New Atlanta Braves outfielder B.J. Upton finished the 2012 season as the No. 14 outfielder on the ESPN Fantasy Player Rater, but I'm guessing most people wouldn't even think of selecting him among the top 14 outfielders in a draft. After all, the guy hasn't hit as well as .250 for an entire season since 2008 and it's tough to make a good case, looking at his trends in strikeout/walk rates, that he's a reasonable candidate to suddenly do so in the future.
However, instead of focusing on what Upton did not do well the past four seasons for the Tampa Bay Rays, let's focus on the good, because there's plenty of it for fantasy owners. This fellow possesses a valuable and unique combination of power and speed, and it's time fantasy owners realize how undervalued that can be. Last season Upton slipped to late in the eighth round of ESPN standard league drafts, which was odd for someone who is durable and raising his home run total each season (since 2008). He's run a bit less the past two seasons, but he's only 28, in his prime and frankly, moving to the NL should be in the discussion for top-50 overall in 2013.
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireB.J. Upton's 195 steals are the most for any player who has also hit at least 50 home runs since 2008. He has hit 89 round-trippers in that span.
Sure, you might need to draft Joe Mauer or Matt Holliday to offset the batting average, but for all the love annually thrown at Michael Bourn, the guy he replaces in center field for Atlanta, they produced similar fantasy value in 2012. Mike Trout and Ryan Braun were the only others to join Upton in the 25-homer, 25-steal club, as Upton hit a career-best 28 home runs and stole 31 bases, and he really should raise each of those numbers in future seasons. The batting average is a drag, but you know this guy will hit for power, you know he'll run, and unlike a number of potential first-rounders, we know he'll be out there for more than 140 games.
Don't expect Upton's core fantasy statistics to drastically change with the Braves, but since he's leaving a tough home run park for hitters and possesses a fly ball rate annually better than 40 percent, and he's an excellent base stealer, a 30/30 campaign certainly seems within reach, if not likely. Don't worry about the strikeouts. This isn't someone contending for a batting title anyway. Yes, the sub-.300 on-base percentage boggles the mind, and if he's on base more he can, in theory, run more, but the new extra-aggressive Upton comes off his best fantasy season since 2007. In 2008 he hit .273 with 44 steals, but with only 9 home runs. I'll take the 2012 version. It makes a bigger impact when league-wide home runs drop each season.
Ultimately, this is a good move for the Braves, even considering the real-life financial implications, though Upton really is a poor fit to lead off. Still, no matter where he hits in the lineup, he will produce important counting numbers in home runs and stolen bases, he'll score runs and yes, he'll drain your batting average. Look past that in the fifth or sixth round and enjoy his first 30/30 season.
Other recent moves
• Another American League center fielder switched teams this week, as Denard Span was traded from the Minnesota Twins to the Washington Nationals. This adds even more stolen bases to the NL pool, making those that run a lot in the AL (Trout, Brett Gardner, Ben Revere) stand out more in AL-only formats. In the NL, speed is certainly more abundant. Span will presumably lead off for the Nationals, is capable of swiping 30 bases and with the talent behind him in the lineup could reach his first 100-run season. This was a wise move for Washington. Early rumor is that ever-patient Jayson Werth will hit second, with future MVP Bryce Harper dropping to the cleanup spot after Ryan Zimmerman. Span was last a top-50 outfielder in 2009, but he could get back there in 2013 when he hits .290 and runs, and certainly becomes draft-worthy late in standard formats. Harper, by the way, is good enough to hit 30 home runs as soon as 2013, and if he wants to steal 25 or 30 bases, he certainly can. It's also a good thing he moves to right field permanently.
• A few days ago Ryan Madson was looking for work and Ernesto Frieri was the closer for the Los Angeles Angels. Now, that first part has definitely changed, and it's likely the second part will. Madson again settles for a one-year deal, as he did in 2012 for the Cincinnati Reds, a team he never pitched for due to Tommy John surgery. The Angels really needed bullpen depth, and now they have a reasonable closing option for when Frieri inevitably takes a major step backward. Reliever performance is fickle from year to year, but Madson was consistent. While Frieri misses a lot of bats, quite a few of the bats that hit him drove the baseball a really long way, as his home rate shows. Let's call Madson a sleeper and Frieri the potential bust, and neither close to the top 10 relievers on draft day.
• As for the Reds, who lost Madson but ended up enjoying the No. 3 closer in fantasy (after Fernando Rodney and Craig Kimbrel), their decision-making this week was a mixed bag. Applaud the intent of moving Aroldis Chapman to the rotation. There's no question that 200 good innings always beat 70 awesome closing ones. Chapman is capable of making Cincy's April rotation and having a Stephen Strasburg-type campaign, with the monster strikeout totals and innings limit. Of course, knowing the Reds, one sore elbow or disappointing radar gun outing and Chapman's closing by tax day, but let's give them the early benefit of the doubt. Signing Jonathan Broxton to a foolish three-year contract doesn't negate the Chapman move, but it should make us call lefty reliever Sean Marshall a draft-day sleeper. Don't trust Broxton for performance or health. He won't be near my top 10 closers for 2013 drafts. Chapman, meanwhile, is among my top 20 starting pitchers.
Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman is the obvious choice to step in for the injured Willis McGahee and bring much joy and success to fantasy rosters, but pardon me for having just a bit of doubt. While I ranked Hillman well for this week -- just outside the top 20 running backs (like my colleagues) -- part of the ranking for me had to do with the Broncos' one-sided matchup against the woeful Kansas City Chiefs. There's upside for the San Diego State product, of course, but in a deep league, it's also a good idea to at least consider former Broncos rookie star Knowshon Moreno, just in case.
So far, this season has been a lost campaign for Moreno, who is recovering from a torn ACL suffered roughly a year ago. He carried the football eight times for 15 yards over two games this September, but with McGahee humming along and Hillman a healthy backup/complement, Moreno has since been rendered inactive. Now opportunity could present itself, which is what we're all about here in the weekly Sneaky Pickups blog, as we dig deep (in this case, really deep). No, I wouldn't rush to get Moreno this week; he's owned in just 2.6 percent of ESPN standard leagues. Hillman is the most added player over the past week, and rightly so. I just love Denver's schedule the final six weeks and won't be at all surprised if Moreno -- or Ball or even a free agent such as Steve Slaton, for that matter -- gets a chance to exploit it.
Quarterback: I recently was asked about this season's Matt Flynn -- not so much about Flynn himself, since rookie Russell Wilson seems to have things under control in Seattle, but for a potential Week 17 fantasy monster. Last season, Flynn stepped in for Aaron Rodgers and tossed a mere six touchdowns on 480 passing yards against Detroit. Let's call performances such as that exceedingly rare, but we can speculate in future Sneaky Pickups blog entries (Detroit's Shaun Hill, perhaps?). If you're still alive in Week 17, you're not using the next Matt Flynn anyway. Certainly there's nothing sneaky about adding Colin Kaepernick anymore. Nothing against Christian Ponder in Minnesota, but backup Joe Webb also is an intriguing running QB, in case opportunity knocks. Ponder does face the (normally) unforgiving, hard-hitting Chicago Bears defense twice in the next three weeks. For those thinking ahead, after Brandon Weeden has to deal with Pittsburgh this weekend, he gets the Raiders, Chiefs and Redskins. That's pretty nice.
