- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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It sure is hard to believe how fast things change in the NFL and, as a corollary, fantasy football.
Brian Westbrook goes nuts for a fortnight after being unproductive and injured, and now he's ESPN.com's top projected player and leads my flex rankings. Once-forgotten Jet Thomas Jones seems unstoppable and is very nearly the top scoring running back for the season and a safe top-10 guy. And look at all the rookies -- in mid-December -- still being trusted, from quarterbacks (Matt Ryan) to wide receivers (Eddie Royal). We're not supposed to be activating first-year running backs this late in the season, but we certainly are, while all the debate this week centers on whether to start guys such as Joseph Addai, Clinton Portis and Marion Barber.
The swiftness with which bold, long-term comments can look silly is a good reason you shouldn't bother asking questions about whom you should play at your flex spot the rest of the season. Things don't work that way. Fantasy football is literally a week-to-week proposition. I'm not hiding the information; it's just not there. Sure, we can look at schedules and potential for nasty weather and even predict which teams won't be trying to win in the final two weeks (we're talkin' to you, Arizona Cardinals) and see whether we can unearth interesting nuggets, but the fact is, half the things you think today about next week will change over the weekend.
You are allowed to change your roster after Week 14 and before Week 15, right? I would take advantage of this gift from the fantasy lords, that we live in a world in which fantasy football transactions can be made with such frequency. Seriously, folks: Although looking ahead when you're making trades and free-agent signings can be helpful, when it comes to lineup decisions, the furthest I want to look ahead is to the current week's games. Looking ahead to Friday, when the batch of inactives is released, is tough enough.
You'll see some significant players didn't fare so well in my flex rankings, but there are no misprints here. As of this writing, yes, I believe Dallas' Barber, the Giants' Brandon Jacobs and the 49ers' Frank Gore, among others, have at least a 50-50 chance to play, so I ranked them accordingly. They didn't fare so well in the rankings, but I doubt they care. Obviously, because this column is posted before the first game of the week and because the first game of the week occurs before the weekend, you should check our player news, updated projections/rankings and other sources of information before making final decisions on players who might be game-time decisions, such as a few NFC East running backs. You know who the backups are for Barber, Jacobs and Gore, and I can say I'm a fan of Tashard Choice and Derrick Ward, but if you're thinking about using DeShaun Foster in Week 15 of the season in the playoffs what can we possibly say to dissuade you?
From Westbrook at the top of the ranks to a less popular running back at No. 100, here are the flex rankings for Week 15. If you're still making flex choices this late in the season, we salute you and wish you luck. There are two more weeks after this, and let me tell you, a lot will change.
Antonio Bryant versus Ronnie Brown: I'd give Tampa Bay's Bryant the nod over Miami's Brown, who seems to have an easier matchup against San Francisco. It's not solely because Bryant is coming off a career game in front of a prime-time audience. It's because Bryant sure seems more capable of a big fantasy performance these days. Bryant caught nine passes for 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and when a wide receiver has a game like that, you don't necessarily expect a repeat -- I mean, c'mon, 200 yards? -- but you have to think he's locked in to a degree. The Falcons defend well enough, but Bryant has enough ability that it might not matter. Some of you who own Bryant made it to the next round of the playoffs thanks entirely to him, I would imagine. For Brown, I have to admit he's been disappointing. Take away the five-touchdown masterpiece he dumped on New England in Week 3, and he's been ordinary. Only once since Week 5 has he managed to break the 100-yard mark, and only three times in the past eight games has he made it to fantasy double digits. I ranked him better than his recent outings would suggest, but a hot receiver has to get the nod.
