We reach the halfway point of the fantasy season and get some considerable changes in lieu of some huge absences. In addition to getting Brandon Lloyd traded to St. Louis, Ronnie Brown rushed off to Detroit and Mike Sims-Walker heading back to Jacksonville, we'll get our first true looks at quarterbacks Tim Tebow with the Broncos, Christian Ponder with the Vikings and perhaps Carson Palmer for the Raiders. (Only Tebow is worth a start this Sunday among that group of faces in new places.)
While back from bye are the likes of QB Philip Rivers, RB Chris Johnson, WR Larry Fitzgerald and RB Beanie Wells, the additions are hardly enough to make up for our losses.
This is by far the heaviest bye week fantasy owners face yet. We will be doing with the likes of QB Tom Brady, WR Wes Welker, TE Rob Gronkowski, TE Aaron Hernandez, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, K Stephen Gostkowski, QB Michael Vick, RB LeSean McCoy, WR DeSean Jackson, WR Jeremy Maclin, RB Fred Jackson, WR Hakeem Nicks, RB Ahmad Bradshaw, QB Eli Manning, RB Cedric Benson (for two weeks because of a suspension), WR A.J. Green, RB Frank Gore and D/ST 49ers.
It makes this a tough week to fill out a starting lineup and an important week to pay close attention to this Start 'Em, Sit 'Em for Week 7:
Note: The obvious choices are omitted below. We focus our energy on the players you might actually be making a decision on.
• TE Antonio Gates, D/ST Chargers, K Nick Novak
You don't sit Philip Rivers coming off a bye, even if the Jets are No. 1 in fantasy against quarterbacks. Gates' return should keep Rivers plenty productive, even if this game winds up being a defensive struggle. Vincent Jackson will get matched up with the best corner in football, but the Dolphins leading receiver still managed a decent Monday night effort. You have to keep Jackson active, just like Ryan Mathews, Rivers, the D/ST and Novak.
• RB Shonn Greene, TE Dustin Keller, D/ST Jets, K Nick Folk,
Everyone is down on Greene because of the Jets' struggles out of the gate. It is crunch time for the Jets now, especially with a top contender coming to town. This game will feature a lot of runs, and Greene is a must-start, even if the Chargers are top 10 in fantasy against RBs. The Chargers are even better against the pass, No. 2 against WRs. When Mark Sanchez gets a chance to throw, Keller figures to be his target of choice. The Chargers are seventh-worst against tight ends in fantasy. Keller bounces back here. Such an important game, at home no less, should keep the Jets D/ST and kicker productive for fantasy owners, too.
• RB Mike Tolbert, WR Malcom Floyd
Tolbert carried you in the early going this season, but he tailed off and was banged up. He comes out of the bye week against a Jets defense that has been abused by running backs (sixth-worst in fantasy), but they are still going to be geared to stop the run over the long haul. Tolbert is coming off a concussion and hasn't been good on the ground since the emergence of Mathews. Through the air, the Jets haven't allowed a receiving touchdown to a back thus far this season.
• QB Mark Sanchez
This was supposed to be the year Sanchez took off. He was supposed to have a breakthrough game against the suspect Dolphins. Counting this to happen against the Chargers is not a good strategy. Plaxico Burress has been worthless, Derrick Mason has been dealt and -- while you have to start Santonio Holmes out of necessity -- the Chargers are No. 2 in fantasy against WRs. It all boils down to another ho-hum game for Sanchez. You shouldn't be trusting LaDainian Tomlinson in any leagues right now either, even if he is facing his former team and motivated to stick it to them.
• QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner, K Matt Bryant
The Falcons have mostly been disappointments, namely Ryan, but here is a chance to take back some respect in the NFC. The 49ers were able to go into Detroit and win, and the Falcons should be capable of doing so as well. The Lions are fifth-best in fantasy against QBs and RBs, but Turner is too good to sit in any matchup. The Falcons are also going to find something through the air with Ryan and Roddy White, even if Julio Jones is still out. You should obviously be starting the ageless Tony Gonzalez, too. This game should be a very entertaining shootout.
• QB Matthew Stafford, K Jason Hansen
Stafford was slowed some last week by the 49ers but he remains a must-start option through the bye season and a candidate to finish in the top five- to- eight among fantasy passers. Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew will have busy days against a Falcons defense that really hasn't slowed anyone this season. Slowing the Lions on the road should be another tough test.
