Commentary

Called Out!: To play or not to play Kevin Smith?

Updated: December 5, 2008, 1:58 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Injunction junction, what's your function?

I'll tell you what your function is: To further screw with the minds of fantasy owners everywhere. As if it was bad enough we have a player's raw talent, recent performance, health and matchup to evaluate, now we have suspensions … oh, wait, I mean possible suspensions, because heaven knows it's not hard enough when we only have the first four things to deal with. Here's a novel idea: Let's keep tossing about the threat of suspensions for everyone, but not actually decide on any of them, because you know, it'd be oodles of fun to deal with more uncertainty during the fantasy playoffs. (And by the way, in case you're just an NFL fan but not fantasy, I'm sure you'll love the prospect of a player's uncertain status during the real playoffs, right?)

Anyway, my point: Just decide already.

Fortunately for us in the fantasy realm, we have four honest-to-goodness decisive experts here to chat about their Week 14 rankings. Sorry, Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris, Erik Kuselias and Eric Karabell; no injunctions allowed. We're down to business because it's a fantasy football playoff week, and the important decisions are to be made!

Kevin Smith
Bruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireKevin Smith will have much more running room if Kevin and Pat Williams aren't there to stop him.
So first, about those possible suspensions: Minnesota's defensive line stands to be hit hardest, with Kevin and Pat Williams potentially penalized. I know that's more relevant to those Weeks 15 through 17 matchups, when more notable running backs face this defense, but Kevin Smith's value comes into play, even if it's just whether to use him as a flex option. Where does each of you stand on approaching Smith's matchup?

Berry: I would put Smith in the high 20s if the Williamses were out. If they're playing, I think I have him about right; I ranked him assuming the Williamses were going to play. Smith has run well against tough defenses in the past; they are at home, where he plays better; and he is part of their passing game.

Harris: I did account for the "Williams Wall" being gone, and also defensive end Brian Robison being out with an injured knee. If the Williamses play this week, I wouldn't use Smith. If they don't, I'd consider it.

Karabell: Well, as of my saying this, I'm not entirely sure whether the Williamses will or won't play. Didn't matter much to me. Smith has been playing fairly well -- Thanksgiving against Tennessee notwithstanding -- so I expect the Lions to get blown out, but for Smith to get his 75 rushing yards. He had averaged nearly 100 in Weeks 10-12, after all, and those weren't Lions-type defenses. If the Williamses do not play, I'll move him up a bit into better flex range, but not go overboard.

Cockcroft: And what about the Saints' running back picture? Deuce McAllister is presumably out, and Matthew, I see you're the most pro-Reggie Bush of the bunch. At No. 14, he's a clear must-play in your eyes?

Reggie Bush
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesReggie Bush has a better matchup on a better surface than he did in Week 13.
Berry: First off, before the injury, he was one of the hottest running backs in the NFL. So now we're told the guy is back to 100 percent healthy. I think what happened last week was a little bit of rust, but also a large part of being on the road, on grass and at Tampa Bay, one of the toughest, if not the toughest, place to run in the NFL. Now he's at home, against the Falcons, a team that has played better defense recently but is still in the bottom third of the league defending the run and pass. Considering how well the Falcons' offense has played recently, I think this game is a shootout. And with the return of Marques Colston, plus Pierre Thomas and a healthy Jeremy Shockey, the Falcons won't be able to focus on Bush nearly as much this week, either. How do you not love a guy who was a top-10 running back before he got injured, playing at home and against a defense that's going to give up a lot of points?

Cockcroft: Makes sense, but certainly I can't love Sammy Morris as much as you do, as you had him 19th? I personally think the Patriots stack up worlds better in the passing game than the run in that game at Seattle.

Berry: I think they stack up well across the board. I agree with you that they'll be able to pass at will, but I think they'll be able to run as well. Look, the Seahawks stink. I think all of the Patriots have big days here, but I believe on the road, the Pats will get up big and run some in the second half. Morris is by far the most likely to get any goal-line carries, and I think Bill Belichick is going to want to use him more to get him ready for the playoffs. Remember last year, Belichick turned to the run even when the offense was setting all sorts of passing records. Belichick ran a lot down the stretch; remember all those games that Laurence Maroney had? A guy who is going to get the goal-line carries and 15-20 touches against the Seahawks is a low-end No. 2 to me.

Cockcroft: I'll quote the Lee Evans numbers so you don't need to: three 100-yard games and eight touchdowns in nine career meetings with the Dolphins, and 17 touchdowns in 18 games in the month of December. So yes, I'm on the bandwagon. But might not a No. 7 ranking be too optimistic for a guy who is either going to have a less-than-healthy Trent Edwards or -- more likely -- stinky J.P. Losman lofting him the ball?

