Free-agent finds: Week 9
Brown, Heyward-Bey, Ringer, Baldwin, Ogbonnaya emerge as top options
Some scheduling madness dominates the frontal lobe here at Free-Agent Finds this week. You'll note that we're finally done with the four-game stretch during which six NFL teams were on bye at the same time. That was no fun for fantasy owners. When you scrape the bottom of the barrel, and all you get is barrel? Time for NFL teams to get off their tuchus. So you'll only see four teams on bye for Week 9.
Beginning in Week 10, we'll have at least one Thursday game every week (for Thanksgiving it'll be three games), meaning you'll have to remember to submit some players early. Strangely, however, Week 10 also features no bye-week teams, while Week 11 will feature the final four bye-week teams (the Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans). Oh, yeah, and then for Week 16, when many leagues hold their fantasy championships? We'll see one Thursday night game, 13 Saturday afternoon games, one Sunday night game and one Monday night game, because of the Christmas holiday. Nothing like dragging out your league's trophy presentation, eh?
I guess the bottom line is: Be on top of the schedule and your final few (sporadic) bye weeks. And keep coming back to Free-Agent Finds for injury and depth-chart replacements.
Standard ESPN League Finds
Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (owned in 23.8 percent of ESPN.com leagues). Brown tied Pierre Garcon for the most targets in the NFL during Week 8. The New England Patriots were hell-bent on not letting Mike Wallace beat them deep, and thus played a ton of soft Cover 2 against the Steelers' spread formations. That was tailor-made for Brown and Heath Miller, who dominated time after time with underneath grabs. It may not always be thus. Hines Ward's ankle injury probably won't keep him out much longer, and he'll steal targets, plus Emmanuel Sanders (owned in 6.3 percent of leagues) had eight targets himself Sunday and stayed on the field on rare occasions when the Steelers went two-wide. Still, Brown has separated himself as the best No. 2 target here behind Wallace. He's addable in all leagues, though you're likely to see ups and downs in his production.
Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Oakland Raiders (52.3 percent). I didn't want to lead this column with DHB because (a) I've already put him in this column on two previous occasions; and (b) He's already owned in just over half of ESPN.com leagues. Still, I want to plug him in again as a reminder: Heyward-Bey should definitely be owned in all leagues. Add him now. The Raiders' pass attack won't look as terrible as it did in Week 7 versus the Kansas City Chiefs; Carson Palmer simply didn't know the offense. Listen, I'm as skeptical as the next guy about Palmer suddenly blazing a renewed path of glory, but he's not Kyle Boller, for heaven's sake. And lest we forget because of Oakland's Week 8 bye, DHB has four straight games of at least 82 yards receiving, and in that span he's got a whopping 39 targets. Until further notice, he's absolutely the Raiders' No. 1 wideout.
Javon Ringer, RB, Tennessee Titans (2.3 percent). I put Ringer on this list last week, and I wrote: "Ringer isn't anything close to an elite back, and he's nobody you can start in a fantasy league right away. But I think he's definitely worth a stash as this potential melodrama plays out." Well, the melodrama ratcheted one notch higher in Week 8, as Chris Johnson managed 14 carries for 34 yards and Ringer basically replaced him in the fourth quarter. The Titans still swear up and down that CJ0K is their starter and that they'll manage their RB situation on a game-by-game basis. Ringer still isn't startable. But he's ever more addable. Stash him, and let's see what happens.
Jonathan Baldwin, WR, Kansas City Chiefs (0.4 percent). I was a little too high on Steve Breaston this week. I saw potential weakness in the San Diego Chargers' secondary and thought Dwayne Bowe would steal most of their attention, so there would be open looks on the other side of the field. And while Breaston did make a big catch in overtime and managed three grabs for 42 yards overall, it was Baldwin who was on the field more, and appeared to play in most of the Chiefs' two-receiver sets. The mercurial rookie missed the season's first five games because of a broken bone in his hand that he suffered in a locker-room fight, but apparently Baldwin is out of the doghouse and in the starting lineup. I still have big-time questions about this kid's route running, maturity and work ethic, but he flashed his immense talent on a long TD catch Monday night. I'm not sure I'm ready to run him out there in my fantasy lineup just yet, but he should be picked up by any WR-needy squads.
