What a week!
The NFL returns to London for the second consecutive season, with a considerably stronger matchup (Chargers/Saints) than last year's (Giants/Dolphin). And while it's not a football storyline, we also have the World Series captivating two cities, with the Fall Classic heading to Philadelphia for the weekend.
So, keeping those fine cities in mind, for this week's "Called Out!" I thought I'd be kind. I've brought some tea and crumpets, and a plate of cheesesteaks, to keep our experts' tummies full. Yes, always mindful of keeping Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris, Erik Kuselias and Eric Karabell well fed after they pour their hearts into their Week 8 rankings.
Strangely enough, the cheesesteaks seem to be going a little quicker than the crumpets but I digress.
Let's kick things off. Here's Matthew Berry!
Not that I'm anti-Texans this week, not by any means, but I think people might be interested in the rankings split you have between Steve Slaton (No. 4) and Ahman Green (43). Apparently you're not remotely concerned about Slaton losing touches, even though they were five off each other in Week 7? Love the matchup, but I think that's a pretty big argument people have against Slaton being a top fantasy back.
Berry: I guess, but you're basing a lot on just one game. And if you look at that game closer, Green had only seven carries through the first three quarters. He didn't get a lot of work until after the game was well in hand. The things I know for sure are this: Slaton is their main guy, and this is a defense that gave up two rushing touchdowns (and a passing TD) last week to Mewelde Moore. I don't disagree that Green is an interesting flex play, but speaking as a former Green owner, I also know he will break your heart. Slaton's a guy I trust. I'm not willing to put that much stock in Green based on just one game.
Cockcroft: Oh, that Ahman Green will, though Marques Colston has done a fine job breaking my heart this season. A last-minute scratch in Week 6 -- when he was supposed to make his comeback -- and then zero catches in Week 7? Yet, for some reason, you rewarded him with a top-10 ranking, while our other four guys have him no higher than 19th. No love for Antonio Cromartie?
Berry: Well, the Saints lost Reggie Bush, which means more passes to go around. And they lost the Carolina game bad. This means I don't think they want to repeat what they did against the Panthers, and that includes ignoring Colston. Carolina played a quarter defense against the Saints, rushing four and dropping the linebackers back, forcing Brees to just throw underneath a lot. And my guess is the Chargers will try something similar. The problem is that San Diego doesn't have the pass rush that Carolina does and won't be able to pull this off effectively, which means lots of crossing routes for Colston over the middle. There's a reason no one in the NFL has given up more passing yards than the Chargers.
Cockcroft: You know, I really wish someone could explain that to me. That defense was great last year, and a popular No. 1 pick as deep in the preseason as Labor Day. And don't tell me it's all Shawne Merriman's absence, I don't buy that!
Anyway, so who do you see containing Antonio Bryant in that Dallas secondary to rank him as low as you have (35th among receivers)?
Berry: In every game Jeff Garcia has played this year, he has thrown one touchdown pass. Not two, not zero, one. Always one. If we assume that history teaches us he's going to throw only one touchdown pass again, why are to assume that it's going to Bryant this week? He has only one touchdown on the year himself. The last time he had a big week -- Week 3 -- he followed that up with a stinker, four catches for 39 yards. Two weeks ago, before his huge game, he had one reception for 13 yards. The Bucs might have Joey Galloway back, and they're on the road, which means they'll probably run a little bit more. And Bryant has just been too inconsistent to rank him any higher.
Cockcroft: Finally -- and I did this with Harris regarding Gus Frerotte last week -- I'm putting this soap box down, asking you to step on it, and declare why Dustin Keller warrants a No. 9 ranking for Week 8?
Cockcroft: My gut -- and a decent-sized one at that -- says it's time for a snack. Wish you guys hadn't eaten all those cheesesteaks already. That, or it's time to turn things over to our resident Pats fan, Christopher Harris!
So the Pats fan is decidedly anti-Pats this week, apparently. I know, the Rams are on a roll defensively. But I have a feeling most people will look at St. Louis' overall pass defense ranking and think a lot more of Matt Cassel than you do. Plus, it's a home game. Is he really that much of a definite sit?
Harris: I really think he is. The nice effort against the Broncos was kind of Denver's perfect storm of terribleness against the run, Champ Bailey getting hurt and the Broncos' offense doing nothing, thanks in part to Jay Cutler's freak finger injury on the game's first play. Along with J.T. O'Sullivan, Cassel is one of only two quarterbacks to be sacked more than 20 times this year, and that's a Kitna-esque recipe for disaster. The Pats don't go down the field very much, and Cassel holds the ball way too long. I honestly don't think Cassel is a fantasy starter against any opponent, including St. Louis.
Cockcroft: Christopher, I'll give you this, against the three defenses ranked worse than the Rams that he has faced, Cassel has averaged 11 fantasy points. Very ordinary. Plus, Jim Haslett does seem to have turned the Rams around defensively the past two weeks, totaling three interceptions, seven sacks and allowing only 404 yards and a score through the air. I guess, judging by those trends, it does make sense.
