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NFL Skinny: The next Earnest Graham?

Brandon Funston
Yahoo Sports

Also See: Sunday Scene | Monday Brunch | Week 9 leaders

There's a decent chance that your fantasy championship could be significantly impacted by a player that you might currently consider insignificant. At least, that's the lesson to be learned from 2007. Around this time a year ago, fantasy owners had no idea that undrafted types like Earnest Graham, Ryan Grant, Aaron Stecker and Kolby Smith were going to help shape the playoff race. Let's review:

Earnest Graham, TB – Carnell Williams was lost for the season after Week 4 and Graham, after splitting time with Michael Pittman for a few weeks, settled into the featured role down the stretch, finishing with eight TDs and an average of 102 yards from scrimmage over the final eight weeks of the season.

Ryan Grant, GB – Rookie Brandon Jackson, Vernand Morency and DeShawn Wynn had the first opportunities in the Green Bay backfield, but injuries and ineffectiveness paved the way for Grant to get his shot. He seized the day and delivered eight TDs and an average of 106 yards from scrimmage over the final eight weeks of the season.

Kolby Smith, KC – The rookie from Louisville was called to duty after Larry Johnson was lost for the season with a foot injury in the second-half of the season. Smith scored twice and averaged 93 yards from scrimmage in the five-game span from Week 12 to Week 16.

Aaron Stecker – A Reggie Bush knee injury (sound familiar?) in Week 13 opened the door for Stecker, who averaged 111 yards from scrimmage and scored four TDs in the final four weeks of the season.

Chester Taylor – A glorified backup for one of the best rushing offenses in the league, Taylor got his 15 minutes in the spotlight when rookie Adrian Peterson suffered a knee injury in Week 10, forcing him to sit out Weeks 11-12 and causing a near-equal split of touches with Taylor the following two weeks (Weeks 13-14). In the four game span from Week 11-14, Taylor averaged 125.5 yards from scrimmage and found pay dirt six times.

There were other out-of-the-woodwork second-half stars – Justin Fargas and Ron Dayne among them – but I'm just highlighting those running backs that finished on the 2007 Keys to Success list, a breakdown of the 50 most commonly found players on the final rosters of the top 500 public league teams of 2007.

So, looking at the list from above begs the question, who might be this year's Earnest Graham, Ryan Grant, et al?

Here are some possibilities:

1. Ryan Torain, Den – After sitting the first seven games of the season with an elbow injury, Torain carried just three times for one yard in his Week 9 NFL regular-season debut. However, teammate Michael Pittman aggravated a neck stinger injury in the loss to the Dolphins and he, along with Andre Hall, has been placed on the injured reserve list, meaning they will be out for the remainder of the season. As it stands, Torain is now the healthiest back in Denver. If he can step up next week at Cleveland, he might not look back.

2. Ray Rice, Bal – Last week, I wrote about how the single-wing formation could afford Rice more playing time down the stretch at the expense of Willis McGahee. In Week 9, however, Rice didn't need a special offensive alignment to find the field. While McGahee was healthy enough to play against Cleveland, the Ravens decided to hold their banged-up backfield incumbent out of action, opening the door for Rice to handle 21 carries (154 yards) against the Browns. I still stand by my preseason contentions that McGahee does not have a promising future in Baltimore. He brings more question marks to the table – attitude, work ethic, durability, versatility – than I believe the coaching staff cares to deal with. I think it's also telling that McGahee has just one play from scrimmage this season that has gone for 18-plus yards. In the past three weeks, Rice has six such plays, including a 60-yard run on Sunday. Rice offers fresher legs and attitude, and a versatility that meshes better with a Cam Cameron-run offense. Don't be surprised if Rice remains a key figure in the backfield moving forward. The only thing dimming his star at the moment is a fairly brutal remaining schedule, which includes games with each team in the run-tough NFC East.

3. Jamaal Charles, KC – Although head coach Herm Edwards has said he doesn't think Charles is the kind of back that can carry a full load, Charles certainly looked the part in Week 9, rushing 18 times for 106 yards against a usually strong Tampa Bay run defense. As I mentioned here in the waiver section a couple weeks ago, Charles was deemed a top five running back talent by many coming into April's NFL Draft. With Kolby Smith lost for the season with a knee injury and Kansas City apparently trying to do all it can to distance itself from Larry Johnson, Charles could find himself shouldering the team's largest backfield load the rest of the way. Dates with Oakland and Denver in Weeks 13 and 14, respectively, could ultimately pay big dividends for his fantasy owners.

4. Darren McFadden – McFadden hasn't played since Week 7 because of turf toe injuries. But, once he gets past the toe woes, he could make a triumphant fantasy return, assuming he makes it back in time for a stretch of games from Week 12 to Week 16 that includes Denver, Kansas City and Houston.

