Commentary

Called Out: Wideouts center of debate

T.O., Ochocinco, Jackson, Wayne, Saints receivers under the microscope

Updated: December 10, 2009, 8:30 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

What in the name of Billy Volek is going on here?

Here we are at the fantasy football postseason, and all hell seems to be breaking loose. Let me give you a sense for a second …

The Pittsburgh Steelers defense, once a certain weekly fantasy start, suddenly finds itself the league's No. 13 team in terms of fantasy points and has averaged 4.8 fantasy points the past four weeks. There's a New Orleans Saints wide receiver who ranks third in terms of fantasy points at his position the past five weeks (78) … but it's Robert Meachem, who began the year no higher than fourth on his team's depth chart, not Marques Colston. Two of the top five fantasy running backs the past five weeks weren't even starters in Week 1 … and one of those two won't even be a starter this week (Justin Forsett).

So what's a fantasy owner to do, faced with such uncertainty at this critical time of our seasons? We turn to the ranking experts, of course, Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris and Eric Karabell. (Erik Kuselias was unavailable this week.) They'll carry you to fantasy playoff glory … well, except for the cases when their rankings are wrong.

Not that there's really a "wrong" answer this time of year, as the examples above demonstrate. But they have their creative calls and, as always, it's now my job to call them out on them. Let's get to it!

Kurt Warner
Gene Lower/Getty ImagesKurt Warner looks good again after missing a week with a concussion.

10. Karabell ranks Kurt Warner No. 7 among quarterbacks -- compared with a group ranking of No. 3. C'mon, he was a standout fresh off his concussion in Week 13, throwing for 285 yards and three touchdowns. Shouldn't this guy be a mainstay in fantasy lineups? It's fantasy playoff time!

"Well, I like Warner and thought he was a safe starter, but there's no way I trust him more than Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, despite their matchups," Karabell says. "The San Francisco 49ers have done a nice job the past month against quarterbacks, and I don't see a high-scoring game. Warner provided 11 fantasy points the first time he played the 49ers."

9. Harris ranks Ricky Williams his No. 13 running back, the only one to have him outside his top 10. Hasn't Williams earned every-week status at this point? He has three 100-yard rushing performances the past four weeks.

"Um, no?" Harris says. "He should start in most leagues, but what part of 18 carries for 75 yards last week did you fall in lust with? The Jacksonville Jaguars have been the second-toughest defense for opposing rushers to score fantasy points against in the past five weeks: They crushed the Houston Texans' 'running game' last week, stopped Frank Gore, held down the Buffalo Bills' tandem, kept Thomas Jones to 77 yards rushing and kept Jamaal Charles to 36. Williams is a good start, but I didn't put him in my top 10 for a reason."

8. Karabell ranks Greg Jennings his No. 11 wide receiver. Ah, good ol' Karabell, always having faith in his top talents. My question, though: Is Jennings still a "top" talent? He has averaged 8.0 fantasy points per game and has been held to five or fewer in five games this season.

"Well, the Chicago Bears cannot stop effective quarterbacks, and here comes the top player in all of fantasy in Aaron Rodgers," Karabell says. "That's not debatable; Rodgers has the most points. The Bears held Rodgers somewhat in check in Week 1, but since then allowed a pair of five-touchdown games [Cincinnati Bengals, Arizona Cardinals], a 350-yard passing performance from the Detroit Lions and Brett Favre's top game of the season. Jennings and Donald Driver are going to have a field day deep."

Jennings did have that 18-point fantasy game against the Bears in Week 1, but I find it hard to believe he's going to have nearly the game Driver will. Then again, Karabell ranked Driver his No. 4 receiver, so apparently he agrees.

7. Harris ranks Matt Schaub fifth among quarterbacks. I'd probably do this too, ranking Schaub a clear starter versus the Seattle Seahawks. But it's a leap of faith to some degree; he has looked awfully shaky in losing back-to-back games, managing only 13 and 10 fantasy points in those contests. That latter one, incidentally, also came against one of the league's worst pass defenses.

"I'm actually guessing that the others are mostly worried about Schaub's health, because his separated left shoulder is the same thing that knocked him out for the season in 2007," Harris says. "But the Houston Texans swear up and down Schaub is fine, and if that's true, this is a hellaciously good matchup against Mr. Pass Interference [Marcus Trufant] and his friends. The Seahawks are the No. 1 matchup for fantasy quarterbacks over the past five weeks. And shaky as you think Schaub has been the past three weeks, who's got more fantasy points in that time period, him or Peyton Manning?"