Berry: I don't think Losman helps matters, but I don't think he hurts them, either, because a lot of those stats came with Losman at quarterback. Edwards is the better overall quarterback, but Losman has the better arm. Miami ranks 26th against the pass; the game is indoors, in Toronto, so no concerns at all.

Cockcroft: More from the stat front: Of the five times Leon Washington has carried the football six or more times this season, four were in games the Jets won by a substantial margin. His best rushing game: a Jets blowout of the Titans. So that has me a tad curious, as your No. 27 ranking of the guy seems a little generous unless you see some clear garbage-time potential? At this late stage of the season, do you honestly advise taking a chance on garbage-time work, especially ahead of guys probable to get more touches, like Cedric Benson -- and no, I'm not a fan of his, overall -- or Le'Ron McClain?

Berry: I think the Jets, having been embarrassed by losing to Denver, come and blow the Niners out of the water. They're finding more and more ways to get Washington the ball, and he's got a bunch of different ways to beat you, whether it's a return touchdown, rushing or in the passing game against a bad San Francisco defense. Washington has more upside than Benson, a better matchup than McClain and, by the way, has been the better fantasy running back than those two over the past eight weeks.

Cockcroft: Christopher, I want to pick a little on your level of consistency this week, or at least get a sense of how you see this game shaking out. You've got Donovan McNabb ranked 10th, Brian Westbrook in your top 20 and the Giants' defense third. Do you really see there being enough to go around for both sides to be fantasy-worthy?

Donovan McNabb
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesDonovan McNabb brought smiles back to his fantasy owners' faces on Thanksgiving.
Harris: Who, exactly, was I supposed to have above McNabb? Tyler Thigpen? (Have you watched his past two games? His numbers have been OK, but he hasn't played very well.) Tony Romo against the Steelers? Joe Flacco against an actual NFL defense, as opposed to the Bengals? No. 10 is low for me on McNabb, especially when you consider what he did last week. Ditto Westbrook. I have Westbrook as the No. 17 back a week after he scored four touchdowns and embarrassed the fantasy world for benching him. I'd say that shows some restraint, wouldn't you?

This is a game I weigh in the Giants' favor, hence the No. 3 defensive ranking, but we're in the fantasy playoffs now, and it's time to be darn sure when you're benching your stars. So I'm assuming you'd prefer to have a team go with, um, Willie Parker and Chester Taylor in their backfield and Gus Frerotte at quarterback, and stay away from Westbrook and McNabb? I can't without equivocation say that wouldn't be a winning strategy, but if it doesn't work out, and McNabb plays against the Giants as he did in Week 10 -- three touchdowns, 35 yards rushing -- I'd feel pretty bad if I lost with him on my bench.

Cockcroft: OK, so point taken, you're not fond of many quarterbacks this week. For that matter, neither am I. But I think the danger here is that people see a top-10 ranking and think that's an endorsement to start the guy. In addition, I get a lot of questions about how to approach things when you have both the starting quarterback and the defense he's facing. Which would you pick? Can you realistically start both?

Harris: I'd use the Giants' defense and another quarterback if I could, because the game, the weather, the crowd, they favor the Giants. Another example: I'd rather not use a whole heck of a lot in that Dallas/Pittsburgh game. I think the Steelers' defense is probably the safest play, because they're going to get their pressures and sacks no matter what. But couldn't Romo put up 35? Of course he could. That's a great game to watch, but a killer for fantasy. The "start your studs" edict still applies, however, and if you've been riding Romo, I guess you just go ahead and use him, instead of going with a vastly inferior alternative.

Cockcroft: Bernard Berrian had a season-high 19 fantasy points against the Lions in Week 6, he had more than 100 yards and a score last week and has four 100-yard efforts in his past eight games, yet his reward is a mediocre No. 31 ranking by you. Can I convince you to please boost him in your Friday re-ranks?

