- 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. This is the final Big Rotowski column of the 2009 fantasy football season, but remember: every Wednesday for the rest of the year, you'll find week-specific rankings to help you set your lineup.)
• You can't blame Ben Roethlisberger for the Steelers' collapse to 6-6. Time and again in the fourth quarter Sunday, Big Ben marched back down the field, only to see his defense fail to stop Bruce Gradkowski. With three statistically sweet matchups in four games (the Browns, Packers and Dolphins have all been plus opponents for opposing fantasy quarterbacks over the past five weeks), he looks like an especially valuable commodity right now.
• Philip Rivers doesn't have a good schedule, but one wonders if it matters. After a midseason lull, he's playing well again, with seven touchdowns and zero picks over the past four games. I don't have any of his four opponents (Cowboys, Bengals, Titans, Redskins) below 12th in terms of allowing fantasy points to opposing signal-callers, but it would still be awfully hard to get Rivers out of your lineup.
• Matt Schaub has such an enticing fantasy playoff schedule (Seahawks, Rams, Dolphins, Patriots), but will have to deal with a separated left shoulder, the same injury that knocked him out for the season at the end of 2007. Right now, the Texans say this will be a matter of pain management, and considering Houston has gone from 5-3 to 5-7, my money says Schaub will go this week. There's a risk, of course, that if the team loses one more, Schaub may sit out meaningless games and the Texans may go with Rex Grossman, who looked terrible Sunday.
• The guy that sticks out like a sore thumb on this list is, of course, Peyton Manning. I put him 10th. That tries to capture the notion that I'll certainly be using him this week against the Broncos (not an easy matchup, though), but thereafter, there are major questions about his playing time. My gut tells me Manning will play most of the Jaguars game in Week 15, but after that, he's only likely to see perhaps a quarter per game. If you projected total fantasy points scored from now until the end of the season, no way Manning is in the top 10. But by putting him 10th, I'm trying to capture his obvious upside before he sits.
• Not that David Garrard is playing particularly well, but of guys you'd actually consider putting in your lineup in the fantasy playoffs, I think he's got the best schedule: Dolphins, Colts, Patriots, Browns. Those four defenses have been scorched by the pass of late (the Colts maybe slightly less than the others, but still). I'm not sure I have the stones to start Mr. Fumble, but fortune favors the bold.
• Alex Smith is wheeling and dealing out of the shotgun spread; he's now exceeded 40 attempts in back-to-back weeks. He didn't make a ton of great throws in the second half Sunday and was betrayed by more drops than you can believe unless you saw the game, so there are limitations here that may be beyond his control. But there are going to be weeks where Smith winds up being worth a start via sheer dint of attempts.
• For the moment, I assumed Matt Ryan isn't out for the year with his toe injury. But as with Schaub, there's a chance that the Falcons will sit him out once/if they lose another game. Chris Redman obviously ascends to starter-hood for the Falcons if that happens, but is no more a fantasy option than Grossman.
• Brady Quinn has 28, 12 and 20 fantasy points the past three weeks. Yeah, but I can't justify using him in a fantasy league, either.
Running back rankings
• I've made a pretty major assumption here: that Michael Turner will be able to play this week. If that doesn't happen -- if Turner's ankle injury keeps him out longer -- Jason Snelling is the guy most likely to take advantage of a very nice schedule (Saints, Jets, Bills, Buccaneers).
• DeAngelo Williams has an awful schedule (Patriots, Vikings and Giants the next three weeks) plus he missed Sunday's game with a bad ankle. I've assumed he'll return, too; if he doesn't, put Jonathan Stewart right in his place on this list.
• Not only have youngsters Jamaal Charles and Knowshon Moreno started to take over their respective backfields, but they've each got decent remaining schedules, and deserve to be considered No. 2 fantasy backs the rest of the way, though Moreno does need to deal with Correll Buckhalter, who torched the Chiefs for 113 yards Sunday.
• Other than Turner, nobody has a more favorable running back schedule than the Saints, and in an ideal world, Pierre Thomas might even be a top-10 back with his run of Falcons, Cowboys, Buccaneers and Panthers. But Sunday, Frenchy got six carries to Mike Bell's 16; Bell has now reached double-digit carries in three straight games, and six of his past eight. Reggie Bush doesn't seem to be as much of a threat right now (though he could always be a red zone nuisance at some point), and Thomas did catch eight passes versus the Redskins. Still, this usage pattern is a disconcerting counterbalance to a yummy schedule.
• Thanks for playing Sunday, LeSean McCoy: six carries, 2 yards. Ga. Hopefully this was just an out-of-character Michael Vick spectacular, and Shady will go back to being the main guy this week against the Giants. But Leonard Weaver is starting to look like more and more a part of this running game, and given Weaver's size and power, that could mean he and Eldra Buckley will make McCoy scarce on the goal line.
• Matt Forte lost carries to Kahlil Bell on Sunday, but still gave you 96 total yards and a touchdown (as well as a lost fumble). Don't get used to it. To my eyes, Forte has the worst schedule of any running back in the NFL the next three weeks: Packers, Ravens and Vikings. The Lions might provide some relief in Week 17, but by then, I'm worried it won't matter for Forte owners.
• See what happens when you finally start believing in Laurence Maroney? He fails to get in the end zone for the first time since Week 5, and nets you four fantasy points. Kevin Faulk stole a touchdown, and Sammy Morris stole nine carries (to Maroney's 13). On a few series, each of the three Patriots backs were in the backfield one play apiece. Things figure to be as unpredictable as ever in Foxborough.
