Commentary

Called Out: Brady, Hightower debated

Updated: December 17, 2009, 7:39 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

I'm in the Christmas spirit this week.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but today represents our final "Called Out!" of the 2009 fantasy football season. Yes, it's Week 15, and there are two more critical weeks to our year, but let's just say the calendar dictates it.

"Called Out!" typically runs on Thursday -- and if you haven't noticed, the next two Thursdays are Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. I'm no Scrooge; harsh as I am on our rankers, I couldn't possibly hound them heading into a major holiday!

Not that they'll get away with any wild rankings this week. Knowing today's is our 2009 finale, I'm firing fast and furious with the questions. Let's bring on Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris, Eric Karabell and Erik Kuselias, and get right to this week's most pressing debates …

10. Karabell ranks Jermichael Finley his No. 18 tight end. Finley has 31 targets the past four weeks combined, and coincidentally during that span has 31 fantasy points. The other factor: With Aaron Rodgers sure to face increased defensive pressure, he might need Finley as a safety valve now more than ever. The Pittsburgh Steelers do limit opposing tight ends, but to the point where he belongs this low? I'd call him more a No. 10-12 type.

"I didn't need to be so mean to Finley, I suppose, especially when some of the tight ends I ranked better than him have struggled of late," says Karabell. "But the Steelers have been very good against opposing tight ends, ranking seventh-best for fantasy, and having allowed a total of 22 fantasy points to the position in nine games. This isn't the week to trust Finley."

9. Kuselias ranks Reggie Bush his No. 23 running back, a clear flex-play ranking and at least seven spots over anyone else. So two weeks ago, Bush wasn't even a factor, and now, with Mike Bell (who missed Week 14) due back in the lineup, Bush is suddenly a viable fantasy play? I can build the case for owners in PPR leagues, but a healthy number of touches doesn't seem that likely.

"His value takes a small hit if Bell plays, but I like Bush this week as a solid flex play," says Kuselias. "The Dallas Cowboys give up the fifth-most receiving yards to opposing running backs and that's where I expect Bush to do most of his damage. He finally appears healthy and showed it last week with two receiving touchdowns. He's a nice safety blanket for Drew Brees and I think his role will only increase as the New Orleans Saints steer towards to the playoffs."

Tim Hightower
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireTim Hightower is losing touches to Beanie Wells, so is he still fantasy relevant?

8. Karabell ranks Tim Hightower his No. 18 running back. After a Monday night game in which Hightower received two carries (and four touches) to Beanie Wells' 15 (and 16), I must wonder whether the guard has officially changed in the Arizona Cardinals' backfield. A matchup with the Detroit Lions is fantastic for whoever is getting the most carries, but count me as on the Beanie bandwagon.

"I love both Beanie and Hightower this week, really," says Karabell. "I'm writing off Monday's game as a bad one for all Cardinals, and trusting them again since it's the awful Lions up next. I still think Hightower gets more overall touches than Wells, and that's basically the tiebreaker for me."

7. Harris doesn't rank a single player from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Seattle Seahawks game as a viable fantasy starter. Not that anyone from either team is necessarily a topflight play, not by a long shot, but there are some interesting plug-in opportunities here for the plucking. What about Antonio Bryant, who goes from a Darrelle Revis matchup to one against Marcus Trufant? What about Justin Forsett, who once again is looking like he might be a leading man? What about Deion Branch, who will get the start at split end for the injured Nate Burleson?

"Yawn. Really? Yawn. Yawn. Yawn," says Harris. "Show me a player on these teams having a usable fantasy season. [Forsett doesn't count if he's carrying it eight times a game or whatever.] If you're a fantasy owner who's riding high on a deep playoff run using T.J. Houshmandzadeh every week, well, you're the only one. Sure, the Seahawks have done well against bad teams at home this year, and I did rate a Seahawks defense with a horrible secondary 15th, which is about 10 spots higher than I normally have them.

