Friday, October 7, 2011

Power Rankings Your Fantasy Options (Part 2 of 2)

#15-#12: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

San Francisco, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Oakland

17 of the first 30 Super Bowls were won by these 4 franchises. Granted, that has absolutely no impact on their ability to play in 2011, but I thought it was interesting that these teams with pedigrees for greatness have been the definition of “just above average” this season.

15. San Francisco 49ers (3-1) [vs. TB]

I’m not really sold on the 49ers. They run the ball a lot, but not very effectively; they’ve allowed the 6th most passing yards thus far, despite games against Tarvaris Jackson and Andy Dalton; and, of course, they still have Alex Smith throwing the ball to no one worth mentioning. Nevertheless, they’re one Tony Romo superhuman performance away from being 4-0, and their linebackers are capable of completely shutting down the run game, giving them a better than average chance to beat teams with a less than average quarterback. Good thing they play 6 games in the NFC West and another 3 against McCoy, Grossman, and Flacco. I’m rooting for the Niners just so I don’t have to hear people gripe about the NFC West sending a team with a losing record to the playoffs again, but even if they got to 10 or 11 wins, you’ll never see a single digit number next to their name in the power rankings.

Tampa Bay has a very average defense across the boards, so you’re playing your regular 49ers in this one: Gore, Davis, and that’s it. I could probably be talked into the 49ers defense against a Bucs team that hasn’t exactly lit up the scoreboards this season, but I also think you could probably do better on the waiver wire; even during a bye week.

14. Dallas Cowboys (2-2)

Really looking forward to seeing what a healthy-ish Romo can do against the Patriots secondary in Week 6. These Cowboys have all the pieces, but just can’t seem to get over the hump. A win against New England could propel them to a 9 game winning streak, but with Dallas being Dallas, nothing would surprise me.

13. Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2) [vs. Ten]

What a beautiful disaster this team is. They looked solid in Week 2 against Seattle, but have been painful to watch in their 3 road games. They can’t stop the run, they can’t run the ball, and an offensive line that was already sub-par can’t even stay on the field. Roethlisberger is a resilient SOB, but he is taking way too many hits. We worry about Vick’s ability to play an entire season, but Ben is running out of lives faster than any QB right now. Ward has been invisible, Mendenhall has an injured leg, and Harrison is going to miss a few weeks with an orbital fracture.

The Steelers bye week cannot come soon enough, but they have to wait until Week 11 to get it. Every year, the Super Bowl runner-up falls back to the pack, but we all thought the Steelers would be immune to that curse this year. It’s beginning to look like we all thought wrong. They’ll still have an above average record and might even make the playoffs behind a schedule that still features 3 NFC West teams, the Chiefs, the Jaguars, and 4 battles with Ohio, but these are not the Steelers we’ve grown accustomed to watching.

From a fantasy perspective, the Steelers square off against one of the better defenses in the league and an elite running back just dying to break off a long TD scamper. I think the Titans will keep the Pittsburgh running backs in check on Sunday. I would feel a lot better about playing Redman as a flex guy than Mendenhall as a #2 RB. Even before the hamstring injury, he wasn’t running like the Mendenhall that fantasy owners know and love. Even if he starts, I wouldn’t rank Mendenhall in my top 20 RB. If you have other options, take them.

And if you haven’t already resigned to benching Roethlisberger, it’s about time to re-evaluate your QB options. As previously mentioned in the Colts section, I’m planning on starting Painter over Roethlisberger this week; that’s how far he’s fallen. If your league counts sacks and fumbles as negative points for the QB, Roethlisberger has been even more of a disappointment than Peyton Manning, because at least we all know better than to keep trying to start Manning.

As much as Ben has sucked, Wallace has been a valuable wide receiver, and Antonio Brown has emerged as the definition of a bye week fill in. He gets a lot of targets and has the speed to score from anywhere so long as Ben can get the ball away. I wouldn’t want anyone else in this game though, including the defense.

