It has come time you learn to differentiate between your Steve Smiths.
I tend to note when mentioning Steve Smith's name on these pages which one I'm talking about -- Steve Smith the Panther or Steve Smith the Giant -- but these days, it's difficult to tell them apart. That's especially true now that the one who has been the fantasy stud through four weeks is the Giants' version!
With a 25-point fantasy performance in Week 4, tops among wide receivers entering the Sunday night contest, "Smith the Giant" captured the lead in fantasy points at his position: He has 64 for the season (16 per game). Compare that to Smith the Panther: That top-10 fantasy wide receiver (and third-round pick) has only 18 fantasy points in three games (six per).
Not that it's entirely fair to compare the two. After all, Smith the Panther has an aging, erratic Jake Delhomme sagging his numbers. Eli Manning, meanwhile, has the New York Giants off to a torrid start. Ask most people and they'll tell you they'd probably prefer to own the Panther, not the Giant, if only based upon track record.
Still, might not Smith the Giant be able to give Smith the Panther a run for his money? While the Panthers' version had 37 targets through his first three games (12.3 per week), second only to Randy Moss, the Giants' version now has 45 through four games, or an average of 11.3 per week. We've long known Delhomme loves throwing to his version of Steve Smith; what has become evident through four weeks of 2009 is that Manning feels the same about his. Heck, here's a telling statistic: In 2007, Plaxico Burress' final 16-game season working with Manning, his quarterback targeted him an average of 8.8 times per contest.
Yes, the case can be made that Smith can't possibly maintain a full-season pace of 180 targets, 136 receptions, 1,644 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns, and that opposing defenses will surely catch on to Manning's game plan. But with a better-than-advertised set of receivers working alongside Smith -- Hakeem Nicks' healthy return this week was a big boost -- constantly double-teaming him won't be a winning strategy. A 1,200-yard, 12- to 14-score campaign might be more realistic, but fantasy owners would take it. In fact, that might qualify as the year's biggest breakout.
Few people took a chance on the San Francisco 49ers' defense in a spot-start opportunity, but those who did in Week 4 were handsomely rewarded. Practically unowned coming out of most drafts, the 49ers were added in 20.5 percent of ESPN leagues in the past week, raising their ownership percentage to 29.5 percent, and owners in only 11.0 percent of leagues were bold enough to start them.
So how did the Niners fare?
Oh, they only posted a big, juicy doughnut (love those shutouts), and grabbed one interception and two fumble recoveries, with all three of those turnovers being returned for touchdowns. Patrick Willis was a one-man wrecking crew, recording five tackles, 2½ sacks and an interception returned 23 yards for one of the scores. Even Ray McDonald and Scott McKillop stepped up with key plays. Things won't be quite so easy for the 49ers in upcoming matchups versus the Atlanta Falcons (Week 5) and Indianapolis Colts (Week 8), but against thinner offenses, this defense is well worth a matchups look.
I'm full of excitement about the following four players based upon the week's results, and recommend you stick with or trade for them.
• Steve Slaton: As I noted in last week's "Instant Replay," Chris Brown shouldn't have received another goal-line carry for the Houston Texans, and in Week 4 he didn't; Brown didn't even sniff the field Sunday. Instead, Slaton got 23 touches and totaled 89 yards and two scores, stepping up right at the time the matchups said he'd need to begin to. By the way, if you're worried about Ryan Moats' 15 carries cutting into Slaton's future workload, don't be; 11 of those came in the third and fourth quarters after the Texans had mounted a 23-point lead.
• David Garrard and Mike Sims-Walker: What a rapport these two seem to have, and when the matchup tilts in their favor, it's nice to see them stepping up with week-leading fantasy efforts. Garrard managed 323 yards and three touchdowns passing for a career-best 27 fantasy points, while Sims-Walker posted a third consecutive game of at least nine targets and six receptions (he has 30 and 19 total in those contests), facing a Tennessee Titans pass defense down Cortland Finnegan and Vincent Fuller. I said a couple of weeks back that I doubted these two would be reliable every-week fantasy plays, but they're looking fairly close to being that now, what with their defense still susceptible to big plays and thereby forcing the Jaguars to the air fairly often. Amazingly, Sims-Walker is still available in more than 60 percent of ESPN leagues; Garrard is a free agent in just more than 30 percent.
