Monday Brunch: Takeaways from the Brian Hartline breakout

We spend a lot of time worrying about what can go wrong with fantasy receivers. We sweat the opponent's coverage and the competition for the ball, the game flow and the competency of the quarterback. The list goes on and on.

Sometimes, the focus is better used on what can go right.

Consider the Brian Hartline story, the 12-catch, 254-yard explosion he threw at Arizona on Sunday. Even if you throw Hartline's 80-yard score in the fluke file — it was a busted coverage and a gift from the Cardinals — Hartline jumped off the screen in this one. And yet only 19 percent of Yahoo! players owned Hartline entering this week, and (more telling) only four percent of Yahoo! players used Hartline. Although I had a fairly lofty rank on Hartline for Week 4, I benched him in the Stopa Law Firm League, and it was the difference between winning and losing.

Let's revisit the logical arguments against Hartline into Week 4:

-- Hartline was facing the Arizona defense, which means a date with cover ace Patrick Peterson. Full disclosure up front: I'm a major Peterson fan. He's a blast to watch, improving weekly, and a monster on runbacks. I don't think he's even the slightest bit overrated. I fully expect him in the Pro Bowl at the end of the year.

But we have to accept how teams really play pass coverage in the NFL. Forget the Darrelle Revis "dedicated shutdown" theme — outside of Revis, that's just about nonexistent today. All teams play zone at least some of the time, and in the case of Peterson, he's usually on a dedicated side — not on a dedicated receiver.

-- Hartline is tied to an inexperienced quarterback. No one is going to mistake Ryan Tannehill for Brees, Brady or Rodgers (or even Luck or Griffin), but he hasn't looked out of place through the opening quarter of the year. He clearly knows the Dolphins scheme inside and out — logical, since he played for OC Mike Sherman at Texas A&M — and he was reasonably poised against the Texans in Week 1 and the Jets in Week 3. And when the Raiders (and their patchwork secondary) came calling in Week 2, Tannehill and Hartline hooked up nine times for 111 yards. Tannehill certainly isn't a star-making quarterback, but this isn't Blaine Gabbert 2011, either.

-- Hartline could be easy to shut down, with no receiver protection on the roster. This is probably the easiest myth to discredit. Any proactive offensive club can find a way to unlock its No. 1 receiver. It's just a matter of being creative with play design and movement.

Remember the two-week panic when Larry Fitzgerald got off to a poor start? The Cardinals coaching staff got to work, utilizing Fitzgerald in a number of creative ways (motion, stack releases, route diversity) to ensure that they dictated the matchups in Week 3, not the Philadelphia secondary. Fitzgerald responded with a strong game, and he came through again versus Miami. The same theme applies in Minnesota; although the Vikings didn't have strong wideouts to run with Percy Harvin in the first three games, his ability to play all over the formation kept his fantasy stock afloat.

At the end of the day, talent and opportunity are the most important things for any fantasy receiver. Sure, you'd like to ride with an elite quarterback if you can. And obviously volume is a wonderful thing, especially if we can plausibly project it ahead of time. But if the talent and opportunity are present up front, I'm not going to worry too much about the other things.

We can debate how talented Hartline is, but he did play in the Big Ten and he is a No. 1 receiver on an NFL club, for whatever that means to you. And the opportunity is obviously in place: his 48 targets are second in the league, and his seven red-zone targets also rank second. Perhaps the ceiling stops at a modest place, but the floor is starting to look steady and reliable. Call him a solid WR3: not in the Garcon/Welker/Wayne class, but I'd take him over any Bay Arera wideout, or Boldin, or Meachem, or LaFell.

I'll admit I was wrong when I analyzed the Week 4 matchup between Washington's rushing game and Tampa Bay's rushing defense. I put a lot of stock in the 2.3 YPC the Bucs parceled out in the opening three weeks, but the design of the Washington rushing attack is unique to the point that Tampa's displayed efficiency really didn't matter. It's like a batter proving he can hit a fastball: it doesn't mean he can hit a curveball. I'm basically paraphrasing Mike Salfino's excellent point in the Week 4 Scouting Notebook, but I felt it was important enough to say again. Keep doing what you're doing, Alfred Morris.

