Free Agent Madden-ness!


Why, indeed?

I am just as perplexed as a user named Pariah_Ecco, who asked that very question on a gamespot.com forum about the new edition of Madden '11, the world's most popular sports video game. It's the 22nd year of the Madden video game and its fan base is large, worldwide and very passionate.

Among those fans is a user named Pariah_Ecco, who asked, very simply, "Why is Matthew Berry in the FA? Did someone at EA lose a bet? Why in the world is Matthew Berry, the ESPN fantasy sports analyst and ESPN.com columnist, in the freakin' free agency? He's an overall 78 middle linebacker... I'm just baffled."

I've said many times before how insanely lucky I am to have this job. If all I ever got to do was write and talk fantasy sports at ESPN, that'd be more than enough. But the list of cool and wacky things I've gotten to do keeps getting longer.

The partial list includes attending Super Bowls, appearing on Dancing with the Stars, playing softball against the Jonas Brothers, doing commercials with the Geico Caveman and Alyssa Milano, guest-starring in a two-episode role on ABC's "One Life to Live," having King County in Washington (where Seattle is) declare March 3, 2010 to be Fantasy Focus Day, throwing out the first pitch at an Oakland A's game, hosting a Fantasy Football draft party (with Shannon Elizabeth, Stacy Keibler and Flo Rida), helping everyone from Kid Rock to Spike Lee with their fantasy teams, being hugged by Jesse Jackson, interviewing the biggest names in sports (from Jerry Rice to Derek Jeter to Adrian Peterson), appearing on the Howard Stern wrap-up show with Gary Dell'Abate and Jon Hein, having an ice cream named after me, doing a stunt with Travis Pastrana, having an animated video of our podcast theme song made (coming soon) and, last but not least, becoming an official in the state of California for one day in order to perform a marriage ceremony for two of my fans.

It's an insane, crazy, I-would-hate-me-too list. Look, I realize much, if not all, of this comes entirely from the popularity of both ESPN and fantasy football and I'm just lucky enough to be along for the ride. But before you hate me, hold onto it for just one second. Because it's about to get worse.

As cool as the above list is, and many other things, it all pales in comparison to being in the Madden '11 video game. Yes. The Madden game. The game all the NFL players play. The game that has sold almost 90 million copies. The closest people who never played the real game can get to being football players. And now, I'm one of them.

Matthew Berry, 6-foot-1, 205 pounds from Syracuse (my alma mater) is a linebacker with an overall score of 78. This came about because Anthony, one of the high-up suits at EA Sports, is a big fan of the podcast. And to get into our Man's League this year, he, with help from Madden NFL Ratings Czar Donny Moore, offered spots in the actual Madden video game to myself, my co-host Nate Ravitz, our producer Jay "PodVader" Soderberg and our resident injury expert, Stephania Bell. You can listen to today's podcast; we interview Anthony and discuss this in more detail, but here's the stuff you need to know.

First, I was originally supposed to be a punter. I politely asked (or whined, depending on your take) to not be. And boy, am I glad I did. Gang, I'm a middle linebacker. When "Matthew Berry" first appeared in the game on Friday, folks on the game's message boards were quick to notice. As a user named Timmy_Chang wrote, "I immediately thought of the bald fantasy football dude from ESPN. He had a 97 hit power."

Well, it's me, Timmy, and you're damn right I have a hit power of 97. Now I can lay out, in video form, the players that have killed me in fantasy. If I was Devin Aromashodu, I wouldn't cross the middle. Just saying.

Based on my ego, a swagger rating of 95 seems appropriate, and I'm not sure if it's my mouth on the podcast, my lengthy columns or some deeper research Anthony did into my personal life, but I have a stamina of 97. I can play forever, kids, and as the haters on the message boards have sadly already discovered, you also can't hurt me. I got a 95 injury rating. Indestructible, baby.

Turns out I'm perfect for my Redskins defense, since I can't catch (just a 66); I wouldn't use me on a speedy wideout (man-to-man coverage speed of just 65); and, um, I'm not really all that good in zone coverage either (just a 70). In short, I'm a great run-stuffer and, since this is a free-agent pickup column, allow me to recommend adding me to your Madden roster (and playing me), especially on first and second downs.

The question, of course, is even though I'm not on the cover, I've also never actually played professional football, so will I succumb to the "Madden Curse"? Will I fall down? Will I lose more hair? Will my picks begin to stink? Ha! Already there, suckers!

