I thought it would be fun to go back to look at my preseason ranks, and find the players who've caused the most fantasy consternation so far this season. (And I mean "fun" in the same sense that having a stye in one's eye is "awesome.") I'm not talking about Jamaal Charles or Peyton Manning, whose downfalls are health-related. I'm talking about players who've crushed you with bad on-field performance, and thus sent you time and time again back to the waiver wire, in desperate hope of finding a lightning-in-a-bottle replacement.
Yes, Rivers has been disappointing, and just posted his first game of more than 18 fantasy points in Week 9. But let's not forget the hopes we had for Freeman before the year started. Remember that 25-to-6 TD/INT ratio from 2010? How does 8-to-10 sound so far for '11? I maintained that Freeman is too good a runner not to score any rushing TDs for a full season (as he did last year). That's proved correct, as Freeman has run for a couple of scores. But he's been awful with his arm, and frankly is a candidate for release in standard ESPN.com leagues.
Enough has been written about CJ0K's struggles to fill the Library of Congress, but Mendenhall has been pretty bad, too. He scored Sunday night, but now he's got three TDs from inside an opponent's 3, after registering nine such regular-season scores last year (and three more in the playoffs). And MJD's yards are lovely, but he's held captive by his quarterback (and not the balky knee which we feared at the season's outset).
We forget that AJ was a big injury problem his first couple of years in the league, but that obviously explains his issues here. The real stinker on this list is DeSean Jackson. I vociferously argued for him over Jeremy Maclin back in May, and that's turned out just wrong. All Jackson does is run downfield with his hand up. His alligator arms over the middle killed a decisive Eagles drive late Monday night. He deserves a big downgrade.
Dallas Clark is forgiven. Antonio Gates' foot is hurt, so he's forgiven. But Vernon Davis is borderline benchable now, and Marcedes Lewis (who's still owned in more than half of ESPN.com leagues) should be dropped immediately. Many foresaw a downgrade from Lewis' 2010 season because it was so TD-heavy, but really, it isn't even that. It's David Garrard's exile, followed by Lewis' becoming nearly a full-time blocker.
This isn't as pathetic as I expected. But et tu, Patriots D?
Standard ESPN league finds
Roy Helu, RB, Washington Redskins (owned in 16.0 percent of ESPN.com leagues): Because he's the first player to be mentioned three times in the "standard league" portion of "Free-Agent Finds" this year, Helu gets a "Helloooo!" from fantasy nation. Adding him isn't pure speculation any longer, as Mike Shanahan handed him the Week 9 starting job and Helu played well: 10 carries for 41 yards and 14 catches for 105 yards from Checkdown Charlie himself, John Beck. For sure, Helu should be added now in all leagues. However, let's not forget who we're dealing with here. Shanny's RB preferences are, shall we say, peripatetic. Remember that Tashard Choice (1.7 percent) could get his hamstring healthy in time for this week's game against the Dolphins, and who'd be surprised if suddenly he was "the man"? And Ryan Torain (83.5 percent) is a tempting drop if you're in need of a roster spot, but Shanny can be so flighty, we can't even rule out a late-season return to glory for Torain.
Laurent Robinson, WR, Dallas Cowboys (2.2 percent): Miles Austin injured his other hamstring Sunday, not the one that kept him out during the preseason or that he reinjured during the 49ers game. Current estimates have Austin sitting between two and four games, which is a fantasy crusher, indeed. The prime beneficiary figures to be Dez Bryant, who always seems this close to a breakout, but Robinson is worth a look as well. As the Cowboys' No. 3 receiver the past four weeks, Robinson has 14 grabs for 203 yards and two scores (which have come in the past two games). It's reductive thinking to assume that Robinson instantly becomes the only man Dallas uses alongside Bryant in two-receiver sets; you could very well see some Kevin Ogletree (0.3 percent) as well. But yes, you'd have to imagine that Robinson will see an uptick in targets.
