Commentary

Grossman, Mathews among best bets

How to handle Giants RBs, Packers WRs, resurgent Marshawn Lynch

Updated: December 16, 2011, 5:49 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Five In Depth

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

This week I'm devoting this column to 10 players about whom my opinion seems to vary compared to the rest of the ESPN.com rankers. You'll notice a pattern in the reasons for my differences throughout this list: I'm relying on the Strength of Schedule metric that I discussed in last week's Hard Count. Often I'll meditate on areas where I think the recent statistics don't back up conventional wisdom, and I'll try and figure out why. And sometimes I'll just go ahead and violate my own logic.

1. The Washington Redskins passing game deserves love. For all the endless media hype about how bad the New England Patriots pass defense is (remember how your humble scribe referred to the Pats as the "Phoenix Suns of the NFL" way back in Week 2?), Rex Grossman "only" managed 14 fantasy points against them last week. The average QB typically nets 14.2 in a given week. So why give Grossman the nod as a possible substitute for, say, Matt Schaub owners in their fantasy playoffs?

Because the New York Giants have actually been an even better foe for opposing QBs over the past five weeks:

Allowing 5.4 fantasy points above average to opposing QBs is worst in the NFL over the past five weeks, worse even than New England's 4.2. (The Carolina Panthers (4.9) and New Orleans Saints (4.3) are also worse than the Patriots in that span.) Jason Pierre-Paul played great against the Dallas Cowboys, but Justin Tuck's toe injury has rendered him a shell of himself, Osi Umenyiora isn't likely to play any time soon, Kenny Phillips has a lingering knee issue, Michael Boley has a hammy, and the secondary is struggling. Grossman is the best fantasy QB option this week of anyone owned in fewer than half of ESPN leagues (he's only owned in 10.3 percent of leagues). And for similar reasons, Jabar Gaffney is an acceptable emergency No. 3 wideout.

2. Ranking Brandon Jacobs ahead of Ahmad Bradshaw. Speaking of the Giants, I was the only ranker to place Big Jake ahead of his more talented backfield compadre. Do I feel good about it? I most decidedly do not. Bradshaw is a favored player of mine, and Jacobs is somebody I go on TV and describe as a "dog" with great regularity. But watching the tape of Giants/Packers from Week 12 and Giants/Cowboys from Week 13, I was left with the conclusion that the big man is playing better than the little man since Bradshaw's return, and the numbers back that up:

Yes, of course, I'm aware that Bradshaw was benched for the first half of the Dallas game for missing a curfew; in the second half, Bradshaw outcarried Jacobs 8-6. All three of Jacobs' TDs these past couple of games have come from an opponent's 1, which is heartening in that it seems to mean that he's clearly the short-yardage option. But of course, if you don't happen to get the ball at the 1, what good does that do you?

I think the bottom line, though, is that this looks like a completely split gig. Bradshaw doesn't appear to have the workload advantage he had at the season's outset, probably because the Giants are leery of putting too much stress on his broken foot. And the simple fact is that Jacobs has been the superior player, even if we discount that missed half last Sunday night (omitting those two quarters, Jacobs is still out-averaging Bradshaw, 7.0 to 2.6 yards per carry). The Redskins defense is a slightly negative matchup for opposing RBs, so I don't consider either of these New York rushers must-starts. I rated Jacobs 24th and Bradshaw 28th, making them flexes at best. But for one week, I like Jacobs better.

3. Back aboard the Kevin Smith bandwagon. I'm surprised how quickly everyone seems to be giving up on Smith as a borderline must-start. Well, maybe I'm not surprised. Between him and James Starks, we've seen a couple of "surprise actives" followed almost immediately by "out for the rest of the game" because of continued ankle problems. But Smith is a leap of faith I believe I'm willing to make for Week 15. The Detroit Lions were smart in holding him out versus the Minnesota Vikings, despite the fact that if it had been up to Smith, he'd probably have played. His ankle is reportedly better for the inactivity, and he's expected to start against the Oakland Raiders this week.

Watching the Raiders get eaten up by Reggie Bush and Ryan Grant the past two weeks gives me confidence that Smith can take advantage of this matchup. And the fact that Maurice Morris was greatly limited himself in Week 14 because of a chest injury leads me to believe we could be looking at a similar situation to the Carolina Panthers game back in Week 11, when Smith saw 20 touches from scrimmage compared to eight for Morris.

Frankly, Smith is simply a better player than Morris, is seven years younger, is smarter about setting up blocks (especially on interior runs), and has more power and equal speed. There's a reason that Morris has never exceeded 161 carries in a season, and that he's never had more than 100 in his three years with Detroit. (By contrast, Smith has two years of 217-plus carries.) Keep your ear to the ground this weekend about updates to Smith's ankle, but right now, I think he's a pretty nice start.