Still, in the same breath, I'll add that Haslett's Rams have allowed their opponent's starting running back 100-plus yards and a score in each of those two contests. For that reason, it's curious that you're also anti-Sammy Morris. Now, his health is an issue. Perhaps you have some tidbit related to that you might share, because I look at the matchup and can't see how he wouldn't roll all over the Rams?
Harris: Uh, yeah, health is a huge issue. Morris missed Wednesday's practice in its entirety, which is a very bad sign for Patriots players. In fact, if he doesn't practice by Friday, he's almost certainly not going to play in this game -- which is the best way to get injury info out of the Belichickians. Either way, you must have a solid alternative ready to go if you're counting on Morris, and for me, that's not a recipe for someone who should be ranked above No. 24.
Harris: It sounds like Jordan is actually getting less likely to play; he was a full participant in yesterday's walkthrough but was limited in Thursday's action. BenJarvus Green-Ellis does figure into the starting equation now, though we won't know anything for certain until right before game time. If Green-Ellis is the starter, I have to believe Kevin Faulk will have a very big role in the game plan -- he might anyway -- and that would put both of them in deep-league flex territory, at best, in my mind.
Cockcroft: Christopher, I think you know as well as anyone I'm a huge Josh Morgan fan. I was in the preseason, and I'm glad to see him getting a chance to finally play. Putting him 32nd is effectively an endorsement of the guy at least as a flex play, and I do agree with it. How wrong is everyone to overlook him?
Harris: This looked like a smarter pick when I submitted it Wednesday morning. Then Morgan went out and missed practice Wednesday because of a sore groin, so you must be at least a little concerned, and have to make sure he practices later in the week. But assuming he does, Morgan should be a flex play. As I crowed all August, Morgan is the most athletic receiver on a pass-oriented team, and now he's a starter over the disappointing -- told you so! -- Bryant Johnson. I watched that 49ers/Giants film, and Morgan leaps off the screen: He's a deep threat, is a great leaper, and runs good enough routes to get open. He had one hellacious drop on a long pass in that New York game, but he also caught a touchdown. In the coming weeks, as my ranking brethren figure out who Morgan is, you'll probably be asking me, "How come you have Josh Morgan so low?"
Cockcroft: Nope, not me! But then I drafted the guy in what, three, four leagues? It pained me to let him go in one or two of those, but I so desperately needed the roster space and couldn't afford to wait.
Finally, Jamal Lewis ranked No. 10 despite a road matchup against the Jags? Even in your today-to-year's-end rankings, you're still awfully faithful in Lewis overall. Why is that?
Harris: The past two weeks, against two defenses designed for the run-blitz and with stellar reputations for stopping opposing backs, Lewis racked up 88 and 80 yards, respectively, and scored a touchdown. Joe Thomas and Eric Steinbach are playing much better on that Cleveland offensive line, and I believe Lewis is back to the point where he was last year, when he turned into an automatic, every-week start and I was being chastised for not liking him enough. Meanwhile, the Jags aren't the run-stopping force you remember from last year: Without Marcus Stroud to team with John Henderson, they've been 13th-friendliest against opposing fantasy backs this season, though I grant you, they've been most vulnerable to smaller backs who catch passes out of the backfield. Basically, you nailed it: I have faith in that Cleveland offensive line, and I'm going to rank Lewis as a fantasy starter more weeks than I won't.
Cockcroft: I can't imagine many weeks I'd sit Jamal Lewis, either, but No. 1-back value? Bold call, I'll give you that. Next up, it's Erik Kuselias!
Erik, what is it that you see in Earnest Graham this week to rank him 11th? He has averaged barely better than two yards per carry each of the past two weeks and gets to tangle with the Cowboys, ranked 13th against the run.
Kuselias: Since when is "ranked 13th against the run" supposed to make me quake in my boots? Or dress shoes, or feety PJs, or whatever I happen to be sporting.
Dallas is an absolute grease fire on defense. In fact, they are so awful that the head coach says he will have to take over the defense and hopes to get it straightened out after the bye week -- which is after next week's game. Steven Jackson is still smiling after torching Dallas for a buck sixty and three touchdowns, and he had been awful before that game.
So, when Graham, who has scored in each of his past two games and in three of his past four, gets to run roughshod over this mess of a defense, and we see Warrick Dunn is on the injury report as questionable (meaning, according to the NFL, he's 50/50 to play), Graham becomes a No. 2 running back.
Cockcroft: It's been a three-game trend by you, but judging by your pro-LenDale White stance from early in the season, I find it interesting that you're now a Chris Johnson fan. White still got Tennessee's three goal-line plays in Week 7, scored twice on them and had the better fantasy day. I know you're declaring them both definite starts, but why the shift in opinion on which back makes the stronger play?
Kuselias: Of course I love LenDale White. Heck, before the season started I called him the "most underrated commodity in fantasy football," and he has done nothing but deliver. He is the poster boy for my philosophy "touchdowns matter." But, if White doesn't have an 80-yard touchdown run in Week 7, CJ would have had the better game. Plus, CJ has been better of late. Raise your hand if you're counting on another 80-yarder from the "Chubster?" Yeah, me neither. So both guys should be in the lineup, but CJ slightly higher.