Jacoby Ford, WR, Oakland Raiders (36.4 percent): Nobody is quite sure what's going on with that Raiders' receiving corps. What happened to Darrius Heyward-Bey (67.8 percent), who'd submitted four terrific outings in a row? Suddenly he's the fifth-stringer? Perhaps things have come full circle, as Ford was everyone's favorite Oakland wideout back in August, and he managed five grabs for 105 yards and a pretty score versus the Broncos on Sunday. This story isn't completely written yet, and either DHB will return after a one-game "disciplinary" usage, or the Raiders are going to be a bit random in their receiving corps going forward. Thanks to Carson Palmer, there's value to be found here if the team settles on one or two guys. Ford is one of the fastest players in the league, and would be valuable if his usage becomes consistent.
Chris Ivory, RB, New Orleans Saints (0.4 percent): I wrote about Ivory as a deep-league option last week, but he may deserve an upgrade. Mark Ingram's foot injury continues to keep him out, and as a result, Ivory looks like Sean Payton's preferred early-down rushing option. Against the Buccaneers on Sunday, Ivory had 15 carries for 67 yards, compared to eight carries for Pierre Thomas and four for Darren Sproles. Now, Ivory obviously isn't the game-breaking talent that those other two guys are, and the Saints' backfield is always going to produce more frustration than fantasy glory, because it's just about always a three-headed monster. But while Ivory may not have wiggle in his game, he's a powerful dude who loves contact. Last year in limited action, you'll recall, he had four scores from inside an opponent's 6. He's nothing close to an every-week starter, but as a speculative add, you could do worse than Ivory.
Torrey Smith, WR, Baltimore Ravens (24.4 percent): Smith went from goat to hero Sunday night versus the Steelers. First he was called for a very shaky holding call on the Ravens' first play from scrimmage, negating a long Ray Rice TD. Much later, he couldn't quite extend to catch what would've been a game-winning bomb from Joe Flacco. But only a few plays after that, Baltimore went back to the well, and Smith fought off pass interference to make a nice catch in the end zone. It was his first score since that ridiculous three-TD day against the Rams back in Week 3, but Smith does have nine targets in each of the past two games. Because his looks tend to come pretty far down the field, this kind of usage pattern could lead to more strong fantasy games.
Earl Bennett, WR, Chicago Bears (1.0 percent): When the "Monday Night Football" crew began waxing rhapsodic about what a "go-to" receiver Bennett is for Jay Cutler, I made a face. Just another example of announcer hyperbole, I thought. And later in the night, Jaws and Gruden were proved absolutely right, as Cutler leaned on Bennett again and again in key situations. Now healthy after a serious chest injury, Bennett looks sure-handed and quick out of the slot, and is a pretty good bet to be near the lead for Bears targets many weeks going forward. (He caught all five of his looks Monday for 95 yards and a score.) You probably did see Bennett's best game of 2011 against the Eagles, but that doesn't mean he can't be worth something as a fill-in player, and decent PPR option.
Miami Dolphins defense (3.3 percent): Ugh. I had my first truly awful fill-in defense call of the season last week, when I endorsed the Raiders at home against Tim Tebow. A league-worst minus-4 fantasy points later, and all I can do is apologize and hope to do better in Week 10. I'll take the Dolphins, who are tied for a woeful 30th in fantasy points for the season, but who came up with a terrific effort against the Chiefs on Sunday: five sacks, three points allowed and 3.4 yards per carry allowed. The Redskins come to South Florida this week, and John Beck hasn't been a threat to put up big numbers. Top corner Vontae Davis will return from his one-game team suspension, which is good news, and Karlos Dansby & Co. haven't allowed an individual 100-yard rusher since Ben Tate back in Week 2.
Other acceptable bye substitutes, about whom I've written in previous weeks: Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals (23.7 percent); Carson Palmer, QB, Raiders (24.3 percent); Chris Ogbonnaya, RB, Cleveland Browns (15.9 percent); Kendall Hunter, RB, San Francisco 49ers (5.5 percent); Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (34.1 percent); Denarius Moore, WR, Raiders (27.3 percent); Jake Ballard, TE, New York Giants (27.4 percent); Heath Miller, TE, Steelers (42.2 percent); Brent Celek, TE, Philadelphia Eagles (15.4 percent).
Marion Barber, RB, Bears (4.8 percent): You aren't getting significant yardage from Barber, but now America knows what Bears fans have known for a month: This is your goal-line option in Chicago. Matt Forte is a terrific player, but he seems to have a mental block against getting 1 yard when you really need it, and that's something at which Barber excelled throughout much of his Cowboys career. He has four TDs in his past five games, and three of them have come from inside the 3.
