Five In Depth
1. Should you really trust Ryan Torain? Torain upended the Redskins' backfield two weeks ago by leaping to the top of the depth chart and logging 19 carries and 135 yards against the Rams. Now there's a temptation to think of Torain as a must-start for fantasy. As a team, the Skins are eighth in the NFL in rush yards per game, so if you could lasso the lead steer in this cattle drive, you might be onto something. Might. Because Mike Shanahan is mean.
Shanny just isn't trustworthy when it comes to RBs. Since the eighth game of 2007 with the Broncos, when Travis Henry was suspended, Shanahan's teams have played 44 games. Take a look at the men who've led Shanny's squads in carries each week:
Forgive the drawn-out list, but it's worth perusing. In 18 of a possible 40 games, Shanahan had a different RB lead his team in carries than the week before. (I'm ignoring the first game on each of these four lists, since there was nothing to change from.) That's 45 percent of the time. I'll grant you that sometimes injury provided the impetus, as with Portis losing his job and Torain missing a month last year. But there's still something pathological here.
Do I believe Torain will keep the lead job if he can stay healthy (a mighty big if)? I'm honestly not sure. Hightower performed well through two weeks, and may have missed time in Weeks 3 and 4 because of a shoulder injury he was slow to disclose to the team. Would anybody be shocked if Hightower grabs the reins again in a good matchup with the Eagles on Sunday? Would anybody be surprised if rookie Roy Helu -- for my money the most talented runner of the group -- asserts himself more now that the bye week has passed? In other words: Now you understand why most of ESPN.com's Week 6 rankers refused to bite terribly hard on Torain, despite the fact that they're going against that Philly D, which is allowing a league-worst 28 fantasy points per game to opposing RBs.
2. Rashard Mendenhall is still the man. All our ESPN rankers assumed that Mendy will be active versus the Jaguars on Sunday after failing to see the field in Week 5 because of an injured hamstring. But a couple of folks are still feeling cautious, and I understand why. After rushing for 13 touchdowns in '10, Mendenhall is stuck on two for '11, putting him on pace for six. He's averaging a pathetic 3.0 yards per carry and gives you nothing in the receiving game. Am I living a year in the past by rating Mendy highest among our four rankers, at No. 15 among fantasy backs for Week 6?
I mean, yeah, maybe. After all, the Steelers O-line is in terrible flux and doesn't open the kind of holes we usually see from the Pittsburgh blocking unit. In addition, the Jags represent a sneaky-tough matchup for an opponent's running game. The numbers express this -- the team is allowing only 14.2 fantasy points per game to opposing RBs, eighth-best in the NFL -- but it's even more evident when you watch the footage. Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton are dynamic pluggers on that defensive line, and Bernard Scott's late TD notwithstanding last week, you really saw some suffocation of Cedric Benson on Sunday. Offenses like the Saints', which in Week 4 featured quick outside players Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, can give Jacksonville trouble, but Mendenhall is certainly nobody's idea of a game-breaking runner.
So why should you continue to start Mendenhall? I admit, my optimism is in part informed by my belief that the job is once again fully his. Isaac Redman was thoroughly unimpressive on last week's game tape, and Jonathan Dwyer did burst a 76-yard run, but that has the whiff of fluke about it, and Dwyer is expected to be the third-stringer Sunday, anyway. Mendenhall is a strong bet for 20 carries (give or take a few) in games when he stays healthy and the Steelers aren't getting blown out; in fact, last season he had at least 20 attempts nine times. In a world where only three RBs are averaging more than 20 totes per game (Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster and -- in only two games -- Daniel Thomas), that's worth something. In addition, I do expect the TDs to start coming. Here's how Pittsburgh's offense worked inside an opponent's 10 last year and how it's projected to work this year:
Yes, maybe this is an indictment of the team's blocking, but to see Bruce Arians calling more running plays inside an opponent's 10 than last year makes me think the TDs will come. Granted, if Arians doesn't stay stubborn, Mendenhall could be in trouble. But so far, by all accounts, a lack of target-rich opportunities has not been the Steelers running backs' trouble.
3. Where's the love for the Saints' receivers? Drew Brees is awfully good at football. He's second in the NFL in passing yards, fourth in TD passes and first in pass attempts. Suffice it to say that New Orleans flings it around a little. So imagine my surprise when I looked at the ESPN rankings this week and saw that I was the only ranker to put a second Saints receiver -- after Marques Colston -- inside my top 32 WRs, and this in a week with six teams on bye. What gives? Why do I have both Robert Meachem (23rd) and Lance Moore (30th) so much higher than the other guys do?
