Should owners be wearing of drafting Jamaal Charles after his injury this week? What about Michael Vick -- can he serve as a starting fantasy quarterback? Our fantasy experts Michael Beller and Eric Mack discuss that and more in this week's fantasy roundtable.
1. The Chiefs got a scare earlier this week when Jamaal Charles had to be carted off the practice field with a foot injury. Early reports suggest he avoided serious injury, but should this change the way fantasy owners view the talented, yet slight of stature, running back?
Mack: Abso-friggin-lutely. This should be a warning sign for owners who think Charles should be considered a top-five running back. I love Charles' breakaway talent, but I would rather have other backs like Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Doug Martin, Marshawn Lynch and Ray Rice, who have proven to be more durable and more capable of a high-volume workload. We're still unsure if Charles will be a 10-touchdown threat or withstand the week-in, week-out workload of 20-plus touches. The other backs have proven they can, and they should be capable of repeating this season. Don't draft Charles with a top-five pick, and if you do get him, back him up by drafting Knile Davis; I have a hunch that he's going to have an impressive preseason now that Charles will be shackled to the sideline before Week 1.
Beller: Look, we already knew Charles was an injury risk. The fact that he had a scare in the preseason shouldn't really change the perception of him. Either you were already worried about him getting hurt, or, like me, you're guzzling the Charles Kool-Aid and will write this off as a bullet dodged. To say we're unsure that Charles is a threat to find the end zone 10 times is ludicrous. Of course he's at least a threat to do that, and I think it's likely he does score double-digit touchdowns.
Two important nuggets to take away from the Chiefs' first preseason game: First, Charles touched the ball eight times on their opening drive, including three receptions for 27 yards. Second, he scored on a 1-yard-touchdown run. If Charles starts getting the goal line carries, he's not only a consensus top-five player. He could threaten Peterson for the top spot. I understand I'm higher on Charles than most, but I think anyone who lets him slide outside the top five will sorely regret it.
2. Michael Vick looked right at home in Chip Kelly's offense in the Eagles' first preseason game. Can he be counted on as a starter in a 12-team league this year?
Mack: Vick certainly showed plenty of zip on his passes, and DeSean Jackson looks capable of a huge breakthrough year. The problems with drafting Vick are his consistency and health, along with the presence of backup quarterback Nick Foles. Foles actually ran Chip Kelly's up-tempo packages when he was in the game this past weekend. He'll get the start in the second preseason game, so Vick starting isn't a sure thing for the Eagles -- although my bet is on him that he will. Vick will be drafted well after the top 12 fantasy quarterbacks, so, no, he shouldn't be counted on as a starter in a 12-team league. He certainly has a nice ceiling as a late-round backup fantasy quarterback, though.
Beller: I love the idea of going after Vick late in drafts. He's the kind of guy who will come cheap and has the ability to end the year inside the top 10 at his position. But like Mack says, we're not even sure if he'll be the Eagles' starter. Fantasy owners certainly can't think that for now, and realistically, they can't even if Kelly does give him the Week 1 nod. Foles looked equally as capable running Philadelphia's offense, though it was against the Patriots' second-string defense. We'll likely know more after Foles faces a starting defense this week. For now, consider Vick a high-upside play.
3. Speaking of high-upsides, fantasy owners understand the value in targeting high-upside players late. Give the readers some of your favorite deep running back sleepers who could elevate into the fantasy mainstream this year.
Mack: There are a number of handcuff backs who could become starters if something happens to the elite backs ahead of them on the depth chart. One of my favorites is Ben Tate, who's in a contract year with the Texans. Shane Vereen, Bernard Pierce, Bryce Brown, Giovani Bernard, Bilal Powell and Kendall Hunter are also in that category. Right now I am looking keenly at the underrated likes of LaMichael James of the 49ers and Ronnie Hillman of the Broncos. Those are two running back-friendly offenses and those two started preseason Game 1. If they wind up in a starter's role, they're going to provide great bang for their buck.
