The injury bug has seemingly had more bite this preseason than in years past, taking down a number of top players for fantasy owners, including Percy Harvin, Jeremy Maclin, Dennis Pitta and Danario Alexander. The bug kept up its devilish spirit in Week 3 of the preseason, though the most important injury involved a player at a position of indirect importance in fantasy leagues.
It's no secret that woeful quarterback play in Arizona killed Larry Fitzgerald's fantasy value last season. The team immediately addressed that during the spring, bringing in Carson Palmer to unseat the putrid trio of Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and Ryan Lindley. However, Palmer was just one piece of the revamped passing game. Arizona used the seventh overall pick in the draft on North Carolina guard Jonathan Cooper. Not only would he start from day one, but also he looked to be the key to the reworked line. That will no longer be the case, at least not in 2013. Cooper broke his leg Saturday night, and may miss the entire season.
So what does this mean for fantasy owners? Well, you should downgrade all the Cardinals on your draft board. The news is especially disconcerting for Fitzgerald. A receiver cannot succeed if his quarterback doesn't have time, and a quarterback can't get the time he needs without the line doing its job. Cooper's injury makes it that much more challenging for Arizona's line to protect Palmer.
You shouldn't overreact and knock Fitz way down your cheat sheet, but I'm still placing him a few notches lower than I originally had him, sliding him to ninth from seventh and moving up Victor Cruz and Roddy White. Palmer gets a slight downgrade, but fantasy players shouldn't have been counting on him as anything more than a backup, anyway.
Rashard Mendenhall, who suffered what appears to be a non-serious knee injury of his own Saturday, receives a slight downgrade, as well. I've moved him to 28th from 25th on my running back board.
With that, let's proceed to the other main takeaways for fantasy owners from Week 3 of the preseason.
• We didn't just see the good and the bad of what Reggie Bush can be in Detroit this year. We saw the great and the terrible. On one hand, the so-called running back caught five passes for 103 yards. On the other, he had six carries for one yard. Bush and the Lions are a great marriage of player and team, but it would still be nice to see him more productive on the ground. Meanwhile, Joique Bell ran five times for 52 yards, and he, too, could have a role in the offense alongside Bush and Mikel Leshoure.
• Interesting developments in the Patriots' receiving corps this week, where the performance of one player and non-performance of another give fantasy owners something to think about. First, Kenbrell Thompkins continued his fantastic preseason, catching eight passes for 116 yards. He's still going very late in drafts, yet he plays with Tom Brady for what figures to be one of the best teams in the league. Remember his name.
Meanwhile, Danny Amendola missed the game with an undisclosed injury. For most players, Bill Belichick obfuscating about an injury would be par for the course. With Amendola, though, it's cause for concern. We know he can be a Wes Welker clone when healthy. That caveat is the tricky part, as he has played 16 games just once in his four-year career. Late drafters need to keep an eye on this.
• For the beating that Ray Rice has taken at drafts this year, he still looked every bit the safe first rounder on Thursday. The Ravens fed Rice 16 times and he converted those touches into 62 yards and a one-yard touchdown run. The yards per carry may not be impressive, but the volume sure is nice. Rice's value has rallied as we've drawn nearer to draft season. As long as the Ravens continue to rely on him to the degree they have in the last few years, he is as safe a pick as he has ever been.
• The Raiders may end up as one of the worst teams in the league this year, but the Bears first-team offense looked great on Friday night. Jay Cutler was 12-of-21 for 142 yards and a touchdown, and his receivers dropped four passes. The scoring strike was a 32-yard swing pass to Matt Forte, who added 76 rushing yards on six carries. The touchdown came out of a formation in which Forte and Michael Bush were both on the field, something the Bears figure to do a lot more this year. Alshon Jeffery led all Bears receivers for a chance, catching seven passes for 77 yards. This is an offense that's going under the radar right now, but could be quite powerful once the real games start.
• Yes, it was a tough matchup for Eddie Lacy and the Green Bay run game against a stout Seattle defense Friday night, but he showed just why I'm staying away from him this year. Without a decent push from the line, Lacy couldn't get anything going, losing five yards on eight carries. And when Lacy can't get anything going on the ground, he can't get anything going period, as he's a non-factor in the passing game. I have serious trouble believing that someone who doesn't register at all through the air can be an impact fantasy player given the way the Packers run their offense.
