This week on the Fantasy Underground podcast (also available on iTunes), Field Yates and I talked about DeAngelo Williams, Danny Amendola, Jackie Battle, Tony Scheffler, Stevan Ridley, and which teams may rest players here at season's end. I also gave a list of five impact NFL free agents for 2013. Here are 10 other topics:
Five In Depth
1. Will Trent Richardson Torpedo Your Title Hopes? T-Rich has scored a TD in four straight games, has two TDs in back-to-back contests, and has 12 total TDs on the season. But there's some disharmony among our ESPN.com rankers about whether he's safe enough to use in your championship game, especially against a stingy Denver Broncos defense. Richardson's per-carry average of 3.0 since the Cleveland Browns' Week 10 bye clearly gives a couple of our rankers pause. It's fair to worry that the bottom might fall out of T-Rich's production at exactly the wrong time. So should you bench him?
I think it's a very worthwhile question. Overall Richardson is the No. 6 back in fantasy but has been quite touchdown-dependent lately; nearly half his fantasy points over the past five games have come from TDs. In that same five-week span, here's how the current other top 10 fantasy RBs compare:
But I'll tell you, last week's tape against the Washington Redskins doesn't scare me. Whatever injuries this guy is nursing, I don't see them affecting his play. I saw plenty of burst on the rare occasion when Richardson could find any running room. The problem was (and, I'll argue, the problem has been) some aggressive defensive fronts and some bad blocking. While Joe Thomas and John Greco are working well at LT and LG, respectively, Alex Mack has slumped at center, while the right side (Shawn Lauvao and rookie Mitchell Schwartz) has played badly.
But I can't watch T-Rich's rumbling, cut-heavy first-quarter run up the gut for 14 yards and proclaim him some dramatically reduced version of himself. Now, when a back gets stuffed for 1 yard or fewer on seven of his 11 carries, we have to be concerned, and there's no conclusive proof I can give you that Richardson will have more room to run this Sunday. But I think I can almost guarantee you that the Browns won't foolishly abandon the run. T-Rich hadn't been below 18 carries since Week 8, and in that span had averaged more than 22 carries per game. He was vocal about his frustration over getting two totes after halftime in Week 15, and Pat Shurmur went out of his way to emphasize that Richardson won't get any extra rest over the season's final two games. Add in the fact that T-Rich is currently tied for third in receptions among RBs, and you've got a player whose yardage floor should be higher than he showed against the Skins.
Denver's run defense is no joke. They've held opposing RB corps below their five-week moving average in each of their past eight games, including stopping Ray Rice last week. Red zone touches could be at a premium for Cleveland. But I see enough of a workload bounce-back, and enough of a resilient Richardson on tape, that if he brought me to my championship game, I couldn't sit him.
2. The New Book of Eli. In an awful first half for the New York Giants that saw them down 17-0 to the Atlanta Falcons last week, I watched two terrible throws by Eli Manning, and neither of them was intercepted. The first was a medium-length cross to Victor Cruz that was wide open and might've launched Cruz to a big run, but was inexcusably thrown way over the WR's head. The other was a deep shot to the left side to Jerrel Jernigan which Eli had no business throwing, and which should've been picked off by Dominique Franks. His two first-half picks were actually both OK throws (maybe the first one was a little late), but were simply amazing, athletic interceptions by Asante Samuel and Thomas DeCoud, respectively. By the time Manning touched the ball again, in the third quarter, it was 24-0 and then Eli did start making inaccurate throws to open receivers while in desperation mode.
None of this is to say that I think Eli Manning is secretly playing well. Always a model of inconsistency (except on his two legendary playoff runs), the ups and downs have gotten even worse in 2012. In point of fact, his Falcons tape wasn't nearly as bad as his performances against the Pittsburgh Steelers or Cincinnati Bengals in November, or even his head-scratching work a couple of Mondays ago against the Redskins, when he threw zero INTs but probably should've thrown two or three, and also blew deep shots to both Cruz and Hakeem Nicks that could've put the game out of reach early. I went back and looked at Week 2 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Manning not only had more time to throw in that big comeback win, but seemed more confident, holding the ball less, zinging it earlier. When you watch Giants games these days, you're left with the impression that maybe the passing game is suffering from a lack of trust.
