Commentary

2010 fantasy football rankings update

Vick checks in as top QB; Lloyd, Bowe, Tolbert, Welker make big jumps

Updated: December 1, 2010, 12:30 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Listed below are updated rankings for the four major skills positions, defense/special teams and the top 100 players, accounting for projected fantasy value only from Week 13 forward. These rankings are published every Tuesday, meaning they won't always reflect news that breaks late in the week. For week-specific rankings to help you set your lineup, check back on Wednesday.

Quick click by position, for easy reference:
Top 40 Quarterbacks | Top 60 Running Backs | Top 60 Wide Receivers
Top 30 Tight Ends | Top 32 Defense/Special Teams | Top 100 Overall

Top 40 Quarterbacks

• The time has come: Michael Vick is my No. 1 quarterback and No. 5 player overall for the season's final five weeks. They're rankings that many readers have said were long overdue, and to a degree it's true that I underrated him the past two weeks, but at the same time I was prepared to bump him up a couple of spots once those two most unsavory matchups on his schedule -- Week 11 versus New York Giants, Week 12 at Chicago Bears -- were in the rearview. Vick had 42 fantasy points combined in those games, maintaining his league-leading fantasy points-per-game average (24.1) and drawing him to within 31 points of league leader Arian Foster's 224 in total. Most importantly, even as the Giants seemed to find the key to flustering Vick -- pressure him from his left to force him to throw on the run from his right, where he's less comfortable -- neither the Giants nor Bears used the strategy successfully enough to keep him off the fantasy score sheet. Now Vick has only one matchup of concern remaining, the Week 15 rematch at the Giants; his remaining five opponents in total have averaged 16.1 fantasy points per game allowed to quarterbacks (or 80.3 if you multiply by five), most in the NFL.

• It's actually Eli Manning's pass attempts -- not his yards or touchdowns -- that were most troubling about his Week 12. He attempted 24 passes, 12th-fewest in his 99 career games, and his Giants stuck with more basic formations, relying heavily upon the run and less on three-wide receiver sets. Manning nevertheless tallied 17 fantasy points against the Jacksonville Jaguars, ninth-most among quarterbacks, but beware of overestimating his value on that number alone. He might not have his full slate of receivers at 100 percent the remainder of the season, and those Week 15 (versus Philadelphia Eagles) and Week 16 (at Green Bay Packers) matchups aren't going to be nearly as easy as this past one.

• Although Ryan Fitzpatrick's numbers haven't set the fantasy world ablaze, the thing to like about his past two weeks is the amount of confidence he showed and his willingness to air things out while playing from behind. You can criticize his 12-point fantasy Week 12 all you want; if Steve Johnson had caught that overtime bomb, Fitzpatrick would have been a clear "win" for the week. Do you really believe Johnson will commit five drops every game? Opportunity matters a lot at this stage of the season, and if Fitzpatrick averages fewer than 35 -- and maybe even 40 -- attempts per game the rest of the way, I'll be pretty surprised. Track record or not, he's one of the better No. 2 quarterbacks in fantasy.

• Don't be too quick to proclaim Jay Cutler "back" as a viable fantasy option, because much of his Week 12 performance was due to a favorable matchup against an Eagles secondary in tatters without star corner Asante Samuel. It's just as likely Cutler's numbers will go into the tank this week, as he'll face the upstart Detroit Lions, who boast the ninth-most sacks in the NFL (28). Cutler's schedule isn't extraordinary, and better defenses will either ravage his mediocre offensive line or put the clamps on his deep threats. He's still a midrange No. 2 option.

• We've said many times on these pages this season that there probably isn't a greater differential between real and fantasy performance than Carson Palmer's, and maybe, at this advanced stage of the season, his real-life deficiencies are showing up in his fantasy numbers. He's erratic and his declining arm strength has been masked for much of the year by Terrell Owens' remarkable comeback, but players at their ages do tend to face a more difficult climb remaining elite for all 16 games. The Cincinnati Bengals, incidentally, have the worst remaining schedule for quarterbacks; their five opponents have averaged only 11.3 points per game allowed to the position (56.7 if multiplied by five).

Top 60 Running Backs

Frank Gore's season-ending hip injury throws the running back rankings somewhat out of whack, as my top 20 was already populated by a few options with questions. Now, there's one fewer, after ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Gore suffered a broken right hip, an injury certain to land him on injured reserve. Onetime fantasy superstar Brian Westbrook takes over the starting job, and coming off a 100-yard rushing performance, he'll be the hottest pickup of the week. Don't be too hasty to expect a return to his former stat totals with the Eagles, though; the 49ers ran the football 47 times on Monday night thanks to building up a huge, early lead, so 23 carries won't always be present for him. Remember, he's now 31 years old and with a checkered injury history, and he was scarcely used before Monday night (five carries, 10 total touches). Westbrook has instant weekly flex value by virtue of his newfound starting job and what's an above-average schedule, including soft matchups against the Seattle Seahawks (Week 14) and Arizona Cardinals (Week 17), but he's no top-20 option … yet.