Perhaps the concern is that Brees may have a ton of attempts, but many of them are going to running backs and tight ends. Jimmy Graham is first on the squad with 48 targets, while Darren Sproles has 42. Here's how the targets broke out last year, and how they're projected to break out here in '11:
The pie is bigger this year, but the WRs are getting less to eat. I guess that's alarming. And in some weeks, it might concern me. But versus the Buccaneers? Not so much. Tampa is making otherwise mediocre QBs look like world-beaters these days. Curtis Painter and Alex Smith have each looked tremendous (well, for them) versus the Bucs the past two weeks, and this defense is allowing a whopping 8.3 yards per pass attempt and an alarmingly high 99.0 passer rating against, despite having played the Painters, Smiths and Donovan McNabbs of the world. Tanard Jackson is off his suspension and will return to play free safety, but is that enough? With Devery Henderson's snap count really declining (he has exactly one target each of the past two weeks), Meachem and Moore seem like sneaky No. 3 wideout plays on this high-octane offense.
4. Cedric Benson has nine lives. A couple of weeks back, the NFL tried to suspend Benson for still more knuckleheaded off-field behavior. But Benson filed an appeal with the league and an unfair labor practice charge surrounding the notion of being suspended for deeds committed while the owners were locking out the players. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported this week that it could be as much as another month before the legal mess gets untangled, and until then, Benson will suit up as the Bengals' main back.
More damning for Benson's fantasy value is the fact that for the second straight year (and really for about the 30th straight game), he looks relatively crummy running the football. Listen, he's not utterly incompetent. He's already broken a couple of runs of more than 25 yards this year, after managing just one such scamper in 2010. But he's also averaging less than 4 yards per carry, and hasn't found the end zone since Week 1. But I like him a lot this week against the Colts, so much so that I placed him well inside my top 20. The reason? Sunday's game will be played on grass.
I know, it sounds a little stupid. But that Colts run defense is still built on speed: getting up the field quickly from the defensive end spot, and then having the back seven sit in zones and rush forward to make tackles on running plays. It's a turf-based system. On grass, things don't go as well. Check out how Indianapolis fared stopping the run in seven games on the natural stuff last season:
In two grass games this year, the Colts allowed 167 yards to the Texans and 192 yards to the Buccaneers. I'm a believer. Benson goes nutty Sunday.
5. Will the Browns ever produce a viable fantasy WR? The last Cleveland receiver to finish among the top 30 WRs in fantasy points was Braylon Edwards back in '07. In the three seasons since, Edwards finished 33rd in '08, Mohamed Massaquoi finished 60th in '09 and Massaquoi finished 72nd last year. That is a steaming pile of ugly. And when Pat Shurmur came to town, the offense got exactly 0 percent more exciting. While the team is a respectable 2-2 coming off a bye, the passing offense -- led by Colt McCoy -- is 31st in the league in both yards per attempt and average yards at the catch. In other words: Dink, meet dunk.
Perhaps there's some hope on the horizon. During their off week, the Browns installed rookie Greg Little as their starting split end in two-receiver sets. When Cleveland goes three-wide (which they actually do a ton; they use three-plus receivers the fourth-most of any team in the NFL), Little is expected to play out of the slot. The kid is now a full-time player and will likely run a lot of routes where he's available for the short stuff that Shurmur prefers. That's intriguing. Remember, with the Rams last year, Danny Amendola had a whopping 123 targets out of the slot, which tied him for 20th in the NFL.
A bet on Little as soon as this week versus the Raiders is mostly a bet on raw ability. Little is a converted collegiate running back who's 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, and has shown the ability to dish out punishment on occasion even in a reserve role this year. It came in garbage time in the Browns' most recent game, but I loved watching Little hang tough on a fourth-quarter catch on which the Titans' Will Witherspoon tried to lay him out but wound up getting hurt himself. The biggest problem with this entire receiving corps is simply that nobody is fast, so defenses never fear having the top blown off their formations. But I think Little is worth an add anyway. And heck, in a deeper PPR league, he's worth a start. This guy is a physical player going up against a very flammable Raiders secondary.
Five In Brief
6. Wherefore are thou, Jacoby Jones? You're right to take me to task for rating Jones as a sleeper start last week. He was a bust of great magnitude. The Texans were critical of his route-running and "attention to detail," and he wound up catching only one of the 11 passes thrown his way. I mean, that's hard to do, you know? Granted, if Matt Schaub doesn't make a total hash out of his final pass to the end zone, which was intended for Jones, nobody would be complaining. But that doesn't mean it was a good call. So why do I return to this same well, if perhaps with more circumspection? Well, it's awfully hard to ignore 11 targets, isn't it? I mean, Andre Johnson is still out, and while Kevin Walter did score a TD versus the Raiders, he got only six looks. Jones is a fast player with nice size (he's 6-2 and 212 pounds) and one assumes Houston must be able to throw to keep that Ravens defense honest. I almost can't believe it myself, but I persisted and rated Jones 28th on the week. (Walter is 34th.) It's those double-digit targets. They do it to me every time. And I'll tell you what: If I'm wrong, and Schaub is fed up with Jones, then Walter will make a good fantasy start. One of those two guys will produce a strong game.
