- Christopher Harris, Fantasy
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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.
• There are only so many weeks I can write, "Aaron Rodgers is getting it done despite getting throttled every game." The Dallas Cowboys sacked Rodgers four more times Sunday (although things did seem to get better after halftime), and overall Rodgers didn't play all that well, but he ran for another score, saving his fantasy day. I drop him behind Tom Brady here because Brady looked the best he's looked all season Sunday night, and because I have a sneaking suspicion that Rodgers could finally put up the stinker his O-line so richly deserves at just the wrong moment for fantasy owners.
• Lest we get too weepy over Jay Cutler, remember what happened to Kurt Warner the week after he threw five picks. It's easy to pile on a guy who played as poorly as Cutler did Thursday night, but he's got what looks like a top-five schedule the rest of the way, with potential plus matchups in fantasy championship games Week 16 and 17 versus the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions.
• A few chatters had the right idea Monday morning: If the Philadelphia Eagles are going to give up on the run that easily, how can Donovan McNabb not be worth considering as a fantasy starter most weeks? I mean, you figure that just through sheer volume, he'll post big days. Love his Sunday nighter against the Chicago Bears in Week 11, don't like Week 12 against the Washington Redskins, but after that, it's smooth sailing. Now if only the Eagles could figure out how to score in the red zone. (Gee, I feel like I've heard that before.)
• Whither Matt Ryan? I didn't think he played that badly against the Carolina Panthers, but it just seems like his good streaks don't last as long as we remember them lasting in '08. He got too much pressure from the Panthers' rush in the first half Sunday, then hit his stride in the second, only to throw a brutal interception with four minutes left. It was the first play of a drive that started at midfield, and the Atlanta Falcons were down only two; a smarter play, and maybe they eventually kick the go-ahead field goal. Things look tasty for Ryan the next two weeks against the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but statistically he has three bad playoff matchups (New Orleans Saints, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills).
• I've put Charlie Frye above JaMarcus Russell just for effect (Bruce Gradkowski injured a hamstring in Week 10). The best thing the Oakland Raiders could do for Russell is bench him now. He keeps telling the media he doesn't understand why the team sits him in the middle of miserable performances. Sure, you risk losing him if he's an utter knucklehead, but the whole "play him no matter what" thing hasn't worked. Maybe going the Vince Young route is the wise move.
• Best playoff (Week 14-17) schedules (as best as I can tell a month in advance): Vince Young, Donovan McNabb, Schaub, Drew Brees, Warner.
• Worst playoff (Week 14-17) schedules (as best as I can tell a month in advance): Quinn, Peyton Manning, Brady, Flacco, Matt Ryan.
Running back rankings
• Where to begin with this carnage? I suppose it's good that all the running back injuries happened before most leagues' trade deadlines, but still. What a mess. Cedric Benson sounds like the least affected of the wounded; he left Sunday's game after seven carries with a hip flexor injury, but he did come back briefly, giving hope that it really isn't that big a deal. Benson has said he expects to play against the Oakland Raiders in Week 11, and while he'll probably be a game-time decision, it seems like Cincy dodged a bullet. In a related note, of course, the Cincinnati Bengals signed Larry Johnson, though for the moment that appears just to be for insurance, and Marvin Lewis told reporters Monday that he doesn't anticipate LJ being active on game day barring an injury. Do Benson owners have to grab LJ? I think I'd rather have Bernard Scott. But if you're a belt-and-suspenders kind of owner and you have an extra roster spot? I guess you could get Johnson, too.
• Reporters seem to agree that Michael Turner has a high-ankle sprain, but a sprain of a variety that doesn't seem likely to keep him out for the rest of the season. The current thinking seems to be that Turner will miss at least a couple of games, whereupon the Atlanta Falcons will regroup and see how he's doing. I thought Jason Snelling looked passable in Turner's stead Sunday, though Jerious Norwood is reportedly close to coming back from his hip injury. The reason I didn't drop Turner as far as I did some other rushers is (A) none of us is inside the training room, so it's all guesswork, and (B) the Falcons have what appears to be a sweet schedule for running backs in the fantasy playoffs. I didn't put Norwood on the list for the moment because I don't necessarily trust his injury right away, though if he's OK, he hurts Snelling's short-term value.
