Called Out: Ranking Chris Johnson

Back to work, all you NFLers!

I'm always pleased to see the bye weeks in our rearview mirror. We get a full slate of games from which to pick our lineups, Thursday games are underway (and by Week 15 we'll start adding Saturday games), there's more strategy in locking in certain spots in your lineup, and in most of my leagues we add an extra period of FAAB (free-agent acquisition budget) bidding.

Most importantly, the relevance of games only increases each passing week. As players get more worn down from the grueling regular season, more notable names wind up on the injury report, right at the time we need be most selective about our starting lineups. Hey, the fantasy playoffs are almost here -- two weeks from now in a few of my leagues -- so these weeks are of the utmost importance.

Naturally, that means we're cranking our proverbial "rankings dials" to 11, putting them under even greater scrutiny each passing week.

And, naturally, that means I'm cranking my proverbial "calling-out dial" to 11, twisting the screws further on our four ranking experts, Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris, Eric Karabell and Erik Kuselias. They put their blood, sweat and tears into their rankings, and like I say every week, then I tear their rankings apart.

Let's get to it!

10. Harris isn't on the "Chris Johnson is the tops" bandwagon. He ranked Johnson fifth among running backs, as opposed to the Nos. 1, 1 and 2 of the other three, which might to most seem an irrelevant debate. But I've been reading your questions, whether there's anything to the improved Houston Texans defense, and if there's anyone who might offer some insight on that, it's probably going to be the person who didn't rank Johnson in the spot that he currently occupies in terms of year-to-date fantasy points among running backs.

"It 'may' be an irrelevant debate?" says Harris. "Um, yeah. It's an irrelevant debate. But I'd be glad to speak about Johnson. Can I quote you someone from the Week 6 edition of 'Called Out'? Quoth Mr. Cockcroft: 'Wow, and I thought I was being pro-Chris Johnson in the chat today. You've got him five, no one else has him higher than 14.' And now, here we are, five weeks later, and I'm the anti-Chris-Johnson voter?"

To interrupt for a second, "Called Out" readers with keen Googling skills might not recognize the quote … mainly because those specific words never made it into the column. To briefly give you a sense of the process, I pick the questions at the time we publish the rankings on Wednesday, and generally pitch them of our experts in vague form, mostly to avoid putting words into their mouths. That was indeed the way the original question was asked … it simply made it into the Week 6 "Called Out" more like this: "Have to admit I side with the others, who have him more in the teens." Johnson, who was coming off a slump of 21 fantasy points in his previous three games, would wind up finishing 12th at his position that week.

"There's been no bigger Johnson booster than myself," says Harris. "And the last time 'Sonic the Hedgehog' faced the Texans, he ran for a cool 284 yards from scrimmage with three touchdowns. But the Texans are a different defense since then. Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans are pushing their way toward the elites among linebacker tandems in the NFL, and the team may have found something in moving big-money free-agent defensive end Antonio Smith to defensive tackle on some downs. If there's caution, that's it: It's a scary matchup against a defense that's been the toughest to score fantasy points on the past five weeks. That said, you don't sit Johnson. Ever. Care to ask me about Miles Austin again?"

No, now that you and I (and apparently just about everyone) are clearly on the same wavelength about Austin being a No. 2 fantasy wide receiver, as I've been stressing as far back as the Week 7 "Instant Replay." Let's get back to Johnson, though, and I'll give people the stats so they can judge: In their first three games, the Texans allowed 108 fantasy points (36.0 average) to opposing running backs. In six games since, that number is 56 (9.3 per). You decide how you feel about it, but I'm with Christopher on this one; you don't sit Johnson.

9. Karabell on Wednesday doesn't rank Cedric Benson -- some injury concerns? It'd be understandable, as Benson's hip injury could conceivably limit or sideline him entirely, but the approach to ranking/evaluating injury-risk players is an important factor in fantasy, especially as we get deeper into the season. I mean, boy, even my hip is sore from all this chair-sitting this year; I think I might be questionable and a game-time decision for Sunday.

"Benson will be in my Friday rankings, but I can't say I'm any more confident that he's going to play than I was Tuesday," says Karabell. "I guess it's all about the peer pressure. Benson would be in my 10-15 range at running back, in part because I'm not convinced he'd need to get 20 carries against the Oakland Raiders for the Cincinnati Bengals to win, but also because it's a good week for top-end running backs. I did not rank Larry Johnson, and if Benson sits, I have little faith in Bernard Scott."

Somehow I'm not confident in Scott, either, and I liked the guy as a very low-level sleeper early in the preseason. I'm iffy on Benson myself; if he's healthy I have to start him, but I doubt there's anything that'd have me buying in at higher than 15.

8. Harris ranks Ahmad Bradshaw his No. 21 running back, a generous flex-play ranking for a backup running back in a non-bye week. Now, among backups, Bradshaw is one of the more valuable ones out there, ranking fourth in fantasy points among running backs who (when everyone's healthy) are clear No. 2 options on their teams. But might it not make more sense to trust a clear starter over a backup, especially in light of the fact that of all weeks to expect the "Brandon Jacobs Show," it's the one coming right out of the bye, when Jacobs is healthiest?

"We have such short memories in fantasy," says Harris. "Don't you remember it was four weeks ago that everyone was asking whether Bradshaw had secretly eclipsed Jacobs as the New York Giants' best rushing option? How Bradshaw had more touchdowns, and nearly as many carries? Now after a bye, everyone's forgetting about him. The Atlanta Falcons give it up on the ground: they're second-worst in the league against fantasy rushers over the past three weeks, when Pierre Thomas, Ladell Betts and the Carolina Panthers duo did a number on them. It's a plus matchup, so yes, I'm happy to use Jacobs as a No. 2 fantasy rusher, but when did the job suddenly become his and his alone? I'm not counting the San Diego Chargers game, because Jacobs got hurt, which is why Bradshaw had more carries, but look at the game logs otherwise: Jacobs 20, Bradshaw 9; Jacobs 13, Bradshaw 12; Bradshaw 10, Jacobs 7. This is a 60-40 split, and that's to say nothing of Bradshaw's usage in the passing game [though Danny Ware may be about to bite into that]. If you like Jacobs, you almost by definition have to like Bradshaw, too, at least until the crack in his foot makes him sit more."

7. Karabell apparently still prefers Tim Hightower to Beanie Wells, and ranks Hightower a solid 18th among running backs. Not that I have anything against Hightower, who still has goal-line and PPR value due to Wells' inadequacy on passing downs, but it seemed to me the balance between the two did finally tilt slightly toward the rookie's side in Week 10. Toss in the cozy St. Louis Rams matchup and Wells seems more the No. 2 back, Hightower the flex, to me.

"I think it's a bit premature to stick a fork in Hightower just because Wells scored twice against the Seahawks in Week 10," says Karabell. "Hightower still catches the ball and those in PPR formats are well aware of his value. Hightower scored every week from Week 5 through 8, and it's not like he has stopped getting important touches since. I expect Hightower has just as good a chance as Wells to perform well against the Rams."

6. Kuselias ranks Roddy White his No. 18 wide receiver, but the other three had him a clear top-10 option. Having watched the Giants play heading into the bye, I just can't see it. They allowed 112 fantasy points combined to opposing wide receivers in four games leading into the bye, they have safety problems, and I can't see how a week's rest will cure that. To me, White is a clear top-tier option, especially since the Falcons might throw more with Michael Turner out.

"The Giants have been awful against the pass lately, but with names like Brees, Warner, and Rivers throwing the ball, not too many teams look good," says Kuselias. "I think Turner's injury doesn't necessarily help as White becomes a bigger key for the defense, and with Matt Ryan's spotty play over the month of November, I had to move White down. Also, he has been battling a knee injury that has him listed as questionable on the injury report. He didn't practice on Wednesday, and while I expect him to play, most of the guys I ranked above him don't have the same health issues to worry about heading into Week 11."

5. Karabell ranks Brandon Marshall his No. 21 wide receiver, in spite of his monstrous game versus the Washington Redskins in Week 10. Quite a game it was; Marshall's 25 fantasy points alone were more than any other team's entire wide receiver corps (except the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 7) had versus the Redskins all season. Now the Chargers: They were routed for 40 points by Eagles wide receivers in Week 10, and 101 total by their past five opponents.

"The only reason I'm being cautious about Marshall is because I don't know if Kyle Orton is going to play, and after seeing a glimpse of Chris Simms, it would clearly affect the other Broncos," says Karabell. "That's basically all it is, plus the fact, as I wrote in a Wednesday Karablog, I couldn't really fit 26 or 27 wide receivers into my top 20 this week. I tried. Someone had to take the hit, and with the possibility of Simms slingin' it, Marshall was one of those guys."

Great point -- and it is worth pointing out that if Orton does play, it'll be on a left ankle with torn ligaments, meaning no doubt he'll be less than 100 percent. I might simply be taking a Karabell-esque leap of faith on Marshall's talent, but I think the guy warrants it … at least as a mid-level No. 2 receiver.

4. Harris is decidedly anti-Buffalo Bills wide receivers, ranking Lee Evans 43rd and Terrell Owens 47th at the position. He's also seemingly anti-Bills/Jags, with the exception of Maurice Jones-Drew, his No. 1 running back. I find that a bit surprising being that Evans is in a heck of a hot streak, ranking 14th in fantasy points among wide receivers the past five weeks (one of which was a bye). I'd start him as a No. 3 wide receiver or flex, being that the Jacksonville Jaguars rank dead last in sacks (so no pass rush), have allowed the fifth-most passing scores and the second-most fantasy points to opposing wide receivers (so their secondary stinks).