7. Ryan Fitzpatrick = Tyler Thigpen? I brought this comparison up in last week's Hard Count, and while the Bills revel in their 4-1 record, I fear they're missing some eerie parallels to Thigpen's brief, wondrous life at the helm of a spread attack in Kansas City back in '08. KC Joyner pointed this out this week, and I agree: Fitzpatrick's downfall is that he won't continue to complete the deep ball. My analysis? When the Bills decided to go pedal-down, four- and five-wide, flinging it down the field, their ability to hang surprised some teams. They're second in the NFL in pass attempts with four or more WRs on the field. But the past two weeks, you've seen the Bengals and Eagles scheme to use dime coverages and a lot of deep help, which has made Fred Jackson's job easier, but has caused Fitzpatrick to misfire downfield. After starting the season 4-of-12 on passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, Fitzpatrick has spent the past two games going 0-of-8 on such throws, because he just doesn't have the wing to make up for what coverages are doing. Now with Donald Jones out with a high-ankle sprain, the Bills' WR depth will be tested, too. I'm still not bullish on this pass offense.
8. Danario Alexander is still my pick among Rams WRs. It's legitimate to ask whether it matters who the best receiver in St. Louis might be. Sam Bradford has looked lost in compiling his 49.7 completion percentage (remember, he was at 60 percent in his rookie campaign), and the Rams are currently tied with a league-low three TD passes (and only two of those went to wideouts). This whole "the new offensive coordinator will make all the difference" stuff may have to go out the window, because Josh McDaniels hasn't helped a thing yet. But this winless squad is coming off a bye and presumably will try to throw against a Packers secondary that's been burned quite a lot in '11, especially on deep stuff. I'm not guaranteeing a fantasy-worthy day for anyone in this St. Louis offense, but I will say that my eye is on Alexander. First off, he's healthy, and that's saying something for a kid who's had so many knee surgeries. And next, unlike Mike Sims-Walker, Alexander has untapped upside you can believe in. He's huge (6-5) and runs a borderline 4.4 flat 40. I'm filing away Alexander like I'm filing away Little. Probably their offenses don't do enough the rest of this year to justify starting them in a standard-sized league. But they've got enough raw ability to be lottery tickets that actually pay off.
9. Thanks, DeAngelo. Now sit down. The Falcons have a problem. Unless their opponent loses half their offensive line midgame (as the Packers did Sunday night), they're not generating a pass rush -- John Abraham being a surprise inactive versus the Packers didn't help -- and as a result they're getting blasted on pass defense. Atlanta is 31st in completion percentage allowed and 28th in pass yards allowed. At the same time, that D-line got a big boost from the return of defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, and you've seen Sean Weatherspoon emerge as a horse on the weak side the past couple of games. The Buccaneers, Seahawks and Packers have lately all sputtered running on Atlanta, and not for lack of trying: Those teams have carried it 58 times for 175 yards, a 3.0 per-carry average where the longest run by a RB has been 12 yards. DeAngelo Williams broke a 69-yard score versus the Saints last week that looked like the good old days, and it was certainly heartening to his fantasy owners that he was the only Panthers RB to get a carry in the first half. But please don't be fooled. This is a bad matchup, and even in his "resurgent" performance, D-Willy had all of nine carries. Cam Newton is obviously Carolina's goal-line back, and Jonathan Stewart isn't going away. No, you can't automatically bench Williams, because some good backs are on bye this week. But I'm not expecting a repeat.
10. Me and Julio down by the sidelines. In the same game, Julio Jones has officially been ruled out with a bad hammy, which gives Harry Douglas a chance to make a little noise. Yes, I think the greatest impact Jones' absence will have is elevating Roddy White back to an elite level (though one continues to wonder how badly his knee is really injured), and a candidate for something ridiculous like 18 targets or whatever. But I give Douglas a chance to make some plays on the other side. If Chris Gamble shadows White (Carolina doesn't always use him that way, but they did put Gamble on Marques Colston a fair amount in Week 5), you'll see some Captain Munnerlyn on Douglas, and that's a matchup Douglas can win. Usually a slot guy with great quicks and limited downfield usefulness, Douglas (for a week, anyway) has the kind of upside that makes him a viable bye-week fill-in in standard-sized leagues. I've got him inside my top 35 WRs for Week 6.
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.