5. Kevin Smith, Det – Despite backing up veteran Rudi Johnson, Smith is clearly the team's most talented back. Smith and fellow rookie Tim Hightower are the only RBs ranked among the position's top 25 fantasy scorers despite fewer than 100 total touches. The Lions have a brutal upcoming schedule, one of the toughest in the league for running backs over the next five weeks. When the team reaches the final three weeks of the season, it'll just be playing out the string and letting those players with a future in Detroit garner needed experience. Rudi Johnson is likely to be a wallflower by the time the Lions' run schedule softens with Indianapolis (4.2 ypc), New Orleans (4.3 ypc) and Green Bay (4.9 ypc) to close things out. Logic dictates a much-increased role for Smith in the final month of the season.

6. Quinton Ganther, Ten – Ok, here's a legit no-name longshot. With Tennessee four games up on Indy in the AFC South, the team is setting itself up to coast to a division title, and quite possibly, an AFC title. In addition, the Titans run the ball more than 34 times a week, the third-highest rate in the league. If an injury were to befall Chris Johnson (I'm knocking on wood) and/or LenDale White, the backfield workload is too big for just one man. Ganther is the likely backup to both Johnson and White. Tennessee has a fairly soft schedule during the fantasy playoffs. If circumstances forced Ganther into a larger role, he could definitely make an impact. Of course, Chris Henry could be the one to get the call instead of Ganther. Either way, I'm hoping it doesn't come to one of these two, because I'm fairly heavily invested in the Titans backfield.

Alright, that's a purely speculative list, and not really a very obscure one at that. Obviously, it's a crapshoot trying to predict which unknown is going to emerge as a fantasy difference-maker. But, we're at the time of the year when you have to have your head on a swivel, ready to pounce on a potential upstart. If history has taught us anything, there isn't a running back in the NFL that should be ignored if opportunity lands in his lap.

Week 9: Take 10
A look at 10 notable developments/situations from Week 9

1.If you are a Tim Hightower owner, you are positively giddy about his appointment to the Arizona starting running back role in Week 9 – he delivered with 22 carries for 109 yards and a TD in his starting debut. Here's another reason to get excited: Hightower currently ranks sixth among RBs in combined red zone carries/targets (30 – 24 carries, 6 targets). And most of that inside-the-20 work came while backing up James, who has accounted for 19 red zone carries and three red zone targets. With James dropping to third string on the depth chart, Hightower, in this prolific offense, could be the most heavily-used back in the red zone the rest of the way. He could very easily score 10-plus TDs in the final eight games.

2. After a 17-for-33, 219-yard, 2 TD, 1 INT performance on Sunday in a 37-27 loss to Baltimore, Derek Anderson is, apparently, going the way of Edgerrin James. Reports on Monday were that Brady Quinn will get the starting nod against Denver on Thursday. Normally, I'd advise that fantasy owners use Quinn's first start as a watch-and-see opportunity. But he's facing a Champ Bailey-less Broncos defense. The matchup is fairly juicy. I can understand if an owner wants to roll the dice. But, this bye week doesn't impact quarterbacks too much (Jeff Garcia, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jason Campbell and a pinky-damaged Tony Romo), so you'd have to be in pretty dire straits to start Quinn this week. Looking ahead, Quinn's schedule isn't that favorable for quarterbacks, so he's more of an insurance grab at the moment.

3. Vincent Jackson owners take note: Kansas City is height challenged. On Sunday, Antonio Bryant was the latest large-sized wideout to torch the Chiefs, catching eight passes for 115 yards and a TD. He follows in the footsteps of bigger targets like Randy Moss, Roddy White, Brandon Marshall, Muhsin Muhammad and Jerricho Cotchery who have enjoyed much success against Kansas City this season. Jackson and the San Diego Chargers will face Kansas City twice in the final eight weeks.

4. Speaking of Bryant, his production is really starting to stand out. In the past three weeks, he ranks behind only Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson and Steve Smith in fantasy points at the wide receiver position. He sits eighth among wideouts in total targets (74) this season. Bryant will sit on bye in Week 10, but he'll have a receiver-friendly schedule awaiting him when he returns. The Bucs are the most pass-heavy team in the league and, if a knee injury suffered by Earnest Graham in Week 9 proves serious, they may have to lean on the pass even more.

5. Jay Cutler has let loose his inner Brett Favre recently, gun-slinging his way to six interceptions in the past three weeks, including three in a Week 9 loss to Miami. This was supposed to be one of those cherry matchups that Cutler's fantasy owners relish, but Miami's aggressiveness and solid game-planning threw a wrench in things. Cutler did end up with 307 yards and two touchdown passes, but there was nothing pretty about his performance. Cutler has been a tale of two seasons in '08, throwing for nine touchdowns, four INTs and an average of 319 passing yards in his first four games. In the past four games, he's averaging just 223.5 passing yards and has a 6:6 TD-to-INT ratio. A more credible running game might help Cutler, as Denver is averaging just 89 rushing yards over the past four games, including an abysmal 14-yard effort in Week 9.

