- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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The first time I filled in for Tristan Cockcroft on this Called Out column it was for a very good reason, as he and his wife welcomed a lovely baby girl into this world. Without question it was more important to deal with that baby than the ones who handle rankings for ESPN Fantasy (other than myself, of course). That was in Week 2. Now I am back for another turn at investigating the reasons my fellow rankers -- Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris and Erik Kuselias -- ranked the way they ranked, calling them out if you will. Where's Cockcroft? Another baby seven weeks later? Celebrating too hard on the Yankees' win? I think he's just scared at the collective genius he sees in the Week 9 rankings, and really, who can blame him? We're awfully intimidating.
Well, I am not scared. Of course my rankings look ingenious, and there isn't a thing to call out in them, so I was again summoned to ask the important questions, and seek the truth. Well, at least I tried. Here we go with Called Out for Week 9.
10. Berry ranks Devin Hester 14th among wide receivers. I do appreciate the matchup against the Arizona Cardinals and the fact Hester has played well the past few weeks, but 14th still seems a bit generous. Berry also had Johnny Knox ranked higher than the rest of us, and was the only guy to not rank Earl Bennett. I'm curious about his thinking on Jay Cutler's receiving weapons.
"Well, yes, I've been high on Hester for a few years now and very much this preseason, so my ranking here is no shock," Berry notes. "Hester's really only had two bad games all year: the Detroit game, where he left very early due to injury [can't count that] and the Steelers game. OK, fine. He struggled against Pittsburgh. He's not the first. Other than that, he's been terrific. And since the bye, he's got 21 receptions for 265 yards. The ankle injury concerns me a little and if it worsens this week, I'll probably drop him in my Friday update. But going against Arizona this week, which gives up over 20 fantasy points a game to opposing wide receivers, means another good week for Devin Hester.
"As for Johnny Knox, same thing," Berry continued. "Same good matchup as Hester and he has a nose for the end zone, with four scores in seven games. He's only five targets behind team leader Hester and he has at least six fantasy points in five of seven games. As for Bennett, I didn't rank him because he stinks. Fewer targets than Hester, Knox or Greg Olsen; he's not as important as Matt Forte either. So he's the fifth option on this offense and it shows. Single-digit fantasy points in six of seven games this year and a total -- a total! -- of 14 fantasy points in his last four games combined."
9. Kuselias ranks Houston Texans running backs Steve Slaton and Ryan Moats at 29 and 30. If he had ranked Chris Brown 31st, then we'd really have a story! Moats is the most added player in leagues this week, but I certainly don't believe he has taken the starting job away from Slaton for good. Berry and I each ranked Slaton a safe RB2, and Moats outside the top 30. Kuselias seems to be hedging.
"Ultimately, I think Slaton is still the guy to own going forward, but until he gets the fumble problem under control, Houston can't afford to keep him on the field." Kuselias opined. "I proceeded with caution this week because the guys I ranked ahead of him have more defined roles in Week 9. Moats is a career backup who hasn't produced over the course of his career and I don't think he's suddenly a star. I do think he's earned himself a shot at some carries and that devalues Slaton. Gary Kubiak has made it clear that Slaton, Moats and even Chris Brown will be included in the offense. Moats will get the carries early, but the Texans will fall behind and Slaton will be used in the passing game. Despite the rash of injuries on the Indianapolis Colts D, I consider both midlevel flex plays."
8. Harris is not a Seattle Seahawks fan this week. I couldn't help but notice while we all jumped on the Matt Hasselbeck bandwagon against the lowly Detroit Lions, Harris ranked him 15th at quarterback. He also ranked Nate Burleson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh worse than everyone else. I checked the defensive rankings, which is always interesting, and it sure seems like Harris likes the Lions this week. He not only had the Lions defense ranked highest of all of us, but while we all have the Seahawks defense in the top 5, he stuck them 18th. Wow! The Lions are all of a sudden the Steelers?
