Free-agent finds: Week 17
Final week of season offers variety of late risers and fill-ins for resting stars
You want to know what's awesome?
Sitting around watching a blowout "Monday Night Football" game -- New Orleans Saints versus Atlanta Falcons -- listening to everyone gush about Drew Brees breaking Dan Marino's record for passing yards in a season and knowing that Brees won't be pulled despite the score, not until he breaks the record.
You want to know what else is awesome?
Watching the Saints drive in their two-minute offense for some reason with the score 38-16 and just a few minutes remaining (yeah, real holistic record there, Drew) and seeing Darren Sproles is on the field the whole time.
You want to know what else is awesome?
Seeing the Saints inside the Falcons' 10-yard line, watching Sproles start his pass pattern, seeing Brees look his way, knowing what's coming next, watching Sproles catch a meaningless TD that sends everyone in the Superdome into paroxysms of glee, and playing against Sproles in the finals of one of my experts league and having the narrowest of leads evaporate on the Saints' final offensive play of the game.
You want to know what ELSE is awesome?
Having to write a column about fantasy football the next morning.
Ah, well. It's been a "fun" season. If by "fun" you mean gut-wrenching, annoying, heartbreaking and murderous. Can't wait to do it all again next year. In the meantime, standard ESPN.com leagues are entering the second week of their finals, also known as Jim Sorgi Week, in honor of the former Indianapolis Colts backup who usually spelled Peyton Manning in Week 17. Many stars will sit, while obscure players will rack up tasty stats. The results will be somewhat random, but let's take a stab at finding a few out-of-nowhere fantasy contributors here at the end.
Standard ESPN League Finds
Kahlil Bell, RB, Chicago Bears (owned in 40.1 percent of ESPN.com leagues). Bell played well versus the Green Bay Packers this past Sunday night, to the tune of a career-high 121 yards on 23 carries, and is locked in as Chicago's starter in Week 17 versus the Minnesota Vikings. Marion Barber is injured and on the outs and won't be on the Bears' roster next season. We saw a glimmer of what Bell could do toward the end of '09, when Matt Forte was playing hurt, as Bell vultured double-digit carries on a couple occasions. But Bell's performance the past couple weeks has been a revelation. Maybe this is simply a limited sample size, and Bell will regress. But in the moment, he might be giving the Bears pause about paying Forte a king's ransom this offseason.
Toby Gerhart, RB, Minnesota Vikings (36.4 percent). Adrian Peterson's injury is a crusher for so many reasons, not least because it almost certainly means the pedestrian Gerhart will be Minnesota's Week 1 starter next season. Some days, that'll be worth something, because Gerhart is a plugger who gets what's blocked and can catch the ball on occasion. But he has minimal evasiveness and only average explosiveness. Sunday, he gets a very difficult Bears defense. He'll have 20-plus touches, which is valuable, but I can't promise he'll do a ton with them.
Chris Ivory, RB, New Orleans Saints (3.1 percent). The Saints are technically still alive for the NFC's No. 2 seed but would need the San Francisco 49ers to lose to the St. Louis Rams. Doubtful. My guess is that Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram get a whole lot of rest in Week 17, and the guy they don't plan on using much in the playoffs, Ivory, carries the mail. There's risk here, but I'd be genuinely shocked if Ivory doesn't easily lead his team in RB touches Sunday.
Matt Flynn, QB, Green Bay Packers (0.3 percent). The Packers clinched the NFC's No. 1 seed, meaning if Aaron Rodgers plays at all in Week 17, it will be purely ceremonial. Flynn, an impending free agent, will get his audition for next season here. Of course, it's unlikely he'll have Jordy Nelson or Jermichael Finley to throw to for very long, if at all, and the Packers' O-line is beaten up. Still, Flynn will be in the mix to be some NFL team's starting QB next season because he's a good player, and my guess is he throws for 200-plus yards and a score or two Sunday.
Evan Royster, RB, Washington Redskins (2.2 percent). If we knew for sure that Roy Helu would miss Week 17, Royster would be higher on this list. He was never an exceedingly talented player at Penn State, but he's serviceable and rolled to 132 yards on 19 carries last week against the Vikings. Anyone who has been relying on Helu late in the season should make this pickup tout de suite.
