- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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Five in depth
1. Is Carson Palmer a good fit for the Oakland Raiders? Having watched every throw Palmer has made for the past few seasons, I have a knee-jerk reaction to the Raiders acquiring him: It's a shaky fit. It's incorrect to contend that Palmer can't make great throws any longer. He can and did on several occasions last year: Lasers that made you think his old throwing prowess was back. But he also failed on numerous occasions, launching wobblers destined to be easy interceptions when a wideout was open but he just couldn't get the ball there. The Raiders famously (or apocryphally?) want to go vertical when they throw the ball. Will Palmer fill that bill the way strong-armed Jason Campbell (for all his faults) did? After all, the Raiders are averaging 7.25 yards per attempt this season, and last year Campbell averaged 7.26. Meanwhile, Palmer was 22nd in the league with a 6.77 yard average last season.
But to be truthful, 7.25 isn't a high number. It currently ranks 17th in the NFL. Maybe the Raiders don't go down the field as much as we all think in this supposedly vertical offense? Frankly, though, yards per attempt is kind of a lazy benchmark for such things. Let's take a look at where the Raiders actually rank in terms of pass attempts that travel various distances in the air so far in 2011:
Raiders pass attempts, this season
Source: Stats Inc.
As you can see, the Raiders still do wing it deep more than most teams. It's just that they're so run-based, in general; they're one of only three NFL teams to have called more running plays than passing plays so far in '11. Anyway, Palmer might be asked to take five shots of 21 yards or longer per game, where most QBs average two or three. Obviously, five plays don't make an entire game; it's possible for Palmer to be successful in Oakland without being amazing on those five throws. It would be nice, however, for him to be able to take advantage of such opportunities, and last year in Cincinnati his results were variable: 14-of-47 for 574 yards, 6 TDs and 4 INTs. Those numbers are probably about as good as anything Campbell can do deep, but they're not appreciably better. Given how run-heavy the Raiders are, a QB of theirs really needs to consistently hit home runs to be a fantasy starter. I'm skeptical Palmer can.
2. What in the name of Ndamukong Suh is going on here? Listen to the talk-radio jockeys these days and you'd believe the Detroit Lions' defensive line is the second coming of the Purple People Eaters. Suh! Kyle Vanden Bosch! Corey Williams! Cliff Avril! To hear some folks tell it, Nick Fairley's return from an injured foot was the final piece of a domination puzzle. But a funny thing happened on the way to Canton. The Lions' run defense stinks.
Frank Gore lit 'em up for 141 yards on 15 carries last week, including a 47-yard first-quarter run and a 55-yard third-quarter scamper (albeit one that ended in a phantom horse-collar tackle). Matt Forte had 116 yards on 23 carries on "Monday Night Football" in Week 4. The Cowboys managed 113 combined rush yards in Week 3. On average, this Lions D is allowing 5.2 yards per carry, second worst in the NFL. So ignore this page, which claims Detroit is fourth stingiest against fantasy running backs. They simply happen not to have given up many rushing TDs yet. Everything else, though, they seem to allow in droves, including big plays.
Chris Brown over at Grantland has a nice breakdown of the play San Francisco used twice to great effect last Sunday. Essentially, Suh was undisciplined on both occasions, roaring upfield heedless of a blocker coming from the other side, who "whammed" him, opening a Goliath hole for Gore. In truth, though, it isn't up the middle where the Lions are struggling. Even with Gore's 47-yarder right up the gut factored in, opposing backs are averaging just 3.9 yards per carry on such runs. It's toward the edges where you can see a problem:
Opponents vs. Lions run defense, this season
Source: Stats Inc.
Michael Turner isn't exactly a candidate to run reverses directly around the edge of a defense, but he's adept at cutting upfield and toward outside linebackers; in "sideline" carries this year, Turner has 64 totes for 309 yards, a 4.8 yard average. Certainly the Lions will be attuned to the "wham" play that Brown so adeptly detailed, and perhaps Suh's aggression will be mildly chastened. But Suh and Avril, in particular, have to show that they're ready to be complete players, and not just pass-rushing behemoths. This week's matchup for Turner isn't as scary as you might initially fear.
