Commentary

Called Out: Chris Johnson in spotlight

Rankers divided on where to place Titans' star running back after huge game

Updated: September 24, 2009, 6:04 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

I'm back, baby.

After a week off for, well, baby reasons, I'm back with a vengeance. Think of it like being a member of the Green Bay Packers' or Philadelphia Eagles' defenses; after a week of effectively not showing up for work, I'm hungry, charged up, ready to go. (As for missing Week 2, I think I had a good excuse. Packers, Eagles, what's yours?)

That's distressing news to our four ranking experts -- Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris, Eric Karabell and Erik Kuselias -- who are the subject of my weekly barbs. Fortunately, none of them is the proverbial St. Louis Rams or Kansas City Chiefs of Week 3; they won't get knocked flat on their back easily, like Marc Bulger will. They'll be just as fired up to defend their rankings as I will be to tear them apart. (And, as always, in the end I'll be right.)

So let's get to it, shall we?

First off, I read your e-mails, saw your Conversation posts. You want more of my own opinion in "Called Out!" Hey, no problem. As I said above, in the end I'll be right, so no objection to dishing out more of my own angles. Point taken!

Second, no burying the lede this week. I know for purposes of suspense, I ran my "Called Out!" top 10 from No. 10 to 1 in Week 1. This week, with such an overwhelmingly obvious, captivating debate in the top spot, I'm reversing course. We'll kick it off with No. 1 and count up, and this week, No. 1 is ...

Chris Johnson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesChris Johnson put up 45 fantasy points last week, but the forecast for this week is very mixed according to our rankers.

1. Harris and Karabell rank Chris Johnson their No. 3 running back, Berry and Kuselias rank him 17th and 20th, respectively. I'd probably split the difference between Harris and Karabell's ranks and Berry's, as quickly scanning the running back ranks, Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Brandon Jacobs, Michael Turner, Ryan Grant, Frank Gore, Matt Forte and DeAngelo Williams are eight running backs I'd probably start over Johnson. (Frankly, I'm glad I'm not in any league so shallow I'd own four or more of them and be forced to pick -- it's less fun.) But I'd side with Harris and Karabell on Mr. "One-of-the-Ten-Best-Fantasy-Games-of-the-2000s," as I'm a firm believer talent trumps matchup in fantasy football. C'mon, Berry, Kuselias, you'd really start Felix Jones (both ranked him higher) over Johnson?

"You have to start Johnson based on last week, of course, but I'm a Rex Ryan and the Jets' defense believer," says Berry. "They shut down Steve Slaton and they shut down all the Patriots. Mike Ditka said on our 'Sunday Countdown' show last weekend that he knows the Ryan philosophy -- Rex's dad Buddy coached for 'Da Coach,' for those of you too young to remember -- and he summed it up this way: 'You kill the snake by cutting off his head. Cut the head, the rest follows.' In Week 2, the head of the snake was Tom Brady. For the Titans, it's Johnson. I expect the Jets to focus on stopping Johnson and making Kerry Collins beat them. Remember, Johnson only had 68 total yards on 16 touches in Week 1 against the Steelers, so it can be done. So while I think CJ will ultimately be solid, it will take a lot of touches and he won't be a top-10 back this week."

"Chris Johnson is a bully who preys on weak defenses," says Kuselias. "And the Jets' defense is not to be bullied."

2. Berry ranks Clinton Portis his No. 2 running back for Week 3 -- ahead of Adrian Peterson -- despite the fact that through two weeks, Portis ranks 31st in fantasy points at the position. Talk about favoring the matchup! Heck, the Detroit Lions don't even rank second in terms of fantasy points allowed to opposing running backs; they're ninth with 42 and didn't exactly get obliterated by Peterson -- a far more talented back -- in Week 2. I'm a little concerned about this being a "trap" play. Sure, on paper, Portis' matchup looks exceptional. But while I'd give him a thumbs-up, I'd do so as a No. 2 back (think No. 12-ish), not a top-10 one, and frankly, if Portis doesn't step up here, his fantasy stock will severely plummet.

