New title, same trash talk.
You know the drill. Each week, shortly after we publish our weekly rankings, I sit down with our four experts, Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris, Erik Kuselias and Eric Karabell. We sip tea, snack on crumpets oh, heck, truth is we just butt heads and smack talk for an hour or so.
They work hard on their rankings, and I work just as hard to poke holes in them. That's right, these four guys are getting "Called Out!"
First up, a little group discussion with Matthew Berry, Christopher Harris and Eric Karabell.
Cockcroft: While I have three of you together, I'd like to kick off things with a group question about sluggish starters. All four rankers seem to have faith that Steven Jackson, Braylon Edwards, Heath Miller and the Chargers' defense will turn things around, and all four fantasy options have been ranked as certain starters. Why so faithful? Their fantasy owners are reeling, and there must be some legitimate concerns about each looking forward.
Berry: We're two games into the season. I always say you don't panic about a guy.
Harris: I'm faithful because two weeks usually isn't long enough to give up on players, and when we're ranking, we're really giving probabilities. The probability is that an NFL star who has been good for years won't suddenly stink indefinitely. Hey, it happens. But Jackson hasn't been all that bad. Although his offensive line is banged up and his yards per carry is down, he has 10 receptions in two games, and if he had scored a touchdown, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Edwards has had two tough opponents, some bad drops in Week 1 and horrible weather in Week 2. And I agree that the Chargers are troublesome; I dropped them from second to 11th on my season list of defenses. But there are still scads of talent there, and I don't think we appreciate how good the Denver offense is. The Jets will make some mistakes, and I think the Chargers' defense will be adequate this week.
Karabell: I just think it's way too early to give up on talented players. Last season we were discussing LaDainian Tomlinson this way, weren't we? He had rushed for a total of 130 yards and one score in three games. Um, I'd say he ended up OK. Jackson has a challenge in that his team stinks, and they'll be throwing a lot, but he'll get his numbers. After all, Ronnie Brown was leading the league in rushing last season for a winless squad. I did move Jackson and Edwards down in the rankings a bit, but I'd still start them. As for the Chargers, it's still about the matchups when it comes to defense, MVP linebacker or not. The Jets still rank as a semifavorable matchup for San Diego.
Now, the individual questions. First up, new soap opera star Matthew Berry!
Cockcroft: Harris, Kuselias and Karabell all had Braylon Edwards in their top 12, but you had him 20th. I'm in your camp on that one -- at least for this week. But it's worth asking about because that's still a definite No. 2 receiver ranking, so you obviously still have faith in the guy. Tell me how you feel about Edwards for this week and beyond.
Berry: It's a concern about his quarterback and the matchup. With Ed Reed and Chris McAlister healthy, I feel the Ravens' defense is back. It's legit. This series is always a dogfight, and Edwards seems to be thinking too much -- dropping passes, etc. If you own him, you have to start him. But I'm not all fired up about it.
Cockcroft: Wow, J.T. O'Sullivan at No. 5 among quarterbacks. That's one of the boldest calls I think I'm going to see all season. You have him ranked higher than Eli Manning, Kurt Warner, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, and none of the other three guys had those guys lower. Frankly, I wouldn't either. Well, at least not Eli, Warner or Brees. How can you go from such hate for Mike Martz's offense one week -- O'Sullivan 26th for Week 2 -- to total love the next? I know, matchup differential, from a road game at Seattle to home against Detroit, but that's a huge swing.
Berry: Football, more than any other fantasy sport, is based on matchups. I didn't hate Mike Martz's offense, I just felt it's very tough to play on the road at Seattle. Now that the 49ers have shown they can do that, I feel a lot better. I've always been a fan of Martz from a fantasy angle. I had Lions QB Jon Kitna in my top 10 in the preseason last year. Now the Niners are at home, against one of the worst defenses in the NFL. What put this over the top for me was the revenge factor. You think Martz doesn't want to run up the score on his former employer? At home? Of course he does, and he'll take every opportunity to embarrass the team that fired him. As for the other guys you mention, well, Manning's ranking is just a case of the team's having so many rushing weapons; the Giants should run all over Cincy. Besides, I still have Manning very high. Warner's rank is a show of respect to the Redskins at home -- they shut down Drew Brees last week, remember. And Brees, well, he is on the road, against a better-than-they've-shown Denver defense, and appears to really miss Marques Colston.