• RB Jahvid Best, WR Julio Jones
The Lions dealt for Ronnie Brown for a reason: Best is brittle and banged up again. Maurice Morris might get the start, but you won't want to trust him unless out of necessity. The absence of Jones because of a hammy issue makes Harry Douglas a bit more intriguing as a bye-week replacement as well.
• QB Jay Cutler, WR Devin Hester, K Robbie Gould, D/ST Bears
Cutler still doesn't have a go-to man in the passing game, but Hester makes plays in big games and this is a big game for the Bears, who almost certainly have to finish ahead of the Bucs if they are going to get an NFC wild-card spot. Consider Cutler a starter in deeper leagues, especially since Matt Forte (a must-start) is so active in the passing game. If you need a deep sleeper target and don't trust Hester, Johnny Knox is your guy. Defensively, the Bears are getting another tough matchup standings-wise, but the Bucs are hardly threatening offensively.
• QB Josh Freeman, D/ST Buccaneers, K Connor Barth
With LeGarrette Blount (knee) out last week, Freeman showed some of his 2010 form. It gives him hope against a Bears defense that has been bottom-10 against QBs thus far this season. We cannot be sure which of the Bucs receivers are going to be targeted and productive among Preston Parker, Arrelious Benn, Mike Williams or Kellen Winslow, but some combination of them should make Freeman a solid play amid bye weeks. If you're starting the Bucs targets, you should rank them Winslow, Benn and then Williams. Parker is really a tertiary option. Winslow is the best option among them because the Bears have been the worst team in fantasy against TEs to date.
• RB Marion Barber, WR Roy Williams
Barber found the end zone in garbage time last week, but don't bother with him here. The Bucs are middle of the pack against the run, but Forte figures to be relied upon heavily throughout in such an important game. Barber really isn't a goal-line back as much as a temporary fill-in for Forte. The Bears have to go for the kills with Forte in the red zone. As for Williams, no one really is starting him as anything more than a fallback option, but he did make some progress last week. We still would rather see you start Hester or Knox ahead of Williams in all leagues.
• RB Earnest Graham
Graham filled in admirably for Blount last week for the Bucs, but the Bears took away the best back in fantasy last Sunday night in Adrian Peterson and they are going to gear up to do the same here with Graham. The Bears aren't going to let the Bucs impose their will on the ground. Most of your Bucs receivers are bad plays, despite their improvement last week. You just cannot be sure where they are going to give the majority of targets. The premium guys coming into the season, Williams and Winslow, have been largely ineffective. They are sits if you have viable options. This should be a low-scoring, defensive struggle.
• RB Arian Foster, WR Jacoby Jones, TE Owen Daniels, K Neil Rackers, D/ST Texans
This is about as big of a game as the Texans have this season, if they are going to win the AFC South in Indy's down year. The Titans were good early, but they were pounded by the Steelers going into their bye. Most of the Texans look like good plays. Foster is going to be a great play, the start of the week. He'll be a huge factor on all downs, on the ground and through the air for Matt Schaub, who you probably cannot afford to sit either (even with Andre Johnson [hamstring] still out). Daniels struggled last week against a tough defense, but the Titans are in the bottom half of fantasy against TEs. Daniels and Jones are the primary targets, and Kevin Walter isn't a bad play as a flex or third receiver for you.
• RB Chris Johnson, D/ST Titans, K Rob Bironas
The Texans have been in the top half of fantasy against RBs, but if the Titans did anything over their bye week, they had to work on their running game -- mostly with regard to blocking schemes. They will have had almost two weeks to make CJ2K one of the beasts of fantasy again and they should vow to run the ball well in this crucial game for the division lead. Start Johnson in all formats in what could be his best week of the season.
• QB Matt Hasselbeck
The Texans needed to fix their pass defense in order to contend, and they have done it well thus far this season. They are top 10 in fantasy against QBs, even if they haven't been great containing wideouts (bottom half). Hasselbeck has been the reason the Titans are contending right now but the lack of a go-to man with Kenny Britt done for the season may cost him here. Nate Washington isn't a great play and Jared Cook is too inconsistent this early in his career. You have better options than Hasselbeck available to you.