12. Oakland Raiders (2-2) [@Hou]

The Raiders are a better version of the Chicago Bears: a team with a running back who can do it all…and not much else. Jason Campbell isn’t terrible, but he’s much more of a game manager than a game changer. The return of Jacoby Ford should prove interesting, but Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey aren’t striking fear into the hearts of any cornerbacks. The defense is currently one of the worst in the NFL, but I think that’s to be expected when you’ve played 75% of your games against the good teams in the AFC East; as such, I presume they have a fairly average defense. Like I said, nothing special aside from McFadden. They won’t wind up being one of the best teams in the AFC, but they won’t be one of the worst either. Not bad for a team that’s been in rebuilding mode since 2003.

Against the Texans this week, you’re obviously starting McFadden, and I would be okay rolling with Moore or Ford at my flex spot if I had either guy. I’d rank Campbell as the 16th best QB option this week, so I would hope you can do better, but you could certainly do worse. I wouldn’t start Boss or Heyward-Bey unless you’re completely desperate; both are also cases of you can probably do better, but you could definitely do worse. Don’t start the Raiders defense though. Arian Foster should tear them to pieces.

#11: The NFC Fan Favorite
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1) [@SF]

The Lions and Texans are the Bandwagon Teams Du Jour, but I think a lot of people have a soft spot in their heart for the Bucs. They’re just a fun team to watch and root for; and if you’re a regular downloader of the BS Report, you have the added bonus of making jokes about Jaaaaash Twinkletoes Freeman. Speaking on behalf of the 15 non-Oakland AFC fan bases, I feel like a dream NFC Championship game would be Detroit vs. Tampa Bay.

If I may shift gearsssss for a moment and actually talk about the team, Josh Freeman has quietly become one of the most consistently good quarterbacks in the NFL. Don’t confuse that with one of the best, because he’s still got a ways to go to really cement his status in the top ten, but if you want a guy who’s going to complete 2 out of every 3 passes on his way to 240 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, and a few clutch scrambles for first downs, then Josh Freeman is your guy. With those stats and that big body, he reminds me a lot of a young Ben Roethlisberger (minus the fact that he isn’t white and presumably doesn’t rape college girls in Georgia bars). There are quarterbacks who do just enough to keep you from losing, and then there are quarterbacks who do just enough to get you a win; and I think Freeman is the latter. Chew on this: if you could take any current quarterback and put him on a team with an average receiving corps that’s down by 3 with the ball on their own 20 and 2 minutes left on the clock, wouldn’t Josh Freeman be the 7th or 8th guy you would pick? And he’s only in his third year in the league. And he’s got a favorable match-up with the 49ers secondary this week. If I don’t stop gushing over him soon, I’m going to wind up moving to LA and getting Clippers season tickets.

In other news, after 6 terrible quarters to start the season, LeGarrette Blount is beginning to approach the beast mode that we saw him in for much of last season. I’m not really fond of him this week against the 49ers 4th ranked rush D, but if there’s any chance you can still buy low on him, do it now before it’s too late.

If you’re looking for a “sleeper” WR/Flex pick up for this week, Preston Parker is the one you want. I started doing my analysis for these articles on Monday afternoon, and of course the Bucs were playing the Monday night game against the Colts. I was watching the game at a bar with my buddy Doug and told him, “you’ve probably never heard of this guy, but I’m loving Preston Parker next week against the 49ers.” Naturally, he goes out and makes 5 grabs for 70 yards and a TD, and there’s only one person who can vouch that I had him pegged as a sleeper before everyone else. Now he leads the Bucs in receiving yards, and he’s the primary punt/kickoff return guy to boot, so you never know when he might take one to the house. He’s only owned in 1.8% of leagues…which is inexplicably less than the number of leagues Mike Goodson is owned in. Even if you aren’t suffering from bye week syndrome yet, pick Preston Parker up and stash him for later. Trust me.

At the end of the day, I’d be willing to play just about any Buccaneer this week if I had to; except for Earnest Graham in a non-PPR league, simply because he’s their #2 RB against a good rush defense. Freeman spreads the ball around about as much as Drew Brees does, so none of the primary receivers are terrible options, but none are great options either. If you’re swinging for the fences, there’s probably no one on Tampa that you want, but if you’re trying to make sure you get some production with the possibility for a pretty good day, there are a lot of safe plays on this team.