Cockcroft: My boy Brandon Jacobs surely warrants better than a No. 15 ranking against Cincy. Willie Parker, Maurice Jones-Drew and Joseph Addai are all better? I see some concerns in each of those three, at least as big as with Jacobs, whose biggest problem is that Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw could steal his carries. Still, that's a hard sell. Are you that worried about the three-headed Giants monster diluting the stats?
Berry: Yeah, it's the three-headed-monster thing. Look, he had a fantastic matchup -- and game -- against the Rams last week, right? Just awesome. Well, he finished with nine fantasy points. Nine. Tied for 23rd among running backs last week. The Steelers' Willie Parker has been a beast so far, and as the Cowboys' Marion Barber showed, you can run against Philly. Indy has just lost Bob Sanders, and in four career games against the Colts, MJD has more than 400 total yards and five touchdowns. He always plays well against the Colts. As for Addai, getting Jeff Saturday back, which figures to happen this week, will be a big boost to him.
Time to introduce the newest starting flanker for the Seattle Seahawks, Christopher Harris! Seriously, that team might not be far from signing guys off the street right into its starting lineup, but didn't they kind of just do that (Koren Robinson)?
Cockcroft: Let's kick things off by discussing one Mr. Willie Parker. I took a lot of heat for my preseason projections of the guy after he ripped off that three-touchdown opener, but I see this matchup at Philadelphia and can't help but be concerned. No trashing Parker, who I admit is a very good back, but I see you have him No. 15, and I think that's the right play. No one else apparently does. So why shouldn't this guy be considered a stud?
Harris: Ah, let me count the ways. The Philly defense might have gotten lit up through the air against the nonpareil Dallas passing game, but Marion Barber managed only 63 yards on 18 carries. After tearing up the Texans in Week 1, Parker managed only 3.8 yards per carry in Week 2 and didn't look nearly as dangerous. Despite his three-touchdown heroics in Week 1, Parker just isn't a good goal-line back, and I won't be shocked to see him stuffed in such a situation Sunday. And finally, the Steelers' brass came out this week and said it had plans to use Rashard Mendenhall more out of the backfield last week but just sort of got away from him. He's still a legitimate vulture possibility at any moment. Parker is a nice story, but I think we'll look back at his fast start and wonder what happened. What happened was that he is and always was a No. 2 running back, just as I've ranked him.
Cockcroft: Amen. Problem is, it looks like you and I share the same opinion on most of the Steelers this season, and you know their fans will come calling if we're wrong. Not that I mind, and apparently you don't either, seeing as you still have Santonio Holmes generously ranked at No. 10 among wide receivers. Problem is, Hines Ward, whom you had at No. 22, has easily outpaced him in every prominent statistical category through two games, and he has nearly tripled Holmes' fantasy points (30-11). I still like Holmes, too, but that's a fairly wide split between the two receivers. Is it just blind faith?
Harris: Some of my logic is the simple law of averages, and some is blind faith. But a lot of it is that I've seen them play. Ward is slower than he ever was, and as the season moves along, he might have difficulty creating separation. Holmes is coming into his prime. Toss out Week 1's HinesFest, and what do you have in Week 2? Holmes: Seven targets, five catches, 94 yards. Ward: Eight targets, five catches, 59 yards. Ward had the touchdown, but Holmes is the deep threat, and remember: That game was played in a downpour. Ward is still a fantasy option and still a good red zone receiver, but Holmes is the guy to own here. Again, the sample size is so small. If Holmes had scored a touchdown, we wouldn't be having this conversation.
Cockcroft: I wish he had. Holmes is killing a lot of my fantasy teams.
Now, I did bust a little on the Seahawks to begin our segment; obviously, I was kidding. But seriously, the Seahawks' receiver corps qualifies as an absolute mess right now, and that's putting it lightly. Still, if you have John Carlson ranked only 16th among tight ends, who on Earth will Matt Hasselbeck throw to instead? You? Were you taking my joke about your hopping into the starting lineup this week seriously?