Nate Ravitz, a "Wes Welker" type receiver out of Michigan, is a great route runner (score of 90), but podcast fans will not be surprised to know he's weaselly, er, shifty and elusive (88) and, fitting for a "girly man," very injury-prone. He's got an overall score of 74 or, as I like to think of it, four fewer than me.

Paud-Vader Baker, named after our producer and a long-running joke about Jay's infatuation with real-life tight end Chris Baker, has been made French for the game, and just like he does for our jokes on the podcast, he is a great blocker in the game, with a run-blocking score of 84. Hailing from Boston College, Jay also has an overall score of 74 but, not surprising to anyone who has had to wait for Jay to play our drops or get on mike during the podcast, he has very poor awareness and catching skills (40 and 44, respectively).

How to get TMR into your Madden game

First, you have to be online and get the most recent roster update. Once in, go to "My Madden," then to player management and sign me (or Nate or Paud or Stephon) to a contract and assign us to any team you want (please don't send me to Buffalo!). When you play a game with or against that specific team, change their depth chart to have me on the field. And when I (or the anyone from the gang) make a specific play, we want to see them! Save your highlight, then go to EAsports.com and register for EA SPORTS WORLD to upload highlights from your console and upload them to EAsports.com. Make sure to tag them "ESPN." We'll be collecting them soon and are putting together a "greatest hits" video from all the users of us in action that will be featured here in this column and on our Fantasy Focus show page.

Here's a little sample of what we're looking for. Pay specific attention to the final play, where Berry meets Ravitz, and the inevitable happens. WatchVideo.

Finally, Stephania's "Jersey Shore" nickname is Steffy Bad News, since chances are, when she's talking about you, it's almost never good. So hailing from her alma mater of Princeton (yeah, she's a brainy one), "Stephon Baadknews" is a running back who, appropriately enough, is very injury-prone (39 rating). But when on the field, he flies (speed of 90) and like our demure Stephania, Stephon is all business and no swagger (40).

All are fine additions to your team. Be sure to read the sidebar (that's what we call the mini column in the box) on how to get us on your team and how you can submit plays of us to be in a video featured here on ESPN.com. And be sure to play with us soon. Wow, that sounded less creepy in my mind. As free-agent updates continue on the game, we'll probably get removed from rosters fairly soon, so play now.

I struggled for a long time on how to write this, because I was like, "Ah, they're gonna think I'm bragging," but you know what? I sort of am. I'm sorry. I can't help it. It is, quite simply, the coolest thing ever. Thank goodness I have a 95 injury rating because I'm sure you want to beat me senseless. OK, more senseless. But it's just cool, you know? Super, super cool. And if you ever got in a video game and had a column, you'd do the same thing. And if you wouldn't, well, then your swagger score would be really, really low.

Don't look back in anger

"Never regret. If it's good, it's wonderful. If it's bad, it's experience." - Victoria Holt

Here are some of the guys that I suggested you pick up in this column last week (and the week before and the week before that). Somehow, you managed to avoid my genius, or you ran into my idiocy and picked up the wrong guys. Either way, they remarkably are still available in some leagues. I list them quickly here because I have already discussed them in detail, so consider this a combination of obvious names and a list of guys previously discussed.

As always, ownership percentages are for ESPN.com standard 10-team leagues. In addition, at the request of many of you, I am adding how much I would bid on this player in a league that uses FAAB money. The dollar amount is based on a standard $100 cap. When in doubt as to whom I value more, check how much I would bid on that person. That should give you a fairly good idea of how I value a player.

Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seahawks (80 percent, $33), Pierre Garcon, WR, Colts (73 percent, $30), Roy E. Williams, WR, Cowboys (66 percent, $25), Kevin Kolb, QB, Eagles (58 percent, $17), Kenny Britt, WR, Titans (65 percent, $20), Brandon Jacobs, RB, Giants (83 percent, $15), Brandon Jackson, RB, Packers (72 percent, $13), Mike Williams, WR, Buccaneers (53 percent, $10), Eddie Royal, WR, Broncos (71 percent, $10), Mark Sanchez, QB, Jets (79 percent, $9), Davone Bess, WR, Dolphins (20 percent, $8), Sam Bradford, QB, Rams (30 percent, $8), Lance Moore, WR, Saints (58 percent, $8), Steve Johnson, WR, Bills (11 percent, $8), Nate Burleson, WR, Lions (29 percent, $6) Danny Amendola, WR, Rams (32 percent, $6), Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Bills (6 percent, $5), and finally Steve Breaston, WR, Cardinals (57 percent, $3), since he will be back soon.

