- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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I was watching NFL highlights Sunday night, and heard a host who was reviewing the Indianapolis Colts' upset win over the Green Bay Packers say, "It doesn't matter who Reggie Wayne's quarterback is, he's always gonna produce!" It was typical over-praising of the current day's superstar (Wayne caught 13 of 20 targets for 212 yards and the winning TD), and in this case it was just silly.
Last year, we saw what Wayne looks like with Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky slinging him the rock. It looks like 75 catches for 960 yards and four TDs. It looks like Wayne stops caring. It looks like WRs such as Austin Collie and/or Donnie Avery might pass him in fantasy value as he turns an "ancient" 34 years old in November.
But get a real QB back under center -- one like, say, No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck -- and apparently it's a different story. Through four games, Wayne is averaging an NFL-best 126.5 receiving yards per game, and is tied for second in receiving first downs (26) despite having played one fewer contest than most of the NFL. According to ESPN Fantasy's Keith Lipscomb, Wayne is one of three WRs to top 8 fantasy points in all of his team's games this season (the others are Percy Harvin and Miles Austin). I still believe Wayne is closer to being an elite option in PPR leagues -- he has the most targets in the NFL in just four games! -- but he's pretty clearly a top-15 WR in all leagues at the moment, which is something I didn't expect back in August. Let's look at Sunday's other top fantasy stories:
• I'm glad Fantasy Nation can put this whole Jackie Battle madness behind it. Except this is Norv Turner, so who knows? Anyway, word filtered in Sunday evening that Battle would start for the San Diego Chargers and predictably my Twitter feed blew up. I'd ranked Ryan Mathews 15th among RBs this week and Battle 24th, so I was (once again!) a Grade-A moron. Indeed, Battle dominated the Chargers' first two drives, looking like his plodding, pedestrian, run-of-the-mill self. Then the Norvulous One decided, "Hey, I've got this first-round draft pick here, I'll give that guy a shot," and Mathews made the whole experiment look like one of those "Before" and "After" commercials, where the guy eats Popeye's spinach and suddenly can, y'know, run. Battle never touched the ball again after the 10:52 mark of the second quarter; heck, Ronnie Brown had a bigger role thereafter. I don't rule out the possibility Battle could get some goal-line work down the road, but as Mathews' 18-touch, 139-yard, 1-TD day should tell you, we're back to the status quo in San Diego. Unless Norv decides to be Norv again.
• On last week's Fantasy Underground podcast, Field Yates and I discussed Michael Vick. Upon watching Vick's tape, Field's concern was that the Philadelphia Eagles were gradually cutting out QB runs, which would cripple Vick's fantasy value. I disagreed. On Sunday, we were both right. And wrong. Vick did, indeed, try a QB draw from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 3 in the first quarter. For about three-quarters of a second, I felt smart. Then Vick got crunched by Ryan Clark and fumbled into the end zone. For the day, Vick had five carries for 16 yards and fumbled four times (he lost two, the Eagles recovered another, one was overturned by replay), which makes me think in the long run Field is going to wind up being correct. How can the Eagles continue to let the grease-fingered Vick hold the ball any longer than absolutely necessary? And his late-game excellence on a potential game-winning drive aside, Vick doesn't win fantasy titles with his arm. If this guy isn't producing with his legs, he's Jay Cutler. Suddenly Vick doesn't look like the smart value pick I expected him to be this summer. I imagine he'll have a few decent running games going forward, perhaps as soon as Week 6 against the shaky Detroit Lions D. But time is running out on Vick to produce an elite season even if he stays healthy.
• Speaking of rushing QBs, it was not a banner day for that fraternity. Vick had 175 yards passing and 12 fantasy points. Robert Griffin III very predictably got dinged in the third quarter Sunday and had to leave with a "mild" concussion. He ended his day 10-of-15 for 91 yards and one carry for 7 yards, with no TDs or turnovers. That added up to three fantasy points. Cam Newton made it through his entire Week 5, but Carolina Panthers fans may wish he hadn't. Newton was 12-of-29 for 141 yards, with seven carries for 42 yards, which resulted in a seven-fantasy-point day. So much for my regular assertion that running QBs are hard to bench! This anomalous week was a fantasy crusher, never more so as Newton tried to engineer a game-winning drive down 16-10 to the Seattle Seahawks, only to roll right on fourth down, see Ben Hartsock open in the end zone, and fire a pass that spiked the turf 10 feet in front of the wide-open Hartsock. And that's to say nothing of his game-ending fumble on a sack he simply cannot take in desperation mode. Newton looked as awful as his biggest doubters feared he would last season, and that's become a theme in '12. Big Cam now has two great fantasy days and three stinkers this year. So while for the season, he still sits tied for the No. 8 QB in fantasy, he's been maddeningly up-and-down. Meanwhile Vick is No. 13 among QBs going into Monday night, and RG3 is No. 3.