Jared Cook, TE, Tennessee Titans (7.6 percent). All Cook has done the past two weeks is catch 17 passes for 272 yards and a TD. It makes you wonder what he might've done all season had the Titans thrown it to him more than five times a game even once before Week 15. This isn't a fluke; Cook is a beastly physical specimen in the Rob Gronkowski mold but has reportedly had occasional struggles with the mental side of the game, plus he has been required to block a lot this season. Still, you could do much worse than roll into the last week of your fantasy finals with him in your starting lineup.
Brandon Saine, RB, Green Bay Packers (0.6 percent). Yes, the Packers will find their Week 17 matchup against the Detroit Lions meaningless, and James Starks almost certainly won't play after aggravating his ankle injury yet again Sunday night. Ryan Grant may start here, but I'll lay dollars to donuts that Saine will lead his team in RB carries. He did suffer a concussion a few weeks back, but briefly made it onto the field versus the Chicago Bears last week.
Randall Cobb, WR, Green Bay Packers (0.2 percent). And yes, if you were going to count on any Packers receiver to stay on the field throughout a meaningless contest, it would probably be the rookie who has the most to learn even as his mates are going through the motions. I have a feeling we're going to be hearing the "Flynn to Cobb" connection several times in Week 17.
Stevan Ridley, RB, New England Patriots (4.4 percent). BenJarvus Green-Ellis is an impending free agent, and the way the Pats have used him over the past month, it's easy to envision a scenario in which BJGE is allowed to walk in '12. Amazingly, Green-Ellis hasn't eclipsed 20 yards rushing in four consecutive games, so when he doesn't randomly fall into the end zone, he's utterly worthless. Meanwhile, Ridley has 24 carries the past two weeks and is playing on third downs and in spread formations, and he occasionally plays ahead of the Law Firm on early downs, too. I hesitate to trust anything Bill Belichick does with his RBs, but Ridley will be the highest-rated New England rusher on my list this week.
Miami Dolphins Defense (4.7 percent). The Dolphins' D submitted yeoman's work versus the Patriots last week, becoming the first fantasy D since Week 11 not to produce negative fantasy points when playing New England. The matchup should be easier in Week 17 versus the New York Jets. I hesitate to guarantee anything here, especially since Miami is playing out the string with an interim coach and Rex Ryan's group is fighting for its playoff life. But that Jets offense has allowed double-digit fantasy points to opposing defenses in six of 15 games this season, including the past two. If you're not sold on Miami, you could look at the Cleveland Browns' D (15.4 percent), which has played decently of late and takes on a Pittsburgh Steelers team that will probably be resting a bunch of stars.
Deeper League Finds
Dion Lewis, RB, Philadelphia Eagles (0.2 percent). Monday saw conflicting reports about LeSean McCoy's availability for Week 17's meaningless tilt against the Washington Redskins. McCoy was in and out of Philly's win in Dallas last week because of an injured ankle, though Andy Reid seems to believe his star rusher will suit up. If he doesn't, the RB job would be split between Lewis and Ronnie Brown (11.2 percent), and I'd probably prefer Lewis for his explosiveness.
Vincent Brown, WR, San Diego Chargers (1.2 percent). Since San Diego is eliminated from the playoffs (can we finally put the whole "unbeatable in December and January" thing to rest now?), Vincent Jackson almost certainly won't play in Week 17 because of his injured groin. That makes Malcom Floyd an attractive fantasy starter, but it also makes rookie Brown usable in deeper leagues. When he has gotten chances this season, Brown has produced some big plays and has earned Philip Rivers' trust.
Damian Williams, WR, Tennessee Titans (9.5 percent). Nate Washington has made flashier plays, but I think Williams is the most consistent wideout Tennessee has at the moment. He's unspectacular in most areas but pretty good at everything; he's not big and he's not a burner, but Williams is quick and catches most everything thrown his way, plus he is almost always a handful to tackle. Yes, I'll rate Washington higher this week in a must-win for the Titans, but Williams deserves deep-league consideration.
