Big Rotowski: Flacco, Smith rising


Editor's Note: These rankings are meant to capture fantasy value from today through the end of the NFL regular season. We'll publish them every Tuesday during the season to help you decide about trades and waiver-wire acquisitions; as such, this list won't always reflect news that comes out later in the week. And remember, every Wednesday you'll find week-specific rankings to help you set your lineup.

Quarterback rankings

Notes: The sky isn't falling, Drew Brees owners, but it does appear that the Saints are a bit more flexible about their offensive attack this year. Perhaps because the defense is playing much better, Brees doesn't seem to feel pressure to attack downfield as relentlessly, or at least he hasn't felt it the past two weeks. I'm sliding Peyton Manning into the top spot right now, because he's been crushingly dominant, and he should serve the Titans up on a platter in Week 5. … Remember a week ago when Mark Sanchez was the greatest thing since microwavable broccoli? That's where we are now with Joe Flacco, except in Flacco's case, it's much more deserved. My reservations about Flacco have never been about his talent, but rather his opportunity. Against the Patriots, though, the Ravens continued to forge a pass-first identity. On their powerful first drive, they threw it 12 times and ran it three, a positively Brady-esque ratio. For the game, they wound up 47/17 in favor of passing plays, which in part reveals a couple of two-minute-drill drives, but which also gives support to Flacco's fantasy backers. Heck, this was on a day when the Ravens rushed for a 6.8 yards-per-carry average. You could probably make the argument they didn't run enough. But certainly, anything approximating this kind of play calling in close games against good teams does hallmark a change in philosophy, and I gladly eat my words on Flacco: He's a fantasy starter right now. … As for Tony Romo? He's going the other direction. Romo and Kyle Orton may have set quarterback play back 10 years on Sunday. It was ugly. Neither guy's stats look horrible, but they were both inaccurate and made shaky decisions. In fact, I really can't believe Orton was 20-for-29; I'd have sworn he threw 20 incompletions. But he's not the one fantasy teams have been relying on; Romo now has two real clunkers in his past three games, and while it'll probably be safe to start him against the Chiefs, his 36-touchdown season in 2007 is long gone and hard to find. … Eli Manning's noncontact injury was scary Sunday, and the Giants admit Manning has been dealing with a foot injury for a few weeks. For the moment, the party line is that his injury is a matter of pain tolerance, and Manning thinks he'll play Sunday. But this risk is a splash of cold water on anyone starting to believe Eli is a top fantasy option. … Carson Palmer was mostly terrible against the Browns. He'll get kudos for his game-winning scramble late in overtime, but from very early in the second quarter until midway through the fourth, Palmer had more interceptions (one) than the Bengals had first downs (zero). It seems I keep writing this, but he's not the same guy we remember from a few seasons ago. … I'm sure to field a thousand David Garrard questions this week ("should I bench Matt Schaub for Garrard?"), but suffice it to say that Garrard won't get to face the Titans' secondary every week. … Derek Anderson played better than Brady Quinn. That right there is damning with faint praise.

Running back rankings

Notes: Sure enough, patient owners were rewarded by Matt Forte's huge runs against the Lions, and although Marion Barber couldn't make it through the entirety of the Cowboys' loss in Denver, when he was in there he looked typically furious and effective. (We'll have to see how much he practices this week; the Cowboys could decide to hold Barber out of a pretty winnable game against the Chiefs.) And while Steve Slaton didn't actually play all that well, he did score twice. … Pierre Thomas was once again an effective closer for the Saints; I'm not so much worried about touchdowns for him, because if Heath Evans struggles forward just a little bit, Thomas doesn't get his 1-yard fourth-quarter TD opportunity. No, what's more important are the 23 touches. I still have slight concerns over what happens when Mike Bell is healthy (which should come after the Saints' bye), but it's hard to argue after the past two weeks that Thomas isn't at least a solid No. 2 fantasy rusher. … Kevin Smith is another guy who put up nice touchdown numbers but in general looked awful, or, rather, his offensive line looked awful and he couldn't do anything about it. But it's good news that his shoulder injury was minor enough that he could (surprisingly, to me) play Sunday. … LaDainian Tomlinson probably shouldn't have even come back in Week 4. It was pretty obvious from the first time he touched the ball that LDT didn't have his burst. Then again, maybe his lack of burst is less due to his Week 1 ankle injury, and more due to his 30-year-old legs. I've gotten a bunch of questions about whether Tomlinson is a buy-low candidate. It would take stones, and I do think there'll be games when he follows through on goal-line opportunities like the one he had in the third quarter Sunday night. But overall, you have to realize: We've seen this movie before, with guys like Shaun Alexander, Larry Johnson, Edgerrin James, Priest Holmes, Ahman Green ... when it goes, it goes fast. … Once again, Ray Rice was a much bigger part of the Ravens' game plan than Willis McGahee, but once again McGahee owners luck out and get a touchdown. It can't last. I think the team vastly prefers Rice, but saves him from wear and tear near the end zone. That limits his upside, but it makes McGahee practically a LenDale White-style specialty player. I think you sell high on McGahee, and now. … Is Correll Buckhalter's sprained ankle the excuse the Broncos need to make Knowshon Moreno their feature back? It's possible, though I'd feel safer making that prediction if Moreno hadn't lost what might've been a killer fumble on the first possession of the second half (Tony Romo bailed him out with a horrible interception). Coach Josh McDaniels seems to trust Moreno with the inside stuff, and if Buckhalter isn't available, there's really no one else on Denver's roster who is capable of running the outside stuff. But realize, Moreno owners, that Buckhalter has looked every bit as good as Moreno and will be a drain whenever he's healthy. … Rashard Mendenhall, welcome to fantasy hype. He deserves it: Mendenhall was spectacular Sunday night. Realize a few things, though: (a) the Chargers are putrid against the run; (b) Mendenhall already has a reputation as a fumbler; (c) Willie Parker will probably be back soon. I think Mendenhall needs to be added in all leagues, and as you can see I have him rated ahead of Parker, who has been mostly uninspiring and who is a free agent next season. But don't go crazy for Mendenhall. … Jerome Harrison also makes the list, while Jamal Lewis falls completely off. I don't know how the Browns could possibly look at Harrison's effort Sunday and conclude that Lewis could've done anything even close. When Lewis comes back, the smart move would be to have him be an inside and goal-line complement to the far quicker Harrison. … Hey, let's add injury to insult: Darren McFadden did nothing in six carries against the Texans' worst-in-the-NFL run defense (less-than-nothing, actually), and now the Raiders report he's out for 2-4 weeks because of cartilage damage in his right knee. Awesome. In shallow leagues, he is probably droppable, though I still have him rated as the highest Raiders running back (which says something about how bad the Raiders are). Justin Fargas got 10 carries to Michael Bush's three after McFadden left Sunday, so for the moment, I'm assuming Fargas starts in Week 5. But you don't want to use either guy.

