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Fantasy Football: Rookie receivers

Last season was a surprising one for fantasy football owners, because the conventional wisdom failed. In the past, only truly elite rookie receivers were able to step in and make enough of an impact to be relevant for fantasy owners. But last season, many rookies – from Minnesota’s Percy Harvin to the Giants’ Hakeem Nicks to Tennessee’s Kenny Britt to Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace to Indy’s Austin Collie – made fantasy impacts. So it’s worth fantasy owners’ time to take a closer look at this year’s crop of rookie receivers.

Now that we’ve broken down rookie running backs and their fantasy stock this season, we’re going to turn our attention to receivers – both wideouts and tight ends. In this post, we’ll use our applaud or a fraud tool to indicate which receivers are worthy of being drafted. If a receiver is worthy of being drafted, we’ll indicate where in the post.

Just a reminder before we begin – you can search all our fantasy football coverage in this category.

Dez Bryant, Cowboys – Bryant was the hot receiver name going into the draft, and he’s Jerry Jones’ pet pick as the Playmaker 2.0. But what kind of fantasy option is he? Obviously, Miles Austin has emerged as a No. 1 receiver both on the field and on fantasy scoresheets. But Tony Romo has spread the ball around, and Bryant immediately becomes a better option than Patrick Crayton and the disappointing Roy Williams. Don’t get your head out over your skis too much on Bryant, because Austin and Jason Witten are still ahead of him in the pecking order. But a 60-catch, eight-TD season is well within the realm of possibility for Bryant, and that makes him a No. 3 fantasy receiver in 10- to 12-team leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, Broncos – After the Broncos sent Brandon Marshall out of town, they rebuilt their receiving corps with two rookies.  Thomas, a first-round pick, is a speedy outside threat who played in such a run-heavy offense that he may face an adjustment period to the NFL. Decker was a super-productive receiver at Minnesota who has good size and runs good routes, but he’s recovering from a foot injury and sat out OTAs. That’s enough for us to rule out Decker on draft day, although we believe he could be a pick-up during the season. Thomas, meanwhile, is worth a shot as a No. 4 or No. 5 receiver simply because the Broncos have so few other options that are attractive in Eddie Royal, Brandon Stokely, and Jabar Gaffney. Verdict: Applaud for Thomas; A fraud for Decker

Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams, Buccaneers – Like the Broncos, the Buccaneers overhauled their receiving corps in the offseason, and now Benn (a second-round pick) and Williams (a fourth-round pick) look like they have clear shots to starting berths. Holdovers Sammie Stroughter, Reggie Brown, and Michael Clayton aren’t great shakes, while Benn and Williams are both big talents. The question is whether an offense helmed by second-year QB Josh Freeman can produce enough numbers to make Benn and Williams fantasy producers and whether both rookies can emerge at the same time. It’s hard to answer those questions definitively, but the talent is good enough with both guys that we’d recommend drafting either Benn or Williams as your No. 5 receiver and seeing how well they emerge. Verdict: Applaud for both Benn and Williams.

Golden Tate, Seahawks – Tate, a second-round pick, is Pete Carroll’s handpicked receiver to be the Seahawks’ big-play threat. That’s something that the Seahawks don’t have with T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Deion Branch. Matt Hasselbeck has had success in Seattle, and Nate Burleson (a similar player to Tate) had some good numbers in the offense. So Tate is a great option for fantasy owners as a bench guy with lots of upside. As a No. 4 or No. 5 receivers, Tate is a great investment. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards, Panthers – There’s plenty of opportunity for Carolina’s two third-round picks, because after Steve Smith the Panthers don’t have a proven receiving threat. The tricky thing is figuring out whether LaFell or Edwards will step ahead of the other receivers, and if so what that means for fantasy owners. I reserve the right to amend this guess after visiting Panthers training camp, but the guess for now is that Edwards will find more of a role as a slot receiver as well as a return man, and that will make him a top-60 receiver, while LaFell will fall just below that level. That makes Edwards draftable in 12-teams league and LaFell a guy I’d rather follow as a early-season claim. Verdict: Applaud for Edwards; A fraud for LaFell

Mardy Gilyard, Rams – Gilyard, the first pick in the fourth round of April’s draft, fell into an ideal situation to emerge as a fantasy receiver. After being a big-play guy at Cincinnati, Gilyard is probably the best receiving option the Rams have after Donnie Avery. Granted, the Rams’ passing game will struggle this season with rookie Sam Bradford sure to get plenty of snaps, but Gilyard could still be a 40-50 catch guy who provides value and some upside as a No. 5 receiver in leagues with at least 10 teams. Verdict: Applaud

Dexter McCluster, Chiefs – We discussed McCluster in our rookie RB post because he could have RB eligibility in some leagues. As strictly a receiver, McCluster looks to be a 40-catch guy who could end up being in the top 60 at the position in fantasy terms if he finds the end zone enough. So if you’re in a 12-team league or larger, McCluster could be worth a final-round shot, just to see how much of a role he earns. Verdict: Applaud

Damian Williams, Titans – Williams, a third-round pick, goes into a Titans offense that turned rookie Kenny Britt into a fantasy factor last year. But that receiving group is deeper than it was last year because of Britt’s emergence alongside Justin Gage and Nate Washington. That means Williams will struggle to find targets and end up below the draftable level for fantasy owners. Verdict: A fraud

Jordan Shipley, Bengals – Shipley was a do-everything slot receiver at Texas, and the third-round pick could find a similar role in Cincinnati. But we see another rookie as the better prospect for fantasy relevance with the Bengals (see below), and because of that view we see Shipley as more of a bit player. That will prevent him from having draft-worthy fantasy value. Verdict: A fraud

Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers – Sanders, a third-round pick by the Steelers, has an opportunity to step into a No. 3 receiver role in Pittsburgh behind Hines Ward and Mike Wallace. And fantasy owners know that role was fruitful for Wallace last season. But given the Steelers’ miserable QB situation in the first quarter of the season, our thought is to pass on Sanders in the draft and watch him as a pick-up prospect, especially once Ben Roethlisberger returns to the lineup. Verdict: A fraud

