Five In Depth
1. Can Wes Welker keep it up on Revis Island? All four of our ESPN.com rankers, myself included, put Welker among their top 10 wideouts this week, but the other three guys put him first or second, while I put him ninth. A small difference, you might say, but it reflects my anxiety about Welker possibly having to match up with Darrelle Revis. At his Wednesday press conference, Rex Ryan was mum about whether Welker would pay a permanent visit to Revis Island. But we've seen multiple times over the past few years (and most obviously in Week 1 this season versus Dez Bryant), even if Ryan doesn't start Revis out exclusively on a dangerous weapon, if that weapon starts going ballistic, Revis will get in his jersey on every subsequent snap.
Welker, of course, has been otherworldly. He's as quick as he ever was before his torn ACL and has 40 catches for 616 yards and five scores in four games. (Hello, 160-catch season!) If I'm Ryan, I absolutely put Revis on Welker in the slot and let Tom Brady do his worst throwing at the defense's perimeter. If Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco and/or Matthew Slater can beat you, well, you tip your cap and move on. It's true that Welker didn't utterly destroy the Jets in three games last season: Including the playoffs, he had 20 catches for 175 yards and two TDs. That's good stuff, but not as good as Welker's been in 2011. It's also true that the Jets haven't always put Revis on Welker (there used to be a guy named Randy Moss in Beantown), and it's true that in recent seasons, Ryan has tended to deploy Revis in more creative ways rather than simply assign him a single player. But when you add up New England's targets this year, the evidence for Welker as a must-stop player only mounts:
Patriots Targets This Season
For context, Welker had 24.5 percent of New England's overall targets last season. And according to Football Outsiders, the Jets continue to be the best NFL defense limiting opposing teams' No. 1 receivers, no doubt in large part thanks to Revis. (According to FO.com, if there's a place where the Jets' pass D struggles, it's against tight ends. Look out Rob Gronkowski, especially if Aaron Hernandez again can't play.) None of this is enough for me to stay completely away from Welker, a player who's got 28, 8, 34 and 21 fantasy points in his four games this year. But it makes me a little nervous, and it makes me psyched to watch.
2. While we're at it, can you consider using the Jets' defense against Brady? Obviously, we're not going to blame the Jets' D for the three defensive TDs directly traceable to Mark Sanchez last week against the Ravens. Take out those scores and Revis and Co. allowed 13 points Sunday night, an output anyone could live with. Add into the mix a defensive TD from David Harris and a kickoff return TD from Joe McKnight, and you had a 21-point fantasy outing from this group, which shot the Jets up the charts to No. 2 among all defenses. But the Ravens did dominate time of possession in that game, and they did win a game in which their quarterback completed 10 passes. Add that to a moribund effort in Week 3 against the Raiders (minus-1 fantasy point), and tack on the fact that the Jets' past three opponents have each rushed for at least 112 yards, and it's fair to wonder whether this group is ripe for the Tom Brady picking Sunday.
I'm the only ESPN ranker who has the Jets outside his top-10 fantasy defenses this week; I have them 16th. Let's look at the past three times the Jets' D squared off against New England:
Jets D vs. Patriots Last Season, Incl. Playoffs
That's a not-so-pretty bottom line of 4.3 fantasy points per game for the Jets' D. And heck, you can persuasively make the argument that the first game listed here, Week 2 of the '10 season, came before Brady launched into this insane skein of greatness in which he currently finds himself. Heck, look how fantasy defenses have fared against the Patriots this season:
Opposing Defenses vs. Patriots, This Season
Maybe you feel peachy about the Pats racking up 400-plus yards and 30-plus points, but with Brady throwing four picks like he did against the Bills, I don't. Either way, doesn't that pretty much feel like the only way the Jets' D musters a big fantasy points day? I'm staying away.
3. Just how unprecedented is Darren Sproles' production so far this year? I admit I've been super-slow to get aboard the Sproles bandwagon. It's just so hard for me to get past how few touches he gets from scrimmage. But even in Week 4, the first game of '11 in which he didn't find the end zone, Sproles was vexingly great. He racked up 75 yards on just seven carries and mustered another 56 yards on five receptions. For a month, there's absolutely no doubt that he's been the Saints' best offensive weapon. It hasn't been close. I've been under-ranking him and paying for it in leagues where my own teams have played against the mighty mite.
But can this possibly keep up? I mean, Sproles has 50 fantasy points on just 41 touches from scrimmage. That's ludicrous! Even if we take away his Week 1 punt return touchdown in the name of being able to compare him to other running backs, 44 fantasy points on 41 touches still seems crazy. But is it? With a huge assist from my friend and ESPN colleague Tristan Cockcroft, I looked at data from 2000 forward to find RBs who had the highest ratio of fantasy-points-to-touches. I looked only at players with 150 touches from scrimmage or more, and here are the best such seasons over the past 11 NFL campaigns:
Most Fantasy Pts Per Touch, Since 2000
Sproles has 15 carries and 26 catches for 44 non-special-teams fantasy points. That makes his ratio 1.07. Do we really believe we're watching the most-efficient fantasy season for a RB in the past decade? Note also that not a single one of our historically efficient RBs had even 35 percent as many catches as carries, and that Sproles is bent in completely the opposite direction. Heck, there literally isn't a running back over the past 11 seasons who scored at least 100 fantasy points and did it with more catches than carries. Not one! The closest guy was -- surprise! -- the Saints' own Reggie Bush in '09, who had 70 carries and 47 catches. And the next-closest guy was Kevin Faulk in '08, who had 141 carries and 83 catches.
