Spotlight on NFC East RBs

This week on the Fantasy Underground podcast (also available on iTunes), Field Yates and I discussed film on Darren McFadden, Steven Jackson, Michael Vick, Christian Ponder, Brian Hartline, James Jones, Brandon Bolden and the Minnesota Vikings D/ST. So you won't find full discussions of those players here. Instead, I'm digging up nuggets on some new situations. Listen there, read here. What a treat!

Five In Depth

1. What's Eating Shady? A few miscellaneous experts recommended Aaron Rodgers as the first overall pick in drafts this summer, but the consensus among most folks was that three elite running backs deserved to be the first three selections. Two of those guys have performed well so far. Arian Foster leads all running backs in fantasy points, is 11th overall in raw points and is No. 1 in terms of Value-Based Drafting. Ray Rice is the No. 2 RB and is tied for second in VBD.

Alas, the third member of that troika, LeSean McCoy, is No. 15 in fantasy points among running backs and 20th in VBD.

Statistically, there is one key difference between McCoy's first four games this year and his first four performances of 2011:

Goodbye, touchdowns! Aside from a 6-to-1 TD differential, these two seasons look similar, and any Philadelphia Eagles fan who has watched McCoy closely this season hasn't noticed much difference in his raw ability. His zero-to-60 acceleration may be the league's best among running backs, and his stop-on-a-dime shiftiness is certainly top five. Shady is third in the NFL in rushing yards, ahead of Foster and Rice, and fifth in yards from scrimmage, ahead of Foster. Indeed, the game tape is extremely favorable to McCoy in all but one area: touchdowns.

We all know how difficult it is to predict touchdowns. In 2011, McCoy ended up with an NFL-best 20 scores, including 17 on the ground. Ten of those (nine rushing, one receiving) came from inside an opponent's 2. (That short-yardage proficiency partially explained Vick's relatively disappointing fantasy season.) Of the other 10 scores, only three came from outside an opponent's red zone (TD runs of 33, 33 and 49 yards). In each of his two full seasons as a full-time starter, Shady has three touchdown runs greater than 20 yards, which befits a player of his speed and quickness. It's safe to project that a few of those big-play scores are coming down the pike soon.

But what about those short scores? This is where Week 4's result may sound the alarm. On the Eagles' first drive of the second half Sunday night, McCoy broke off scintillating back-to-back runs of 34 and 22 yards before being brought down by Mathias Kiwanuka on the New York Giants' 1. Then Philly proceeded to give Shady three straight carries. The first was a straightforward handoff to the right and was stuffed. The second was almost the exact same play, but McCoy tried to bounce it outside and ran into Brent Celek's back. On the third, McCoy swept left and bounced outside, only to be run down before the pylon. Three tries from the 1, three failures, field goal. It was eerily reminiscent of the pre-2011 Eagles, which couldn't get touchdowns in short-yardage situations unless Vick took it himself -- which helps explain why Vick had nine scores in 2010, four of which came from inside the 2. So far this season, McCoy has seven rushes inside an opponent's 10 and has scored on one of them.

Is this a major concern? I don't think so. If you're a McCoy owner, you had to expect Shady would produce fewer than 20 scores this season. He gets so much work that a multi-TD game has to be coming sometime. I don't think his relatively poor fantasy numbers indicate he is a must-sell, nor do I think you should deal him the moment he produces a good game. But is this a potential nuisance? It is, especially since the next time the Eagles got inside the Giants' 5, just after the game's two-minute warning, rookie Bryce Brown got a carry, taking it from the 4 to the 2. Brown outweighs McCoy by at least 15 pounds (I'm guessing more) and could get in the mix for goal-line carries. Heck, Vick could too. It's a situation worth watching, though not panicking over.

2. Revisiting Alfred Morris. After Week 1, I assessed the debut of Mr. Morris and gave a mixed review. Noting that 22 of Morris' 28 carries went for three yards or fewer, I expressed that I "counted exactly one carry on which Morris cut hard in the Shanahan mode and made someone miss while finding a seam. Otherwise, it was essentially power football: Run into whatever's in the way, whether it's a defender, open space or your own lineman." I advocated Morris as a must-own in fantasy but fretted that Mike Shanahan would pull his Shanahan-igans and juggle his running backs in the immediate future.