3. Will the Brandon Lloyd magic return in St. Louis? I think the Broncos did well to get anything for Lloyd, an impending free agent. Is a sixth-rounder much? It is not. But for 10 weeks' worth of rental? I think it's probably about fair. Why the winless Rams decided to give up a pick for a receiver they probably shouldn't keep next season (Lloyd is 30 and will likely try to break the bank with one final contract) is another question entirely. Maybe the incumbent coaching staff in St. Louis has some concern about job security. Regardless, it's hard not to argue that the move east is a big boon to Lloyd. He gets away from Tim Tebow's accuracy questions, and jumps right into a Josh McDaniels offense with which he's eminently familiar. There's some OK potential in that Rams receiving corps, but Lloyd is instantly entrenched as a No. 1 option who'll get the most targets -- and the most defensive attention -- many weeks.
But even if Sam Bradford can play with his high ankle sprain (as of this writing, there were conflicting reports regarding Bradford's status), how excited should we be? I mean, obviously, Lloyd has the upside to lead the NFL in receiving yards. Will he break free from his awful beginning (he's currently 42nd among WRs in fantasy points per game) and become a must-start once again? I have hopes. But the answer to that question really comes down to the Rams' offensive line.
Let's run through the carnage. Left tackle Rodger Saffold suffered a leg injury last week, and while the problem isn't as severe as initially feared, he could be limited Sunday versus the Cowboys. Left guard Jacob Bell has hobbled around with a bad hammy for a couple of weeks. Center Jason Brown has been a disappointment since signing for $20 million guaranteed a couple of years back. Right guard Harvey Dahl is a good player, but right tackle Jason Smith, a former No. 2 overall pick, has been a pretty major bust and has been benched at times this year. Bradford has been sacked 21 times, most of any QB in the league, and he's played only five contests. If you're looking for a reason for Bradford's 53.1 percent completion rate, look no further.
I'm not sure Lloyd really addresses what's wrong here, but he doesn't hurt. I'll be interested to see whether Danario Alexander or Brandon Gibson lines up opposite Lloyd in two-receiver sets; I hope it'll be Alexander, because I felt he had something of a breakout contest last week versus the Packers, looking big, fast and physical for much of the afternoon. But obviously, if you're starting any Rams pass-catcher and crossing your fingers, it's Lloyd.
4. Carson's new crew. Palmer's trade to Oakland is great news for Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford, if only because they were staring at 10 games with Kyle Boller as their starting QB. Fortunately, that won't happen now. DHB is riding a three-game streak in which he's led the Raiders in targets and been the clear preferred outside threat, mustering 17 grabs for 296 yards and a score in that span. There are many interesting-if-imperfect speed weapons on the roster, so I'm not ready to proclaim Heyward-Bey "The Man" for the rest of the year. But it would be shortsighted not to rank him as the best fantasy option this week.
But who comes next? The other ESPN.com rankers say it's Ford, presumably based on the strength of his 10-fantasy-point effort in Week 6 against the Browns. Ford's world-class sprinter's speed led to a 101-yard kickoff return for a TD, the fourth such scoring play of his 20-game NFL career. He also had four targets in the passing game, the same total as Moore, and while Moore grabbed only one of his looks for a paltry 9 yards, Ford had three catches for 43 yards. (Moore also had a carry on a reverse, for minus-3 yards, but Ford is often used thusly, as well.) I like Ford, and was frankly fooled into thinking that when his hamstring got right, he would be the best Oakland receiver to own. But as DHB has emerged, Ford's playing time has diminished; he's typically the slot receiver, and Moore plays in two-wideout sets. As you can see, the Raiders have gone two-wide (or fewer) quite a bit in their past three games:
Raiders offensive breakdown, this season
Source: Stats Inc.
