It's amazing how dramatically a player's stock can change in a matter of three weeks.
After being regarded as the No. 3 running back on the Baltimore Ravens' depth chart and no better than 40th at his position in the preseason, Willis McGahee is suddenly a household name in fantasy once again. For the third consecutive week, he scored a rushing touchdown -- two, in fact -- and has the NFL lead in that category (five).
Now everyone will be racing to grab -- or trade for -- the leading scorer from what is once again one of the game's leading rushing offenses. But should they?
Well, for one, it's clear that this year McGahee is the Ravens' de facto goal-line back. So much for apparent one-year wonder Le'Ron McClain, who was actually drafted higher in the preseason! Through three games the Ravens have run the football 21 times from within 10 yards of their opponent's end zone; McGahee has carried the ball 12 of those times, scoring on four of them. McClain, by comparison, has only two carries and one touchdown. Ray Rice, another popular preseason sleeper, has five attempts and has scored once.
But here's where it gets interesting: For the second time in three games, Rice dominated the touches, with 15 (11 rushes, four catches) to McGahee's seven (all carries). That brings Rice's season touches to 49 (38 rushes, 11 catches); McGahee by comparison has 38 (32 and six). While the pecking order might not be the same as it was in 2008, the strategy clearly remains a two-headed rushing attack.
Not that that's a bad thing for fantasy. The Ravens boast a deep, talented running game, just as they did a year ago, and have a healthy number of favorable matchups this season. The difference: While no one stepped up as the "between-the-20s" back in 2008, it's obvious that Rice is that man this season. He'll get his yards, and when he faces soft defensive fronts, he'll get an occasional touchdown, too (a good comparison: Chris Johnson's Week 2).
That leaves McGahee free, however, to get a healthy chunk of the short-yardage work, including the bulk of the goal-line work. He might, in a sense, be to the Ravens what LenDale White was to the 2008 Tennessee Titans.
In short, while this might qualify as yet another one of those frustrating "running back-by-committee" situations, limiting all players' appeal as top-tier fantasy options, the case can be made that both McGahee and Rice warrant weekly No. 2/flex consideration, except against the stiffest of matchups.
Not that we'd expect anything less, but Maurice Jones-Drew carved up the Houston Texans for 147 total yards and three touchdowns, the latter matching his personal best. He was a mix of explosive back and goal-line beast, darting 61 yards for a score in the second quarter and poking through two other scores from within 10 yards. While Jones-Drew's Jacksonville Jaguars might not be one of the better teams in the NFL, and though they may be forced to play from behind a good share, fantasy owners need not fret about him being taken out of the equation when his team falls behind early. He already has 13 receptions through three games for a pace of 69, which would top his 2008 total of 62 receptions. Jones-Drew is also about as consistent a touchdown scorer as you'll find in football; his 42 touchdowns since 2006 rank second-most in the game.
I'm full of excitement about the following four players based upon the week's results, and recommend you stick with or trade for them.
• Pierre Thomas: Howdy, Pierre, and welcome to the juggernaut that is the New Orleans Saints offense! Thomas, a Twitter junkie, didn't play in either of the first two weeks despite numerous tweets that his knee was healthy, but he finally saw the field in Week 3 and made the most of it, rushing for 126 yards and two touchdowns. He was one of the more popular breakout candidates of the preseason -- including a top pick of mine -- and demonstrated precisely why on Sunday. Held back in the first half, Thomas did all his damage after halftime, helping bury the Buffalo Bills with both his scores in the fourth quarter. Just what were you waiting for, Saints?
• Brent Celek: As Kevin Kolb goes, so goes Celek. For the second consecutive week, the tight end had exactly eight receptions and 104 yards, and with his nine targets this week, he now has 20 in Kolb's two starts. Not that Kolb is guaranteed any further playing time after the Philadelphia Eagles' bye week, but even if Donovan McNabb reclaims his starting job come Week 5, Celek has done enough to establish himself as a key weapon in this offense.
