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NFL Skinny: Branch-ing Out

Brandon Funston
Yahoo Sports

Running Back Radar
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS RED HOT
1st Chair: Corey Dillon
2nd Chair: Laurence Maroney
Skinny: For seniority sake, I'll keep Dillon in 1st Chair this week, but this situation is shaping up as a pure platoon, as evidenced by the success the team saw in giving Maroney 17 carries and Dillon 16 carries on Sunday. Said fullback Heath Evans, "Man, when you've got Kevin (Faulk), Corey, Laurence, just rolling, it's frustrating for a defense. You look out there, you got the starting (middle) linebacker, you got the (strong side backer), you got the (weak side backer), they're not getting to rotate. They're in there, having to tackle a different back and (the backs) are all bringing something different to the game." I can't, for the life of me, see a reason for head coach Bill Belichick to change his approach in the coming weeks.
NEW YORK JETS RED HOT
1st Chair: Kevan Barlow
2nd Chair: Derrick Blaylock
Skinny: As a whole, the Jets did not run the ball well against Tennessee, picking up just 91 yards on 34 carries. But Barlow (11 carries, 35 yards), at least, was more effective than starter Derrick Blaylock (19 carries, 36 yards), and he also scored on a goal-line carry. So, from a fantasy perspective, Barlow is the one to own, especially since he's still in an acclimation period with the Jets. Barlow should continue to see his workload rise while Blaylock transitions back to a third-down-type role.
DENVER BRONCOS HOT
1st Chair: Tatum Bell
2nd Chair: Mike Bell
Skinny: Tatum got the surprise start on Sunday and picked up 103 yards on 15 carries. Rookie Mike Bell also figured strongly into the mix, garnering 10 carries for 58 yards and a goal-line TD. So long as Tatum's fumbling issues don't persist – he coughed one up against the Rams – he's in line for the heaviest workload, although Mike Bell should be considered a slightly lighter workload version of Mike Anderson from a year ago. Head coach Mike Shanahan gave Tatum the start because of his experience. Afterwards, asked about the running game as a whole, Shanahan said, "It looked pretty good. I'm not really worried if it's two backs, three backs. Are you successful running the ball or not?" They were, and that means more of the Bell tandem, assuming a finger injury Mike Bell suffered in the game does not cause him to miss time.
CHICAGO BEARS HOT
1st Chair: Thomas Jones
2nd Chair: Cedric Benson
Skinny: Jones handled most of the meaningful carries in Week 1 before the Bears had all but put away the Packers by halftime. Jones carried 21 times for 63 yards, while Benson handled 11 times for 34 yards. Both performances were lower than expectations considering it was the Green Bay defense. For now, Jones remains the clear leader here. Asked about whether he expects to carry a bigger load going forward, Benson said, "I'm not going to set any expectations like that. I'm just going to prepare myself every week like I'm the starter. That way, if I get 10 or 35 I'll be ready."
HOUSTON TEXANS WARM
1st Chair: Wali Lundy
2nd Chair: Vernand Morency, Ron Dayne
Skinny: So much for Houston being Denver South. Head coach Gary Kubiak, former Denver offensive coordinator, employed his backs for just 16 carries in a 24-10 trouncing at the hands of Philadelphia. Lundy handled 11 times to Morency's five. But, given the early second-half deficit, this game did not go a long ways towards defining the team's running back roles.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS WARM
1st Chair: Deuce McAllister
2nd Chair: Reggie Bush
Skinny: McAllister out-carried Bush in Week 1 (22 to 14), but Bush was very active in the passing game (8 catches), allowing the rookie to equal McAllister in total touches (22 apiece). This looks like a blueprint you can buy into. The workload split seems very logical, and clearly McAllister is not going to be very active at all in the passing game with Bush on board. This played out as Bush and McAllister owners should have expected.
Also See: Sunday Scene | Damage Report

Welcome to Overreaction Monday. I'm sure the church of the Madden Curse has seen a surge in membership following Shaun Alexander's 51 rushing yards sans a TD at Detroit in Week 1 – never mind that he had just 73 rushing yards and no scores on the road in Week 1 a year ago before ripping off 28 TDs in his next 15 games.

