Prepare to be surprised: A Cleveland Browns running back actually ranks among the top 10 in fantasy points at his position through nine weeks of the season.
Prepare to be surprised again: It's not Jerome Harrison, who was their projected starter during the preseason and selected 30th among running backs in ESPN drafts.
In one of 2010's biggest shocks so far, Peyton Hillis, a bit of a "tweener" (i.e. something between a halfback and a fullback) who began the preseason at best third on the Browns' depth chart at running back, finds himself ranked in the top 10 at his position in scoring, thanks to the strength of a week-topping (he tied with Arian Foster), 31-point fantasy effort in Week 9. It was the seventh time in his eight games he has cracked double-digit fantasy points and the third time he ran for 100-plus yards.
What's more, he did it against the New England Patriots, a defense known more for its strength against the run than the pass. Entering Sunday, the Patriots hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season, had afforded opponents 4.1 yards per carry and only three runs of 20-plus yards. Hillis managed 184 rushing yards, averaged 6.3 yards per carry and had a 35-yard touchdown run, a 29-yard reception and three other runs of 15 yards or more.
It's fair to assume Hillis' quadriceps injury is no longer an issue, especially in light of his not being included on the team's injury report entering the contest, fresh off their Week 8 bye. That's a real positive for the 24-year-old, particularly with a much tougher matchup ahead in the New York Jets in Week 10.
Worry all you want about that Jets matchup; Hillis has proven himself a viable enough option in both the running and receiving departments to be at least a No. 2 fantasy running back regardless of matchup. He has 14 touches or more in each of his past six games and has averaged 23.2 during that span. Plus, look at his schedule in the five weeks after that Jets game: @JAC, CAR, @MIA, @BUF, @CIN. Those defenses -- entering Week 9 -- had allowed the eighth-, 13th-, 29th-, second- and 12th-most fantasy points per game to opposing running backs. Not exactly unfavorable.
Folks, Hillis is legit, and we wouldn't discount him finishing 2010 in the top 10 among running backs.
You could make excellent cases for any of the "fantasy studs" -- Foster (31 points), Adrian Peterson (26) or Philip Rivers (25) -- but I'm going with Eli Manning in the New York Giants' 41-7 blowout of the Seattle Seahawks on the road. Why? Even the early lead didn't prevent him from continuing to pick apart one of the league's weaker secondaries; in a little more than three quarters of work, he completed 21 of 32 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns. Manning and the Giants seemed plenty comfortable pulling a page out of the Tom Brady playbook and rolling up the score; he was still taking shots deep to Hakeem Nicks even after the Giants had taken a 21-0 lead late in the first quarter. Fantasy owners love to see that, and they'll also love to hear that Manning is on pace for 4,150 passing yards and 34 touchdowns, both of which would represent new personal bests.
Just your friendly reminder
"Thursday Night Football" returns in Week 10, with the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons battling at Atlanta's Georgia Dome. Don't forget to set your lineups regarding those players in advance of the 8:20 p.m. ET start time. Thursday football will continue through Week 16 (Dec. 23).
Return to 'Revis Island'
After missing two games (Weeks 3-4) and being somewhat limited in two others (Weeks 5-6) with a hamstring injury, Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis certainly looked back to his full "Revis Island" self on Sunday. Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, fresh off a season-best 28-point fantasy performance, was limited to just one catch on four targets for 13 yards, though part of the credit also belongs to Antonio Cromartie, who did draw Johnson in coverage at times. If you're looking for an explanation for Johnson's quiet day and Nate Burleson's seven catches on eight targets for 113 yards and a score, Revis is it; Matthew Stafford merely went in other directions in the passing game when Johnson couldn't get open. It's something you might see more often in coming weeks, the Nos. 2 and 3 wide receivers (and relevant running backs and tight ends) being the ones who have the better days against the Jets. The Jets, incidentally, face Andre Johnson (Week 11), Terrell Owens (Week 12) and Brandon Marshall (Week 14) in three of their next five games.
