Five In Depth
1. If Michael Vick is out, what should we make of Vince Young? The Eagles are trying to keep hope alive that Vick will be able to play Sunday night with his broken ribs. However, pretty much every beat reporter is highly dubious, and as of this writing, Vick hasn't practiced. So if for the moment we take as given that VY will start, how will he fare?
I'm hopeful. I realize that Week 11's opponent is the Giants, and they have a dangerous pass rush. But Andy Reid's system is fantasy QB-friendly in the extreme. You'll see lots of short passes and a few deep shots taken, just like the Eagles have been doing for years:
Philadelphia Eagles Top QB, Past 5 Years
Heck, Reid made Kevin Kolb look like an above-average NFL QB for seven starts, and we see how that's working out for the Cardinals.
I'm not trying to sell you Young as a direct equivalent for Vick. The baseline benefit you get from Vick's incredible rushing ability just isn't there with VY; Young's career yards-per-carry mark is 5.2, compared with an incomparable 7.2 for Vick. Young is a big cat with some strong straight-ahead speed, but he sure as heck doesn't have anything resembling Vick's quickness (few do). As passers, though, I see similarities. With the Titans, Young hovered around that 60 percent completion mark, well above what Vick used to do with the Falcons, and their career yards-per-pass-attempt marks are very close. On the downside, each guy has proven "rattle-able" via mixed-up blitz packages, and each is known for his tremendously clutch moments as well as his head-shakingly bad decisions.
I'm not ready to take the one throw VY has made with the Eagles (an interception versus the Redskins) as representative of what he can do Sunday night. I'd prefer to have his upside (and his stubborn pass-heavy playcaller) over milquetoast guys such as Matt Hasselbeck, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Joe Flacco. Vick owners would do well to handcuff Young headed into Sunday night.
2. Is Marshawn Lynch for real? Remember when Lynch was a borderline top-10 fantasy back? The year was 2009, and Beast Mode was coming off two terrific seasons to begin his NFL career. The world was his oyster. Then he got suspended for the first three games of '09 for pleading guilty to a misdemeanor weapons charge and Fred Jackson got his big break, and a year later Lynch was slaving away in Pacific Northwest obscurity. But in back-to-back weeks, Lynch has eclipsed 100 yards rushing, and he has scored a TD in five of Seattle's past six games. Given what looks like an easy opponent this week -- the Rams allowed Chris Ogbonnaya to produce -- who wouldn't rank Lynch as a top-15 fantasy back?
I wouldn't. Lynch scares me.
I grant you that TDs have been there for him, and all he has to do is fall into the end zone and he pretty much justifies his inclusion among the better plays of Week 11. But I also think that indefinitely relying on a fairly putrid Seahawks offense to be this consistent is courting trouble. The Seahawks average 16 points per game, ranking them 26th in the NFL. They also average a time of possession of 26:27, second-worst in the league ahead of only the Colts. They also average 91.7 rush yards per game, 28th in the league. I think to proclaim that Seattle has "found something" in the running game is disingenuous, or at least premature. I think there's more risk that Lynch disappoints than you typically want a top-20 back to have. But I also understand that all the other ESPN.com rankers have Lynch well inside their top 15, so I'm the one alone on an island here.
I worry first and foremost about the offensive line. The entire right side of the line that led Lynch to such good results over the past few weeks is suddenly out for the year: Right guard John Moffitt (who wasn't great) and right tackle James Carpenter (he was better, and was the No. 25 pick in April's draft) are both done with torn knee ligaments. Robert Gallery and Russell Okung have played better on the left side, but that's not enough for me to move this O-line into up-and-coming territory. In the end, this is a reliability issue. I would feel silly sitting Ryan Mathews or Brandon Jacobs, and then watching them go off on my bench while Lynch muddles through. I'll admit this is a key week for this running game; if they prove it for a third straight contest, I'll have no choice but to change my tune. But if the only reason Lynch is putting up numbers is because of volume (he has a whopping 61 touches in two games), well, that volume can be taken away. I feel way more comfortable with him as a flex in standard leagues.
3. How bad is the Matt Cassel news for Dwayne Bowe? Cassel is out indefinitely after hand surgery, and while there's a chance he returns near the end of the season, he can probably be dropped in standard leagues. Now Tyler Palko assumes the Chiefs' starting gig, beginning Monday night in New England. He has appeared in two games as a pro and has thrown 13 regular-season passes. Nobody is arguing that Palko is some kind of upgrade over Cassel, nor is anyone saying Palko is a fantasy option. The burning question is whether Bowe -- really the only no-doubt starter in the KC offense these days -- is badly hurt by this going forward.
