Like any year, there are plenty of surprises in Fantasy Football. It's part of what makes Fantasy so much fun. There are good surprises (Joe Flacco, Willis McGahee) and bad surprises (Michael Turner, Terrell Owens).
But nothing has been as pleasant of a surprise as the Giants offense.
Sure, we knew Eli Manning could complete some passes, but what he's gotten out of Steve Smith and Mario Manningham, and what he could potentially get out of Hakeem Nicks, is just incredible. Manning is even producing without the guys we thought he'd count on -- Domenik Hixon and Kevin Boss -- which means that if he needs them later they'll be ready.
Here's what's happening: Manning is using Smith as his go-to receiver. More than just a security blanket, Smith is finding soft spots in the defenses he's faced and has caught much of what's been thrown at him. He was known for his good hands when he came out of college and proved that he can catch the ball last season when he had 62 catches. He's doing much more than that now as he leads the NFL in catches with 34 and targets with 45. He's made 22 first downs and has really improved his route-running. Plus he's getting more playing time than he ever has before.
Manningham quickly established himself as a deep threat for the Giants, which they sorely needed after losing Plaxico Burress. To give you an idea how popular he is with Manning, he's been targeted more times this season than Terrell Owens, averaging eight passes from Manning per game. And even though he had just one catch in Week 4 and bobbled several other passes (including the one that was ultimately picked off), he was still thrown at those eight times. It's clear that Manning likes what Manningham can give.
Nicks has been banged up, but his 54-yard touchdown catch, which really should have been a 4-yard completion if not for the Chiefs secondary's allergic reaction to tackling, is what the Giants got him for. He'll be another explosive option for them, albeit not used as often as the other guys this season.
But everything sets up nicely for Manning and his receivers. They're at the point now where opposing defenses can't just set up to shut down the Giants' run game because their pass attack is effective. Their schedule gets harder starting in Week 6, after the Raiders fly across the country to play them at home in Week 5, but when the going gets tough, the tough are forced to take to the air to stay competitive. The Giants should be up to the task, and Manning should finish the season as a Top-12 Fantasy passer so long as his receiving corps doesn't bottom out on him, or that his bruised heel doesn't become a debilitating injury.
But what does a passing game like this do to a running game like the Giants have? New York's offensive line is one of the best, and the one-two punch of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw should be raking in the stats. But they're not -- Jacobs has one touchdown and a 3.6 yards per carry average through four games. Last year he had three touchdowns and a 5.8 yards per carry average through four games. And he's received more carries this year than last! Bradshaw's numbers are improved because he's playing more, but even his totals pale in comparison to expectations as he has yet to score.
Through four games, the Giants have run the ball 139 times and thrown 130 times, about as close to balanced as you'll find in the NFL. This was a team that was expected to be run-heavy, but because of their newfound passing game, plans have changed. As such, perhaps expectations should be tempered on Jacobs and Bradshaw, so if you can get something solid in trade for one or both of them, consider it -- especially with the Giants' schedule getting worse following Week 5.
We break standard format for this obituary
The preseason Fantasy value for Raiders RB Darren McFadden passed away Sunday afternoon when he couldn't run on a Texans defense that had allowed three 100-yard rushers to start the season. After four consecutive weeks of massive disappointments, including a pathetic seven touch, two-yard outing against the woeful Texans, the value met its maker, signaling the end of its magnificent hopes and upside that it had just over a month ago. Had the running back been given more of a chance to thrive instead of wilt along with everyone else, this obit wouldn't have needed to be written. But because of the high preseason expectation, McFadden was picked anywhere from Round 3 to Round 6 in drafts, which means that this death will be felt beyond the doors of the Raiders' facility in Oakland.
The value is survived by its evil twin, the current Fantasy value of McFadden, which is somewhere between "low-end bye-week replacement" and "get this dude off my roster ASAP."
Note: After the obituary was written, Raiders coach Tom Cable told the media that McFadden had a torn meniscus and that he'd be out up to a month. So that might explain the lack of carries in Week 4. But it also underscores McFadden's current value and makes him all the easier to part ways with if there's another player you'd like to have that's on waivers. And between you, me and the monitor you're reading this on, don't be surprised if we don't see McFadden again this season.
Fantasy & Reality
Quick observations about the misconceptions (Fantasy) and truths (Reality) during the week's action.
Fantasy: Glen Coffee will be a Fantasy beast vs. the Rams. OK, so Coffee totaled 100 total yards, and given that he's a rookie making his first NFL start, that should be acceptable. But I'm disappointed. Really, I am -- more so than when my Dad told me that wrestling was fake. Coffee was supposed to take advantage of a brimming matchup against the Rams, and he couldn't capitalize. Now owners have to think twice on starting him next week against a better -- and rested -- Falcons run defense.
Reality: It's still gutsy to start Brandon Marshall going forward. Maybe I shouldn't be so picky -- the guy has scored in back-to-back weeks after all, but it's how he scored against the Cowboys that makes me worried. Marshall was on his way to an awful stat line when he made a clutch catch inside of two minutes to play on the right sideline and literally zigzagged his way through several bumbling Cowboys defenders to the end zone. Without that funky play, Marshall had three catches for 40 yards. I suppose he's startable, but he's still not a must-start.
