too soon to know whether Felix Jones will be able to return for the Cowboys this week. His level of practice by Friday should give a better indication.
• Broncos tight end Tony Scheffler is still dealing with the soreness of a lingering groin injury. He's been playing, but clearly not up to the high standard he set at the start of the season. Expect him to play again, but he likely won't be at full health. Meanwhile, Selvin Young will remain out another week with his groin injury. Peyton Hillis will remain the starter.
• Raiders running back Darren McFadden emerged feeling good after Sunday's contest. Of course, he didn't play too much, but nonetheless, this was a big positive for the rookie, who has been plagued by turf toe in both feet this year. Expect him to see some increased playing time against Denver this week.
• Jason La Canfora reports in his blog in the Washington Post that coach Jim Zorn acknowledges that Redskins running back Clinton Portis started "to wear down a little bit" in Sunday night's game, yet feels better this week than last. I'm still amazed that Portis played, and played as well as he did. Based on the severity of the injury the Redskins reported in advance of the game, they were very lucky that Portis emerged from that game relatively unscathed. Unfortunately, Ladell Betts had a setback to his knee injury, but he has not been ruled out of Sunday's game. At this point it still appears that Portis will shoulder the majority of the work this weekend against Seattle.
As usual, practice throughout the week will give us a better hint as to what the final status of these players will be heading into Week 12. See you Friday at the injury chat, and we'll have the latest injury updates affecting Week 12 in the Saturday blog!