#10-#5: AFC Cluster F*#%
New York Jets, Tennessee, Buffalo, Baltimore, San Diego, Houston

It just so happens that these next six teams are the primary contenders for the 5 AFC playoff spots that haven’t already been reserved by New England. I think most would agree that Buffalo is the most likely to fall out of contention and that Pittsburgh should still ultimately supplant Tennessee for the 6th spot, but that’s why they play the games.

10. New York Jets (2-2) [@NE]

Their Sunday night game against the Ravens was one of the most painful games I’ve ever watched. By halftime, I was already devoting more of my viewership to the Phillies/Cardinals game. By the 4th quarter, I wasn’t even checking in on the football game anymore. After 6 straight months of watching baseball, I chose to watch more baseball instead of that game between AFC powerhouses. That’s how brutal it was.

So what exactly separates New York from Pittsburgh? They were both completely stifled offensively by Baltimore, they both lost in somewhat convincing fashion to an up-and-coming AFC team (Houston/Oakland), they both barely narrowly won a Sunday night game they deserved to lose, and they both blew out a pathetic team in Week 2. Neither team can run the ball, neither team can stop the run, they both defend the pass exceptionally well, and they both have massive issues protecting their quarterback.

Nevertheless, I’d rather put my money on the Jets. Their kicker is considerably more reliable, they’re healthier (read: younger) on defense, and they just intangibly seem better equipped to grind out wins than Pittsburgh.

Now that that comparison is finished, let’s circle back to that whole can’t-run-the-ball thing. As a team, they’re averaging just 71 rushing yards per game. There are 15 individual players with a better average than that, and 2 of them play for the Texans. At what point do you mix things up and give Joe McKnight a prolonged shot at the starting job? Because as it stands, no one in the Jets backfield is even worth owning in fantasy leagues (except on those weeks where Tomlinson has a field day with receptions, and yes, I think this week against the Patriots is one of those field days).

Sanchez was starting to put together a respectable season before that disaster against Baltimore, and against the last ranked Patriots pass defense, I think the train will get back on the track, and that Holmes and Keller are the primary benefactors. I still don’t believe in Burress, but he’s probably at least worthy of a flex play this week. I mean, you do realize the Patriots are allowing almost 400 passing yards per game, yes? Even if Sanchez only throws for 250, those receptions and yards have to go to somebody, and Sanchez seems hell bent on trying to get the ball to Burress.

I wouldn’t recommend starting the Jets defense in this one, though I’m curious to see who wins the battle between the unstoppable force and the immovable object. Brady had 574 yards, 6 TD, and 2 INT against the Jets last year, but you never know.

9. Tennessee Titans (3-1) [@Pit]

They’ve still got a few things left to prove before we can start taking them seriously as a playoff contender, but in terms of yardage, they’re in the top 25% of the league in pass offense, pass defense, and rush defense, and one has to assume that Chris Johnson will eventually get them out of last place in rush offense. I find it difficult to believe that Matt Hasselbeck is really this much better than Vince Young or Kerry Collins, and I presume this is the week that their pass game really starts to be impacted by the loss of Kenny Britt, but you can’t possibly tell me that there are 10 teams better than the Titans thus far this season unless you’re basing your entire argument on the fact that their lone loss came against one of the worst teams in the league; a loss that I chalk up to a new coach, a new QB, and a RB that had no training camp.

This week, the Titans face off with the #1 pass defense in the form of the Pittsburgh Steelers, so in lieu of more 80 yard passes to Jared Cook, it’s probably safe to assume that Chris Johnson will get 30+ touches and finally have some 2011 fantasy relevance. As such, CJ2K is the only Titan I would really want to start this week, but I would also be willing to give Cook another shot at a TD with the absence of James Harrison. Unless they’re trailing late in the game (which I don’t think they will be), I doubt we’ll see Hasselbeck attempt a pass of more than 15 yards. Between heavy pressure and a weakened linebacker squad, they should be throwing a lot of screens and slants over the middle.

