Free-agent finds: Week 5
Ryan Torain re-emerges, Jacoby Jones could shine in Andre Johnson's absence
And so the bye weeks begin, which means you're now scouring the free-agent pool for two reasons. First, you've got regular starters who'll be getting mani/pedis on Sunday, rather than having their faces shorn off by NFL behemoths, and you need to replace them for a week. And second, of course, you're still looking for potential lottery tickets who might hit it big later in the season. The pickings are getting slimmer, but let's see if we can unearth some acceptable alternatives for both needs.
Standard ESPN league finds
Ryan Torain, RB, Redskins (owned in 57.5 percent of ESPN.com leagues): The Redskins are off in Week 5, so this is certainly an add with the longer view in mind. Torain had 19 carries for 135 yards against the Rams on Sunday, and you'll forgive me for not completely buying Mike Shanahan's explanation that Tim Hightower missed time because of a shoulder injury. Shanny just does this. He's a good coach, and being a good coach sometimes means using your personnel differently under different circumstances. It's not Shanny's job to help fantasy owners. And so Torain wound up with more carries than Hightower and Roy Helu combined. Torain is definitely worth adding in all leagues, but don't be surprised when the RB usage pattern gets jumbled again in Week 6.
Stevan Ridley, RB, New England Patriots (3.7 percent): As I wrote in my Monday morning Instant Impressions column, Ridley has a chance to take a bigger slice of the pie in New England. Danny Woodhead missed time in the second half of Sunday's game in Oakland with what beat reporters have speculated was an ankle injury. BenJarvus Green-Ellis still seemed to have a pretty firm hold on the goal-line situation, but Ridley looks like a significantly better player right now. He's 10 pounds heavier than BJGE and is plainly more elusive. Of course, Bill Belichick doesn't like backfield consistency any more than Shanahan does, so while you definitely can add Ridley in all leagues, it's going to take a sea change in the way the Patriots do business for you to feel great about starting him.
Jacoby Jones, WR, Houston Texans (8.6 percent): Andre Johnson's injury may have looked worse than it turned out to be, and ESPN's own Adam Schefter may have reported that AJ's injury probably won't keep him out "long term," but I'm guessing we need to be prepared to experience Week 5 without him. That might put Jones in the starting lineup versus the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, and remember that when AJ missed the 2010 season's final two games, Jones caught a combined 10 passes for 185 yards. Kevin Walter (owned in 1.8 percent of leagues) is already starting and didn't catch a single pass against the Steelers on Sunday, so if there's anyone to start here, I think it'll wind up being Jones.
Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (6.2 percent): So much for my preseason predictions for an Emmanuel Sanders (owned in 8.2 percent of leagues) breakout. Sanders just keeps dropping passes, and Ben Roethlisberger just keeps throwing the ball to Brown. There's obviously been a reshuffling of the depth chart (which might partly be due to Sanders' awful red zone deflection -- and the resulting interception -- against the Colts in Week 3), and Brown played more in three-receiver sets Sunday versus Houston. He's led the Steelers in targets in each of the past two games, and in that span has eight catches for 160 yards. Hines Ward is an afterthought here, and all the good stuff I predicted for Sanders back in August looks like it's actually coming Brown's way. I'm not sure he's as quick or talented as Sanders, but it's pretty obvious right now that the Steelers trust him way more. He's addable in all leagues, though there are questions about Big Ben's availability for this week's game because of a foot injury.
Isaac Redman, RB, Steelers (2.3 percent): Rashard Mendenhall had to leave Sunday's contest after injuring a hamstring on a third-quarter TD, leaving Redman and Mewelde Moore (owned in 0.3 percent of leagues) to split carries the rest of the way. Redman first broke into the fantasy consciousness last summer with some nice preseason goal-line work, and he outweighs Moore by a good 20-plus pounds, so if Mendy winds up needing to miss time, Redman looks like the short-yardage option in the Steel City. Still, picking up Redman is very speculative, as Mendenhall's injury doesn't sound like it'll be a drawn-out affair (he reportedly has a chance to play in Week 5 against the Titans), plus it's not like anyone has done much running the ball for Pittsburgh: The team is averaging 3.7 yards per carry, tied for 22nd in the NFL.
Bernard Scott, RB, Cincinnati Bengals (5.9 percent) or Brian Leonard (0.1 percent): One assumes at some point the NFL will actually rule on Cedric Benson's appeal of his three-game suspension, and at that point, someone else probably becomes Cincinnati's starting RB. That isn't automatically a recipe for success. Scott has one career NFL rushing TD and has only 13 carries (for only 39 yards) through three games in '11, and Leonard is a glorified fullback who plays mostly on third downs and in the two-minute offense. I can't promise you I know exactly how this all works out. But if Benson misses Week 5 versus the Jaguars, whoever does wind up seeing more carries could make a sneaky bye-week fill-in.
New York Giants Defense (30.5 percent): It's true that the Seattle Seahawks' pass offense has perked up since Sidney Rice returned, and it's true that the Falcons' D mustered only two fantasy points against Seattle last week. But if I'm scouring the wire for a bye-week defense in a standard league, I'm still taking a chance on the G-men. Despite a raft of injuries, this unit hasn't given up the one big explosion of points that's plagued so many other defenses, and now they come home. The Seahawks are typically a worse team on the road, so while I don't feel utterly confident in the Giants D, I think they acquit themselves acceptably well in Week 5.