Chris Ivory, RB, Saints (2 percent, $8): I've separated Ivory out because I want to talk about him a little more. He's been mentioned, one way or the other, in every TMR pickup column since Week 3 and he was in some of my preseason stuff as well. So I can't list him as a pickup. But after a weekend in which he had 175 total yards on just 16 touches (albeit against the Bucs) and he was a top-10 running back, I can't just throw him on the list and leave it at that.

Here's my take: He's clearly the most talented running back on the team not named Pierre or Reggie. And it's not like he smells like a one-week wonder, either; he's had double-digit touches each of the past three weeks. Buoyed by Sunday's game, of course, but it's worth noting that Ivory now has 277 yards on 44 attempts for 6.3 yards per carry. Pierre Thomas has 146 yards on 46 attempts for 3.2 yards per carry.

There are a few problems on the road to fantasy stardom, however; this is a team that normally throws: 231 times this year to just 148 rushing attempts, or just over 60 percent of the time. There's also the whole Pierre Thomas thing. He's the guy when he comes back. And Ladell Betts remains better at pass protection. It certainly looked like Betts was getting more work prior to Sunday. Oh, and then there's the three fumbles (lost two). And they have the Steelers and a bye week among their next four games. So I'm not going nuts here. If he were a Madden player, his stability score would not be high. But we're not certain Thomas is back this week (when they play the Browns) and even when Thomas does comes back, I can see Ivory having value as a goal-line back.

Basically, he's definitely worth a bid and worth owning, but I wouldn't use a ton of FAAB money, my No. 1 waiver priority, or try to trade for him.

Pickups of the week

"If this place is a meat market, baby, you're the prime rib."

Other than the obvious names above that are still out there in some leagues, a fairly light week. A reminder that this week's bye teams are the Colts, Lions, Jets and Texans. So lots of firepower on the bench this week. Let's get to it.

Deion Branch, WR, Patriots (13 percent, $25): How many times?! How many times did I tell you guys to ignore Brandon Tate and go grab Deion Branch, huh? Man! How many times? (Looks at a note that was passed to him.) Huh. Apparently none. I told you that not at all. Yeah. An impressive return to New England for Branch, who not only had nine catches for 98 yards and a score, but got 12 targets from Tom Brady, or one more than Wes Welker. And Brandon Tate, who was a hot pickup last week, got just four targets with no catches (he did get one run for 22 yards).

Now, before we get super-super-excited, keep in mind that Brady likes to spread it around, that Branch is now on defensive coordinators' radar and that he has never had more than five touchdowns in a season. He's also never had a 1,000-yard season in his career, and he's in his ninth season. Do I think he'll have value? Absolutely. Does he need to be owned in every league? Of course. And is he my No. 1 pickup if the above guys are gone this week? Yep. Is he better than, say, a digital Nate Ravitz? Obviously. But the Patriots game-plan to what they can exploit in their opponents, and there will be weeks when Branch is ignored like Tate was this week. I will say, however, that after Brady and Welker, I believe Branch has the most value of any Patriots offensive player. An that's definitely worth something.

Robert Meachem, WR, Saints (58 percent, $10): Probably should be in the "Anger" section above, but the truth is he's been in Dumpsville before, as he just hasn't been on the field very much and wasn't producing in the early part of the season. But two straight weeks of four receptions, at least 50 yards and a score, with the Browns up next and Drew Brees at quarterback, well … welcome to pickups. I still like Lance Moore more, but Meachem is back on the fantasy radar.

Danario Alexander, WR, Rams (0.2 percent, $8): All the usual caveats about "it's one game," he wasn't targeted all that much (just five times) and 38 of his 72 yards came on one big play. But, this isn't a total fluke. A big (6-foot-5) and fast guy, Alexander has injury issues but did lead the NCAA in receiving yards last year. Now getting his shot with Mark Clayton out, he looks to have more of an opportunity than Brandon Gibson or Laurent Robinson, as the deep guy. Sam Bradford continues to impress and look at the schedule: Next three games for the Rams are the Bucs, Panthers and 49ers.

Matt Cassel, QB, Chiefs (10 percent, $7): He's got 20-point fantasy days in two of his past three, and look at his schedule: Jacksonville and Buffalo at home, then at Oakland, at Denver and Arizona at home. Only Denver worried you at all, and depending on the team's health, not even that much.

