It took five weeks, but it looks like we've had our first serious party crasher this season. After racking up 17 catches for 369 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games, Giants receiver Victor Cruz looks like a weekly start for the time being. Unlike guys who have found themselves thrust into a more prominent real-life and fantasy role due to injuries or bye weeks, Cruz appears to have lasting power, taking over the slot position manned by Steve Smith last year. He's getting his due from fantasy writers everywhere, most recently Yahoo!'s Andy Behrens and our own Dan McQuade.
There is another prominent character in the Rise of Cruz, and that is Mario Manningham. Cruz didn't play a meaningful part this season until preseason darling Manningham missed New York's Week 3 win over the Giants due to a concussion suffered the previous week. When Cruz appeared in two-receiver sets toward the end of the Giants' win the following week against the Cardinals, fantasy pundits everywhere started to write off Manningham.
While I'm fully on board the Cruz bandwagon, I do not believe in Manningham's downfall. The Giants offense is one of the best fantasy environments in the league, especially given the team's defensive struggles. Eli Manning, while a popular whipping boy, has proven himself capable of supporting three fantasy-worthy wide receivers. As Hakeem Nicks was becoming an elite receiver last year, Manningham and Smith were both fantasy regulars, the former catching 60 passes for 944 yards and nine touchdowns while the latter hauled in 48 balls for 529 yards and three scores in only nine games. The year before, the trio combined for 211 catches, 2,832 yards and 18 touchdowns, with Nicks the low man in yards at 790. This is a passing game that not only is capable of featuring three fantasy-worthy receivers, but is one we should expect to do so.
So yes, count me as another person feeding the Cruz hype machine. Just don't believe that it gobbled up Manningham's value, as well.
Any discussion about busts for the first third of the fantasy regular season has to start with Rashard Mendenhall. Most experts around the web had him in the top eight, and some, including yours truly, had him as high as five or six. Thus far, his season has been somewhere between "ugly" and "train wreck." The fourth-year back from Illinois has 173 yards on 58 carries, a paltry 3.0 YPC. Even those most bullish on him in the preseason didn't think he'd be a yardage monster, but their (our) argument was he'd make up for it in the touchdown department. He has scored just twice this season. A beat-up, regularly overmatched line hasn't made things easier for Mendenhall and now he's coming off a hamstring injury, for good measure.
Many fantasy experts are expressing caution with Mendenhall this week, including the guys at NFL.com, with no one ranking him in the top 20. While I admit my No. 9 rank for Mendenhall was a bit ambitious, if I could have it back I'd only knock him down a handful of spots. Unless you're very deep at running back, I think Mendenhall's a guy you start this week, albeit with realistic expectations. The Jaguars rank in the top 10 in rushing defense by multiple measures, but they've yet to be tested by a strong rushing attack, so it's not like they create a great deal of matchup pressure. This feels like a game the Steelers will control from start to finish. As long as Mendenhall's hamstring holds up, he should get enough carries to make a significant fantasy impact.
One of this week's most menacing questions is which Washington back, the incumbent Tim Hightower or the challenger Ryan Torain, is the one you want to own. All the usual qualifiers with Mike Shanahan still apply, but Torain's 19-carry, 135-yard performance against the Rams two weeks ago appears to have him at the top of the totem pole. Pat Fitzmaurice at Pro Football Weekly seems to think so, as do ESPN's stable of writers, all of whom rank Torain ahead of Hightower this week. I say both are top-30 options this week, but feel free to add me to the chorus that believes Torain will be the lead back in Washington the rest of the season. The best thing Hightower has had going for him in his average fantasy career has always been the mediocrity of his running back teammates. With a true challenger in Torain, Hightower's days of usefulness beyond a bye-week fill-in may be numbered.
Remember, Torain isn't just coming from nowhere. He carried the ball 164 times last year for 742 yards and four touchdowns, while catching 18 passes for 125 yards and two more scores in 10 games. He went over 100 yards rushing three times, including a 172-yard game against the Buccaneers. Torain's wrist injury in the preseason is largely responsible for Hightow er starting in the first place. If he can remain healthy and survive his head coach's whims, he could end up being a weekly starter the rest of the season.
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