Tight ends

Jermaine Gresham, Bengals – We raved about Gresham in the pre-NFL draft process, and he landed in a fantasy friendly offensve in Cincinnati. The Bengals haven’t gotten a lot of tight end production in recent years, but that’s been more of a personnel issue than a system issue. Gresham is a terrific receiver who should be the third receiving option behind Chad Ochocinco and Antonio Bryant, and that may be enough to find top-20 value at tight end. So in larger leagues, Gresham is worth drafting, and in keeper leagues he’s also worth a look because he could develop into a top-8 tight end within a couple of seasons. Verdict: Applaud

Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, Patriots – The Patriots cleared out their tight end corps in the offseason and drafted Gronkowski and Hernandez while signing only veteran Alge Crumpler, who’s mostly a blocker at this point in his career. New England has produced some tight end numbers under this offensive system, but they’ve usually been spread out among several players. If you had to pick one Pats tight end to draft in fantasy leagues this year, it would be Gronkowski, but he’s unlikely to break into the top 20 at tight end since it’s such a deep position at this point. So unless you’re in a mega league or a strong keeper league, neither Gronkowksi or Hernandez is draftable. Verdict: A fraud

Ed Dickson, Ravens – Dickson’s a nice prospect at tight end for the Ravens, but with Todd Heap still around, there’s not much room for Dickson to be a fantasy force this season. He’ll be on draft boards at some point in his career, but not this year. Verdict: A fraud

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 15

Each week, we dive into the stat sheets to see which weekly performers fantasy owners should applaud and which fantasy owners should write off as frauds. You can read past applaud or a fraud analyses in the category listing. And you can also check out our fantasy football thoughts during the week via our Twitter feed here on the blog or here.

This week we’re going to focus purely on players who should be starting for your team in the fantasy playoffs. That’s a higher standard than we’ve traditionally had in this post, but at this point in the season it’s the info you need to know.

Quarterbacks

Matt Cassel, Chiefs – Yes, he had a big game this week (331 yards, two touchdowns). But it was against Cleveland. Just move on. Verdict: A fraud

Joe Flacco, Ravens – Flacco had a four-touchdown game in the Ravens’ 31-7 blowout of the Bears. But while that’s a solid effort, it comes against a bad defense. So don’t jump Flacco into starting status without looking closely at his opponent. Flacco is a matchup play, not a starter, at this point. Verdict: A fraud

David Garrard, Jaguars – Garrard threw for 223 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts, which is one of his better games of the year. But take it from someone who is stuck with Garrard as a starter in a 16-team league – fantasy owners can’t start him and feel great about it on a weekly basis. He’s just below starter caliber. Verdict: A fraud

Chad Henne, Dolphins – Henne threw for 349 yards in the Dolphins’ valiant comeback effort in Tennessee, but with just one touchdown and three interceptions he’s simply not starter worthy. He’s a top-20 fantasy quarterback this season, and projects to be even more next season, but for now you can’t start him and hope for a playoff win. Verdict: A fraud

Carson Palmer, Bengals – Palmer threw for 314 yards and two touchdowns against the Chargers, producing more than he has in recent weeks. With a game against the Chiefs next week, Palmer is back to solid starter status. Verdict: Applaud

Vince Young, Titans – Young threw for 236 yards and three touchdowns against the Dolphins, continuing his solid play of late. He’s a top-15 fantasy quarterback, which means he is a borderline fantasy starter in larger leagues. Don’t expect too much, but don’t be afraid to start Young going forward. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

Marion Barber, Cowboys – Barber has been a disappointment for fantasy owners, in part because of injury, but he delivered 62 yards and two touchdowns against the Saints. While that doesn’t move Barber back into the realm of top-15 backs, but it does mean you can strongly consider starting Barber next week against the Redskins. Verdict: Applaud

Jerome Harrison, Browns – Harrison, who last week played second fiddle to Chris Jennings, this week had the third best rushing game in NFL history with 286 yards. He added three touchdowns just to make those who have claimed and dropped Harrison this year go a little crazier. But all this happened against a terrible Chiefs team, and that makes it hard to project Harrison rushing for a third as many yards next week. Take the chance on him if you want, but we think there are better options for you. Verdict: A fraud

Laurence Maroney, Patriots – Maroney has had inconsistent yardage totals this year, but he scored a touchdown this week against Buffalo (his first in three weeks) and added 83 rushing yards. He’s not a great starting option for fantasy owners, but at least he is an option. Verdict: Applaud

Maurice Morris, Lions – With Kevin Smith now gone for the season, Morris emerged with 126 rushing yards and a score against a pretty good Cardinals defense. If you’re desperate for a starting option, Morris is a gamble worth looking at. He’s still a long shot, but you’re not crazy if you start him going forward. Verdict: Applaud

Chris “Beanie” Wells, Cardinals – Wells had 110 rushing yards and a touchdown against the Lions this week. Normally, we tend to cast a skeptical eye toward performances against Detroit, but it’s worth noting that Wells has had both 70-plus rushing yards and at least one touchdown in four of his past six games. It looks like this rookie is coming on, and fantasy owners should try to ride the wave. Verdict: Applaud

Wide receivers

Chris Chambers, Chiefs – Even with Dwayne Bowe back in the lineup, Chambers had a nice game for the Chiefs with five catches for 114 yards and a score. While that came against the lowly Browns, it does indicate that Chambers still has fantasy value. Owners in leagues with 12 teams or less should stay away, but in larger leagues Chambers remains on the starting-lineup radar. That leads to this verdict. Verdict: Applaud

