Called Out: Airing it out in London
I know the NFL usually sets these matchups far in advance, but it irks me that for the second time in three seasons of the "NFL International Series" game, we're looking at a potential laugher.
The New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers? C'mon, even diehard British football fans -- you know, the ones who will tell you a football is a sphere with black spots -- could predict the outcome of that game. Tom Brady versus one of the game's weakest pass defenses? Yeah, that's predictable.
For that reason, it's no shock how much our experts' rankings are in unison with guys like Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker. They're ranked third (Brady at quarterback), first (Moss at wide receiver) and eighth (Welker at wide receiver), respectively, and no one disagreed by more than seven spots on any one of them.
Bah! And here I was looking to call the experts out on that game. Well, as you'll see below, there are plenty of other rankings from that game in London's Wembley Stadium to call out. We're not entirely in harmony when it comes to games overseas.
So grab your tea and crumpets, folks, and let's take a closer look at this week's rankings, provided kindly as usual by Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris, Eric Karabell and Erik Kuselias. Here we go:
10. Karabell ranks Cadillac Williams 18th -- a No. 2 running back -- while no one else tabs him higher than 27th. C'mon, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are going to get blasted in jolly ol' London, just as they were by the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, who took the run out of the equation nice-'n'-early! Besides, I know a lot of people still have their concerns about the field conditions at Wembley Stadium, especially being that it's supposed to rain for much of Friday into Saturday. I'm not terribly concerned Wembley will play as horribly as it did in 2007, not with clear skies in the forecast for Sunday, but it bears noting that last year's game featured 81 pass attempts and only 48 rush attempts.
"I finally start to buy in on how good Williams has been and now everyone else jumps ship?" says Karabell. "Derrick Ward is no longer relevant. It's all Williams. And for those who say the New England Patriots will win this one 59-0, I say check out what Chris Johnson did, statistically. The Bucs have to establish Williams, and the Pats can be run on."
Absolutely true about Johnson, but I can't put Williams close to in his class. Just how much horsepower did the Cadillac Williams bandwagon have, anyway? The guy did get shut out in fantasy in two of the past four weeks.
9. Harris ranks the New Orleans Saints defense, the No. 2 unit in terms of fantasy points so far this season, 16th. Interesting ranking, being that the Miami Dolphins' most recent game was a manhandling of a previously well-regarded New York Jets defense. From that angle, with all of their Wildcat packages, the Dolphins do represent a somewhat scary matchup. Or is it something more?
"In three of their five games this year, the Dolphins' offense has allowed opposing defenses to score three or fewer fantasy points, including negative points in each of Miami's two games prior to their bye," says Harris. "I'm not even sure I buy that this is Wildcat-related trickeration. I think it's just really, really good running. They spent a lot of money on their offensive line this offseason, and it shows. I think that if the Dolphins were running straight-ahead, I-formation stuff as much as they're running Wildcat stuff, they'd still probably succeed in a big way. Plus, whereas a lot of opponents who face the rampaging Saints offense feel they need to throw-throw-throw to keep up, which tends to make big plays for an opposing defense (hello, gamblin' Darren Sharper), that's really not how the Dolphins are wired.
"Finally, let's also realize that while the Saints clearly are better on defense, much of their fantasy glory has been built around defensive touchdowns (three of them) and interceptions (a whopping 11 of them), the two things that are probably hardest to predict for a defense. It's not an elite sack unit (12 in five games), nor is their secondary above average (217 pass yards per game allowed, relatively average personnel). I like a pretty high-scoring game on both sides here."
Something tells me I should finally back down from my "sell high on Ronnie Brown" stance of a few weeks back. (Hey, had to say it somewhere. Seems like a good place.)
8. Karabell's "Confidence Call of the Week," apparently, is Matt Forte. Just 31st for the season in terms of fantasy points, Forte earned a No. 8 ranking at running back on Karabell's list. I know sometimes it's tough to accept the notion that a preseason first-round pick has become somewhat less valuable than that seven weeks into a season, but with Forte, shouldn't we?
"I can see it's Jay Cutler's offense, but I'm just not ready to push aside a talent like Forte," says Karabell. "He has caught five or more passes in three of four games, so even if he continues to struggle running the ball, he and Cutler will be helping each other. Forte can still be a top-10 running back."
I agree, he can, I just wonder whether he will. Forte currently ranks 10th among running backs in receptions (18) and 15th in targets (21); I actually expected more from him. So far, I was apparently as right on Cutler as I was wrong on Forte.