Running back: Using the Hillman-Moreno theory as our base, let's not be so prompt to anoint Jacksonville's Jalen Parmele as a star. Rashad Jennings certainly isn't, and who knows when/if Maurice Jones-Drew will return, but longtime Jaguar Montell Owens, a loyal special-teams player for seven seasons, could be rewarded with chances. I haven't heard about Ryan Mathews dealing with injury, but the way he's playing, it wouldn't shock me. Perhaps Jackie Battle will be heard from again. Jamaal Charles looks fine, but do the Chiefs want to risk him getting hurt in late December as they stagger to a 2-14 finish? Peyton Hillis is cooked. Shaun Draughn is not. The retired LaDainian Tomlinson is owned in more leagues than Lance Dunbar of the Cowboys. That seems odd, especially since Dunbar has received five or more rushing attempts in three consecutive weeks. He's done nothing with them, but heroes have been made in past Thanksgiving games.
Wide receiver: I wrote about Lions acquisition Mike Thomas a few weeks ago, but now that Titus Young really is out of the immediate picture, opportunity knocks. I like Ryan Broyles better, but Thomas is experienced. Can I say with certainty that Plaxico Burress will be relevant in Pittsburgh? Well, of course not, especially with the current quarterback situation. If we're mentioning Mike Thomas, Burress is worth a look in 14-team (and larger) formats. The Patriots will use Julian Edelman again, and he's out there in 98.1 percent of standard leagues. That's quite a bit coming off a 21-point fantasy effort. There are many wide receivers who have been discussed in this space, but among those who still interest me (and who are owned in fewer leagues than even Edelman) are Chris Givens, Mohamed Sanu, Harry Douglas (watch the Julio Jones update) and Keshawn Martin.
Good luck in Week 12 and beyond, and have a happy Thanksgiving!
Reminder: These are not the Week 12 ESPN staff rankings. Those will be published Wednesday. Good luck in your playoff push!
Back and forth we go with the top rookie quarterbacks in these rankings, as Washington Redskins passer/runner Robert Griffin III delivered a near-perfect performance against the Philadelphia Eagles, while Indianapolis Colts star Andrew Luck tossed three interceptions in a blowout loss to the New England Patriots. Both quarterbacks remain safe starter options in all leagues. It was nice to see Griffin picking up chunks of yardage with his legs, while Luck broke the rookie mark for most 300-yard passing performances (Sunday's performance was his fifth). He'll face the Buffalo Bills this week, making No. 6 likely. Matt Ryan shouldn't be shunned coming off his five-interception nightmare, but the two rookies do pass him in the 2012 ranks.
The other change in the top 10 sees Josh Freeman gently brush past Matthew Stafford. Freeman has posted six consecutive multi-touchdown outings, and the schedule will bring more good tidings in December with a schedule that includes the aforementioned Eagles and New Orleans Saints. Stafford, meanwhile, remains inconsistent week to week, and his schedule isn't as friendly, starting this Thursday against the Houston Texans.
Then again, Jacksonville Jaguars journeyman Chad Henne picked apart the Texans for 354 passing yards and four touchdowns in relief of injured Blaine Gabbert on Sunday. Henne certainly didn't look like a special player with the Miami Dolphins in past seasons, and he isn't special now, but fantasy owners in deep leagues should be interested in adding him, just in case this is our latest Billy Volek situation, with a surprise quarterback having his 15 minutes of fantasy fame. Henne is slated to start for the Jaguars moving forward, and the schedule brings the Tennessee Titans, Bills and New York Jets. He moves into the top 30.
If we knew the San Francisco 49ers would go with Colin Kaepernick as their starter, then he'd rise way up the list, likely into the top 20. But we don't know that for sure, despite the postgame indications Monday regarding Kaepernick and Alex Smith, so don't make the youngster your starter yet. It's anyone's guess when a few of the other injured quarterbacks return to action, too, but fantasy owners should be prepared for the worst. Since last week, things didn't improve for Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers or Michael Vick of the Eagles, and it's not likely they play again this week. Nor did the news get better for their backups.
The case could have been made for Eagles star LeSean McCoy as the top option on draft day this season, though most owners went with Arian Foster and Ray Rice in the top two spots. Regardless, McCoy was in rarefied air. Now we don't know if he'll play in Week 12 after suffering a concussion Sunday. Even prior to the injury, McCoy wasn't performing as a top-flight, first-round fantasy producer. The Eagles are among the worst teams in football these days, and you McCoy owners have to be realistic here. Opposing defenses were having little trouble getting to McCoy behind the line of scrimmage, mostly due to Philly's brutal offensive line. His backup is rookie Bryce Brown, who enters the rankings but is nowhere close to a reasonable flex option yet.
There's more shuffling in the top 10, as rookies Doug Martin and Trent Richardson keep on moving up, while Rice heads in the other direction. As with the quarterback position, it's the year of the first-year players! Martin ran for 138 yards Sunday, while Richardson totaled 144 yards combined rushing and receiving. Don't look for these fellows to hit a rookie wall, either. Rice drops a bit to fifth, as he looked merely average against the Steelers Sunday night. He's not average, though, and Rice has been scoring touchdowns, as opposed to accruing high rushing totals, so he remains a must-start.
McCoy isn't the only injured player to keep an eye on. In Denver, Willis McGahee could miss the rest of the regular season, moving him from RB2 status to outside the top 30, and if the news continues to get worse, drop him. For now, it seems McGahee could play in mid-December, so as with Roethlisberger and a certain tight end we'll get to below, try to avoid cutting him. Ronnie Hillman, yet another rookie, zooms into the top 30. He should get more touches than Lance Ball moving forward. There's also a change in Jacksonville, though not due to injury; Jalen Parmele brushes past underachieving Rashad Jennings, and becomes interesting depending on the matchups. There's still no telling when (if?) Maurice Jones-Drew comes back.
Out West, look for the Oakland Raiders to get Darren McFadden back soon, perhaps in Week 12, but don't drop fullback Marcel Reece. He can bulldoze defenders and catch passes, and should work in tandem with McFadden. The Raiders aren't very good, but they certainly move the ball. In Arizona, welcome back to the rankings, Beanie Wells! The Cardinals have been getting production from LaRod Stephens-Howling, but Wells appears recovered from his toe injury and will warrant immediate touches, as well as fantasy attention. Just be careful, as the Cardinals face a challenging schedule down the stretch.
Briefly, any excitement about Ryan Mathews and Reggie Bush from earlier this season seems foolish now. Mathews gets seven fantasy points per week, with seemingly little threat for more. He remains a RB2, but barely. Bush drops to flex status after averaging a poor 2 yards per carry against the Bills. Pierre Thomas, DeMarco Murray and Isaac Redman also drop, and Joique Bell, Peyton Hillis, Taiwan Jones and Mike Goodson drop out of the rankings altogether.