Braylon Edwards, Jets – Few big-name receivers have been as mediocre as Edwards, but he had five catches for 105 yards and a touchdown this week against Atlanta. With Mark Sanchez back, the Jets’ offense will be at least a smidge more potent, but that doesn’t mean Edwards is trustworthy for fantasy owners. He remains an enigma who you should try to bench if you have a better or even a comparable options. Verdict: A fraud

Justin Gage, Titans – Gage had two touchdowns against the Dolphins, but those were his only two catches. Look elsewhere for an emergency fantasy starter. Verdict: A fraud

Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars – Few players are as all-or-nothing as Sims-Walker, and that makes him a maddening choice for fantasy owners each and every week. But he had six catches for 64 yards and a touchdown against the Colts this week, and he has 758 yards and six touchdowns on the season. So on the whole, he’s a fantasy starter. Verdict: Applaud

Tight ends

John Carlson, Seahawks – Carlson had a touchdown for the second straight week as he had seven catches for 86 yards against Tampa Bay. But that marked the first time in six games that Carlson had more than three catches. In other words, don’t count on Carlson to repeat this performance going forward. Verdict: A fraud

Todd Heap, Ravens – Heap was a go-to guy in the red zone for Baltimore Sunday, scoring twice among his five catches against the Bears. But that happened in a pass-happy game against a team that struggles against the pass and that has bad safeties and backup linebackers in the lineup. Don’t read too much into it. Verdict: A fraud

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Jersey Numbers: Wide Receivers

Over the next several weeks, we’re going to look at several different positions (I can’t yet promise all) to identify the best players wearing each jersey number at each position. If this goes as planned, we’ll then compile a list of the best player wearing each jersey number in the league.

If you have quibbles, or want to add someone I forgot, leave a comment and we’ll update this post. And please have patience – this is a big job.

We’ll start in this post with the best wide receivers at each jersey number. In general, wideouts are allowed to wear numbers between 10 and 19 as well as between 80 and 89.

10 – Santonio Holmes, Steelers – We’ll go with Holmes, the defending Super Bowl MVP, in this category, but it’s a close decision over DeSean Jackson of the Eagles. Both are significant starters for their teams and emerging stars in the league. Other notable 10: Jabar Gaffney, Broncos

11 – Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals – Fitzgerald is one of the very best receivers in the league, and so he gets the nod as the premier wideout wearing No. 11. He became a superstar in last year’s playoffs, doing what he had done in relative obscurity earlier in his career in Arizona. Fitzgerald is the real deal. Other notable 11s: Mike Sims-Walker, Jaguars; Mohammed Massaquoi, Browns; Roy Williams, Cowboys; Laveranues Coles, Bengals; Julian Edelman, Patriots; Legedu Naanee, Chargers; Roscoe Parrish, Bills; Stefan Logan, Steelers

12 – Marques Colston, Saints – Colston is the premier receiver on the league’s most potent offense, and now that he’s healthy he’s showing incredible skills for his size. That gives him the nod over Steve Smith of the Giants as the best No. 12 wideout in the league. Both Colston and Smith may have to move over for Minnesota rookie Percy Harvin at some point in the future. Other notable 12s: Michael Jenkins, Falcons; Justin Gage, Titans; Darrius Heyward-Bey, Raiders; Quan Cosby, Bengals

13 – Johnny Knox, Bears – Knox is the only notable receiver wearing No. 13 this year. The rookie out of Abilene Christian has had a nice freshman season in the NFL with three receiving TDs and a return for a score. Maybe he’ll make 13 a trendier, if not luckier, number for wideouts.

14 – Brandon Stokley, Broncos – Like 13, 14 isn’t a popular number for receivers. Stokley, who had good seasons with the Colts and the most memorable touchdown of the season off a tip in the opener against the Bengals, is the best of the bunch over St. Louis prospect Keenan Burton. Other notable 14: Eric Weems, Falcons

15 – Brandon Marshall, Broncos – Marshall’s numbers aren’t quite as good this season as fellow 15 Steve Breaston of Arizona, but Marshall is the more dynamic and more important player than Arizona’s talented third receiver. Marshall has the talent to be one of the league’s top-5 overall receivers. Other notable 15s: Kelley Washington, Ravens; Chris Henry, Bengals; Davone Bess, Dolphins; Michael Crabtree, 49ers; Courtney Roby, Saints

16 – Josh Cribbs, Browns – Lance Moore of the Saints is the only notable pure wide receiver wearing No. 16 right now, but Cribbs, Cleveland’s do-everything guy, plays enough receiver and has a receiver number, so he counts here. Cribbs catches the ball, returns kicks, and plays under center in the wildcat. He may be the league’s best return man, and he’s growing as an offensive force. Moore had a strong season as New Orleans’ slot receiver last year, but injuries have hampered his production this year. Other notable 16: Danny Amendola, Rams

17 – Braylon Edwards, Jets – Edwards had fallen out of favor in Cleveland last year and this season, and his numbers reflected that diminished importance, but he’s now in New York and gaining steam. So we’ll list him as the top 17 over rookies Mike Wallace of Pittsburgh and Austin Collie of Indianapolis. Other notable 17s: Donnie Avery, Rams; Robert Meachem, Saints

18 – Sidney Rice, Vikings – Rice is emerging as the Vikings’ most reliable receiver, and he has become one of Brett Favre’s favorite targets. His good size and exceptional ball skills and leaping ability are finally starting to shine through now that he’s in his third season. He beats a crop of rookies to earn the honor as the best receiver wearing 18. Other notable 18s: Kenny Britt, Titans; Jeremy Maclin, Eagles; Louis Murphy, Raiders; Sammie Stroughter, Buccaneers

19 – Miles Austin, Cowboys – Austin has come out of nowhere over the past three games to establish himself as an explosive threat and the Cowboys’ best receiver. Even with the return heroics of Miami’s Ted Ginn Jr. and Denver’s Eddie Royal this year, Austin is the best 19. Other notable 19: Devery Henderson, Saints

23 – Devin Hester, Bears – Because Hester came into the NFL as a defensive back, he’s been allowed to keep his old DB number of 23 even though he’s now a wide receiver. The fact that he’s Chicago’s No. 1 outside target makes this a legitimate listing for a bit of a funky number for a receiver.