• New Orleans Saints defense: The other defense that warranted fantasy attention in Week 4, the Saints gave the 49ers a run for their money as my MVP choice, thanks to a whopping 28 fantasy points, their third consecutive week in double digits. Free-agent acquisition Darren Sharper has paid huge dividends for this defense, with five interceptions in four games, including one returned 99 yards for a touchdown versus the New York Jets.
• Brandon Marshall: Seemingly in Josh McDaniels' doghouse for the entire preseason and the first two weeks of the regular season, Marshall has now caught a touchdown pass in back-to-back weeks, including a game-winning 51-yard catch in the fourth quarter. That'll probably endear him even more to McDaniels, and it's not like his coach was ever in denial that Marshall brings skills to rival that of any receiver in football. Consider the preseason top-10 receiver back to that value level.
Be it because of poor performance, role change or injury, these four players I'm downgrading, looking to trade or cutting based on the week's results:
• Jason Campbell: Two touchdowns is nice, and so is a 16-13 comeback victory that brought his Washington Redskins back to an even 2-2 record, but let's not ignore the fact Campbell, for the most part, looked terrible in Week 4. He turned the ball over four times -- three of those interceptions against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense with worlds of problems in the secondary -- and completed only 12 of 22 passes. If Campbell can't capitalize upon matchups like these, what hope is there for him to be a reliable stand-in for fantasy owners in any week?
• Darren McFadden: OK, how about if I just call this one the entire Oakland Raiders team? The Raiders' offense looked dreadful, as it has for much of the season, especially troublesome considering McFadden and the running game was facing such a cakewalk matchup. Instead, "Run DMC" flopped for minus-3 yards on six carries, while Justin Fargas ran the ball a team-high 10 times. I'm not forecasting a changing of the guard at the position in Oakland -- much of this was a result of the Houston Texans stacking the box often -- but if you're a McFadden owner, let's just say you can't be optimistic about his immediate future.
• Mario Manningham: A couple of things bothered me about his performance. For one, he committed too many costly drops. For another, Hakeem Nicks was healthy and played, and even had a pretty, 54-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass. Plus, tight end Kevin Boss lined up frequently as the No. 3 receiver. It seems to me Eli Manning is looking Steve Smith first and a committee second, one that might either rotate big weeks from Manningham, Nicks and Boss (and heck, maybe even a healthy Domenik Hixon eventually), or worse, divide up the number of targets almost evenly among the bunch.
• Tony Romo: Boy, could I have been more wrong about this guy? Apparently Romo's Week 1 outburst was entirely a product of a favorable matchup; since his shredding of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense in the season opener, he has posted three consecutive stinkers, totaling 637 yards, one touchdown pass and four interceptions. It's impossible to claim that Terrell Owens' departure hasn't had an adverse effect on his numbers; it almost certainly has. Roy E. Williams, the Dallas Cowboys' de facto No. 1 wide receiver, has shown practically no rapport with Romo, meaning this slump might be far from over.
For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.
• Devin Hester (shoulder): He was knocked from the game on a touchdown-preventing tackle in the second quarter, departing with zero catches on the day. Curses, the dreaded zero-point day shortened by injury! Hester's status wasn't immediately known after the game.
• Johnny Knox (leg): The other big problem in Chicago, as Knox departed the Bears' Week 4 contest later in the game, and like Hester, his status wasn't immediately known after the game. If the Bears are down both receivers in Week 6, Earl Bennett will be asked to take a big step forward in the offense, and Rashied Davis might even be forced into the starting lineup.
• Ravens left tackle Jared Gaither (head/neck): One of the more brutal injuries of Week 4, Gaither was taken off the field on a stretcher after colliding with quarterback Joe Flacco in the second quarter. Postgame reports had Gaither showing movement in his extremities at a local hospital, but don't be surprised if he misses a few games. The fantasy significance? Gaither protects Flacco's blind side; if he's out, Michael Oher shifts to left tackle with Marshal Yanda at right tackle, which downgrades the Ravens' pass protection somewhat. Case in point: Both of Flacco's sacks and his interception in Week 4 came after Gaither's departure.