8. Buffalo Bills (3-1) [vs. Phi]

Yes, they looked less than average last week at Cincinnati in a game that everyone had pegged as a classic trap game, but I still find myself wanting to believe in this Bills team. Maybe it’s because the bar that I go to on Sundays is a Bills fan club (meaning it was usually pretty empty last season and presumably most seasons before that), but it’s hard not to be impressed by a team that moves the ball on offense as well as the Bills did for the first three weeks of the season. Granted, the Chiefs, Raiders, and Patriots are pretty much the polar opposite of defensive juggernauts, but 38 points per game is nothing to scoff at.

The next few weeks should be a real litmus test for the Bills. This week, they host the Eagles who, despite playing all 4 of their games against teams that I have ranked in the bottom 18 of the NFL, have put together some terrible defensive numbers so far. Opposing backs have been running through their front seven better than a Taco Bell value meal through a small intestine. Hopefully you’ll think about that visual while Jackson and Spiller squirt their way to a combined 150 rushing yards. And if you’re in a PPR league, the Eagles have been a little susceptible to pass catching running backs, so I suspect Jackson will put up feature back caliber numbers, and that Spiller should more than suffice as a flex guy.

I’d be nervous about starting anyone solely in the receiving game, though. Stevie Johnson is a safe bet for a few points, but between Nelson and Jones, it’s tough to even say who the #2 fantasy WR is on this team, and not in a Jordy Nelson vs. Donald Driver sort of way in which you can probably get away with starting either. Between the two, I’d absolutely still be taking David Nelson, but I’m worried that Jones is taking too many of his targets, and I’m worried that this isn’t a favorable matchup for wide receivers anyway. And despite leading the team in touchdowns, TE Scott Chandler’s production has predictably tapered off for each of the past 3 weeks. I know the Eagles linebackers are terrible pass defenders, but it’s difficult for me to recommend buying stock in a guy who only gets 3.5 targets per game.

I’m up in the air on Fitzpatrick in this one. He’s been a top 10 guy so far and will probably be right around there again this week, but there are a lot of other guys I’d rather start in any given week. Rodgers, Brady, Brees, Rivers, Newton, Vick, and Stafford for sure, and based on Week 5 matchups, I’d rather have Freeman, Matt Ryan, Schaub, and maybe even Kolb or Sanchez. There’s no way the Eagles secondary stays as bad as it’s been, and I have a pretty strong gut feeling that this is the week they start to turn the corner, or the page, or whatever the kids are turning these days.

7. Baltimore Ravens (3-1)

They have a bye this week, but Joe Flacco is going to drive me clinically insane by the end of the season. There’s a good chance he’ll oscillate between looking like Tom Brady and Ryan Leaf every single week this season. He looked great in Weeks 1 and 3 and was just beyond terrible in Weeks 2 and 4. Forecasting the rest of the season, he has a favorable matchup in weeks 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, and 16, and unfavorable matchups in weeks 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, and 17. I can’t wait to look at a bar graph of his weekly fantasy production at the end of the season.

6. San Diego Chargers (3-1) [@Den]

Only once in the past 8 years have the Chargers started the season 3-1, and they finished that 2006 campaign with a 14-2 record. They honestly haven’t looked good at all yet this season, but I’m ranking them here because we all know they’re better than they’ve been playing. Gates hasn’t played since Week 1, and Philip Rivers, who entered the season with a 2.35 TD/INT ratio in his career, has 5 TD and 6 INT to date. And even with the statistically slow start, it’s not as if anyone thinks they’ll have any difficulty winning the AFC West. [Gambling Sidebar: The Chargers are -1000 to win their division, as opposed to the 49ers who have a 2 game lead in the NFC West, but only -250 odds to hold on to it. While we’re on the subject, if you like the idea of betting against certain teams, division bets is the way to go. For example, if you feel really strongly that the NFC South is a 2 horse race between New Orleans and Tampa Bay and you’re not sure who will win, but you know it won’t be Atlanta, then bet $225 on New Orleans at -225 and $65 on Tampa Bay at +400 and you’ll win $35 regardless of whether New Orleans or Tampa Bay wins the division. Just try to ignore the fact that you would lose $290 if Atlanta won.]