Beller: Mack named a bunch of them, so I'll go ahead and poach two of my favorites. I'm expecting big things from Giovani Bernard, and he's already starting to creep up draft boards. I made sure to get my Bengals-to-the-AFC-Championship prediction on record with a bunch of friends (and Twitter) before the Hard Knocks bandwagon takes away all of that pick's cachet, and Bernard is a major reason why I think the Bengals will end up being one of the best teams in the league this year. He was a monster in two years at North Carolina, but his most important skill, at least at present for the Bengals, is his pass-catching ability. He had 92 receptions, racking up 852 receiving yards and six touchdowns in two season. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has his charms, but he is not a credible receiver out of the backfield. Bernard brings a new element to this offense, and one that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden will put to good use.
I'm targeting LaMichael James late in every league I'm in this year. He's a perfect fit for the read-option alongside Colin Kaepernick, and I'm betting we see more of him and Kendall Hunter, and less of Frank Gore than we did in 2012. Now, if all three are healthy and playing, James won't make much of a mark in fantasy leagues. However, if one of them goes down, or if James proves himself worthy of second-banana status over Hunter, something this offense suits him to do, he could provide a huge return on investment. It's a low-risk pick with the potential for an extremely high reward.
4. Which consensus top-20 running back isn't getting enough love from the industry? How high would you be comfortable taking him?
Mack: Let's go with Stevan Ridley and DeMarco Murray. They are two of my favorite breakout running backs this season, because they have the potential to perform like top-five fantasy backs. First, Ridley is the leader of the Patriots running back rotation, and he managed a 1,200-yard, 10-touchdown workhorse in what was a pass-happy New England offense a year ago. With the loss of Tom Brady's top five receiving targets from a year ago (assuming Rob Gronkowski's back keeps him out of the start of the season), the Pats could transform into one of the run-heaviest teams in the NFL. They ran the ball right down the Eagles' throats on their first drive of the preseason, scoring a touchdown without attempting a pass. This could be a great running game and Ridley is going to lead it and be a huge beneficiary. Murray is a second pick because he is an injury-risk sleeper. I hate injury-prone players in fantasy football, but Murray might be a bit undervalued amid the injury-prone perception. If he stays healthy finally, he has the ability to be a 1,400-yard, 15-touchdown monster.
Beller: This is an easy one for me. Nearly every fantasy expert on the Internet is sleeping on Matt Forte. Now before you lob accusations of homerism at me, allow me to explain this pick is motivated by my head, not my heart. Since entering the league, Forte has been one of the best pass-catching running backs. In 75 career games, he has 267 receptions for 2,325 yards and nine touchdowns. Despite playing all but one game last year, he caught a career-low 44 passes. New coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer won't let that happen again. Forte will be a frequent target in the Bears' new pass-happy offense. With weapons all over the offense for quarterback Jay Cutler, including tight end Martellus Bennett who can open up the middle of the field, Forte will have plenty of room to operate coming out of the backfield. Eighty catches with 1,800 total yards is well within his reach.
5. Last year, it was Eric Decker and Vincent Jackson. In 2011, it was A.J. Green and Percy Harvin. Which mid-round receiver do you believe will significantly outperform his draft stock?
Mack: Well, you can pick up some tips from my three-year receiver strategy preview, my PPR league primer and my wide receiver primer. Among my favorites in that category are Vincent Brown and Greg Little; they are 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown caliber talents ready to erupt, and will come at a reasonable cost. Also, I love Alshon Jeffery, Aaron Dobson (or any of the Patriots sleeper receivers after Danny Amendola), Mohamed Sanu, DeAndre Hopkins, Keenan Allen, Ryan Broyles and Rueben Randle (if Hakeem Nicks is injured, as always).
Beller: With Mike Wallace down in Miami, Antonio Brown ascends to the top of the depth chart in Pittsburgh. By season's end, he'll be worthy of topping a fantasy depth chart at receiver, as well. As I pointed out in my target analysis, Wallace received 25.1 percent of the Steelers' targets last year, and nearly 30 percent of their red zone pass attempts. Not only will Brown siphon off plenty of those, Emmanuel Sanders does not present the same threat as a No. 2 that he did behind Wallace. Brown should easily fall somewhere in the 1,000-1,200-yard range with eight to 10 scores.