Cockcroft: You also said, in Week 2, "only a drunken fool would prefer Chris Johnson to LenDale White," and White has outperformed CJ in fantasy, 66-63, since then. But I like that you're coming around to Johnson. I agree that they're both must-plays this week. By the way, kudos to White for making Twinkie-lovers everywhere believe that, yes, even they can scamper 80 yards without passing out.
Erik, I'm also going to return to another past discussion topic of ours, and that's Peyton Manning. Now, kudos on the correct call on Peyton in Week 6; he did tear up that Ravens defense for 22 fantasy points. Of course, then he followed it up with a miserable five points against Green Bay last week. And now he heads to Tennessee to face a defense that has allowed one passing score in six games all season. How can you be so faithful that Manning will remain top-five worthy, as inconsistent as he has been?
Kuselias: I watched the Colts/Packers game to the bitter end. Every single glorious (if you're a Packers fan) or putrid (if you root for the Colts) play. And the numbers don't tell the story. Manning had two touchdowns in the fourth quarter get called back. You heard me, not one but two touchdowns. After the second, Rhodes got the ball from the one-yard line. Manning also had a weird interception near the end zone, returned 90-plus yards for a touchdown, where his receiver committed a rare sin.
If you just look at the numbers, you don't see that without some bad luck Manning would have kept his fantasy numbers rolling. Then again, if you just look at numbers, you're not going to be very effective as a fantasy expert. Tennessee is better against the run than the pass, Indy will throw it often and he is the best healthy quarterback in the free world (can't speak to the oppressed nations). Putting him fifth is accurate and fair, and reflects someone who is actually watching.
Cockcroft: Interesting comment on the numbers, seeing as fantasy, really, is all about the numbers. But I absolutely know what you mean in football. I simply can't trust a guy -- not as a top-five option -- who has been wholly inconsistent all season.
Last, but certainly not least, and decked out in his light-blue 1980s Mike Schmidt t-shirt, it's hap-hap-happy Philly sports fan Eric Karabell!
Eric, I imagine you have zero concerns about Willis McGahee's balky knee to have him ranked as high as sixth this week against the Raiders? Great matchup, sure, but that knee -- and the reports surrounding it -- trouble me.
Karabell: I wouldn't say zero concerns about McGahee, but the matchup is good, and where did his competition go? I do, in a way, question his durability to stay 100-percent healthy, but that's the same for other players who generally play hurt, like Brian Westbrook, for example. Not that I'm comparing Willis and Westbrook because I'm not, but I did rank McGahee better. McGahee was out there in Week 7 running for 105 yards and a touchdown, so he can play through these knee woes. I think he can run on the Raiders as well. Another reason I'd make him a start is because there's no longer a threat of Le'Ron McClain or Ray Rice stealing touches. I'm not really sure why, to be honest, since McClain was so productive, but now it's all McGahee, who is playing through his knee woes.
Cockcroft: Speaking of Westbrook, it's interesting that the Eagles fan is the one who least likes him for this week. Why do you see Westbrook being more of a No. 2 back in his return to the lineup?
Karabell: The last time Westbrook played, he ran for 33 yards. Sure, he caught the ball and he scored, but I don't think coach Andy Reid wants Westbrook to touch the ball 25 times this week. Correll Buckhalter has earned the right to get double-digit carries, and he did well catching the ball. Look for Westbrook to see limited action, especially if Donovan McNabb punctures the Falcons' secondary, like we think he will. As for me being an Eagles fan, is football season actually still going on? I thought it was still baseball season!
Cockcroft: For you it is. Any truth to rumors you're going to the staff Halloween party as the Philly Phanatic? Only if the Phils win, I bet.
Karabell: Yeah, it kind of perplexes me, too! It's not that I expect a great day for Rhodes, but I think he's going to get goal-line carries among his 20 or so touches. Even if he ends up with 50 yards against the tough Titans, a touchdown will make him worth using in fantasy. We just have to pick our spots on when we think a player will hit the end zone, I guess. I'm not confident Addai will play, or that he will get more touches than Rhodes even if he does.
Cockcroft: Finally, is Vernon Davis terrible or what? You might be the only person left willing to put him among your top-10 tight ends for any week, as you did this week.
Karabell: He is frustrating, but I've also had enough with the entire group at that position. I mean, who can we depend on? I don't want to rank John Carlson types in the top 10. What have they proven? Davis clearly has the ability, and I like his quarterback and running back this week, so I figured I'd give him one of San Francisco's touchdowns this week. Honestly, if the tight end position wasn't so lame, I probably wouldn't have. It's better than ranking Todd Heap.
Cockcroft: Heap has been pretty horrible. And boy, I remember writing about the tight-end explosion three, four years ago. What happened to all those guys? Only one tight end has averaged better than eight fantasy points per game, and that's Jason Witten, who has averaged exactly nine!
I know one thing that's not horrible: More cheesesteaks! Anybody wanna head to "Pat's?"
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football, baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.