Who says running backs can't thrive past the age of 30?
Oh, that's right, I've said that in the past, and I'm sticking by it at least in a general sense. But after a preseason in which LaDainian Tomlinson instantly warmed to new surroundings with the New York Jets, I was willing to make an exception for him; he appeared to crave the opportunity for a fresh start with a new team, got to run behind one of the league's most stout offensive lines and landed in a time-share of sorts that would help ease the strain on his aging legs.
Flash-forward four weeks and Tomlinson looks every bit the part of his 2007-08 self, a time in his career when he averaged 4.3 yards per carry, 80.8 rushing yards per game and totaled 30 touchdowns. Through four games, he's averaging 6.1 yards per carry, 85.3 rushing yards per game and has totaled three scores.
The numbers aren't the only things that support his rebirth. All of Tomlinson's Hall of Fame-caliber skills were on display in his 27-point fantasy day against the Buffalo Bills: his tremendous vision, and his ability to make quick cuts and exploit holes. He had three runs of 10 or more yards, converted a goal-line carry in the game's opening minutes and was once again a major factor in the passing game.
In short, Tomlinson's arrival in New York has resulted in the best-case scenario for his fantasy value to date. He didn't even lead his team in rushing attempts (19), finishing with three fewer than Shonn Greene (22), who drew the fourth-quarter mop-up duty, and that's smart by the Jets; they ran 600-plus times in 2009 but recognize what 300-plus carries for the season might do to a 31-year-old running back. Tomlinson is on pace for 224 rushing attempts and 272 touches; those are 68 and 72 fewer than he had in his most recent 16-game season in 2008. Don't expect him to exceed those numbers barring catastrophic injury to Greene, but Tomlinson certainly has No. 2-running back value with that kind of workload, even if he lacks the upside that made him an annual top-five overall player for most of the past decade.
Keep in mind, however, that Tomlinson's Weeks 4 and 5 matchups couldn't be more polar opposites; he should have been expected to terrorize the Buffalo Bills as he just did, but might struggle to find open space versus the Minnesota Vikings next week. Tomlinson has earned starter status even facing the Vikings during the fantasy bye weeks, but for one week, at least, he might be more flex than true second-tier play.
He wasn't the top scorer of the week, and he wasn't even the top scorer at his own position, but Calvin Johnson's 20-point fantasy day had quite an "MVP" ring to it. His owners might have begun doubting his prospects at a top-10 finish among wide receivers, noting that opponents have begun double-teaming him; the Green Bay Packers had star cornerback Charles Woodson as well as a slew of safeties glued to him all day. Still, what makes Johnson a truly special, MVP-caliber talent is that he boasts the skills to overcome even the stiffest matchups, or even the occasional double-team. Megatron was targeted 11 times and caught six of those for 86 yards and two touchdowns, continuing his mastery of the Packers. He now has a touchdown in five of six career meetings, and has totaled 34 receptions for 464 yards and seven touchdowns in those contests. Keep that nugget tucked away for Week 14, when these teams meet again in Detroit.
Now that wasn't part of the game plan!
• It was an aggravating week for owners of elite fantasy running backs, and Ray Rice certainly contributed; although he was active for the Baltimore Ravens' Week 4 contest, Willis McGahee drew the start. Even worse; after telling ESPN's Rachel Nichols before the game that his knee was "95 percent," Rice admitted to Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County Times after the contest that he knew he wasn't going to start. Thanks for the heads-up, Ray! Clearly the Ravens preferred to take a cautious approach with Rice, with his five carries for 15 yards in the fourth quarter primarily a product of injuries to both McGahee and Le'Ron McClain, the details of which weren't immediately known. That Rice even gritted it out for nine touches demonstrated his injury isn't a long-term concern, and his schedule should lighten up from here. There's no reason to doubt his bounce-back potential.
• Arian Foster also failed to start his team's game due to a coach's decision, but unlike Rice, Foster remained a valuable asset despite his needing to make an impact coming on in relief. The Houston Texans used a Steve Slaton/Derrick Ward rotation to open their game before calling upon Foster to begin the second quarter. No matter; Foster totaled 187 yards and two touchdowns on 19 touches despite playing only three-quarters of the game, demonstrating his immense fantasy upside.
• Though Ryan Mathews (ankle) was active Sunday, he was yet another running back who took a secondary role in his team's offense to start the game, as the San Diego Chargers continued to use Mike Tolbert in the featured-back role. As with Rice, we received insight after the fact that might have been useful in advance; the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that an elbow injury the rookie suffered during midweek practices might have contributed to his limited workload. We've been hinting for more than a week now that the Chargers regard Tolbert as a short-yardage/goal-line option and that Mathews isn't suited for passing-down work, so this might be more trend than one-week thing. Mathews owners must handcuff him to Tolbert to avoid headaches, but even then, this might be a headache of a backfield for the duration of the season.
Week 4 observations
• I received a good number of questions heading into the week about the Seattle Seahawks as a potential Week 4 sleeper defense, and what I told those people I'll repeat here: I'm impressed enough by rookie quarterback Sam Bradford's progress that I'd hardly call him or his St. Louis Rams a pushover. Bradford managed double-digit fantasy totals for the third consecutive week, setting personal bests in passing yards (289) and fantasy points (17). You can take two things from the performance: One, that the Seahawks' secondary rates among the league's worst and is well worth exploiting in future matchups; and two, that Bradford has the skills to capitalize upon similarly stacked matchups, especially in home games. He's displaying good chemistry with top target Mark Clayton and spread the field with seven different receivers catching at least two passes. He plays the Detroit Lions on the road in Week 5; there's bye-week plug-in potential there.