Hey, I'm not trying to sell you on Moore as an every-week starter; for the moment, DHB appears to be ahead of him in the pecking order. But I am telling you that outside of return-yards leagues, Moore should be considered a better starting option than Ford, last week's results notwithstanding. Clearly, if you're in a return-yards league, Ford is more valuable. But given how often they're out on the field, Moore is the likelier high-upside guy to break out in any given week. He's No. 34 in my WR ranks this week; Ford, who doesn't play on more than half the Raiders' offensive snaps at the moment, is 42nd.
5. Are we really supposed to trust Matt Cassel again? On the heels of a four-TD effort from Cassel against the Colts a couple of weeks back -- which was followed by a bye -- our ESPN rankers seem to believe in the Chiefs QB. As a group, we rate Cassel our No. 15 QB of the week, but one of our guys has him at No. 10, while I have him at No. 19. Granted, players such as Tom Brady, Michael Vick, Eli Manning and Ryan Fitzpatrick are out this week, and granted, the Raiders are allowing an average of 18.8 fantasy points per game to opposing QBs, third most in the NFL. But to rate Cassel as highly as we've done is to consider him roughly a league-average fantasy signal-caller, and I'm not ready to go there again.
Even with Jamaal Charles gone, Cassel and the Chiefs' passing game have crawled into a shell. This wasn't a downfield passing team last year, averaging just 5.8 yards at the catch, but back then they had an excuse: Charles was setting the league ablaze, and as a whole the offense was the run-heaviest in the entire league, calling running plays on 53.9 percent of their snaps. This year, they're down to 49.8 percent (still high, but not the highest), yet Cassel's yards-at-the-catch average is down to 5.3 even as his completion rate has risen to a nice-looking 66.4 percent. Dinky. Dunky. Doo. Nobody in the NFL has made fewer first downs via the pass this season than Kansas City, and the Chiefs are 25th in pass plays of 25 yards or more. Until Week 5, Cassel had just four touchdowns and five interceptions.
Heck, I'll give Cassel his big fantasy day in Indy. Even including that (I say) anomalous output, Cassel's stats in his past 10 starts have been far shy of glorious: 13 TDs, 11 INTs and an average of 182.4 passing yards per game. What you have to ask yourself is whether Cassel's hot start last year (remember, he was inside the fantasy top 10 for QBs for much of the season) was the exception or the rule. Until I see more risk-taking and more aerial weaponry out of the Chiefs, I'm going to say "Exception."
Five in brief
6. Who's Jackie Battle again? We fantasy owners are like dogs: We really only remember what's been in front of us most recently. The Chiefs were on a bye last week, so many of us have forgotten that Battle torched the Colts for 19 carries and 119 yards out of nowhere the previous week, seemingly wresting the starting RB job from Thomas Jones. While I'm not a big fan of Cassel this week, I ranked Battle 16th, because I think Todd Haley truly wants to find out whether he's got a new full-time No. 1 back this week against the Raiders. (And Oakland may statistically be a good team for fantasy QBs to face, but it is definitely a bad team stopping the run.) If KC had had a game in Week 6, Battle would've been added in many more leagues, but because of the schedule quirk, he's still owned in only 39.1 percent of leagues. He should be picked up in many more than that before Sunday. At 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds, Battle ran a 4.42 40, which wasn't enough to get him drafted out of the run 'n' shoot at the University of Houston, but which does indicate the kind of measurables we're dealing with. I've never seen Battle run and thought, "Wow, that's an explosive NFL player." But beggars can't be choosers, and the man could get the ball 20 times Sunday.
