Commentary

Packers' depth not fantasy friendly

Updated: August 19, 2011, 11:06 AM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Who will emerge from Packers time shares to be fantasy worthy?

For one of the NFL's best offenses, the Green Bay Packers sure have a lot of teases.

32 Questions

Yes, Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley should be just fine as fantasy options for as long as they stay healthy. But that's about all we really know. The remaining running back and wide receiver depth charts are messy, platoon-looking situations that have the potential to result in much tearing out of hair throughout the 2011 season.

At running back, Ryan Grant and James Starks are pretty much the only game in town. Brandon Jackson moved on to the Browns, while John Kuhn will go back to his fullback role. (Rookie Alex Green has potential to be an interesting passing-down back, but he'll take a while to get there.) That sounds like a simplified situation. But Grant and Starks have done a fantasy dance of death all summer, with pundits perpetually weighing in on who'll carry the mail. Will it be the veteran Grant, who missed most of '10 with torn ankle ligaments and a knee fracture, but has two 1,200-yard seasons to his NFL credit? Or will it be Starks, the kid who lit up the Eagles during the playoffs last season and has the kind of wrecking-ball body that can make for myriad short TDs?

[+] EnlargeRyan Grant
Kirby Lee/US PresswireRyan Grant ran for 1,253 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2009, but saw his 2010 season end eight carries into his first game.

The way things have shaped up so far in training camp, my money is on Grant to be the significantly more valuable player here. He's run with the first team most of the time since the lockout ended, while Starks reportedly seems to have bulked up to handle some of the rougher inside work. In terms of their skill sets, these guys are strikingly similar players, though Starks may be a slightly better pass receiver; Green and fellow rookie Randall Cobb (a receiver) may help out in obvious passing situations, but it seems Starks would be a natural third-down back as well. And Grant is still in the prime of his career, an experienced, 28-year-old player who's comfortable with 300-touch seasons. I have no doubt that there will be weeks in which Grant's owners are frustrated, because Starks gets hot and Mike McCarthy rides him, or because Starks is the guy who sneaks in for scores. This isn't a pure starter/backup situation. But unless injury strikes Grant again, I believe he's the guy to draft first, and the guy you'll be happier owning on the whole. You might get lucky with a bye-week fill-in with Starks -- i.e., you might happen to start him on one of those juicy weeks in which he's the hot hand -- but in general I consider him a fantasy fourth-stringer in standard 10-team leagues. Grant is a high-upside flex.

On the wide receiver side, after Jennings, there are four players who might produce stats on a week-to-week basis. There's Donald Driver, the 36-year-old veteran coming off a season that was damaged by an injured quad. There's James Jones, the man who won the third-receiver gig last year and produced 50 catches and five TDs but also dropped too many passes. There's Jordy Nelson, who was invisible through part of the '10 regular season but was a playoff hero. And there's Cobb, the do-everything rookie who's expected to contribute on special teams and in the occasional funky offensive formation. (You don't need to consider drafting Cobb in any-sized league just yet.)

Driver may nominally be the No. 2 receiver in Green Bay, but the team runs so many three- and four-wideout sets that it almost doesn't matter: Nelson and Jones will see almost as many passing-down snaps as Driver will. And frankly, I'd rather own both of those younger guys than I would Driver, who's coming off his worst statistical season in seven years. Sure, he made that incredible rumbling-bumbling-stumbling TD catch-and-run against the 49ers last year, and no doubt he'll have some fine moments in '11. But Nelson and Jones are faster and more explosive, and they're the guys to consider drafting. Unfortunately, because Jones elected to re-sign with the Packers rather than go elsewhere as a free agent, Nelson and Jones may also do a fine job of canceling one another out as fantasy sleepers. Take a look at their production last year, both in the regular season and the playoffs:

Jones led Nelson in fantasy points in 10 games out of 16 last year, but Nelson outdistanced him in three consecutive playoff games, including the Super Bowl. In other words, prepare for madness. I'd have considered Nelson a really enticing sleeper as a third wideout had Jones signed elsewhere. But as things stand, it would be a mistake to consider either guy better than a bye-week fill-in in 10-team leagues. As for Driver? He's deep-league fodder only.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.