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Reality Check: Not a passing fad

Senior Fantasy Writer
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You know my biggest regret so far this season? Drafting Chris Ivory in one of my leagues.

You know my second-biggest regret so far this season? Drafting Montee Ball in three of my leagues.

You know what position they play? Running back. (That was an easy one.)

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You know how much that means to me right now? Zilch.

Oh, but it meant something on Draft Day. "A third running back! I have to get a third running back!"

Did I? I mean, I understand I'll eventually need one for bye weeks and such, but did I have to prioritize one for my flex spot, especially if I had an inkling he wouldn't deliver starting-caliber numbers?

The NFL is a passing league. We've known it since about 2009, when the number of 4,000-yard passers jumped from six to 10. Then came the three 5,000-yard passers of 2011. Then came the 11 4,000-yard passers of last year.

Then came Week 1 of this year -- or what I'm calling our clearest indication yet that it's only getting worse.

Or better, depending on your perspective.

Of the little bit of data we have so far, what stands out to me most isn't the seven touchdown passes for Peyton Manning or the 208 receiving yards for Anquan Boldin. It's the fact that, of every running back who saw the field last weekend, between all 32 teams, only two ran for 100 yards.

Come again?

I don't know about you, but I still view the century mark as the standard for greatness. Touchdowns are obviously the game-changers in Fantasy, but they're so hard to predict from week to week that I try not to lose sleep over them. As long as I can trust my guy to drop triple digits more often than not, I know I'll feel good about his production in the end.

OK, so maybe more often than not is too much to ask, but half the time? Or even one-third?

Not if the new weekly standard is two. Between everybody. At that rate, I just hope mine gets a turn at some point.

I say that partly in jest, but even the two who achieved the feat in Week 1 aren't assured steady production going forward. Shane Vereen most definitely isn't. He's out until Week 11 with a broken wrist. LeSean McCoy at least has a chance, but I can't help but think his 184-yard outburst Monday night was at least partially a case of the up-tempo Chip Kelly offense taking the league by surprise. It might not be so easy once more game film becomes available.

And those who didn't reach 100 yards? Among them is Adrian Peterson, who nearly broke the single-season rushing record last year. He fell short even despite gaining 78 yards on his first carry. Arian Foster, the model of safe and steady production over the last three years, barely made it halfway to 100, and C.J. Spiller, everyone's favorite breakout candidate, didn't even lead his team in rushing.

I've done this Fantasy Football thing for a while now -- not as long as some of you, but long enough that ... well, let's just say I owned Chris Chandler once upon a time. I'm fully aware of the weirdness that ensues from week to week and understand that overreacting to it is irresponsible, in many ways.

But this particular weirdness was so widespread and so fitting with recent trends that I can't help but feel like it represents something bigger.

Just to use Week 1 of last year as an example -- when, remember, the NFL was still a passing league -- a good five running backs ran for 100 yards then.

Not impressed? OK, but what if I told you an additional four eclipsed 90 yards compared to only two this year? It's not like I picked some arbitrary cutoff to make my point. This year's crop wasn't coming close to 100.

Using the 90-yard threshold, the comparison is four running backs in Week 1 this year compared to nine in Week 1 last year. That's significant.

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Especially when you consider that effectiveness was as much this crop's issue as usage. I understand that the increasing number of split backfields will cut into rushing totals, but how do you explain Alfred Morris averaging 3.8 yards per carry? Or Trent Richardson averaging 3.6? Or Foster at 3.2, Maurice Jones-Drew at 3.0, Ray Rice at 3.0, Chris Johnson at 2.8, Matt Forte at 2.6, Marshawn Lynch at 2.5, Spiller at 2.4 and Frank Gore at 2.1? Those are just the high-end types.

I know. Weird.

If the NFL is a passing league and defenses are geared to stop the pass, why was every team's running game so ineffective? Have they all deteriorated from lack of use?

These are the questions that keep me up at night.

So now that I've thoroughly convinced you your team is doomed, the sky is falling and there's no hope for tomorrow, I give you the bright side: Those yards still have to go to someone. Teams are running less because they're passing more, which means whatever the running backs lose, the wide receivers and tight ends gain.