There was minor movement in the top 10 this week, with Calvin Johnson moving back to No. 2, Vincent Jackson crashing the party and Julio Jones leaving it. The good news is there are no major injuries affecting top talent, unlike at quarterback and running back, though Atlanta's Jones did leave his Week 11 game after aggravating an ankle injury. There's no word regarding his status for Week 12. But he's so talented, and the schedule is so nice, he can't drop too far.
Andre Johnson delivered one of the best games of his career and moves up to No. 14, which might surprise some people. Why isn't he top 5 again? Well, don't expect the Texans to throw that much from week to week. Johnson slips past previously injured Percy Harvin, quarterback-hampered Mike Wallace and the Dallas Cowboys' Miles Austin, who after hitting double digits in fantasy points six of the first seven games hasn't done it the past three.
There are other movers at this position, of course, as San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers clearly is enjoying what Danario Alexander is providing. Alexander has 40 fantasy points in two weeks, and while it doesn't mean Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates can't contribute as well, Alexander vaults into the top 25. Nobody else outside the top 25 moved into that section, though Danny Amendola, Lance Moore and Cecil Shorts came close.
Who's dropping? Check out those Eagles. This past week, DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin combined for zero fantasy points against arguably the worst pass defense in the league (the Redskins'). You're advised to use other wide receivers than those from the Eagles. Dwayne Bowe of the Kansas City Chiefs left Week 11 early because of a neck injury, and his status is unknown. We do know he hasn't scored or topped six fantasy points since Week 4, and the quarterback situation isn't getting any better. Brandon Lloyd of the Patriots keeps falling as well after another boring four-point game.
Deeper in the rankings, we see a few wide receivers either debuting or returning to relevance. Hotshot rookie Justin Blackmon entered Week 11 with 29 fantasy points, then added 29 more Sunday. He's at No. 45, though he's still behind teammate Shorts. Davone Bess of Miami finally scored a touchdown and remains a more favorable PPR option than standard-scoring version. Ryan Broyles of the Lions is back in the rankings, thanks to the continued soap opera surrounding teammate Titus Young, who was benched late in Sunday's contest for on- and off-field attitude problems, and will not be permitted to play Thanksgiving Day. Broyles gets a nice opportunity.
The big story here is obvious: Benjamin Watson scored two touchdowns! OK, so it's Rob Gronkowski breaking his arm, making him unavailable for at least a month. Is it possible we don't see fantasy's top tight end the rest of the regular season? Sure, that could happen. I doubt it, though. While I could see letting go of other injured folks in standard leagues, such as Roethlisberger and McGahee, keep Gronk owned. Don't be surprised if he returns earlier than projected. Also, don't be surprised if Aaron Hernandez, expected to be healthy and active Thanksgiving night against the Jets, takes off in fantasy production. He moves up to No. 3 here, passing Tony Gonzalez, who went off in Week 10 against the Saints with 24 fantasy points but hasn't topped four points in the other games since Week 5.
In non-Patriots news, the Vernon Davis of the 49ers that fantasy owners used to know and love returned Monday night, as Kaepernick found him for 83 yards and a touchdown. Some will simply presume the problem was Alex Smith. Davis returns to the top 10. Also by the bay, Brandon Myers of the Raiders moves up. He does have only three fewer receptions than Gronkowski, and while he's not the same touchdown monster, he has scored three times in as many weeks. Every Raiders game features many, many yards.
Dwayne Allen of the Colts saw double-digit targets in Week 11, and the more time Coby Fleener misses, the better it is for Allen. Speaking of Colts, former Peyton Manning target Dallas Clark has scored in consecutive weeks. Baby steps, right? In a deep league, you could do worse. Same goes for Marcedes Lewis, who had that one big year of scoring touchdowns, and has been quiet since, but perhaps the Jaguars' change to Henne makes him relevant again.
So it is that I present the latest edition of the end-of-season rankings, putting everything we've seen and likely will see into proper perspective. Agree, disagree, whatever your take, always consider your options. And please note these are not the Week 6 rankings; those will be published Wednesday, showing our group and individual lists, then updated again Friday. Use the rankings below as if you were drafting today or trading for the rest of the way. Good luck and enjoy!
• Michael Vick produced 21 fantasy points in Week 5, which was difficult to do considering he threw four interceptions. My concerns about Vick haven't changed; the Eagles are a mess, and he remains a huge injury risk. It's also worth noting that rookie Cam Newton has outscored him by 29 points. Can we really trust a rookie on a bad team over a potentially dominant veteran also on a bad team? It's possible Vick will still play in December, but another thing to consider: Will the Eagles force him out there if he's hurting and they're 5-8? For now I have Tony Romo at No. 6 -- Matthew Stafford moves up to No. 5 -- then Vick and Newton. But both should be considered fantasy starters.
• It was an unimpressive Week 5 outing for Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman, who produced three fantasy and real-life points in San Francisco. Freeman had a strong 2010 campaign, but most of his value was in his consistency; he regularly scored in the double digits in fantasy, eclipsing 20 points a few times. With three touchdown passes and six interceptions so far this season, this clearly isn't the same Freeman, and he drops a few spots, even though two of his next three games are against the New Orleans Saints, the eighth-most-favorable defense for opposing quarterbacks in fantasy.
• Quarterbacks who moved up a bit in the rankings include Alex Smith of the for-real 49ers, Matt Cassel of the not-for-real Chiefs (check out their difficult upcoming schedule), Matt Moore in Miami and, yes, Colts starter Curtis Painter. I'm not really buying Painter's 36 fantasy points over the past two weeks, but we'll probably learn considerably more in his next three games on the road against winning teams.
• In the end, it seems to always come down to Denver Broncos savior Tim Tebow. There's been no shortage of Tebow coverage at ESPN.com and on these fantasy pages. My opinion is Tebow will put up numbers and, considering he made my top 20 for the rest of the season, pretty decent numbers. His three starts last season might have been too small a sample size for some, and he might not complete half his passes, but he'll run enough to be relevant. The Broncos are still a 4-12 team, though.
• Remember a few weeks ago when New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley was Mr. Popular? Well, Ridley followed his 97-yard, 15-fantasy-point effort against the Oakland Raiders with a mere 13 rushing yards and one fantasy point in Week 6. Meanwhile, BenJarvus Green-Ellis has rushed for more touchdowns than anyone since the start of 2010. Enjoy this solid production for your RB2 spot; The Law Firm shouldn't be doubted, and he moves up the rankings to a more suitable spot.
• Among those to drop in the rankings is LeGarrette Blount of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I didn't expect much from him against the run-stuffing San Francisco 49ers, as I said in various platforms, but the news is even worse: Blount suffered a knee injury and could miss a few games. Earnest Graham moves up in the ranks a bit, but don't expect 100-yard-rushing games out of him. He's more receiver than runner at this stage of his career, and not in a Darren Sproles type of way, either.