• LeSean McCoy: Sticking with the Eagles theme, McCoy's stock got a huge boost with his starting status in Week 3, as well as his in-game numbers (20 carries for 84 yards and a score). Most importantly, McCoy seemed entirely comfortable in Wildcat packages -- more so than Michael Vick, in fact -- and he did a good job picking up blitzes. With this performance, the rookie is a must-have handcuff for Brian Westbrook's owners, and I'd argue that if given the chance to start, he might even give Westbrook a run for his money statistically.
• Knowshon Moreno: Another rookie running back whose coming-out party came in Week 3, Moreno ripped apart the Oakland Raiders' defense for 90 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. That'll be enough to earn him at least a share of the rushing chores, perhaps cementing him as a "lite" version of the aforementioned Ray Rice. The Denver Broncos seem comfortable with giving Moreno the bulk of the work between the 20s, so while Correll Buckhalter also impressed, with a 100-yard rushing effort of his own, expect Moreno to get the most carries out of this crowded backfield most weeks.
Be it because of poor performance, role change or injury, these four players I'm downgrading, looking to trade or cutting based on the week's results:
• Clinton Portis: The stats tell all. Portis has now run 19 times for 79 yards and 12 times for 42 yards in back-to-back weeks, those games versus the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions, incredibly easy matchups on paper. I said a week ago that this was a critical matchup in which Portis needed to shine and he didn't. He might be 28 years old, but he's running like a player older than that, perhaps thanks to the 2,099 career carries on his legs. I talk a lot about 30-year-old running backs and their steep downward trends on these pages, but workloads can have as adverse an effect on a running back as simple age can. In Portis' case, I'd be very troubled that this is an ominous sign of things to come.
• Tom Brady: OK, so 277 yards and a touchdown is not at all an ugly stat line, and to be fair, Brady was without slot receiver Wes Welker for a second consecutive game. That said, this is a player most fantasy owners tabbed the No. 1 or No. 2 quarterback in preseason drafts, and a first-round candidate, so chances are you were hoping for more than a borderline top-10 performance at his position. Brady looked visibly frustrated, and he seems out of sync with his receivers, something that bears watching. A healthy Welker might be all he needs to return to my "Four up" section, but why should we assume Welker will be fine in Week 4? It seemed like no one was all that worried about his health in either Week 2 or Week 3 and he sat out both games, which sounds like a somewhat serious issue to me.
• Byron Leftwich: A popular pickup coming out of Week 2 under the theory that a hot-starting quarterback who plays for a bad team will get his chances to throw, Leftwich showed in Week 3 just why he went undrafted in the vast majority of fantasy leagues -- he's simply not very good. The New York Giants, a vastly more talented pass defense than either the Dallas Cowboys (Week 1) or Buffalo Bills (Week 2), gave Leftwich fits, and showed that he's not at all to be trusted except when facing the softest of secondaries.
• Donnie Avery: Now it's time to worry. One could have made the case that his preseason foot injury was the cause of his poor performance the first two weeks of the regular season, but with each passing week, it seems more and more like Avery just isn't part of the Rams' game plan. He now has 10 receptions for 62 yards through three games; Laurent Robinson by comparison, has 13 for 167 yards and a score. There are two glimmers of hope with Avery: Kyle Boller targeted him seven times and might take more downfield shots targeting him if he remains the starter (Boller replaced a banged-up Marc Bulger on Sunday), and Robinson got hurt in Week 3. But if neither of those things bears fruitful numbers come Week 4, it'll be time to drop Avery.
For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.
• Marc Bulger (shoulder): As mentioned above, Kyle Boller came on in relief of Bulger after the latter was knocked from the game. It's unclear whether Bulger will be ready to play come Week 4, but considering his injury history, it's not something I'd term highly likely.
• Frank Gore (ankle): Fantasy owners hate developments like this; not only did Gore hurt his ankle on Sunday, he did it on the San Francisco 49ers' second possession of the game, at which time he had only one rushing attempt. X-rays showed no broken bones, which at least is promising news.