• Apparently I was mistaken to doubt Michael Turner's ability to stay healthy, and what's more, he has proved me especially wrong by aptly handling 20 or more carries on five occasions, including in three of the past four weeks. Workload apparently is no issue with him; he's on pace for an entirely reasonable 324 carries (and 340 touches), and that he's averaging 4 yards per carry in the fourth quarter shows he's not losing effectiveness throughout the course of the game. Now backup Jason Snelling is the one with the injury questions -- he departed the Week 12 game with a hamstring problem -- so the Atlanta Falcons are sure to keep rolling with Turner about 20 times a game the remainder of the season. You'll notice I haven't had him outside the top 10 running backs (or top 15 overall) all season, so clearly I've been back on his bandwagon for a long time.

• Now that Mike Tolbert has back-to-back 100-yard efforts out of the starting role, we'll see what happens to the San Diego Chargers' backfield once rookie Ryan Mathews is healthy. On merit, Tolbert deserves to keep the job, but coach Norv Turner has made overtures all season that a healthy Mathews would be his starter. Of course, it has been a few weeks since Turner has said so, and I'd be surprised if Tolbert ceded more than half the work at this point. Mathews might not be ready in time for Week 13, being that he has been dealing with a high ankle sprain for much of the year, and that means yet another juicy matchup for Tolbert, against the Oakland Raiders' 28th-ranked run defense.

• Although Mike Goodson is coming off three consecutive quality performances, Darin Gantt of the Rock Hill Herald speculates that Jonathan Stewart, who ran 12 times for 98 yards in his return from a concussion in Week 12, will reclaim the starting job beginning this week. That's a frustrating development for Goodson owners; he's capable enough of handling the chores but might have to settle for half -- or worse -- of the load. I look at that backfield and see a dreaded parallel to Arizona's: Stewart in the Beanie Wells role, Goodson as the Tim Hightower passing-down guy and a mess at the quarterback position. It's not what fantasy owners want to hear, and it represents the downside here, but at the same time, I see a lot more to like about Goodson than I do Hightower. Goodson is the only one of the four I truly trust right now, but there are a lot of moving parts here, and that's why Stewart soars 19 spots to 35th this week.

Adrian Peterson is expected to play in Week 13 despite suffering an ankle injury this past Sunday, but Toby Gerhart has suddenly become a prime handcuff, earning him a 14-spot jump to 39th and into the realm of "go-get-him" guys. I see Gerhart's ceiling as something just outside the top 20 -- think in the LeGarrette Blount class -- if he ever needs to start this season, however.

• Among the lower-level sleepers, take a look at Tashard Choice, whose role is sure to increase this week upon word that Marion Barber will miss two weeks with a calf injury. I've believed for more than a year now that Choice deserves more of an opportunity in the Dallas Cowboys' backfield, and under a new coach, with two backs ahead of him dealing with bumps and bruises, he'll probably get it. Even if that means only a goal-line role the remainder of the season, that's enough to make him one of your more desirable pickups of the week.

Top 60 Wide Receivers

Andre Johnson fortunately dodged a suspension, so although he drops a spot in my wide receiver rankings (and three spots in my overall top 100), it's nothing to sweat. His schedule is immensely favorable, including games against the Baltimore Ravens (Week 14), Denver Broncos (Week 16) and Jaguars (Week 17), all of which have questions at cornerback. As for the other two matchups, consider that Johnson could face an Eagles defense with a less-than-healthy (or sidelined) Asante Samuel on Thursday; the Bears just showed us how little depth there is in that Eagles secondary. Then there's the rematch with the Tennessee Titans in Week 15, in which he'll surely be motivated to embarrass Cortland Finnegan with a bloated stat line.

• It's no coincidence that Wes Welker's rejuvenation has coincided with Deion Branch's, as Branch's re-emergence as a viable deep threat has helped open back up those underneath routes for Welker. In the past three weeks, Branch has 17 catches for 254 yards and two scores and Welker 21 for 237 and three, as Tom Brady and the New England Patriots have jelled as an offense in the post-Randy Moss era. It's time to return Welker to weekly fantasy lineups, and that includes the Week 13 game against the New York Jets. Sure, Revis Island beckons, but Darrelle Revis might be more occupied with Branch, given that Revis hasn't focused on Welker in past meetings. To that point, Welker has 35 receptions for 410 yards and one touchdown in his past four games against the Jets.