It's evident in the Week 1 results. Fifteen wide receivers eclipsed 100 yards compared to 10 last year. Three tight ends reached the century mark compared to zero last year. Using 90 yards as the basis for comparison, it's 20-to-11 for wide receivers and 4-to-0 for tight ends.

Fortunately, if you play with a flex spot in Fantasy, you can adapt to these developments. While conventional wisdom has always advised a third running back for that spot -- which is what compelled me to draft Ivory and Ball in the first place -- a third wide receiver or even second tight end could become standard fare.

Yes, tight end, that position so long begrudged by Fantasy owners for its uninspiring production, could suddenly be their saving grace. Because of who throws them the ball or who else could fill their role in the passing game, I don't so much trust Jerome Simpson, Brian Hartline, Rueben Randle, Harry Douglas or Kenny Stills just yet, but I didn't hesitate to put in a claim for Julius Thomas or Jordan Cameron this week.

In one league, I made a play for Thomas even though I had both Cameron and Martellus Bennett on my roster. And in an 18-team league where such a decision was viable, I prioritized Dallas Clark as a second tight end over Marlon Brown as a fifth wide receiver, remembering how much I liked Dennis Pitta to step up his production sans Anquan Boldin before breaking his hip July 27. Hey, 12 targets are hard to ignore, even for a 34-year-old has-been. Clark isn't a priority pickup in standard 12-team leagues just yet, but he gets consistent looks from Joe Flacco over the middle, he could get there.

Now, before you panic and offer up your Spiller or Lynch for Andre Johnson or Vincent Jackson, understand that I'm acting on this observation only with the fringes of my roster, with those peripheral pieces that probably weren't going to have a say in whether I won or lost anyway. I'm not dropping Ivory or Ball just yet, but I am dropping handcuffs like Bilal Powell and Ronnie Hillman.

Why them? Even if something happened to make them the lead rusher for their respective teams, I wouldn't trust them to put up relevant Fantasy numbers. I'm already wondering if I'll ever have reason to start Ivory or Ball. Based on what I saw in Week 1, I'm ditching any plans to use them in my flex spot and rostering them strictly for depth. Why back up the backups?

So why back up anyone? Well, look what else is out there. Plenty of interesting wide receivers and tight ends, but not so many running backs. As teams throw more and more, quality running backs become less and less, making the few who remain all the more valuable. Though I was discouraged by what I saw from Spiller and Lynch in terms of production, I still value them more than the top wide receivers and tight ends. Who on earth would I get to replace them?

To some degree, I believe these things are cyclical. If offenses continue to pile up yards like they did in Week 1, defenses will sell out even more for the pass, freeing up more running room and allowing for more 90- and 100-yard games. And of course, the average running back will always have a better opportunity for touchdowns than the average wide receiver or tight end just because of short-yardage situations. Chances are most of those Week 1 disappointments -- Spiller, Lynch, Richardson, Morris, Jones-Drew, etc. -- will still end up being huge assets for your Fantasy team.

But mostly because every team has to start two running backs, and I don't think there are enough to go around.

Good luck finding that third one.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB . You can also follow Scott via Twitter @CBSScottWhite .

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Player News
QB struggles begin to impact Cardinals DST
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(2:13 am ET) The Cardinals DST scored just one Fantasy point in standard CBSSports.com leagues Week 16 against Seattle, interrupting a stretch of 10 games in which it averaged 15.1, and the Cardinals' offensive woes may have had something to do with it.

Specifically, they've been unable to find a decent quarterback since losing Carson Palmer to injury in Week 10. Backup Drew Stanton at least mounted some kind of threat, but with him sidelined by a sprained knee in Week 16, the Cardinals had to turn to third-stringer Ryan Lindley. He turned the ball over twice without once leading his team into the end zone, completing less than half of his passes in the process.

The quick trips back to the sideline gave the Seahawks more chances to pile up points and yards, and they did, finishing with 35 and 596. Only one other time have the Cardinals allowed more than 30 points in a game, and the 596 yards were a season high. Worse yet, they were lacking in big plays, recording one sack with no takeaways.