Titus Young, WR, Detroit Lions (4.7 percent). With a win in Green Bay, the Lions can lock up the NFC's No. 5 spot, which would mean they'd avoid the New Orleans Saints in the first round and play at the unimpressive NFC East champ instead. That gives them some motivation to use their starters, but in a game in which I can't see the Packers offering a ton of resistance, I still think you'll see the Lions rest some stars in the second half, and that could mean some extended frontline work for Young, a rookie who needs reps.
Jason Snelling, RB, Atlanta Falcons (1.8 percent). Falcons RBs have a sweet matchup against the wilted Bucs' defense this week but will be scoreboard watching, as a Lions victory locks the Falcons into the No. 6 seed (and probably a return engagement in New Orleans with the Saints during wild-card weekend). Michael Turner looks cooked over the past month or so, which makes it likely that Atlanta will try to rest him if the Lions are beating the Packers' reserves. That might put Snelling in line for some protracted work, though rookie Jacquizz Rodgers (1.7 percent) would also play a lot under such a scenario.
Kendall Hunter, RB, San Francisco 49ers (18.3 percent). Frank Gore has averaged 3.7 yards per carry or fewer in six of his past seven games, lending credence to the notion that he is beaten up and/or aging quickly before our eyes. Last week, Hunter was significantly more impressive than Gore, with 73 quick yards on 12 carries. The Niners will roll with their starters in St. Louis to lock up the NFC's No. 2 seed, which probably puts Gore in line for most of the early work, but Hunter will find himself in the mix, and if San Francisco pulls way ahead late, Hunter would figure to be the man.
Josh McCown, QB, Chicago Bears (0.2 percent). Those in two-QB leagues could look at McCown as a Hail Mary fill-in against an injury-ravaged and ineffective Vikings secondary. In Week 16, McCown played much better than Caleb Hanie had been playing, and will no doubt start the Bears' meaningless finale. My guess is that he improves on the 19-of-28 for 242 yards, a TD and two INTs he produced against Green Bay.
Chase Daniel, QB, New Orleans Saints (0.1 percent). Now that Brees has his record and since New Orleans only has an outside crack at a first-round bye, expect to see a whole bunch of Daniel on Sunday versus the Carolina Panthers. Ordinarily, you might be tempted to believe that's a valuable role, given the Saints' high-octane attack. But the regular pass-catchers in this offense figure to rest, too, so Daniel may find himself throwing a bunch the likes of Adrian Arrington and John Gilmore.
Charlie Batch, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers (0.2 percent). In a shutout win over the St. Louis Rams last week, Batch was a modest 15-of-22 for 208 yards, zero TDs and an INT. I fully expect Ben Roethlisberger to sit again Sunday in effort to rest his injured ankle and in anticipation of a likely wild-card matchup at the AFC West winner. But Batch won't be given much more to do versus the Cleveland Browns this week than he was against St. Louis, meaning you can probably do better.
Hines Ward, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (39.5 percent). Speaking of guys you can probably do better than, I only mention Ward here because he now has 995 career receptions, and I'm guessing that one of Pittsburgh's primary goals for Sunday's game in Cleveland will be to make darn well sure that Ward gets to 1,000. Of course, his playmaking skills are all but gone.
Joique Bell, RB, Detroit Lions (0.0 percent). No, you probably shouldn't start this Bell no matter how deep your league is, but I figured it's worth mentioning that Kevin Smith had to come out of the Lions' big win over the San Diego Chargers last week because of lingering ankle troubles, and if the Lions decide to pull their starters, it's possible Bell winds up the garbage-time benefactor. Recently signed off the Saints' practice squad, Bell would be a risk-free alternative for the Lions to try to get Smith to the playoffs intact.
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 17
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Fantasy Football Tools• Backfield Chart | Week 17 Projections
Week 17 Rankings
Bell Injury Blog
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Fantasy Focus Podcast
• Monday 11 a.m. ET: AJ Mass
• Tuesday 3 p.m. ET: Stephania Bell (injuries)
• Wednesday, 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 (Injuries)
• Friday, 12 p.m. ET: Matthew Berry
• Friday, 3 p.m. ET: KC Joyner