How much worse than Cassel will Palko be? I don't think anyone can say definitively, but the circumstantial evidence isn't favorable for Palko. He has been on four NFL rosters (and/or practice squads) and has played for the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL and the California Redwoods of the UFL. The lefty wasn't drafted when he was eligible back in '07 because NFL teams didn't believe he had a big league arm, and his college tape at Pittsburgh showed a jittery, scrambling player who won some games through sheer force of will but just wasn't as talented as advertised. My worry for Bowe is that in the recent past, when he's had a substitute at QB, he has struggled:
Dwayne Bowe With Substitute QBs, Since 2008
I know this is far from scientific evidence, but I also know that the Chiefs have little clue whether Palko is any better than Brodie Croyle. At first blush, Palko wouldn't appear to have Cassel's arm strength, and his accuracy is a question. He might scramble for a score, but that doesn't help Bowe. Listen, I'm not telling you to bench a guy as talented and athletic as Bowe, even if he hasn't found the end zone since Oct. 9. I'm just saying the combination of Palko's middling arm, the Chiefs' conservative game plan and Bowe's recent history playing with subs steers me away from considering him a top-10 WR, no matter how tasty the Patriots' secondary might look.
4. Will Felix Jones crush DeMarco Murray? It appears Jones will return from the high-ankle sprain he suffered way back in Week 6, but he returns to a vastly dissimilar backfield from the one he left. Tashard Choice is gone and Murray is playing like an All-Pro. That's honestly not an exaggeration; he looks like a superstar in the making, and the Cowboys haven't yet started using him in the one area everyone agreed he was most ready, as he has only 15 catches (though 10 have come in the past two weeks). Murray has, as they say, a checkered injury history and will have to stay healthy for more than four starts to rid himself of his rep as a hamstring pull waiting to happen. But until he gets hurt, who cares? He's bulling through people, he's running past people and he's cutting around people.
Jones has been Wally Pipped. He too is supposed to be a purveyor of excellent speed and quickness, but in four NFL seasons he has never put it together the way Murray has in just four games. Jones is ticketed for a supporting role at the moment, and in fact has returned kicks during practice this week, a sure sign that he's not expected to be a primary offensive contributor. But there's some effect here. After all, Jones is a better and more accomplished player than Phillip Tanner, who ostensibly has been backing Murray up for the past month. The question we have to ask ourselves: How much damage can Jones cause in a part-time role?
To address that question, I looked back on the Marion Barber days of '08 and '09. In the 18 games which Barber and Jones both played during that span -- with Barber as the workhorse and Jones as the complementary back -- Jones could occasionally be a fantasy nuisance:
Dallas Cowboys, 2008-09 RB Timeshare Touches
This is no guarantee of what the Cowboys' backfield will look like moving forward; Murray is a different player from Barber. But I do think it's relevant. The Cowboys know Murray has had leg issues, and they know they need Jones to be ready. It might not happen this week, but I'm guessing the 25-plus touches that Murray has enjoyed in three of his past four games will diminish later in the season. Does that mean he's someone to dump in fantasy? Absolutely not. But does it mean he could edge downward out of No. 1 RB consideration? It does.
5. Your weekly Chris Johnson update: Last week's play-by-play review of CJ1K's Week 9 outing against the Bengals, which gave me hope that Johnson was turning a corner, met with positive reviews (at least on Twitter), so coming out of a Week 10 tilt versus the Panthers in which Johnson had 31 touches and 174 total yards, I figured I'd do it again. I'll bunch together similar carries, but if you don't want the play-by-play, scroll down to the end of this section for my conclusions.
• His first carry came with his team up 7-0 after a Marc Mariani punt return for a TD; it was supposed to go around left end, but there was no hole. Not CJ's fault.
• He caught an easy pass out of the backfield, when Carolina stuck Omar Gaither on him with no help, for a gain of 29 yards. Nice to have, but he was revoltingly open. Can't give him too much credit.
• His next six carries were nondescript, and characterized by the weird gliding we're seeing more out of Johnson this season than in years previous. Nothing horrendous, but nothing special. I did like that while he was running out of bounds on the final play of the first quarter, Johnson dished out punishment to James Anderson.
• With about 10 minutes left in the first half, the Titans were up 17-0 and the tide turned. Johnson produced a slashing 5-yard run and followed it up with a 4-yarder. On Tennessee's next possession, he caught a desperation safety valve over the middle and looked awful in the open field, but on the very next play Johnson had a big hole to run through and blew up Anderson again. Javon Ringer got the two-minute drill before the half. At the end of the first half, Johnson had 12 touches for 63 yards, 29 of which came on that one badly blown coverage.