Well, we've seen three more performances since then, and if any Washington Redskins rusher can be said to have a stranglehold on a job, it's Morris. He is tied for third in the NFL in carries and is fifth in rushing yards. He has 75 more totes than the next Washington running back. Yes, Ryan Grant is now on board, replacing the IR-bound Roy Helu, and Evan Royster had some good games last season. And I'll never rule out the possibility that Shanahan could shock the world one week and bench Morris. For the moment, though, I'm willing to proceed under the assumption that Morris' job security is pretty darn high.

So what does the rookie sixth-rounder's game tape look like since Week 1? I have to admit: It's better.

I thought his 21-carry, 113-yard effort Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was his best yet. He'll still never be mistaken for an elite speed or quickness back, and he gets buried in traffic too often, but the Morris I saw breaking a few bigger runs in Week 4 was more than just the plodder I worried about last month. On his third carry, he found a nice-sized hole on an inside pitch and got through it, which I'm not surprised by. But he pushed hard to the second level and showed some real burst, making a safety take a bad angle and winding up with a 17-yard scamper. I thought it was his best run of the season, and that includes his 39-yard score in the second quarter, where he simply bounced off one tackler and found nothing but open space on a poorly defended play.

One thing that wasn't in question in early September and certainly isn't in question now is Morris' power. He's a bull who can move a pile and is extremely tough for one defender to bring down near the line. His instincts still aren't always great -- he lost yardage on six plays last week -- nor does he always cut with a purpose. But he does cut, more than I gave him credit for in Week 1. Folks are way off the mark comparing Morris to Terrell Davis; he is not as upright a runner and invites contact more, plus in my opinion he doesn't have TD's legendary acceleration. But Morris has scored only once from the goal line, and if things break right for him and he gets many more opportunities at one- or two-yard TDs, I would expect a high conversion rate, because he is a full-grown man hitting the pile. ProFootballFocus has Morris listed for 11 "missed tackles" -- which in his case are almost certainly all "broken tackles" -- putting him second in the NFL.

The fact that Robert Griffin III is also a great bet for short touchdowns limits Morris' upside, but in a landscape of committee backs and disappointing RB stars, Morris absolutely can be considered a non-fluke and a must-start.

3. Quarterbacks Who Take Shots. It's not quite an article of faith that quarterbacks who take deeper shots are higher-upside fantasy plays, but it's close. Tom Brady circa 2011 proved that elite fantasy signal-callers can dink-and-dunk to glory, but it's easier when a quarterback helms an aggressive aerial offense. That was part of Eli Manning's fantasy magic last season: He had the second-highest percentage of passes thrown that traveled more than 20 yards in the air and the sixth-highest completion rate on those throws.

So through four weeks of 2012, which QBs have taken the most shots, and who's completing them?

What stands out here? Well, Cutler and Flacco are definitely chucking it. Their deep-ball rates are higher than any quarterback last season except for weirdo Tim Tebow. But their completion rates (31.8 and 32.1 percent, respectively) are mediocre. That doesn't mean they're not intriguing, but it does mean they're not efficient. In fact, only two men appear on both lists: Manning and Newton.

In Newton's case, this is interesting. Perhaps it's explained by a small sample size, but after the season's first month last year, Newton ranked a pedestrian 26th in average yards at the catch. So far this season, he's third. That clearly jibes with the above numbers, which already kind of surprise me. Having watched Cam closely this season, I wouldn't have guessed he'd taken such a high percentage of deep shots or that he'd had such success. I went back again and charted his deep passes Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons and saw in intermediate throw to Steve Smith on a double-move in the second quarter, a lovely third-quarter laser over the middle to Smith and a gorgeous hitch-and-go on the outside to Greg Olsen. While these throws were flawless, I don't think anyone watching would have said, "Wow, look at the Carolina Panthers throwing bombs!"