4. I heart Miami. Actually, I've never been to the Magic City, though my sister lived there for like nine months. And I know the Miami Dolphins just fired their head coach. But that's no reason not to ride their defense. Heck, the fact that Todd Bowles takes over as interim head coach might be a good thing. Bowles has been assistant head coach and secondary coach this year, and he and Mike Nolan have done a terrific job bolstering a unit that gave up those infamous 517 passing yards against Tom Brady back in Week 1.

[+] EnlargeLex Hilliard
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesCan the Dolphins defense/special teams put up another big game against the Bills like they did last month?

The Dolphins D has scored an average of 11.8 fantasy points per game over the past five weeks, which is behind only the Chicago Bears (13.8), Seattle Seahawks (13.2) and Pittsburgh Steelers (13.0). One of those games, back in Week 11, was against this same floundering Buffalo Bills offense, and the Fish racked up two turnovers, two sacks, eight scoreboard points allowed and a blocked punt returned for a TD in a 35-8 win. What do we think has changed in Buffalo since then? In the past five games, the Bills offense has allowed opposing defenses to score an average of 13 fantasy points, which is tied for fourth-most in that span. A coaching change in Miami suddenly means Ryan Fitzpatrick will stop being a bad football player? I'm not so sure.

The Philadelphia Eagles may have won in Miami 24-6 last week, putting the final nail in Tony Sparano's head coaching career, but they gained only 239 total yards from scrimmage, allowed four sacks, and got supremely good field position on back-to-back-to-back first-half possessions as the Dolphins offense turned it over deep in its own territory three straight times. That was a pretty big surprise from a Miami offense that had turned it over just three times in its five previous games. I know Matt Moore had to leave last week's game because of a concussion, but as of this writing, it sounded like he'd be able to play in this game, and the Bills D certainly doesn't strike one as being likely to generate a ton of field-position-switching turnovers right now.

This Dolphins D has produced at least nine fantasy points in five of its past six games; the average fantasy D scores 6.8 per week. I'm sticking with them, and they're unowned in 95 percent of ESPN leagues. For similar reasons, I think our composite ranks are too high on Steve Johnson and C.J. Spiller; the Dolphins D is a bottom-five matchup for opposing RBs and WRs over the past five weeks.

5. Will James Jones pick up for Greg Jennings? The Kansas City Chiefs actually represent a bad matchup for the Green Bay Packers passing game. Specifically, they've been by far the toughest unit for opposing WRs to score fantasy points against over the past five weeks. Part of that, of course, is that they've been among the five easiest teams for fantasy RBs to score against (witness Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson last week), but part also is Tamba Hali rushing the passer well, and part is one of the most underrated pair of corners in the league, Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr. That said, nobody in their right mind thinks the Aaron Rodgers Express is getting derailed Sunday in Kansas City.

With Jennings out, Jordy Nelson rises to the level of a No. 1 wideout and gets the attendant praise and attention that position entails. He'll see the rolling-over safeties usually reserved for Jennings. And logic dictates that Jermichael Finley, who was shut out in last week's passing romp over the Raiders (though he did nearly catch a 4-yard fade in the end zone), is likely to see an uptick in targets. But even if Nelson and Finley each get double-digit targets, there's still enough work left over for someone else to benefit. (After all, Rodgers averages nearly 34 pass attempts per game.) Here's how the workload for Rodgers' ancillary receivers has looked over the past five contests:

So while Jones has five TDs on the season, Driver has gotten substantially more work of late. That's a pretty strong argument that Driver is at least even with the younger, sprier Jones moving forward, and it sets up a situation where no Packers receiver other than Nelson is a must-start. The Pack plays in three- and four-wide sets a vast majority of the time, so now there's little doubt that these two players will be on the field most of the time (and Cobb will be out there a ton, too). Someone is likely to emerge as a great upset fantasy play this week. I wish I could tell you who.

Five In Brief

6. Pardon me for not loving Jake Locker. It's ironic that I ranked Locker lower than my ESPN compadres, considering I was probably higher on him in April's draft than just about anyone. I liked that the Tennessee Titans "reached" to grab him with the No. 8 overall pick, and I think the accuracy problems that dogged him in college might in fact eventually be fixed. But the dude has 50 big-league attempts and has completed 23 of them. Let's just say he hasn't fixed the accuracy concerns quite yet. Set aside the fact that Matt Hasselbeck might actually be OK to play (he injured a calf last week). Even if Locker is in there, I'm not wild about the Titans passing game. Chris Johnson? I even have a moment's hesitation with him, considering in a "dream" matchup against the Indianapolis Colts back in Week 8, he had 14 carries for 34 yards. But CJ1K has taken advantage of good matchups in better fashion lately, and the Colts still struggle to stop the run. Against the pass, though, this Indy D isn't as bad as you think. In my five-week ratings, they're actually tied with the Baltimore Ravens for the No. 12 spot in preventing the average opposing QB from scoring fantasy points. Given Nate Washington's ongoing ankle issues and a conservative offensive game plan, I think it's reaching to start any Titans passing-game member in a standard league's playoffs.