Fantasy: Braylon Edwards is a good Fantasy option. Hold everything! You mean to tell me that the Browns insert a quarterback geared to throw the ball downfield more, and play nearly five quarters of football and Edwards can't even make a catch?! How about the simple fact that he was targeted only five times in the game. You shouldn't be forced to have a player like this on your roster.
Reality: The Steelers got their message through to Rashard Mendenhall. It might have had something to do with the Chargers' one-ply wet-tissue run defense, but the second-year rusher finally played like he "gets it." He ran great, and now the Steelers have a tough choice to make with him and Willie Parker in the coming weeks. Don't expect another game like this from Mendenhall even though he'll face the Lions in Week 5.
Fantasy: The Ravens will run on the Patriots. While it shows that Baltimore has supreme confidence in Flacco's arm, part of the tried-and-true formula in beating the Patriots is running the football and keeping Tom Brady & Co. on the sideline. Ray Rice had 11 carries, Willis McGahee had five. Even with the Patriots having a nine-minute edge in the time of possession battle, it's stunning not to run behind that big O-line against the Pats' softened run defense.
Reality: Lower your expectations for Randy Moss, Andre Johnson, Marques Colston and Santonio Holmes. As I said on our weekly Fantasy Football Today show on Sunday morning, these guys all faced tough matchups and/or had a difficult history against their Week 4 opponents. Moss scored but caught just three passes for 50 yards against the Ravens; Johnson had two catches for 66 yards while battling Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha; Colston didn't get a game full of Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis but still wasn't able to do any better than 33 yards on two catches; and Holmes' skid against the Chargers continued with 52 yards on four catches. Between four huge Fantasy receivers, they tallied 11 catches for 201 yards and a touchdown.
By the way, there was a fifth guy on the list: Greg Jennings, who plays the Vikings tonight. Based on how these four guys did in their bad matchups, I don't like his chances much.
What changes might the 0-4 Titans make that could impact Fantasy owners?
First, some facts: Heading into Week 3, the Titans were in every game they played, losing by no more than seven points in any game. They also battled with the Steelers and Jets, two of the toughest defenses in the league. But Week 4 broke their backs, as the Jaguars dropped 37 points on them and won by 20 points in a laugher.
Most of the changes will come on defense. The Titans have allowed over 31 points per game in their last three, and the offense simply can't keep up with that kind of scoring unless it's against a bad defense. For all of his ups and downs, running back Chris Johnson is still averaging 6.3 yards per rush and 8.4 yards per catch. You know he's not the problem, though the limitation of teammate LenDale White (23 carries, two catches through four weeks) is something that might be considered, and that could eat into some of Johnson's opportunities.
Despite numbers that suggest otherwise, Kerry Collins isn't doing so bad under center. His game against the Jets was awful, but throw that out and he's still completing over 60 percent of his passes. Wideout Nate Washington has scored in three straight games and Kenny Britt is becoming a matchup problem. Plus, Titans coach Jeff Fisher said after their fourth loss that he's not thinking about changing out Collins for Vince Young, whose presence would sink the values of the Tennessee receivers.
Believe it or not, you should continue to treat the top Titans' options as good Fantasy sources. They have a rocky schedule coming up (vs. the Colts, at the Patriots, a bye, vs. the Jaguars, at the 49ers), but it could mean that we'll continue seeing good numbers from the Titans' receivers. And besides, if you tried to move Chris Johnson or Nate Washington in a trade right now, you'd be lucky to land anything fair. In fact, trading for these guys on the cheap is probably a smarter option. Britt is also a great pickup off waivers -- it wouldn't be a surprise to see these two pull a "Giants" and ultimately unseat all the receivers who previously contributed to the passing game.
• Looking back on it, suggesting to sit Mendenhall was a pretty brain-dead move. After Willie Parker crushed the Chargers twice last year, how far out of the realm of possibility was it for Mendenhall to put up decent numbers working in his place? He might have been hard to trust either way.
• Any owner who drafted Joe Flacco has to be dancing in the street. It's been four weeks and Flacco has yet to turn into a pumpkin. I think the folks who drafted Tony Romo or Kurt Warner might be ripe for a trade involving Flacco.
• A member of the Fantasy Football Today crew predicted that Brett Favre would get hurt in the third quarter Monday night against the Packers. If it happens, I'm outing our little version of Nostradamus.
• 49ers DST. Three DST touchdowns. Unreal.
• The Rams host the Vikings in Week 5 and play at the Jaguars in Week 6. Plan accordingly.
• The Browns play at the Bills in Week 5 and the Steelers in Week 6. Plan accordingly.
• I don't know how good Redskins fans can feel about their 2-2 team that struggled to beat the Bucs and Rams and lost to the Lions. At least Clinton Portis almost averaged 4.0 yards per carry, and 25 rushes certainly suggests that the coaches are confident that he can play effectively.
• I'm really proud of the NFL for finding a way to incorporate breast cancer awareness into their games. The hot pink shoes, gloves, wristbands, sideline towels and hat brims are just noticeable enough to raise awareness. And plenty of women watch football each week, and they all got a very visible reminder to get examined. Great job.
Got a Fantasy gripe? We mean other than the McFadden thing -- because the past is in the past. Hit Dave up at firstname.lastname@example.org and put Attn: Fantasy & Reality in the subject line. Be sure to include your name, hometown, state and Fantasy team name.