80 – Andre Johnson, Texans – If you made me pick one receiver as the best in the league, this is the guy. He has freakish size, incredible speed, and great production throughout his career. The only pockmark on his resume is the fact that he’s been dinged up from time to time. So he gets an easy decision here over Donald Driver of Green Bay as the best receiver wearing 80. Other notable 80s: Earl Bennett, Bears; Malcom Floyd, Chargers; Bryant Johnson, Lions; Bobby Wade, Chiefs; Marty Booker, Falcons; Mike Thomas, Jaguars

81 – Randy Moss, Patriots – Moss is already an all-time great, and he’s still performing at a premium level for the Pats. This is an easy call, even though  current great Anquan Boldin of Arizona, past greats Torry Holt of the Jaguars and Terrell Owens of the Bills, and future great Calvin Johnson of Detroit also wear 81. This number has great depth of talent. Other notable 81: Nate Burleson, Seahawks

82 – Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs – As deep as 81 is in talent, 82 is thin. We’ll give the nod to Bowe over the Giants’ Mario Manningham because Bowe has had more good seasons, even though Manningham has been more impactful this year. Other notable 82s: Antwaan Randle El, Redskins; Brian Hartline, Dolphins

83 – Wes Welker, Patriots – Welker, who piles up gobs of catches as the jitterbug/security blanket of the Patriots offense, narrowly gets this nod over Vincent Jackson of San Diego, who has joined the list of the league’s 10 best receivers. Lee Evans of Buffalo doesn’t have equivalent numbers because his quarterbacks have stunk for years, but he’s no slouch either. Other notable 83s: Kevin Walter, Texans; Deion Branch, Seahawks; Sinorice Moss, Giants

84 – Roddy White, Falcons – White has emerged as one of the top receivers in the league over the past three years, and he looks like he’ll team with Matt Ryan for a long time as Atlanta’s dynamic duo. We’ll take the ascending White over the descending T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who has had a great career in Cincinnati but is starting to show signs of slippage in his first season in Seattle. Other notable 84s: Patrick Crayton, Cowboys; Josh Morgan, 49ers; Bobby Engram, Chiefs; Javon Walker, Raiders

85 – Chad Ochocinco, Bengals – We have to give this jersey-number to Ochocinco, since he changed his name to be his jersey number in Spanish (kind of). But Ochocinco deserves it given the renaissance year he is having with the Bengals. Derrick Mason of the Ravens contended for the honor based on his long career, while Greg Jennings of the Packers could claim this honor in the future. Other notable 85s: Pierre Garcon, Colts; Jerheme Urban, Cardinals

86 – Hines Ward, Steelers – There aren’t a lot of great receivers wearing 86, but there is one – Ward. The former Super Bowl MVP isn’t just great at catching the ball; he’s a vicious blocker downfield as well. He’s a borderline Hall of Famer who is still building his resume. Other notable 86s: Dennis Northcutt, Lions; Brian Finneran, Falcons

87 – Reggie Wayne, Colts – Wayne has seamlessly taken over for Marvin Harrison as Peyton Manning’s premier target in Indy, and now Wayne is building his own case for the Hall of Fame. There aren’t five receivers in the league who are better or more explosive than Wayne. Other notable 87s: Bernard Berrian, Vikings; Andre Caldwell, Bengals; Muhsin Muhammad, Panthers; Mike Furrey, Browns; David Clowney, Jets; Jordy Nelson, Packers; Domenik Hixon, Giants

88 – Isaac Bruce, 49ers – Bruce is no longer the dynamic force he was for years in St. Louis, but he’s good enough to claim this number as his lifetime achievement award. Rookie Hakeem Nicks of the Giants is the only other significant 88 as a receiver, but he looks as though he will be a good one. Other notable 88: Chansi Stuckey, Browns

89 – Steve Smith, Panthers – Smith hasn’t had the season this year that he’s had in the past, and he’s even felt at times that he wasn’t an asset to his team, but those problems have more to do with the struggles of Carolina QB Jake Delhomme than with Smith’s own shortcomings. Smith is just 5-foot-9, but he’s lightning quick, built like a brick house, tough to bring down, and shockingly good on jump balls. He’s still an elite receiver. Other notable 89s: Santana Moss, Redskins; Jerricho Cotchery, Jets; Mark Clayton, Ravens; Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers; James Jones, Packers

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Titans/Jets thoughts

A few thoughts on the Week Three game between the Tennessee Titans and the New York Jets, both from an on-field perspective and a fantasy football perspective. The Jets won 24-17 at the Meadowlands.

On-field
*The Jets’ defense has at least four premium, blue-chip players in CB Darrelle Revis, LBs Bart Scott and David Harris, and NT Kris Jenkins. Harris was the biggest impact guy late in this game with a fourth-quarter interception and a sack. Rex Ryan’s approach and scheme makes a big difference, but he has a lot of horses who can make his defense shine.
*Mark Sanchez makes his share of rookie mistakes, but he doesn’t self-distruct to the point that his team can’t overcome it. Sanchez had two turnovers in the game, but he also moved the ball well and threw two TDs and ran for another score.
*This is the most electric I’ve seen Jerricho Cotchery play. He seemed to have quality speed into and out of his breaks and he made some big plays en route to a 108-yard game. I still wouldn’t label Cotchery a legitimate No. 1, go-to receiver, but he’s a quality starter and by far the best guy the Jets have.
*The Titans have all the pieces, so what’s missing that’s led them to an 0-3 start? Chris Johnson is an elite running back, and LenDale White is a good compliment. The offensive line did a pretty good job too opening holes for Johnson and protecting QB Kerry Collins (just two sacks allowed). The biggest problem on offense is the receiving corps, which isn’t dependable catching the job. The Titans really missed intermediate threat Bo Scaife in this game.
*Defensively, the Titans have good players but not much impact. The secondary is also susceptible to intermediate-level plays, which is what drives are built on.  That doesn’t make sense, because safeties Chris Hope and Michael Griffin are both good players, as is CB Cortland Finnegan, but the combination in the secondary isn’t working right now.
*I love Jeff Fisher as a coach, but I don’t know what he can do to get his team out of this 0-3 hole. The intangible that’s missing won’t be easy to recover, and so it’ll be interesting to see if Tennessee can find a way to dig out of this significant hole.
*The Jets, meanwhile, are off to a solid start and are starting to establish themselves as one of the better teams in the league. But they must avoid the specter of their ’08 second-half collapse before we become full believers.

Fantasy Football thoughts
*I have Thomas Jones in two fantasy leagues, and I’m officially worried. After a top-notch game in Week 1 against Houston, Jones has struggled in the two succeeding weeks. This was a tough matchup, but Jones didn’t look very good. In one league, I backed Jones up with Leon Washington, but I’m having a hard time justifying either of them as starters right now. Watch the matchups, but you need to be willing to bench Jones right now if the matchup looks unfavorable.
*Cotchery is a top-30 wideout. Before the season, he was in the 30s in my rankings, but with the success that Sanchez has had and Cotchery’s role in the offense, he has upgraded. He’s still not an every-week starter, but most weeks he’ll be a good option.
*Chris Johnson is for real. Putting up 97 yards rushing against this defense shows just how effective Johnson can be. He’s always a threat to bust a long run, and that makes him extremely valuable in yardage leagues. LenDale White will still take away some TD chances, but Johnson is a secure top-10 back in most leagues. White, meanwhile, did in this game what he does usually. He’ll score a touchdown about every other week and be a solid flex play, but he’s not starting caliber unless Johnson goes out.
*None of the Titans’ receivers is a great fantasy option right now. Justin Gage is the best receiver they have, but Nate Washington is starting to take away some chances, and Kenny Britt is beginning to emerge as well. All three are pretty equal as threats, which means you can’t count on one to get the lion’s share of the targets in any particular game. These guys are all decent depth for fantasy teams, but none is a great starting option unless you’re stuck in a bye-week or injury pickle.

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Fantasy Football Applaud or a Fraud – Week 1

Each week, we’ll comb through the stat sheets to identify fantasy football performances of note. Then we’ll try to analyze these performances to see if these players should be applauded or if they’re a one-week fraud. As we do this, we’ll focus on players that are start/sit decisions for most fantasy owners or players who are on many waiver wires. The reason for this is that we all know to applaud Drew Brees or Adrian Peterson, and so saying that doesn’t give fantasy owners insight they can act on. Note that not all verdicts mean the same thing. Some mean pick the player up or let him stay on the waiver wire; others mean start the player or leave him on your bench. The report beside each player spells out our thinking.

So here we go. If we forget anyone, feel free to leave a comment, and we’ll update to include them.

Quarterbacks

Brodie Croyle, Kansas City (177 passing yards, 2 touchdowns) – Don’t get fooled by Croyle’s appearance on the waiver wire this week. He was a fill-in for Matt Cassel, and so he should not be picked up. His stats do indicate that Cassel has some value as a fantasy backup quarterback this year, but that’s all you should take from Croyle’s Week One numbers. Verdict: A fraud

Joe Flacco, Baltimore  (307 passing yards, 3 touchdowns) – Flacco had a huge opening game against Kansas City. The Chiefs’ defense is in major rebuilding mode, so these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. But two of the Ravens we had most questions about – TE Todd Heap and WR Mark Clayton – both showed up for Flacco. Plus, Flacco showed that he’s continuing to grow as a quarterback. This extreme level of production is unreasonable to expect on a weekly basis, but Flacco is a top-20 fantasy quarterback who is moving quickly into the top 12 to 15. Verdict: Applaud

Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks (279 passing yards, 3 TD) – After an injury-plagued season in ’08, Hasselbeck looks healthy once again, and he’s producing at the level he did back in the day. The Seahawks also have found an emerging weapon in second-year TE John Carlson, which only helps Hasselbeck’s cause. He’s a fantasy starter once again as long as he stays healthy. Verdict: Applaud

Running backs

You can read our take on fantasy running backs in Week One on our Most Valuable Network blog. It’s found on MVN’s Football Wire.

Wide receivers

Earl Bennett, Bears (7 catches, 66 yards) – Bennett didn’t have a single catch as a rookie last year, but this year he got off to a big start playing with his former college teammate Jay Cutler. (He actually led the Bears in targets, according to Peter King.) Bennett won’t put up monster numbers, but he’s going to be a consistent producer who is probably worth owning in most leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Nate Burleson, Seahawks (7 catches, 74 yards, 1 TD) – Burleson was the Seahawks’ most productive receiver in Week One, continuing an emergence that we saw during the preseason. He won’t surpass T.J. Houshmandzadeh over the long run, but Burleson showed that he is definitely ownable in fantasy leagues. As long as Hasselbeck stays healthy, Burleson has value. Verdict: Applaud

Patrick Crayton, Cowboys (4 catches, 135 yards, 1 TD) – There’s plenty of room for receivers to step up in Dallas with Terrell Owens gone, and Crayton stepped up in Week One. I’m still waiting to see if Crayton or Miles Austin (who also scored) becomes the No. 2 wideout behind Roy Williams, but this opening-game performance at least makes Crayton ownable while you watch to see how the competition shakes out. Verdict: Applaud

Justin Gage, Titans (7 catches, 78 yards, 1 TD) – We gave our thoughts on Gage in this post. Verdict: Applaud

Percy Harvin, Vikings (4 catches, 36 yards, 1 TD) – Harvin is a buzz-worthy rookie who people have fallen in love with, and he scored a touchdown in Week One to keep the hype machine going. I still wouldn’t start him yet, but he’s probably worth owning in your league as you wait and see over the next few weeks how consistent he can be with his production. Verdict: Applaud

Devery Henderson, Saints (5 catches, 103 yards, 1 TD) – The Saints’ receiving numbers were all jacked up because Drew Brees had such a monster game against the Lions in Week One. Henderson and Robert Meachem both caught TD passes, and it’s easy to pencil one of them in as the No. 2 receiver in Nola behind Marques Colston. But don’t forget about Lance Moore, and don’t get too eager to grab Henderson when he might be the No. 4 or even No. 5 receiver some weeks. The Saints’ depth of targets makes Henderson a risky claim at this point. Verdict: A fraud

Devin Hester, Bears (4 catches, 90 yards, 1 TD) – Hester is the Bears’ best outside receiver, and he showed in Week One that he can produce commensurate with that level. Given Jay Cutler’s ability to get the ball deep, Hester should be a borderline starter in most fantasy leagues of 10 teams or more. He should end the season as a top-30 wideout. Verdict: Applaud

Antwaan Randle El, Redskins (7 catches, 98 yards) – Randle El was the Redskins’ leading receiver this week, but that’s not going to last. The Redskins are going to try to get production out of young receivers Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas, and Santana Moss is still the preferred target outside. Take a pass on the former college quarterback. Verdict: A fraud

Laurent Robinson, Rams (5 catches, 87 yards) – Robinson was a training-camp phenom for the Rams after coming over via trade from Atlanta, and he backed up the hype with a solid Week One showing. Robinson isn’t a great fantasy producer, but he has enough upside to be worth noting and even worth picking up in larger leagues. He’s clearly one of the Rams’ top two receivers along with Donnie Avery. Verdict: Applaud

Brandon Stokely, Broncos (1 catch, 87 yards, 1 TD) – Talk about a fluke fantasy star. While Stokely ended up posting a batch of fantasy points, it all came on the most unlikely of plays. Unless the Broncos offense starts going bonkers, Stokely (the No. 3 receiver behind Eddie Royal and Brandon Marshall) isn’t worth a roster spot, unless your league has some crazy tip-drill-only rule. Verdict: A fraud

Tight ends

John Carlson, Seahawks (6 catches, 95 yards, 2 TDs) – Carlson had a solid rookie season and then a spectacular Week One. He’s among a big group of tight ends vying for top-10 status, and he’s going to end up winning. He’s a starter in any league that has a designated tight end spot. Verdict: Applaud

Brent Celek, Eagles (6 catches, 37 yards, 1 TD) – Celek is still an unknown, but he’s going to be the top tight end in an offense that’s traditionally tight-end friendly. I wouldn’t consider him a top-5 fantasy player, but he’s good enough to be a starter in a 12-team league, and he may end up in the top 10 – even with Alex Smith coming in just before the season and Donovan McNabb banged up right now. Celek is a quality fantasy option. Verdict: Applaud

Todd Heap, Ravens (5 catches, 74 yards, 1 TD) – It’s easy to forget the days just a few years ago when Heap was listed with Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates as an elite fantasy tight end. Health has been his big issue. But if Heap is healthy, then he’s capable of putting up some nice fantasy days. He’s probably a top-15 tight end if healthy, with a chance to move into the top 10. That makes him a borderline starter but someone worth watching and owning. Verdict: Applaud

Dustin Keller, Jets (4 catches, 94 yards) – If Mark Sanchez is for real, then Keller will produce at the tight end spot. He’s another of the guys in the clump of tight ends between 5 and 15 who is starting-caliber in most fantasy leagues. Verdict: Applaud

Robert Royal, Browns (4 catches, 60 yards, 1 TD) – Royal had a good first game, and he’s the best tight end option in Cleveland now that Kellen Winslow is in Tampa Bay. But there are so many good options at tight end that it’s hard to take the leap and pick up Royal at this point in the season. Congrats on a good game, but he hasn’t made himself fantasy relevant. Verdict: A fraud

Jeremy Shockey, Saints (4 catches, 31 yards, 2 TDs) – The good news is that Shockey looks healthy and that he now has his first TDs in a Saints uniform. But it’s hard to imagine Shockey putting up fantasy numbers with enough consistency to be a top-10 fantasy tight end. I’d much rather have Carlson than Shockey out of the two-TD tight ends from this week. Verdict: A fraud

Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers (5 catches, 30 yards, 1 TD) – Winslow isn’t a starting fantasy tight end, but he’s a good backup with upside still. He’s worth owning in most leagues, but he can’t be considered a top-10 fantasy tight end as long as slow-throwing Byron Leftwich is the quarterback in Tampa. Verdict: A fraud

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Titans/Steelers thoughts

A few thoughts on last night’s season opener between the Titans and the Steelers, both from an on-field perspective and from a fantasy football perspective.

On-field
*I feel better than ever about including Tennessee among the top four teams in the league in our first Football Relativity comparison. Even without DT Albert Haynesworth, the Titans have a lot of pass-rush ability in their front four, with Jason Jones and Tony Brown providing it inside. This is a team that’s rock-solid on both lines and that has enough pieces elsewhere to be a tough team. Even though they lost, I’m even more convinced that this will be the best team in the AFC South.

*Pittsburgh is not a perfect team, but it’s a really tough team. This team went through the schedule gauntlet last year and found ways to win even when they’re not at their best. They did it again last night, and it goes to show that they’re never going to go down without a fight. Ben Roethlisberger is the microcosm of his team – always better at the end of the game than at the beginning.

*The injury to Troy Polamalu makes Pittsburgh’s defense less scary while he’s out. While Ryan Clark is a big hitter at safety, he’s not nearly the playmaker that Polamalu is. Without Polamalu, the Steelers will give up more big plays and make fewer, and that will hurt. The defense will still be good, but it won’t reach the special level that it can with Polamalu running around like a man possessed.

*Bo Scaie is really good. He’s the X-factor for the Titans offense. If Scaife can do every week what he did last night, the Titans offense will be a lot scarier. He’s not just a dependable third-down receiver; he’s also a threat to grab a 20-yard chunk at any time. Rookie Jared Cook isn’t going to replace Scaife this year (maybe in 2010 if Scaife leaves as a free agent), but the combo of Cook and Scaife on the field at the same time could be very interesting. Given how well-done Alge Crumpler is at this point, that has to be an option the Titans will explore.

Fantasy Football
*We saw the downside of both Titans running backs last night. Chris Johnson should get at least 50 yards each week, even against the toughest defenses, because he’ll bust at least one big play each week. (Last night it was a 32-yard run.) LenDale White, on the other hand, has very limited fantasy value unless he scores a touchdown. He’ll score his share of touchdowns this year, but against tough defenses he should be benched in most leagues because he’s not going to be a big yardage guy.

*Santonio Holmes has arrived. (This is a real football thought too.) Holmes is a legitimate No. 1 receiver from a real football sense, and he’s starting to take over for Hines Ward in that capacity for the Steelers. On my draft board, I had Holmes in the 20s among receivers, but this performance reminds me of his playoff run enough to say that Santonio is going to be a top-20 fantasy receiver this year. If you drafted him, you got a good deal. I thought Ward’s numbers, on the other hand, were a little higher than they will usually be. He’s more of a fantasy backup in most 10-12 team leagues this year. 

*Scaife is probably going to end up being between 10 and 15 on the tight end chart this year. I don’t count on him scoring a lot of touchdowns, but if you’re in a yardage-heavy leage or even a point-per-reception league, Scaife has more value. He’s not an elite guy, but he’s going to be productive.

*We saw last night what Kerry Collins is as a fantasy quarterback – 200-250 yards and a touchdown most weeks. Those are backup numbers. Roethlisberger’s numbers (363 yards and one TD) will probably fluctuate from week to week, but he does have some fantasy upside this year because he has better targets than he’s had in past years.

*I have two guys in my office who executed the strategy of drafting both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall for their fantasy teams this year. That’s a dangerous strategy with this team. Although both will play, you can’t start both because you could end up 25 total rushing yards, as they did last year. Parker is the starter, but he’s not going to have a ton of 100-yard games this year, I don’t believe. He’s a borderline fantasy starter. I’m falling off the Mendenhall bandwagon. At one point, I had him as a top-75 player, but I don’t like his running style, and he just hasn’t looked special to me either in this game or in the preseason game I watched this year. He was playing a terrific defense last night, so I don’t want to overreact, but it is time to sound the bust alarm on him.

*I don’t buy Kenny Britt yet, but if he continues to play as a starter, he could end up being worth a spot on your bench. Justin Gage, on the other hand, is probably worth a pick-up in 12-team leagues and bigger. Gage is the No. 1 wideout, and he’s healthy (which he wasn’t last year). He probably ends up as a top-40 wide receiver, which makes him ownable.

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Fantasy Football: Opportunists

At the suggestion of Carl, we’re going to take the opportunity to look at players whose touches should significantly rise or fall based on new circumstances this year. We’ll try to identify this trend among some players whom we have not yet discussed in our fantasy football coverage this year (which you can catch up on via this category on the blog or by searching via player name on the right).

Opportunity Rising

RB Fred Jackson, Bills – With Marshawn Lynch being suspended for the first three games of the season, Jackson will be a No. 1 back to begin the year. The fact that he was so productive as a No. 2 back last year (884 total yards, three TDs) makes him a solid fantasy backup; the fact that he’ll be the guy for three games makes him an early-season starter. Jackson is a No. 3 fantasy back in leagues of 10 or more teams, and don’t be shocked if he starts for your team at some point after Lynch’s three-game break.

RB Darren McFadden, Raiders – This is more of a hunch than a situational call, but you can bank on McFadden having more than 142 touches in 2009. He missed three games last year and had three more games in which he had three or fewer touches. (Those numbers also indicate that someone else in Oakland, either Justin Fargas or Michael Bush, will likely lose some touches.) If McFadden just gets up to 10 touches in those games – which is a conservative projection – he becomes a borderline No. 2 fantasy running back. If he can move up to 15-20 touches a game, he’s a gimme starter with huge upside.

RB Ray Rice, Ravens – Rice was the third guy in Baltimore’s RB trio last year, but all signs from training camp this year are that he has stepped up to be the primary running back. LeRon McClain will still get work as a fullback, but Rice should end up with more than 140 touches and more than 727 yards, which is what he ended up with last year. He’s a borderline starter and a flex option for fantasy leagues.

RB Pierre Thomas, Saints – Thomas established himself as a big-time fantasy back last year despite being a part-time player in New Orleans. He had just 160 touches last year but turned that into 900 yards and 12 touchdowns. Now that Thomas has proven his ability to produce, we can count on him moving up into the 200 touch area, which will put him equivalent to or maybe even a tad above Reggie Bush’s load. That should push Thomas into the 1000-yard area, which will make him a borderline No. 2 fantasy back at worst.

WR Miles Austin, Cowboys – With Terrell Owens gone, the Cowboys have a No. 1 receiver in Roy Williams who probably won’t be an 80-catch guy and no clear No. 2 receiver. That opens the door for Austin, who had just 13 catches but three touchdowns last year. He should be a 30-catch guy easily this year and could end up with many more grabs than that. (We talked more about Austin in this post.)

WR Donnie Avery, Rams – Avery was kind of under the radar as a fantasy wideout last year, but he had a strong season for a rookie, catching 53 balls for 674 yards and three scores (along with one rushing TD). With Torry Holt gone, Avery is now the unquestioned lead receiver for the Rams, and with some luck (most notably health for Marc Bulger) he could move up to the 70-catch level. As you project Avery, watch his leg injury, which held him out of most of training camp and could sideline him in the regular season’s first game or two.