A definite bright spot for the Chargers has been their running backs. Ryke Mathbert has amassed 369 rushing yards and 44 receptions for an additional 460 receiving yards. Those 829 all-purpose yards are better than any other backfield tandem in the league, including the 3 headed attack in New Orleans.

Unfortunately, you can’t play SD RB as a fantasy option (a concept which definitely needs to be embraced sooner than later), so you have to choose between the two. Since Tolbert’s amazing game 1 performance for a lot of fantasy benches and waiver wires, Mathews has clearly been the feature back, and he’s the one you want in your starting roster for the rest of the season (so long as he stays healthy). Tolbert is definitely worthy of a roster spot and bye week consideration because he’s still going to get at least 10 opportunities per game, including a few on the goal line, but he’s certainly not the must-start guy he appeared to be in Week 1. Denver’s rush defense has improved considerably from last season, but I think Mathews is still a top 10 option this week, and I’d feel much more comfortable starting Tolbert than McGahee or Lynch.

Regarding the passing game, the touchdowns haven’t quite shown up yet for Rivers, but he’s still averaging better than 300 yards per game, and the Broncos have one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Rivers ended up being the #1 fantasy QB in Week 5. Not only are you starting him, but you’re starting Vincent Jackson, Malcom Floyd, and Randy McMichael; and drinking heavily during the game if one of your three teams is 0-4 because you wasted an early round draft pick on Gates and followed it up with making Roethlisberger your starting QB and Pierre Garcon your #2 WR. Now I understand why we watch games at the bar. This was the first year I ever wasted my time in trying to get an elite tight end, and even though it was in the league I care least about (i.e. paid the least to join) I assure you it will be the last time I do it. Considering Gates and Clark have a combined 36.8 points in my 0.5 PPR league, which is almost exactly half the total of Gronkowski or Graham, I suspect we’ll see a lot of draft strategies consisting of no Tight End, Defense, or Kicker until the final three rounds next August.

5. Houston Texans (3-1) [vs. Oak]

I have no idea what to expect out of the Texans without Andre Johnson. Depending on which school of logic you subscribe to, either Owen Daniels will be a monster for the next 3 weeks, Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter will combine to average significantly more than 3 receptions per week, or their pass attack will completely fall apart. Either way, it’s a good thing Arian Foster seems to be back to full strength, because he and Darren McFadden should combine to get at least 65 touches this week in a battle of mutually putrid rush defenses.

Even without Johnson, I’d feel comfortable starting Schaub. The home run threat is gone, but he’ll still have reliable receivers in Daniels, Foster, Casey, Walter, and Jones (if he plays), even though I certainly wouldn’t want to start any of those guys aside from Daniels and Foster. Conventional wisdom says the Raiders will try to make Schaub beat them, which will likely be a fatal mistake.

[Gambling Sidebar: If you’re under the assumption the Texans pass game falls apart without Andre Johnson, might I interest you in the Tennessee Titans at +400 to win the AFC South? Should the Texans lose this week to the Raiders, they’d still have at least another 2 Johnson-less weeks @ Baltimore and @ Tennessee. There’s a good chance they’ll be 3-4 and still waiting on an actual return date from their star wide receiver. Meanwhile, the Titans have nothing but winnable games between now and Week 12, and have already proven they’re capable of winning without their star wide receiver. I’m certainly not suggesting they’ll win all of them, but 7-3 isn’t out of the question.]

#4-#1: The Favorites
New Orleans, New England, Detroit, Green Bay

Barring catastrophic injury bugs, the rest of the regular season is just a formality before these four teams compete in the playoffs. And if these teams aren’t indisputable evidence that you can win in the NFL with a good QB and nothing much in the backfield, then I don’t know what is.

4. New Orleans Saints (3-1) [@Car]

The only negative thing about the Saints is that all that offense only amounts to 3 guys worth starting in fantasy leagues on a weekly basis; and even Sproles isn’t a great option unless you’re in a PPR league. At 454 yards and 31.8 points per game, you would think they’d at least have a must-start WR. But they don’t. Because Brees has 7 guys that he’s already targeted at least 12 times through 4 games. That Shanahan-ish distribution has resulted in sub-par WR totals, but amazing TE numbers. In the pre-season, I projected Jimmy Graham to be a top 5 TE and have 70 receptions for 700 yards and 7 TD. He’s already 43% of the way to those totals, and, along with Drew Brees, is an absolute must-start in any given week.

