Grand Theft Roto: Identifying the important trends


There are two ways of following trends, and to my mind, they result in very different outcomes.

In fashion, one can blindly follow a trend and end up wearing parachute pants, a blazer with a hoodie underneath, or any number of other ill-advised looks. Or you can track trends until one arises that interests you.

The same goes for economics. Some people sell when everyone else is selling, buy whatever everyone else is buying and then wonder why they aren't doing better. The guys who get rich study the trends as they're happening and then use them to guess correctly what will happen next.

When it comes to making trades in fantasy football, the same rules apply. By the time a player has had several good weeks in a row, everyone wants him and he's gone from trendy to spendy. Likewise, it's too late to deal a player by the time he's being dropped in most leagues. At that point, you're following a trend, and by "following" I mean you're behind it. To get ahead, you've got to identify trends that precede production.

Casing the joint

It's officially too late now to get Matt Schaub. I pimped him a week ago when his upward trend was emerging, but now he's the hottest quarterback this side of the river … or Philip Rivers. You're also a bit tardy if you're fishing for Chad Pennington, who has been trending up for weeks. But look at Eli Manning, who, while still owned in 100 percent of ESPN leagues, is being started less and less since his Week 6 stinker against the Browns. His overall stats have trended down, as he hasn't thrown for more than 200 yards in a game since Week 5, but he also has thrown for a touchdown in every game during his "slide," so it's not as though he's truly in freefall. He also has been sacked only once in that three-game stretch. That's the trend I'm watching. How often have you heard analysts say, "Any NFL quarterback can pick you apart if you're not putting pressure on him"? Manning's line is protecting him well right now, and that will eventually turn into production.

A player's negative trend can be a sign to deal him, but it often also suggests who might be worth grabbing. With running backs, I look for trends in touches in general, though red-zone touches get bonus points. Edgerrin James is still technically the starting back for Cardinals, but the use of Tim Hightower and Edge shows a trend that makes the rookie worthy of an investment. I'll go in deeper on this later, but James' downward trend in touches, especially when the Cardinals are in the red zone, suggests big things could be coming for Hightower.

When it comes to wide receivers and tight ends, I look at targets more than actual catches or yards because that's the ultimate arbiter of who will be productive in the long run. When a receiver sees a consistent stream of passes come his way, it means his offensive coordinator and quarterback both have faith in him. So even if he's not catching all those throws, he remains a viable option. That's why I'm buying Jerricho Cotchery like crazy despite the fact he hasn't seen the end zone since September. He's been Brett Favre's top wide receiver target two weeks in a row and has seen an average of 9.7 passes come his way each week in October. Conversely, even though Malcolm Floyd has scored in two of the Chargers' past three games, his production trend runs counter to his opportunities. He has never seen more than five passes in a week, however, with his Week 10 matchup against the Chiefs, he's a perfect guy to dangle out there for anyone who has to bench Terrell Owens, Roy E. Williams, T.J. Houshmandzadeh or Santana Moss for their byes.

Track the trends, and not the ones that always fill up the stat sheet right away, and you could be dressed for trade success … or at least avoid the parachute pants.

Three I'm stealing

Tim Hightower, RB, Cardinals: I said I'd get back to him. In the past three games, Edgerrin James has had 39 touches (rushing attempts plus targets) while Hightower has had 30. The thing is, Edge had 23 of his touches in Week 5 and has watched his opportunities taper since. Hightower's opportunities have held steady; plus, he has touched the ball more than twice as often as James in the red zone during that span, resulting in three touchdowns for the rookie against only one for the veteran. I'm confident he'll be a viable flex option by playoff time. Could he be more? Yes, and all it takes is coach Ken Whisenhunt taking the training wheels off.

Ronnie Brown, RB, Dolphins: I am so glad that Brown has done absolutely nothing the past two weeks because it has brought his trade value back into the area where he's obtainable, even though he shouldn't be. The fact is, Brown has had either 13 or 14 carries in each of the past three weeks. It's just that the past two games have been against the Ravens and the Bills, two very good defenses against the run. But during those two games, Brown got 10 red-zone touches to lead the entire Dolphins team, including Chad Pennington. Yes, Brown has touched the ball more often inside the 20 in weeks 7 and 8 than the quarterback has, thanks to that gadget formation in which he takes the snap. Brown is going to be fine, and he has a schedule from heaven, starting with the Broncos this week.

Reggie Wayne, WR, Colts: We all saw the Colts look very bad against the undefeated Titans on Monday Night Football. We heard ESPN's announcing troika repeatedly talk about how the Colts looked just a step off. We watched Wayne catch only three balls for 29 yards, his second subpar outing in a row. I'm here to tell you that even if the Colts never quite get their offense firing on all cylinders, Wayne's best days are still on the way because Manning keeps looking his way. Wayne's 27 targets over the past three weeks leads the team and now that Dallas Clark is starting to emerge and Joseph Addai is close to returning, defenses won't be able to key on Wayne anymore. I'm bullish on the buy-low option.

Three I'm dealing

Julius Jones, RB, Seahawks: Jones is still the 22nd-ranked running back in terms of total fantasy points on the season, but he is officially useless. Not only have his carries and rushing yardage declined four weeks in row, but since Maurice Morris returned from injury, Jones has ranked third on the team in terms of red-zone touches by running backs. I'll admit, maybe I'm too late to recommend dealing Jones, but if you ask for just a little more than nothing back, you might get it.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh, WR, Bengals: You want to point to Housh's 23 catches over the past three games to show he's Ryan Fitzpatrick's favorite target? Feel free. I'll point to the fact that he hasn't broken the 60-yard mark in any of those games and that Fitzpatrick has been sacked 14 times in that span, more than anyone else in the NFL. I don't believe Carson Palmer's coming back this year. I don't believe Fitzpatrick will ever be able to make the Bengals' offense dynamic. And I don't believe people will still think Housh is a fantasy commodity for many more weeks, except in deep point-per-reception leagues.

Isaac Bruce, WR, 49ers: There was a time about a month ago when I started to believe that Bruce, reunited with his old pal Mike Martz, was ready to recreate some of the magic they had together when Martz was calling the plays in St. Louis and Bruce was a game-breaking receiver. But Bruce has settled into a pattern of seeing about five balls a game the past three weeks, and now there's a quarterback controversy since the quotable new coach, Mike Singletary, replaced J.T. O'Sullivan with Shaun Hill. Let's do the math: "Aging receiver" plus "Mike Martz not getting his way" equals "sell." Because of the Niners' bye, you may have to wait a week until someone has Week 10 woes due to injury or byes. Just don't ask too much in return.

Pulling the job

One deal to report this week, and certainly not a GTR, as it was about self-preservation.

I'm the defending champ in my home league, but in the past month I have lost Tony Romo, Joseph Addai and Willie Parker all to injury, accounting for three of my top four picks in the draft. Still, I sat at 4-3 going into Week 8, but I realized I needed to improve my chances of winning right away and address my issues at wide receiver, where Larry Fitzgerald was my only standout.

With Parker's injury lingering and the prospect of not having a second, healthy, starting back to put in my lineup, I dealt Matt Jones and Parker to the first-place team in our league in exchange for Bernard Berrian on a bye and Dominic Rhodes. The move gave me Addai's handcuff, and a starter who performed well in Week 8 thanks to catching eight passes in a PPR format.

If Fast Willie does return with a vengeance, I may regret this deal. But if Berrian blossoms in the playoffs as I predicted a week ago, and the Colts' backfield stabilizes, this quiet little value-for-value deal might steal me the league for the second year in a row.