The Big Rotowski: Brady, Rice surge
Editor's Note: These rankings are meant to capture fantasy value from now 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.
• For the first time in the Big Rotowski ranks this season, I've begun to incorporate a player's remaining schedule in his rank. I'll admit that at this point, only halfway through the season, that schedule factor is more of a tiebreaker than it is an overriding force. As the weeks roll by, the amount that I'll incorporate schedule will rise. Note, however, that this week, I've given very little particular bias to "playoff schedule," and have focused more on "remaining schedule," under the assumption that at least as many fantasy teams need their players to be good during the rest of the fantasy regular season as need to focus exclusively on the fantasy playoffs. Again, that bias will increase as the season dwindles.
• Aaron Rodgers just keeps getting murdered by his offensive line, and keeps putting up big fantasy numbers. It's the damnedest thing. Wisdom would seem to dictate that when a quarterback is getting crunched again and again, you'd call more screens and quick outs to save the guy's life, but Rodgers is just the wrong guy to implement that kind of strategy. He wants to chuck it down the field, and he doesn't mind holding onto the ball to make it happen. It's the same act Ben Roethlisberger has been using this year, though not even Big Ben takes the heat Rodgers does. That's not always great news for Green Bay Packers fans, but for Rodgers' fantasy owners, it's sweet music.
• Tom Brady still doesn't quite look like himself to me, or, I should say, like the 2007 version of himself, which is almost certainly an unreasonably high standard. It's true that the Miami Dolphins tend to make him look a little skittish anyway, and it's also true Brady could've found Wes Welker 30 times in that game if he'd wanted to. Anyway, given that Tom Terrific is putting up numbers despite not being perfect gives me hope for greater upside going forward. It feels like he's getting closer and closer to rounding that corner and feeling fully comfortable in the pocket.
• Tony Romo played surprisingly (to me) well in Philly, handling the blitz relatively well and making the big fourth-quarter play when he needed it. That's four pretty strong games in a row, and scoring 14 fantasy points and putting 307 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles may be the most impressive outing of all. To my eyes, he's got maybe the toughest remaining schedule of any quarterback you'd consider using in a fantasy league, perhaps roughly tied with Peyton Manning (who's pretty much matchup-proof, really), which is why I didn't bump Romo up much this week.
• My two favorite remaining schedules among quarterbacks are those of Brett Favre and Matt Hasselbeck, and I think Hasselbeck probably gets the nod for the better playoff schedule. Of course, he also gets the nod for the worse offensive line, though getting Sean Locklear back to play left tackle would help. Favre takes a bye-week leap here because of nice-looking matchups against the Detroit Lions, the Chicago Bears twice, the Seattle Seahawks and the newly foundering New York Giants. Of course, the reason not to go crazy with matchups two months down the road is that the Giants could very well figure out what ails their pass rush and their secondary by Week 17.
• Neither Matt Ryan nor Donovan McNabb is trending the right way. McNabb played well against the Giants, but he was back to looking relatively lost against the Dallas Cowboys' pressure on Sunday night. Why does he fling it at his receivers' feet so often? Donnie Football still makes plays with his legs, and improvises with the best of them, but I'm back to feeling nervous about how he'll perform in a given week. Ryan has eight interceptions in his past four games and hasn't even exceeded 200 yards passing in three of those four contests. Part of that is Michael Turner's hitting his stride again, but to some extent, reasons don't matter. It's concerning.
• Josh Freeman made some good plays with his feet and was a hero in his first NFL start. But that doesn't mean he should start on fantasy teams, unless you're in a deep two-quarterback league. And even still, one imagines shaky days are coming. They almost always do.
Running back rankings
• The Baltimore Ravens didn't play well in Cincinnati, but Ray Rice just keeps plugging away. Even when he's not doing much on the ground (12 carries, 48 yards), he is such a good receiver (eight catches on eight targets, 87 yards) and has rendered Willis McGahee an afterthought on the goal line. Plus, taken as a whole, Rice's second-half schedule has more bunnies than toughies: at the Cleveland Browns, home to the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers, at the Green Bay Packers, home to the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, at the Steelers, and at the Oakland Raiders. The Steelers did a better job against the run in Denver on Monday night, but have shown some vulnerability against better backs, and other than them and maybe the Packers, there isn't an elite run-stopping unit on the docket.
• Two straight weeks Pierre Thomas has made Mike Bell irrelevant fantasy-wise. It's not like Thomas had a huge game -- 13 carries for 50 yards and a score -- but Bell got only five carries. Reggie Bush played a lot more on third down versus the Carolina Panthers and got nine targets and seven catches, but most importantly, Thomas's touchdown came from the 10-yard line, so it's not like he doesn't get used in the red zone. He still may get pulled on the goal line occasionally, but he's looking safer.
• I see a pretty steep drop-off after my top 15. Brandon Jacobs hasn't done nearly enough (617 rushing yards, two scores) to warrant the No. 16 slot, but I can't find anyone to put ahead of him. The truth is that he ran well against the San Diego Chargers; he had 31 yards on four carries during the Giants' first drive, then hurt his knee and had to sit out while Ahmad Bradshaw got looks. Jacobs averaged 6.1 yards per carry on Sunday and now sits at 4.1 per carry for the season, but the touchdown breaks haven't fallen his way.
• It's tough to know what to do with the concussion twins, Brian Westbrook and Clinton Portis. Portis has already been ruled out in favor of Ladell Betts for Week 10, and it's possible his will be a multi-week absence; still, you'd have to believe he'll be back in at most a few games, and that he'll take the reins. Westbrook figures to be closer to action, though Andy Reid told reporters that for as long as Westy has headaches, it doesn't matter whether he passes neurological tests; the coach won't play him.