Cruz's slowdown was predictable. He averaged 14.4 fantasy points per game in his first seven contests, and 6.9 in his last seven. He's a marvelous open-field runner and a legit red zone threat for someone his size, but he's coverable. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Cruz has been targeted out of the slot about 70 percent of the time this year; he's adept at finding soft spots in a zone or beating a slower player in man-to-man, but he doesn't fit the mold of a guy who'll break a defense's back with a long one, or outmuscle double coverage and make a play. That description is supposed to fit Nicks, but he hasn't been healthy enough to get open consistently. I think there's a reason someone else keeps rearing his head on a weekly basis, be it Domenik Hixon, Rueben Randle or Ramses Barden. Eli is hoping to find someone to create space on the outside. But those lesser players haven't done it consistently.
Manning is on pace for 4,102 yards passing, 23 TD passes and 17 INTs. Eli apologists (and those who claim he's a lock for the Hall of Fame) don't want to hear this, but until '11, that was a typical Eli year. Without healthy outside separation, this is who Manning is. He's not a special player, and he's certainly not dominant in fantasy. Are the Baltimore Ravens great against the pass? No; they're good, not great. (By my metrics, they currently rank 11th stopping fantasy QBs from scoring points.) But at this point, having seen Eli go for single digits in four of his past seven games and having watched him struggle on film, I acknowledge that he can go off at any time, but I would have a tough time starting him a fantasy title game.
3. Why Is the Dallas Cowboys Pass Defense Struggling? With an All-Pro pass rusher (DeMarcus Ware) and two new corners (Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne), pass defense is supposed to be something at which the Cowboys excel, and for the season's first half they did. Lately, though, Dallas has become a plus matchup for opposing QBs. Here's a look at their past five outings, and the amount of fantasy points they've allowed each QB to add or subtract from his five-week moving average:
They clamped down on Dalton, but helped the average totals of the other four QBs, which leads them to be ranked 24th in preventing QBs from scoring in my book. They're also ranked 28th in stopping WRs in that same span. Is this a blip or a trend?
The first thing that popped off my computer screen while watching tape of the Steelers game had nothing to do with the corners; it was that strong safety Danny McCray was absolutely no match for Heath Miller. Miller abused McCray time and again, while free safety Gerald Sensabaugh was helping with umbrella coverage deep. Claiborne missed the contest because of a concussion (he's expected back for Week 16), but Mike Jenkins was actually fine in coverage. Ware was mysteriously silent, mostly going up against Steelers LT Max Starks, and whatever pressure got to Big Ben was mostly from Anthony Spencer on the other side. But it wasn't enough, as Roethlisberger did his usual Houdini act several times, holding the ball again and again. The one player who looked great was Carr, which hasn't always been the case with him. (For instance, RG III picked on him mercilessly on Thanksgiving.)
Anyway, it's been a slow second half of the season for Ware and thus not a good six or seven games for the team's pass rush, Claiborne has had high-highs and low-lows, Carr has played two really nice games in succession, and I'm worried about the safeties. In total, this makes for a plus matchup for Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Lance Moore. Despite the New Orleans Saints coming off a 41-0 whitewashing of the Bucs, Colston and Moore had modest games (and Colston has been "modest" for a month or so), but I consider the Saints' passing offense a full green on Sunday. Given the fact that Tony Romo is averaging 45 pass attempts over his past five games, I see a shootout in Big D.
4. The Ravens' First Week Without Cam Cameron. The first offensive series after Cameron's departure as Baltimore's offensive coordinator was the stuff of pure referendum! A screen to Vonta Leach. A middle handoff to Ray Rice. And a QB sneak by Joe Flacco that Flacco promptly fumbled away to the Broncos. Yikes.
