There was a lot of fantasy talk this summer about how elite quarterbacks had taken over the league, you need one early, you better attack that position first, yada yada yada.
Okay, gamer, we're just about three weeks into the new campaign. Let's throw all that summer squash into the shredder. Time to figure out the new season, make adjustments.
As wonderful as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Cam Newton are — and no one would argue to the contrary — part of their outlier 2011 fantasy value was driven by terrible in-house defenses. The Packers, Patriots and Saints allowed the most passing yards in the league (the first two clubs went over the 4700 mark). The Panthers handed out the highest YPA in the league. Go where the points are. Put a big top over those carnivals. (You can construct the same case for Matthew Stafford, if you like. The Lions didn't want to throw 663 passes before the season — game flow pushed them in that direction.)
Brees and Newton will probably enjoy some defense push this year, too, and Rodgers and Brady remain strong options, obviously. But let's look around at the rest of the league and try to figure out what cheaper quarterback options are receiving the friendly boost from their environment, what other QBs might turn into fantasy starters — even if it's significantly tied to the fit of the puzzle pieces over the actual real-life value.
Jake Locker's fantasy setup in Tennessee might be the best in the league. The Titans defense can't stop anything right now: 119.0 QB rating against, eight touchdown passes, one pick, 938 yards. Even Detroit backup Shaun Hill riddled these guys in a relief role (with a little luck thrown in). And Locker showed in Week 3 what he's capable of, on a good day: 378 passing yards, two scores, 35 rushing yards.
The offensive context falls in line for Locker — from a roto perspective, it might be the perfect setup. He's working with four talented receivers (Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, Jared Cook), while the mercurial franchise running back is stuck in the mud. Locker isn't afraid to tuck it and run, by design or by need, and the struggling Titans offensive line appears to be better at pass blocking than it is at run blocking. What else could a fake-football owner ask for?
I can't guarantee you Locker will do anything special in Week 4 against Houston, the nastiest defense in the league. J.J. Watt is a bad, bad man, and the Texans have playmakers on all three levels. But Locker should be a fun start in future weeks, looking at Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Indianapolis from Weeks 5-8. The Titans also have a late bye (Week 11), which sometimes is a selling point for early-season pickups. Locker still ranks as a QB2 in leagues right now, but there's an intriguing upside here.
Andy Dalton's Cincinnati backdrop is also a boon for fantasy value. The Bengals have allowed a 110.2 QB rating against them and they've yet to intercept a pass; only the Titans (113 points) have allowed more points than Cincinnati (102). Keep chucking it, Dalton, see if you can keep up.
Dalton's offense has the key ingredients for roto production: a star No. 1 wideout (A.J. Green) who can score from anywhere; a solid pass-catching tight end (Jermaine Gresham); and dynamic support players (shifty Andrew Hawkins was born in joystick mode, a natural bob-and-weave threat). And there's nothing obtrusive in the Cincinnati backfield; BenJarvus Green-Ellis isn't going to take control of the offense anytime soon. Enjoy a season full of shootouts, Red. First team to 35 wins.
Robert Griffin III owners already realize they've hit the lottery, and the Redskins defense plays into that. Washington has permitted 10 touchdown passes and 1,012 passing yards through three games (along with 101 points), and the Redskins have found a way to lose to Sam Bradford and Dalton. Griffin did a lot of handing off down the stretch at New Orleans (safeguarding a game in hand), but that's not going to be the usual situation here.
Griffin also has the ability to take a nothing roto day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile, through his legs — he'll run every week (he's already at 209 yards), and he'll poach some scores at the goal line (he's already spiked three times). Anyone who drafted Griffin as their No. 2 quarterback should be trying to trade the other guy.
I ranked Brady over Brees in the preseason, but I can guarantee you that will be flipped when the Shuffle Up is released this week. Brady's defense has taken a step forward, and the Patriots have something with running back Stevan Ridley (don't sweat all these Danny Woodhead carries; stay the Ridley course). Meanwhile, Brees is staring at a go-nowhere rushing backfield (Mark Ingram is a giveaway at this point) and a defense that can't stop anything or anyone, anywhere. Sure, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles will still get their work, but they're just as handy (if not more so) in the passing game. So long as the New Orleans offensive line doesn't get Brees injured, he's in a very safe spot. Bingo on the Bayou.