"Yes, he has not looked good," says Berry. "None of the Redskins have. But playing Detroit has a way of making everyone look good. There are no stats to back up on Portis, because they are all bad. But I know he is touching the ball at least 25 times against a team that is currently 22nd against the run and has given up almost 400 total yards and two scores to opposing running backs so far."

3. Karabell ranks Jerricho Cotchery 37th among wide receivers, 17 spots beneath any of the other three. I'm impressed by what Mark Sanchez has done so far this season, and while I admit it, I don't like this matchup and think the rookie is due for his first stinker statistically. That said, if I -- and Karabell -- am anti-Jets, I'd have to think the Titans might roll up the score early, force Sanchez to throw and then Cotchery gets enough targets to at least be top-25 worthy. Don't you?

"No, I'm not a big fan of the matchup for the Jets' offense, and I think this is the week Mark Sanchez has real problems," says Karabell. "Sanchez hasn't faced a defense like this one. If you own Cotchery you might think he's an automatic play, but I still want to see more from this offense before saying so."

4. Karabell ranks Steve Smith (the Giant) a group-low 22nd among wide receivers. He's a top-10 option on Berry's list, by comparison. Smith was Karabell's preferred Giants receiver in his blog -- that title "Smith the only Giants WR worth owning" says it all -- but interestingly, Karabell might have been big on him there, but he's not facing this cakewalk matchup. Considering it's a road game, decreasing the likelihood of a 35-0 pounding, I can't imagine Smith gets fewer than 10 targets, plenty to make him a certain top-20 option.

"Well, depends what you mean about being big on him," says Karabell. "I do think Smith will outperform Mario Manningham this season, and I think Smith has Derrick Mason-type value in a PPR format, but I don't think it's a lock we'll see Smith score consistently. This remains a rushing offense, one that's about to explode with 200-plus yards on poor, helpless Tampa Bay. I don't think Eli Manning will be throwing more than 30 times this week."

He might not need to, considering Romo threw for 353 yards and three scores versus the Buccaneers in Week 1, on 27 throws at that!

Jake Delhomme
Tim Steadman/Icon SMIJake Delhomme was historically miserable in Week 1, but after a rebound Week 2, is he really not worth a look in very deep leagues?

5. Neither Berry nor Kuselias ranks Jake Delhomme. Now, I won't for a second support Delhomme as a top-10 fantasy quarterback. No way. That said, I'm a two-quarterback league veteran, and once you get to around 15th at the position, creative thinking is warranted. That Dallas Cowboys pass defense has looked dreadful the past two weeks, serving up 36 fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks. I don't even like Delhomme generally in two-quarterback leagues, but this week I sure do.

"Well, we only rank 25 guys, so it's not as if I didn't rank him, it's just that there are 25 guys I like more than him," says Berry. "And I understand the appeal of ranking him. He was solid last week and it's a great matchup on paper. The Cowboys have been shredded through the air for two straight weeks. But, this game is on the road, on 'Monday Night Football,' and I always think the teams and crowds get up for games like this. And he's certainly no sure thing, being only one week removed from arguably the worst performance ever by a starting quarterback in fantasy history. I mean, he had a minus-8 in ESPN standard scoring. A minus-8! One decent outing does not make me trust him enough to use him, not even in two-quarterback leagues where I'd rather roll the dice with Jason Campbell against the Lions, or pick up a guy like Byron Leftwich or maybe Kevin Kolb this week. Plus, I expect a heavy run game from the Carolina Panthers to try and take the crowd out of it."

Just because I think people might be curious, Delhomme's minus-8 was the fifth-worst performance since 1970; Ryan Leaf's minus-10 (1-for-15 passing, 2 interceptions, 3 lost fumbles) in his third NFL start (1998, Week 3) tops that list. As for Leftwich, remember that he just faced two of the worst pass defenses in football … including these very Cowboys in Week 1. They created him!

"Jake Delhomme won me the game this week," says Kuselias. "Seriously, what fantasy player has ever uttered those words? Good luck trying to blaze a fresh trail. I'll stick to the fact that gravity exists, pizza is a great first date food, and Jake Delhomme isn't any good as a fantasy quarterback."

