Commentary

Free-agent finds: Week 16

Demaryius Thomas, Donald Brown, Khalil Bell emerging in recent weeks

Updated: December 21, 2011, 3:49 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

It's time for the fantasy finals, and I have to admit there were precious few fantasy-altering developments in Week 15. Normally I'd be touting this quarterback or that running back as a substitute for an injured dude, but you're not going to find many miracles in my lists below. I did my best.

But as the season crawls to its conclusion, I thought I'd look back on the moments that were decisive for this column, and for fantasy teams in general. Here are, therefore, the top five most crushing injuries of the 2011 fantasy football season.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
AP Photo/Frederick BreedonPeyton Manning was still one of the most highly drafted fantasy QBs this year, but spent the whole season on the sidelines.

5. Peyton Manning. You could make an argument he should be No. 1, considering his neck injury took down an entire high-powered offense rendering Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon and Dallas Clark absolutely useless. It was especially a groin-kick that the true extent of Manning's injury wasn't disclosed until most fantasy drafts were over. But sorry, Peyton, since this was a pre-existing condition, your insurance doesn't cover it, and you don't get top billing here.

4. Andre Johnson. Fantasy's consensus top wideout had a three-year span from '05 to '07 in which he was known as a major injury risk. After the past two years of leg wounds, AJ belongs right back in that category. His first hamstring injury kept him out six weeks and we couldn't find a reliable replacement in the Houston Texans' offense. His second hamstring injury caused us all to throw up our hands in disgust.

3. Fred Jackson. Jackson was a breakout story and a top-three fantasy rusher when he broke his leg in a Week 11 tilt. It was a near-miraculous story for a guy we ranked 30th among RBs this summer and who was entering his age-30 season. Then, just when he seemed as reliable as they come, disaster ensued. Jackson turns 31 in February and has one year left on his deal; he may never do this again.

2. Jamaal Charles. Charles was my No. 4 back entering the season, but some folks had him No. 1. Then he tore his left ACL in Week 2 (smashing into the Detroit Lions' mascot in the process) and suddenly was gone. The only reason this isn't the year's top injury is because it happened so early. Charles' fantasy teams had ample time to find alternatives and/or adjust to last place.

1. Darren McFadden. Thanks, Oakland Raiders. Thanks for calling Run-DMC's injury a "midfoot sprain" for more than a month, before finally letting it slip that it's actually a more serious Lisfranc condition that will probably cause McFadden to miss the season's final nine-plus games. (Although Stephania Bell has a detailed look at the semantics between "midfoot sprain" and Lisfranc with regard to McFadden's injury.) What's extra-crushing here is that McFadden had averaged 5.4 yards per carry and looked like maybe the best RB in football before his injury. Then we had the week-by-week questions about whether he'd play. Then we had the veil removed from our eyes. Humbling. Annoying. Devastating. Yup, that's the injury of the year.

Honorable Mentions: Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson, DeMarco Murray, Greg Jennings, Ahmad Bradshaw, Michael Vick, Matt Schaub, Jahvid Best, Miles Austin, Kenny Britt.

Standard ESPN League Finds

Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos (owned in 32.6 percent of ESPN.com leagues). Thomas has produced 26, 13 and 11 fantasy points the past three weeks; during that span, he has 18 catches for 338 yards and three scores. Week 16's opponent, the Buffalo Bills, are easier to beat on the ground than via the air, plus the game is in Buffalo, so you never know when a snowstorm might limit the Broncos' passing game. But Tim Tebow can make enough throws to at least give Thomas a crack at No. 3 WR value this week in a standard-sized league.

Donald Brown, RB, Indianapolis Colts (20.3 percent). I'd have a really hard time trusting Brown on Thursday night versus a mad-as-hell Houston Texans defense, especially since the Colts keep running Joseph Addai out there as their nominal starter. But Brown is probably the best desperation play among all lightly owned RBs, simply because he's likeliest to grab 15-plus touches from scrimmage. He's not coming anywhere near last week's 161 rushing yards, to be sure, but Brown does have three scores in his past four games.

[+] EnlargeBell
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireKahlil Bell has become a viable fantasy running back, especially thanks to his receiving skills.

Kahlil Bell, RB, Chicago Bears (1.3 percent). I'm not ready to completely discard Marion Barber. I don't think the Bears officially passed the torch from Barber to Bell last week, when Barber had 11 touches from scrimmage and Bell had 20. I think the scoreboard had as much to do with that arrangement as anything, since the Bears went down big in the second half. However, one can easily imagine the same thing happening Sunday night against an angry Green Bay Packers team, which will likely mean Bell will play in a ton of passing situations. Especially in a PPR league, he's a pretty smart add.

Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Oakland Raiders (28.2 percent). He's up. He's down. He vanishes. He reappears. DHB's run of four terrific games from Week 4 to Week 7 (22 catches, 385 yards) followed by six weeks of infrequent usage (who can forget the Thursday night game versus the Chargers when DHB was healthy, played the entire game, and didn't see a single target?) is one of the weirdest stories of the year. And now Heyward-Bey chooses last week to suddenly show some chemistry with Carson Palmer, to look devastating in the open field, and to scorch the Lions for eight grabs, 155 yards and a 43-yard score? I'm tempted to say Heyward-Bey has now surpassed Denarius Moore as Oakland's best WR threat. But I've seen this before. I honestly don't know what to think.

Jabar Gaffney, WR, Washington Redskins (48.4 percent). I listed Gaffney as a deep-league option on this list last week, and also highlighted him on "Fantasy Football Now" as a good flex play last Sunday. Maybe he deserves a step up in weight class? We all know Gaffney is nobody's idea of a special talent, but there's something to be said for running the routes you're supposed to run, being on time where you're supposed to be, and catching passes when they're thrown to you. You probably aren't getting big plays or much upside with Gaffney, but he's got his third straight tremendous matchup; after playing the New England Patriots and New York Giants, he gets the Minnesota Vikings this week.

Lance Ball, RB, Denver Broncos (2.6 percent). Ball could be higher on this list, especially after Willis McGahee was in and out of the Broncos' loss to the Patriots on Sunday with a hamstring problem. But head coach John Fox seems fairly convinced that McGahee will be able to play Sunday in Buffalo, which would relegate Ball back to changeup duty. He did lose a killer fumble in Week 15, but Ball also produced 105 yards and a score on 13 touches from scrimmage, so if McGahee winds up being hurt more severely than we think, I'm guessing Ball would be able to take advantage of a pillow-soft matchup against the Bills.

Denver Broncos D/ST (15.6 percent). You had to shy away from using this unit last week because of the Tom Brady factor, but now it's safe to go right back to them. Denver gets a woeful Bills offense that was on its way to handing the Dolphins' D a huge game in Week 15, but then racked up some fourth-quarter garbage stats trailing big and facing a prevent defense. With the Broncos still leading the AFC West and the Bills playing out the string, I don't imagine we'll see such let-up with this defensive unit. Expect a sack- and turnover-heavy day in the Buffalo elements.

Deeper League Finds

[+] EnlargeKyle Orton
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelKyle Orton passed for 299 yards in the Chiefs' upset of the Packers. He also had 273 yards against them in Week 4 when he was with the Broncos.

Kyle Orton, QB, Kansas City Chiefs (15.0 percent). Orton didn't throw a TD in the Chiefs' upset of the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, but he played fantastically well, making throws Tyler Palko only dreams about, consistently chewing clock and marching the Chiefs up and down the field. KC was still plagued by its red zone problems, kicking field goals instead of registering touchdowns, but finally this team has a big league offense again. If you're in need of someone to fill in as your second QB, Orton is a terrific choice.

Randall Cobb, WR, Green Bay Packers (6.8 percent). While we were all so busy trying to figure out whether James Jones or Donald Driver would be the better guy to fill in for Greg Jennings, Cobb outproduced them both in Week 15 with four grabs for 53 yards and a couple of nice kickoff returns. Alas, I can't imagine we're going to be able to divine any sort of consistent pattern among Jones, Driver and Cobb in the next two weeks, especially since smart money says the Packers will start sitting players as soon as next week (depending on whether the 49ers lose on Saturday). But deep-leaguers can take a crack.

Andre Roberts, WR, Arizona Cardinals (1.4 percent). Why do the Cardinals not seem to see what the rest of us do, namely that John Skelton is a better option at QB than Kevin Kolb? This point might be moot, as Kolb is reportedly still suffering concussion symptoms. And yes, Skelton had a couple of stinkers this year. But his high moments are so much higher than Kolb's, and he's 5-1 in games in which he's been the main man under center. Certainly Larry Fitzgerald owners are hoping Skelton starts in Week 16 against the Cincinnati Bengals, and Roberts, who's scored between six and 12 fantasy points in each of the past three weeks, could become a very-deep-league option.

Stevan Ridley, RB, New England Patriots (4.4 percent). While BenJarvus Green-Ellis was managing 17 yards on 10 carries (with a garbage-time score thrown in), Ridley was powering to 65 yards on 11 carries, eight of which came in the second half as the Pats were slowly choking the life out of the Broncos. I'm not saying I trust Ridley to suddenly be the guy who carries the mail for the Patriots when they have a lead. I'm just saying I don't know what's going to happen this week against the Dolphins. Maybe it's Ridley. Maybe it's the Law Firm. Maybe it's Danny Woodhead or Sam "Bam" Cunningham. I just don't know.

Kellen Clemens, QB, St. Louis Rams (0.0 percent). It sounds like Sam Bradford is most likely done for the remainder of the '11 season, which probably puts Clemens in the starting spot for two more games. He played well against the Bengals on Sunday (25-of-36 for 229 yards, 1 TD and 0 INT), but was under pressure from the game's outset. If you thought that was a lot of pass rush, wait until you see what the angry Pittsburgh Steelers D does to the Rams on Saturday at Heinz Field. Clemens is only a desperation option in deep two-QB leagues.

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.

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