Harris: Koren Robinson. Billy McMullen. Courtney Taylor. Keary Colbert. Heck, Julius Jones. Mike Holmgren has said that he'll be rotating everyone he has this week. The larger story here is, what in the world are two of our experts doing ranking a rookie tight end with 12 career targets, 10 career catches and zero career touchdowns in their top 10? There's clever, and then there's too clever. Do you really like Carlson better than proven commodities such as Jeremy Shockey, Heath Miller and Owen Daniels? Good luck with that.
Cockcroft: Better than Miller? I do. Maybe better than Daniels, too! Thanks for the well wishes, but I won't need it. Not this week with Carlson, at least.
Next up is Erik Kuselias, who's actually conducting his interview live from his final-week visit to Yankee Stadium! Erik, just a quick note, it's not legal to strap a batting cage to the roof of your car to take home. Sorry, find a different souvenir.
Cockcroft: Erik, since I didn't get to ask you our introductory question this week, I'd like to do so now, but I'll narrow it to one slow starter: Steven Jackson. Why so faithful?
Kuselias: If I told you that a player:
(a) had been a fantasy stud in recent seasons
(b) was getting the rock on about half of his team's plays
(c) was being touted in the local press as the one guy who needs to touch the ball as much as possible, especially this week when the team is 0-2
(d) will lead the team in rushes, receptions, goal-line carries, touchdowns and popcorn sales
(e) has an offensive coordinator who loves him, and that coordinator made Priest Holmes a stud and made certain that Clinton Portis touched the rock more than any other player in the NFL, and
(f) Was a physical specimen out of the movie "Predator"
would you rank him lower than 14th? Me neither. Say hello to Steven Jackson. Trade for him now, reap the rewards in your playoffs later.
Cockcroft: I can't. I own him on plenty of teams already! Anyway, Julius Jones only No. 20? That's crazy talk, simply put. Is it something in the hot dogs? Now, I admit, I'm not a big fan of his in general, but Jones pretty much is the offense in Seattle these days, and St. Louis' defense is brutal. How's he a borderline No. 2/flex play, but no more?
Kuselias: Julius Jones had a nice game and scored a touchdown against the Niners, but if you watched the game, you noticed that his touchdown run was a longer, broken-play run (27 yards) and that when Seattle was near the goal line, Jones felt this tap on his shoulder and turned to see T.J. Duckett in the huddle saying the words, "Go stand next to Coach Holmgren, you're too small to be on the field when it's touchdown-scoring time." Duckett got the goal-line carries and scored from the 1-yard line at the key juncture in the game.
A guy who needs either a long run to score or won't score at all cannot possibly be a great play unless he's a vital part of the passing game. Seeing that Jones had a whopping 14 yards receiving, the savvy player understands he probably will have less than 100 yards rushing, no touchdown and no impact catching the ball.
So when you grab the dictionary and look up "overvalued guy who is really a No. 2 running back," you'll see Julius Jones waving back at you.
Cockcroft: I do know you're huge on touchdowns as running backs go. As such, I dug up the numbers for you this week: When the Titans have been in goal-line situations -- within 5 yards of their opponent's end zone -- this season, three times they've run the football, and all three of those times it was LenDale White who got the rock. So I understand why you still prefer White to Chris Johnson. I can see that. Still, you had White 24th and Johnson 25th, and if you average those, it's the worst rank of the duo of any of our four rankers, which is odd considering the matchup against Houston. Is this a matter of these two guys' effectively canceling each other out most weeks?
Kuselias: The Titans' running back situation comes down to this: Jeff Fisher must really crave peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
When you crave a PB&J, you know that you need both; it's the combo that makes it great. A peanut butter sandwich is dry and slow -- LenDale White -- and a jelly sandwich is sickly sweet and doesn't have much substance -- Chris Johnson. But together? Mmmmmmm, tastes like a win.
Jeff Fisher is the anti-Mike Shanahan. He's telling us exactly how he's gonna play it: Johnson between the 15s, and White for the 6 points. This ensures that both guys will be at around 11 points each on a good day -- see last week -- and in most weeks will both score in single digits. Together, the White/Johnson combo is close to a 20-point back. But individually, they are flex-type players.
Cockcroft: I'm not a big fan of PB&J sandwiches. Never have been. Heck, I'll take one of those funky hot dogs first. Another thing I'm not a fan of: Earnest Graham against the Bears this week. But you have him 12th among running backs! What about Warrick Dunn? You're huge on touchdowns, as you've made abundantly clear the first two weeks and in this interview. But if that's true, why no worries about Dunn, who has seven of the Bucs' 12 red zone carries this season?