And in the end, that's who Sproles is. He's Reggie Bush, he's Kevin Faulk. He's a playmaker, but he's not this much of a playmaker. Unless he's about to set a pretty amazing precedent for point-per-touch efficiency, expect him to slow down. Of course, I'm kind of a hypocrite here, because I did rank him 21st among RBs this week, higher than Mark Ingram or Pierre Thomas. But I was still lower than my three ESPN cohorts.
4. Can a rookie QB really stay this good? Cam Newton is third among all players in fantasy points scored, behind only Aaron Rodgers and Brady. That this all seems ludicrous and impossible based on my (and many others') expectations this summer is kind of beside the point. We have to take what we get from reality, and reality is telling us Newton is a weapon. Sure, he's completing "only" 59.5 percent of this throws (still pretty snazzy for a rookie), and he has as many TD passes as interceptions (five). But he's rushed for four scores, and he's thrown for an amazing 1,386 yards, or 346.5 per game, also third-highest in the sport. If you remove Newton's rushing TDs and the rushing TDs of all other quarterbacks, Newton would still be ranked fifth in QB fantasy points. He's been that great.
Is there recent precedent for this? Heck, is there recent precedent for a rookie QB ending a season even among the top 10 among fantasy signal-callers?
Rookie QB Scoring Leaders, Past 7 Seasons
Certainly, Young stands out here, but almost entirely because of his seven rushing TDs in his rookie year. In 13 starts that season, Young averaged 158.9 passing yards per game, completed 52.3 percent of his passes and tossed 12 TDs and 13 INTs. That year, VY registered 195 fantasy points. Newton is on pace for 400. For context, Michael Vick had 300 in his amazing '10 season.
The historical-analytical part of my brain, therefore, wants to put the brakes on Newton Mania. It can't possibly always be thus, can it? Can Newton really produce more than the 386 fantasy points Brady produced in his 50-TD '07 season? (Rodgers and Brady are both on a pace to top that great campaign, too.) The card-cataloguer in my head says, "No way." But then you watch the tape, and you see Newton throwing on the run and hitting his targets pretty far down the field. You see him zing it into tight spaces. True, you don't often see him go through very many progressions, but it's the understatement of the young season to say that whatever he's doing, it's working.
I rated Newton 10th among fantasy QBs in this bye-filled week, and I'm the only ESPN ranker who had him lower than sixth. So I'm complicit in buying, too, if only to a lesser degree. The Panthers face a Saints D that's been lit up by Rodgers and Matt Schaub this year, but that's clamped down hard on Jay Cutler and Blaine Gabbert. Once again, Newton has a chance to show in whose neighborhood he belongs.
5. Can the Bills' offense really support multiple starting fantasy WRs? Steve Johnson is tied for eighth in fantasy points among wideouts, despite failing to find the end zone against the Bengals last week for the first time this season. Meanwhile, David Nelson is tied for 32nd in WR fantasy points, and in a week with six NFL teams resting, that could make him a viable No. 3 wideout in standard-sized leagues. Certainly a couple of the other ESPN rankers believe that, having put him inside their top 35. But he's No. 44 on my list.
When I think of this Bills offense, I go back to Chan Gailey's '08 group in Kansas City, led by Tyler Thigpen. Gailey presided as offensive coordinator over an attack that seemed very close to a collegiate spread and momentarily made Thigpen something of a fantasy star. From Week 5 to Week 9 that year, Thigpen had 11 TD passes and three picks and averaged 34.2 pass attempts per game. Dwayne Bowe was still an underwhelming pup in his second season but he managed a 1,000-yard campaign, as did Tony Gonzalez. Thigpen exceeded 300 yards only once in his 11 starts, but when I squint and look at Ryan Fitzpatrick (who's already got 300-plus yards once in four games this year), I see Thigpen circa '07: A below-average arm, good athleticism, some varied weapons and a whole bunch of four-wide formations. In fact, look at how many passes Fitzpatrick has thrown with different numbers of WRs on the field so far, and compare it to Gailey's Chiefs attack in '08:
2011 Bills vs. 2008 Chiefs
Source: STATS, Inc.
The two offenses look pretty similar, and this year's Bills are even a little more heavily weighted toward four-wide. And that's the problem I see with Nelson as a viable fantasy threat. There are so many other guys running around out there waving for Fitzpatrick's attention; Donald Jones, Brad Smith, Ruvell Martin and even Naaman Roosevelt have WR targets. On that Chiefs team, the next-best fantasy wideout after Bowe was Mark Bradley. Ew. And all this is to say nothing of the fact that the league caught up with Thigpen and started putting more pressure on him to make faster choices among his many weapons, and the fantasy magic ended pretty quickly. I fear that same fate awaits Fitzpatrick, which is another reason the only guy who really excites me in this pass offense is still Steve Johnson.