I realize every player looks better when he's producing, but it sure seemed like Marques Colston was moving better during Sunday's loss at Green Bay. Maybe the 9-153-1 line clouds my judgement, you decide, but I didn't see Colston creating a lot of space in his opening three games. Perhaps his foot feels better. Obviously his hands are fine; the hands that he secures the ball with, and the hands he uses to push off with in the end zone.

You could easily make the case for Drew Brees above the QB ranks for the rest of the year. The running game stumbled again in Week 4 (19 carries, 45 yards) and the Saints defense can't stop anything right now. Volume, volume, volume. And the sooner the Saints move away from Mark Ingram, the better. The Ingram sympathizers claim the Saints are too predictable when he's in the game; the Ingram critics feel the playbook is limited for Ingram because of his modest skill set. On my clipboard, every Ingram touch is a gift to the opponent.

If you told me Brandon Pettigrew had 57 dropped touchdowns in his career, I'd probably believe you. I'd at least have to think about it for a second. Matthew Stafford definitely deserved a better line than he finished with Sunday, but then again, Herman Moore, Johnnie Morton and Brett Perriman aren't walking through that door. Obviously Calvin Johnson is terrific, but there are problems with the rest of this receiver group.

Generally you can look for a buying opportunity when a team hits its bye week — Detroit doesn't play in Week 5 — but I don't see a fun schedule waiting for the Lions on the other side. Trips to Philly and Chicago won't be easy, and then the Lions have to deal with Seattle's secondary. Johnson's ridiculous talent might skew the rules for him, but I'm not going to present a Stafford offer to anyone this week. (Borderline giveaway, or a panic offer from a 1-3 or 0-4 owner? Sure, I'm interested. But in leagues where the other owners aren't neophytes, count me out.)

It's very rare for any team to make a proactive roster change when they're winning (or staying afloat), but the Redskins should cut Billy Cundiff as soon as possible. And as much as I hate to concede this, the Seahawks would probably be better with Matt Flynn starting over Russell Wilson. It's hard to do much in the NFL when you're hiding the quarterback.

Sticking in Seattle, while Marshawn Lynch is one of my favorite backs to watch these days, I'm worried about how long he can withstand the pounding he takes. Lynch never met a defender he didn't want to crash into - there is no "get down, wait for the next carry" gene with this guy. He's already toted the rock 99 times in 2012 (counting his seven receptions), and obviously the Seattle passing game isn't scaring anyone (thus, more defenders are invited into the box).

One of my teams needs Lynch to stay hale for the full season, but if I could get another solid Top 10-12 back right now, I'd be inclined to sell. We'll explore more of this in the midweek shuffle, which will rank all the running backs and tight ends (the QBs and WRs will return for the even weeks).

The Patriots offense will be different when Aaron Hernandez returns, I suppose, but there's nothing wrong with the roles of Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker right now. Gronkowski only had three pass-blocking snaps in Sunday's beatdown of the Bills (hat tip, Pro Football Focus), while Welker played 74 of 77 snaps. Gronkowski's run blocking was also out of this world, but you can say that just about every week.

While I am kicking myself for not ranking Roddy White above Julio Jones before the season (that's generally how I roll, as an agnostic), it's important that no one panic over Jones's output to this point. Wide receiver is the variance position in fantasy football, the position with the craziest swings. Jones is still a Top 10 commodity at the position on my clipboard, easily. (Back to White for a second, it was hilarious to see the Falcons run a play-action fake before White's dramatic catch against Carolina in the final minute. Who are you trying to kid, Atlanta?)

On-pace stats come with standard grains of salt, but it's interesting to see Andrew Luck on pace for (a very quiet) 427 rushing yards, fourth among QBs. My only hope with Luck is that the offensive line doesn't get him killed; otherwise, he should be terrifiic. He's shown tremendous poise and pocket awareness through three games, and he can make every throw in the book. Luck's immediate success has returned Reggie Wayne to set-and-forget status.

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