Commentary

Limiting expectations

Still waiting to see more from Shonn Greene, Percy Harvin, Denarius Moore

Updated: September 24, 2011, 11:00 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Five in depth:

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

1. The ascension of Ben Tate. Tate isn't quite as big as Arian Foster and isn't as good a pass-catcher. But the similarities in their running styles are striking. They are decisive, upfield runners who punish tacklers. On more horizontal plays, they set up blocks well and then explode. And they're momentum guys who, when they break past the defense's first layer, don't go down easily. I have no Rosicrucian insights into Foster's hamstring. All I know is that, when I watched the footage of the Houston Texans' game against the Miami Dolphins this past week, I thought Tate looked like a horse.

Foster took the game's first eight carries, which makes it eminently believable that Gary Kubiak planned to give his All-Pro a full accompaniment of snaps. (Foster had 31 yards on those carries.) But Foster would get only two more carries the rest of the game, as Tate stepped in and powered it 23 times for 103 yards. His very first tote was a Foster-esque gambol into the Miami secondary for 15 yards, and he had 10 total plays (including receptions) that went for 7 or more yards. He just pulverized the Dolphins in the fourth quarter, in clock-killing mode. His fourth-quarter 16-yard run, on which he trampled over Nolan Carroll as if he weren't there, was a sight to behold.

Here's the thing: This Houston offensive line might be the league's best, and I nominate tackles Duane Brown and Eric Winston as the "run-maulingest" tandem in the business. Look at where the Texans have done work on the ground so far this year:

If I'm a Tate owner, I'm not selling high just yet. I think you get a definite fantasy start out of him this week, then, going forward, who knows? The one scenario I'm finding most hard to envision is one in which Foster takes his job back 100 percent and comes anywhere close to last year's per-game workload. In some form, Tate seems here to stay.

2. Shonn Greene just might stink. I'm not sure which way to go here. I've rewatched every New York Jets snap and every Greene carry. I admit he had a couple of nice moments in the big win over the Jacksonville Jaguars this past week, not least of which was a garbage-time 1-yard TD at the end of the third quarter (he was stuffed on his first try but converted his second), only the fifth regular-season touchdown of his career. And I acknowledge that it's sometimes too easy to blame a back for poor results when it's the offensive line that's not burrowing any holes. Narratives are never that simple.

But something's wrong with this picture. It seems to me that nearly every time Greene made something happen on his 16 carries Sunday (he totaled only 49 yards), it was when he bounced it outside. What were supposed to be his trademarks, power runs and tackler flattening, seem lacking to me. Sure, center Nick Mangold got hurt at the end of the first quarter, so maybe that explains some of it. But for a player everyone knows doesn't have elite speed, Greene doesn't seem to be making much happen in the trenches. On runs that STATS Inc. categorizes as "up the middle," Greene has nine carries for 17 yards, a 1.9 average. The days when Greene was averaging 5 yards a pop as Thomas Jones' backup seem like a long time ago, don't they? (It was 2009.) So far this year, he sits at a cool 2.9 overall.

I think it's fair to complain that I'm being too hard on Greene. This isn't the road-grading line we remember from Jones' back-to-back big seasons. But there are teams with worse offensive lines that have rushers making bigger plays. In 75 attempts so far, Greene's longest run is 12 yards. Fifty-four players have rushed for a bigger play through two weeks, including eight quarterbacks and three wide receivers. A guy who can't break big runs, doesn't have a high per-carry average and has five scores in 319 career attempts? Let's just say I'm getting more and more underwhelmed.

[+] EnlargePercy  Harvin
Icon SMIPercy Harvin can do plenty of things on the field, as long as the Vikings have him on the field.

3. Will Percy Harvin please report to the white courtesy telephone? Reporters in Minnesota have asked a lot of questions about Harvin's involvement in the Vikings' offense, turning what might've been interesting box score minutiae into a national story. The Minneapolis ESPN Radio affiliate (ESPN 1500) counted the number of plays for which Harvin was on the field against the Buccaneers in Week 2, and it was alarming: He played 30 out of 68 offensive snaps. This is obviously your best receiving weapon, and he's not on the field more than half the time?

Harvin's numbers this past week -- seven catches for 76 yards -- hide the fact that he was treated like a specialty player. He didn't seem to be on the field in red-zone situations, nor did he play often in two-receiver sets. Instead, Bernard Berrian and Michael Jenkins are rolling out there on most downs. True, when Harvin plays, the Vikes seem committed to giving him the ball in space. He caught downfield passes and little flat passes, and he drew a crucial pass interference call out of the slot in the fourth quarter. Heck, he even motioned into the backfield and took a traditional handoff, gaining 8 yards, and later took a reverse 10 yards. (Pay no attention to his fumble, as it came on the game-ending play as the Vikings were tossing laterals all over the field.) But Harvin isn't Dexter McCluster. He's not a tiny player, and he's not a runner, so Minnesota shouldn't have to worry about overusing him or wearing him down.