• QB Tim Tebow, RB Willis McGahee, WR Eric Decker, K Matt Prater
The Dolphins are honoring the Florida Gators on a day Tebow takes the starting role for the Broncos. The Dolphins just happen to be the worst team in fantasy against QBs, too. It is a perfect recipe for Tebow to continue to disappoint -- not silence -- his doubters. Tebow will outperform what Mark Sanchez did Monday night and will do it because of the rushing scores. The trade of Brandon Lloyd will open up Decker as the go-to man when Tebow does go down the field. It also will be more about running the ball for the Broncos, and McGahee has a firm hold on the feature-back role right now. There is no real reason to sit any Broncos; in fact, take advantage of the sunken Dolphins.
• RB Daniel Thomas, WR Brandon Marshall, WR Davone Bess
The Broncos are the worst team in fantasy against quarterbacks. While you shouldn't be considering Matt Moore outside of two-quarterback leagues, you do have a chance to pick up some bye-week value with Bess and perhaps Brian Hartline or Anthony Fasano. Marshall and Bess are the real plays. Reggie Bush is more receiver than rusher, so consider Thomas a must-start this week. He will outplay Bush, who is merely a flex option here.
• RB Knowshon Moreno
Moreno caught a touchdown pass from Tebow before the Broncos bye week, but Denver clearly favors McGahee as the running back. Moreno is a low-end flex option you probably should avoid right now, even amid bye weeks.
• RB Marshawn Lynch, WR Sidney Rice
The Browns have given up only two rushing touchdowns, but the Seahawks are a team designed to establish the run and they will do so here. Charlie Whitehurst will likely start with Tarvaris Jackson (pectoral) still banged up, but that is actually good news for the Seahawks receivers. Backup quarterbacks tend to make lower-tier receivers more productive -- because they work more often with them in practice -- so you should consider a Doug Baldwin in addition to Rice here. The Browns are the fourth-best team in fantasy against WRs, but Rice has earned the right to start regularly through the bye weeks.
• WR Greg Little, TE Ben Watson
Colt McCoy hasn't gotten much done to date, but the move of Little to the starting lineup can help ignite him. The Browns' leading receiver is still Watson, who would be an elite option if Evan Moore hadn't stolen red-zone targets from him. Watson is still the play, though. The Seahawks stop the run fairly well, but Montario Hardesty is a nice flex option if you are missing Peyton Hillis (hamstring) or a bye-week back.
• RB Peyton Hillis (hamstring)
Hillis wasn't dealt, but clearly the Browns aren't counting on him right now. He is banged up with a hamstring issue, and even if he plays, he will be limited. The Browns are also facing one of the more underrated rushing defenses in the NFL. Only the Cowboys, 49ers, Ravens and Packers have allowed fewer rushing yards to date. That is some company. You might not even want to start Hillis if he was 100 percent.
• RB Ryan Torain
We have to figure the Redskins are going to stick with Torain despite the egg he put up against the Eagles' suspect run defense last week. Tim Hightower (shoulder) is not 100 percent, and the Panthers have given up the most points to running backs in fantasy. If John Beck starts, downgrade Santana Moss and Fred Davis, but you probably will still start them.
• RB DeAngelo Williams
The Redskins have been pretty decent against quarterbacks and running backs, but you have to keep Cam Newton active for his potential for rushing touchdowns. You probably will also be starting Jonathan Stewart as a flex, but here is a vote of confidence for Williams. He should have a bounce-back week as the feature back in a run-heavy game.
• QB John Beck
The Redskins are going to have a revolving door at quarterback and running back the next few weeks. Beck is not a viable option to fantasy owners. This game will be a battle of attrition, so while there is no real reason to sit any Panthers or Redskins, it is likely you won't want to be counting on them either.
• QB Tony Romo, RB DeMarco Murray, WR Miles Austin, WR Dez Bryant, TE Jason Witten, D/ST Cowboys, K Dan Bailey
This is as good as it gets for your Cowboys. The Rams are fifth-worst against QBs, fourth-worst against RBs and the worst against WRs in fantasy to date. They actually are second-best against TEs, but you shouldn't sit Witten in any formats. The Cowboys struggled coming off the bye, but the Rams are not a matchup to worry about here. This should be your best week for your Cowboys yet, especially for Murray, who fills in for the injured Felix Jones (high-ankle sprain). Consider Murray a great sleeper in all formats. Tashard Choice might even prove productive enough to be a solid flex option for you.