Chris Ogbonnaya, RB, Cleveland Browns (0.2 percent). Montario Hardesty lasted two carries in his spot start Sunday before feeling his calf go kablooey. He'll certainly miss Week 9 and might be out longer, and there's no guarantee that Peyton Hillis' hamstring will be ready for action against the Houston Texans on Sunday. That might leave Ogbonnaya as the starter by default. He's been the Browns' third-down back for a few straight weeks, but don't think of Ogbonnaya as a puny little guy: He's big and solidly built enough to handle a bunch of carries. Unfortunately, he hasn't really ever shown NFL-level talent. If Hillis can't play, Ogbonnaya would be a candidate for 15-plus touches, which is never bad news for fantasy teams in search of desperation options. I'm skeptical Ogbonnaya would do a ton with that workload (after all, he had only 61 yards on 16 touches against the San Francisco 49ers), but it's possible for a one-week wonder to rescue fantasy teams out of nowhere.
Jake Ballard, TE, New York Giants (9.2 percent). Ballard was one terrible deep drop away from a huge game versus the Miami Dolphins in Week 8, but he continued to establish himself as the obvious pass-catching starter in the high-flying Giants offense. His targets have increased in every game since Week 3, and he's got at least 55 yards receiving in three straight. Don't let anyone oversell you on Ballard; he's still not a great week-to-week bet because New York has such good depth at wideout. (It sounds like Hakeem Nicks avoided serious injury to his hammy Sunday.) I don't view Ballard as a serious candidate to crack the tight end top 10 in any of my weekly ranks for the rest of the season. But if you're suffering with someone like Dallas Clark, Ballard may be a better weekly alternative.
Oakland Raiders Defense (13.0 percent). Ick. While this defense has mustered positive fantasy points in five of their seven outings this season, they're tied for 18th in sacks and tied for 25th in turnovers created, which leads them to their No. 27 ranking in fantasy points. And if their offense is going to continue to turn the ball over at such a high rate (they're tied for third for the NFL's most turnovers), well, that doesn't help. But well-rested and home in Week 9, the Raiders will face Tim Tebow and the woeful Denver Broncos offense that just handed the Detroit Lions' D two defensive TDs and 28 fantasy points. Hey, there's no question this could backfire. But I have the Raiders down as my best bye-week fill-in defense if, for example, you normally use that Lions D.
Other acceptable bye-week substitutes, about whom I've written in previous weeks: Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals (17.9 percent); Carson Palmer, QB, Oakland Raiders (19.3 percent); Jackie Battle, RB, Kansas City Chiefs (58.0 percent); Delone Carter, RB, Indianapolis Colts (36.1 percent); Lance Ball, RB, Denver Broncos (0.2 percent); Braylon Edwards, WR, San Francisco 49ers (43.2 percent); Jacoby Jones, WR, Houston Texans (7.8 percent); Heath Miller, TE, Pittsburgh Steelers (42.8 percent).
Deeper League Finds
Curtis Brinkley, RB, San Diego Chargers (0.0 percent). Brinkley is an undrafted 26-year-old who's languished on and off the Chargers' practice squad for the better part of three seasons. He was also the victim of a shooting in 2009, and apparently still has a bullet lodged in the vicinity of his heart. But Brinkley overcame all that to play a significant role Monday night, as Mike Tolbert missed the game because of a hamstring injury, and Ryan Mathews suffered a groin injury during the contest. Unfortunately, after managing 67 yards and a touchdown on 13 touches from scrimmage, Brinkley himself suffered a concussion, and his status for Week 9 is very much up in the air. As such, he's probably really only addable for deep-leaguers.
Tashard Choice, RB, Washington Redskins (1.8 percent). Mike Shanahan got a new toy this week, as he grabbed Choice off waivers from the archrival Cowboys. In Dallas, Choice never lived up to expectations, and consistently ticked off his coaches with spotty pass protection and a lack of durability. In D.C., he'll jump aboard the Shanny RB bandwagon, muddying the near- and long-term futures of Ryan Torain and Roy Helu. For the moment, Choice is the third-stringer in this offense. But the Skins were just shut out, and Torain managed all of 20 yards on nine offensive touches. As I seemingly write every week, will anyone be surprised if someone like Choice comes off the bench to lead Washington in carries at some point? It sounds like a hamstring injury will likely keep Choice out for Week 9, but he could be ready to roll soon thereafter.
Kevin Walter, WR, Houston Texans (27.7 percent). It wasn't a good sign that Andre Johnson was ruled out Friday. It makes you understand that his recovery from hamstring surgery isn't going as smoothly as anticipated. Houston's beat reporters seem relatively convinced that AJ will be highly questionable for Week 9, too, which puts Walter back in the fantasy mix. I still stubbornly prefer Jacoby Jones for his deep-threat upside, but Walter did grab five passes for 70 yards last week, and he does have 27 targets in Johnson's nearly-five-game absence. His upside is capped, but he can be a consistent source of a few points each week.