Now, all this has turned into a local kerfuffle, so much so that new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave made a point of telling reporters Thursday that he wants Harvin involved more and is considering using him in the red zone again. Well, gee. That's great, Bill. However, I'd like to see it before I'm ready to make a big investment here. I rated Harvin outside my top 30 receivers (if only barely) not because I question Harvin's talent but because I want to see his role get, shall we say, saner.

4. "Deep Sleepers" strike early. Are Eric Decker and/or Denarius Moore ready to be Steve Johnson? Johnson is an alumnus of my Super-Deep Sleeper list from '10 and wound up the No. 10 wide receiver for the season. (Something I'll admit I never would've imagined possible when I put together the list.) This year, Decker and Moore were each on my '11 list and already have produced big fantasy days. But even a cursory analysis illustrates why neither player is likely to "pull a Stevie."

[+] EnlargeDenarius Moore
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesDenarius Moore probably needs another big week or two for many fantasy owners to believe in him.

First off, there are the depth chart issues. When Johnson got his big break, it was alongside a fading Lee Evans who had decided to stop being much of a receiving threat a couple of seasons earlier. Decker's big Week 2 (five grabs for 113 yards and two TDs, with a lost fumble) came with Brandon Lloyd sitting because of an injured groin, and Lloyd should play this week. Moore's breakout game (five catches for 146 yards and a touchdown, plus a near miss on an end-of-game Hail Mary) came because Jacoby Ford, Louis Murphy and Darrius Heyward-Bey were all out. Granted, nobody in that Raiders receiving corps has done anything close to Lloyd's '10 campaign. Still, it's far from a sure thing that this Oakland rookie will bypass everyone to become Jason Campbell's top threat.

And then there are the skills these two kids have. Each looks like a nearly elite-level athlete already. In fact, I daresay Decker and Moore are better running and jumping specimens than the Bills' Johnson. But watch Stevie play and you see a really, really good route runner. Just this past week, I'm thinking of a perfect slant-in in the second quarter that went for 19 yards, followed two plays later by a short out, followed two plays after that by a cross Johnson caught but that was nullified by defensive holding. Johnson isn't a burner, but, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Mike Williams last year, he stands out because he's always where he's supposed to be and his timing always seems to be on with his quarterback. I'm not beating up these other guys, but, in particular, right now, Moore is about running straight down the field. Of his nine targets this year, six have traveled 21 or more yards in the air. Decker focuses more in the 11-20 range, but he's just not the route runner Stevie is yet.

All this isn't meant to bash two young players I really like. It's just to throw cold water on the idea of starting them in standard-sized fantasy leagues just yet. Let's see them do it again, please.

5. Eagles run defense: Great matchup? Statistically speaking, through two games, Philly is one of the NFL's easiest matchups for opposing running backs. The Philadelphia Eagles have allowed 146 rushing yards per game, third worst in the NFL, and have allowed 5.3 yards per carry, second worst in the league. But let's not get carried away. Those composite numbers are skewed by two long carries: a 47-yarder from Steven Jackson and a 61-yarder from Michael Turner. Without those totes, the per-carry average plummets to 3.5, which would place the Philly D sixth in the league.

Of course, that's not fair to do. You also would have to remove the long-gaining plays allowed by the other run defenses that have allowed big'uns. The fact is that, for all the high-priced talent the Eagles lured to play in their defensive secondary and on their defensive line, they probably fell one linebacker short. After two games, rookie Casey Matthews (Clay's brother) has been demoted from the middle linebacker spot and reportedly will now start on the weak side, and Jamar Chaney, a guy who looked as if he had IDP tackling stud written all over him this summer, will jump back inside and play the thumping role in the Eagles' 4-3. Plus, Moise Fokou will move from the weak side to the strong side. Confused yet?

It was alarming to see Matthews freelancing (read: "guessing") on many plays Sunday night versus the Atlanta Falcons. On Turner's long run, for instance, at the snap, you could see Matthews sprint up to the right half of the defensive line, anticipating that Turner was going weak side. He wasn't, and by the time Matthews recovered, he had a face full of Tyson Clabo, he was utterly sealed off and Turner was gone for the game's decisive play. Many Eagles observers never understood the switch, especially considering Matthews was an outside linebacker at Oregon. Now he'll get to rush the passer a bit more, and more reliable Chaney and Fokou will do a bit more plugging of rushing lanes. This won't be a cure-all, and I'm not absolutely sold that the Eagles won't present a nice matchup for opposing rushers when all is said and done. We'll see the results of this change as soon as this week against the New York Giants.

Five in brief:

[+] EnlargeJames Starks
Jeremy Brevard/US PresswireJames Starks is quickly becoming the preferred Packers running back for fantasy purposes.