6. Denver's Brandon Marshall was a victim of Denver's lackluster Week 9 effort, finishing under 30 receiving yards (27) for the second time in the past four games. After the game, brash Miami linebacker Joey Porter suggested that "Baby TO" may actually have been more of a cause than a victim in the debacle: "He's one of those guys that if he don't get the ball in the first two series in the first quarter, he's out of it. He had 18 catches in a game before. So he's not used to going the whole first half with no balls. We got in his head and he pretty much was done … I didn't get inside his head, we just were talkin'. He got in his own head. He was done. He's one of those soft receivers, where he has to have the ball all the time. If he don't get it, he's going to mope and cry. He did it to himself." Marshall's next opponent, Cleveland, has allowed 46 percent more fantasy points to WRs over the past week than the league average, so you'd expect him to bounce back. But it will be interesting to see how the Browns, and Marshall, respond to Porter's words. Personally, I'd bet on a monster day from Marshall.

7. Owen Daniels caught 11 passes for 133 yards on Sunday, but eight of those receptions and 101 yards came in the second half with Sage Rosenfels behind center. There's nothing in recent history to suggest that Daniels performs better with Rosenfels than with Schaub. But with Baltimore on tap in Week 10 and a date with Indy's Cover-2 in Week 11, Daniels is likely to continue to be a heavily-favored target of Rosenfels.

8. Joseph Addai returned from a two-game layoff (hamstring injury) to rush for just 32 yards on 17 carries against New England. It was a far cry from Addai's performance against the Patriots last season when rushed for 112 yards and also netted 114 yards through the air. That happens to have been the last time Addai topped the 80-yard rushing mark, let alone the century mark – including last season's playoff game, he's gone 15 straight without topping 80 rushing yards. But, big rushing yard totals are not the reason Addai was a consensus top six pick on draft day. His fantasy calling card was that, in this juggernaut offense, he picked up a league-high 56 red zone carries last season and, as a result, found pay dirt 15 times. At the mid-point of the '08 season, Addai has just 13 red zone carries, less than half his '07 pace.

9. Willie Parker also played in Week 9 for the first time since tweaking his knee in Week 3. Parker picked up 70 tough yards on 21 carries against a Washington defense that rated as the sixth-toughest in fantasy to opposing running backs. Parker looked a bit rusty and tentative at times, but he did show some burst on a couple carries and he was the recipient of a one-yard TD run. The workload, including goal-line duty, is more than Parker owners could have hoped for in his first game back. For the next five weeks, Pittsburgh will enjoy a relatively mild schedule in terms of opposing run defenses, so it's all systems go for Parker.

10. Ben Roethlisberger sat the second-half of the Monday night game after getting hit on his throwing arm on a deep pass attempt to Hines Ward. Traditionally one of the league's most heavily-sacked quarterbacks, Roethlisberger came into the game having been wrapped up 23 times in seven games by the opposition's pass rush. He's taken a beating as a result, and his performances last week (13-of-29, 189 yards, 1 TD, 4 INTs) and on Monday night (5-of-17, 50 yards, 1 INT) had a very sloppy, fatigued look to them. Head coach Mike Tomlin said after the Monday night victory over Washington that Big Ben could have returned in the second half, but there was rumor that the quarterback could hardly lift his arm. His shoulder has been bothering him for most of the year, and despite tough games upcoming against Indy and San Diego, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Roethlisberger sits them out. If he does play, I wouldn't want anything to do with him in fantasy.

