Welcome to The Hard Count, my new column dedicated to finding the most interesting pressure-point players for the upcoming weekend. For those folks who remember The Breakdown (the column I wrote for ESPN.com for each of the past four seasons), the formula should be familiar: I'll use film study and stats to find value and discuss matchups. But rather than tackle every single NFL game (which my schedule found to be all-consuming), here I'll examine ESPN.com's weekly rankings, and find players where I deviate from the pack, so I can explain why. Or, at the very least, I can help explain why all the rankers have taken a perhaps unexpected stance on a player.
1. Saints RB flip-flop. Oops, I have may have been too convincing in my passionate summer proselytizing about Pierre Thomas. Overall, the rankers have Thomas 34th and Ingram 35th, while I have Ingram 26th and Thomas 36th. I'm the only ranker with Ingram higher, despite the fact that I planted my flag on Thomas almost a month ago. Has something changed? Not really. Even back then, I believed Ingram was the slightly better fantasy option, but that Thomas was undervalued considering I expected more of a time-share than most pundits did back then. It hasn't even been a month, but it's amazing how the fantasy cognoscenti has come full circle, acknowledging that a Sean Payton offense hasn't produced a single back with more than 230 touches from scrimmage, and none with more than 186 since 2007.
Still, as much as I maintained that Frenchy represented strong fantasy value considering where you could draft him (Ingram's average draft position is 69.2; Thomas' ADP is 93.7), I also recognized that he doesn't have every-down upside. To date, Thomas has shown no ability to hold up to every-down pounding, while in the preseason Ingram -- who admittedly is basically the same size as Frenchy -- looked like more of an inside runner who can thrive in the power game. I absolutely still think Thomas could produce 10 total TDs this year, because that's what he averaged in '08 and '09. But if you're asking me to place money on one of these guys leading the Saints in scores, I'm still going with Ingram. The Packers' D represented a not-terrible matchup for opposing rushers last year, so I imagine you'll see a healthy dose of Ingram, Thomas and Darren Sproles. But Ingram is my favorite to steal a short score.
2. Packers RB mishmash. There's startling agreement among our rankers about Green Bay's running game. We all have Ryan Grant slightly above James Starks, and we all consider the whole situation quite yucky. I guess this could be a case where we get a whole bunch of answers right away. It's not like the Packers have had incentive to be truthful about what they really think of Grant now that he's a year removed from ankle surgery, or whether they really think Starks has a size/speed combo that could one day place him among the NFL's elite. But my guess is that not much information about this time-share will get resolved, and for me the truly interesting factor here is the Saints' defensive line.
It could be really, really good. Granted, Will Smith will (finally) be serving his two-game StarCaps suspension, so the Saints' best pass-rusher will be on the sideline. But what I'm most interested to see is whether any offensive line in the league can push around a defensive tackle rotation that includes Sedrick Ellis, Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers. Add ball-hawking middleman Jonathan Vilma, and it could be a long night for Grant and Starks. In fact, once Smith returns, it won't be a shock to see this Saints D become one of the three or four best in fantasy. Between a strong front four and a secondary that might lack superstar appeal but has great depth, plus with a defensive coordinator that puts as many blitzers into play as anyone, turnovers will be plentiful once more, a season after the Saints somehow intercepted only nine passes (lowest in the NFL).
3. Robert Meachem. OK, Bobby, time to shine. I ranked Meachem 28th among wideouts this week, while nobody else put him above 36th. In fact, without my ranking of Meachem, he'd have wound up 45th among receivers. Part of my high assessment for him this week is the fact that Lance Moore is missing the game with a groin injury. That's one fewer mouth to feed. Of course, the Packers' pass rush is impressive, and their top three corners -- Tramon Williams, Charles Woodson and Sam Shields -- are especially impressive (and are possibly a reason to be circumspect).
But I'm choosing to believe we can basically scrap Meachem's 2010 season. After the season, he finally had the ankle surgery he'd needed for a full calendar year, and he has impressed teammates and beat reporters with the return of elite foot speed that made him a first-round NFL draft pick. Yes, Devery Henderson is still on hand, and for as long as his knees hold up, Marques Colston will come first among wideouts in the red zone. Plus, there are so many weapons in New Orleans that it's tough to see anyone from this offense but Drew Brees breaking into the fantasy elite. But if anyone here has the ability to break out of the role we've all ascribed for him, it's Meachem. I think we'll see Colston get a healthy dose of Tramon Williams, the Packers' best cover man. Meachem should see Woodson some, maybe Shields some. Brees needs to get time free from Clay Matthews, no easy task. But if he does, I view Meachem as his best chance for a big play. Hey, I'm not telling you to bench Larry Fitzgerald for the guy. But this is a player who scored nine times a couple of years ago. If his ankle is right and he can return to that kind of form, we're looking at a great value play.
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.