No doubt, the used-receiver lot has already seen many owners looking to trade in Joey Galloway after a zero catch performance on Sunday – never mind that he wore the collar a couple times last year (including Week 2) and still rung up 1,287 yards and 10 TDs.

Speaking of trade-ins, are you Cadillac owners thinking you need a new ride with more fantasy efficiency after getting just 22 yards on eight carries in Carnell Williams' first spin of the year? Hey, I owned this guy last year, and these ocassional engine knocks were par for the course – Williams had less than 30 rushing yards on 10-plus carries five times in '05.

So, as we take a look at what went down in Week 1, make sure to consume it with at least a single grain of salt:

Week 1 Update: Need-to-know info from the past few days

The biggest storyline of Week 1 came off the field, as the Seattle Seahawks, coming off a touchdown-less 9-6 victory at Detroit, convinced New England to swap WR Deion Branch for a '07 first-round draft pick. Let me pause for an exclamation … Wow! OK, now for a fantasy explanation. Obviously, this is good news for Branch owners, who no longer have to wait until Week 12 to see the receiver in uniform. Seattle is an excellent offense for Branch, as his solid route-running, quickness and adeptness across the middle fit right in with Matt Hasselbeck's quick-strike attack. However, his game is not unlike that of Darrell Jackson, and even Bobby Engram, for that matter.

Branch will need some time to acclimate, but probably not that long. When he's at full-speed, it's going to be very interesting to see how Seattle employs it's receiving unit, with Nate Burleson being the only true deep-threat in the group. Expect Jackson and Branch to see the most reps, with Burleson, who caught one ball for 36 yards in the opener, perhaps, now coming off the bench. Burleson should see more open opportunities deep as Jackson and Branch keep the secondary preoccupied with shorter routes. However, Jackson and Branch are going to offer reasonable fantasy consistency from week-to-week while Burleson could be a very hit-and-miss proposition. To say it in fantasy speak, you'll be justified in starting Jackson and Branch regularly, but Burleson is now a guy that simply gets you through bye weeks and injury issues.

This move was likely predicated by worries that Jackson's knee might not be able to hold up for an entire season, but also that the offensive line was a little shaky in its first outing in the post-Steve Hutchinson era. If teams are going to be able to now slow Alexander with a stacked box, then Seattle needed to add fire-power to the passing game to relieve some pressure from the running game. Make it clear, from a fantasy perspective, both Jackson and Branch would have been better off with Branch back in New England, where he'd be the focal point of the passing attack. But, Hasselbeck owners, you need only smile as you contemplate this group being regularly employed in three- and four-receiver sets.

As for Tom Brady owners, we've seen the first glimpse of the post-Branch era and it wasn't pretty. Brady completed just four passes to his wideouts in Week 1 – Reche Caldwell (2-for-33) and Troy Brown (2-for-18). Yet, despite an all-around ugly day for the passing game, the team decided to rid itself of Branch the next day. Apparently the team has a lot of confidence that WRs Doug Gabriel and rookie Chad Jackson will provide the needed lift. But, from my perspective, about the only Patriot sure to benefit from the deal is TE Benjamin Watson, who hauled in three passes for 50 yards in the opener. Oh, and let's not forget about a running game that looked so dynamic with a Corey Dillon/Laurence Maroney platoon that the team ran the ball nearly twice as often as it threw (41 to 23). Expect this to be a team that is much more run-oriented in '06.

