Commentary

Called Out: Injuries shuffle rankings

Warner, Avant, White, Cartwright could be affected by playing time changes

Updated: December 3, 2009, 2:10 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Someone call a doctor!

That certainly seems to be the theme this NFL season, especially lately, as the fantasy football playoffs beckon. Injuries are creating (and eliminating) a large number of opportunities -- case in point, six of this week's top 10 Called Out! topics are players directly affected by their own (or others') injuries.

Unless armed with a stethoscope, how are we to make sense of the mess in such an integral week? Well, that's obvious: We call in our ranking experts, Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris and Eric Karabell, to do the dirty work. Erik Kuselias will join us later in the week -- his rankings will be available Friday.

Strap on an extra set of pads, guys, because this week's questions are as hard-hitting as any so far this season! Away we go …

10. Karabell ranks Kenny Britt 47th among wide receivers. No love for the Week 12 comeback kid? Britt has touchdowns in back-to-back weeks and 16 targets in those games, tops among Tennessee Titans wide receivers.

"I did blog the other day that Vince Young can hack it as a pocket passer, but I'm not convinced the Titans want Young to play this way," Karabell says. "Until the final drive against the Arizona Cardinals, Young was having an ordinary game, and Britt had scored one touchdown all season. Yes, he had a huge game against the Cardinals. I think the Indianapolis Colts will be better prepared for Britt, Young and every Titan not named Chris Johnson."

I suppose that's possible; during the Young era, Titans quarterbacks have averaged 149.4 passing yards per game with three touchdowns compared to four interceptions in seven games versus the Colts. Still, the way Young and Britt have looked lately, I'd consider the rookie a deeper-league No. 3/flex.

Hines Ward
Denny Medley/US PresswireCan Hines Ward round back into form if Ben Roethlisberger is back at quarterback this week?

9. Harris is pro-Pittsburgh Steelers, ranking Hines Ward 12th and Santonio Holmes 18th among wide receivers, both group highs. It's generally presumed that an Oakland Raiders matchup is deathly for an opposing wide receiver, but that's not true. They've allowed the 16th-most fantasy points to the position, a middling ranking. So what has me more surprised about these confident rankings is Harris' faith in Ben Roethlisberger's health. Roethlisberger might be set to play, but concussions are dicey, and Dennis Dixon is a significant downgrade at quarterback if he's pressed into relief duty.

"Yeah, ask Miles Austin how he feels about matching up against the Raiders," Harris says. "'Not a bad matchup' is, in my opinion, an understatement -- the Raiders will give it up any which way you please; it's just that most teams prefer to do their damage on the ground. But in the past five weeks, Oakland is 26th preventing wideouts from scoring fantasy points. If the Steelers put Big Ben in there, I believe he's all right. And I have a feeling this is one of those games where the Steelers will come out firing to make a statement. Ward is an elite end zone weapon and deserves to start every week regardless, and quietly Holmes has started to pick it back over the past five weeks -- he's 15th in the NFL or better among receivers in targets, receiving yards, receptions and fantasy points in that span."

8. Karabell ranks red-hot Robert Meachem 29th among wide receivers. There's a bit of a buzz building that the New Orleans Saints might be due for a letdown, hitting the road on the short week coming off such a high-intensity game. I get it, but I don't agree with it. I'm in line with Karabell's ranking, but I admit I've been a Meachem fan for a while.

"Well, I don't think Meachem is a lock by any means, but he has scored touchdowns in four consecutive games, five in that span and seven for the season," Karabell says. "He's owned in barely a quarter of ESPN leagues, so I'm guessing a lot of people just don't believe that Meachem has done this well. I normally do not rank wide receivers well against the Washington Redskins, but I think it's safe to say at this point that Meachem has a decent shot to score a touchdown in any week."

Here's what I like: DeAngelo Hall might be out for the Redskins, not to mention Meachem has four targets in goal-to-go situations the past four weeks combined. He's too much of a factor up close to not keep active.