Fortunately, the Cardinals will take on a struggling 49ers offense in Week 17, so even if Lindley is back under center, the DST at least has a chance of a respectable performance. Still, if you've been relying on it all season, you might want to make sure there isn't an appealing matchups play on the waiver wire.


Seahawks DST can't be stopped
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(2:04 am ET) The Seahawks DST had another dominant performance Week 16 at Arizona, continuing a nine-week run that has made it once again arguably the top unit in Fantasy. During that stretch, it has averaged 16.2 Fantasy points, allowing 11.9 points on 231.3 yards.

It allowed only six points on 216 yards in Week 16, recording four sacks and one interception. Of the Seahawks' 33 sacks this season, 20 have come in their last five games.

Clearly, they had a favorable matchup in this one, but they also shut down the Eagles in Week 14. You don't have any reason to shy away from the Seahawks DST against St. Louis in Week 17.


Kenbrell Thompkins comes out of nowhere
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:58 am ET) After making only modest contributions since coming over from the Patriots in Week 6, Raiders wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins suddenly emerged as quarterback Derek Carr's favorite target Week 16 against Buffalo, catching five passes for 90 yards. He hadn't caught even one pass since Week 13, and his previous high in yardage was 47.

Of course, you should know how this goes by now. Fellow wide receivers James Jones and Andre Holmes have both had their stretches of Fantasy relevance this season, as has tight end Mychal Rivera. The Raiders have a multitude of viable receiving targets, but their roles aren't so clear, which makes the task of picking the most impactful from week to week next to impossible.

In other words, you'd need to play in an especially deep league to take a flier on Thompkins for the season's final week.


Latavius Murray trustworthy up to a point
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:51 am ET) If his 23 carries Week 14 against San Francisco didn't convince you, Latavius Murray's 23 carries Week 16 against Buffalo should make the message loud and clear: He is the Raiders' top running back, and they're putting more faith in him than they ever did Darren McFadden.

Granted, it hasn't translated to much production yet, but the 49ers and Bills are two of the toughest defenses against the run. Unfortunately, Denver, the Raiders' Week 17 opponent, is ranked even higher at both.

Can you trust Murray to get his carries? He's gotten them two of the last three weeks, so most likely, yes. And with 20-plus chances, there's always the chance he breaks a long one. But the matchup will make it difficult.

You'd like to start him given his ever-increasing role, but you shouldn't force him into your lineup if you have two (or maybe three) respectable running backs already.


One way or another, Fred Jackson gets his
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:44 am ET) Trailing early Week 16 at Oakland with their playoff hopes on the line, the Bills didn't stick with the running game for long, attempting only three runs in the second half. But in a way, that worked to running back Fred Jackson's advantage. He's such a good pass-catcher out of the backfield that he still topped 100 total yards, doing so for the first time since returning from a groin injury in Week 12.

Even with the return of C.J. Spiller from a long-term shoulder injury, Jackson still led the Bills in carries, but with only six for 10 yards. He also led the team in catches with nine for 93 yards. He had 10 catches just two weeks ago, so clearly, he's a PPR stud.

Is he worth starting in standard leagues as well? Well, he's also gotten 20 carries twice in five games since returning. He hasn't been as effective on the ground as through the air, but yards are yards, however he gets them.

Their matchup Week 17 at New England will probably force the Bills to go pass-heavy again, so unless you're stacked at running back, you can find a spot for Jackson in your lineup.


Desperation fuels Kyle Orton's performance
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:35 am ET) Bills quarterback Kyle Orton didn't have the most efficient day throwing the ball Week 16 at Oakland, but from a Fantasy perspective, it was a productive one. He threw for 329 yards and three touchdowns but also had two interceptions.

What's crazy, though, is that 196 of those yards came in the second half. The Bills were trailing a winnable game with their playoff hopes on the line, and their desperation showed. Unfortunately, that desperation also contributed to the second of Orton's interceptions.

The Bills have been eliminated, so no matter how much they're trailing Week 17 at New England, they probably won't be quite as desperate. You can expect more typical numbers from Orton -- maybe about 250 yards with one or two scores -- even if the matchup appears to be a favorable one, making him a player better left for two-quarterback leagues.