Four first-quarter possessions were hindered by bad field position, it's true, but this was small potatoes: Bernard Pierce runs, an overthrow to Tandon Doss, a 9-yard pass to Dennis Pitta on third-and-10, and a middle screen to Rice that went nowhere. The second quarter was little better; Flacco seemed to have time on a couple of deeper throws but couldn't find an open receiver, and Rice did nothing until his eighth carry of the game (Pierce broke two long runs, one of which was called back by a holding penalty), and then things finally started to click in the two-minute drill, only to see Flacco telegraph a pass from the Denver 4 that my namesake Chris Harris picked and took all the way back to the house. It was the game's decisive play.
The bottom line is there was really nothing different about the flow or play-calling in this Ravens offense. Some of that was game situation. It's hard to stick with Rice when you're losing by 17 and then 21 and then 28. Baltimore can't revolutionize its playbook at this late date, nor can Flacco suddenly become amazing as a QB. But an underreported part of all these problems over the past month has been the offensive line. You see the interior of that line (Jah Reid, Matt Birk and Bobbie Williams) getting shoved backward time after time. Regular starting RG Marshal Yanda hasn't played the past two games, and it's showed, while Bryant McKinnie can't even sniff the field at left tackle, where Michael Oher has been overmatched. If it shows up motivated with its switch flipped "on," the Giants D-line has a chance to go off Sunday.
All this is to say: Freedom and joy was not accomplished with one week away from Cam Cameron. Flacco made a huge, inexcusable mistake on his pick-six (Harris admitted he was shocked the pass was even thrown) and missed enough open receivers to shut down first-half drives. The protection isn't good. Rice is such a force on his own that I'm willing to overlook his awful Week 15; he has 10 double-digit fantasy days in 14 games. But as for the wideouts? I'm not willing to show the trust that my rankings compatriots showed. Torrey Smith left last week's game with a concussion after being upended along the sidelines, and Anquan Boldin put up a big ol' donut. As of this writing, Smith sounds like he'll play Sunday but we're not sure at what capacity, and while Boldin flashed for three TDs in Weeks 13 and 14 combined, he'd been almost silent before then. I definitely never put a bomb TD to Smith out of the picture. But if I could get away with starting neither of these WRs, that would be my preferred strategic avenue.
5. Investing in the Bengals Defense. On this week's Fantasy Underground podcast, as I was desperately trying to spit out the name of West Virginia QB Geno Smith, somehow I got stuck on "Geno Hayes" and then Field corrected me with "Geno Atkins" and I didn't question his correction. It was perhaps not our finest moment. But it was particularly galling that I let that Atkins reference glide right past my half-functioning brain considering how often the real Geno Atkins (you know, the one who plays defensive tackle for the Bengals) has leapt off the game film this year. If I had an NFL Defensive MVP ballot, Atkins would be in the top five. (In case you're wondering, oh and I know you are, through Week 15 my ballot would go: (1) J.J. Watt; (2) Von Miller; (3) Aldon Smith; (4) Atkins; (5) Cameron Wake.)
But anyway, that Cincy D -- with Atkins helming things as the three-technique DT -- has been a fantasy revelation since Week 10. In those past six games, they haven't allowed more than 20 points, they haven't allowed a 300-yard passer or a 100-yard rusher, and they've allowed one 100-yard receiver: Danario Alexander. In that span they've forced 10 fumbles (third-most in the NFL) and six interceptions (tied for ninth-most) while producing 20 sacks, which ties them with the St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers for tops in the league. In short: Mike Zimmer has fashioned this group into an elite unit. This is not fluky. They are legit, especially on the D-line: Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are fierce, but Michael Johnson and Wallace Gilberry have flashed lately, and everyone knows Domata Peko by his hair and run-stuffing. They come in waves. Heck, something has gotten into Terence Newman, Reggie Nelson and Pacman Jones over the past month, and last Thursday the Philadelphia Eagles had their most success throwing to Jason Avant running against Leon Hall.