• RG3 was just one of several important fantasy names to suffer Week 5 injuries. (Griffin believes he'll be able to play against the Minnesota Vikings, though he'll have to pass concussion tests this week.) Jimmy Graham rolled his right ankle in the first quarter Sunday night and had to leave the game; he returned later but was limited and didn't post another catch. Reporters saw Graham wearing a walking boot after the game. Cedric Benson was carted to the locker room after his left foot was rolled on, and didn't return. X-rays were reportedly negative, though Benson also wore a walking boot after the game. In his absence, Alex Green didn't do much aside from a 41-yard carry; James Starks is reportedly healthy again, and could split carries with Green if Benson misses time. In the same game, Jermichael Finley injured a shoulder and couldn't return to action; he told reporters he thought he'd play in Week 6 against the Houston Texans, but his season has already been so drop-filled, it's fair to wonder if he could use some time off. Matt Cassel suffered a concussion and is likely to sit in favor of Brady Quinn in Week 6. And Andre Brown also suffered a concussion on a kickoff return and looks far away from being a fantasy factor anytime soon.
• Brown's supposed platoon-mate, Ahmad Bradshaw, lost a fumble on the first play from scrimmage Sunday, lending a hand as the Cleveland Browns built a 14-0 lead over the New York Giants. But Bradshaw was undeterred -- and perhaps aided by Brown's injury -- and wound up going ballistic for 200 yards rushing on 30 carries and 29 more yards on four catches. Granted, 68 of those rushing yards came in garbage time, but it was an impressive performance nonetheless, the week's highest fantasy point total among RBs entering Monday night. The Browns' rush defense hadn't been awful before Sunday, so this is a nice result for a guy who looked like he might be losing career momentum just a couple of weeks ago. But don't get carried away: Bradshaw has to face the San Francisco 49ers in Week 6.
• Speaking of the 49ers, they've won their past two games by a combined score of 79-3. Frank Gore has scored at least 13 fantasy points (and at least one TD) in four of five games. Alex Smith tied Drew Brees and Andrew Luck for a week-high (headed into Monday night) 28 QB fantasy points by going 18-of-24 for 303 yards and three TDs, plus three carries for 49 yards. Vernon Davis is now the No. 2 TE in fantasy, with 20 grabs, 303 yards and four TDs. Heck, even Michael Crabtree got in on the act, with his first 100-yard game and first TD of the season. Of course, maybe we should temper our excitement just a bit, as this production came against the Buffalo Bills, the first defense since 1950 to allow more than 550 yards from scrimmage in back-to-back weeks. Remember when we thought this was an up-and-coming D/ST unit? Yikes. Larry Fitzgerald owners take note: Next week the Arizona Cardinals get to face these guys.
• Rashard Mendenhall returned to action for the Steelers and actually looked excellent. He had 14 carries for 81 yards and two grabs for 20 yards, and his burst up the right side for a 13-yard TD to break a scoreless deadlock was better than nearly any run of his I can remember from '11. Nobody can promise that a guy coming off a torn ACL won't have side effects after his first action of the season, but logic dictates that Mendy is mended enough to assume the major burden in Pittsburgh's backfield Thursday night against the Tennessee Titans. He's back into fantasy starter-land.
• In that same game Thursday night, Chris Johnson will continue to torment his fantasy owners, and I'll continue to rank him around 20th on my RB list. Coming off his only good game of the '12 season in Week 4, CJ0K had 16 touches for 29 yards versus the Vikings. You know the drill: He didn't have anywhere to run. His very first carry, a 6-yarder up the middle where a nice crease opened up, was his best of the day; after that, he was simply swarmed under by a defense that had no respect for Matt Hasselbeck. Blame Johnson for a midfield fumble at the end of the first quarter where he didn't take that big a hit. But don't fall into the trap of believing that he was somehow "wimpy" or not trying. He pushed the pile a few times, he initiated contact often ... there just isn't anywhere to run. Some games, the Titans will find a rhythm and CJ will provide some value. Often (especially against better run defenses, like the Steelers'), he won't. Realize, however, that backup Javon Ringer was carted off the field with a knee injury, so now Jamie Harper figures to be next in line.