• Ricky Williams isn't scoring three touchdowns in any more games, but he's also not going away. He had only seven carries for 33 yards Sunday, but he stole another score on an option toss from Pat White.
• I still left Steve Slaton ranked ahead of Ryan Moats, despite the fact that Moats is the starter, and pretty consistently played on first and second downs Sunday, while Slaton was relegated to third downs. Neither guy ran particularly well against the Colts, though each scored a short touchdown (Moats' was receiving). It was significant, I thought, that once Moats got stuffed once running from the 1, the Houston Texans went to Slaton rather than keep banging their heads against the wall. Right now this is purgatory, but if Slaton can show he's over his fumbling problems (not a sure thing), I have to believe the Texans will eventually decide he gives them the best chance to win.
• I still think Sammy Morris has a very good chance to surpass Laurence Maroney in the season's final five or six games, but there's no denying that when a New England Patriots running back gets 20 carries by himself, it's worth taking note. I thought Maroney ran well in the first quarter versus the Miami Dolphins and then pretty poorly thereafter, and he lucked into his touchdown when Randy Moss fell down at the 1. But hey, he's scoring.
• I can't read the tea leaves about what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have planned, but Derrick Ward was their first option when they entered the red zone for the first time against the Green Bay Packers, and he caught a short touchdown pass. Certainly, Cadillac Williams is still the lead back (16 carries compared to four for Ward), though I still question the wisdom of that.
• Darren McFadden is back on the practice field for the Oakland Raiders, and could start in Week 10. Or he could sit behind Justin Fargas. Eventually, you'd have to believe that the out-of-it Raiders will want to see what Run-DMC can do over the longer term, but at the moment, Huggy Bear Jr. may have earned a piece of the pie.
• Jamaal Charles was the most effective Kansas City Chiefs rusher Sunday, but he had only six carries compared to four for Kolby Smith and two for Dantrell Savage. Add the fact that Smith was mostly on the field when Kansas City got into the red zone, and it's hard to see a clear path to fantasy starter-hood for Charles right now.
Wide receiver rankings
|35||Roy E. Williams||Cowboys||36|
• Calvin Johnson's lack of performance in Seattle didn't involve his injury, so far as we know; it was a matter of the Seahawks' focusing on him and Matthew Stafford's looking elsewhere. By the time it was too late and the wheels had come off, Stafford was rattled and couldn't get the ball near Megatron. The two young players had a dustup on the sidelines: Stafford tried to talk to Johnson, but Johnson wouldn't acknowledge the rookie quarterback's presence; supposedly, all has been patched up. Listen, it's mighty hard to bench Johnson. But (and I can speak from experience here) it's also awfully hard to start him. He's fantasy's 45th-best receiver midway through the year.
• As I've written several times this year, I'm a big Miles Austin fan; I drafted him in all our ESPN.com internal mock drafts, and touted him as a favorite deep sleeper. But as I said last week, ranking Austin as a top-10 fantasy receiver is just silly. The offense doesn't run through him. He's not going to get double-digit targets most weeks. And when the Philadelphia Eagles schemed to take him out of Sunday's game by rolling safeties and/or linebackers his way, he didn't really have an answer, not until the decisive play, a 49-yard touchdown that made his day look far less frustrating than it was. Listen, he's a fantasy starter. He's just not a top-10 receiver.
• The Green Bay Packers have a very nice schedule in the second half, so far as I can tell, against some below-average secondaries, which is what keeps Greg Jennings' value high. He is still stuck on two touchdowns and hasn't had a 100-yards-receiving game since Week 3, and Donald Driver has obviously reassumed the No. 1 receiving gig in Green Bay. But Jennings does have at least eight targets in each of his past four games, putting him among the league leaders. Better times should be ahead.
• Eddie Royal got involved early in Monday night's game, but then the Denver Broncos seemed to get away from him as Brandon Marshall set a personal season high for catches in a game (11). All Broncos receivers are limited by Kyle Orton's (and/or Josh McDaniels') seeming unwillingness to take deep shots, but I think Royal fell off fantasy radar screens prematurely.
• Mike Wallace continues to be a major part of the Pittsburgh Steelers offense, basically assuming not only Nate Washington's old third-receiver role, but also taking on some of what was supposed to be Santonio Holmes' deep work. Once again, Wallace scored a touchdown Monday, giving him three to Holmes' one. Rookie receivers don't often stay consistently effective through the long NFL season, which is why I still like Holmes more (and Holmes did have six catches for 93 yards in Denver). But Wallace is an interesting deep threat.
• Don't go crazy over Chris Chambers; his two touchdowns came sandwiched around an onside kick, and during a furious garbage-time rally. But the fact is, you probably shouldn't ignore Chambers entirely if you're receiver-needy in a deeper league. He started ahead of Bobby Wade and Mark Bradley on Sunday (and Bobby Engram was released altogether), and if the Kansas City Chiefs decide their only way to win is to go spread and no-huddle, Chambers could be a part of it.
Tight end rankings
Team defense rankings
|5||Green Bay Packers||4|
|6||New Orleans Saints||6|
|9||New York Giants||8|
|13||San Francisco 49ers||12|
|14||New York Jets||9|
|15||New England Patriots||15|
|21||San Diego Chargers||21|
|28||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||32|
|30||St. Louis Rams||29|
|31||Kansas City Chiefs||31|
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.