  • The most-watched debut of Week 1 was that of Terrell Owens in a Dallas uniform at Jacksonville. Showing no signs of hamstring troubles, Owens caught six balls for 80 yards, including a nifty over-the-shoulder TD grab. Owens looked like the beast he's always been, continually gaining extra yards after the catch, thanks to a nasty stiff arm and, of course, that chiseled-in-granite physique. If you're a TO owner, you can probably reconsider that prescription for blood pressure medicine for the time being, or at least pass it along to Drew Bledsoe owners …

… If Bill Parcells loves backup QB Tony Romo as much as everyone says he does, then this week should be mired in a full-blown QB controversy. A quick scan of Monday morning Dallas newspaper headlines confirms that Bledsoe is squarely on the hot seat after he posted a clunky 246 passing yards on 16-of-33 passing with just 1 TD to 3 INTs. Asked about Bledsoe's performance, Parcells said, "Now is not a good time to be talking about that. Let me look at the film, and I'll let you know what I think." Surely Bledsoe has spent most of Monday morning trying to corner the market on those game films to keep them away from Parcells. Because, trust me, his performance won't look any better on film.

  • If Owens was the most-watched debut, Donte' Stallworth should be considered must-see viewing. He looked like he had been catching passes from Donovan McNabb for years, as he hauled in six receptions for 141 yards and a TD. In this pass-happy offense, I'm drinking the Kool-Aid on Stallworth, who I expect to have his best fantasy season yet. And I like McNabb so much more with the added dimension that Stallworth offers.
For all the Week 1 injury news, including Trent Green, Mike Bell, Joe Jurevicius and more, be sure to check out Christopher Harris' Damage Report.

BARGAIN BIN: Top players available in 50 percent of Yahoo! leagues

  • QBChad Pennington, NYJ
    I love a healthy Chad Pennington – always have. On Sunday, he reminded the fantasy community what he's capable of when healthy – 24-for-33, 319 passing yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs. He's an excellent decision maker with good accuracy and vision. About all he lacks is the ability to air-it-out deep. Other than that deep ball ability (oh, yeah, and an ability to stay healthy), he shares a lot of the same attributes as Tom Brady. He's moved from waiver wire fodder to a fantasy backup label in one short week.
  • RBBrandon Jacobs, NYG
    I'm still shaking my head at how good Jacobs looked on Sunday night. Don't get me wrong, Tiki Barber deserves his usually accolades for continuing to shred defensive lines like a surgeon, but I'd be surprised if Barber sees a carry inside the five-yard line considering the earth-mover that is Jacobs, who carried eight times for 54 yards and a touchdown against Indianapolis. Jacobs is New York's post-Tiki plan, which could come as early as next year if Barber follows through with intimations that he'll retire to pursue other interests. We're likely to see 8-10 carries from Jacobs on a weekly basis, and the sophomore could boost his TD total into double figures after scoring seven times as a rookie. In Yahoo! default leagues, where TDs are much more valuable currency than yardage, Jacobs is a must-own.
  • WRMichael Jenkins, Atl – Personally, I'm a bigger fan of Jenkins than Roddy White – I think Jenkins fits the Atlanta offense a little better. Jenkins had a strong Week 1, catching three passes for 77 yards and a TD against a very good Carolina secondary. It's worth taking a flyer on Jenkins now if you are looking to shore up some receiver concerns as Atlanta has a couple pass softies coming up in New Orleans and Arizona in Week 3 and 4, respectively.

MARKET MOVERS: Charting player values

Willie Parker, Pit, RB – For Parker owners, the 29 carries on Thursday night was a thing of beauty, as were the 115 yards that accompanied them.

Marques Colston, NO, WR – Colston was the Saints' top WR producer in Week 1 – 4 receptions, 49 yards, 1 TD – and he brings the added bonus of TE eligibility in Yahoo! leagues.

Kellen Winslow, Cle, TE – Perhaps Winslow really is better at 90 percent than most of the other TEs at 100 percent, as he claims. Winslow was featured heavily in Week 1, catching eight passes for 63 yards and a TD.