Kuselias: Don't confuse red zone with goal line. When a guy gets that ball on third-and-4 from the 19-yard line, that is a red zone carry, but it's far from a goal-line carry. Goal-line carries are far more important, and they have and will continue to go to Graham. Graham ain't dead sexy -- that's Heather Graham (whatever happened to her, by the way?) -- but he's efficient. He has more than 90 yards rushing in each game, is averaging more than 100 yards and scored double-digit touchdowns last year. If that isn't a No. 2, I'm not sure what you're looking for.
Cockcroft: To be fair, the Buccaneers had only one goal-line carry (5 or fewer yards from the opponent's end zone) in Week 2, and Dunn made that carry. Twice in five goal-line plays have they converted for a touchdown; both were passing plays!
As for Heather Graham, what, you mean you didn't race out to see "Miss Conception?"
Last but certainly not least, folks, and decked out in his new DeSean Jackson jersey this week, it's Eric Karabell!
Cockcroft: Matt Cassel at No. 11 among quarterbacks is the highest rank of the group, and seemingly bold for a guy who posted (snore) 165 yards and zero touchdowns passing in Week 2. Still, with Miami on the docket, I like the matchup and probably would put him around there myself. Are the other three nuts? Tell us why Cassel is very much worth starting consideration, so-so Week 2 or not?
Karabell: Cassel has a terrific matchup against the lowly Dolphins, who seem to be on their way to another 1-15 campaign. I was saying this as soon as Tom Brady got hurt, that it's not just about a quarterback's arm and experience. Look at the schedule, the weapons, the ever-important game plan built for him. The Patriots are a winning team. I think Cassel will be more like Big Ben as a rookie, a leader who makes few mistakes and leads his team to wins, rather than a Brady type who throws 30 touchdown passes. But this week I can see him getting two touchdowns and 300 yards. Really, Bill Belichick is smart. He knows he can take more chances with his raw quarterback in a game like this. Plus, don't our ESPN fantasy projections have Cassel as the top quarterback?
Cockcroft: I heard a moth got caught in the computer's wiring while it was churning out our Week 3 projections. Either that, or Belichick has taken to hacking into our databases in his spare time. Anyway, I do like your boldness; Cassel surely could surprise.
Can't make the moth excuse for you on your Steve Smith ranking (No. 20 among receivers). None of our other three rankers put him lower than 13th. Are you really worried he's due for a more ordinary performance in his 2008 debut?
Karabell: You can't say I'm not afraid to be unlike the others! I own Smith on a team and will activate him as a flex, but I think our projection for him of 60 yards is reasonable. I don't think he will be like Brandon Marshall last week; Smith won't go completely nuts with 18 receptions. I just don't like the matchup. For one, why does everyone assume the Vikings can be thrown on so easily because they were in 2007? This defense controlled Peyton Manning and his friends for three quarters a few days ago. I was trying to make a point, and I do see quite a few wide receivers I like better this week.
Cockcroft: So long as none of those receivers are Seahawks. (Don't worry, they're not). Sticking in that division, exactly what do you see in the 49ers' defense to rank them No. 6 hey, wait, where are you going?
Odd, Eric seems to have gotten up just short of finishing our interview and stepped away to do a little touchdown dance. I think I'll need to throw the challenge flag.
OK, Eric is back, but now he's wearing his Brian Westbrook jersey. Odd. Anyway, last question, Niners. Defense. No. 6. You ranked. Thoughts?
Karabell: Turnovers. I see turnovers, and Jon Kitna is the Santa Claus of turnovers, giving all the good little boys and girls of the fantasy football world a few each week, meaning you can find a sleeper defense to use. Plus, one would think Mike Martz will be able to spot some of Kitna's tendencies because he was there in Detroit for years. Just another defensive hunch. I seem to get a few every week.
Cockcroft: Mmmm, turnovers. Wish Kitna would send me some turnovers. What? Different kind of turnovers? Eh, oh well. What can I say. I'm hungry! Besides, it's lunchtime, so let's wrap up for Week 3. Best of luck this week!
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football, baseball and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.