6. James Starks needs more love. I was the only ESPN.com ranker to put Starks in my top 20 among fantasy rushers this week. Interesting. It's not that the other guys gave much credit to Ryan Grant, who, through two weeks, obviously has taken a backseat in this offense. (In Week 2 against the Carolina Panthers, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that Starks played 37 snaps and Grant played 16.) I guess it's that everyone fears the Chicago Bears defense, which, in two regular-season contests last year, allowed Green Bay 123 yards rushing on 38 carries (3.2 YPC). But remember, in the playoffs last year, Starks carried it 22 times for 74 yards and a touchdown, and, as a team, the Packers had 120 yards rushing on 32 carries. I like the way Starks looks pounding the ball right now, and I watched Chicago let the New Orleans Saints go for 118 rushing yards last week. I'm OK starting Starks.

7. Can we take back all those Reggie Bush pieces from a month ago? Not that anyone on this website was particularly positive about the prospect of Bush as a feature back, but it all seems like much ado about nothing now, doesn't it? A game and a half into his tenure as Miami's leading man, Bush was voted out of office and Daniel Thomas was the man against the Texans. And a rather crucial fumble notwithstanding (which we shouldn't discount), Thomas erased some of his doubters with 107 yards on 18 carries, including eight plays of at least 6 yards. A big man who finally looked decisive and comfortable punching it up between the tackles, Thomas is a natural lead back waiting to happen, and we all know that Bush is most effective when he's lining up all over the place, creating matchup headaches and not getting pulled into gang tackles where his fragile knee can get crunched. I already make Thomas a better fantasy starter, though he's only a borderline flex in 10-team leagues because Bush isn't going away (at least not until he gets hurt).

8. White vs. Talib. Roddy White and Aqib Talib had a couple of testy battles last year, and the Buccaneers corner came out fairly well. Versus Tampa last year, White had 11 catches for 123 yards and no TDs: not terrible, but not particularly Roddy-like. Talib will follow White all over the field Sunday, and although I'm not suggesting you bench White unless you have one whale of a fantasy receiving corps, I am suggesting White isn't a top-10 receiver. When the Falcons drafted Julio Jones, I dropped White out of my preseason top five -- and was surprised to see my ESPN brethren didn't agree with me. Not that I believe the acquisition of a rookie receiver always makes an incumbent worth less but, in this case, where so much of White's value is related to targets (he led the NFL with 179), I did feel it represented a slight chink in the armor. Through two games, we've seen Good Roddy (a whopping 13 targets and eight receptions in Week 1) and Not-As-Good Roddy (just four targets and three catches in Week 2, though he did find the end zone). Heck, when Atlanta can score 35 points against the Eagles and White gets only four targets, you can tell the offense is diversifying.

[+] EnlargeBeanie Wells
Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIBeanie Wells is showing again why he should be a considered a top back, although injury issues this week could limit him.

9. Beanie baby. There's a split among the ESPN rankers when it comes to Beanie Wells. A couple of us are buying, and a couple of us are still doubters. I'm a buyer. Watching the tape on Wells so far this year, you see the Best of Beanie, the man who whetted our appetite with a strong second half to his rookie year. Here once again (finally) is that combination of size and speed you don't find frequently. Twelve of Wells' 32 attempts this season have gone for 6 or more yards, and his per-carry average sits at 5.7. Just as importantly, the other running backs on this team have four carries combined. I've made no secret of my temptation by Beanie in the past. He was a flag player of mine last year, and I suffered mightily as he limped around with a bad knee. And let's not do a victory lap just yet because Wells came down with what The Arizona Republic is characterizing as a "minor" hamstring injury in practice this week. (But when it comes to Beanie, is any injury ever really minor?) Still, I don't view Wells as a sell-high right now. He's playing too well, and with too little competition.

10. The return of Knowshon. Knowshon Moreno missed Week 2 with a hamstring injury and has missed five of his past 14 games because of problems with his legs. I never felt big love for Moreno when he came out of Georgia, and I grew ever more suspicious of him this summer, when Denver Broncos beat reporters kept quoting team sources who maybe viewed Moreno as more of a third-down back. He has practiced on a limited basis this week and probably will be a game-time decision, but even if he goes, I'd rather use Willis McGahee. I went back and watched every one of Moreno's Week 1 carries and McGahee's Week 2 carries, and although I do think the Oakland Raiders probably will prove to be better against the run than the Cincinnati Bengals, the difference was palpable. Moreno wants to miss you. McGahee wants to hurt you. On the second play from scrimmage last week, McGahee plowed up the middle and pounded into Rey Maualuga's chest, announcing his presence with authority. Listen, McGahee doesn't have much speed left in those legs, and there's no question Moreno is the game breaker here. If he plays Sunday, Knowshon has every chance of making me look silly by slipping a tackle and breaking a big one. But McGahee is the guy I'd trust to be more consistent -- and to be a touchdown maker -- as a flex.

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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