• Ronnie Brown's ankle sounds worse than Turner's. Of course, it's not the same beat reporters covering the Miami Dolphins as covering the Falcons, so maybe the Dolphins guys are just by nature more skeptical. But word seems to be passing among reporters that Brown's foot could also be injured. For now (as in, Thursday night), Ricky Williams is a fantasy starter; he figures to handle the Wildcat and everything else in the Dolphins playbook. At this early date, I'm guessing Brown will be back, but obviously, as with all these injuries, it's a fluid situation.
• Brian Westbrook suffered a second concussion in three weeks, and the Philadelphia Eagles won't let him play in the immediate future. We've all heard dozens of stories about what concussions that follow concussions mean, how they're especially worrisome, so that probably means Westbrook will at best play in a few games toward the end of the season, if at all. I kept him in the top 50, but that may change soon. LeSean McCoy is the starter, though Leonard Weaver and Eldra Buckley also saw time Sunday. As you know, the Eagles don't stick with the run, but McCoy is a fine option in the screen game.
• That was why you shouldn't drop LaDainian Tomlinson (and if someone dropped LDT in your league, pick him up). His first touchdown was of the typical "old-man-falls-into-the-end-zone" variety, but his second score stirred the echoes a bit, as LDT showed some nice quickness to the hole and explosiveness coming out of it. He's still going to be a scary guy to start, but there'll be weeks where he's just fine.
• After Correll Buckhalter fumbled in the first quarter, he didn't get any more carries, and Knowshon Moreno became a feature back. He didn't overwhelm, but he looked occasionally dangerous against a tough Washington Redskins run defense.
• Ken Whisenhunt told reporters that Beanie Wells won't replace Tim Hightower in the starting lineup despite Wells' huge fantasy day Sunday, but you'd have to be blind not to see that the offense is trending in the former Ohio State star's direction. Hightower is probably still the goal-line guy and is a better blocker and receiver, but Wells is improving in those regards. It seems a natural fit that at some point, Wells is going to be the first- and second-down back, with Hightower in on third down and in short yardage. Then again, Wells scored one of his touchdowns on a fourth-and-1.
• I was flat wrong about Ladell Betts this week; I watched Rock Cartwright get three of four goal-line carries against the Falcons a couple weeks ago and assumed the Redskins would continue to divvy them up that way, but Betts was pretty close to being a feature back Sunday, and should be ranked accordingly. You'd have to believe that the Redskins saw what happened to Westbrook and are thinking about playing it safer with Clinton Portis, though Jim Zorn did emphasize to reporters Sunday that Portis retains the starting job if and when he's healthy.
• A lot of folks were also fooled by the Kolby Smith talk last week; I didn't buy Smith as a good fantasy starter Sunday, but I feared his influence enough not to make Jamaal Charles a starter either. That was wrong. Charles looked pretty good against the Raiders' admittedly awful run defense, while Smith looked like kind of an afterthought (and Dantrell Savage fumbled and then got hurt). For the moment, anyway, Charles looks like the No. 1 runner, but I'm not going overboard. The Kansas City Chiefs still can't block good defenses, plus the game plan could call for more inside rushing at some point, and that's not Charles' game.
• Julius Jones went from having broken ribs and coughing up blood to just having a bruise? Jim Mora downplayed the injury Monday, but then did admit that Jones has no chance of playing in Week 11, and will cede to the starting role to Justin Forsett, who played well racking up 123 yards on the ground in Arizona. Forsett is awfully small (he's listed at 5-foot-8 and 194 pounds, and that's a stretch) but very elusive, and if he holds up to the pounding of being an every-down guy, could be valuable. Given the uncertainty over Jones, Forsett should probably be added in most leagues. But realize that fellow Pac-10 alum Louis Rankin also looked pretty good Sunday in limited action, and he could wind up being the interior complement to Forsett.
• I guess I can't ignore Reggie Bush any longer. I mean, he gets between five and 10 touches from scrimmage every game, but they're tending to be very high-value touches. A recent red zone Saints favorite is the shotgun draw to Bush, where he makes one move and is pretty much gone, usually leaping the final 10 feet into the end zone. Regular readers know I prefer players who touch the ball more, but it's hard to argue with five touchdowns in the past four games.
• Best overall remaining schedules (a mixture of statistics and sniff test): Michael Turner (and the other Falcons), Thomas Jones, Cadillac Williams, Frank Gore, Pierre Thomas (and the other New Orleans Saints).