Week 3 against the Giants, Newton was mostly terrible throwing, though he was 2-for-4 on the deeper passes I'm discussing. In Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints he was 3-for-4, and in Week 1 against the Bucs, he was 2-for-6. Smith has a whopping seven gains of at least 20 yards and at least one in each contest, which indicates that he and Newton have a strong connection belied by Smith's relatively meager 32 fantasy points. (He hasn't scored a TD yet.)

This could be a wake-up call for me. Even if a quarterback doesn't have elite attempts totals -- and Newton is tied for 29th in passes attempted -- it doesn't mean he can't break out via the big play.

Listen, you were already starting Newton because of the damage he can do with his legs, and this week's matchup against a very good Seattle Seahawks secondary might not be the best opportunity for the Newton/Smith connection to start dialing in. But a breakout is coming.

4. DeMarco Murray's Troubling September. OK, Murray actually played his Week 4 game on Oct. 1, but you get my drift. Murray, who was a top-10 running back in most drafts this summer, produced 131 rush yards in the season opener and has 106 in the three games since. In those contests, he is averaging 2.6 yards per carry and his longest run is 11 yards.

According to Stats LLC, Murray has been stuffed -- meaning he gained zero or negative yard on a carry -- on 13 of his 61 carries this season. That's the second-highest percentage of stuffed runs of any qualifying running back in the league, behind only Isaac Redman. By my count, Murray has gained two yards or fewer on an amazing 29 attempts. That's 47.5 percent!

As far as we know, Murray is healthy, and he produced a few crucial second-half Week 1 runs against the Giants that displayed his power and speed in the open field. You know where I'm going with this: I think most of Murray's troubles can be traced to his offensive line.

While he is a powerful back, it's fair to say that when he is running parallel to the line looking for a hole, Murray can be something of a glider. (I could say the same thing about Foster.) Monday night against the Chicago Bears, he showed his full arsenal of weapons -- speed, shiftiness, power -- only in flashes and occasionally could have been accused of looking for more than was there, i.e., trying to hit a homer. But mostly this was a blocking breakdown, over and over. The Dallas Cowboys' offensive line couldn't set the edge on one play, couldn't move anyone in the middle on the next, didn't get much push all night and basically just made it too difficult on Murray. Chris Johnson and McFadden have had the same problem in 2012. It's not like these guys have forgotten how to run. They're among the most talented players in the league. There's just nowhere to go, and sometimes they get so used to being crushed in the backfield, they're surprised and unprepared when they do find a crease and cut against ghosts.

Let me emphasize: Like CJ1K and Run-DMC, Murray has talent that is just on a different level. Compare him to someone like Morris and it's not close. But his situation is a mess. I don't know what happened to RT Doug Free's promise from a couple of years ago, which led to Free getting $17 million guaranteed last summer, but he's a disaster, maybe the worst run-blocking right tackle in the NFL. RG Mackenzy Bernadeau couldn't get on the field for the Panthers last season and has been awful. The past three weeks, Murray has 16 carries that Stats LLC qualifies as "right" or "right sideline," and he has 37 yards on those runs. Maybe the Cowboys need to figure a way to get fullback Lawrence Vickers on the field more. They run one-back sets three-quarters of the time -- though that number is higher on running plays, but not much.

Will things get better when the Cowboys return from their Week 5 bye? They'll visit the Baltimore Ravens, which aren't as savage against the run as they have been in previous seasons, but it hasn't taken a great run D to shut Murray down. I'm guessing things get better for all three running backs I've mentioned, because offensive line play is malleable over the course of a season. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't feel your collar tightening about these guys.

5. Is Torrey Smith Elite? Here's what I wrote about Smith before his rookie season: "Smith is a high-character rookie who can run: He's 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds and runs a 4.42 40. I don't think he'll be a No. 1 receiver right away, but the Ravens had the NFL's slowest receiving corps last year, so Smith's complementary speed will be welcome. Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason will benefit greatly if Smith, a raw route runner, is ready to step on the field Week 1. Smith himself might score a few long TDs, but won't produce consistently in '11."