This is my No. 7 "surprise" of Week 7, but I can't tell what surprises me more: That Berry and I are as pro-Romo as we are or that the other three rankers are as down on the matchup as they are. Cornerback Brian Williams is out for the Atlanta Falcons, and that defense just surrendered 19 fantasy points at home to Jay Cutler, who for the season has averaged just 1.8 points per game more than Romo.
"Yes, the Williams injury helps, no doubt," says Berry. "Anyone who listens to our 'Fantasy Focus' podcast knows that I love teams coming off a bye, especially if they are at home. Two weeks to prepare, home crowd amped up after a bye week, all that. Romo had a big game before the bye (more than 300 yards, two scores), the return of Roy E. Williams along with the emergence of Miles Austin added to the fact the Falcons are currently 21st against the pass to begin with. Plus, the Dallas Cowboys' defense isn't great, either. I expect a bit of a shootout here. And that means a good day for Romo."
6. Karabell ranks Greg Jennings as No. 7 among wide receivers. If Forte isn't Karabell's Week 7 "Confidence Call," then Jennings surely is. Here's the problem: Rodgers isn't getting nearly enough protection from his offensive line to locate his deep threats, of which Jennings is his most talented. Instead of four or five big-play attempts, Jennings is seeing maybe one or two per week, capping his upside.
"Now is the time to buy low on Jennings," says Karabell. "There's nothing wrong with him. Aaron Rodgers just doesn't get the time to locate him deep, so Donald Driver gets the looks. But this week the Cleveland Browns are the opponent, I don't see a major pass rush and I think Jennings will thrive. Why hedge on a top-10 -- maybe top-5 -- wide receiver who has a great matchup?"
Good take, considering the two defenses against which Jennings recorded double-digit fantasy totals were the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams, who rank 10th and 17th in terms of sacks. The other three rank fourth, first and sixth. The Browns rank 17th, with 12 sacks in six games.
5. Berry and Harris conflict on their ranking of Laurence Maroney; Berry ranks him 11th among running backs, while Harris has him a more conservative No. 37. The split makes some sense; the Patriots are notoriously tight-lipped on both injury information and their backfield plans. It's impossible to get a read on Maroney's fantasy value, but one thing is clear: This matchup suits the Patriots' passing game exceptionally.
"If Sammy Morris turns up healthy then I'll adjust, but my guess is not only does he not play, but doesn't even get on the plane," says Berry. "The Buccaneers just gave up almost 270 yards rushing to the Carolina Panthers last week and that's a team that has no passing game. Now you've got the red-hot Patriots coming in and I'm betting what little defense the Bucs have will be thrown at trying to stop Brady, Moss and Welker. There should be more than enough fantasy goodness for everyone to go around. He had 133 total yards and a score last week with fewer than 20 touches and even if Morris plays, Maroney will have a lot of value this week."
"I admit that I can see a scenario where the world expects the Patriots to pass like crazy again to show off in London, and maybe they come out and just beat Tampa's brains in with the ground game," says Harris. "The Bucs did give up 44 fantasy points to the Panthers' rushers last week. So I understand where Matthew's coming from. But it's Laurence Maroney. I just don't trust him. I know he scored his first touchdown since the 2007 season's Super Bowl last week (which is an indictment in itself). I know Sammy Morris probably doesn't play here. But the Patriots just aren't reliable with the way they use their backs (BenJarvus Green-Ellis got lots of looks last week, too), plus I don't need to tell you it's typically a pass-first offense. Remember when Maroney was going in the first round of fantasy drafts a few years ago? How'd that work out? I find it hard to believe Matthew would really bench Steve Slaton, Matt Forte and Joseph Addai in favor of Maroney."
Amazing to think that Laurence Maroney has never finished among the top 20 at his position in terms of fantasy points, yet you're right, he was absolutely a first-round consideration for some, back in 2007. Fortunately no one seems to be grasping like that today, but accounting for the matchup, despite the questions about how the Patriots play it in the running game, I'd call him a solid No. 2/flex option. After all, it's a week in which six teams are on bye, so the player pool is especially thin.
4. Berry ranks LaDainian Tomlinson No. 3 among running backs, the highest anyone as ranked him since Week 1. I'm a noted Tomlinson hater this season (though "hate" is probably too strong a word; let's say "not-liker"), and can't imagine a guy who has 20 fantasy points in three games and is 30 years old can inspire such confidence. I'm sure Matthew has his reasons, though!
"Ok, but LT also had 100 total yards last week against a top-five rushing defense," says Berry. "Darren Sproles got one carry last week. One. And yes, it was trick play at the goal line, but it didn't work, so I am expecting LT gets all future goal-line work. There are so few guys who are the 'no-brainer-he's-the-only-guy' guys and Tomlinson is one of them. He looked healthy on Monday night and back to being his old self. And now he gets the Kansas City Chiefs, who rank 25th against the run, are top-10 in fantasy points allowed to opposing running backs and have given up six touchdowns in six games to running backs."