WEEK 10 SHORT LIST
Players that need to be on your mind heading into Week 10

Waiver Wire

QB Gus Frerotte, Min (30% owned in Plus leagues) Frerotte has established long-term residency in this spot. Despite averaging 245 passing yards and amassing eight TD passes in six outings, the Vikings' veteran is still owned in just 30 percent of Y! Plus leagues. Minnesota's fantasy playoff schedule sets up beautifully, with Detroit, Arizona and Atlanta on tap for Week 14, 15 and 16, respectively. Trent Edwards, Matt Cassel, Jeff Garcia, Marc Bulger and Chad Pennington are all owned in more than twice as many leagues as Frerotte, which doesn't make much sense when you consider Frerotte is averaging more fantasy points per start than them, and his schedule is more favorable than all of them except, perhaps, Bulger.
QB Sage Rosenfels, Hou (10% owned) Rosenfels will step in for Matt Schaub, who injured his knee on Sunday and is expected to miss 2-4 weeks. Of course, Rosenfels was the one who engineered a monumental meltdown against Indy in Week 5. But if you look at the big picture, he comes out looking pretty good in the fantasy wash. In five starts last season, Rosenfels threw eight TD passes and ran for a score. He played in nine games last season and two, so far, in '08, and he's thrown a TD pass in each of those contests. Given the weapons and system in Houston, Rosenfels is a worthwhile fantasy addition for any QB-needy owner.
QB Tyler Thigpen, KC (9% owned) Here's one to file in the "Go figure" folder. Thigpen, having played spot duty against Tennessee in Week 7 in addition to starting the past two weeks in games against the Jets and Tampa Bay, ranks No. 10 in fantasy points among quarterbacks over the past three weeks, throwing for 520 yards and three touchdowns in addition to 63 rushing yards and a TD via the ground. And his schedule for the remainder of the season easily ranks among the kindest in fantasy to quarterbacks.
RB Ray Rice, Bal (49% owned) Head coach John Harbaugh won't name a Week 10 starter in the backfield, but the fact that a now healthy McGahee isn't the automatic nomination speaks volumes. The rookie is averaging 106 yards from scrimmage over his past four games and, considering that Baltimore is the most run-heavy team in the league, he warrants an immediate pickup even if McGahee gets the starting nod this Sunday.
RB Jamaal Charles, KC (33% owned) With Kolby Smith out for the season with a knee injury, Charles could see a heavy workload the rest of the way, especially if Larry Johnson's legal issues continue to trend negatively.
RB Selvin Young, Den (37% owned) Before he even handled his first carry of the season in Week 9, many were calling teammate Ryan Torain the sleeping giant of the Denver backfield, a guy that could come in and have a huge impact in fantasy down the stretch. But don't we know to expect the unexpected from head coach Mike Shanahan. Young has averaged over 5.0 yards per carry in his year and a half in Denver and it's conceivable that he, not Torain, gets the majority of carries the rest of the way.
WR Greg Camarillo, Mia (38% owned) I might have called Camarillo a poor man's Wes Welker earlier in the year, but that's not a fair assessment anymore. The Miami receiver is only separated from Welker in fantasy by 20 yards. He's the 13th-most targeted receiver in the league and is coming off his best performance of the season at Denver on Sunday – 11 catches, 111 yards. He's not likely to win you a fantasy championship, but you can count on him to at least show up each week and make at least a modest contribution.
WR Rashied Davis, Chi (18% owned) With a touchdown and 64 receiving yards on Sunday, Davis ranks among the top 25 wideouts in fantasy points per game over the past five weeks. He's seen an average of seven targets in the four games during that span.
WR Sidney Rice, Min (8% owned) I raved about this guy's athletic ability in his rookie season, but he's been AWOL for most of this year's sophomore campaign. He returned from a month layoff (knee) on Sunday and caught just one pass, albeit a touchdown grab. He's now caught four passes this season, two of which have resulted in touchdowns. If he can stay healthy, his size and physicality could make him a regular red-zone option for Gus Frerotte.
WR Reggie Williams, Jac (20% owned) Once teammate Matt Jones is hit with a league suspension, Williams becomes a somewhat attractive fantasy option. Jones could be forced out for three weeks starting this week. If so, Williams is the best bet to be the "go-to" guy for David Garrard in the passing game.

Injuries

QB Matt Schaub, Hou (knee) Schaub suffered at torn MCL at Minnesota on Sunday and is expected to miss 2-4 weeks, although a month timetable is more realistic than a couple weeks.
QB Kyle Orton, Chi (ankle) Orton suffered an ankle injury on Sunday against Detroit. The true extent of the injury will be revealed mid-week, but the initial assumptions are that he'll miss a month, if not more. We'll have to wait a couple days to find out for sure.
QB Dan Orlovsky, Det (thumb) Orlovsky sprained his thumb on Sunday is expected to miss a couple weeks. It's still unclear whether recently-signed Daunte Culpepper will be rushed into action or whether Drew Stanton will take over. For most fantasy owners, it probably doesn't matter which way the outcome falls.
RB Michael Pittman, Den (neck) Pittman aggravated a neck stinger injury on Sunday and has been deemed to be unfit to play the rest of the season. While Ryan Torain and Selvin Young are expected to plug the gap of Pittman's absence, you have to wonder if Denver will look to bring in a short-yardage back to help pick up the slack. Ron Dayne, anyone?
RB Earnest Graham, TB (knee) Graham suffered a knee injury on Sunday, the severity yet to be determined. Tampa Bay, fortunately, is on bye in Week 10, so if Graham's injury isn't too serious, he may not miss any time. However, if it turns out to be more severe, Warrick Dunn will have to step up and, potentially, Carnell Williams – practicing this week to determine if he is ready to come off the PUP list (knee – will be called to duty, as well.
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