I'm so disappointed this week.
I play in a pretty decent keeper league that spun off from one of my key fantasy baseball keeper leagues a few years back, and through three weeks, let's just say … well … it's not going particularly well. Off to a 1-2 start, I'm suffering terribly from injuries to key guys like Marion Barber, Dwayne Bowe and Anthony Gonzalez, not to mention Kurt Warner's performing like a crusty 38-year-old. (Wait, what, he is 38? Darn, and here I thought he'd make a fabulous long-term keeper.)
I'll spare you any more of the sob story -- we all have them in some season or some league or another, and no one really cares about yours except you -- but it's just not something I'm accustomed to, certainly not in that league. It has me fired up, primed to shred the fine rankings posted each week by our four experts: Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris, Eric Karabell and Erik Kuselias.
Only one problem, though, and it's the source of my disappointment: All the players I'm big on and expected them to be "Called Out" on, well, apparently we're in agreement! Cedric Benson a top-10 running back, check. Jay Cutler due a monster game versus the Detroit Lions, check. Even the San Francisco 49ers as a mega-super-duper sleeper defensive play, check.
Apparently the bye weeks call for creativity. I've long been a believer in that; it's why I tend to advise in these weeks, when 12.5 percent of the player pool is sitting on the proverbial couch at home, that you take a few more shots. Tashard Choice, Leon Washington or -- gasp -- Michael Bush in your flex spot? It's not crazy, people.
And from that angle, in this first of the more challenging weeks of 2009, I'm digging deeper to pick apart our more outlandish rankings. Awaaaaaay we go:
10. Berry ranks Kyle Orton 10th among quarterbacks, effectively handing him solid-start status. Now, I agree, Orton is an underrated play for Week 4, being that the Dallas Cowboys have problems defending the pass. I'm Orton's owner in a two-quarterback league -- he's my No. 3 -- and while I think this is a fine week to start him, I can't help but think that top-tier status is too much.
"Yeah, I like him this week," Berry says. "It hasn't always been pretty, but from a fantasy perspective, he has actually been remarkably consistent this year, with double-digit fantasy points in every single game. He has yet to turn the ball over this season as well. Then, yes, it's a pretty tasty matchup with the Cowboys coming to town on a short week. They are 27th in the NFL against the pass and give up the 12th-most fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks. And that includes a gimme game against crappy Jake Delhomme. Over the first two games, the Cowboys gave up 36 points to Byron Leftwich and Eli Manning. That 18-point average puts Dallas as a team giving up the sixth-most points. Brandon Marshall is starting to look alive and good pass-catching running backs in Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter will add up to a game that won't be pretty but will wind up with 16 points or so for Orton and his owners."
9. Kuselias ranks Willie Parker 11th among running backs. While Kuselias' ranking might change Friday because of Parker's toe injury, a healthy Parker still seems like he's too highly valued. Sure, the San Diego Chargers have served up the third-most fantasy points to opposing running backs (23.7 per game), but don't we need to see more from the veteran first?
"Willie Parker had a monster week last Sunday," Kuselias says, "he clearly has the job and the touches, and the Steelers are talking that they need to be more balanced. Plus, it is a bye week, which raises all the midlevel guys -- of which Parker has been elected 'poster child.' A good, hot player in a favorable home matchup makes Parker a good No. 2 option."
I dunno; you and I might disagree on the definition of "monster game" -- having written about Chris Johnson's and Maurice Jones-Drew's performances of 30-plus points the past two weeks, 18 points doesn't really grab me the same way.
8. Berry is decidedly pro-Miami Dolphins receivers, ranking Davone Bess 23rd among wide receivers and Anthony Fasano a group-high 11th among tight ends, while Karabell is anti-Dolphins, apparently, having been the only one of the four not to rank Fasano. Tough call with the Dolphins this week -- while they face the Buffalo Bills' poor defense, they'll also be granting Chad Henne his first NFL start. My stance is generally that when a no-name quarterback steps in, it's the tight end I usually want, and sure enough, the Bills have allowed more fantasy points to that position than anyone (15.3 per game).
"Well, the game plan for new quarterback Chad Henne is going to ball control and conservative," Berry says. "Short throws, run the ball, Wildcat, all that stuff. Which means lots of looks for Fasano and Bess, their best possession receiver. Bess has at least seven receptions in two of the three games this year, and by the way, the Bills are currently 28th against the pass. This is somewhat of a gut call, but the leading -- and most sure-handed -- receiver on a team with an inexperienced quarterback and a bad pass defense coming to town gives me reasons for a lot of optimism in a week where so many good wideouts are on a bye."