Mike Nugent, K, Bengals (3.3 percent): The Noodge made a clutch kick to beat the Bills on Sunday, and now has three double-digit fantasy-point games in four outings. He hasn't missed a kick yet this year, and is 3-of-3 from between 40 and 49 yards. Certainly Cincinnati doesn't boast an elite offensive attack, but as a fill-in in Week 5, against the Jaguars, you can do worse.
Other acceptable bye-week substitutes, about whom I've written in previous weeks: Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Tennessee Titans (27.5 percent); Kendall Hunter, RB, San Francisco 49ers (12.0 percent); Delone Carter, RB, Indianapolis Colts (2.4 percent); Jacoby Ford, WR, Raiders (50.8 percent); Jermaine Gresham, TE, Bengals (12.8 percent).
Steve Breaston, WR, Kansas City Chiefs (3.6 percent): Breaston made plays of 42, 28 and 15 yards Sunday, and racked up 91 yards total in Kansas City's win over the Minnesota Vikings. Before Week 4, Breaston had 88 yards in three games combined. Matt Cassel actually looked like a halfway decent QB for much of Sunday's contest, staying away from the big mistake and scrambling more than he'd done during his team's three September losses. I doubt the Chiefs' offense can support two fantasy wideouts worth starting in standard-sized leagues, and Dwayne Bowe comes first on this food chain. But K.C.'s running game doesn't look like it has any workable solutions right now, so maybe the team just throws and throws. That could mean some deep-league-viable numbers for Breaston.
Lex Hilliard, RB, Dolphins (0.1 percent): The Fins are on a bye in Week 5, and one assumes that Daniel Thomas will get healthy with a second week off. But in case his hamstring lingers, Hilliard could be worth a lottery-ticket add in deep leagues. Reggie Bush just can't make much happen between the tackles, and when Miami got near the Chargers' goal line Sunday, it gave it to Hilliard on consecutive 1-yard-plunge tries, and the 240-pound University of Montana bruiser converted on his second chance. Hilliard isn't a dynamic player and won't get much in the way of yardage, but if Thomas isn't healthy, he might be the Dolphins' TD maker.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Raiders (1.0 percent): I know. Ew. Of all the guys I didn't think would benefit from the shoddy Patriots pass rush and pass defense. I bought into Jacoby Ford as an option, and he had one touch from scrimmage for 30 yards. (Better days will be ahead for him.) I believed Denarius Moore might do it again, and he managed three grabs for 19 yards, though he did score a garbage-time TD to save his fantasy owners. But DHB caught four of his seven targets (most on the team) for 115 yards, including a couple of honest-to-goodness clutch plays in which he looked fast and wrestled passes away from defenders. Do I think this is a trend? Probably not. But if you have open roster spots in a 16-team league, could DHB -- an Al Davis fave -- be worth a look? Weirder things have happened. Why, I remember a time when Samkon Gado ruled the waiver wire.
Christian Ponder, QB, Vikings (0.1 percent): How much longer can the Donovan McNabb charade go on? I mean, I'm not trying to tell you Ponder suddenly becomes a great fantasy player if he takes over as Minnesota's starter. The Vikings badly miscalculated their receiving firepower sans Sidney Rice, plus their offensive line is inconsistent, but I actually do feel safe saying Ponder wouldn't be worse than McNabb. This is who McNabb is. He's right in line with his sub-60 percent completion rate. He's still killing you with missed throws to open receivers, and tossing big picks when his team can't afford them. And the team is 0-4. I'm just saying, if you're in a two-QB league, sitting on Ponder wouldn't be the worst idea in the world.
Tim Tebow, QB, Denver Broncos (2.8 percent): And that's true of Tebow as well. If you filter out all the fan noise and tongue-in-cheek media speculation (and the billboards, oh, the billboards), the Broncos really do need to know if they have anything in Tebow. I know he didn't look good in camp or in the preseason. And I know this current coaching administration isn't the one who drafted Tebow. But seeing Cam Newton doing what he's doing does give one pause. Of course, yes, I highly doubt Tebow has a chance of completing some of the accurate lasers Newton unexpectedly shoots. But it's getting to the point where you need to make sure he can't, before you go out and draft Andrew Luck or Matt Barkley or whomever. And as we said all summer, if Tebow gets a starting job, he's as good a bet as Newton or Michael Vick or Aaron Rodgers or any other QB to get a rushing score in any given week.
Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, Atlanta Falcons (1.7 percent): Rodgers is absolutely tiny (listed at a generous 5-foot-6 and 196 pounds) and doesn't seem destined for a major role as a ball carrier anytime soon. But Jason Snelling missed Week 4 with a concussion, and Rodgers played on third downs against Seattle in his stead. He had six carries for 25 yards, but only one catch; in general, I'd actually expect those numbers to be flip-flopped, because Quizz can be a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield. I haven't heard whether Snelling will return this week against the Packers, but the matchup appears right if you're in utter desperate straits and just need to make sure you get something from your final RB spot.
Other acceptable bye-week substitutes for deep-leaguers, about whom I've written in previous weeks: Earnest Graham, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3.1 percent); David Nelson, WR, Buffalo Bills (43.4 percent); Victor Cruz, WR, Giants (19.2 percent); Jared Cook, TE, Titans (3.6 percent).
Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.
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