• The Titans let CJ1K carry it on their first four plays coming out of the half. The first went for 9 but didn't reveal much because there was tons of space around the right side, and the second he bounced outside for almost the exact same play, again, just poor Panthers defense. The third went for only 6 yards, but was more of the hard cutback we're used to seeing from Johnson. I liked it. The fourth was a negative-yards stuff, not his fault.
• The theme of this day for Johnson seemed to be gliding, and finding a whole lot of air trying to tackle him. Again on his next three carries, CJ bounced it outside to the right and kind of just stayed behind his blockers for medium-length gains, never sticking his foot in the ground and trying to accelerate. While the carries went for 3-plus yards each time, they don't count as progress.
• Ooh, with 4:09 left in the third quarter, we saw our first real wiggle of the afternoon. Not an ankle-breaker, but CJ did make Anderson miss.
• Unfortunately, his next couple carries went for negative yards (one was nullified by an offside penalty) for which he wasn't to blame, but he didn't do much to get out of trouble. CJ had 22 touches for 100 yards at the end of the third quarter.
• His first carry of the fourth quarter was more of the same. Gliding outside, getting stuffed, putting up little fight. His next play was one of two clips you probably saw on the postgame shows, where he had a huge hole directly up the middle, made a decent cut and gained 16. Not vintage, but we'll take it.
• I actually preferred his next run, my favorite of his day. There was no room in the middle, but CJ stutter-stepped and allowed the would-be hole to collapse and avoided traffic by jigging left, finding nobody there. He accelerated for 13 yards, and he pretty much made those yards himself.
• His other televised fun run came partway through the fourth on a pitchout. It went for 25 yards, but I'm sorry, he gets no credit. It was horribly defended by the Panthers. You literally could have driven an 18-wheeler through the hole.
• By this point, Carolina was cooked. CJ went for 4, 8, 6 and zero on his next carries, and finished off a drive with a 1-yard plunge for his first score since Week 5. The 6-yarder was vintage make-you-miss, but otherwise I'll say it was all O-line.
So I counted seven plays on which Johnson looked like the player we expect. That's an improvement from last week, and let's be fair: It's illogical to expect him to look impossible to tackle on every single touch. But I've harped on the gliding, and it's really in evidence. CJ's commemorative '11 pose will be him frozen while running at half-speed, with his hand on an offensive lineman's back. He simply doesn't seem as willing to blow through creases and press the issue. The progress is real, but this opponent was awful. There have been encouraging signs the past two games, but not enough to get him into No. 1 RB territory yet.
Five In Brief
6. Where, oh where can Ryan Grant be? I know the Packers are a passing offense now. Their run/pass mix is 44.5 percent, which isn't high compared to all teams (it's the 13th-most run-heavy mix in the NFL) but which I find astonishing given how far ahead Green Bay often is. But anyway, the Pack's fantasy magic mostly comes from Aaron Rodgers. Still, the Packers did rush it 31 times Monday night against the Vikings. James Starks didn't find the end zone, but he produced 74 yards on 16 touches. Meanwhile, Grant had 6 yards on eight carries (to go with a 17-yard receiving gain). Grant hasn't produced a fantasy-relevant day since Week 3; in his five games since, he's produced 144 total yards on 41 touches (an average of 28.8 yards and 8.2 touches per game). In that same span, Starks has 75 touches and 373 yards (15.0 touches and 74.6 yards per game). In other words, it seems the Packers have made their choice. This really isn't a platoon any longer, but rather a 2-to-1 split. I know the Buccaneers have been just terrible versus the run lately, but I don't see how anyone, in any league, can feel good about using Grant Sunday.