7. Harris ranks Beanie Wells 29th among running backs. Confident ranking, considering the Minnesota Vikings have allowed the fewest fantasy points to opposing running backs. I'm wondering whether this has something to do with Harris' overall rankings having assumed that Matt Leinart, not Kurt Warner, will be the Cardinals' quarterback. The Cardinals' offense has been steadily shifting toward the run recently anyway, so …

"Ah, but did you note that I had Tim Hightower ranked 26th?" Harris says. "No, it's not a good matchup against a very difficult Vikings run defense, but yes, I'm assuming Warner doesn't play, and the Cardinals are forced to remain more balanced or at least use the backs in the shorter passing game, the way they were doing early in the year when Warner was struggling. I'm probably the most skeptical person we have at ESPN Fantasy about aggregate stats and 'where a guy ranks for the year,' but Hightower is tied for 18th in fantasy points among running backs, which counts for something. And when he scored 23 and 14 fantasy points on 16 and 14 carries against the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks, Wells proved he doesn't need 20 carries to be good. But yes, if Warner goes, the ranks on these rushers drop."

I just can't see how the Rams and Seahawks compare to the Vikings as run defenses go, and the Leinart-led Cardinals terrify me. But we can agree to disagree.

Jason Avant
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesJason Avant has put up big numbers in recent weeks and should continue the trend with DeSean Jackson likely out.

6. Berry ranks Jason Avant 23rd among wide receivers. I'm an Avant fan, and I'd probably rank him somewhat favorably, too. But Berry is awfully pro-Philadelphia Eagles, with Jeremy Maclin ranked 12th, and one must wonder, is there really enough to go around that these guys all will step up to these levels?

"Yeah, definitely," Berry says. "I guess my question would actually be … what do those guys not see? Maclin has at least 60 yards in his past three games, and Avant has been even better, with at least 90 yards or a touchdown in three straight. And that was all with DeSean Jackson in the game. Now he's unlikely to play, which means even more love for these two guys on an offense that has attempted the 11th-most passes this season. Smaller fact here, but in the five games Brian Westbrook hasn't played this year, LeSean McCoy only has 12 receptions. Which is a little less than the 19 that Westbrook has in six games. In other words, the Eagles throw to McCoy a little less than they do Westbrook. More reason for optimism on these two guys. Plus, it's a ridiculous matchup. The Atlanta Falcons are 27th in the NFL against the pass. And starting in Week 7, when Atlanta lost cornerback Brian Williams, only one team in the NFL has given up more passing yards than the Falcons. Now, a few teams have played one fewer game than Atlanta due to the bye, but the point remains: This is one bad pass defense. Big days for both guys."

5. Harris ranks Cadillac Williams 33rd among running backs. The Carolina Panthers haven't been the same defensively since losing linebacker Thomas Davis for the season; in three games without him, they've allowed an average of 25.3 fantasy points to opposing running backs. Williams actually totaled 13 in these teams' Week 6 meeting, back when Davis was healthy, so while I know there's a timeshare concern, isn't Williams at least flex-worthy?

"Yeah, I think maybe the others are getting a little blinded by the receiving touchdown Caddy had last week," Harris says. "Otherwise, it was an eminently forgettable day in which Derrick Ward (13) got more carries than Williams (10) and nobody did much of anything on the ground against a Falcons defense that's been nearly as generous against the run as the Panthers have lately. The past three weeks, Ward has 30 carries for 89 yards, and Williams has 35 carries for 114 yards. Guess what? It's committee time. And I agree about Carolina being a nice matchup, but if it's a split job, does any one guy benefit enough to be a fantasy starter?"

Ugh, committees. On the bright side, at least Williams has more yards per carry (3.3) than Ward (3.0) during that three-week span. I still believe more in Williams, although apparently so does Harris, who ranked Ward 41st.

4. Berry ranks Rock Cartwright 17th among running backs. I watched practically all of that Redskins-Eagles game and wasn't especially impressed with Cartwright in what was his first start since 2003. Out of his 15 carries, he was stuffed at the line three times, held to 3 yards or fewer eight other times and never ran for more than 7 yards. Both Quinton Ganther and Marcus Mason, albeit in much more limited roles, seemed more explosive, more motivated, to me, so I'm just a little hesitant to trust Cartwright fully as a committed No. 2 starter.

"I disagree," Berry says. "I thought he ran tough against a very good Eagles run defense. The yardage totals weren't there, but he did wind up with 66 total yards. The thing I like is that he's a solid part of the passing game, with three receptions for 26 yards last week and seven receptions for 73 the week before. So even when the Redskins get down (and they will), he's still in there. On the road, on a short week, coming down emotionally after their huge Monday night game against the New England Patriots, I expect a somewhat flat Saints team. Remember, New Orleans is 20th against the run, gives up the ninth-most fantasy points to opposing wide receivers and only four teams in the NFL have given up more rushing touchdowns than New Orleans. I expect him to get a lot of work as Washington attempts to keep Brees and company off the field for as long as possible, which makes him a low-end No. 2 for me this week."