[+] EnlargeLynch
AP Photo/Jim CowsertMarshawn Lynch has been in perpetual Beast Mode in the second half of the season, but how long will it last?

7. Allow me to embarrass myself over Marshawn Lynch again. A month or so ago, I expressed skepticism that Lynch would keep this up. He'd lost the entire right side of his offensive line, and hadn't really produced against strong run defenses. Well, color me wrong. Lynch has obviously been one of the biggest fantasy stories of the season's second half, exploding with six consecutive games of at least 14 fantasy points, a run that makes him the No. 2 fantasy RB over that time, behind only Maurice Jones-Drew. And yet. I still ranked Lynch No. 15 this week, while my ESPN cohorts put him between sixth and 12th. I'm not doubting Lynch's surrounding cast any longer. I just find this to be a very, very difficult matchup. The Chicago Bears D has been a brick wall against the running game; I have it as the No. 3 defense you'd least like your fantasy RB to face right now, behind only the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons. As much as I think he's sometimes overhyped, Brian Urlacher played a spectacular game against the Denver Broncos last week, and the red-hot Willis McGahee cooled to the tune of 34 yards on 17 carries. Beast Mode is still very startable, even in my disbelieving eyes. But I have him low enough in my ranks that I don't think he's a no-brainer.

8. Ryan Mathews, on the other hand … I'm alone considering Mathews a top-five back. The evidence is strong on the other side of that argument; Mathews has Mike Tolbert as a goal-line vulture (Mathews himself even knows that lingo) and is facing the legendarily indomitable Ravens D. It's true that Baltimore has cracked down on opposing RBs over the past three weeks, but only in one case (Frank Gore) do I find that impressive. Limiting Chris Ogbonnaya and Donald Brown? I can't hand out gold stars for that. In Weeks 11 and 12, Marshawn Lynch and Cedric Benson racked up big fantasy points against Baltimore, and going back farther than that, Beanie Wells and Rashard Mendenhall were also strong. In short, I'm not sold this is a super-elite rush D, and I also get a feeling this San Diego Chargers/Baltimore Ravens game might be a shootout. The Ravens have made a habit of giving up around five receptions to opposing backs each week, and Mathews is a top-10 fantasy back coming off three straight double-digit fantasy days. I'm not sitting him.

9. Will the Detroit Lions defense follow up with another biggie? I know first-hand how not fun it was to face the Detroit D/ST last week; they forced six turnovers, produced two defensive TDs and four sacks, and scored 24 fantasy points in ESPN standard leagues. So why don't I rate them a top-10 play this week against Carson Palmer and the woebegone Raiders offense? Well, look at the four games before they played the Vikings in Week 14. They scored 3, 3, 2 and -2 fantasy points against the Bears, Panthers, Packers and Saints. Granted, Green Bay and New Orleans are several weight classes above the Raiders, but seeing this defense produce nine games of seven fantasy points or fewer this season doesn't inspire faith. I know Ndamukong Suh will return from his suspension, but frankly, his tendency to race upfield looking at the QB was a big part of this defense's problems against the run. Michael Bush isn't the guy you want to face when you have a tough time tackling. I'm not reaching in expecting recent Lions D/ST history to repeat itself.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiWill Calvin Johnson actually have a breakout game during the fantasy playoffs?

10. Megatron. Speaking of the Lions, let's end on a curious note, and one where my ESPN co-rankers and I are actually in lockstep. We continue to make Calvin Johnson a top-three fantasy receiver, despite his abysmal (for him) performance over the past five games. When Megatron was still getting double-digit targets, we could forgive a couple subpar outings. But when Matthew Stafford only throws it Johnson's way four times, as he did in a high-scoring win over the Vikings last week? That's truly ugly. And yet. I guess it comes down to personal philosophy, and perhaps this is instructional in any case where you feel tempted to bench your highly drafted "stud" in your fantasy playoffs. If I bench Calvin Johnson against the Raiders this week, and he goes back to his first-half pace (you know, something like five catches for 130 yards and a TD), I simply wouldn't be able to live with myself. If I use him and he falters again? Well, I'll be disappointed, no doubt, and even more so if I had left (for example) Demaryius Thomas on my bench and Thomas goes off. But I'll be able to sleep at night. Maybe that's my litmus test. If the player is so talented and has such a strong track record that I'd lose my mind if I benched him and he produced big? Probably best to just play him and take your lumps.

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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