7. Speaking of undrafted rookies, um, who's Doug Baldwin exactly? No, he's not the missing Baldwin brother. This Baldwin is a kid who caught 58 passes and nine TDs from Andrew Luck at Stanford last year, and who snuck onto the Seahawks' roster as a free-agent invitee this summer. In the two games before Seattle's bye, Baldwin had 13 catches for 220 yards and a score, plus in the season opener he added four grabs for 83 yards and another TD. Heck, he's fantasy's No. 24 WR on a per-game basis so far this year. He's also owned in only 24.3 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues. Should we all be buying? Well, I don't mind him as a flyer, but I have to say the fact the other rankers put him as a top-30 WR this week piques my interest. (I listed him at No. 40.) Baldwin is a respectable 30th in yards-at-the-catch among WRs this year (10.6). But while I hate to be dogmatic or stubborn about labels, this is still a very small player who lines up in the slot. How many pure slot receivers outside of Wes Welker are consistent fantasy threats in standard leagues? Victor Cruz has had a couple of big games. But how'd he produce last week? (Hint: two catches for 12 yards). David Nelson has been OK, too, but that's the level of player I think we're talking about here. I'm willing to watch Baldwin closely. I'm just not ready to start him in fantasy leagues.
8. But as for this Greg Little fellow I wrote at length about Little in last week's Hard Count, and concluded that Little was in a perfect sweet spot to finally help make a Browns wideout relevant for fantasy football again. Versus the Raiders last week, he started in two-receiver sets and mostly did bump inside to the slot on third downs, and it worked out exceedingly well: Little had 12 targets (no other Cleveland receiver had more than seven) and six grabs for 72 yards. Plus, he should've scored a touchdown, but fell down untouched within inches of the Oakland end zone. Little is still owned in only 7.8 percent of ESPN.com leagues, probably because of that ugly orange helmet he wears, but I'm telling you: This guy is legit. He'll be out there for every snap Sunday against a depleted Seahawks secondary (which will be missing Marcus Trufant for the rest of the year) and he's at the perfect confluence of Colt McCoy's middling arm strength and Pat Shurmur's conservative play-calling. I ranked Little as a top-30 fantasy wideout this week, and he's got the potential to be even more than that in PPR leagues.
9. Who's the right guy to play in the absence of Jahvid Best? Best will almost certainly miss this week's tilt against the Falcons because of a concussion; injuries were always the reason to be suspicious of Best, and here he is, falling prey to those suspicions. It's a shame, too, because while he hasn't been great on the ground (65 yards per game), he's been a monster catching the ball (27 grabs for 287 yards receiving). In fact, Best is one of only 11 RBs averaging more than 100 yards from scrimmage per game. With him gone for now, Maurice Morris looks like a good bet to lead the Lions in RB touches. Detroit is currently first in the NFL in passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage, which reflects how important the screen game is to Scott Linehan's offense, and they run a whopping 68.8 percent of their plays out of the shotgun formation, easily the highest such rate in the NFL (the Carolina Panthers are second with 57.6 percent). Morris is a good pass-catcher who knows Linehan's system quite well, having worked in it for two-plus seasons now, and he produced a few fine efforts with Best hobbled last year (including scoring a TD in each of the season's final three games). Keiland Williams is also a good pass-catcher and weighs 20 pounds more, so he might wind up the goal-line back, but he's newer to the system. I have Morris rated No. 27 among RBs this week and Williams rated 37th.
10. While we're at it, who's the best bet to replace Felix Jones? Jones is out with a high ankle sprain and once he left last week's game against the Patriots, DeMarco Murray had nine carries for 30 yards while Tashard Choice (who'd lost a fumble deep in New England territory earlier in the game) had three carries for 17 yards (eight of which came on a "give-up-the-ghost" third-and-long run). I don't think we truly know how Jason Garrett will dole out the work versus the Rams this week, and it's fair to say he could change his plans based on who looks better once the game begins. But remember how I just said the Lions have thrown the most passes behind the line of scrimmage so far this season? The Cowboys have thrown the third most. Felix Jones may have caught only 14 balls so far this year, but he, Choice, Murray, Martellus Bennett, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Kevin Ogletree, John Phillips and Laurent Robinson have all seen multiple screen targets over the course of five games. And of that group, nobody is better suited to be a demon in the short-passing game than Murray. His senior year at Oklahoma, Murray had 71 catches and 594 receiving yards, and is a very dangerous player in space. That potential prowess in the screen game and his 3-to-1 carry advantage over Choice late last week led me to rank Murray No. 18 among fantasy RBs this week, while Choice is 30th on my list.
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.
22hPat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler