Having been thrust into the starting lineup following the Week 1 injury of Troy Williamson, Mike Sims-Walker has been the pleasant reward for those who grabbed him off the waiver wire. Sims-Walker's place as a quality starting fantasy wide receiver should no longer be in doubt. Need some proof? Chew on this: Since moving into the starting lineup in Week 2, Sims-Walker ranks third in the NFL in terms of targets per game, trailing only Wes Welker and Andre Johnson in that time period.
If you've followed this column with any regularity, you'll already know that targets are the purest measure of how to evaluate whether your wide receivers are getting ample opportunity to produce. With that in mind, here's a quick reference of the top 25 players in terms of targets per game over the past five weeks:
Since one of the keys of winning fantasy football is to identify trends before everyone else does, here's a closer look into the Week 6 box scores:
DeSean Jackson (12 targets; 6 receptions for 94 yards): Much was made of the promotion of rookie Jeremy Maclin to the Philadelphia Eagles' starting lineup, but Jackson is the Eagles receiver you want on your roster. He has quickly developed into a game-breaking talent and is a must-start each week, especially in leagues that reward return yardage.
Zach Miller (11 targets; 6 receptions for 139 yards): If JaMarcus Russell can imitate a halfway decent NFL quarterback, then Miller is going to be a top-10 tight end the rest of the way. The number of targets against the Eagles is a very positive sign when you consider the extended portion of the game in which the Oakland Raiders were leading the game.
Ray Rice (11 targets; 10 receptions for 117 yards): What's the best way to beat a team that generally shuts down the run? Utilize screen passes.
Devin Hester (10 targets; 6 receptions for 83 yards): You'll need to keep reading for comments on how easy his upcoming schedule is, but as a teaser, the word "cupcake" comes to mind.
Mohamed Massaquoi (10 targets; 5 receptions for 83 yards): In case you've been living in a cave. The Cleveland Browns are headed toward a top-five pick in next year's NFL draft. Derek Anderson is going to remain the starting quarterback, and his only receiver with a modicum of talent is Massaquoi. Garbage time mayhem has been defined.
Steve Breaston (9 targets; 7 receptions for 77 yards): If Anquan Boldin misses any amount of time, Breaston is a must-start, but know that the Arizona Cardinals face the top two teams in passing defense in the next two weeks. That being said, the Pittsburgh Steelers held that distinction last year and Kurt Warner shredded them in the Super Bowl. In deeper leagues, Jerheme Urban is worth a flier as he'll fill the slot that Breaston will vacate as he moves up.
Sam Aiken (7 targets; 4 receptions for 30 yards): There are reports that new England Patriots rookie wide receiver Julian Edelman has a broken arm. If that is indeed the case, Aiken elevates immediately to the third wide receiver role. While the role will never produce huge numbers, it does provide upside for bye-week filler.
Big plays and up close
It likely won't surprise anyone that each of the Carolina Panthers' running backs (DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart) ripped off four big-play rushes (runs of over 10 yards) against the inept Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That same level of performance was achieved by two other NFLers this weekend: Larry Johnson and Justin Fargas. Apparently 2006 is making a comeback.
Laurence Maroney ripped off three big-play rushes in just 16 carries. He'll be the New England Patriots' No. 1 rushing option going forward and is a must-pickup in every league this week. The Patriots' offensive line is solid and their offense is tied for ninth in rushing touchdowns.
Don't overvalue the two carries that Mike Bell received near the goal line. Pierre Thomas still received more carries inside the 10, including one at the goal line. This job is going to be Thomas' the rest of the way, with Bell and Reggie Bush getting sporadic touches. Almost every elite back splits some carries, and Thomas is no different.
If you are still hoping that Stewart is going to start vulturing some of DeAngelo's touchdown opportunities, it's time to change your mind. The Carolina Panthers' duo ran the ball six times inside the opponent's 10-yard line, with Williams getting five of those opportunities. He converted two into first downs and another for a touchdown..
Sizing up the schedule
Speaking of Thomas, he might be one of the best buy-low candidates I've seen in years. If he doesn't have a monster game this weekend against the third-best rush defenders in the league, the Miami Dolphins, don't fret. After this week, the New Orleans Saints don't play any of the teams currently ranked in the top half of run defenses.
On a similar note, Thomas Jones and the New York Jets face a similarly easy rush schedule the rest of the way. Though Jones will face those same Miami Dolphins in Week 8, he won't face a top-10 rush defense in any of his other remaining games.
From Weeks 8-16, the average rush-defense rank of the Miami Dolphins' opponents is 22nd, including three consecutive in games Weeks 10-12 among teams ranked in the bottom four overall.
With the exception of the Week 11 upcoming game against the Denver Broncos, the San Diego Chargers' upcoming rush schedule is crazy easy. With the exception of that game, their opponent's average rush-defense rank is 24th for the remainder of the fantasy regular season. If you invested an early pick in LaDainian Tomlinson, there's a chance he'll be able to return a decent amount of that investment.
The Seattle Seahawks don't play a team inside the top 20 pass defenses until Week 13. Those same Seahawks looked awful this past week, but with such a soft schedule on the horizon, the prospect for T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Nate Burleson and Matt Hasselbeck to carry teams into the playoffs are very promising.
While Greg Jennings hasn't returned the value expected of him so far, look for that to turn around very soon. The Packers face the fourth-friendliest passing schedule, including no games against teams in the top 10.
Between now and the end of the season, the Chicago Bears face only two teams not in the bottom 12 in passing defense. Figuring out who among Johnny Knox, Devin Hester or Greg Olsen will benefit the most from this providential schedule isn't clear. What is crystal clear is that Jay Cutler stands to benefit from it significantly.
Finally, if you are weak in some areas of your team, try dealing some running back depth for help elsewhere if you can secure the duo of Laurence Maroney of the Patriots and Carnell Williams of the Buccaneers. If you play the easier matchup of the two for the rest of the way, you'll face no higher than the 12th-best rush defense the rest of the way, and the average of the most favorable opponents results in an average opponent ranking of 21st. That's extremely favorable, and for those of you who are desperate, it could just save your season.
Ken Daube is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. His ESPN.com fan profile is available at: myespn.go.com/KenD17.