• If you need any further evidence to support that: (A) Peyton Hillis is the Cleveland Browns' primary running back, and (B) there isn't a viable threat to any of Hillis' carries, Week 4 sure provided it. Despite Jerome Harrison's active status, Harrison didn't garner a single carry, as Hillis ran wild 27 times for 102 yards and a touchdown. Hillis is even getting the occasional look in the passing game and he's more suited to short-yardage work than Harrison, meaning that this might not be a short-term development at all. Harrison's best-case scenario might be earning only one-third of the running work, so if you need his roster spot, feel free to cut him.
• Kyle Orton is for real, and part of the reason is his deep stable of talented wide receivers. This week, it was Brandon Lloyd and Eddie Royal doing the most damage of the receiver bunch; in Lloyd's case, he was targeted a whopping 18 times and managed his third 100-yard receiving effort in four weeks. Orton sure looks capable of spreading things around, making him a near top-10 quarterback overall, but he and his Denver Broncos will get two more significant tests -- more so than this one against the Tennessee Titans -- in battles with the Ravens and Jets the next two weeks. At this point, he probably should have earned your trust, at least if you lack a clearly more talented option (think preseason top-seven) on your roster. As for Lloyd, it's probably time we vault him to the top of the quartet in terms of long-term fantasy value; I'll likely rank him, then Royal, Demaryius Thomas and Jabar Gaffney, though in no way should that ranking completely condemn Gaffney.
• Before you get too excited about Terrell Owens' 222-yard outburst, the third of his career, consider that a significant amount of it was matchups-based. The Browns stacked the box in an attempt to contain Cedric Benson, leaving Sheldon Brown glued to T.O. most often; you might have noticed that Owens' long touchdown came on a play in which Brown fell down. Owens and Chad Ochocinco might battle for the honor of most-targeted Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver all year, but be wary of expecting top-tier numbers from either over the long haul; Carson Palmer shouldn't be able to exploit deeper secondaries as often as this.
• After changing offensive coordinators the past week, the San Francisco 49ers might have been expected to improve on the offensive side, but it was their defense that most picked up the pace in Week 4. Michael Crabtree's involvement did experience a slight uptick, but look at the defensive numbers: three sacks, two interceptions, 14 points allowed and a touchdown on a blocked punt. Remember, the 49ers were widely regarded as one of the better fantasy defenses entering the season, and perhaps change in the organization might be lighting a fire under the team's more skilled defenders. If you were tempted to let the 49ers' D go after its cold start, it might be time to rethink the move.
For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.
• Michael Vick (chest/ribs): He was injured late in the first quarter when he was sandwiched between Washington Redskins defenders DeAngelo Hall and Kareem Moore, and was unable to return. Vick completed 5 of 7 passes for 49 yards and ran three times for 17 yards before exiting; Kevin Kolb managed a forgettable 22-for-35 passing for 201 yards, one touchdown and one interception in three quarters' relief action. Unlike when Vick stepped up in relief of Kolb when the latter got hurt in the season opener, Kolb did nothing during his relief appearance to fuel a quarterback controversy. If healthy, Vick should start in Week 5. But don't be completely shocked if he's not; ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeted following the game that "the speculation -- and repeat, speculation -- on Michael Vick is a hairline collarbone fracture."
• Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers (ankle): He departed in the third quarter after suffering an ankle injury on a shoestring tackle following a 5-yard catch. Rookie Jimmy Clausen was just 3-for-8 passing for 27 yards following Smith's exit; David Gettis (four times) was his most-targeted receiver during that time. If Smith misses any further action, the Panthers will be in quite a pinch in the passing game. They'll have a rookie quarterback and a lackluster crop of receivers including Gettis, Brandon LaFell and tight ends Jeff King and Dante Rosario.
• Clinton Portis (groin): He managed just 55 yards on 11 carries before leaving in the fourth quarter, but was completely overshadowed by his backup, Ryan Torain, before exiting. Torain ran 18 times for 70 yards and the game's first touchdown, his stock already up following the Washington Redskins' release of Keiland Williams. The Redskins might prefer Portis as their starter, but it's becoming evident that Torain is as capable as the veteran of handling the starter's chores. Hopefully you scooped Torain up in the past week, but if you didn't and he remains available, he should rank among your top pickups for Week 5.
• Darren McFadden (hamstring): He was forced from Sunday's game in the fourth quarter, fortunately tallying 129 total yards on 18 touches before departing. Unfortunately, it's not the first time he has dealt with nagging aches and pains, so his status will bear watching during midweek practices. Should McFadden miss further time, Michael Bush would presumably get an opportunity to start. Considering McFadden started so strong in Bush's absence, it'd be a shame if he lost his starting job due to a hot streak by Bush.
• Jacoby Jones (leg): Though he received quite an opportunity to play in Andre Johnson's absence, Jones exited early himself, managing only one catch for 12 yards before getting hurt. The Houston Texans' wide receivers should be closely tracked in the coming days; Johnson should be ready for Week 5, but if he or Jones is limited or out, Kevin Walter might see a decent increase in production.