• Eli Manning (bruised heel): This one appeared minor; Manning seemed to have no trouble walking across the field during postgame celebrations, and he was yanked primarily because at the time, the Giants held a 27-3 lead. Still, any foot problem bears watching, so keep tabs on the team's Monday news conference.
It's safe to say that
• Having Chad Henne under center doesn't mean fantasy death for Miami Dolphins players. No, the Dolphins won't face as sorry of a defense as that of the Buffalo Bills most weeks, but Henne showed in his first career start that he's a capable game manager, completing 14 of 22 passes for 115 yards without an interception. Clearly he's capable of handing the ball off to either Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams, both of whom ran for 85-plus yards and at least one score, meaning that Brown might not be that bad a weekly fantasy play in the Henne era after all.
• Mark Sanchez is far from perfect. The rookie quarterback might have impressed with victories in each of his first three career starts, an NFL first, but a trip to New Orleans brought him back to earth. He completed only 14 of 27 passes and was picked off three times, one of which Darren Sharper took back 99 yards for a touchdown. We constantly caution you about the up-and-down life of a rookie quarterback, and Sanchez did flash hints of his dreadful turnover potential in Week 3. He'll need to be smarter controlling the football in future weeks to recapture his previous success, but there's no denying he belongs in an NFL lineup. With a few adjustments, Sanchez can yet regain "start-for-favorable-matchups" status.
• Dick Jauron's running back-by-committee was every bit as advertised. Jauron cautioned us that he planned a near-even split of the workload between hot-starting Fred Jackson and fresh-off-suspension Marshawn Lynch and, sure enough, in Week 4 Jackson got nine carries and 12 total touches, while Lynch had eight carries and 13 total touches. Unfortunately, the pair totaled only 46 yards on those 17 rushing attempts, for a miserable 2.7 yards-per-carry average. For so long as this arrangement sticks, you can't trust either back facing a stout run defense.
• Julius Jones is maddening with his level of inconsistency. Yes, his Seattle Seahawks got utterly blown out by the Indianapolis Colts, rendering him a nonfactor, but given the work he received, I expect better than a 2.3 yards-per-carry average against that battered defense. Jones has now alternated strong fantasy performances with terrible ones, with this one playing in the opposite direction of his matchup. So far he seems like a home/road split player, so at least maybe he'll bounce back in Week 5 at home versus the Jaguars.
One play makes your day
A fantasy sleeper in each of the previous two weeks, Jacoby Jones returned to his more traditional special-teams role in Week 4, and as a receiver he garnered only one target and one reception (a 6-yarder). But for the third consecutive week, he managed at least six fantasy points -- a serviceable total -- because he returned a kick 95 yards for a touchdown, on a kickoff that came directly following a safety by the Texans' defense. Don't be so swift to add Jones thinking that his 27 fantasy points in Weeks 2-4 combined mean his stock is on the rise; he's a little-used offensive player who will only every now and then hit a home run on a return.
Now that wasn't part of the game plan!
For a few days early in the week, Maurice Morris was shaping up as a decent pickup, and a potential flex-play sleeper, going up against the Chicago Bears' overrated run defense. That is until Kevin Smith managed to play Sunday despite his shoulder injury. A question mark for much of the week, Smith stepped in and handled 19 of the Detroit Lions' 26 rushing attempts, including two of the team's three at the goal line, both of which he converted for scores. That the Lions were confident enough to trust Smith in those hard-hitting, short-yardage situations despite health questions is quite the promising sign that he's fine going forward.
Go get 'em!
As you're preparing your waiver claims, keep these names in mind:
• Jerome Harrison: Hard to believe he's still available in more than 98 percent of ESPN leagues, especially in light of the news that rookie James Davis is out for the year (on injured reserve) with a shoulder injury. "Starter" Jamal Lewis is on the wrong side of 30, has 2,424 career carries on his legs and is averaging 3.8 yards per carry in two regular-season games after a dreadful preseason. Not that I'm saying Harrison will be an instant fantasy stud, but it's not unthinkable he has 12 more starts coming his way, and starting running backs are effective must-owns in all fantasy leagues, even if only from a matchups standpoint.