"My point is I wouldn't want my fantasy life riding on anyone in this game, plain and simple. Deion Branch? Seriously? You're going to tell someone Deion Branch makes an interesting fantasy play, with everything on the line? Where I have Bryant rated, you could justify him as a No. 3 fantasy receiver. Otherwise, this game reeks of 'too-cleverness.' As in: 'I know Brett Favre has gotten me this far, but I really love the idea of Josh Freeman throwing against the Seahawks' secondary. I think I'll make a switch.' "

Ewww, Josh Freeman. Please do not mistake any of my pro-Bucs/Seahawks comments as an endorsement to start Freeman. I merely see some low-end (think flex-play, No. 3 wide receiver, etc.) potential in a few of these guys.

6. Karabell ranks Vince Young his No. 20 quarterback. There are health concerns with Young, but if he plays this week -- and I believe he will -- I see plenty of value -- think just-outside-of-top-10 status -- in a matchup against the Miami Dolphins. That defense has allowed 16.1 fantasy points per game to opposing quarterbacks since the bye, and Young has 12-plus points in his past seven games.

"Well, I think the matchup is good enough, but in Week 14 the Jacksonville Jaguars couldn't do a thing with the Dolphins at home, and they also have a really good running back and at times a decent passing offense [in home games]," says Karabell. "Even if Young plays, I just don't think he'll be asked to do very much. I probably could have ranked him a bit better, but I'm being cautious."

Arian Foster
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesArian Foster has emerged as the Texans' starting running back and could be worth a spot on your active roster.

5. Berry is pro-the newbies at running back, in particular Quinton Ganther (No. 15), Chris Jennings (16) and Arian Foster (17). With the exception of Ganther's, all three backs' matchups are extraordinary. That said, I wonder whether they're all truly "the guy" in their respective backfields. In playoff weeks, can we really be taking risks this huge on relative unknowns?

"It's a fair question and honestly, I don't know the answer," says Berry. "It sure seems that way, but until they hit the field, we don't know. That said, we know Matt Forte is the guy. How's that working out for you? We knew Rashard Mendenhall was the guy last week against the Cleveland Browns. That didn't help anyone -- except maybe the guy playing against Mendenhall. Whether it's Beanie Wells or Reggie Bush or even Willis McGahee last week, being 'the guy' these days is a bit overrated. They are risky plays this week, for sure, but a week after Randy Moss pulls a minus-1 in ESPN standard scoring, is anything really safe? I like the odds of these guys doing well based on previous performance and matchups and that's all you can really ask for."

Nothing's necessarily "safe," but somehow I tend to think of players like these as "supporting cast," the types who surround the studs who already carried your team this far. Fantasy owners certainly have my endorsement of a Ganther, Jennings or Foster accounting for performance plus matchup, but when I think of the phrase, "supporting cast," I immediately think, "flex play." That seems appropriate here.

4. The counterargument: Karabell ranks Ryan Moats his No. 27 running back, three spots ahead of Foster. Whoa, wait, isn't Arian Foster the Houston Texans' new lead running back? Judging by coach Gary Kubiak's recent comments, the team absolutely plans to showcase Foster, and that matchup against the St. Louis Rams sure looks like the right time to pounce.

"Gary Kubiak is the new Mike Shanahan," says Karabell. "I'm convinced of it. Sure, he says now that Foster is going to get more reps, and he wants to see what he can do. But he's like most other coaches with no great options and really doesn't know when it comes to game time. I think people are way too excited about the unproven Foster, though I submit there is upside here and I probably gave Moats too high a rank. No Texans running backs should be in my top 30."

I cringe at the Shanahan comparison, considering how much I like Foster as a flex play this week. Foster at 27 makes more sense to me … with Moats beneath the cut.

3. Harris ranks the Saints his No. 1 defense/special teams. Really? Against a Cowboys team that has led its opponents' defenses to tally the ninth-fewest fantasy points this season? I know what Harris must be getting at here … the Tony Romo of old -- you know, the December Romo -- must be getting ready to rear his ugly head. I can't imagine it being anything else, because to me, Cowboys-Saints has all the makings of a somewhat high-scoring affair.