• C.J. Spiller gave early drafters a scare when he went down and had to be tended to by the Bills' training staff. It turned out he received a cut after getting spiked by someone on the Redskins. No big deal. He returned to the game and finished with 39 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. I've got him as the No. 5 overall player.
• I've been selling Andrew Luck this preseason, but the Colts' passing game looked great against what should be, at worst, a decent Cleveland defense. Luck completed 16-of-25 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns against one pick. He spread the ball around to six receivers, finding Reggie Wayne seven times for 79 yards. I continue to believe Luck isn't a fantasy starter, especially with the depth at the quarterback position, but a few performances like that early in the season and he could prove me wrong.
• Enough has been said about Rex Ryan playing Mark Sanchez in the fourth quarter of a preseason game, only to see his likely starter go down with a shoulder injury. Neither Sanchez nor Geno Smith are fantasy relevant, so I won't pile on here. All I'll say is I look forward to Ryan's work as a studio analyst in 2014.
Both Bilal Powell (11 carries, 16 yards) and Chris Ivory (eight carries, 15 yards) did their part to prove the Jets have the worst offense in the league. Powell did find the end zone and remains on the top of the depth chart. There comes a point when they're worth going after in drafts, but that's not until somewhere in the neighborhood of pick No. 80 at the earliest.
On the other side of the ball, the Jets' defense played great, outside of one big play, an 84-yard touchdown run by David Wilson.
• I've been resistant to David Wilson, but his upside is starting to win me over. I still won't break the bank for him, but I'm coming around on his utility as an RB2. I wouldn't be worried about Eli Manning's performance. Victor Cruz sat this one out with his heel injury, but all signs point to him being ready for Week 1. Couple that with what should still be an above-average Jets defense, and Eli's 13-of-29 is excusable.
• The whole Lamar Miller-Daniel Thomas this-is-more-of-a-timeshare-than-you-think-it-is situation felt, and still feels, as nothing more than coachspeak from Joe Philbin. Lamar Miller had 35 yards on eight carries against the Buccaneers on Saturday, while Thomas had three yards on seven totes. Talent usually wins out in the NFL. You should still feel safe aggressively targeting Miller.
• Josh Freeman had a woeful day, completing just six of his 16 pass attempts for 59 yards. He remains the only obstacle between fantasy greatness for Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. I like both receivers at their average draft position, though.
• The best dual quarterback show of the weekend came in Pittsburgh, where both Ben Roethlisberger and Alex Smith looked capable of getting their teams back to the playoffs. Roethlisberger picked up 8.7 yards per attempt, going 13-of-19 for 166 yards and a touchdown. Antonio Brown, one of my favorite breakout candidates this year, caught three of those passes for 61 yards.
Smith, meanwhile, went 17-of-24 for 158 yards and one touchdown, showing just how large of an upgrade he represents over Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn. No doubt Dwayne Bowe will benefit, something that showed up in his six-catch, 73-yard performance. These are two frisky teams who can contribute more to the fantasy world than they get credit for right now. I see them competing with one another for a playoff spot in December.
• So, we're all pretty much sold on the bounceback potential of Michael Vick, right? He looked great again Saturday, going 15-of-23 for 184 yards with a touchdown and an interception against the Jaguars. He also ran for 53 yards on seven carries, and could have had another passing touchdown, but he overthrew Brent Celek. There's no player going later in drafts with legitimate top-five-at-his-position upside than Vick.
Speaking of Celek, he had four catches for 54 yards, and led the team with seven targets. He's building some nice sleeper buzz, especially since the best strategy at the tight end position seems to be "Jimmy Graham or wait."
• Jacksonville blew off some fireworks of its own, with Chad Henne leading the charge. Justin Blackmon caught four passes for 50 yards and a touchdown, and remains one of my favorite targets this year. For value purposes, I love the fact that he's suspended for the first four games. That will scare off gunshy owners and make him a draft-day bargain. I have no doubt he'll still post fantasy-starter numbers in just 12 games.