• I discussed the running back situations for the Kansas City Chiefs and Carolina Panthers in Monday's Four Downs blog. I'm leaving Thomas Jones as my top Chiefs option for now, ahead of Jackie Battle. It's not as though Jones struggled Sunday, and he's obviously more proven. Battle isn't 23, you know. He's 28. But he moves ahead of Dexter McCluster, who just isn't being used enough. For the Panthers, DeAngelo Williams had a nice game Sunday but nine carries is not enough for us to trust him. Essentially, Williams, Jonathan Stewart and quarterback Cam Newton are splitting carries just about evenly. That's not good news for the running backs. Williams passes underwhelming James Starks, though. Starks seems average to me despite the team he's on.
• Other movers in a positive way include Willis McGahee, Shonn Greene and Marshawn Lynch, while a bunch of new faces enter or re-enter the ranks. Welcome back, Delone Carter. I wouldn't prepare to start Carter in fantasy even if Joseph Addai and his balky hamstring missed time. Donald Brown also is back in the rankings. Jacob Hester is ranked because the Chargers' two primary backs, Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert, both seem brittle. Someone has to run the football, and Hester looked OK on Sunday.
• Leaving the rankings are a few big names, including Danny Woodhead, Ricky Williams and the Jacksonville Jaguars' Deji Karim, which is noteworthy if you're someone who handcuffs running backs. Let's just say Maurice Jones-Drew looks pretty healthy at this point. Woodhead is not, and he wasn't getting touches anyway. Williams has been productive with his carries, but he's not a goal-line option and Ray Rice is plenty healthy.
• Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green continues to impress. The rookie has been in double digits in standard fantasy scoring four of the first five weeks, and he has moved easily into the top 20. Green's quarterback, fellow rookie Andy Dalton, remains risky for fantasy use, and who knows what Bernard Scott will do if given the chance to fill in for Cedric Benson, but Green is legit. In fact, I'd consider him a fantasy starter.
• As for the New York Giants, newcomer Victor Cruz is certainly making things interesting. One minute he makes an acrobatic catch, the next he's fumbling the ball and helping add another interception to poor Eli Manning's slate. Regardless, Cruz has 20 or more fantasy points in two of the past three weeks. Mario Manningham has 15 fantasy points this season. I'm no longer betting this is a short-term change. I feel like we'll be making a similar adjustment with Detroit Lions wide receivers Titus Young and Nate Burleson (switching their order) soon, but I'm not there yet. Regardless, you need to own Cruz at this point.
• It was nice to see Deion Branch bounce back after catching just one pass in Weeks 3 and 4 combined (though it was for a touchdown). Branch had a season-best 13 fantasy points in Week 5 and moves up closer to weekly flex consideration. Of course, he's no Wes Welker; that guy already has 740 receiving yards, the most by a player through five games in league history. And what's wrong with Calvin Johnson? Only one touchdown on Monday night? Come on!
• Jacoby Jones was a popular free-agent addition with Andre Johnson on the shelf for a few weeks, but Jones didn't shine in Week 5. He caught just one of his 11 targets, which can't be all quarterback Matt Schaub's fault. Kevin Walter caught a touchdown pass and contributed 14 fantasy points, but most of Schaub's 416 passing yards went to running backs and tight ends. Don't overrate Jones or Walter moving forward. Plus, Johnson should return sooner than later.
• At the back of the wide receiver rankings, you deeper leaguers should take a look at Early Doucet, Hines Ward and James Jones, as they get a little love, or at least more love than last week. Doucet led everyone -- even Welker -- with 16 targets in Week 5, catching half of them for 92 yards. The Cardinals do have some interesting future opponents to throw against, too. Ward scored his first two touchdowns, though you shouldn't expect many more. Green Bay's Jones, in most weeks the team's fourth option, at best, is also not likely to continue his trend, but in a Devery Henderson sort of way, he comes up with the occasional big play.
• The return of Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was not a given leading up to Sunday's game. I ranked him 10th among tight ends in Wednesday's initial Week 5 rankings and was the lone ranker to include him. Hernandez played and was certainly busy, getting nine targets. Rob Gronkowski, meanwhile, has four fantasy points over the past two weeks after starting the season with 56 points in three games. Both Patriots made my top 10, but if I must choose between them for fantasy value the rest of the way, I'd pick Hernandez.
• You'll notice a change at the top. Jimmy Graham is on pace to break the NFL record for receiving yards by a tight end. Yeah, he's pretty good.
• Antonio Gates and his San Diego Chargers are on bye this coming week. Let's hope Gates suits up in Week 7. If he can't suit up then, I'd have serious doubt he'll be helping fantasy owners anytime soon.
• Would you rather have Scott Chandler of the Buffalo Bills or Jake Ballard of the Giants? Chandler caught two touchdown passes in Week 1. He caught touchdowns in Week 2 and 3, but on only two receptions each. And he has zero fantasy points the past two weeks. Ballard has 105 receiving yards the past two weeks with touchdowns each time. I'd take Ballard. This is a deep fantasy position, so play the hot hands.
Things look considerably different now. Cassel, 19th among quarterbacks in ESPN average live drafts but 30th in standard scoring entering Sunday, tossed four touchdown passes in a comeback win against the Indianapolis Colts, earning a cool 27 standard fantasy points. Bowe caught two of the touchdown passes, the third time in four games he topped 100 receiving yards. Steve Breaston, owned in fewer than 4 percent of ESPN standard leagues after being selected in the 15th round of ESPN average live drafts, caught the other two touchdowns, finally showing relevance. And the Chiefs perhaps found their new running back in veteran reserve Jackie Battle.
All of this is nice, but fantasy owners shouldn't get too excited; I was down on all Chiefs other than Charles entering this season in part because they have a difficult schedule. These Colts aren't so difficult, notably against the run. Cassel's crew still must face the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears, New York Jets and Green Bay Packers, not to mention a pair of games with the decent Oakland Raiders and a rematch with the San Diego Chargers. Bowe is the only Chief that should be started in all fantasy leagues, and it's a good sign that Cassel, a fantasy backup, isn't holding him back at all.
Michael Hickey/US PresswireJackie Battle, 28, came into Sunday's game with just 51 carries in his career.
Then there's Battle, sure to be a popular free-agent addition this week. I wrote about Battle on Friday as a sneaky fantasy pickup, and it turned out to be more prescient and immediate than even I thought; Battle received 20 rushing attempts last season. On Sunday, 19 were bestowed on him and he turned them into 119 yards. He had 118 rushing yards his first four NFL seasons. Battle is big and strong, and stranger things have happened for fantasy owners ignoring what could be that next big thing (Peyton Hillis, circa 2010), but the Colts haven't been able to stop the run seemingly since the Reagan administration. I'd add Battle in most formats, but merely as home run depth. Thomas Jones and Dexter McCluster are still there, you know.
Second down: Ben Roethlisberger seemed like a poorer play than usual for Week 5 because his sprained left foot had him limping around all week in a boot. Plus, the Tennessee Titans were playing terrific defense. Naturally, Big Ben tossed five touchdown passes in the Sunday rout. Roethlisberger had produced three touchdowns his first four games.