Add into the mix the fact that the Steelers offense has been pretty generous to opposing fantasy defenses even with Big Ben back under center. The San Diego Chargers D/ST scored 12 points against them in Week 14 (buoyed by a couple of sacks and a Quentin Jammer TD on a fumbled backwards pass) and the Cowboys scored seven on them in Week 15 (highlighted by four sacks and a crucial overtime pick). No, in this showdown game I don't think Pittsburgh gets shut out or anything crazy like that. But I don't completely trust that patchwork O-line. When the Bengals weren't playing as well on D back in Week 7, they managed three sacks against the Steelers. I think they double that number Sunday. In a week when elite Seattle Seahawks and 49ers units have to face one another, I'm buying Cincy as startable.
Five In Brief
6. Brandon Lloyd Goes Downfield. After three months of disappointment, Lloyd has caught 17 passes for 279 yards and a TD in his past two games. In those contests, he has three plays of 25-plus yards, after posting only two all season before that. A player whom most fantasy owners selected to be a clear fantasy starter, and who was practically outside our consensus top 40 WRs at his '12 nadir, is now tempting fantasy owners to use him in their championship games. Now, the safest thing would be to stay away. If you've made it this far, presumably you discovered an alternative WR solution to Lloyd. But there's reason to believe this good stuff can carry forward a couple of more games. Anecdotally, watching the games, it certainly felt like Tom Brady was taking more deep shots to Lloyd this past month, and more importantly not taking the little 5-yard outs or stop routes that are not a strength of Lloyd's game. And the numbers back up this feeling: According to Stats LLC, through Week 11 Lloyd was 31st out of 53 qualified WRs in average yards at the catch, with 9.0. In the four contests since, he's fourth in the league, at 11.9. The depleted Jacksonville Jaguars secondary (and their relatively anemic pass rush) make them a plus matchup for opposing passing games right now, though you do have to worry that the New England Patriots will get a big lead and stop throwing. However, I'm convinced enough by all these factors that I ranked Lloyd 22nd among WRs, putting him in the mix to start. His risk is high, but obviously based on the past couple of games, so is his reward.
7. Michael Crabtree Doesn't Go Downfield. Or Does He? By contrast, this year Crabtree has often been a big pile of "nope" when it comes to deeper shots. Through 14 games, here's how many targets the 49ers' main pass-catchers have, and how far the ball has traveled in the air on each:
Not that I ever believed Crabtree would be an NFL speed merchant, but given the athletic profiles of other WRs around the league who regularly go downfield with far more regularity (Brian Hartline and Brandon Gibson are two similar-sized, similar-speed guys from Crabtree's own draft class who come to mind), it's been pretty shocking to see Crabtree so rarely get the ball beyond 10 yards down the field. I have little doubt that this is more about the 49ers' system (and a gentleman named Alex Smith) than inherent limitations in Crabtree. The fact that he's coming off the most productive three-game stretch of his pro career -- 23 catches for 301 yards and two TDs -- is fascinating, isn't it, considering Colin Kaepernick has become entrenched as the starting QB? It just so happens that the past three weeks have seen eight of Crabtree's 18 targets traveling 11 to 20 yards in the air, and one of his two targets traveling 21 to 30 yards in the air. Coincidence? I think not. And on Sunday night, the 49ers face a Seahawks squad that could be without both its elite starting corners: Brandon Browner is already serving his suspension, and Richard Sherman (who was pretty well roasted by Stevie Johnson on Sunday) will have his appeal heard Friday. I view Crabtree as a rock-solid No. 3 WR in 10-team leagues this week, with upside for more.