Wide receiver rankings

Notes: It's the Harmonic Convergence of Steve Smiths! I really don't see any way to keep the Giants' version of Steve Smith out of the top 10 right now. He's getting tons of targets, and he fits the team's aggressive-but-not-too-aggressive passing game perfectly. Regular readers know that a one-week vault from No. 22 to No. 10 is very rare for me; I try hard not to get carried away by the moment. But it seems right now that the only thing that could derail Smith would be a serious Eli Manning injury. … I've always been a big Brandon Marshall booster, but you have to try to avoid going too crazy over his performance the past couple of weeks. On Sunday against the Cowboys, Marshall got only six targets, and 51 of his 91 receiving yards came on a medium-length pass along the sidelines that he took to the house. The Broncos are spreading it around, so while Marshall does get preference in scoring position and does deserve to be in your lineup, don't value him as a top-five guy. … The fantasy world bit too early on Santonio Holmes. Holmes will still have good days, but since his enormous Week 1, Holmes has 10 grabs and 153 yards total in three games. Worse, his targets have sunk from 11 and 14 during the first two weeks to five and five the past two. Part of that may be more attention from opposing defenses, part of that may be a few bad drops. And in the Steelers' passing game, there's room for multiple valuable fantasy targets. But Holmes is going the wrong way. … I've heard of folks dropping Terrell Owens. I still think it's a mistake. Bench him if you must, but I wouldn't get rid of him (and you can't trade him for nickels on the dollar). You're married to the guy. (Happy honeymoon.) Blame T.O.'s hands for a lot of things in this world, but not for how poorly Trent Edwards is playing. He was awful Sunday. But Owens did get a season-high seven targets. Of course, the dude has only eight catches in four games. Man. All right, tell you what: one more craptastic result against the Browns next week and I'll consider bumping him out of the top 30. … Dwayne Bowe doesn't have a lot to do in the Chiefs' offense. He's doubled constantly, plus Matt Cassel rarely has enough time to drop back, stick his foot in the ground and just throw; more often, Cassel is running for his life, and I don't see creativity and stick-to-itiveness as Bowe's strengths. The offensive line has to get better in Kansas City before you consider anyone on this offense a must-start. … Derrick Mason dominated the Patriots for a series on Sunday, then mostly disappeared. Mason was slow getting up after his touchdown, having fallen awkwardly on his back. Regardless, there's little question remaining who is Joe Flacco's top target. … Roy E. Williams didn't play terribly against the Broncos. He was game. He tried to lasso Tony Romo's awful throws, and even got torn rib cartilage as a result of one errant toss over the middle. Right now, though, Williams and Owens are the poster children for diva wide receivers who just aren't worth it. Williams will be questionable this week because of his ribs. … Mohamed Massaquoi had the second-most targets of the weekend (behind only the Giants' Smith): 13 looks, of which he caught eight. Derek Anderson still didn't look all that great, but he's certainly more willing to take shots than Brady Quinn. Maybe Massaquoi emerges as a consistent No. 2. He could be worth an add in deeper leagues. … Josh Morgan caught one touchdown and dropped a second easy one. He's finally starting to look like the Niners' main receiver.

Tight end rankings

Team defense rankings

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.