My advice would be to not assume Roethlisberger is safe the rest of the way. I can't explain the Titans' side of things, but the Steelers still can't protect their quarterback or help the team's running backs. I know, I know, third-stringer Jonathan Dwyer broke a 76-yarder en route to 111 yards. Don't buy it. It's one play. Rashard Mendenhall, active for the game but not used thanks to a balky hammy, is having a poor season. Isaac Redman, overrated and probably overactive in fantasy leagues this week, averaged 3 yards per carry. Roethlisberger threw for a pedestrian 228 yards. Like the Chiefs, you can't help but love the Steelers' top wide receiver (Mike Wallace) no matter what, but otherwise I'm still selling the other parts, if possible.
Andrew Carpenean/US PresswireTim Tebow is owned in just 2.6 percent of ESPN standard leagues.
Third down: Kyle Orton couldn't even make it to November this season. Say what you will about the polarizing Tim Tebow, but I think he'll be a decent fantasy provider, just like he was in his three-game sample last season, when he produced seven touchdowns and an average of 66 rushing yards per contest. I realize I'm in the minority on this one. While his arm isn't strong or accurate and his passes aren't pretty, he makes up for it with his legs. I won't call Tebow a top-10 fantasy quarterback -- I'd say probably the 14-17 range if he keeps playing -- but it's pretty clear Orton needs to be elsewhere.
As for how this presumed official quarterback change affects others, I don't think this news necessarily helps any Broncos, but it doesn't hurt, either. Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd averaged 88 receiving yards during Tebow's three-game trial last season, scoring twice, and I just don't buy the argument that running quarterbacks deem their running backs ineffective, like in Carolina this season. LeSean McCoy is fine in Philly. Rejuvenated Willis McGahee has topped 100 rushing yards three times in four weeks. That's impressive, and oddly enough, I think legit.
Fourth down: Speaking of those Carolina Panthers, my problem in recommending DeAngelo Williams as a smart buy-low fellow moving forward is that I just don't see enough carries. He achieved his 115 rushing yards Sunday on a mere nine attempts. The totally legit Cam Newton ran seven times. Jonathan Stewart ran six times. The Panthers always seem to trail, necessitating the many passes Newton throws, and entering Sunday they were closer to last in rushing attempts than first, with Newton getting a third of the carries. Williams is averaging nine carries per game. It's not enough, and I don't see this changing, which is why I'd sell high on Williams before the next game. For perspective, he will not be among my top 25 running backs for Week 6 at Atlanta.
Well, I certainly enjoyed the final night of the 2011 baseball regular season! How about you? Of course, while our fantasy baseball leagues are over for the year, the playoffs are starting Friday and you can still have a blast with postseason pools as well. Below you will find my annual rankings of the top 100 choices for those pools, and as you can see, it's heavily weighted to ace pitchers. They always score the most points.
It's important to note that, while Albert Pujols might be the best offensive player and someone you love, if you don't think the St. Louis Cardinals are going to win their first-round series against the 102-win Philadelphia Phillies, then picking him is problematic. We said this a year ago with NL MVP Joey Votto. He played in three quick games. So view these rankings for what they are; Pujols is a better fantasy choice in 2012 than all of these pitchers, but in a postseason pool, not so much.
In order to win a playoff pool, it stands to reason you have to make some choices in predicting team winners. For the record, I think the first-round winners will be the Phillies, Milwaukee Brewers, Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers, but I see the AL series as potential five-game series that could go either way. Regardless, if you think the New York Yankees are gonna win it all, by all means choose their ace first and their power options early as well. Picking two players from each of the eight teams probably won't result in you winning the postseason pool.
As always, thanks to trusted colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft for sharing his thoughts on the list below, as well as running our office pool. The scoring rules we use: 1 point for a single, 2 for a double, 3 for a triple, 4 for a home run, 1 for an RBI, 1 for a run scored, 1 for a walk, 1 for a hit-by-pitch (batter), 2 for a stolen base, 4 for a win, 8 for a save, 1 per pitching out (so 3 per inning), -1 for each hit allowed, -1 for each walk allowed, -1 for a hit by pitch (pitcher), -3 for an earned run, 2 for a pitcher strikeout. Got all that? Here we go! 1. Roy Halladay, SP, Phillies: Pitchers do the best. This guy is starting Game 1, potentially in three series.
2. Cliff Lee, SP, Phillies: And this guy was the leading scorer in this pool last season, with 150 points.
3. Justin Verlander, SP, Tigers: I think he wins Game 1 against the Yankees, potentially Game 4 as well.
4. C.J. Wilson, SP, Rangers: Ace for the team I think represents the AL in the World Series.
5. Cole Hamels, SP, Phillies: Certainly has a track record. But note he might not pitch as much as Halladay and Lee.
6. Yovani Gallardo, SP, Brewers: Two games against the Diamondbacks would be nice. Big strikeout guy.
7. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers: My top hitter, I expect he gets 10 games or so. Last season the top hitter was Nelson Cruz, followed by Josh Hamilton tied with & Cody Ross. Yeah, really. And they had half the points Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum had.
8. Hunter Pence, OF, Phillies: The best Phillie hitter these days, easily.
9. Ryan Madson, RP, Phillies: Closers do very well; Brian Wilson saved six games last playoffs and finished as the No. 3 overall scorer.
10. Ryan Braun, OF, Brewers
11. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers: Terrific September once he was healthy and happy.
12. Neftali Feliz, RP, Rangers
13. Shane Victorino, OF, Phillies: Should knock in runs batting fifth.
14. Jose Valverde, RP, Tigers: He's perfect, remember!
15. John Axford, RP, Brewers
16. Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers: Philly's Nos. 2 and 3 starters are lefties. Arizona's are not.
17. Ryan Howard, 1B, Phillies
18. Josh Hamilton, OF, Rangers
19. Michael Young, 1B/2B/3B, Rangers: Underrated option that can play three positions, though I'd use him at shallow second base. And he gets a lot of hits and RBIs.
20. Curtis Granderson, OF, Yankees
21. Derek Holland, SP, Rangers
22. CC Sabathia, SP, Yankees: I know this seems low, but in theory if he doesn't win Friday night in Game 1, he might not get another start.
23. Ian Kennedy, SP, Diamondbacks: Like Sabathia, concern is that he gets only one chance to pitch.
24. Ian Kinsler, 2B, Rangers: Played very well in the postseason last year.
25. Jimmy Rollins, SS, Phillies
26. Nelson Cruz, OF, Rangers: I'm loading up on Rangers, by the way.
27. Mike Napoli, C/1B, Rangers: Look at his numbers. Finished a close second as fantasy's top catcher!
28. Roy Oswalt, SP, Phillies: Only one outing in each round, but they should be decent.
29. Alexi Ogando, SP, Rangers
30. Doug Fister, SP, Tigers: Perhaps he fashioned his monster Detroit numbers off of an easy schedule, and he won't get that now, but he's still good. Could start Games 2 and 5 against the Yankees, potentially.
31. Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies
32. Mariano Rivera, RP, Yankees: Still the best. But might not pitch enough.
33. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees
34. J.J. Putz, RP, Diamondbacks
35. Matt Harrison, SP, Rangers
36. Mark Teixeira, 1B, Yankees
37. Rickie Weeks, 2B, Brewers: Still not sure he's 100 percent, but not a lot of second basemen sitting there to pick.
38. Mike Adams, RP, Rangers: Middle relievers do well in this pool if they go far. Madson was the No. 4 reliever in last year's postseason, and he didn't have any saves. He will now.
39. Raul Ibanez, OF, Phillies: Underrated option here will play against right-handed pitching, and he can still hit a home run.
40. Delmon Young, OF, Tigers: Hitting third ahead of Cabrera is nice.
41. Matt Moore, SP, Rays: Surprise Game 1 starter, should compete well.
42. Justin Upton, OF, Diamondbacks
43. James Shields, SP, Rays: I'd like him more if I knew he was starting Game 1.
44. Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Rays
45. Nick Swisher, OF, Yankees
46. Ivan Nova, SP, Yankees: Could pitch in Game 2 and 5, but is he a lock to pitch effectively?
47. Victor Martinez, C, Tigers
48. Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees
49. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees: Laboring at this point.
50. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays: Won't get to face Scott Proctor this weekend.
51. Antonio Bastardo, RP, Phillies
52. Alex Avila, C, Tigers: Pick him earlier if you want position scarcity.
53. Joel Peralta, RP, Rays: I think he's closing, but only Joe Maddon knows for sure.
54. Daniel Hudson, SP, Diamondback
55. David Robertson, RP, Yankees
56. Jason Motte, RP, Cardinals
57. Shaun Marcum, SP, Brewers
58. Zack Greinke, SP, Brewers
59. Ryan Roberts, 2B/3B, Diamondbacks
60. Brett Gardner, OF, Yankees
61. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals: Oh, how the mighty have fallen. I had Freddie Freeman penciled in for this spot until the other day.
62. Lance Berkman, 1B/OF, Cardinals: I just don't think they win the series. That's all.
63. Ben Zobrist, 2B/OF, Rays
64. Max Scherzer, SP, Tigers
65. David Price, SP, Rays: Would be more valuable pitching Game 1, because he could get another first-round outing.
66. B.J. Upton, OF, Rays
67. Kyle Farnsworth, RP, Rays
68. Austin Jackson, OF, Tigers
69. Elvis Andrus, SS, Rangers
70. Joaquin Benoit, RP, Tigers
71. Josh Collmenter, SP, Diamondbacks
72. Freddy Garcia, SP, Yankees: Starts Game 3, but will it go well? I don't think so.
73. Corey Hart, OF, Brewers
74. Jhonny Peralta, SS, Tigers: Had a better year than you might think.
75. Placido Polanco, 3B, Phillies: Not looking healthy at all, and he's batting seventh.
76. Russell Martin, C, Yankees
77. Randy Wolf, SP, Brewers
78. Colby Lewis, SP, Rangers: Remains to be seen when he starts.
79. Johnny Damon, OF, Rays
80. Miguel Montero, C, Diamondbacks
81. Mitch Moreland, 1B/OF, Rangers
82. Jaime Garcia, SP, Cardinals: Seemed like the Astros just lit him up.
83. Desmond Jennings, OF, Rays: Awful September slump.
84. Chris Carpenter, SP, Cardinals: One and done.
85. Magglio Ordonez, OF, Tigers
86. Chris Young, OF, Diamondbacks
87. Kyle Lohse, SP, Cardinals
88. Vance Worley, SP, Phillies
89. Matt Holliday, OF, Cardinals
90. Carlos Ruiz, C, Phillies
91. Koji Uehara, RP, Rangers
92. Jeff Niemann, SP, Rays
93. Matt Joyce, OF, Rays
94. David Murphy, OF, Rangers
95. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks
96. Yorvit Torrealba, C, Rangers
97. John Mayberry Jr., 1B/OF, Phillies
98. Casey Kotchman, 1B, Rays
99. David Hernandez, RP, Diamondbacks
100. Ryan Raburn, 2B/OF, Tigers
Best of the rest: Francisco Rodriguez, RP, Brewers; Rafael Soriano, RP, Yankees; Jesus Montero, C, Yankees; David Freese, 3B, Cardinals; John Jay, OF, Cardinals; Yuniesky Betancourt, SS, Brewers; Wade Davis, SP, Rays
1. Roy Halladay, SP, Phillies: Pitchers do the best. This guy is starting Game 1, potentially in three series.
A pair of third basemen expected to have far different fantasy values this season are scheduled to return to their teams for Monday night's important Pittsburgh Pirates-Atlanta Braves tilt. However, the tables have turned a bit on their values versus preseason expectations. Young slugger Pedro Alvarez is back from the minor leagues for the Pirates, while veteran switch-hitter Chipper Jones is back from knee surgery for the Braves. If you've got one roster spot in a fantasy league and it needs to be a third baseman, which player deserves it?
Sadly, I'm going to have to say Jones would be my choice. I use the word "sadly" because Jones (39 years old, and gamely providing leadership and a middle-of-the-order presence for the playoff-bound Braves) is way past his upside years. Jones is hitting .259 with eight home runs in 77 games, with his 46 RBIs being his best fantasy statistic, and he's provided those RBIs mainly because his loyal manager keeps hitting him third. Still, give Jones credit for what he has accomplished. I didn't figure he'd be worth much this season, if he played at all. Now, with terrible depth at this fantasy spot, he matters.
Despite missing 25 games, Jones ranks as Atlanta's No. 9 choice for the season on the ESPN Fantasy Player Rater. Among big league third basemen, he's 19th, behind the likes of Danny Valencia and Alberto Callaspo, but a healthy Jones -- and there's no reason to believe his right knee will remain a hindrance -- should be able to hit better than .275 the rest of the way and contribute a few home runs per month and 15-plus RBIs. I'd take him over Valencia and Callapso the rest of the way, but he wouldn't make my top 10. He's borderline ownable in standard (10-team) leagues, and currently owned in 36.4 percent of leagues.
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswirePedro Alvarez hit .270 with 13 home runs and 53 RBIs in the second half last season.
Of course, that's more than I can say about young Alvarez, who wasn't really in the minors rehabbing from injury. He was working on a lost batting stroke and probably seeking confidence, and recently things were going well; in 18 games for Triple-A Indianapolis Alvarez was hitting .365 with three home runs, and taking walks. The pessimist will say that was to be expected at that level, and I wouldn't disagree. In 36 games and 138 plate appearances for the Pirates this season, Alvarez is hitting .208 with only two home runs and 12 walks against 42 strikeouts. It's tough to hit .208 with a .296 BABIP. In other words, Alvarez hadn't been unlucky. He's been anemic against left-handed pitching as a pro, but his OPS for the Pirates was actually 64 points better against southpaws.
It's not so much that I'm giving up on Alvarez, a mere 24 and someone many -- including myself -- predicted would hit at least that many home runs in his sophomore year. Alvarez has power and while he wasn't likely to contend for any batting titles, I believed the ESPN Fantasy projection of a .255 batting average was legit, but still worthwhile for a fantasy team because of the power. Instead, this 12th-round pick in ESPN average live drafts (Jones went in Round 21) ranks 71st at the position, even worse than Chone Figgins. How's that for perspective?