Kenny Britt clearly better with Shaun Hill
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:27 am ET) Rams wide receiver Kenny Britt caught a season-high nine passes on a season-high 11 targets Week 16 against the Giants, but his 103 receiving yards actually weren't a season high.

That's because he had 128, along with a touchdown, Week 11 against the Broncos.

That was Shaun Hill's first game back under center. Week 16, obviously, was his latest one. In the six games since Hill reclaimed the role, Britt has averaged 3.8 catches for 66.3 yards. In the nine games before then, he averaged 2.3 catches for 34.7 yards.

Britt has been especially good lately, averaging 73.3 yards in his last three games. Hill has also been fond of Stedman Bailey, but he doesn't seem to have a clear preference for one or the other.

Of course, the Rams passing attack isn't prolific enough to sustain both, so if you're going to target Britt or Bailey off the waiver wire, make sure it's in a deeper league. You wouldn't want to roll the dice on either in the season's final week if you can help it.


Andre Williams showing more ability
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:19 am ET) Carrying the load for the third straight game with Rashad Jennings sidelined by an ankle injury Week 16 at St. Louis, Giants rookie running back Andre Williams delivered his second 100-yard effort during that stretch, picking up 110 yards on 26 carries. Of course, just like in Week 14, it wasn't the steadiest performance. He had a 50-yard run in that one en route to a career-best 131 yards. He had a 45-yard run en route to his 110 yards in this one.

But that's true for most 100-yard rushing performances. The best backs break long runs occasionally, which makes up for all the 2- and 3-yard gains in between. It's easy to discount Williams' performance because of a long run here or a long run there because he's been so bad on a per-carry basis this season (take that 45-yard run away, and he averaged only 2.6 yards per carry -- oh noes!), but the fact is those long runs count, too. And he barreled over a couple of tacklers to complete it, which was nice to see.

Because Williams is short on receiving ability, his numbers don't look so great when he doesn't break a long run, but with all the carries he's getting now, his chances are better than not of breaking one. He's worth starting in standard leagues Week 17 against Philadelphia.


Rueben Randle not overshadowed for once
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:08 am ET) Since the emergence of rookie Odell Beckham in Week 9, and especially since his even bigger emergence in Week 12, wide receiver Rueben Randle has been an afterthought in the Giants passing game, averaging 2.3 catches for 31.8 yards in the four games leading up to Week 16 at St. Louis. But quarterback Eli Manning finally had enough yards to go around in that one, delivering Beckham his usual eight grabs for 148 yards and still finding Randle on six passes for 132 yards.

Randle even caught a touchdown pass, his first since Week 5. Of course, Beckham caught two and is now up to eight in his last five games, averaging 9.6 catches for 131.4 yards during that stretch.

You see the problem here, don't you? Manning was able to sustain both Beckham and Randle in this one, but that's only because he threw for a season-high 391 yards. If he regresses to a more modest total Week 17 against Philadelphia, we all know Randle is the one taking a back seat. Beckham has other-worldly talent, and Manning is smart enough to deliver him the ball as often as possible.

Of course, the Giants will probably have to throw a lot to keep pace with the Eagles, which bodes well for Randle, but you should still treat him as no more than a No. 3 wide receiver in Fantasy.


Odell Beckham making Eli Manning a stud
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(12:58 am ET) Giants rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham had another eight catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns Week 16 at St. Louis, which has become par for the course for him. It was his second straight game and third game in five with more than 140 receiving yards and multiple scores.

What you may not have noticed, though, is that quarterback Eli Manning has taken off during that same stretch. He had a season-high 391 yards and three touchdowns in Week 16, completing 25 of 32 passes. Over his last five games, he has averaged 297.2 yards with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.

It stands to reason, of course. Beckham couldn't be putting up all those numbers without someone throwing him the ball. This may be one of those rare cases of the wide receiver making the quarterback as opposed to the other way around. Beckham is clearly a special talent, and Manning has made a point to deliver him the ball as often as possible.

It's reason enough to give Manning another chance Week 17 against Philadelphia if you've been suffering with Matthew Stafford or Colin Kaepernick and are somehow still alive in spite of it.


 
 
 
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