"Funny, I've been 'most down' on the Saints' D all year, predicting doom and gloom since their hot start," says Harris. "And that has turned out to be a very good call, because after racking up double-digit fantasy points in six of their first eight games, the Saints' D has hit double digits just once in the past five.

"But the truth is that when I ran the numbers this week, no good defense stood out as having a terrific matchup. I'll buy the Denver Broncos against the Oakland Raiders, I guess, but the Green Bay Packers play the Steelers, the Philadelphia Eagles play the San Francisco 49ers -- there isn't a standout matchup in that group. And the fact is that at home, in big national-attention games, the Saints have played amazingly well, have scored a ton of points, have forced opponents to play catch-up, and have capitalized with turnovers and defensive scores.

"I don't think this is a week where the Cowboys suddenly grow a spine. I actually rated Romo sixth among quarterbacks, because I think he'll have to throw a lot in a losing effort, so I'm not saying it's a Romo meltdown. I'm just saying I think that everyone will view the Saints as vulnerable because of the way they've been letting inferior opponents hang around, and so they'll come out Saturday and land a haymaker. The question really isn't should I have 'em No. 1 or No. 6, because who cares. But when Berry goes 23 and Karabell goes 22, it does beg the question about whether they're startable, or you should stay away from 'em. My opinion is you can start 'em."

I'll agree you can start 'em, but not over the Broncos. Heck, I'd even use my sleeper, the Texans, over the Saints this week. But I won't get more creative than that.

2. Kuselias ranks Greg Jennings his No. 28 wide receiver, which hints that he is not a viable play in standard ESPN leagues. Surprising considering the Steelers are clearly not the same caliber defense when Troy Polamalu is absent. I liked the number in our projections this week: Opposing quarterbacks have averaged 6.2 fantasy points per game against the Steelers when Polamalu plays, 15.5 when he doesn't. Seems to me Jennings' matchup shouldn't be scary at all!

"I like Donald Driver a lot more in this matchup and the reason is simple -- the Steelers' pass rush," says Kuselias. "Pittsburgh's secondary has been beatable lately, but a deep-threat guy like Jennings can be negated if there are some angry Steelers breathing down Aaron Rodgers' neck. Jennings hasn't scored a touchdown in the past three weeks, and has only one in the past seven games. He has topped the century mark once since Week 3, hasn't played like a top-20 guy all this season and I'm not going to start ranking him like one now."

Tom Brady
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesCan you really afford to bench Tom Brady in such a critical fantasy playoff week?

1. Berry ranks Tom Brady his No. 12 quarterback. I've already hinted at my concerns with Brady in my chat, those being the Buffalo Bills' tendency to neutralize the pass, not to mention Brady's own barrage of injuries. If there's any one player I'm thinking you need to monitor right up until the 1 p.m. ET kickoff, it's Brady. If he plays, you play him. Obviously, if he sits, you sit him. That said, ranking him 12th today is effectively saying "I'm probably going to sit him in an ESPN standard league," which means either Berry believes the health risk is too great or, more surprisingly, he really hates the matchup that much.

"We can all agree he's banged up, right?" says Berry. "And certainly, he hasn't done that much recently. Single-digit fantasy points in two of his past three games. [Five interceptions in those games, too.] I'm concerned about his health and I'm concerned about the matchup. Buffalo is very bad against the run, which means lots of Laurence Maroney. They are also very good against the pass, fifth-best. In fact, only the Jets allow fewer fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks.

"Got a great stat for you: The Bills have held opposing quarterbacks to just 12 fantasy points or fewer for 11 straight games. That's insane. Eleven straight weeks! It has been eight or fewer in eight of the past 11 as well. I just feel, especially with Brady banged up, that the New England Patriots are going to run the ball a ton, that the Bills will play the Patriots tougher than folks think and the opportunities for Brady will be few and far between."

But you would really start Kyle Orton and Jason Campbell over Brady?

"Yes," says Berry. "I like both of their matchups and recent play. Incidentally, Campbell has outscored Brady in each of the past three weeks. And Orton has outscored him in two of the past three weeks."

Wow. Well, at least we go out with a bang with those picks!

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

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