By 2012, I'll have softened a bit on Alvarez. He should be hitting 25-plus home runs annually, and I believe he can fix his swing, confidence and career track this offseason. He's young. But pretty soon it will be August, so from a fantasy baseball sense, it's a bit risky to take chances in the batting average category this time of year. One would assume the Pirates will use Alvarez against right-handed pitching -- perhaps to platoon with speedster Chase d'Arnaud -- and see what happens. It's not like d'Arnaud or Brandon Wood were hitting all that much anyway. Still, until we see Alvarez really fix things, it's tough to recommend his fortunes changing anytime soon. With Jones, I have a better feeling what to expect, and while it's not wonderful, it's certainly good enough.
A buddy of mine admitted to being a bit overanxious in selecting Seattle Mariners infielder Chone Figgins in our draft last month, in part because he expected him to bounce back to a suitable batting average, but also due to the lure of multi-eligibility. Figgins played third base pretty much exclusively in 2009, hitting .298 with an OPS of .789 and 42 stolen bases. Last season, Figgins was a second baseman, and he hit .259 with a terrible .646 OPS and those same 42 steals. He also scored 52 fewer runs than the year prior, though that can't be solely blamed on him.
I don't feel this way about Figgins. In fact, if not for the contract and an alarming lack of organizational talent to replace him on the worst offensive team in baseball -- last season's league-worst ineptitude likely to be repeated in 2011 -- Figgins might be a utility player at this point. Sure, Figgins remains fast and that generally translates into stolen bases, but major league teams seem to be getting smarter in regard to overrating players with solely that skill, as the Nyjer Morgan trade showed. You can't steal first base, and if you can't get on base, smart organizations will find someone else that will. Figgins isn't walking, running, scoring and he's days away from entering ESPN's most-dropped list.What's amazing about Figgins' 2010 stats isn't only the drop in runs scored, but that he managed to steal the exact same number of bases as 2009 despite being on base 56 fewer times. That's impressive! Last season Figgins still took a healthy number of walks, tied for 24th in baseball, but he's not doing that this season. In fact, Figgins was 15th in pitches per plate appearance in 2010; this season in a small sample size that number is down, as opposing pitchers have been able to overwhelm him more and induce weak ground balls. On Monday he singled up the middle in his four at-bats and drew his third walk of the season. In the fifth, he was caught stealing on an ill-advised attempt at third base, only his second attempt this year. This past weekend against the Kansas City Royals and their underwhelming pitchers, Figgins reached base twice in 18 at-bats, didn't walk, didn't try to run and didn't even make all the plays at the hot corner. It felt like the end was near. I wondered whether Figgins owners would just be pleased to get a repeat of 2010 at this point.
Figgins isn't going to be a bench player for Seattle. C'mon, this is a team that hit Ryan Langerhans and Adam Kennedy third in the lineup in recent games, so depth is lacking. Figgins will play, and while it's only a few weeks and shouldn't be overrated, I see the 2010 version of this speedy, slap hitter, not the 2009 version. If he's not going to steal 40-plus bases or score runs (he has four in 15 games), then all the versatility in the world won't matter, and this isn't a player to target in a buy-low trade. Expect him to eventually raise his batting average 100 points, but don't count on him being close to top 10 at either of his qualified positions.
Now that New York Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran has so graciously volunteered to move from center field to right field -- silly me, I thought it was up to the manager to tell players where to play! -- we have a bit more clarity about the center-field situations in the National League East.
Frankly, all five gentlemen assuming this critical outfield spot have something to prove this season (not that Beltran, ahem, didn't). On Monday I attempted to make a case that the fellow manning the spot for the Mets might be the division's best for fantasy purposes, but it was a stretch. Regardless, let's rank the five NL East center fielders and discuss why it's a critical season for each, for real life as well as fantasy purposes.
1 . Shane Victorino, Philadelphia Phillies: On the surface, all seems well. Victorino comes off a season with a career-best 18 home runs, and his 34 stolen bases remain healthy, but a .259 batting average is a problem. Really, Jimmy Rollins is a bigger problem for the Phillies, and that's where Victorino's value can change. Is he leading off, where he will surely score more runs than if he hits sixth or seventh? Victorino batted .208 in the No. 7 spot last season. Can the switch-hitter pose a threat to right-handed pitchers, against whom he hit .233 with a .305 on-base percentage? And let's face it, at 30 years old and 5-foot-9, maybe 190 pounds, how much longer can Victorino remain as spry on the bases? Fantasy owners would prefer fewer home runs if we get the 30-plus points of batting average back, so hopefully Victorino's 2010 statistics don't continue to trend the wrong way.
Where I'd draft him: Victorino is going in the eighth round, 20th among outfielders, which seems legitimate since he finished 2010 ranked 23rd among outfielders on the Player Rater. Then again, Victorino can't be a top-20 outfielder hitting .259 again. I have concerns. Draft him where he's going, but I think we've seen Victorino's best.
2. Angel Pagan, New York Mets: I don't see how a gimpy-kneed Beltran could play center field better than the speedy, in-his-prime Pagan, so this obvious switch is good news for the Mets. Then again, raise your hand if you think Beltran will play in 100 games this season. My hand isn't raised, and not merely because I'm typing. I like Pagan and think his 2010 statistics are reachable again. I don't see much power potential, not in spacious Citi Field, but he could top Victorino in stolen bases again, and the power difference might end up closer than you think. Also, did anyone notice that Pagan batted 31 points higher than Victorino? Perhaps Pagan is just as risky and needs to prove himself yet again, but I would invest.
Where I'd draft him: Pagan is going in Round 14, the 38th outfielder. Wow. I realize there's more speed available late than power, but I'd move him up some. He's the Mets' top outfielder for fantasy, and otherwise.
3. Chris Coghlan, Florida Marlins: He was a revelation as the league's top rookie in 2009, and I really liked Coghlan a lot heading into 2010. He told me on a preseason Baseball Today podcast that he was intent on stealing more bases, and he might have threatened to steal 20 bases had he not torn his ACL in a fluky shaving-cream pie incident in July (don't ask). Coghlan was due to regress some in batting average -- nobody delivered more base hits the second half of 2009 -- but he's capable of double-digit home runs and 20 stolen bases. I don't like the fact that this former infielder is being thrust into playing center field for the first time, which seems odd for someone coming off a major knee injury, but I have little question he will hit and score runs.
Where I'd draft him: Coghlan is barely being drafted in ESPN standard leagues, settling into the 22nd round so far, and outside of the top 50 outfielders. I think he's worthy of better. Is he any less safe than Andres Torres, Rajai Davis and Denard Span, all of whom should steal enough bases to matter? Will any of them hit .300? I've got Coghlan at No. 45 in the outfield.