In this week’s affair with the 31st ranked Panthers rush defense, Sproles is easily a top 20 RB, and if he’s ever going to amount to anything in the NFL (debatable), Ingram is probably worthy of a #2 RB or Flex play this week as well.

The Panthers’ pass defense is ranked 6th in terms of yardage, but don’t be fooled. They faced Kevin Kolb in his first game as a Cardinal, the Jaguars in a monsoon, and Jay Cutler: they ain’t holding Drew Brees to 203 passing yards. If you have Colston, Meachem, Moore, or Henderson, at least one of them is going to have a big day, and they should all at least be suitable enough for bye week consideration, so I can’t fault you for playing any of them. I’d personally try to find a better option, but I’m basically stuck with having to play Lance Moore in one of my leagues, and I’m not too depressed about it.

3. New England Patriots (3-1) [vs. NYJ]

The Patriots have the best passing attack in the NFL and can’t stop anyone else from throwing the ball. What else is new?

Riddle me this: The Jets pass defense is excellent, their rush defense is terrible, Danny Woodhead is banged up, and the Law Firm doesn’t quite seem to be in session yet. Why is Stevan Ridley only owned in 26% of leagues? If you’ll recall, he scored 3 touchdowns in the first pre-season game and had a pretty solid game 2 as well before disappearing into thin air for about a month. Now he’s back and averaging 8 yards per carry. The guy should be starting in more leagues than he’s currently owned in. In my 0-4 league, I’m working on a trade that would essentially swap Roethlisberger for Ridley, which would leave me with a starting line-up featuring Curtis Painter, Ridley, Cedric Benson, and Pierre Garcon. Did I mention this is the league I never really cared about?

In other news, you’re probably going to want to start Brady, Welker, and Gronkowski. Aside from Ridley, there’s no one else on the team I’d be playing this week; not only would I not start Branch or Ochocinco, but they’re both droppable.

2. Detroit Lions (4-0) [vs. Chi]

Second best team in the league is a lot of pressure to put on Matthew Stafford’s rotator cuff, Calvin Johnson’s ACL, and Jahvid Best’s skull, but I really believe this team has the total package.

Let’s do a little exercise: power rank the 32 offensive lines (with 32 being the highest) and power rank the 32 defensive lines. Add the scores together and smack yourself in the face if Detroit isn’t at least 5 points ahead of everyone else in the league and/or if you have a double digit number next to Pittsburgh or St. Louis. They’re almost always going to win the battle in the trenches, which keeps Stafford protected and which keeps pressure on the opposing quarterback. It’s just a shame they have a running back who couldn’t find daylight in the desert.

This week, against a Bears defense that has allowed at least 270 passing yards in each game, I’m expecting another amazing game out of Calvin Johnson, another great game out of Stafford, another above average game out of Pettigrew, and solid but hardly fantasy worthy performances from Burleson and Young. If you’re in a PPR league, feel free to use Best as you normally would, because the Bears are completely vulnerable to pass catching running backs, but don’t expect his 3.2 YPC to improve.

1. Green Bay Packers (4-0) [@Atl]

The reigning Super Bowl champs are undefeated and unstoppable. Atlanta has a poor secondary, so roll with Rodgers, Jennings, Driver, Nelson, and Finley without any fear. Avoid Grant and Starks if you can, as this wouldn’t be a favorable match up even if we knew who the feature back was going to be.

If you’re in an eliminator league and have the guts to pick anyone other than the Giants, here’s how I would rank your 5 best options:

#5. New Orleans
#4. New England
#3. Detroit
#2. Minnesota
#1. New York Giants

And if you feel like betting an upset on the moneyline, Oakland (+200) is playing in a game they could win at least 4 out of 10 times.

Hope you enjoyed this 9,000+ word ride. When Grantland decides they need some fantasy analysis, I should qualify on the length of these things along. If these articles somehow didn’t answer some of your questions, hit me up on twitter (@kerrancejames) for 140 character bits of fantasy wisdom.

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