7. The curse of LeGarrette Blount: Other than Michael Vick, no player caused me to receive more hate mail this summer than Blount. How dare I suggest Blount was only the 19th-best RB in fantasy football? Hadn't I watched tape of all that wonderful leaping he did in '10? What kind of idiot was I? I suppose I was the kind of idiot who doesn't like big guys who sometimes shy away from contact, and who can't catch or pass-block well enough to play on third down. Blount currently sits 31st in RB fantasy points (he missed two games with a knee injury), but now it appears I'm the one who likes him most, as I was the only ESPN ranker to put him inside my top 20 this week. Here's an example of paint-by-numbers analysis that I don't necessarily buy: Kregg Lumpkin plays on passing downs, and the Packers make every opponent have to throw it, and that means Blount won't be on the field much, and that means Blount should be benched. I agree with the premise: that we'll see a lot of Lumpkin, which is why I ranked him highest of the ESPN.com group, putting him 37th. But even in playing-from-behind games, Blount has been a pretty good bet for a minimum of 15 touches or so. In today's NFL, that's still a lot. As I just mentioned, it's what Starks is averaging lately. Is Cedric Benson going to get significantly more carries in a crummier matchup versus the Ravens? Is Beanie Wells and his ever-hobbled knee a better bet against the 49ers? I'll admit that if there were more appetizing options (say, for example, Arian Foster, Rashard Mendenhall and Darren Sproles), Blount would be outside my top 20. But I think his TD-less streak is a bit fluky and should end soon, and I'll be a contrarian and guess that Tampa will stay a bit more stubborn with the run in Week 11, seeing what giving up on it has cost the Bucs lately. I'm OK with using Blount.
8. The rise of John Skelton: I'm proud of our fantasy rankers for taking it easy with Skelton this week, but I've gotten a mess of Twitter and Facebook questions asking whether folks should use him after his 315-yard, three-TD day versus the Eagles. Having gone back and watched the film, I can honestly say "no." On the whole, I don't think Skelton is significantly worse than Kevin Kolb, but they're very different. Skelton has scads of physical ability (read: arm strength), but he's not accurate. Kolb has looked weak-armed for much of the year but tends to hit open receivers and is better at reading his progressions, provided there's no pressure on him. But give Skelton this: In his 75 pass attempts so far this season, on average his receivers are catching the ball 8.1 yards down the field. Kolb's are catching the ball 6.8 yards down the field. Skelton hasn't seen enough action to qualify, but right now that 8.1 mark would be highest in the NFL. So at least you can say to this point that Skelton has been more aggressive taking his shots. But I don't think you would watch the tape and say, "There's a guy who's ready to be an NFL QB." Like I say, he's about as good as Kolb right now and is probably due a three-INT game any day now. Skelton under center didn't scare me off of using Larry Fitzgerald last week and it doesn't scare me this week, but let's not overstate the kid's NFL readiness.
9. Speaking of guys not NFL-ready, hello, Matt Leinart: The Texans are off this week, so Matt Schaub's owners had already made contingency plans for Week 11. Week 12? Not so much. None but the most optimistic of Texans fans would consider Leinart a terrific fantasy substitute, but let's at least look back at the former No. 10 overall pick and really assess what he's been in his NFL career. He has a career 57.1 percent completion rate, which is concerning when you realize what a Checkdown Charlie he turned into. During the final three seasons of his Cardinals career, he averaged 6.0 yards at the catch, which maddened Arizona's coaching staff and helped hand the starting gig to Kurt Warner. Middling accuracy and an unwillingness to throw it down the field smells a lot like Trent Edwards to me. Now Leinart is at the helm of what, to this point in the season, has actually been the run-heaviest offense in the NFL (55.0 percent run plays, slightly higher than the Jaguars). So while Leinart will likely get Andre Johnson back, it's unlikely he'll be asked to do a ton, at least until defenses prove they can stop Foster and Ben Tate. I'm probably going to rank AJ near the bottom of the top 10 WRs in Week 12 simply in deference to his crazy skills, and I don't rule out the possibility that Leinart rises to the occasion. But one final thing to worry about: Leinart is a lefty, meaning left tackle Duane Brown no longer has his QB's blind side. That role will go to Eric Winston. That's a change worth watching, too.
10. D.J. Ware as a viable flex? Well, I think you'd be better off considering Ware if you're in a deeper league, but yes, for perhaps only one more week, I like Ware. I liked how he looked versus the 49ers quite a lot. Brandon Jacobs was the workhorse early, and he played fine. But as the Giants fell behind, you saw more and more of Ware in the backfield. He had three first-half touches, but then out-touched Jacobs 10-2 in the fourth quarter. Yes, that was a function of the scoreboard, and there's a significant chance that the Giants are ahead of a Vick-less Eagles Sunday night, meaning Jacobs plays more. Still, I imagine that Tom Coughlin liked seeing Ware be productive in a tough spot, versus a strong run defense. It sounds as though Ahmad Bradshaw's fractured foot is feeling better, and that he's got a chance to play in Week 12 versus the Saints. But for at least one more week, I consider Ware an OK bet for 10 touches. Considering how scattered RB work tends to be around the league, that could line him up for a desperation flex role.
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.