"I understand what you're saying about Evans, and it's good news that Ryan Fitzpatrick will start for the Bills this weekend, because Fitzpatrick was the reason Evans got a bit more action in the first place," says Harris. "But let's not go crazy with this '14th among wide receivers' stuff. In that five-week span, he's tied for 38th in targets [with just 27] and tied for 37th in receptions [with only 15]. What elevates him are the four touchdowns. I'm not trying to take those away. He's a good player. But he's also a hugely touchdown-dependent player on an offense without even a medium-armed quarterback and that just fired its head coach. I have no idea what to expect without Dick Jauron there. Maybe suddenly we're talking about the Flingin' Bills. But until I see it with my own eyes, I'd rather not start anyone on that offense, and certainly not a guy I need to score or he's almost worthless. Plus the quarterback is bad, and the rushers are limited by a poor and injured O-line and split the job (but you'll notice I still have them each ranked as flexes … and you called me out for Fred Jackson last week). Going the other way, yes, I like MJD, but I also like Mike Sims-Walker: I have him ranked 16th among wideouts."

3. The group is pro-Pierre Thomas, certainly more so than I am. He earned a group ranking of No. 10 at running back, which is a top-level starter, and his lowest individual rank was 15th (by Harris). But he's coming off a bust of a Week 10, he's not even in the top 15 at his position in fantasy points since his Week 5 bye, and his matchups during that span were pretty darned favorable. I was about as big a Thomas fan as anyone in the preseason and still see hope down the stretch, but I just can't bring myself to start the guy with confidence. To me, he's a low-level No. 2 running back, and only because that's a tasty matchup.

"I'm surprised you're surprised," says Berry. "Even with missing the first two games and doing nothing last week, Thomas is the 16th-highest scoring fantasy running back this year. He's middle of the pack, period. And yes, speaking as a Thomas owner, last week was frustrating, especially given the opponent. But he had been huge the two previous games and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers give up the fifth-most points to opposing running backs, including eight scores in the past five games. We've seen weeks where Drew Brees has thrown zero touchdowns. Heck, last week Marques Colston and Vincent Jackson did nothing. It happens. But there's no way you're benching Pierre Thomas versus the Bucs and my ranking reflects that."

"There's more of a difference between ranking someone ninth and 15th than first and fifth [see the Chris Johnson question above], so maybe I feel I've been unfairly lumped here, but whatever," says Harris. "Yeah, I mean, there are usage concerns with Thomas [because Reggie Bush now has five touchdowns the past five weeks], but I think those are reflected in my rating Thomas as a No. 2 fantasy back, not a No. 1. The Buccaneers may have played one heartfelt game against the Green Bay Packers in which their defense looked strong [six sacks, three picks and a defensive score], but to me it looked like they went right back to their old ways in Week 10. There isn't as much speed on that team as there used to be, and they wear down along the defensive line. It should be a plus matchup for Thomas."

"I ranked Thomas in my top 10 because I still believe he's the New Orleans Saints' main running back -- not Reggie Bush -- and this is again a wonderful matchup," says Karabell. "It's not like Thomas has been struggling of late. In Weeks 8 and 9 he scored each week and totaled 33 fantasy points, after all. We project him for 107 rushing yards and a touchdown against the awful Buccaneers and I concur."

"Despite his so-so performance last week, Pierre Thomas still had a team-high 11 carries," says Kuselias. "The Saints were forced to pass against the Rams, and that limited Thomas' value. He gets a great bounce-back game against the Buccaneers, who've allowed the sixth-most fantasy points to opposing running backs. Last week, Miami ran for 198 yards and a touchdown against the Bucs and Thomas should be the primary beneficiary."

2. Berry ranks Randy Moss his No. 21 wide receiver. I have a hunch about the rationale behind this, as I've been pretty anti-Moss this week. It's why I'm advising caution -- suggesting his owners take more chances to stack the lineup at other spots -- with Moss, even if I can't make the leap to outright say "sit him" because of the immense talent he brings to the table. But I'm curious about Berry's angle on it; we'll see if he sees the same downside I do ...

"I'm guessing this is your guess as to why," says Berry. "It's all about Darrelle Revis. In his past three games against the New York Jets, Moss has 72 yards receiving. That's 72 yards total. Over three games. In fact, in his career against the Jets, Moss has only two touchdowns and only one 100-yard game. I think Welker goes off in this game, not Moss."

Bingo! Same reason I'm worried, that a game like Vincent Jackson's from Week 10 is coming. If it does, I won't be at all shocked.

1. Berry ranks Jamal Lewis -- that's the 47th-ranked Lewis in terms of fantasy points this year, and the 30-year-old-averaging-3.6-yards-per-carry Lewis -- his No. 15 running back. Seems like a blind matchup play to me. At best, I can't invest as anything more than a flex even in Lewis' good weeks.

"Yep, it's a matchup play," says Berry. "Look, he has been productive when they give him the ball: 31 for 117 versus Buffalo, 16 for 69 at Chicago. He just hasn't been getting the ball very much because they are so bad. But, against Detroit, as I mentioned in 'Love/Hate' this week, that won't be the case. The Lions have given up at least one touchdown to an opposing running back in every single game this year. They've given up 11 in 10 games to be exact. They give up the sixth-most fantasy points to opposing running backs, including at least 22 points in three straight games."

Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.