That was about right. Smith exploded for 152 yards and three touchdown in his first regular-season start and scored seven times overall, but he never eclipsed six catches in a game and failed to top three grabs 10 times.

So far in 2012, however, something may have changed. The Ravens talked up Smith's route running all spring and summer. They handed him the starting split end job immediately. As Joe Flacco has gone from an average of 6.0 yards at the catch in 2011 to 7.5 this year, which puts him eighth in the NFL, the offense has opened up and Smith has a starring role. Here are his per-game averages from the past two seasons:

As of this writing, Smith was tied for fourth in fantasy points among wide receivers and has three TDs. All is wine and roses, right? Then why do I have Smith rated outside my top 20 receivers for the fifth straight week?

I'll call it the Mike Wallace Theory. In 2009, Wallace was a brash young whippersnapper who excited the fantasy world by becoming one of the NFL's best deep threats. He was ownable in most leagues because of his upside, but he was a bit dicey on a week-to-week basis because he tended to run down the field with his arm up. His fantasy owners didn't complain: We want big-play guys. But that last little missing piece was the variety of use that would make him more consistent. While Wallace didn't become Jerry Rice last season, his game definitely changed. Look at his targets at various depths over the past three seasons:

Wallace saw his target depth shift toward the shorter stuff, not because he got slower or because he was less dynamic, but because the Pittsburgh Steelers started using him in a wider variety of situations and on different patterns. He grew up, and that's why he's a consensus top-10 wide receiver every week: That wonderful combination of upside and all-around game.

Now look at the same numbers for Smith:

Torrey's deep game ain't slowing down. And that's not a bad thing, but I do think it explains why Smith has 6, 5, 24 and 15 fantasy points in four games this season. Sometimes the deeper stuff doesn't happen.

I am not trying to diss Torrey Smith. He is a borderline No. 2 fantasy WR right now, regardless of matchup, which is pretty great for a second-year player. And I'm not saying there are certain routes he can't run. What I'm trying to do is explain his weekly downside. It was a feather in the speedy Wallace's cap when he didn't come close to the league lead in average yards at the catch last season. That will be the final step in Smith's development.

Five In Brief

6. Is Jackie Battle Morphing Into Mike Tolbert? Oh, the drama. Ryan Mathews caused you enough heartburn when he broke his collarbone on his first carry of the preseason, and now he has been passed on the depth chart by the pedestrian Battle? I don't know what to make of this situation. The honest truth is that Battle isn't Tolbert: He has 18 career catches in six NFL seasons and isn't any kind of adequate lead blocker. But he can give Mathews' fantasy owners a similar degree of heartburn. At this point, nobody knows what's rattling around in Norv Turner's head. If I had to guess, we're looking at a short-term timeshare and a longer-term goal-line-vulture situation, neither of which makes for fantasy joy. The only silver lining is that the San Diego Chargers face the most generous defense to opposing fantasy rushers so far this season, the Saints. While I hate drawing a straight line and guaranteeing production, I would feel OK using either running back in Week 5. There should be a good amount of work, and I predict Mathews continues to partake. Going forward? Man, this is a work in progress.

7. Think Jamaal Charles Prefers Romeo Crennel? It was pretty ironic that while the Mathews/Battle nonsense was happening, on the opposite sideline, the decidedly mellower Crennel was dealing with fumbles in a different way. Turner and Chargers GM (and noted curmudgeon) A.J. Smith got their undergarments in a twist over Mathews' Week 3 fumble against the Atlanta Falcons, leading to all this depth-chart juggling. Meanwhile, Charles bungled two of his first four carries, resulting in great field position for San Diego. Did the Kansas City Chiefs coaching staff freak out? Did they bench Charles and leave his fantasy owners with a minus-4-point fantasy day? They did not. On the next series, J-Mail was back out there, first banging for an eight-yard gain then taking a pitch right, running nearly all the way to the right sideline, circling back, making two guys miss with subtle-but-slick cuts and outrunning the D for a 37-yard score. Charles also caught a touchdown later, though in neither case would you say the game's outcome was particularly in question. Maybe when your franchise has Matt Cassel making mistake after mistake, you can afford to be magnanimous with your franchise rusher. Anyway, Charles turned minus-4 into plus-18 and illustrated the benefits of a little faith. It's probably asking too much for Norv and A.J. to follow suit.