Laveranues Coles, NYJ, WR – Nobody should be happier about a healthy Chad Pennington than Coles. The two have shown strong chemistry in the past, and that was on display again in Week1 as Coles hauled in eight catches for 153 yards.

Tatum Bell, Den, RB – Tatum was Denver's starting RB on Sunday and, despite losing a fumble, he led the team with 15 carries and 103 yards. Rookie Mike Bell did handle 10 carries and scored a goal-line TD, but he suffered a hand injury which further boosts Tatum's stock.

Laurence Maroney, NE, RB – Maroney's first two rushing carries of his career on Sunday totaled 49 yards. In the end, he finished with 17 carries (one more than Dillon) and 86 rushing yards. You have to consider New England a running back platoon given how effective the Maroney/Dillon combination was against Buffalo.

Warrick Dunn, Atl, RB – Dunn's opening performance was similar to Parker's in that both are backs seeing a bigger workload despite being smaller in stature than ideal. And both parlayed a healthy 29 carries into big yardage, as Dunn finished with 132 yards.

Muhsin Muhammad, Chi, WR – Sure, it came against the Green Bay Packers, but Muhammad posted his first 100-yard game as a Bear. Considering he had just a combined 58 yards against Green Bay in two meetings last season, it's a big step up for the veteran wideout.

Ahman Green, GB, RB – Who cares that many of his 110 rushing yards (20 carries) came while Chicago was concentrating on the pass with Brett Favre and company buried early. Given the sorry state of the Packers, it's not like this situation won't be oft-repeated.

Correll Buckhalter, Phi, RB – It was surprising enough to see the injury-maligned Buckhalter on the field in Week 1, let alone rushing eight times for a generous 50 yards. If he continues to see eight to 10 carries a game (including goal-line carries), he definitely will have fantasy value in deeper leagues.

Detroit Lions Defense – This unit may not be the patsy of previous seasons. With former Tampa Bay defensive coach Rod Marinelli instilling his disciplined approach, the team came out in Week 1 and held Seattle's vaunted offense to three field goals and sacked QB Matt Hasselbeck five times.

Chris Brown, Ten, RB – Although Brown was decent in Week 1 – 16 carries, 64 yards – he did watch as Travis Henry vultured two goal-line carries. Also playing against Brown was the fact that Tennessee had to throw 42 times at home in what was supposed to be a winnable game. If the Titans can't get their desired run-heavy offense going in a game like this, when will they be able to? Ok, yes, maybe against the Texans.

Nate Burleson, WR, Sea – Burleson figures to lose significant value with Seattle's addition of Deion Branch. Still ownable, Burleson goes from a guy worth starting consideration most weeks to a mere bye/injury replacement.

Kevin Jones, Det, RB – Yes, Jones faced a good Seattle run defense, but it's not like the team was playing from way behind all game. With Detroit within three points for the entire game, Jones was never leaned on to help set the rhythm of the offense. In total, Mike Martz's offense passed 37 times while rushing just 17 times. That's an ominous beginning for a player whose fantasy stock can't afford another year like '05.

Jake Plummer, Den, QB – Plummer completed just 13-of-26 passes for 138 yards with 0 TDs and 3 INTs at St. Louis on Sunday. It's premature to call for rookie Jay Cutler here, but restless Bronco fans have already started the lobbying effort.

Tom Brady, NE, QB – Brady is not exempt from a red arrow designation. Without Deion Branch and David Givens, his receiving corps is under major renovation, which is why you'll see the team lean more on powerhouse backs Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney, as we saw in Week 1.

DeShaun Foster, Car, RB – Foster owned Atlanta last season, but he hit a wall against the Falcons in Week 1, carrying just 15 times for 54 yards. Panthers offensive lineman Travelle Wharton hurt his knee in the contest, which doesn't bode well for a rushing game that had all kinds of problems in the preseason.