Kevin Faulk, RB, New England Patriots (0.3 percent). According to ESPNBoston.com, Week 8's snap count for Patriots running backs broke down like this: Faulk played 39 snaps. BenJarvus Green-Ellis played 13. Danny Woodhead played four. And Stevan Ridley played zero. Sweet! Of course, it was the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers were ahead of the Pats all game that determined this usage. Faulk won't always get such a ridiculous workload; when New England has a lead, Green-Ellis will go back to being the man. But the very fact that the 35-year-old Faulk could get such a workload in his first game back from his torn ACL is amazing. You don't want to bet on Bill Belichick's RBs any more than you want to bet on Mike Shanahan's. But those in deeper PPR leagues can once again consider Faulk as fantasy depth.
Brent Celek, TE, Philadelphia Eagles (5.6 percent). Celek broke out in Week 8, catching seven of his nine targets for 94 yards and a TD. And that makes back-to-back strong fantasy games for Celek, who had four grabs for 42 yards and a score back in Week 6. There's some upside here, because when defenses try to stop Philly the way the Cowboys did -- sitting back, containing the Eagles' deep-speed wideouts -- Michael Vick just proved he's willing to use Celek to dink and dunk a defense to death. However, until we see a pattern of teams defending Vick this way, Celek looks more like a one-week wonder than a standard-league fantasy threat.
John Skelton, QB, Arizona Cardinals (0.0 percent). OK, this is ugly. You'd have to be in a deep two-QB league to even consider adding Skelton, who spent his rookie year in '10 compiling a 47.6 completion rate. But Kevin Kolb has a case of turf toe that he claims limits his ability to throw the ball hard, and considering Kolb already didn't exactly have a laser arm, that's a problem. There's a chance that the Cardinals decide to sit Kolb versus the St. Louis Rams this week, and hand the reins to his backup, Skelton. I know, it's not like Larry Fitzgerald has done much with Kolb throwing him the rock. But it's never a terrible plan to invest in the guy tossing to Fitz, especially when the opposing defense is (last week's win over the New Orleans Saints notwithstanding) usually pretty burnable.
Steve Slaton, RB, Miami Dolphins (0.5 percent). Good heavens. Steve Slaton: goal-line back? Yes, indeed, Slaton appeared to inherit that role Sunday versus the New York Giants, getting three looks from the 1. He converted one of them for his first TD since Week 11 of '09. I have a hard time believing this continues. Daniel Thomas will hopefully get his hammy healthy this week, and Reggie Bush is coming off a 100-yard day. Plus Lex Hilliard is a natural in the short-yardage role. Nevertheless, my duty is to report on lottery tickets, and I guess Slaton now qualifies as the unlikeliest of lottery tickets. In, like, 20-team leagues? Yeah, I'm probably still not adding Slaton. But someone truly desperate might.
Other acceptable bye-week substitutes for deep-leaguers, about whom I've written in previous weeks: Kregg Lumpkin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1.5 percent); Chris Ivory, RB, New Orleans Saints (0.5 percent); Lex Hilliard, RB, Miami Dolphins (0.5 percent); Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos (17.5 percent); Laurent Robinson, WR, Dallas Cowboys (1.0 percent); Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle Seahawks (21.3 percent); Greg Salas, WR, St. Louis Rams (0.0 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. He is also the author of the newly published football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com..
Fantasy Football Week 9
LeSean McCoy is second in the NFL in rushing after a 185-yard, 31-fantasy-point outburst against the Cowboys in Week 8.
Fantasy Football Tools
Week 9 Rankings
• Harris: Hard Count
• IDP Rankings for Week 9
• Berry: Love/Hate for Week 9
• Daube: Trendspotting
• Carpenter: Gridiron Challenge preview
• Cockcroft: Consistency ratings
• Harris: Top Week 9 free agents
• Harris: Instant Impressions from Week 8
Bell Injury Blog
• Football Outsiders: Top matchups
• Top 100 flex (RB/WR/TE) rankings
• Ranks reax: Will Cowboys O bounce back?
• Pass Plays: Trade Steve Johnson
• 2011 ranks: Sleeper starters emerging
• Four Downs: Chris Johnson's woes
Fantasy Focus Video
Fantasy Focus Podcast
• Tuesday 3 p.m. ET: Stephania Bell
• Wed. 11 a.m. ET: Tristan H. Cockcroft
• Wednesday 3 p.m. ET: Eric Karabell
• Thursday 11 a.m. ET: Christopher Harris
• Friday 11 a.m. ET: Stephania Bell
• Friday noon ET: Matthew Berry
• Friday 4 p.m. ET: KC Joyner