It's pronounced SHAY-ee ah-JEER-ah-too-too
but is the San Diego Chargers wide receiver's name one you'll need to know? First, let's applaud Seyi Ajirotutu for his 111-yard, two-touchdown, 23-point fantasy performance. Stepping into the starting lineup due to injuries to both Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee, Ajirotutu was every bit as productive a deep threat as the men he replaced, probably earning himself a long-term roster spot even after their expected returns. However, what fueled his breakout is exactly what prevents him from being a long-term fantasy option; injuries heal and Floyd and Naanee should be back before long, along with tight end Antonio Gates, and Vincent Jackson should be back with the team around Thanksgiving. Ajirotutu might be Week 10's most popular pickup, and while that's fine in deeper leagues, I'd argue he shouldn't be in the majority of ESPN leagues. The Chargers are now on bye, so you'd be burning a bench spot on a player who might not even be a starter come Week 11. As a depth option, he's a smart idea, but I look at his team situation and see very much the kind of appeal that an Anthony Armstrong, Eddie Royal or Brandon Tate has.
Week 9 observations
• Another important takeaway from the Giants' blowout: Ahmad Bradshaw reclaimed the goal-line role back from Brandon Jacobs, scoring 2- and 4-yard touchdowns. Jacobs did continue in his change-of-pace role, carrying the ball 11 times for 78 yards, but if Bradshaw is clearly back to being a goal-line option, he'll have top-10 fantasy potential the remainder of the year.
• Cadillac Williams earned the start over LeGarrette Blount in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Week 9 contest, and while I've stressed repeatedly how silly the label "starter" is in the NFL, Williams did have nine touches to Blount's 13. Another distressing development: Blount was stuffed on a critical fourth-and-1 situation in the fourth quarter of a game his Bucs trailed 27-21. He was also lifted in passing situations, meaning that while Blount is clearly the Bucs' "lead back," it's not the kind of role sure to earn him more than 15 touches per week. That's plenty to make him a No. 2/flex play most weeks, but don't get carried away.
• Speaking of "starts," Tim Hightower got the start at running back for the Arizona Cardinals over Beanie Wells, not to mention had a team-high 13 touches while Wells had but one carry for minus-2 yards. Wells' knee injury -- he had an allergic reaction to an injection in his knee earlier in the week -- might have been more of an issue than the Cardinals let on, so don't assume this is a changing of the guard back to Hightower. Still, Wells hasn't done much as the Cardinals' "lead back," at least not in terms of yards per carry, so the threat of a committee looms large. Hightower didn't fumble, so the two could share the load come Week 10.
• Could there have been a greater in-game turnaround than Brett Favre's? At one point he had two ugly interceptions, including one at the goal line that seemed to condemn the Minnesota Vikings' season. Then, down two touchdowns with less than five minutes to go in the game, Favre completed his final six pass attempts in regulation for a total of 119 yards to rally his team to an overtime victory. That helps explain his gaudy 446-yard, two-touchdown stat line, but I'm not about to diminish what Favre did; it's the first time all season he has looked like the top-10 fantasy quarterback people believed he'd be in the preseason. Ten minutes of such play won't get him anywhere near that tier in my 2010 rankings (posted Tuesday), but it does give him hope of being a midrange No. 2 fantasy option.
For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.
• Austin Collie (head): The scariest injury of Week 9, Collie was knocked from the Indianapolis Colts' contest when he took a hard hit from two Philadelphia Eagles defenders in the second quarter. He was immobilized and taken off on a stretcher after being down for several minutes, and might miss additional time due to a concussion. It's unfortunate, as Collie had just returned from thumb surgery. With Anthony Gonzalez (knee) now on season-ending injured reserve, Blair White might need to step up into the slot-receiver role, or the Colts might simply rely more on wideouts Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon or tight end Jacob Tamme.