"Well, let's preface this answer by saying I was down on the Chicago Bears defense last weekend because they'd gotten killed by the Cincinnati Bengals the week before, and the fact that they were facing the bad Cleveland Browns offense didn't entice me," Harris said. "That wound up being a terrible call. That said, I don't think folks have learned their lesson with the Seahawks. It's not that their personnel is all bad, because it's not, but they're so injured on both sides of the ball, I can't rely on them. The offensive line has gotten Hasselbeck knocked around repeatedly and should continue to do so. And while the Lions offense isn't even average, they've allowed the sixth-fewest fantasy points to opposing defenses over the past five weeks, meaning at least they don't turn it over that much and they don't give up huge plays against. Plus Calvin Johnson should be back to test Marcus Trufant, who looked awful last week. The Seahawks probably win this game, sure, but remember how everyone was positive that they'd rack up a billion yards against the Arizona Cardinals and their 'worst pass defense in the NFL'? Didn't happen. Could this be more like the Seahawks-Jaguars game last month? I guess. I don't want to bet my fantasy life on it, though."
7. Berry ranks Clinton Portis 12th at running back. OK, we know Berry is a Washington Redskins fan, and we all feel sympathy for him, but why carry this dilemma over to fantasy football? Could this be the second week all season Portis makes it into double digits for fantasy scoring? I suppose, but isn't it a bit risky to rank him so well?
"I might be a bit optimistic, but last time he was on the road, Portis had two scores," Berry said. "He didn't show up on the injury report this week for the first time in a while. The bye seems to have done well for him. In a league where there are so many time-shares, Portis is one of the few guys who is the guy. The Atlanta Falcons are coming off a short week where they gave up 163 yards and three scores to the opposing running backs. The Falcons are 23rd versus the run and if Washington is going to do anything, it'll be with the run game and a lot of Portis. A guy getting the ball 25 times or so against a so-so run defense is a good play."
6. Harris ranks Ben Roethlisberger sixth at quarterback and Rashard Mendenhall 12th at running back. Normally I'd be all over the Roethlisberger choice, as he's having one of his best seasons, but the Pittsburgh Steelers in Denver on Monday night seems tough to me. The Denver Broncos defense certainly showed signs of implosion last week at Baltimore, but isn't it still formidable? And I am not a Mendenhall fan no matter the matchup.
"I've become convinced that while Big Ben isn't playing my favorite brand of 'real-life' quarterback, he's matchup-proof in fantasy," Harris declared. "The Steelers are throwing so much. Roethlisberger is tied for the league lead in yards per attempt, and is second in completion percentage. That's really hard to do. Do I hate the way he holds onto the ball too long? Do I think he's a candidate to give you a big-turnover game at the wrong moment? I do. But I'd still use him. As for Mendenhall, the Broncos have been very average defending fantasy rushers over the past five weeks. The Dallas Cowboys backs combined for 19 fantasy points. The New England Patriots: 13. The San Diego Chargers: 20. The Baltimore Ravens: 19. In the case of a few of those teams, the running back job is split, so no one back had a huge day. But the job ain't split in Pittsburgh; right now Mendenhall looks like one of a handful of true 'lead backs,' and I think he'll perform like a fantasy starter."
5. Kuselias ranks Brandon Jacobs fifth at running back. Now I've been a Jacobs fan all season, but putting the New York Giants bowling ball in that coveted territory, three spots better than Michael Turner, seems like wishful thinking.
"I love me some Brandon Jacobs this week," Kuselias pointed out. "I tend to value guys who are on the incline a little higher, and after two straight weeks of double-digit fantasy points, Jacobs fits the mold. Let's face it, the Giants have been awful lately and I think they're going to make a strong effort to emphasize the run against the San Diego Chargers, who have allowed the fifth-most points to opposing RBs, including seven rushing scores this season. If you take a trip down memory lane, Jacobs played great in Weeks 9 and 10 last year, totaling 243 yards and three scores during that span. Jacobs is picking up momentum and it should culminate in a big Week 9 performance."