To illustrate the other side of this theme, consider what Matt Schaub deals with in Houston. I know, I know, he was terrific in the four-touchdown win at Denver. But Schaub is a mere 20th in pass attempts this season (he'll be 21st after Aaron Rodgers eclipses him Monday night) and he doesn't bring much as a scrambler. On many Sundays, the Texans will bury teams with their superior defense and running game. Schaub will have some strong showings here and there — whenever you throw the ball to Andre Johnson, something wonderful might happen — but he'll rarely have volume on his side. Even with Sunday's big day in the bank, Schaub is merely the No. 17 quarterback right now in Yahoo! points per game.
It also might be a good time to sell high on Johnson. He's on pace for 70 catches, 1130 yards and 10 scores, which all sounds terrific. But let's not forget he's only played three full seasons out of seven, and he's never managed 10 touchdowns in any year. Heck, he's only made it to nine once. Maybe you can flip him today for an Atlanta receiver, or Larry Fitzgerald, or Jordy Nelson. I'd take any of those deals in a second. You also might want to look into a 2-for-1 where you swap Johnson and something else for Calvin Johnson, though most skilled opponents will be hesitant to do that with you unless they're already in a desperate spot in the standings.
The big top is your friend, amigos. Go where the points are, go where the big top is. Follow those carnivals around all season.
• Tony Romo and Jay Cutler are two well-regarded veterans who fit the anti-carnival theme. Both quarterbacks have strong defenses on the other side of the ball, and both QBs are running for their life almost every week (thanks, offensive line). There are name running backs in-house and mouths to feed at the goal line (more in Chicago than Dallas), too. If I ran the Cowboys or Bears, I'd be worried about protecting my quarterbacks, not looking for ways for him to drop back 40-plus times a week.
Related to the Cutler side: I'll prop against Brandon Marshall's touchdown count until the day he proves me wrong. It's too late in the dance; there's probably a reason he never falls into a big-spike season. I suspect it goes further than simple drops: I don't think he adjusts well to the ball when it's an intermediate or deep pass. If you want to take the pro-side of Marshall, state your case in the comments.
• It's common for an overmatched rookie quarterback to show significant progress in Year 2, and that's been the case with Minnesota's Christian Ponder. The versatile Florida State product is fresh off a stunning upset of the 49ers, and he's posted surprising stats through three games (104.9 rating, 7.4 YPA, 4 TDs, no picks, one rushing TD). Those don't make you a Top 10 fantasy quarterback in today's world, but he's an upside QB2 for the moment, with the potential to keep moving forward.
Ponder already has a terrific rapport with Rudolph, especially near the goal, and the addition of Jerome Simpson is an underrated boost. Have a gander at the fantasy-friendly schedule: at Detroit, Tennessee, at Washington. It might be a fun season in Minnesota after all.
• Sell-low time on Antonio Gates? I can sign off on that. He's a 32-year-old veteran, in his tenth season, and for all the sunshine we heard in the summer, chronic foot problems never really go away. And if you can't find a good sleeper or cheap tight end during Fantasy 2012, you're not trying. Dennis Pitta, Kyle Rudolph, Heath Miller, Brandon Myers, these guys come out of the woodwork every season (and every week).
Mad props to Gates for the career he's had. I'd like to see him in the Hall of Fame someday. I know he'll still have his share of big games. But I don't want to deal with any more injury roulette with him, and based on aging patterns and gravity, I suspect more of that is to come.
• Detroit's Hill is an obvious target for anyone in two-QB leagues; with Stafford's status up in the air and the tools in town, the upside is obvious. But if you need to look a little deeper, maybe Nick Foles of Philadelphia is more your speed.
I can't see how injury-prone Michael Vick lasts anywhere close to a full season, given his shoddy offensive line and terrible pocket awareness, and while Foles is merely a third-round rookie and a project, we've seen Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg concoct pocket miracles in the past. Heck, consider what they did for Vick a few years back. For some of you this is merely a clip-and-save; for those in deeper pools, it might be a good time to speculate. Keep in mind Vick has played just one full season in the NFL; while I don't think he's in any danger of a benching, he's obviously one of the biggest injury wild-cards on the board. I'd sell while the selling is still possible.
• New York's win at Carolina last week already feels like months ago — the Thursday schedule is like that — but let's not miss one of the key takeaways. Anytime a proven offense has to play "next man up" at the skill positions, be on the lookout for plausible upside. The NFL is filled with talented backs and receivers who only need a chance to play, and a solid system, before they come into fantasy relevance. The breakouts from Andre Brown and Ramses Barden weren't that surprising when you take a look back at it. (Hat tip to colleague Brandon Funston, who shared this nugget — far more elegantly than I did — during a recent chat.)
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