After he hauled in 53 catches for 674 yards and three scores in 2008 as the St. Louis Rams' No. 2 wide receiver, Donnie Avery became a very popular preseason sleeper. Fantasy owners couldn't help but be excited by Avery's potential as the 2009 season began, and his stock got a further bump following Torry Holt's departure from the Gateway City, as the second-year receiver was elevated to the Rams' No. 1 wide receiver slot.
That potential evaporated instantly and almost completely when Avery suffered a stress fracture in his foot in mid-August, causing him to miss the rest of the preseason. Flash forward to today, more than three full months since the injury. Avery is back and staking a claim to the role he was supposed to inherit not only by the virtue of his play, but also because the other receiving options in St. Louis are suspect at best.
Part of Avery's value comes in his upcoming schedule. With the exception of his Week 13 tilt against the Chicago Bears, Avery doesn't face any teams ranked in the top half of the NFL when it comes to stopping their opponents' passing attacks. In fact, four of his remaining seven games are against teams in the bottom five. That is a recipe for success, especially when you consider that Brandon Gibson, the only other wide receiver who could be a threat for targets going forward, had just one career target before this weekend's game against the New Orleans Saints.
Over the past five weeks, here are the NFL leaders in terms of passing targets per game:
With those numbers in mind and since one of the keys of winning fantasy football is to identify trends before everyone else does, here's a closer look into this weekend's box scores:
T.J. Houshmandzadeh (17 targets; 9 receptions; 165 yards): On a day that Nate Burleson was completely shut out despite five targets, including one in the end zone, Houshmandzadeh began to re-emerge as a top fantasy option. Based on his upcoming schedule, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he finishes as a top-12 receiver (he's currently 21st).
DeSean Jackson (16 targets; 8 receptions; 91 yards) and Jason Avant (9 targets; 8 receptions; 156 yards): Before anyone gets too invested in Jeremy Maclin, it's important to know that Maclin wasn't one of the top three receiving targets for the Philadelphia Eagles this weekend.
Devin Hester (14 targets; 7 receptions; 48 yards), Greg Olsen (10 targets; 7 receptions; 75 yards) and Matt Forte (9 targets; 8 receptions; 120 yards): In my Oct. 21 column, I pointed out what a pass-friendly schedule the Chicago Bears had remaining and pointed to Hester as someone you'd want to target. That advice holds.
Calvin Johnson (13 targets; 8 receptions; 84 yards): Concerns over his readiness should be dismissed immediately. He's back to being a weekly must-start.
Pierre Garcon (11 targets; 3 receptions; 50 yards): I'm not sure what to think of this. The 11 targets are encouraging, but catching only three of them is cause for concern, especially as Austin Collie continues to improve.
Tony Gonzalez (11 targets; 6 receptions; 67 yards): For the record, Gonzalez was targeted six times for five receptions and 55 yards in the second half, after Michael Turner left the game with an ankle injury. If Turner does miss any games, Gonzalez might be the top tight-end option during those games.
Brandon Marshall (10 targets; 5 receptions; 134 yards): After Chris Simms took over at halftime for the injured Kyle Orton, Marshall was targeted four times and had just one reception for 5 yards. Keep that in mind if Orton misses any time.
Hines Ward (10 targets; 4 receptions; 24 yards): For those of you wondering what happened to Ward this weekend, the answer is simple: great coverage. Ward will remain the No. 1 option for the Pittsburgh Steelers going forward.
Laveranues Coles (9 targets; 5 receptions; 67 yards): As mentioned last week, Coles is a solid pickup now that Chris Henry is out for the year. Carson Palmer is growing more and more comfortable with Coles, so expecting further improvement isn't unrealistic.
Big plays and up close
To give you an idea of how impressive Justin Forsett's performance was Sunday, his six Big Play Rushes (rushes more than 10 yards) tied for the single-game high this season despite his having six fewer carries than the other two running backs who previously achieved the feat (DeAngelo Williams and Steven Jackson).
I'm not one of the members of the staff who participate in developing the weekly rankings, but I can tell you for sure that Ricky Williams would make my top five for this week. He busted three Big Play Rushes last week and is now the sole option for the Miami Dolphins.
I know many are still labeling LaDainian Tomlinson a bust. I made no secret of how much I like Tomlinson entering this season. The ankle sprain he suffered in Week 1 obviously hurt, as did injuries to many of his offensive linemen. Sunday was the first game of the season that I saw the Chargers' offensive line get a reasonable push. Obviously that isn't easily quantifiable, but based on Tomlinson's two Big Play Rushes and conversion of a goal-line carry into a touchdown, I think it's safe to expect more from LT than what we saw prior to Week 10.
Sizing up the schedule
As the schedule grows shorter, here's a look at the net favorable rushing and passing matchups the rest of the way. A favorable matchup is against a team ranked in the bottom 10 in the league; a non-favorable features a top-10 team; all other matchups are considered neutral.
Rushing Favorability Rankings
Passing Favorability Rankings
While Thomas Jones has been a stud this year, don't be surprised if the New York Jets start throwing some more carries Shonn Greene's way. The Jets could find themselves out of the playoff hunt as soon as the end of Week 11, and with Jones slated to make more than $5.8 million in 2010, it makes sense for the Jets to see what they have in Greene. With the soft rush schedule the Jets have, that could push Jones toward being an offseason cut.
Those of you who have ridden the New York Giants' Steve Smith to prosperity this season should be concerned going forward. With four games remaining against top-10 pass defenses, as well as the usual increased Meadowlands wind, Smith should not be counted on like a top-20 wide receiver going forward. The ride was good while it lasted, but betting on it to continue just isn't playing the odds.
The Oakland Raiders have no favorable passing matchups left on their schedule, which is about the nicest thing anyone has written about the Raiders' passing game all year.
Finally, can I nominate Kurt Warner for second-half fantasy MVP right now? Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald both played well this past weekend and if they stay healthy, the lucky individual who owns Warner in your league is poised for a deep run into the playoffs as six of their remaining seven games are against teams ranked in the bottom 10 in pass defense.
Ken Daube is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. His ESPN.com fan profile is available at: myespn.go.com/KenD17.