• Kevin Smith (shoulder): He departed in the fourth quarter Sunday after he had already amassed 100 yards rushing, but losing Smith would be a blow to fantasy owners. He'll be re-evaluated Monday, and if he misses further time, the Lions might have to go with an Aaron Brown/Maurice Morris rotation.
• Chad Pennington (shoulder): He took a nasty hit in the third quarter and was slow to get up, and the Miami Herald speculates that he might be out "a while." Get ready for a lot more of Chad Henne in South Florida.
• Laurent Robinson (ankle): As referred to above, Robinson was also knocked from the Rams' game because of an ankle injury. If he misses any more time, the Rams might have to turn to Keenan Burton.
It's safe to say that
• DeSean Jackson still loves his touchdown celebrations. After tossing the ball before entering the end zone to cost the Eagles and his fantasy owners a certain touchdown in a game last season, he did a flip and landed in a split after his 64-yard score Sunday. Don't worry, folks, Jackson held on to the football this time. Guess he's learning.
• Kevin Walter is officially healthy. Though he had been limited in practice all week because of his hamstring injury, Walter was the Texans' leading receiver Sunday, with seven catches for 96 yards and a touchdown. The one knock in his first game of 2009 was that he was tagged for a costly penalty for pass interference in the fourth quarter on a play that would have tied the game for the Texans. With Matt Schaub performing as well as ever the past two weeks, Walter should be a viable weekly fantasy play in most formats.
• The Jets' defense isn't infallible. LenDale White snapped the Jets' streak of nine quarters (140:36 of clock time) without allowing an offensive touchdown when he scampered 5 yards to score in the second quarter. The Titans would add another score in the third, but in spite of allowing 17 points on the day, the Jets amassed a respectable seven fantasy points. Sure, they're no longer infallible, but Rex Ryan's boys remain right up there with the league's elite defenses.
• It doesn't matter who quarterbacks the Browns, they stink. Brady Quinn might have gotten off to a terrible start to the season, but Derek Anderson's relief appearance in Week 3 was an unqualified disaster. He was picked off three times, a performance that might yet have Cleveland Browns fans calling for Brett Ratliff. And turning the focus to the running game, James Davis rushed five times for only 10 yards in place of the injured Jamal Lewis, while starter Jerome Harrison had 16 carries for 52 yards. Apparently Davis isn't as close to stealing that job outright as I might have thought coming out of the preseason.
One play makes your day
Even at his advanced age, Brett Favre still comes up with heroics. It was his 32-yard touchdown pass to Greg Lewis with 2 seconds left in the game that led his Minnesota Vikings to an incredible 27-24 victory. Without that play, Favre manages only a ho-hum 12 fantasy points and falls short of that magical 300-yard passing plateau. With it, it's the first 300-yard passing effort of the Brad Childress era.
Now that wasn't part of the game plan!
Or at least it shouldn't have been part of the game plan, as the Texans certainly must want their final play of Week 3 back. Chris Brown, the team's supposed goal-line back, fumbled on the Jacksonville 1-yard line to seal a 31-24 victory for the Jaguars. To this point, Brown's presence had proved a mere frustration for Steve Slaton's owners, but as a result, the Texans might not be so quick to hook Slaton in future such situations.
Go get 'em!
As you're preparing your waiver claims, keep these names in mind:
• Vernon Davis: I honestly can't believe I'm recommending this career bust -- at least he has been a bust in his first three NFL seasons -- but this year Davis really does seem like an integral cog in Mike Singletary's offense, as evidenced by his seven catches for 96 yards and two touchdowns in Week 3. Davis now leads the team in both receptions (14) and targets (23), a real turnaround from the player who inspired Singletary to rant, "I want winners!" a year ago. Even in this run-heavy offense, Davis is seemingly Shaun Hill's go-to guy.
• Kevin Kolb: The Eagles might have dressed three quarterbacks on Sunday, but Kolb was the one who mattered just like he did a week ago. Chatter during the bye week might center on Donovan McNabb's health, Michael Vick's role in the offense and Jeff Garcia's roster status (which is connected to the other two), but even with all the distractions Kolb is shaping up like a decent NFL starter. Kolb is the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300 yards in his first two career starts, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and if he's under center again in Week 5, he'll draw the Buccaneers, who have served up seven passing touchdowns compared to one interception in three games. The Eagles might be smart to take every precaution with McNabb.