Five In Brief
6. Is Shonn Greene ready to shock the world? A couple weeks ago in this space, I tackled the Shonn Greene issue under a headline asserting that he might, in fact, stink at football. In two games since then, he's carried it 25 times for 82 yards, a 3.3 per-carry mark, and he's failed to reach the end zone. So why do I put Greene 16th among RBs this week, higher than any of the other rankers? Partly it's the "best-tasting-brussels-sprout" theory in a week with six teams on bye. But partly it's his solid numbers last year versus New England. In three games versus the Pats, Greene had 192 yards on 45 carries (4.3 YPC) with a touchdown. Also, Jets center Nick Mangold is likely to suit up Sunday, which should make a big difference for a much-maligned O-line (though to be fair, Greene wasn't doing much before Mangold got hurt). Add Jerod Mayo's knee injury and Rex Ryan's "ground-and-pound" PR campaign this week, and I do think we're going to see Greene get 20 touches Sunday. I say he performs solidly.
7. Who is Antonio Brown, and what has he done with Emmanuel Sanders? In my Flag-Planting Players column this summer, I gave Sanders quite the love, and I guess this is how he repays me: seven catches for 95 yards and a touchdown in four games. Sigh. Sanders didn't get over multiple foot surgeries this offseason quickly enough to get back on track with Ben Roethlisberger, which was Antonio Brown's gain. Brown is making the move I predicted Sanders would make: He's first on the entire Steelers team in targets with 33 (two more than Mike Wallace and 10 more than Hines Ward), and after watching last week's film versus the Texans, I can't blame Brown for catching only five of his 10 targets, because Big Ben was under pressure and as a result was often quite inaccurate. Naturally, Brown's fantasy value is tied to whether Roethlisberger can stay healthy and upright behind that shaky offensive line, but I say he's addable in most leagues. If you own Sanders, drop him for Brown. And I'm sorry.
8. Jacoby Jones: Savior to Andre Johnson owners? I rated Jones 18th among fantasy wideouts this week, 10 spots higher than any other ESPN ranker. Clearly, this means I'm buying into his performance in two games late last year when AJ sat with an ankle injury, and Jones mustered 10 catches for 185 yards. Am I overdoing it on a player who burned the fantasy world last season, after a summer of hype led to an underwhelming 562 yards receiving? It's possible. It does seem likely that the Texans will use Arian Foster early and often against a Raiders defense that doesn't defend the run well. Plus, Owen Daniels is now the pass-catcher Matt Schaub trusts most in this offense. But if I'm choosing between Jones and Kevin Walter, I'm taking Jones; I don't rule out the possibility that Walter could perform well, but it would be his first good game all year (Walter has four receptions in three games). Jones has a similar size/speed package to Johnson (OK, he's a bit smaller and a bit slower), and he'll be running AJ's routes. When Schaub takes a shot, I think he's going to Jones.
9. Is Mario Manningham still in the doghouse? Anyone watching the Giants beat the Cardinals last week had to notice Super Mario's disappearing act: He didn't play in two-receiver sets at all in the second half, ceding time to Victor Cruz. The New York media whirlwind hasn't gotten many on-the-record comments about specifically what Manningham did early in the game that ticked off someone, but given his penchant for sloppy routes especially near the sideline (and his shaky hands, though he didn't have any drops in Week 4 that I saw), one imagines it was about being in the right place at the right time. Cruz wound up with six catches for 98 yards, which sent many folks scrambling to the waiver wire to grab him, considering Cruz now has nine catches for 208 yards and two TDs the past two weeks. I'm not biting yet. I still put Manningham solidly in No. 3 fantasy wideout territory this week, the only ESPN ranker to do so. The Seahawks don't feature a secondary that frightens me, and I saw them struggle mightily with No. 2 Falcons receiver Julio Jones last week. All comments out of Giants camp the past few days indicate Manningham should be back in two-receiver sets, which should relegate Cruz to a cameo role. If he replaces Mario at all again this week, well, then we have ourselves a story.
10. What the heck should folks do with Dallas Clark? It's awfully hard for me to advise fantasy owners to part ways with Clark, one of the most talented pass-catching tight ends the NFL has ever seen. No, I don't believe in the Curtis Painter administration -- which will almost certainly be my prog-rock band's name once I finally get it off the ground -- though he's probably better than Kerry Collins. No, I don't think the Colts' offensive line will improve to the point where Clark can stop pass blocking or coming out of the game in favor of more accomplished blocker Brody Eldridge. But the conservative-minded fantasy player in me doesn't like to cut elite talent. I admit, however, that as the bye weeks are upon us and you have an essentially unstartable Clark taking up a roster spot, the temptation is going to get mighty sharp to cut bait. And I won't laugh at you if you do. What I will laugh at is anyone outside a 16-team league who's still putting Dallas Clark in their starting lineup. The guy has 13 grabs in four games. He's got 23 targets so far; in the four games before he got hurt in '10, he had 53 targets. There's just no way he can be in lineups right now.
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.