Danny Woodhead, RB/WR, Patriots (6.3 percent, $6): Three straight weeks of double-digit fantasy points, and the Patriots continue to find different ways to get him involved. He's now had three, nine and 16 touches the past three weeks, he's increasing his role on the offense and had 115 total yards on Sunday. I like his dual positional eligibility, a quirk based on how he was listed with the Jets at the start of the season and how he is being used now by the Patriots. Being used in the Kevin Faulk role, he did have seven targets on Sunday and Brady seems to like him. And when that happens, good things happen.

Derrick Ward, RB, Texans (3 percent, $5): Podcast listeners finally understand why Nate owns an "I love Derrick Ward" T-shirt. Touchdowns in three straight weeks, and Gary Kubiak was quoted as saying that they want to get Ward more touches to keep Arian Foster fresh. Ward is averaging a crazy 8.3 yards per carry and is a must-own for any Foster owner. Now, they are on a bye this week, otherwise he'd be a bit higher, but he's an interesting name if you have roster space, or you just hate whomever owns Foster in your league. And by the way, after the bye, the Texans get the Colts, Chargers and Jaguars. Not a good run defense among them, they should all add me. I got a pursuit rating of 93, baby!

Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions (23 percent, $5): Coming back after the bye week, we've seen that a Lions quarterback can have nice fantasy value this season. If you can grab and stash, you've got a guy who will be throwing to Calvin Johnson, Jahvid Best out of the backfield, Nate Burleson and two good tight ends. He plays against my porous Redskins and the Bills in two of the first three after his bye.

Seattle Seahawks passing game: To say this is an offense in transition is, well, a cop-out. But the truth is, it seems to change a lot and I don't know that, right now, there isn't anyone in the passing game that I would trust to start. The guy I keep hearing about that they supposedly love, Golden Tate, is nowhere to be found. But after a 10-for-123 game on 15 targets, Mike Williams (45 percent, $5) needs to be picked up. Matt Hasselbeck (18 percent, $1) and Deon Butler (1 percent, $1) are also interesting names to be aware of, as three of Seattle's next four games are against the Raiders and twice versus the Cardinals.

Jason Avant, WR, Eagles (0.5 percent, $3): Told you it was an ugly week. With DeSean Jackson suffering what's being termed a "severe" concussion, Avant is the clear winner (clearly, his injury rating much closer to Stephon's than mine -- did I mention I have a 95 injury rating?). At least among guys that are available in leagues. It's not a great matchup this week at the Titans, but on the high-flying Eagles, it doesn't really matter. He had five-for-62 on five targets last week and he makes a decent bye week fill-in (Eagles have a bye in Week 8) if you're hurting this week.

By the way, the Seattle Seahawks D/ST is owned in only 43 percent of leagues, is a top-4 fantasy defense this year and is at home (where they play better) to Max Hall and Arizona this week.

Tight Ends:

So, with Dallas Clark, Dustin Keller, Brandon Pettigrew and finally-showing-signs-of-life Owen Daniels on a bye this week -- since we're awaiting updates on the injury status of Antonio Gates, Chris Cooley and Vernon Davis -- you probably need a tight end. Lots and lots of pretty solid options still available, all of them the opposite of Paud Vader-Baker. I've discussed many of these before, but here, in order (all just worth a bid of a buck or two) is who I like going forward.

1. Aaron Hernandez, Patriots (50 percent): One of the reasons New England felt comfortable trading Randy Moss.

2. Benjamin Watson, Browns (5 percent): Currently a top-10 fantasy tight end for the year, Watson leads the Browns in receptions, targets, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

3. Owen Daniels, Texans (57 percent): Truthfully, if he weren't on a bye this week, he'd be my No. 1 guy. Getting healthier and back in the flow week by week, I feel he's due for a big second half in this offense.

4. Brandon Pettigrew, Lions (9 percent): Also on a bye this week, but if you can wait, he's had at least six fantasy points in three straight weeks and in four of his past five. And he gets Matthew Stafford back after the bye.

Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars (73 percent): This would go down if David Garrard is going to miss time after Monday night's injury, but with defenses focusing on Maurice Jones-Drew, he remains a viable part of this offense.

6. Tony Moeaki, Chiefs (19 percent): A rookie with Matt Cassel as his quarterback is going to have growing pains, but he is too talented to not be a bigger part of the offense going forward.

7. Heath Miller, Steelers (48 percent): You know who is happy Big Ben is back? Heath Miller is happy Big Ben is back.

8. Todd Heap, Ravens (21 percent): If you just need a guy for this week only, I like Heap the most. He scored last week and gets the Bills, among the worst teams in the NFL against the tight end.