8. Why Is Victor Cruz On The Every-Other-Week Plan? Cruz is the No. 6 WR in fantasy, which is awesome, but his weekly fantasy-point line reads like an EKG: 5, 23, 4, 16. Considering Cruz had only two games of fewer than seven fantasy points after his Week 3 breakout last season, this is notable. I was publicly skeptical about a repeat season for Cruz, and this inconsistency, with two games of fewer than 60 yards receiving after doing that only twice in the final 14 games of 2011, could be taken a warning sign. A season after he made 17 plays of 25-plus yards, Cruz has made three, and his second-longest play is 30 yards. Nevertheless, if Cruz is struggling at all -- and it's difficult to call the No. 6 WR a struggler -- it's probably less because his big plays haven't repeated (after all, he had an 80-yard touchdown against the Bucs) and more because he is the only healthy proven commodity the Giants have at wide receiver. Hakeem Nicks being out has led to regular safety help on Cruz, so even when he makes grabs (he leads the NFL with 32 catches), there's less room to roam. One could argue that Nicks' absence may actually cap Cruz's weekly upside, but it also should alleviate his weekly downside, as targets will flow Cruz's way. Relative safety in a wideout is an attractive quality. He is still running out of the slot a bunch in three-WR sets and is doing damage matched up on the outside too. In my mind, Nicks' absence is a net-positive for Cruz, and with a sweet matchup against the Cleveland Browns sans Joe Haden this week, the Salsa King deserves his top-five ranking.

9. So Much For Andre Brown? Speaking of the Giants, that supposed backfield platoon didn't last long, eh? Week 4's box score tells part of the story: Ahmad Bradshaw had 13 carries and three catches compared to five and one for Brown. But the snap count was a downright landslide. Bradshaw played 58 snaps; Brown played nine. Yikes. The only potential saving grace for Brown is that the Giants didn't run a single snap inside the Eagles' 5, so we still don't know if the goal-line plan has changed. Brown had some short-yardage success in his two-game workhorse experience, and Bradshaw has struggled at an opponent's goal line on occasion. Maybe that part of the job is an open issue. Also, realize that the team ran it 19 times and threw it 42, and Bradshaw was the player Tom Coughlin trusted when pass blocking or receiving was on the docket. I'm not saying Brown should be dropped; in fact, Bradshaw did nothing as a runner in Week 4 to stake a claim to this kind of workload advantage. I wouldn't be shocked to see things even out Sunday. But I do think Brown should be benched in most leagues while the pieces figure themselves out.

10. My Favorite Unheralded Dynasty Player. I've said it in several TV and radio segments, and I've probably written it a dozen times on ESPN.com: I'm a Kendall Hunter fan, and I think eventually he can transform himself into a poor man's Ray Rice. Last week in the San Francisco 49ers' blowout win over the New York Jets, Hunter gave you a glimpse. On the final play of the first quarter, he took a sweep left and made a ludicrous cut to pass Bart Scott (not that difficult these days, I'll grant you) for an 11-yard gain. His next carry was a 12-yarder in the third quarter that didn't show much -- it was well-blocked; he just sort of ran to space -- but then he took a shotgun draw and exploded up the right side, creating huge contact with LaRon Landry while he was at it. That was three carries for 31 yards. After that, the game was out of hand, but in the fourth, he took a pitch left, made another sick cut and gained 13. Then it was another pitch left where I swear he cut past four guys and gained nine. Dude! Five carries, 53 yards and no long runs or TDs! Later, Hunter scored from the 1, just to show he can. This all definitely comes with the requisite disclaimer that Jets defenders looked awfully disinterested in the second half, but the ability is there. There's no clear path to fantasy glory for Hunter this season, with Frank Gore playing well and Brandon Jacobs about to return, possibly to claim the short-yardage role, but I'm really excited about Hunter's future.