Schaub by one (43-42), but if we keep it to the past two weeks, Manning leads (31-23). Of course, now we're fooling with small sample sizes, but the one thing that sticks in my mind is that Schaub let me down against the Jaguars, and for that reason I have just a little worry that he's not his healthy early-season self.

Reggie Wayne
Larry French/Getty ImagesReggie Wayne has slowed down a bit lately and could be shut down soon.

6. Berry ranks Reggie Wayne his No. 22 wide receiver. By comparison, the other three had him fourth, fifth and 12th, which has me wondering, might this be a hint of concern about Wayne's role being diminished since his Indianapolis Colts have already clinched a playoff spot? Something else?

"Why does it have to be just one thing?" Berry says. "Yes, he has been banged up. Yes, if the Colts get up somewhat in this game, I expect them to rest him. But it's not just that. He has been very ordinary for three straight games now, with single-digit fantasy points in all of them and single digits in four of his past five. Teams are double-teaming Wayne, and I don't expect that to change. With the emergence of Pierre Garcon and, to a lesser extent, Austin Collie, plus the scoring of Joseph Addai and, of course, Dallas Clark, the Colts have so many weapons. Good for them, bad for Wayne owners.

"And by the way, there's only one team in the NFL that gives up fewer passing yards per game than the Denver Broncos. They allow the fifth-fewest fantasy points to opposing wide receivers and have given up only one touchdown to an opposing wide receiver in their past four games. With all that, a top-five rank to me seems to be based on name recognition and not much else. I think he'll be solid -- I ranked him 22 -- but I don't love him this week."

5. Berry ranks Chad Ochocinco his No. 20 wide receiver. The Minnesota Vikings' pass defense has been a sieve for the better part of the year, and especially so with Antoine Winfield hurting in recent weeks. Take a look at Week 13, when the Cardinals totaled 43 fantasy points against them. Not that the Bengals are the Cardinals' equals in terms of their passing games, but is Carson Palmer chopped liver? Heck, Ochocinco will be disappointed if Winfield doesn't play, meaning he's obviously primed for this matchup.

"Part of this is a gut call," Berry says. "After being embarrassed on national TV against Arizona, I feel Minnesota comes back home and plays with a vengeance. And all the Chad Ochocinco tweeting stuff about how he is going to blow on the Viking mascot horn when he scores only further motivates them to shut down 85. And before exploding against Detroit [not exactly Minnesota], he had single-digit fantasy points in four straight games.

"But it's more than that. The Bengals have really started to run recently. In their past three games, the Bengals have run the ball 132 times. They've passed just 75 times. In other words, they are running it more than 40 times a game and passing just 25. Maybe that changes somewhat against a tough Vikings run defense, but consider this, as well: Over the past four games, Carson Palmer has single-digit fantasy points in three. That's partially because of the increased running, but also contributing is the fact that, over the past four games, only three quarterbacks in the NFL have been sacked more. Palmer is not doing well under pressure. And now he gets Jared Allen and the Vikings. In its past three home games, Minnesota has allowed opposing quarterbacks an average of just nine fantasy points. So, the struggles of Palmer factored into my Chad ranking, as well."

Interesting you point out the Bengals' running game because I see no way Cedric Benson finds the room to run with ease against that defense. Palmer might have to pass because the alternative is a ton of three-and-outs.

4. Harris and Karabell rank Michael Turner, and generously at that! Berry and Kuselias, well, not so much; they didn't rank Turner at all. I'm wary of Turner myself; he's coming off a high ankle sprain, and a setback from the original injury at that, not to mention that he didn't practice either Wednesday or Thursday. Even if I were confident enough to rank Turner, how can he be a near-top-tier play?

"Ah, ranking. Such a black-and-white exercise," Harris says. "I ranked Turner as though he'll play, though the Falcons haven't committed to this, and if history is any indication, Turner will be a game-time decision. But assuming he plays, I'm not going to downgrade his relatively choice matchup against the New Orleans Saints run defense because I'm worried he'll have to leave in the third quarter. No guts, no glory. I think if he's active, you have to have him in there. The Saints are 26th against fantasy rushers the past five weeks; Sedrick Ellis' return helps some, but if Laurence Maroney produced a big fantasy day with Ellis back, Turner can, too."