Jonathan Stewart versus Amani Toomer: There's obviously no stopping DeAngelo Williams, currently the top running back for the season -- think about that for a second -- but the way the Panthers run the ball, let's not overlook the rookie in the backfield. Stewart also plowed through the seemingly impenetrable Buccaneers run defense for a season-high 23 fantasy points, and the Denver Broncos aren't even close to Tampa Bay in terms of defending anything. A month or so ago I thought Jake Delhomme would get back on track and be a helpful fantasy asset in December. Now I think the Panthers will just run over everyone, including the big game at Giants Stadium for the top NFC seed in Week 16. Don't assume Stewart will go off, but I think six or seven fantasy points are a minimum. Toomer isn't not a bad flex option, but one had to be impressed with the way the Cowboys held the Steelers in check much of Sunday's game. Will Eli Manning's Giants be able to have more success than Ben Roethlisberger did? I know Toomer scored in two of the previous three weeks, as well as earlier this season against Dallas. That's precisely why I chose to compare him with Stewart. When Toomer doesn't score, he delivers three points. Stewart should eclipse that.
Deion Branch versus Tim Hightower: I'm not a big Branch fan. I recall a staff rankings meeting during the offseason after he left New England for Seattle in which I argued against a brittle player who had never reached 1,000 yards receiving. In Week 14, Seneca Wallace found Branch for a pair of touchdowns, the only two the brittle wide receiver has scored all season. Maybe I'm being unfair. Branch is talented, I think that's obvious, but I try to avoid depending on someone like him. Don't compare him to locked-in Antonio Bryant, either. All that said, I think Branch has a fair chance to score a touchdown against the Rams, because let's face it, they are bad. I don't think much of the Seahawks' running game, so maybe Wallace will find his new favorite target for a score. With Hightower, you can only hope he'll score because he's not racking up the yardage. In Week 14 we projected him -- against this same, sad-sack Rams team -- for a top-five running back day, but he ended up running for only 32 yards. Oh yeah, he scored, so I'll use that same way of thinking to give Branch the endorsement here. Hightower has scored in only two of his past five games, and I think we can assume he won't get the rushing yards, especially against the proficient Vikings front line. I probably ranked Hightower a bit too well this week, but even against the Vikings, he could score. Add his two yards, and that's a nine-point performance. Branch can get 10.
Le'Ron McClain versus Marvin Harrison: Matchups normally are everything in fantasy football, but in this case I like the running back who has to face mean, nasty Pittsburgh as opposed to the wide receiver who many think will school the pathetic Lions. I could see Harrison having a big game. I also could see Anthony Gonzalez catching more passes, breaking a long play and having the bigger game as the Colts let the old man watch the second half. I really think the Colts will cruise at home against a winless team. Meanwhile, why be scared of using McClain? No, he didn't get a top-50 flex ranking, but I do think that if the Ravens find the end zone, McClain will be toting the pigskin. McClain scored a touchdown and added 63 rushing yards when the Ravens and Steelers met in Week 4, and he scored touchdowns against the Titans and Eagles. He can run on good defenses. I wouldn't assume McClain will have a big game, but I could see double digits. I don't think Harrison will get that chance.
Carnell Williams versus Jerricho Cotchery: Cotchery was supposed to have a big game in San Francisco, as he, Brett Favre and Laveranues Coles had the right matchup, but produced the wrong results. However, I think fantasy owners get to the frame of mind that a certain player -- or a team's passing entire offense, in this case -- is toast, and they give up on it. Cotchery shouldn't be dismissed, even though he has mustered only 10 fantasy points in the past three weeks and one touchdown since September. He shouldn't be automatically activated, either, but I guess this is my way of saying the Buffalo Bills aren't impressive, and I could see either Jets receiver scoring a touchdown. I just wouldn't bet on it. I think it's plainly obvious that if the Buccaneers get to the goal line and decide to call a running play, it won't be Warrick Dunn getting the carry. Williams is bigger and getting popular, and although his flex rank shouldn't indicate he's a good flex option, I think Cotchery -- and Coles, for that matter -- are less likely to find the end zone.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
Eric Karabell ranks the 100 best flex options for Week 15.