"This one kind of shocked me," Karabell says. "I admit that part of the reason I didn't rank Fasano was that we didn't project him for any points at all. I wondered why, then saw Fasano had all of three receptions for 11 yards not last week, but for the season, and wondered no more. Why are you asking me about Fasano? You should ask the others how they could place a guy with negative-3 fantasy points this season -- and I'm not making that up -- near the top 10 tight ends. Fasano has two fumbles, meaning if you've played him this season he has cost you points. And now he's got a totally unproven quarterback in Henne entering the lineup. How can he be a borderline play? For whom?"
Here's the toughie: Bess had nine targets to Fasano's one, so Bess probably makes more sense of the two, though I'm somewhat intrigued by Fasano as a Hail Mary play. Best guess? Let's just say I'm happy none of my teams are thin enough to force me to dig this deep. It'd pain me to have to pick either.
7. Harris ranks the Washington Redskins defense 18th, making him one of the few people out there who doesn't see sleeper potential. To throw it out there: The Redskins stink, and I said a week ago that they were a "trap" play, and I could see it being the same this week. Still, while I'll hesitate to rank them more of a borderline play (10th or so), are there really 17 better defenses?
"Good question," Harris says. "As I was working on the rankings this week in my Excel spreadsheet, I think I may have started with the Skins' D at, like, 12th or something. Then I remembered each of the past two weeks, against the supposed cake matchups of the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions, where the Redskins' D scored seven and two fantasy points. That gave them 13 fantasy points for the season. That's ugly: 24th-best in the league. Albert Haynesworth may not be able to go. DeAngelo Hall spent last Sunday getting roasted by the immortal Bryant Johnson. And they've created one turnover and three sacks combined against the Rams and Lions the past two weeks. It's just not a big-play defense even in the best of times. I wouldn't use 'em, even against Josh Johnson and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, not until I see a change and more consistent fantasy points."
6. Kuselias ranks Julian Edelman 18th among wide receivers. He's the only one to rank Wes Welker's stand-in, and I'm on his side of the argument that Edelman is an underrated talent in the league and a more-than-serviceable fill-in. But 18th? That's effectively a solid No. 2 option! So you're telling me you're that certain Welker is going to sit again?
"Until we hear better news on Welker, I will assume he is out," Kuselias says. "If the injury news changes, so will the rank. Baltimore is a Rex Ryan defense -- he was their coordinator last season before moving on to coach the J-E-T-S Jets-Jets-Jets -- and that defense, as we saw in the Jet game, likes to blitz Tom Brady. In the Jet game Edelman was targeted 16 times -- and that's not a misprint, amigos. He should get similar looks this week, making him a No. 2 receiver."
5. Berry ranks Carson Palmer 20th among quarterbacks -- seven spots lower than anyone else. Palmer is coming off two inspiring wins, and now he gets a far easier matchup (at Cleveland Browns) than the previous two (at Green Bay Packers, versus Pittsburgh Steelers). What's not to like? I do, as a certain top-10, but I'll give you this: You're consistent in that you also had Chad Ochocinco a group-low 19th among wide receivers. Why no love for the matchup?
"No doubt, the Bengals are a feel-good story," Berry says. "And I can't believe I'm writing this, but I continue to love Cedric Benson this year, even ranking him No. 2 overall this week. But I disagree it's a certain top 10. I think my fellow rankers [and you] just saw the Browns and immediately thought, oh yeah, easy start. But look closer.
"Bad as the Browns have been, they are 16th against the pass. Not great, but not terrible, either. Middle of the pack, compared with them being 30th against the run. Whether they got there because they are good or because teams run so effectively against them doesn't matter. Through three games, the Browns have given up just three passing touchdowns. Last home game, they held Brett Favre to just over 110 yards passing. There might not be a hotter quarterback in the NFL than Joe Flacco, and he only had one score last week. (OK, he also had 346 yards passing, but again, I'm not saying the Browns are good. Just that they aren't horrific in the pass game.)
"Marvin Lewis is not a run-up-the-score type of guy, and I expect the Bengals to be up and running the ball a lot. Which means more handing off. And yes, this is the easiest matchup Palmer has had all year, but it's not like he's lighting the fantasy world on fire. He has yet to exceed 250 yards passing, he has two games this year with one or zero touchdown passes, his four interceptions in three games is the fourth-most in the league, and only in the Packers game was he a fantasy star. He could very easily have a big game. But it's not a no-brainer."
Seems pretty harsh to criticize Palmer for his four interceptions, which, by the way, came against two defenses with a combined 12 thus far. The Browns don't have any, so I just don't see the downside.
4. Karabell ranks Fred Jackson -- a committee candidate -- a group-best 11th among running backs. Wow, you have no Marshawn Lynch concerns? Here's what's most curious: Karabell isn't even the lowest ranker of Lynch; Kuselias has him 35th to Karabell's 30th. The Dolphins, incidentally, rank among the 10 best defenses in terms of fantasy points allowed to opposing running backs, so I just don't want any part of that backfield. (And I'm a Jackson fan in general.)