8. Trusting Shady. LeSean McCoy will be back for the Eagles on Sunday, and Andy Reid says he'll start. However, he also says McCoy probably won't get his typical workload, as he works his way back into the mix after his serious concussion. Methinks most Bryce Brown owners are already (A) out of their fantasy playoffs; or (B) still alive despite Brown and unwilling to take the risk of starting him again. McCoy's return pretty much eliminates any need to think about using the rookie. But now we have to test our eternal fantasy edict: Always Play Your Studs. When he's at full capacity, Shady certainly is studly, and if you're an underdog in your fantasy championship I understand the temptation McCoy represents. It's within the realm of possibility that he gets off to a good start with a couple of strong runs, tells his coaches he feels great and goes on to produce another 100-plus-total-yards day (he's got five in 11 games). While his TD pace was predictably off his ridiculous 20 from last season, Shady was a model of consistency, never failing to yield fewer than seven fantasy points in a contest before his injury. But boy, unless I'm desperate (as in: I had no choice but to use Bryce Brown last week), I don't think I could start McCoy, not least because by my metrics the Redskins have done a "plus" job against opposing RBs in five of their past six games. I admit that my No. 25 rank of McCoy is on the low side, and honestly my ranks never are intended to represent my prediction for how the fantasy point totals will look at the end of the week. When I rank, I'm giving the order in which I'd feel comfortable starting the players, and Shady doesn't provide much comfort to me right now. Yes, if I feel I'm an underdog, I see the logic in taking the chance he jitterbugs his way to a big one. But under other circumstances, there are safer options aplenty.
9. Comparing RG III and Luck as Passers. There will be tons of time to look ahead at the futures of Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck. And there will be much pixel dust devoted to their respective candidacies for rookie of the year. (It should be noted that Russell Wilson is making a late push, too.) I resisted the fantasy hype on each of these guys -- Luck more than Griffin -- and each QB has clearly exceeded my Year 1 expectations. At the moment, for fantasy, I'd rather own Griffin because his running chops are a game-changer. And his passing accuracy has been terrific, as far as that goes. But if I'm evaluating these players as professional passers? Luck is the guy who gets the higher grade, while RG III gets an "incomplete." I know, I know, in terms of passer rating, Griffin is killing it. But then again, so is Alex Smith. Among its many flaws, passer rating doesn't compare apples to apples. When your offense relies on you for tons of throws, and when you throw it down the field more, it's harder to maintain a high efficiency rating. Luck has thrown 40 passes per start (fourth in the NFL), compared to 27 for RG III (34th in the NFL, tied with Matt Hasselbeck, behind Blaine Gabbert). Also, check out how far Luck and RG III's pass attempts have traveled in the air:
Luck has had 40 percent of his throws travel more than 10 yards in the air, compared to 28 percent for Griffin. This is not meant as a slam to RG III! As I say, I like him better as a fantasy QB, and part of the reason he doesn't need to throw as much is that he's such a threat as a runner. But one of these guys is already working on his master's degree in NFL throwing. The other guy shows promise, but hasn't really been challenged with a big league throwing workload yet. If you're comparing these kids just as passers, Luck has submitted the significantly more impressive rookie year.
10. The Most Predictable Implosion in NFL History. The story of the 2012 New York Jets was written March 20. That was the day they traded for Tim Tebow. It ignited a glut of coverage (including an incredible stream of on-location reports nearly every time the Jets got near a practice field) that in retrospect looks silly, but that's nothing compared to the havoc it wreaked on the team. Was Mark Sanchez ever going to scrappily pick up an injury-depleted squad and march them to the playoffs? Maybe not. But you could see his confidence wane by the week, with Tebow looming. I've never been able to pause game tape and predict what's going to happen so reliably as I have with Sanchez this season. Every time he held a ball too long, every time you could see his eyes wandering downfield like a calorie-counter gazing longingly at cake, every time he let go a deep-middle throw far too late with a sound I imagine very much to be an audible groan I knew what was coming next. What's missing from Sanchez's game is control and discipline. He plays desperate, and it doesn't work for him. Now the Jets will go with Greg McElroy instead of Tebow, the ultimate thumb-in-the-eye toward fantasy owners and Jets fans who shelled out dough for a soon-to-be-collector's-item No. 15 jersey. Sanchez seems done as a starter in Gotham, too. This team is looking at either a total rebuild (if justice is served and Mike Tannenbaum and Rex Ryan are shown the door) or a Hail Mary gasp, for instance, acquiring Alex Smith and trying to peddle him as a savior. Either way, there won't be quite so many cameras in Jets camp next summer.