Harris: Probably not, no. The Lions haven't given up fantasy points via the air lately, and maybe that's because they're so willingly surrendering them on the ground, but nevertheless, the fact remains. Gus Frerotte is the 24th-rated quarterback in fantasy over the past five weeks, while over the same span, the Lions have allowed only 848 yards via the air. And in the interest of introducing the concept of lies, damn lies and statistics, I love how you've framed Berrian as this can't-miss guy. How many catches does he have this year, Tristan? Thirty-eight. That's right, 38. Tied for 43rd in the league. With Isaac Bruce. By the way: They have the same number of catches, and Bruce has six touchdowns this year, while Berrian has five. How come you're not clamoring for Ol' Rev Ike? In fact, if you'd have been calling me out during Thanksgiving week, I'm guessing you'd have been ripping me for having Berrian too high, considering he was coming off back-to-back weeks with four catches for 52 yards combined. Over the past five weeks, since the Vikings decided they weren't interested in having Frerotte lead the league in interceptions, they've thrown the ball 22.2 times per game. In that span, would you guess that Berrian is in the top 50 among receivers in targets? You'd be wrong. He's got 20, which ties him for 62nd. I believe I've factored the possibility of a touchdown into his ranking this week. Without that possibility, he wouldn't warrant a mention in the top-50 receivers.

Cockcroft: A lot of numbers to digest there, but first off, no, I'd have busted on you last week for having Berrian too low then, too, since you had him 26th. He beat up the Bears in his first game against them this season, he had the "former-team" motivation card in his pocket, and I've long thought that an overrated secondary besides. I just think you were closer on the Berrian ranking for Week 13, that's all.

That said, good point about Isaac Bruce. But why should we be knocking either of these receivers anyway? Berrian might be on pace for only 51 receptions, but Greg Jennings had 53 in 2007 and squeezed 158 fantasy points out of them. Project Berrian out and he'll finish with 143 points, and with the Lions, Cardinals and Falcons his next three opponents, he might yet challenge Jennings' number from a year ago.

Well done on that 20-spot bump up in Peyton Hillis' ranking in your "Big Rotowski" column this week, but I have to wonder, might you still be behind the curve on him? Everyone else has him at least four spots higher this week, and Berry had him fourth! What makes you hesitant to go all-out with this kid?

Harris: I have him 13th among rushers. Almost no matter what league you're in, that's calling him a "must-start." Calling him your No. 4 running back for a week is just silly, and sounds like it was done by a person who has never been "Shanahanned" in his life. Let's paraphrase Mr. Bill Parcells here: The guy has five games total in the NFL. He has three starts. He has one career game in which he exceeded 100 yards rushing. In the four games since he has been a full-time rusher, he has seven targets and five catches. Hey, he's a starter. I'd use him in my fantasy lineup. But No. 4? Let's not get out the anointing oil just yet.

Cockcroft: Mr. Shanahan, of course. The guy who makes fantasy owners talk like an angry person in the funny pages: @#%&*@!

Joseph Addai has been making fantasy owners say that, too, and Erik, everyone seems to have Addai a definite start for fantasy, within the top 20. You're most optimistic about the dude, with him fifth. Why doesn't Dominic Rhodes' presence -- and his respectable performance in a time-share of late -- have you more conservatively ranking Addai?

Kuselias: In the past three weeks, Joey Addai -- I like to think that since I'm defending him, we're tight and I can go "Joey" here -- has averaged 22 touches and over 100 yards. And here come the Bengals, who are among the league's worst defenses. Plus, the Bengals will mail this one in, and they are particularly putrid against the run. Also, throughout his career, Addai has a propensity to have a breakout game. The board seems set for this to be the week: At home, fast track, coming off a disappointing week.

Cockcroft: OK, well on the theme of disappointments, I present Heath Miller. He's 20th among tight ends in fantasy points this year, after a standout 2007. Still, in spite of his miserable season, he's a top-10 option in your eyes this week?

Kuselias: Sometimes you just need to lay the smack down. Anyone who ranks Miller outside the top 10 either:

• Didn't watch the Steelers go to him in big spots over the past two weeks,
• Missed his eight grabs for over 100 yards and a TD in the past two weeks,
• Hasn't checked the injury report to see Miller is now healthy,
• Hasn't read the local papers that praise Miller as the healthiest, hottest player on the offense,
• Or they are still bitter because Miller took their high school girlfriend to his prom.

Heath Miller
Elsa/Getty ImagesHeath Miller has received more targets (14) the past two weeks than he has in any three consecutive games this season.

And before anyone tries to spew some garbage like "the Cowboys are ninth-best against the tight end," consider this: The reason you dominate is that you look deeper into the stats. The Cowboys have played three tight ends all season who would ever rank in our top 10 -- like, say, Heath Miller. Dallas gave up a touchdown to Kellen Winslow, gave up a touchdown to Kevin Boss, and gave up 11 catches in the two meetings to Chris Cooley. So you have a healthy tight end, who is hot, at home against a team that can't stop decent tight ends. Now that you have the facts, where are you gonna rank him?