9. Jermaine Gresham, Bengals (10): Would be higher if he had someone other than Carson Palmer as his quarterback or if I had any confidence the Bengals had even the slightest inclination of what to do on offense. I might still be a little bitter about the home loss to Tampa Bay that knocked me out of one "Eliminator" pool.

10. Jeremy Shockey, Saints (59 percent): Downside: so many weapons on New Orleans. Upside: He's one of them.

11. John Carlson, Seahawks (23 percent): There's a lot of positive signs of life in the Seattle passing offense. Now it just needs to swing over to Carlson.

12. Andrew Quarless, Packers (1 percent): Jermichael Finley is done for the year but it's not like Aaron Rodgers is gonna stop throwing.

13. Bo Scaife, Titans (4 percent): If you're this far down, you're hoping Kerry Collins gets to start for Tennessee for a few weeks.

Others receiving votes

I've found that luck is quite predictable. If you want more luck, take more chances. Be more active. Show up more often. - Brian Tracy

Here are a few guys that I'm not saying you should pick up in 10-team leagues, but who are starting to see an uptick in value and whom you should keep an eye on or consider grabbing in deeper leagues.

I need to see more info about the San Diego passing game before I recommend Patrick Crayton, WR, Chargers. How healthy are Malcom Floyd, Antonio Gates and Legedu Naanee, because that will go a long way to determine how much Crayton is on the field. But a six-for-117 day should be on your radar, especially with the Patriots' poor secondary flying in from the other coast. ... I didn't include Fred Davis, TE, Redskins on the above list, but if Chris Cooley were to miss time, I'd rank Davis just ahead of Marcedes Lewis. .... Speaking of Redskins, Ryan Torain is clearly the guy, but if you were looking to handcuff a running back who has injury issues in his past and a fickle head coach, Keiland Williams, RB, Redskins is who you want. Also, James Starks, RB, Packers comes off the PUP list this week and given the Packers struggles in the run game, it's not crazy to think he could find his way onto the field in a significant role at some point this year

I'm not ready to grab Max Hall, QB, Cardinals or newly-named-again starter Matt Moore, QB, Panthers in anything but the deepest of leagues yet, but anyone who gets to throw to Larry Fitzgerald or Steve Smith needs to be known. ... And I'll say it: I didn't think Colt McCoy, QB, Browns looked terrible on Sunday. Just the opposite, in fact, on the road at Pittsburgh with many of his position players banged up. This will be made mostly moot once the trade deadline happens (today) but Michael Bennett, RB, Raiders could have value if Michael Bush is dealt. Or keep in mind that both Bush and Darren McFadden aren't strangers to injury. ... With Peyton Hillis seemingly never 100 percent, Mike Bell, RB, Browns could have a new lease on fantasy life soon. ... Now that Kareem Huggins and Earnest Graham are banged-up, LeGarrette Blount might once again sucker his way in…. Only a few weeks too late, but there was a Devin Aromashodu, WR, Bears sighting. You know I like his talent, if they will keep him on the field. And Anthony Armstrong, WR, Redskins is now in the starting lineup for Washington. Like his skills a lot, don't love his offense around him just yet.

Welcome to Dumpsville. Population: You

As always, these are not guys I'm saying you should drop, and, as always, some of you will ignore that caveat. But if you need roster space to grab someone above, I have no issue with dropping these guys. Every team's needs are different and these are good players who will have productive weeks but who I feel ultimately won't lead you to the promised land, based on schedules, bye weeks and who else is available in ESPN.com standard 10-team leagues.

Carson Palmer, Shaun Hill, Donald Brown, Laurence Maroney, John Kuhn, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee (if he doesn't get traded), Cadillac Williams, Steve Slaton, Marion Barber, Kevin Walter, Devin Hester, Mike Sims-Walker, Louis Murphy, Nate Washington, Justin Gage, Bernard Berrian, Jacoby Jones, Laurent Robinson, Mohamed Massaquoi, Devery Henderson, Legedu Naanee, Sidney Rice, Visanthe Shiancoe, Kellen Winslow, Jermichael Finley (obviously), and frankly, any defense, with the exception of the Jets or Steelers, is fine to drop. Easy to play the matchups.

Matthew Berry -- The Talented Mr. Roto -- is surprised he wasn't made into a diva wide receiver. He is the creator of RotoPass.com, a website that combines a bunch of well-known fantasy sites, including ESPN Insider, for one low price. Use promo code ESPN for 10 percent off. He is a charter member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association Hall of Fame. Cyberstalk the TMR | Be his cyberfriend