"Well, I do have some Lynch concerns in time," Karabell says, "and only if Jackson struggles, but I still think even in this proposed timeshare that Jackson has a nice matchup and should be able to produce decent stats. I mean, who trusts a coach? We have no idea how many touches Lynch will get, but I still think that if Jackson does well, he'll get enough carries and targets for 100 total yards and a score. Lynch can play the Derrick Ward circa 2008 role if he likes."
Hmm … a Derrick Ward comparison. So Lynch will stink next year in a backup or committee role? Can't say I'd term that an impossible scenario.
3. Harris is on the San Diego Chargers bandwagon, with group-best rankings of both Darren Sproles (No. 18) and LaDainian Tomlinson (22) among running backs. This is a tough backfield to read, what with Tomlinson's status somewhat uncertain, but what's most curious about these is that they're starter-worthy ranks despite a road matchup at the Pittsburgh Steelers. I'm skeptical either back is a great fantasy play, but what's your take on how this situation shakes out?
"I understand that I'm the only person to have ranked Tomlinson mid-week," Harris says, "and that stands out a little; in a weekend where so many running backs are going to be questionable, LT is definitely one of 'em, and if he can't practice, I'll likely make a change in our Friday update. But while I'm not saying the Steelers are suddenly an easy matchup, especially for a Chargers offense with a banged-up offensive line, I don't think they're as fierce as you're making it seem. Cedric Benson looked pretty good against 'em last week, and they clearly miss Troy Polamalu's hitting. Against the Ravens' stingy run defense, the Chargers did what they'll probably do against Pittsburgh: try to get it to Sproles in space via the short passing game, and let him run. (He did that against Baltimore to the tune of seven catches for 124 yards.) And the reason to rank Tomlinson in that flex area is that if he plays, he's one of the best bets out there to convert a short score. Now, as I say, let's see if he practices. Even if LT doesn't play, though, I doubt I'd rank Sproles much higher than I have him now."
2. Karabell doesn't like Glen Coffee, with a No. 28 rank at running back. I guess this shouldn't surprise me all that much, since Karabell and I go way back and I know he's no coffee fan, nor do I think he has ever had a cup in his life. Myself? Well, I've got two kids, so I might as well have an IV hookup filled with the stuff. And as for the player who really doesn't deserve nearly this many puns in one column space, Coffee's a big-time play of mine in Week 4. I'm curious, Eric, if his name were Glen Chickenparmigiana, would you have ranked him higher?
"Yes, if his name was Glen Cheesesteak he'd probably be in my top 10," Karabell says. "Look, I get the fact that he's the main guy for the next few weeks with Frank Gore out, and Coffee had a very good preseason, but I'd like to have a bit more proof before I trust this guy over a Ryan Grant, Thomas Jones or even Darren McFadden. It really seems like Coffee gets a pass to stardom here. I probably should have ranked him more in the low-20s, and I might adjust that Friday, but he's still totally unproven and coming off a game in which he got 25 carries and produced all of 54 yards. I'm not saying Coffee can't be good, but show me something first. Then I'll play Mr. Chickenparmigiana in Week 5."
Coffee gets a mulligan from me for that 54-yard performance. For one, it came in relief. For two, he was a bit banged up in the game and, for three, it came against the vaunted "Williams Wall" in a road game at Minnesota.
1. Berry hates Terrell Owens. OK, not shocking, he's been spewing those words everywhere on these pages. But here's the shocker -- he ranked him 35th among wide receivers this week. That's a non-starter in a bye week! I like that you've got Lee Evans a group-best 14th, and yes, Evans has that impressive history at Miami, but might you also need to atone for such a low rank?
"Why is he top 20 for everyone else?" Berry says. "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. What about zero catches for zero yards excites everyone from last week? What about 16 fantasy points total all year do folks like? That's only the same amount as backup-running-back-that-no-one-owns Heath Evans has. Do you know who Derek Schouman is? He's a Bills tight end who got injured in Week 2 and is out for the year. And he still has 11 targets on the year. Or only two fewer than Terrell Owens.
"Let me repeat that. Owens has only two more targets than the tight end in a timeshare who has played one fewer game than Owens and was injured in the other. Yes, it's a nice matchup, but with Marshawn Lynch back, the Bills will use Fred Jackson more in the passing game, possibly even split out wide when Lynch is in.
"And yeah, Lee Evans destroys Miami. In 10 career games, he has almost 700 yards and eight scores. In five career games at Miami, it's even better, with five scores and 427. Last year, he had 116 yards in this matchup, and the Bills' offense is better now than it was then.
"Personally, I think you should call out everyone else on why they actually like Owens. Because he sucks."
He certainly does, so far. I guess I'm just forgiving, being that in the one league in which I took him ridiculously late, he actually didn't hurt me. Guess I was just a forgiving kind of guy last Sunday.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.