- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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With a week to go until the NFL's regular-season opener, a whole bunch of leagues will draft this weekend, and drafters will find great love for names like Jonathan Stewart and Nate Washington in their fantasy magazines. Unfortunately, those magazines were printed, say, June-ish, and a whole lot of breathless hype has fallen into disregard since then. Injuries have sapped the life of some players' fantasy values, while others have risen from anonymity to be early-September draft darlings. And ESPN.com drafters have noticed.
A quick perusal of our live draft results shows that many players have played a serious game of chutes and ladders over the past seven days. You don't want to be caught unawares this weekend, and so I'm going to explain why the players who have gone up went up, and why the players who have gone down went down. Let's throw as many names as we can into the hopper, and explain their increase or decrease in fantasy popularity over the past week.
Cadillac Williams, RB, Buccaneers (+25.5 draft spots over the past seven days). Fantasy nation was stunned when new Bucs coach Raheem Morris announced that not only were Williams' oft-shredded patellar tendons healthy enough for him to run in camp, but Morris was going to insert Caddy regularly into his lineup. Morris says he plans on using a "2-2-1" system among Derrick Ward, Earnest Graham and Williams, and there's been speculation that Williams' 20 percent of Tampa Bay's carries could be goal-line ones. Williams does probably deserve to be owned in most leagues until this shakes out.
Jermichael Finley, TE, Packers (+19.2). I spilled the secret about Finley in my 10 Names To Know column last week, and the same night Finley went out and caught two touchdown passes in an exhibition game against the Cardinals. Who says I never did anything for you? Now, Finley is probably being a little overdrafted, because Donald Lee is still going to play a lot, which may render each guy moot in fantasy leagues. But Finley is the future.
James Davis, RB, Browns (+14.3). Another of my 10 names to know, Davis has injected himself into the conversation in the Cleveland backfield, and one beat reporter even suggested that Jamal Lewis was in danger of being cut before Week 1. I'm skeptical that'll happen, especially since Jerome Harrison's health is in question. But Davis has averaged 7.8 yards per carry in the preseason, while Lewis has averaged 2.6. Nobody should be surprised if Davis works his way into significant carries later in the year.
Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants (+11). Nicks has a habit of seeing his stock skyrocket after a single performance. That happened in North Carolina's bowl game this winter, when his behind-the-back catch (and overall amazing play) pushed him into the first round of April's draft, and now it's happened after a 144-yard, two-touchdown performance in Saturday's preseason game. Domenik Hixon has made nobody forget Plaxico Burress, so Nicks should see the field in his rookie year. But he's not an unquestioned starter. He's worth a flyer, but that's probably all. I think I like Steve Smith best of any Giants receiver.
Ray Rice, RB, Ravens (+4.8). Fantasy nation believes. Rice actually went in the first round of a 16-team keeper-league draft of mine last weekend (taken by a great friend of mine, as a matter of fact -- hello, Andy Behrens!), and there's no question that this buzz has been brewing for more than a year. The Ravens loved Rice last year and wanted to use him more, but felt boxed in by Willis McGahee. No more. Rice looks like a PPR stud, and in standard leagues he could be almost as good. Beware McGahee, though: He's gotten five of Baltimore's seven carries inside the 5-yard line this preseason. The spike in Rice's average draft position was even higher earlier in the week, but his ADP now seems to be settling in the 60s.
Glen Coffee, RB, 49ers (+4.3). I thought the Niners' selection of Coffee with the 10th pick in April's third round was a major reach, but apparently I was wrong. Everyone seems to love this kid. Presumably, his draft status has increased in ESPN leagues as it's become clear that he's Frank Gore's clear handcuff. So at minimum, Coffee should be owned by all Gore owners.
Chris Wells, RB, Cardinals (+3.9). I'm not what you'd call a dyed-in-the-wool Wells fan, because Arizona is going to throw almost as much as ever this year, and Tim Hightower will still be in the mix. But Wells showed Friday that he's got a gear most big men don't have, and also quickness that could make him an NFL star. I wholeheartedly endorse picking up Wells on the cheap later in drafts, though last week's preseason effort may make that a little more difficult.
Edgerrin James and Julius Jones, RB, Seahawks (-14.9 and -11.6, respectively). Does anyone want a Seattle running back? James actually had an increase of 14.3 earlier in the week but has crashed back to earth as it appears he won't be the Seahawks' No. 1 guy. It doesn't help that James averaged 3.4, 3.8 and 3.9 yards per carry the past three seasons, and Seattle's offensive line may be one of the league's worst. Meanwhile, Jones keeps on declining. The only problem I have with this deterioration is that Jones shouldn't have been owned much at all to begin with. Didn't we learn our lesson last year, when we knew Jones' history but still told ourselves, "Well, at least he's a starting NFL running back." No, see, he's not. Nothing much he's done in his pro career indicates he'll be a positive fantasy factor, like, ever. I'm dubious anyone in Seattle is going to be worth a lot, and fantasy owners are now paying attention.
Earnest Graham and Derrick Ward, RB, Buccaneers (-12.8 and -8.4, respectively). As Cadillac Williams enjoyed the news of a potential three-headed backfield attack in Tampa, Graham and Ward merely sighed. Let's be clear: Each of these two guys is still much more valuable than Williams, who's never shown he can stay healthy. All this current news does is throw the situation into a tizzy, injecting uncertainty where there was already a question about how Ward and Graham would split touches. Fantasy owners don't like uncertainty. When all's said and done, though, Ward will probably be the most valuable fantasy entity here, and Graham will probably score a handful of touchdowns.
Nate Washington, WR, Titans (-10.4). Washington was signed away from Pittsburgh this winter to be a deep-threat starter, and impressed the Titans in minicamps. Unfortunately, he hurt a hamstring in practice a little more than a week ago, and sources in Tennessee indicate he'll probably miss some regular-season games while he recovers. In the meantime, rookie Kenny Britt looks like a starter, and could take away the job with a few strong games.
Jonathan Stewart, RB, Panthers (-9.3). I probably take more Facebook questions about Stewart than any other player right now, because people are worried this guy's downside is now basically zero carries for zero yards. And they're right. I don't think Stewart's Achilles is going to keep him out for a significant chunk of the season. I think the worry is overstated right now. But every day he doesn't practice is another brick in the wall. DeAngelo Williams looks more secure than ever right now, and Mike Goodson may be his backup.
Roy Williams, Cowboys (-6.2). This decline must be due to Williams' shoulder injury during a Dallas practice last week, after which rumors began to circulate that his collarbone was broken. That turned out not to be the case, and Williams is already back at practice. All the episode did was serve to underscore that Williams is one injury-prone dude. But presumably you already knew that.
Matt Cassel, QB, Chiefs (-6). Cassel sprained his MCL in the Chiefs' most recent preseason game, and there are conflicting reports about whether he'll be able to play Week 1. Since the opener is against the Ravens, perhaps it would be better for all involved if Cassel just stays off the field for that one, eh? Considering Todd Haley has already fired offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, I'm starting to reconsider my assertion that Cassel is a sleeper to be a No. 1 fantasy quarterback this year. It could be really ugly in KC.
Shonn Greene, RB, Jets (-4.6). Greene was everyone's favorite rookie sleeper when the mock drafts started in May, so much so that he quickly became overhyped in fantasy circles. Reality set in during training camp, as Leon Washington proved he deserves more than just the occasional special-teams touch. Meanwhile, Greene was limited for part of camp by a rib problem, though he was back at practice early this week. I do think he'll be heard from again this year, though this decline (which was even bigger earlier in the week) is understandable.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can find him at www.facebook.com/writerboy.