• Rock Cartwright may be the Redskins' starter, but Marcus Mason and Quinton Ganther seem more likely to be in there in short yardage, and Ganther had eight carries to Cartwright's 13 Sunday versus the Saints. There's not a lot of fantasy glory to be found here.
• I'm not completely giving up on Donald Brown. I know he's not healthy yet, which means Chad Simpson and/or Mike Hart could be the guy that inherits Addai's job in a couple of weeks. But I believe the Colts would like it to be Brown who gets the work. He's a sleeper for top-10 status in Weeks 16 and 17, if he can finally get right physically.
• I left Steve Slaton on the list, despite the uncertainty surrounding his neck injury. Depending on whom you read, Slaton is either a candidate to play next week or a candidate for injured reserve. Whatever happens in Houston, the backfield is likely to be a committee, and not a very valuable one.
• Welcome back, Julius Jones. Jones got 20 carries Sunday, compared to five for Justin Forsett, but of course, Forsett's the one who caught a short one for a touchdown. Forsett's a better play and is probably better-suited to play behind this offensive line, but Jim Mora apparently won't change his mind, rendering each guy pretty unusable deep in your fantasy playoffs.
• Did Jerome Harrison get the lion's share of looks for the Browns by design, or was Chris Jennings' shoulder bothering him too much? For the moment, because of how well Harrison produced (97 yards from scrimmage, two receiving touchdowns), I'll assume it was by design. But I'm not ready to call that Browns job his and his alone just yet.
Wide receiver rankings
• The Eagles seem to be leaking the idea that DeSean Jackson will be back for the Giants game this week, so for the moment, I'm choosing to believe them. Clearly, though, he carries risk.
• Anquan Boldin is back fully healthy and looking like every bit the No. 1 fantasy receiver we remember from a couple of years ago. His one-handed grab and run Sunday night was crazy. There'll be nights where he outshines even Larry Fitzgerald, though obviously those two need Kurt Warner to stay healthy.
• Vincent Jackson might've been the hardest guy to rank at any position this week. He's scored 1, 5, 3 and 5 fantasy points the past four weeks, yet is still the game's seventh-highest-scoring receiver, which is testament to his dominant first two months. I don't know how you'd be able to sit him, but it would be burying my head in the sand not to acknowledge that pretty much everyone but Jackson is benefiting in the Chargers' passing game right now. And the hard truth is: I don't see defenses doing anything exotic to him. He's not open enough, and when he his, he and Philip Rivers just aren't connecting. I have to believe that'll change.
• Miles Austin is making a believer out of me a little bit again, at least enough to get him to No. 2 fantasy wideout status. His touchdown was meaningless Sunday, but he was involved all game long. The Cowboys' adjustment to get him the ball seems to be having him run shorter routes, where safeties and linebackers have a harder time getting to him quickly for a double-team, and then hoping Austin's great yards-after-catch skills will do the rest. That's a pretty good plan.
• Hines Ward takes a dip here because it sounds unlikely he'll play against the Browns on Thursday due to a bad hamstring. That's one-quarter of the rest of the season he'll be missing, and we have no guarantee he'll be ready to go in Week 15. Santonio Holmes has leapt to seventh in the NFL in targets over the past five weeks, and fifth in fantasy scoring.
• As nice as Marques Colston's touchdowns have been (he has two the past two weeks and eight overall), I can't consider him a top-10 fantasy wideout right now. The other guys on his team are getting more looks. Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson are huge risers on this list, and in any given week, it's very difficult to know which guy or guys will go off. They're all worth starting, but nobody is guaranteed to be a big part of the Saints' offense.
• As much as it's fun to do so, it doesn't make a lot of sense to punish Terrell Owens for getting shut down by Darrelle Revis. The Bills have four average to above-average matchups for their passing game the next four weeks: Chiefs, Patriots, Falcons, Colts. The specter of Lee Evans is always there, plus Ryan Fitzpatrick would've been hard-pressed to look worse on Thursday. But T.O. still seems like a No. 3 fantasy wideout to me.
• I'd be tempted to put Pierre Garcon way higher, because he's frankly been better than Reggie Wayne the past few weeks, as Wayne sees safeties roll his way and Garcon gets singled-up looks. But both Wayne and Garcon will probably sit in the near future. Will the rookie Austin Collie continue to play? I mean, someone has to, right? Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe Garcon and/or Collie will actually be full-time players in Weeks 16 and 17. Of course, if that happens, they're likely to have Jim Sorgi throwing it to them.
• I ranked Dwayne Bowe as though he'll be back in Week 15, after his suspension ends. He's worth rostering, just in case, and his activation would likely sound the death knell for Chris Chambers' value.
• It was awfully disappointing to see Michael Crabtree be unable to take advantage of the 49ers' new pass-happy ways and the weak Seahawks secondary Sunday, as Vernon Davis continued to be the main dude for Alex Smith (and Josh Morgan caught a touchdown). I still think Crabtree has No. 3 upside a lot of weeks, but he's a rookie, and we know rookies are tough to rely on.
Tight end rankings
Team defense rankings
• Best remaining schedules: Cardinals, Colts, Patriots, Browns, Ravens.
• Worst remaining schedules: Jaguars, Panthers, Cowboys Titans, Redskins.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.
7hEthan Sherwood Strauss