Cockcroft: Frankly, I think I could find 10 tight ends I prefer. But I can give you this: John Carlson managed 100-plus yards against the Cowboys last week, and I'm actually a little surprised you didn't point that out!

What about your defense rankings? I see you're bucking the group trend with the Cardinals and the Packers. I'm on board with Arizona as a big-time Week 14 sleeper -- those past two stinkers came against the Giants and Eagles -- and I think Steve Slaton has the skills to Swiss-cheese that Green Bay defensive front. Obviously, you must disagree, as you had the Packers fourth and the Cardinals all the way down at 17?

Kuselias: For the season, the Packers are a top-10 defense, while the Cards are a handful of points away from being in the bottom 10. The Cards aren't exactly hot, either; they have been torched for the past two weeks. In fact, the Cards are the worst team in the NFL against the pass, in terms of touchdown passes. And they will now have to deal with Steven Jackson, who is the healthiest he has been in months. Despite these facts, I bumped them up several spots due to the matchup and the 10 days of post-Thanksgiving rest, but into the top 10? Or top 5? Good luck with all that.

I'll take the Pack at home against a warm-weather team, who has to travel to the cold on short rest, with exactly zero to play for. In fact, they will probably have a post-"Monday Night Football" celebration hangover. The past two times the Pack defense has faced average offenses, they went over 20 points in each.

Cockcroft: Want a shocker? Houston ranks fifth in terms of total yards per game (367.5) and 15th in points per game (23.5). Everyone underrates the Texans. Point taken that the Cardinals are closer to the bottom 10 fantasy defenses -- 15 points ahead -- than the top 10 -- 25 points back. But it's a history thing for me; the Cardinals have made the Rams look silly in their past two meetings.

Sticking with defenses, Eric, you always toss a sort of "defense special" out there, and this week it seems to be the Washington Redskins for you. What, no love for Joe Flacco's performance the past month or so? And that multi-faceted running game doesn't present a threat? Interested to hear this week's defensive scoop.

Karabell: As usual, ranking a surprise defense in the top 10 is more hunch than anything else, a fact that these are two contending teams likely to play a tough, 13-10 type game, and that's about it. I still pick defenses based on points and potential for turnovers. Incredibly, Joe Flacco has thrown an interception in only four games all season. The thing is, in each of those games it has been multiple picks. Maybe the Redskins can make things interesting.

DeAngelo Williams
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesDeAngelo Williams is tied for the NFL lead in touchdowns with 13.
Cockcroft: I'm actually pretty interested to see what DeAngelo Williams can do against the Buccaneers, in that sure-to-be-hard-fought division affair. He had a pathetic two fantasy points against Tampa Bay in Week 6, and yes, he had a monster Week 13. But you've got him ranked fourth -- seemingly endorsing his Week 13 performance more -- while the rest of the group had him in the low teens. Why?

Karabell: I don't know what else Williams needs to prove to us. His four-game string of 100-yard games got broken in Week 13, but he scored four touchdowns to make up for it. Jonathan Stewart is not stealing carries. Williams is a stud, a top-10 running back, and the Buccaneers are better defensively than what he has mopped up on, but still, he's going to get the touches. Week 6 doesn't matter; the game got out of hand, and Stewart was a factor. Now he's not. I'm all in.

Cockcroft: Does T.J. Houshmandzadeh's reported concussion trouble you at all? You've got him 17th, and the Colts do take the deep ball out of the equation.

Karabell: Ryan Fitzpatrick sure isn't helping Housh much, but he is throwing his way. Six or seven catches looks OK to me, and really, I do not simply assume he can't have a decent game because of the defense. Houshmandzadeh has scored in only three games this season, but those came against the Giants, Cowboys and Eagles, hardly defensive pushovers. Take the catches and hope for more, but I didn't think it was a great week for wide receivers, in general.

Cockcroft: So is your Jeremy Shockey No. 4 ranking more of an endorsement of him and the matchup, or a trashing of the tight-end position as a whole?

Karabell: It's not really an endorsement, just that a few of the better tight ends do have difficult matchups, and I can't believe he's going to go the entire season without scoring a touchdown. Maybe this is the week! Shockey has been getting more catches and yards of late, and really, I just can't find enough at this position to not take a few chances.

Cockcroft: You're right, there really is not much at that position. Ouch. What a terrible way to end things. Hey, go get John Carlson! Decent pickup, available in more than 50 percent of ESPN leagues. Ahhhhh, now that's better.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football, baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.

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