• Just as quickly as he shot up the rankings, Vincent Jackson has dropped back a couple of tiers after suffering a calf strain just three snaps into the Chargers' Sunday night contest. It turns out Jackson has injuries to both calves; the San Diego Union-Tribune reports that he tweaked his left calf during this past Friday's practice and hurt the right calf during the Week 12 contest. Thanks a lot for the heads-up, Vincent! Fortunately, Jackson has every reason to make a quick return to the field, as he's playing for a new contract, but the chances of him missing Week 13 are significant, and multiple games are noticeable. When he plays, he's a top-25 fantasy value, but as with Hakeem Nicks (24th this week), Austin Collie (34th), Steve Smith of the Giants (38th) and Kenny Britt (46th), there's a quantitative concern with Jackson. Bank on only three more games, to be safe.

• Everyone is understandably down on the Titans' passing game after rookie quarterback Rusty Smith put forth such a miserable Week 12, but word that Kerry Collins might be back in Week 13 provides optimism. Remember, the Titans still boast one of the most favorable remaining schedules -- in terms of their pass attack -- and Collins did get some practice reps with star receiver-turned-decoy Randy Moss before getting hurt. You'd think after last week's results, Nate Washington's stock would drop, but I don't see it that way; he has bounce-back potential into No. 3 status at his position with Collins rapidly healing. I wouldn't be so hasty to bail on either receiver, or Kenny Britt, just yet.

• Although Johnny Knox makes a 13-spot jump this week, it's Earl Bennett who most caught my eye in the past week, and it's possible that I'm a little too high on Knox and a little too low on Bennett. The Bears seem to want to involve him more in the offense, but a quick look at his game logs shows how inconsistent he can be. Given the chance, Bennett probably could be a No. 3 fantasy option, but between the unpredictable weekly target totals and the struggles of his quarterback, he's a player who, albeit interesting, isn't quite ready to be trusted.

Top 30 Tight Ends

• A healthy Antonio Gates would be the unquestioned No. 1 fantasy tight end, but he might not be fully healthy the remainder of the season. He already missed three weeks -- Weeks 9 and 11 as a scratch and the Week 10 bye -- recovering from a torn plantar fascia in his right foot as well as toe and ankle injuries in his left foot, and when he was on the field in Week 12, he didn't look like a player close to full speed. Chargers fans might be pleased to see their superstar tight end willing to grit it out and play through his ailments, but fantasy owners don't share that opinion. In fact, we'd probably prefer a player to sit until he's 100 percent, because (a) then we'd know we need a replacement instead of playing the weekly "will he play?" guessing game, and (b) then he'd be 100 percent when he returns as opposed to playing long stretches at 80-90 (or less). That his Chargers are in the thick of the playoff race means this might be Gates' pattern the remainder of the season; I no longer think you can count on him as a "win-your-week-by-himself" talent. But even at 80-90 percent of his normal self -- when he grits it out, of course -- he's too valuable to sit for anyone except Jacob Tamme.

• Speaking of torn plantar fascia, that's apparently the same injury the Oakland Raiders' Zach Miller suffered back in late October, the Contra Costa Times reports. Now Miller, who also dealt with a hip injury earlier in the season, has a fibula injury that threatens to return him to the sideline. Plus there's a concern that his foot problems were largely responsible for his four catches on 10 targets in his past three "healthy" games. Miller is clearly not 100 percent and probably won't be the remainder of the season. Furthermore, his talent doesn't equal Gates'. Miller doesn't belong that close to the top 10, and I might even be overvaluing him at 15th.

Todd Heap continues to enjoy a bounce-back season despite a target total (59) that ranks outside the top 10 at his position and a season pace of 54 catches, which would be only the fifth-best total he has ever had in a single season. Still, he's also on pace for 794 yards and seven scores, which would represent his third-best and best (tied) single-season numbers. His skills and role would normally dictate that Heap belongs just outside the top 10 fantasy tight ends, but his schedule is simply too good to resist. He still faces the Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 13), Houston Texans (Week 14) and Cleveland Browns (Week 16), three teams that don't defend the tight end well, and in a season when consistent tight end production has been tough to find, he has actually been one of the more consistent options.

• Although the Giants used fewer three-wide receiver sets on Sunday, they did expand Kevin Boss' role in the offense, something you can expect to continue through the regular season's final five weeks. Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith might not play a full slate of snaps the remainder of the season, and Boss has shown in the past that he's a viable red zone weapon for Eli Manning. He had two targets in those circumstances in Week 12 and has seven for the season.

Top 32 Defense/Special Teams

Top 100 Overall

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.

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