6. Harris ranks Percy Harvin 47th among wide receivers, despite two of the others declaring him a top-30 option. The rookie is more of a flex option to me, in that No. 30 range, and I'll say that because through two games it seems like he's the guy Brett Favre seems to trust most in the red zone. Harvin has three red zone targets through three games; two of them went for scores.

"What does that even mean? He's got three red zone targets. I'd say Favre trusts Adrian Peterson more in the red zone, wouldn't you?" says Harris. "I think I said this a couple weeks ago, but here we go again: Harvin's a great weapon to have on your NFL team. But he's not a good fantasy player. He's got nine targets in two weeks. Nine. He's got 12 touches from scrimmage. Twelve. Harvin is one of seven players to have caught multiple touchdowns this year; the others are Marques Colston, Dwayne Bowe, Larry Fitzgerald, Vincent Jackson and Mario Manningham. So what, naturally Harvin is the equivalent of these players, who have 14, 10, 16, 14, 23 and 17 targets, respectively? He's got 113 yards from scrimmage. We're ripping Braylon Edwards a new one because he's only got 104. My mind is open to ranking Harvin higher if I see the Minnesota Vikings change the way they use him, when I watch the games. My mind is not open to ranking Harvin higher because he snuck in the end zone a couple times."

7. Berry ranks Hines Ward a group-low 33rd among wide receivers, and 20 spots behind Santonio Holmes, easily the largest gap between the two of the group. What, no love for Ward's 74 receptions, 898 yards and 11 touchdowns in his past 13 games versus the Cincinnati Bengals? That history alone would have me ranking him in my top 20.

"Less about a belief about Ward and more a belief in the Cincinnati Bengals' defense, especially their linebackers," says Berry. "They've given up only two touchdowns passes all year and one of them was the fluke play to Brandon Stokley. The Steelers need to get the run game going and I expect Pittsburgh to try to run. Santonio Holmes has supplanted Ward as the Steelers' go-to guy and I like Ward fine, but on the road, against a better-than-you-think defense -- 12th-best in the NFL in scoring -- as the No. 2 wideout on a team that will try to run more doesn't excite me."

Felix Jones
Tim Heitman/US PresswireFelix Jones likely gets the start for the Cowboys if Marion Barber can't go, but will he carry the bulk of the Dallas running game?

8. Harris ranks Felix Jones No. 21 among running backs, the only of the four to slot him effectively as a flex play, not a No. 2 option. No one ranked Marion Barber, understandably, despite his having practiced early in the week in pads. Is your low rank an indication you believe Barber might play? Frankly, I doubt I'd want to use either back unless I heard definitive word before Sunday who will start.

Tashard Choice will play, too. And let's not forget: Jones was terrible in the first half Sunday night. Had a stupid fumble on a kickoff return and had two carries for four yards and no catches. Yes, he was a game-breaker with that 56-yarder in the third quarter, and I do give him a chance to have a very nice game against a bad Panthers run defense. I may even hike him a bit Friday, if we get some indication that Barber definitely won't play. But I don't think that's forthcoming, and the problem is this is a Monday night game, so you either have to have both Barber and Jones rostered, or, I think, you have to think about sitting Jones. The unknown variables here coupled with the possible time-share with Choice limit my ranking for Jones, whom I like in general very much."

9. Kuselias ranks Reggie Bush 16th among running backs, while no one else had him higher than a middling flex play. Bush might be the one healthy man of the team's three-headed rushing attack from the preseason, but he stinks as a runner. Doesn't it make more sense to lock him in -- as the other three rankers have -- as a weekly flex type, at least outside of PPR leagues?

"Reggie Bush may have to be more of the focus of the best offense on the planet due to injuries to Mike Bell and Pettey Thomas," says Kuselias.

10. No one ranks my boy Lynell Hamilton. OK, kidding, kidding. Amazingly Hamilton got the first-team snaps with the New Orleans Saints on Wednesday, and like my favorite sleeper Mike Bell in Week 1, he faces a nice, soft matchup (at Buffalo Bills). I guess from that angle Hamilton bears watching in deeeeeeep leagues. Of course, he's nowhere near as cool as Twitter-maniac Pierre Thomas, even if Thomas has tweeted in back-to-back weeks his intent to play, then sat. Arrrrrgh!

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

ALSO SEE