• Jonathan Stewart (head): Stewart, starting in place of the injured DeAngelo Williams (sprained left foot), departed less than 10 minutes into Sunday's game with a head injury and had to be carted off. It's unclear whether he has a concussion, but keep tabs on his health in the upcoming days as he'll need to pass tests in order to be cleared for Week 10. If neither Williams nor Stewart is available next week, the Carolina Panthers will probably have to add a running back to the roster; backup Tyrell Sutton (ankle) was also injured at the beginning of the second half. Mike Goodson completed the game as the Panthers' only healthy running back.
• Roddy White (knee): He injured his right knee during the first quarter of Sunday's game and was in and out of the contest until halftime, when he returned to finish the contest, but his four catches on six targets for 49 yards stat line might have his owners troubled. The Falcons do have the short week -- they play Thursday -- so while White should be fine, his status bears close attention.
• Matthew Stafford (shoulder): After managing a four-touchdown game in his return to the lineup in Week 8, then putting forth an impressive, 24-point fantasy effort against the Jets' stout defense for three-plus quarters on Sunday, Stafford re-injured his right shoulder and was forced to depart the Lions' overtime loss. It's unclear how significant the injury might be this time -- he missed five games with the original injury -- but Stafford is certainly developing a reputation for being an injury-prone player. If he's forced back to the sidelines, Shaun Hill, the No. 3 quarterback in Week 9, might be recalled to the starting lineup. Drew Stanton finished Sunday's contest and was 0-for-1 passing.
• Ryan Mathews (ankle): In what is no doubt the last thing his fantasy owners want to hear, Mathews aggravated his right ankle injury during the second quarter of Sunday's game, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Remember, an ankle issue cost the rookie Week 3, as well as loads of practice time during the month of October, and it kept him from handling a starter's full workload during a five-game stretch from Week 4 to Week 8. He does have the bye week to rest, but if this is a significant setback, it might mean more Mike Tolbert beginning in Week 11. If you're a Mathews owner, Tolbert is a mandatory handcuff.
• Jeremy Shockey (ribs): He took a spear to the sternum from the Panthers' Charles Godfrey on a 7-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter, and had to be sent to the hospital in an ambulance. Precautionary X-rays were negative, said coach Sean Payton after the contest, and Shockey actually returned to the stadium before the game's completion. Shockey isn't a top-tier fantasy tight end when healthy; he's strictly backup material.
• Chris Ivory (shoulder): He left Sunday's game in the fourth quarter after handling what was at the time a team-high 12 carries, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported after the game that Ivory "sprained the A/C joint in his left shoulder and that it was separated." The New Orleans Saints are on bye in Week 10, so Ivory will have an extra week to heal, but then again, so will Reggie Bush (fibula). Ladell Betts also carried the ball nine times for 15 yards and a touchdown after Ivory's departure, after performing horribly in Week 8 and the first three quarters of Week 9. It's anyone's guess who might start, as well as who might get the most carries, for the Saints in Week 11. Could this backfield be more clouded?
• Matt Moore (shoulder): He hurt his shoulder on a sack by Saints defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis early in the second quarter on Sunday, and things only deteriorated from there for the Panthers. Jimmy Clausen was 8-for-18 passing for 47 yards and an interception in relief of Moore, before getting the hook for No. 3 quarterback Tony Pike, who was 6-for-12 passing for 47 yards in his first NFL game action. It's unclear whether Moore will need to miss additional time; remember that the Panthers struggled miserably in Clausen's three starts from Weeks 3 through 5, totaling 27 points, so there's great cause for concern here. Even if the Panthers decide to roll the dice with Pike, his inexperience would be a huge minus.
• Injured kickers -- Stephen Gostkowski and Jason Hanson: Both kickers departed their games early, Gostkowski with a thigh injury and Hanson with a leg injury, forcing the Patriots and Lions to get creative with their place-kicker positions. Wes Welker showed off his left foot (though he's a right-hander) when he came on to kick field goals, extra points and kickoffs, while Ndamukong Suh missed an extra-point attempt after stepping into the role for the Lions. Expect both teams to ink new kickers in the coming days if these injuries are serious.