• The numbers look fine, and Aaron Rodgers made some lovely throws in Week 5. But something appears to be amiss with the Packers' offense, and I can't help wondering whether A-Rod is part of the problem. Three passing TDs paper over what was a lackluster effort from Rodgers. He was only 21-of-33, and blew several easy throws including a first-quarter bomb down the right side where Jordy Nelson had toasted Jerraud Powers and would've had a 67-yard score with an accurate pass. This is a QB who averaged 309.5 pass yards per game last year and sits at 261.4 right now, and after throwing six picks in all of '11, he's on pace for 13 this season. Up 21-3 at the half Sunday, Rodgers led just one scoring drive in eight tries. Missing Greg Jennings stings, and losing Benson and Finley during the game was a problem, as were drops by Nelson and Finley that could've created more scores to pad the halftime lead. But Rodgers' accuracy is a worry. His pick was supposed to be a back-shoulder throw to James Jones but it was front-shoulder, and Powers intercepted it. Rodgers is supposed to carve up deep safeties like he saw from the Colts, but he didn't. His protection is still a problem (five sacks in the second half), and Nelson's inconsistency is harmful. I suppose the good news is that even playing (for him) poorly, Rodgers racked up 24 fantasy points. The Texans are up next.
• The New England Patriots ran an unbelievable 85 offensive plays in 35:49 of possession time Sunday. If the Baltimore Ravens want to get a look at what a true hurry-up offense looks like, they need look no further than the Pats' disemboweling of the Denver Broncos. (The Ravens, you'll recall, were supposed to be reinventing themselves this year as a high-octane no-huddle attack.) It sure seems like a long time ago the fantasy world was freaking out over Wes Welker, doesn't it? Over the past four games, Welker has 470 receiving yards on 35 catches, and he scored his first TD on Sunday. For the moment, he's vaulted past Brandon Lloyd on the fantasy value chart. Personally, I thought Lloyd scored a TD on his stretching, 10-yard play at the Broncos' goal line in the second quarter, and it probably would've been ruled a score had New England challenged (whereupon Lloyd's fantasy owners would stop hyperventilating). But the Pats have no time for replay challenges these days; they just line right back up again and score. Meanwhile, all those who drafted Rob Gronkowski (and, for that matter, Jimmy Graham) have learned the old maxim the hard way: Never pay for last year's stats. Gronk has been really good. He's on pace for 74 grabs and 944 yards. But that's a far cry from 90 and 1,327, last year's stats. Gronk is healthy (he played every snap in Week 5), but as New England runs more, he's been blocking more.
• Stevan Ridley continued his fine run, producing his third 100-yard rushing day and fourth TD of '12 with a career-high 151 rush yards. By comparison, Brandon Bolden had 14 carries for 54 yards, Danny Woodhead had eight touches for 72 yards and Shane Vereen vultured a short TD on his only carry of the day. All this should be good news for Ridley, and it would be, except with New England trying to kill the clock in Denver territory up 10 in the fourth quarter, Ridley lost a fumble. It was his second straight game with a fumble (Week 4's came at the very end of a blowout and the ball went out of bounds), and his ball security issues were what got Ridley excommunicated during the Patriots' playoff run last year. We have no way of knowing how Bill Belichick will react to this latest fumble, but Bolden did play the game's final series, while Ridley was nowhere to be found. The Pats get a tough Seahawks run defense in Week 6.
• Finally, speaking of Patriots RBs (or former ones), BenJarvus Green-Ellis continued his disappearing act in a Week 6 loss to the Miami Dolphins. He had nine carries and 14 yards Sunday, and it wasn't merely a Chris Johnson-esque case of having nowhere to run. I saw times where the O-line created space, but BJGE has never had the burst necessary to take advantage of every crack and crevice. If you squinted hard in Week 5, you'd have thought you were watching Michael Turner, except Turner is three years older and 30 pounds heavier. Like Turner, the Law Firm always has a chance to score a short TD in any given week and salvage something for his fantasy owners. But my concerns this summer have thus far been realized: Green-Ellis is nobody's idea of a dynamic feature back. Unfortunately for the Cincinnati Bengals, Bernard Scott (who had five carries for 40 yards when he took over for BJGE on a late-first-quarter possession) reportedly suffered a serious knee injury that may be a torn ACL. Even-slower-than-the-Law-Firm Brian Leonard is now probably Cincy's backup, which means at least Green-Ellis has job security.
Christopher Harris breaks down Sunday's Week 5 action, including big games from Reggie Wayne and Ahmad Bradshaw, and continuing struggles of Michael Vick and Cam Newton.