• Kyle Boller: One of the game's stronger-armed backups, Boller was pressed into relief duty early in Week 3 when Marc Bulger predictably got hurt. All Boller did was rally his Rams to two second-quarter touchdown drives, for a brief spell actually keeping his team in a game it seemed destined to lose at the time of Bulger's injury. If Bulger -- who's about as sturdy as a graham cracker -- misses any time, Boller is a more-than-adequate NFL starter for a team that'll pass a lot. Keep that in mind, especially those of you in two-quarterback leagues.
• Glen Coffee: Another case of scoop-up-this-injury-replacement, as Coffee was actually let go by a handful of Frank Gore owners a week ago when it seemed like Gore was the man in San Fran and Coffee packed the punch of a cup of decaf. Now, 54 yards on 25 carries is no great feat, but let's keep in mind it came versus the Vikings' vaunted "Williams Wall." If Coffee starts against the Rams in Week 4, he'll stand a better chance at success.
The matchups did the talking
• Thomas Jones (14 carries, 20 yards): I had cautioned much of the week to avoid Jones wherever possible, accounting both for Rex Ryan's affinity for Leon Washington and Jones' tendency to play directly into the hands of his matchups. Well, true to his word, Ryan got Washington 16 touches (12 carries, one reception, three kickoff returns), only four short of his targeted 20, and Jones got bottled up by the Titans' defense every time he was on the field. He didn't have a play (excluding ones nullified by penalty) of greater than 5 yards all game. The good news: Jones and the Jets battle the Saints, which is a better matchup for the veteran.
• Kellen Winslow (three catches, 14 yards): This one is as much matchup as it is team influence doing the talking, as when Byron Leftwich looks as dreadful as he did versus the Giants, Winslow is going to have his quiet days. He still was targeted eight times, though, so this should represent the low end of his value curve.
• Aaron Rodgers (269 passing yards, two passing touchdowns, one rushing TD): Not to take anything away from Rodgers' performance, but he had everything seemingly going for him on Sunday. Dome game, facing a woeful Rams secondary, charged up to prove the team's Week 2 upset was a mirage Rodgers was plenty up to the task. It wasn't a week-topping fantasy effort, but it certainly has his owners feeling comfortable once more.
A quick preview of what's in store for Week 4
• He must love the weather, because Lee Evans has 22 receptions for 427 yards and five touchdowns in five career games at Miami, most recently catching seven balls for 116 yards in Week 8 of last season. He also has eight touchdowns and has averaged 69.3 yards in 10 career games versus the Dolphins.
• Anthony Fasano scored touchdowns in both games versus the Bills in 2008, and be aware that the Bills have allowed four touchdowns to tight ends through three games. Oh, how they miss middle linebacker Paul Posluszny.
• Adrian Peterson (the Viking) has three 100-yard rushing performances in four career games versus the Packers, including in each of the two played at the Metrodome, the last of which was a 192-yard, one-touchdown effort in Week 10 of last season. No reason to worry about a matchup with the Packers, who have allowed only 336 yards and no scores to opposing running backs so far.
• Justin Gage's best career day (in terms of receiving yards and touchdowns) came versus the Jaguars, when he caught four passes for 147 yards and two scores in Week 11 last season. He's getting opportunities, with 25 targets so far, while the Jaguars' secondary has allowed 845 yards and six touchdowns.
• It's the second consecutive week that a 2008 Rookie of the Year strolls into Foxborough; coming on the heels of Matt Ryan's (Associated Press' Rookie of the Year) trip there in Week 3, Joe Flacco (the Pepsi Rookie of the Year) heads to New England in Week 4. Flacco thus far has thrown for 839 yards and six touchdowns in three games, but the Patriots did just hold Ryan, widely considered the better of the two sophomore quarterbacks, to 199 yards and no scores. Sounds like a statement game to me, though one with Flacco better left to your bench.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.