4. Nyjer Morgan, Washington Nationals: The problem is that Morgan isn't a very good baseball player, so he needs to run a lot to be worth it in a 10-team fantasy league. Morgan stole 34 bases last season, but the big goose egg in home runs and a .253 batting average negates the fun. I think the fiery Morgan -- and not always in a good way -- is in danger of losing playing time in D.C., since Jayson Werth could man center field, and players like Michael Morse and Roger Bernadina and perhaps even Rick Ankiel could outperform him. I think Morse would hit 20 home runs with regular playing time. It's not like Morgan's .307 OBP helped much.
Where I'd draft him: I wouldn't. Obviously, any 30-steal threat is interesting, but I'd call him free-agent fodder in April, if you find your team lacks stolen bases.
5. Nate McLouth, Atlanta Braves: Oh, how the misjudged mighty have fallen. Once the best Pittsburgh Pirate, McLouth's career is at a serious crossroads after he hit .190 for the Braves, and only .234 for Triple-A Gwinnett. Durability and any ability to touch left-handed pitching will continue to be problems. What McLouth does have going for him is the ability to take walks, but his 20/20 days appear over. The Braves don't really have other options for now, but fantasy owners do.
Where I'd draft him: I wouldn't. Whatever he adds in power and speed won't be worth the batting average. I'm keeping an eye on Jordan Schafer for really deep leagues.
While I suspect New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will end up winning the NFL's MVP award, he really didn't make the largest impact at his position for fantasy football owners. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick outscored Brady and every other signal caller in the league, and while the pessimist points out he didn't play every game -- for example, Week 17, as well as Weeks 5-7 -- that doesn't really diminish his importance. Every week that Vick played a full game, he gave you -- and the Eagles -- a terrific chance to win.
This was an odd season for fantasy quarterbacks, and not merely because the top fellow wasn't drafted in most leagues and had last been a relevant statistical provider in 2006. While Brady, Vick and shocking Tampa Bay Buccaneers sophomore Josh Freeman tossed precious few interceptions, quite a few big-name options struggled in this capacity, from league leader Eli Manning to Drew Brees and even Peyton Manning. If your league scoring really penalized picks, that was a problem. Some of the league's worst teams provided some of the surprise quarterback performances -- Kyle Orton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, backups in Detroit and Dallas -- and by December a rookie with a decorated college resume, not the one that went with the first overall pick, by the way, was supplying 20-plus fantasy points per week.
Let's take a look back -- and forward -- at the quarterback position and finish up with some rankings:
What went right: Brees and Aaron Rodgers were first-round picks in ESPN average live drafts, and while there were occasional hiccups -- Brees throwing to the other team, Rodgers missing a game and a half -- I don't think those owners can complain much. Rodgers played fewer games than Brady but still had more fantasy points. Despite having to do it with a different set of receivers almost every week, Philip Rivers led the league in passing and was on pace for a 5,000-yard season as late as Week 10. The Manning brothers were a bit less valuable than expected but hardly busts. Freeman broke out with one double-digit performance after another, and Ben Roethlisberger was a steady performer once his suspension ended. And if you relied on Matt Cassel, David Garrard and even Carson Palmer, you generally got more than you expected.
However, one could argue no team's quarterback play was as surprising as the 4-12 Denver Broncos. Orton reached 20 or more fantasy points in four consecutive weeks early in the season, and delivered 27- and 25-point outings just before the fantasy playoffs. Then, as we'd been predicting as a harbinger of doom much of the season, and to the great shock of angry Orton fantasy owners, he was replaced by rookie Tim Tebow. Normally, we flood fantasy owners with reasons to avoid rookie passers, but Tebow scored 22, 22 and 27 points the final three weeks. He looks pretty legit! For the season, Orton plus Tebow equaled 295 fantasy points, or the exact same number provided by Patriots quarterbacks Brady and Brian Hoyer.
What went wrong: Shall we start with the Brett Favre fiasco? Briefly, he went from top-five quarterback in 2009 to two double-digit fantasy games all of 2010, so it is quite the drop. Favre was the eighth quarterback off the draft board but early on it was apparent he couldn't be trusted, tossing 16 of his 19 interceptions through nine erratic games. It's hard to believe performance could fluctuate like that -- Favre was terrific in 2009 -- but let this be a reminder.
There were other disappointments. Defending league passing yards leader Matt Schaub delivered only three double-digit performances in the first eight games, and his owners flocked to other options. He ended up fine, though, ninth in scoring among passers. New York Jets sophomore Mark Sanchez was streaky and unreliable, with each of his worthy fantasy outings coming in three-week stretches (Weeks 2-4 and 9-11) but offering little else of value. St. Louis Rams rookie Sam Bradford nearly outscored Sanchez, but down the stretch he didn't help much. And quite a few teams had such awful quarterback play that fantasy owners just had to avoid them altogether, led by the Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. Owning Donovan McNabb, Chad Henne and whatever the Tennessee Titans threw out there wasn't such a picnic, either.
Five quarterback stats of the year:
1. Top scorer Vick was the most-owned player by playoff teams in ESPN standard leagues at 21.8 percent.
2. Vick was owned in 3.5 percent of leagues on opening weekend.
3. His eventual backup, Kevin Kolb, was a top-100 draft pick, selected 12th among quarterbacks.
4. Four qualified quarterbacks threw fewer than seven interceptions (Vick, Brady, Freeman, Roethlisberger); in 2009, no quarterbacks did.
5. Ten quarterbacks reached 4,000 passing yards in 2009; in 2010, only five did (the Mannings, Rivers, Brees, Schaub).
1. Aaron Rodgers, Packers
2. Michael Vick, Eagles
3. Tom Brady, Patriots
4. Drew Brees, Saints
5. Peyton Manning, Colts
6. Philip Rivers, Chargers
7. Matt Schaub, Texans
8. Tony Romo, Cowboys
9. Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
10. Josh Freeman, Buccaneers
11. Matt Ryan, Falcons
12. Eli Manning, Giants
Just missed: Joe Flacco, Ravens; Jay Cutler, Bears; Tim Tebow, Broncos; Matt Cassel, Chiefs.
What will happen: While I'm tempted to predict great things for Tebow, Bradford, Matthew Stafford and others, the fact is there are easily more than 10 or 12 reliable quarterbacks, so minimizing risk is the wise course for most owners. Will Tebow, for example, net more fantasy points than Joe Flacco or Eli Manning in 2011? Perhaps he will, but there is certainly more risk with him than the proven veterans. Fantasy owners will likely overlook Tony Romo and Roethlisberger next season, since the first guy missed half the season and the other appears to have marginal stats. Romo remains near-elite and should recover well from his shoulder injury. He has terrific weapons, as well. Roethlisberger scored 201 fantasy points in 12 games; extrapolate his numbers and he would have finished with more fantasy points than Brees, sixth overall. So there was really no problem with him.
The quarterback position appears relatively deep for next season, so much so that I couldn't fit the younger Manning or Flacco in the top 10, nor Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons. I don't see any of that trio as being terribly high-upside, but a fantasy owner could obviously do worse. See how far they slip and pair them with a Tebow or Bradford and playing the matchups could be just as valuable as owning a Rivers or Romo.
Coming soon, running backs!