WR Patrick Crayton, Cowboys – As we discussed earlier, there are plenty of opportunities in the Dallas passing game. Crayton is the natural guy to move up from a 39-catch guy last year up into the 50-catch area. He was at that level in 2007, so he can do it. Crayton isn’t quite a fantasy starter, but he’s worth a bench spot as you see just how much of an opportunity he has in ’09.

WR Jerricho Cotchery, Jets – With Laveranues Coles gone, Cotchery is the unquestioned No. 1 wideout for the Jets. While that’s not a huge fantasy production spot now that the Jets are going with rookie Mark Sanchez at quarterback instead of Brett Favre, Cotchery has a chance to up his reception total from 71.

WR Anthony Gonzalez, Colts – With Marvin Harrison gone, Gonzalez moves up from a No. 3 slot receiver in Indy to a starting role. He’ll play both outside in 2-WR sets and in the slot in three-WR groupings, which means he’ll be on the field a lot. That means that he should see a bump up from his 57-catch total from last year. He’s probably not an 80-catch receiver, but 65 to 70 grabs is reasonable, and Gonzalez would likely turn that kind of opportunity into a 1,000-yard season.

WR Domenik Hixon, Giants – Hixon, whom the Giants plucked off the waiver wire in 2007, emerged as a legitimate receiving threat last year with 43 catches for 596 yards and two scores in ’08. With Plaxico Burress gone, Hixon is the best down-field option Eli Manning has now. That’s worth knowing going into fantasy drafts. While his catch numbers probably won’t scream upwards – he’s more likely to end up in the 50s than in the 70s – he should make enough plays on deep balls to be an intriguing fantasy option most weeks.

WR Eddie Royal, Broncos – Royal had a whopping 91 catches for 980 yards as a rookie, and it could be hard for him to match that catch level in the Broncos’ new offense. But we want to put him on this list to note that in the new Josh McDaniels system, Royal may end up with more catches than Brandon Marshall. And if Marshall holds out, sits out, or gets traded, Royal’s production will make him a starting receiver. This is a name you need to know going into your draft.

WR Steve Smith, Giants – The Giants let go of Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer in the last year, and so there are opportunities a-plenty in New York. Smith, who had 57 catches last year, is the most likely guy to lead the Giants in catches. He may not have the yards or touches that other receivers like Domenik Hixon or maybe even Mario Manningham create, but Smith will be the most consistent fantasy option among the Big Blue wide receivers.

TE Dustin Keller, Jets – We’ve already discussed Jerricho Cotchery’s opportunity, but the real beneficiary of Coles’ departure is Keller, who should become a more regular part of the Jets’ offense. He had 48 catches last year, but he should be well into the 50s or even the 60s this season. His yards per catch will probably slip as a result, but from the ultimate fantasy perspective the opportunities will pay off. (We talked more about Keller in this post.)

TE Marcedes Lewis, Jaguars – With the upheaval the Jaguars have experienced at wide receiver, there’s an opportunity for Lewis to step up his production this year. He had 41 catches for 489 yards last year, and he could move up toward 50 catches and 600 yards this year. Because of the depth of the tight end position, those are still backup numbers, but they make Lewis a legit backup, especially if your league forces you to carry two tight ends.

PK Lawrence Tynes, Giants – After his postseason heroics in the Giants’ Super Bowl run, Tynes sat most of last season. He was hurt early, and replacement John Carney did so well that Tynes never really got a shot. But Carney is now in New Orleans, which means that Tynes once again will be the Giants’ full-time kicker.

Opportunity Falling

RB Joseph Addai, Colts – With the addition of rookie Donald Brown, Addai can no longer be considered Indy’s No.1 back. That means that Addai’s production will be more like what he offered in ’08 (750 yards, seven touchdowns) than his stud years (1,400 yards, 8 and 15 touchdowns) before that. (We talked more about Addai in this post.)

RB Earnest Graham, Buccaneers – Graham entered last season as the Bucs’ No. 1 back, but he can’t boast the same status this year because of the arrival of Derrick Ward. That makes Graham little more than a fantasy backup this season. (We talked more about Graham in this post.)

WR Lee Evans, Bills – Evans has been the Bills’ bellweather receiver for years now, but with Terrell Owens coming to town, he’s now more of a complementary player. That may not hurt Evans’ numbers too badly, because he’s averaged only 59 catches over the last two years. Evans will probably be around 55 catches this year, but with more of his chances coming downfield, he could average 16 or 17 yards per catch with six touchdowns or so. Still, that makes him more of a No. 3 receiver than the No. 2 he’s been in some recent years.

WR Justin Gage, Titans – Gage was the Titans’ best receiving option last year, compiling 34 catches in the 12 games he played. Because the Titans’ offense isn’t that pass-happy, no Tennessee receiver is a great fantasy option. But the addition of free-agent Nate Washington indicates that Gage will be more of a possession receiver in ’09. That knocks him from being a fantasy backup to more of a waiver-wire option in most fantasy leagues.

TE Benjamin Watson, Patriots – Watson, a former first-round pick, had a big fantasy season with 6 touchdowns in 2008, but he had just two last year. With Chris Baker coming on board, Watson should be even less of a receiving option this year. As a result, Watson is not a draftable fantasy guy.

PK Matt Bryant, Buccaneers – Make sure you note on your list that Mike Nugent signed in Tampa Bay to take over Bryant’s job.

PK Garrett Hartley, Saints – Hartley stablized the Saints’ kicking position late in the season last year, and the Saints’ kicker should be a high draft pick because of New Orleans’ prolific offense. But Hartley will miss the first four games of the season due to a league suspension, and the Saints brought in vet John Carney to fill in. Last year, Carney rode a fill-in spot with the Giants to a full season and a Pro Bowl berth. That means that you can’t bank on Hartley to begin the season and shouldn’t have him on your roster until Carney is out of the way.

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