4. Berry ranks Matt Cassel 11th at quarterback. And 11 seems to be the magic number for Cassel, since that's how many total fantasy points he has the past two weeks. The Jacksonville Jaguars have to be embarrassed after being beaten by Vince Young, but Cassel has been a major disappointment this season, so he really gets that close to the top 10 this week?
"Yes, he does," Berry wrote with confidence. "Am I crazy for thinking anything Vince Young can do, Matt Cassel can do better? No question, Cassel has struggled for two weeks, but look at the teams. The Washington Redskins and San Diego Chargers are both top six in pass defense. Prior to that two-game stretch, he had double-digit fantasy points in four straight games (every game he had played). Off a bye and with two weeks to prepare for a Jags defense currently 26th versus the pass, I'm looking for a big day."
3. Kuselias ranks Greg Jennings eighth at wide receiver, and Donald Driver 24th. Based on season numbers, this seems to be out of order, and a difference I just can't fathom. Jennings should be in for a big week, but what's wrong with Driver? He's been a top-10 guy all season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers stink, but wouldn't that mean both Green Bay Packers wide receivers will thrive? Driver has had the superior season.
"I think this is the week that Jennings explodes," Kuselias noted. "Tampa Bay has absolutely no pass rush, which means Aaron Rodgers will have plenty of time to find the Packers' best deep threat. The Bucs allow the third-most points to opposing WRs and Jennings showed signs of breaking out of his early-season slump with seven grabs for 81 yards and a score in Week 8. Last year against Tampa, Driver had one reception for 8 yards while Jennings caught six balls for 109 yards and two TDs. Also, I moved Driver down a bit because of his injury. Driver didn't practice on Wednesday or Thursday because of a neck injury, and while I expect him to play, it's definitely something worth keeping your eye on."
2. Berry ranks Chris Johnson 11th at running back. Each week when Berry doesn't rank Mr. 228 -- that's what I'm calling Tennessee's Johnson now after his Week 8 performance -- I can see Harris writhing in pain on his sofa, as he's spoken of the weekly upside of this running back multiple times. So have I. How can a player with so much potential with monster games miss the top 10? Kuselias and I ranked him second, Harris seventh.
"If we are ranking just on potential, you can make that argument for almost anyone," Berry defended. "I mean, Carson Palmer threw for five touchdowns two weeks ago. Everyone has potential. But Johnson is on the road at San Francisco, the second-best rushing defense in the NFL. They did get run all over at home by Michael Turner and I do think he's a must start. But top 10? He's had single-digit fantasy points in four of seven games this year and 12 or fewer in five of seven. He's just not consistent enough to put in the top when he is on the road in a tough matchup."
1. Harris ranks Miles Austin 20th at wide receiver. Harris didn't have either of the quarterbacks in this game in the top 10, even though Donovan McNabb has been successful in this NFC East series the past few years, and Tony Romo has certainly played well of late, but everyone seems to love Austin. Everyone except one ranker. I'm curious if Harris sees a low-scoring game here.
"Not necessarily," Harris said. "As you know, quarterbacks can have so-so individual days in high-scoring affairs, especially when there are playmaking defenses involved. For a full sense of how I feel Dallas-Philly will go, check out Friday's Breakdown article, but the Reader's Digest version is these two defenses are getting after the quarterback as well as anyone in the league at the moment. The Eagles will blitz Romo coming off the bus, and in big games, Romo doesn't always respond well. McNabb played better against the Giants, but he, too, should be under siege, as DeMarcus Ware is getting his act together (and just got paid for it). Plus the memory of McNabb's poor efforts in Philly's two previous games lingers. As for Miles Austin: You guys are all just too high on him in general. How many double-teams has this guy ever seen? How many times has a defense put its top corner on him, or bumped him at the line? The Eagles have been third-best against fantasy wideouts over the past five weeks. Austin's a No. 1 receiver, I give you that, but take away his touchdown last week, and you were left with four catches for 58 yards. I love his prospects long-term, but expecting him to score a touchdown every week is a fool's errand."
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
7hThomas McKean, ESPN Stats & Information