"I do think Turner is worth starting if he is able to go," Karabell says. "Certainly we were all starting him before he got hurt. Turner did not practice Wednesday, so it's certainly possible he doesn't play, but my rank is obviously contingent on him playing. Certainly the Falcons can use him, after doing nothing against the Eagles. It was my impression Turner had a low ankle sprain, less serious than a high ankle sprain, but the point is if the Falcons let him play, so will I."

Terrell Owens
Kevin Hoffman/US PresswireSurprise, Matthew Berry doesn't hate Terrell Owens this week.

3. Berry is suddenly, surprisingly pro-Terrell Owens this week, ranking T.O. ninth among wide receivers. Wait a second, Matthew … you hate Terrell Owens! You and I were on the anti-T.O. bandwagon for sure in the season's early weeks. Here's a fun Berry quote, back from the Week 4 edition of Called Out!: "How many times do I have to hate him before everyone agrees with me? I screamed at the top of my lungs all preseason that folks were nuts to take him as a No. 1 [or even a No. 2]. I've hated him all season. And you know what? I've been right."

"I really do," Berry says. "But I hate the Chiefs' pass defense more. Kansas City is 28th in the NFL in passing yards allowed and has allowed the seventh-most fantasy points to opposing wide receivers, and only five teams have allowed more touchdown passes this year. Before getting shut down by Darrelle Revis (happens to everyone), Owens had been on a bit of a hot streak, with at least 85 receiving yards in three straight games. He had 38 points in those three games, as well. I expect the looks to T.O. to continue and, against the Chiefs, to be successful."

2. Harris ranks Marques Colston 21st and Robert Meachem 24th among wide receivers. Not one of the other three ranked either receiver lower than 17th, and the Atlanta Falcons as a team have allowed 21.3 fantasy points per game to the position the past four weeks. Picking one to have a strong game while ranking the other conservatively makes sense, but both?

Says Harris, "I refer you to the Big Rotowski (and the fact that you haven't memorized it is very sad, Tristan): 'As nice as Marques Colston's touchdowns have been (he has two the past two weeks and eight overall), I can't consider him a top-10 fantasy wideout right now. The other guys on his team are getting more looks. Meachem and Devery Henderson are huge risers on this list, and in any given week, it's very difficult to know which guy or guys will go off. They're all worth starting, but nobody is guaranteed to be a big part of the Saints offense.' And let me add a bonus preview stat from this week's Breakdown: 'I contend you can no longer truly call Colston a No. 1 fantasy receiver; over the past five weeks, he has 27 targets (tied for 45th in the league), Robert Meachem has 26 and Devery Henderson has 23."

The bottom line: Colston has 18 and 10 fantasy points the past two weeks, Meachem 12 and 26. A 10-point-per-week fantasy wide receiver would find himself on pace for a top-15 finish this season. I'd start both of 'em … but I don't have a problem with anyone being choosy as to which one he/she prefers. (For me, it's Colston.)

1. Harris ranks DeSean Jackson his No. 5 wide receiver. Another case of total faith in a guy fresh off injury. Now, I've watched plenty of New York Giants games, so I know all about their problems in the secondary. But fresh off a concussion, Jackson really has enough potential to go top-five?

"They're going through the Brian Westbrook mess right now, having reinserted Westy into the lineup and watched him get hurt again," Harris says. "So if Jackson's active for this game, which everyone involved swears up and down he will be, then I have to believe he's completely healthy. And yes, if he's completely healthy, this is an utter no-brainer to me. The Giants don't have a pass rush and are terrible in the secondary, and Jackson had 78 yards receiving and a 54-yard score against them last month. I don't understand how folks can rank an injured player 'halfway,' as though they're certain that the injury is going to rear its head again, or as though he'll limp around the field all game. Generally speaking, if a guy is in there, I rate him as though he'll play a full game and be himself. Does the occasional Michael Turner or Brian Westbrook moment happen? Yes. But the majority of the time, it's silly to put a guy you'd normally rank in the top five 20th because of an injury you think he'll play with."

Turner's speedy return from his high ankle sprain seemed pretty foolish to me. If I'm a Jackson owner, I'm prepared to take a wait-and-see approach, or at least drop him to second-tier (top-20) status.

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

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