• Mohamed Massaquoi: I feel decidedly pro-Browns this week, and part of it might be, hey, they're readily available in most every fantasy league. The other part: New quarterback often means new preferred receiver, and it sure seems Derek Anderson has something going with this rookie from Georgia. Anderson targeted Massaquoi 13 times, and the kid hauled in eight of those for 148 yards. That won't happen every week, but in larger and keeper leagues, I'd take a look.
• Seneca Wallace: Though much of his 257 yards and one touchdown passing came in garbage time, that Wallace was able to amass 16 fantasy points versus the stingy Indianapolis Colts pass defense shouldn't go unnoticed. He has actually been a serviceable NFL starter, and while Matt Hasselbeck could be back in time for Week 5, Wallace might not be a bad Hail Mary play if not. His next two matchups are home games versus the Jacksonville Jaguars and Arizona Cardinals; those are plenty favorable, especially in two-quarterback leagues.
The matchups did the talking
• Dwayne Bowe (one reception for 11 yards): Well, it wasn't only the matchup, his hamstring injury did seem to limit his explosiveness, as well. Bowe had trouble breaking loose from Bruce Johnson and Corey Webster, but at least he was able to grit this one out. His health bears watching this week.
• Andre Johnson (two receptions for 66 yards): Nnamdi! To note, Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha wasn't glued to Johnson the entire game; if he had, then Johnson might not have even had this many yards. Still, this isn't an unsurprising result, and I'd discard it accounting for the unfavorable matchup.
• Marques Colston (two receptions for 33 yards): Yet another case of a vicious man-to-man matchup, as the Jets' Darrelle Revis continued his Pro Bowl-caliber season by completely shadowing Colston, limiting him to only six targets on the day. Few cornerbacks bring Revis' talent level, and certainly nobody within Colston's division. Feel free to casually dismiss this stinker.
A quick preview of what's in store for Week 5
• Hot-starting Carson Palmer and his Cincinnati Bengals head to Baltimore to take on the Ravens; they lost an ugly 17-10 game there in Week 1 of last season. Palmer hasn't been all bad historically in games versus the Ravens' vaunted defense, though, averaging 248 passing yards with 12 touchdowns in nine career meetings. He has averaged 238 yards with six scores in the five games played in Baltimore.
• The Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans play in a meaningful contest on Sunday Night Football, and I say "meaningful" because they've played meaningless contests in Week 17 each of the past two seasons. Taking those out of the equation, in their past two meaningful meetings, the Titans' LenDale White has three rushing touchdowns -- all goal-line scampers -- while the Colts' Dallas Clark has 14 receptions for 163 yards and three touchdowns.
• If Donovan McNabb indeed returns from a fractured rib as reports suggest, he'll get a comfy-cozy matchup versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' pass defense, which has served up nine passing scores in its first four games.
• The New York Giants complete the uber-soft portion of their schedule with a home game versus the reeling Oakland Raiders. Expect another monster game for Eli Manning, Brandon Jacobs, Steve Smith and the boys, but right after Week 5 might be the greatest sell-high opportunity you'll get on Manning all season. I've mentioned these statistics many times on these pages during his career, but the guy has averaged 194 passing yards with 44 touchdowns compared to 46 interceptions in the final eight games of the regular season for his NFL career. He's a historic first-half performer, and the schedule has played that way again for him this year.
• Bill Belichick and his New England Patriots head to Denver to take on the Broncos, coached by Belichick disciple Josh McDaniels (Belichick's offensive coordinator from 2006-2008). So in this "battle of the brains," who gets the advantage? The smart money says McDaniels has a firm grip on what Tom Brady brings to the table, and Brady's so-so four passing scores in as many games, compared to the Broncos' six interceptions and zero touchdowns allowed in four games, makes Brady actually appear an unfavorable fantasy play for once.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is an FSWA award-winning fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.