• Best playoff (Week 14-17) schedules (as best as I can tell a month in advance): Turner (and the other Falcons), Gore, Knowshon Moreno (and the other Denver Broncos), Thomas Jones, Pierre Thomas (and the other Saints).
• Worst playoff (Week 14-17) schedules (as best as I can tell a month in advance): Cedric Benson, Forte, Rashard Mendenhall, Ricky Williams (and the other Dolphins), Forsett (and the other Seahawks).
Wide receiver rankings
• Vincent Jackson was due, I suppose. He wasn't injured in Sunday's game, but he produced stats as though he were: three targets, one catch, 10 yards. Ga. There's no underlying cause here; the Philadelphia Eagles were paranoid about their lack of secondary depth and kept safeties deep all day, which made Antonio Gates the primary target. Jackson will be fine.
• Brandon Marshall caught two huge touchdowns in the first quarter Sunday, and was pretty quiet thereafter, but it's an indication of why you never bench him. He's a brutal combination of size, speed and leaping ability. Of course, he won't be able to rely on blown coverages like the Washington Redskins gave him, but he'll be more of a red zone factor going forward, too.
• Calvin Johnson looked healthy for the second straight week, but this time the results were there: 13 targets, eight catches, 84 yards. Every defense will cap his deep routes with a safety, which, unless you get a secondary mistake or pure one-high safety look, pretty much takes away the chance at a non-jump-ball deep threat. But Megatron should get into the end zone via the short stuff eventually.
• Whoa, Sidney Rice. That was a performance. Not only did Rice have seven catches for 201 yards, but he looked like Vincent Jackson out there (gee, maybe they're the same guy? I mean, Jackson was missing in San Diego). It's awfully hard to commit a safety to Rice on every play the way teams are doing now with Miles Austin, but that may be coming. But that's no reason not to start Rice; frankly, I think defenses are a little less likely to pursue that strategy against the Minnesota Vikings, because the Dallas Cowboys don't have Adrian Peterson running for them.
• Maybe the Pittsburgh Steelers can't make up their minds. Is Hines Ward the lead guy? Are they back to Santonio Holmes? Ward couldn't get open in the red zone Sunday and it showed: The Steelers did nothing but kick field goals all afternoon, while Holmes had seven total catches on 14 targets. I'd still rather have Ward, at least right now, but it was hard to watch Sunday's game and not believe the two receivers are getting closer in terms of fantasy value.
• While Nate Burleson was getting shut out by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, T.J. Houshmandzadeh was going nutty, with an incredible 17 targets and nine catches for 165 yards. Housh can't get open down the field, but that was never a big part of his game in Cincinnati, either. He's on the road back to challenging Wes Welker as the game's best possession receiver.
• Jeremy Maclin and Michael Crabtree continue to be further along in their professional developments than I thought they'd be. Crabtree didn't put up big numbers in a plum matchup against the Chicago Bears on Thursday, but he showed ridiculous hands early in the game on a catch that was ruled out of bounds, and he gets open a lot. Maclin is a weapon the pass-first Eagles don't mind using a ton. Just given their respective team profiles, you'd rather start Maclin, though I think Crabtree is the better player.
• Donnie Avery had a big game against the New Orleans Saints, scoring twice, and continues to be a good bet for a touchdown whenever the Rams can get him singled up on a fly pattern. Steven Jackson is really the only St. Louis weapon you'd prefer to use each week, but the team does figure to be behind a lot in their final seven games, and Avery will have his moments. It's worth noting, by the way, that the Rams lost yet another wideout Sunday, as Keenan Burton is out for the season, so rookie Brandon Gibson, acquired from the Eagles for Will Witherspoon, is likely to be the starter opposite Avery.
• Best overall remaining schedules (a mixture of statistics and sniff test): Andre Johnson (and the other Houston Texans), Steve Smith (Carolina Panthers), Sidney Rice (and the other Vikings), DeSean Jackson (and the other Eagles), Lee Evans (and the other Buffalo Bills).
• Best playoff (Week 14-17) schedules (as best as I can tell a month in advance): Smith (Panthers), Mike Sims-Walker, Braylon Edwards (and the other New York Jets), Lee Evans (and the other Bills), DeSean Jackson (and the other Eagles).
• Worst playoff (Week 14-17) schedules (as best as I can tell a month in advance): Browns, Reggie Wayne (and the other Colts), Randy Moss (and the other Patriots), Roddy White, Steve Smith (and the other New York Giants).
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.