Early Doucet, WR, Arizona Cardinals (18.8 percent): The QB situation in the desert caps the upside of any Arizona wideout not named Larry Fitzgerald, but Doucet has quietly shed his "bust" label (he was a supposed "steal" as a third-round pick back in '08) and produced between seven and nine fantasy points in each of his past four games. He's also got 55 targets on the season, which isn't that far behind Fitz's 69, and which is well ahead of any other Cardinals pass-catcher. Sure, he benefits from single coverage, but we shouldn't hold that against him, right?
Leonard Hankerson, WR, Redskins (0.5 percent): Hankerson was my No. 3 rookie wideout early this spring by dint of where he landed; I figured that the collegiate TD maker was a decent bet to wind up a significant target in Shanahan's offense, because folks suspected that Santana Moss would be playing elsewhere. Well, Moss re-signed, Hankerson disappointed in training camp, and the University of Miami star fell off the fantasy radar screen. But now that the Redskins seem committed to a youth movement, Hankerson is back. He played just about every snap in his first game as a starter Sunday against the 49ers, and while he had only four grabs for 34 yards, he's reportedly going to continue starting. Jabar Gaffney is an unexciting talent, so there are plays to be made for Hankerson. Unfortunately, the QB situation in D.C. is still so dire that it's tough to view this situation as a valuable one.
Josh Cribbs, WR, Browns (2.3 percent). What can you say? Cribbs was overhyped at the beginning of last year as a possible threat at wide receiver, and then spent much of the year healing severely injured toes. But things seem to have come full circle in the Browns' arch-conservative offense, because as pretty much everyone else has failed (Mohamed Massaquoi is battling a concussion, Brian Robiskie was released, and Greg Little is busy making mistake after mistake), Cribbs has scored in back-to-back weeks. As long as Massaquoi is out, Cribbs will partake in two-receiver sets and there's no doubt in the world that he's a tough dude. Of course, no Cleveland target is likely to produce much fantasy glory. Cribbs is obviously best owned in leagues where you get credit for return yards.
Kevin Smith, RB, Detroit Lions (0.2 percent): The Lions signed Smith off the street this weekend, which isn't a good sign for Jahvid Best's near-term availability. (Adam Schefter has already reported that Best isn't likely to play in Week 10.) However, realize that this version of Smith isn't the same one who came out of Central Florida as the nation's leading rusher. He's been badly banged up in his three-year NFL career. Maurice Morris (10.3 percent) and Keiland Williams (0.6 percent) should go on carrying the mail for the Lions in Week 10, but neither of those guys is a particularly special player, so it wouldn't be shocking if Smith gets a look somewhere down the road.
Thomas Clayton, RB, Browns (0.0 percent): I mention Clayton only because Chris Ogbonnaya was so bad in his first career start Sunday. Clayton saw only three carries versus the Texans, and he's nobody's idea of a great solution to Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty both being unavailable in Week 10. Ogbonnaya probably will continue to start, but if Obie stinks once more, the Browns may have no choice but to try Clayton. He's a four-plus-year veteran who's been on four NFL teams but has all of 12 regular-season carries, but he's a warm body, right?
T.J. Houshmandzadeh, WR, Raiders. (3.4 percent): Please, say it isn't so. Carson Palmer evidently asked the Raiders to go sign his old buddy as a security blanket, and the painfully slow, way-past-his-prime Housh actually saw the field out of the slot quite a lot Sunday. His physical skills are mostly gone now, so if Housh performs well in any game going forward it'll be about his will and his connection with Palmer. I don't rule out the possibility that he gets maybe five targets per week, and scores a couple of times. It would be tough to see using him in any but the very deepest leagues, however.
Other acceptable bye substitutes for deep-leaguers, about whom I've written in previous weeks: Christian Ponder, QB, Minnesota Vikings (11.4 percent); John Skelton, QB, Cardinals (0.1 percent); Donald Brown, RB, Indianapolis Colts (2.2 percent); Kregg Lumpkin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0.8 percent); Taiwan Jones, RB, Raiders (0.3 percent); Eddie Royal, WR, Denver Broncos (1.0 percent); Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle Seahawks (19.6 percent); Damian Williams, WR, Tennessee Titans (1.1 percent).
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy. He is also the author of the newly published football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com..