Color me unconvinced of the Saints coming out "flat," but I know it's a popular opinion this week. I'm still not buying Cartwright as more than a flex.

3. Karabell ranks Matt Forte 22nd among running backs. Speaking of bandwagon opinions, here's one: Forte faces the Rams, the league's 28th-ranked run defense, and suddenly he's supposed to revert to his standout rookie form. Not so, says Karabell, apparently. I admit it's tough to trust Chicago Bears right now. Yes, it's a good matchup for Forte and for mistake-o-matic Jay Cutler, but even though I'm hopeful for both for once, I probably wouldn't trust Forte as a top-tier play or Cutler as a certain top-10 quarterback. However, I'm sure tempted …

"I thought my ranking of Forte 22nd was hopping on the bandwagon, actually," Karabell says. "I mean, here's a player with three games all season with more than 10 fantasy points. I suspect he could make this game the fourth one, since the Rams are so bad, but ultimately I kept choosing to rank other running backs ahead of him who were actually playing well, like Laurence Maroney and Jamaal Charles."

I'm with Karabell on Charles. Fifty-two fantasy points the past three weeks is tough to ignore, especially in comparison to Forte's 28 -- 28! -- during that span.

Roddy White
Rex Brown/Getty ImagesWhat can you expect from Roddy White with a backup quarterback facing a good defense?

2. Berry ranks Roddy White 26th among wide receivers. Berry is decidedly pro-Eagles receivers, and it makes sense accounting for the matchup. But across the field, this seems like reading too much into the matchup on paper. White is 10th among wide receivers in fantasy points this season, and if the concern here is his quarterback, Chris Redman, check out White's statistics in Week 12 after Redman took over: 12 targets, five catches, 57 yards, one game-winning touchdown. Isn't there more hope for White than an ESPN-standard-league flex-play rank?

"Not really," Berry says. "I actually think Redman will be OK, but he's not Matt Ryan. Frankly, Matt Ryan hasn't been Matt Ryan recently, either, but the thing that concerns me here is not just the inexperienced quarterback facing one of the most aggressive defenses in the league. Philly has given up only three touchdown passes to opposing wide receivers on the road all year, and check out this list of elite No. 1 wideouts they have shut down: Steve Smith (of Carolina), Antonio Bryant, Vincent Jackson and, but for one play, Miles Austin. They give up the fourth-fewest points to opposing wide receivers, and only Marques Colston has had a huge game against them. And that was all the way back in Week 2. I expect Asante Samuel to be all over Roddy White as Chris Redman is getting blitzed, suggesting a very average day for White."

1. Harris is the only one of the three to rank Matt Leinart instead of Kurt Warner -- and he does so predictably badly, at No. 20 among quarterbacks. Returning to the topic of the Cardinals' offense, one's approach to the team's quarterback situation seems most critical this week. I have tossed these numbers around a little this week and will again: Leinart is averaging 6.1 yards per attempt and has zero touchdowns in 56 pass attempts. Warner is averaging 7.3 yards per attempt and one touchdown per 18.6 attempts. The talent levels aren't close, so to me, if Leinart plays, he's a no-go and his wide receivers suffer in ranking, unable to capitalize upon what's actually a soft secondary. If Warner plays, however, he'll be good enough to start and his receivers will be clear starting options.

So here's what'll be interesting to see: If Warner gets cleared before Friday's rankings update, where might Harris rank him? Near Berry and Karabell, who had the veteran a conservative 10th and 11th?

"If Warner can go and we can get some kind of marginal guarantee that he'll stay in the game the whole night, yeah, I'd probably rank him around where Matthew and Eric did," Harris says. "The way to attack the Vikings is via the air, and obviously that's what Warner does best. I took a stab in the dark and assumed that the way Warner's been talking about his neck and his head feeling 'funny,' the Cardinals won't take a chance with the division still pretty much sewn up, and I thought it'd be useful for folks to see where Leinart would be ranked as a starter (by me)."

Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.

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