What bothers me most about Tomlinson: The Chiefs ranked 30th against the run and allowed the fourth-most rushing touchdowns in 2008, yet the "old man" tallied only 191 total yards and one touchdown in two games against them last season. On talent alone I simply can't rate him a top-tier (top-10) running back.
3. Kuselias' wide receiver sleeper of the week is apparently Austin Collie, whom he ranked 16th. I like Collie, who had 33 fantasy points in two games leading into the bye, as well, though that's a mid-No. 2 wide receiver ranking! Awfully bold for a guy who is a clear No. 3 in his team's pass offense.
"Anthony Gonzalez hasn't practiced yet which means Austin Collie should continue to provide solid, if not spectacular numbers," says Kuselias. "In Week 5, Collie was terrific, catching eight balls for 97 yards and two scores. It was the second straight week that the rookie found pay dirt and he should do the same again this week. The St. Louis Rams have had a lot of trouble shutting down other teams' second and third options. Just to give you an idea, in Week 1, Nate Burleson caught seven balls for 74 yards and a score; in Week 4, Donald Driver had 95 yards and a touchdown; and last week Torry Holt had 100 yards. The Rams are 27th in the NFL against the pass for a reason, and Austin Collie should take full advantage."
2. Anquan Boldin. Does he play? Karabell's (No. 16 among wide receivers) and Kuselias' (18) rankings hint yes, Berry's and Harris' (neither ranked him) rankings hint no. That leads me to ask, how do you guys approach using Boldin and/or Steve Breaston, his probable stand-in if necessary, this week? As is, the New York Giants' defense ranks first in the league versus the pass, not to mention has allowed the fourth-fewest fantasy points per game to opposing wide receivers. In spite of those numbers, though, the Saints trashed this defense in Week 6, exploiting the Giants' holes at safety, so I'd actually love to trust either of these receivers.
"I would probably judge them about the same, as solid WR2s for fantasy teams," says Harris. "If Boldin doesn't play, Breaston gets a lot of looks. If Boldin does, then Breaston's there, too, and Boldin probably doesn't get quite as many looks, but he's probably a better player, so maybe makes a little more out of the targets he does get. I do think the Giants will be hopping mad after that embarrassment last week, and Kurt Warner had better get ready to get hit. But the Arizona Cardinals throw a lot. It's just too valuable a passing game to avoid."
"I think we know the Cardinals are incapable of establishing a strong running game, either because they don't have the horses or the inclination," says Karabell. "If Breaston starts, I would rank him pretty much where I did Boldin, as a top-20 choice. He's good enough. If Boldin starts, he's already in my top 20, so I trust him."
"Of the two scenarios, Breaston would take the bigger jump in value," says Kuselias. "On a team with Larry Fitzgerald and Boldin stealing away receptions, Breaston has still managed to catch at least four balls and rack up better than 65 yards in all four games he has played this season. Last week, the Saints torched the Giants' secondary and with all the injuries New York has had to deal with I expect Breaston to be a solid No. 2 fantasy option. My new rankings will reflect how I feel about Boldin. Even if he plays, a high ankle sprain doesn't exactly make me feel giddy inside. Breaston is a low-end No. 2 fantasy wide receiver option this week."
1. Harris ranks Marion Barber a group-low 26th among running backs, and even more notably, he's the only one who ranked Tashard Choice (23rd) higher. Everyone else had Choice at least seven spots lower of the two, and the lowest other ranking for Barber was Berry's (15th). Did Jerry Jones' comments that Choice's workload will increase this week sway you, Christopher?
"Actually, it was an interview that the Cowboys' running backs coach gave that has me freaked out, and I knew I was going to get called out for this," says Harris. "It's dangerous to amend ranks based on speculations on playing time, I'll admit. But hearing Skip Peete say that Barber's quad isn't 100 percent and that he might be bothered for 'another 10 weeks' is scary. Here's what else he said to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: '(Barber) just doesn't have the burst that he's had before he got injured.' Yikes. Now, maybe that's lulling the Falcons with low expectations. But it sounds to me like Tashard Choice is the only Cowboys back who's truly healthy. I can see a pretty even split, but from what I saw against the Chiefs, it was pretty clear that Choice was the better option that day. By the way, I don't think either guy should be in the high teens. Wow. The Falcons have looked awfully good against opposing rushing games the past couple weeks."
Very true -- the Falcons have allowed 16 fantasy points to opposing running backs the past two weeks combined. Still, I prefer Barber as that mid-teens (read: No. 2 option) running back, though Choice has his flex appeal.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.