• Speaking of value, we saw a ton on display in Dallas Saturday night. Exhibit A: Tony Romo. Typically ranked outside the top-10 quarterbacks by the industry, Romo faced down a strong Cincinnati defense and went 13-of-18 for 137 yards and two touchdowns. As I said in my Cowboys season preview, Romo is a guy who is downgraded in fantasy because it's fun to pick on him. If you take the snark out of it, you'll see that he has a career 7.9 YPA, has a great stable of weapons around him and, just for the record, is consistently one of the best fourth-quarter QBs in the league. How anyone ranks Colin Kaepnerick or Russell Wilson ahead of him is a mystery to me.
Exhibit B: DeMarco Murray ran 12 times for 51 yards and caught two passes for 14 yards, including a seven-yard TD. You're rolling the dice because of his injury history, but even 12 or 13 healthy games out of him would likely outperform his average draft position of 43.3.
Exhibit C: Giovani Bernard looked explosive, picking up 39 yards on six carries and notching two receptions for 17 yards. BenJarvus Green-Ellis had just five yards on five carries. The closer we get to the season, the larger Bernard's role in this offense grows. He definitely has the upside of a weekly flex play.
• Another week gone by and we still don't have total clarity in the Broncos' running back situation. Even with the mixed performance from Montee Ball on Saturday, though, he looks more and more like the guy. He got 14 carries to Ronnie Hillman's six, and converted at the goal line, scoring from one yard out. He also caught two passes for 27 yards while Hillman caught three for 15. Both backs had three targets. Add it all up, and this week feels like a win for Ball. A starring role in this offense could end up being very lucrative, just as it was for Willis McGahee last year, and Knowshon Moreno after him. Bet on Ball being the guy this season.
• Steven Jackson and Chris Johnson are coming off the board in the middle or end of the second round in the typical fantasy draft, and both looked worthy of that status Saturday. Jackson picked up 51 yards on 12 carries and caught three passes for 15 yards. Johnson continued his strong preseason, running for 65 yards on 11 carries. If you're looking for a running back somewhere between picks 15 and 20, there's a great chance you'll be having an internal debate over these two. Remember the draft strategy series from earlier this summer. When two guys are this close, often it's best to go with the one on the better offense. Atlanta has a star quarterback in Matt Ryan, potentially the best WR duo in the league with Julio Jones and Roddy White, and eventual Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. Tennessee, meanwhile, is an offense in flux. Give me Jackson 10 times out of 10.
• If you've been paying attention this summer, you've noticed me cautiously beating the drum for Ryan Mathews. Well now I'm throwing caution to the wind and giving him my wholehearted endorsement. Mathews racked up 51 yards on 14 carries against a strong Arizona defense. More importantly, he was able to plunge into the end zone on a one-yard score. I know what you're thinking. He has burned me, too. But we can't let those bad memories keep us away from what could be a huge steal this year. This offense is built around him. He's easily San Diego's best playmaker. There aren't many guys who are the best players on their team going in the middle of the fourth round in an average draft. Mathews is just that kind of guy.
• The Saints' defense is still very bad. Matt Schaub went 15-of-26 for 213 yards, good for 8.2 YPA. Ben Tate picked up 74 yards on 11 carries. Andre Johnson hauled in seven passes for 131 yards. Just like last year, fantasy owners will want to take advantage of what looks like the worst defense in the league.
In that same game, Mark Ingram had four carries for 24 yards. Pierre Thomas carried four times for 19 yards, though he added a 51-yard TD reception. Translation: Other than Darren Sproles, projecting week-to-week running back production from the Saints will be a crapshoot. Stay away from Ingram and Thomas until very late in your draft.
• We saw the ups and downs of the Colin Kaepernick Experience on Sunday night. He was uneven on San Francisco's first two drives, missing on four of his first five pass attempts. On the Niners' third possession, however, he led an 11-play, 84-yard touchdown drive, capping it off with a five-yard touchdown pass to Quinton Patton on a third-and-4 play in which he rolled right and bought time before Patton came open. He went 5-of-7 for 68 yards on the drive, picking up first downs on four of those completions (including the touchdown). I'm lower on Kaepernick than most in the industry, but I acknowledge that when he's playing as he did in the third drive against the Vikings, he can carry fantasy teams.