• RB Steven Jackson, QB Sam Bradford, WR Brandon Lloyd
This is a "sit all" game for your Rams. Bradford might give way to A.J. Feeley, which would be disastrous all around. Regardless, Jackson faces one of the most improved rushing defenses in the NFL. The Cowboys have allowed a league-low 296 rushing yards and just one score. Only the Ravens and 49ers have been better overall against backs in fantasy. Lloyd, acquired via trade, gives the Rams a solid option in the passing game, but he isn't going to be fully up to speed on the offense just yet. The uncertainty at quarterback will also hurt him significantly here. Don't use any of your Rams. This one is going to get ugly and there is hardly hope for the passing game in garbage time either.
• QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Rashard Mendenhall, WR Mike Wallace, K Shaun Suisham, D/ST Steelers
This amounts to a "start all" game for the Steelers. They have been much better all around of late and even Hines Ward has looked revived as Big Ben has dropped his turnover rate. The Steelers are blocking a lot better, too. Mendenhall is a must-start against a Cardinals team that is in the bottom half of fantasy against RBs. If you're looking for a scrap-heap receiver, give a look to Antonio Brown or even Emmanuel Sanders, the latter of which is bound to reel in a long touchdown eventually.
• WR Larry Fitzgerald
This is the only legit option the Cardinals have against the Steelers defense. You can start Beanie Wells if you have to, but the Steelers are going to improve steadily against the run. They are already the best in fantasy against WRs and third to only the Ravens and Jets against QBs.
• QB Kevin Kolb, WR Early Doucet, TE Todd Heap, K Jay Feeley, D/ST Cardinals
This isn't quite a "sit all" game for the Cardinals but you cannot be optimistic about any of their options against the Steelers defense. Kolb is especially a rough option, particularly since the Steelers are going to focus their energy on taking out the Cards' best offensive weapons, Fitzgerald and Wells. The Steelers are going to steadily improve defensively and you won't want any of your fantasy options playing against them down the stretch.
• RB Jackie Battle
The Raiders are the third-worst team in the NFL against the run, and Battle looks spry enough to take away the primary ball-carrier roll from the aging Thomas Jones. Dexter McCluster is an intriguing sleeper, too, along with WR Steve Breaston and QB Matt Cassel. They are decent bye-week replacements. Dwayne Bowe is an obvious must start.
• WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, K Sebastian Janikowski, D/ST Raiders
We cannot be sure how the Raiders offense will play out behind the must-start Darren McFadden. Carson Palmer is reportedly starting off the street, but counting on him or Kyle Boller to make for a big offensive week is a long shot. DHB, though, proved productive enough when Jason Campbell went down to trust here. The Raiders defense matches up fairly well against the Chiefs, so consider them a solid start as a bye-week replacement.
• RB Thomas Jones, K Ryan Succop, D/ST Chiefs
Jones looks washed up, and despite a great matchup fantasy-wise, he shouldn't be trusted unless out of necessity. Battle and McCluster are going to be getting more and more touches, and perhaps even in the red zone. A replacement quarterback situation usually is something to take advantage of, but the Chiefs are not good enough to use -- particularly since the Raiders are a top five team against opposing D/STs in fantasy.
• WR Jordy Nelson, TE Jermichael Finley, K Mason Crosby, D/ST Packers
The Bears beat on the Vikings on Sunday night and this is yet another "start all" game for the Packers. The defense will get to feast on a rookie making his first start and the receivers all look productive right now, even the old Donald Driver. Aaron Rodgers and Greg Jennings are must-starts, while Nelson, Finley, Crosby and the D/ST might as well be, too.
• WR Percy Harvin
We are going to go out on a limb and suggest -- er, hope -- Harvin will be ignited with the QB change from Donovan McNabb to Christian Ponder. Adrian Peterson has another bad matchup, but you have to run him out there. Harvin is the only other Vikings player to consider in any league until Ponder gets his feet under him. We doubt that happens against the defending champs in his first start.
• RB Ryan Grant
Well, maybe this isn't exactly a "start all" Packers game. The running game is still a mess and the Green Bay duo still shares carries to the point of crippling each other for fantasy owners. The only saving grace would be a blowout and running out the clock on the Vikings defense, but that defense isn't as bad as it has shown against the run (10th worst against RBs in fantasy). James Starks is good enough to start, but the aged Grant probably not.
• QB Christian Ponder, TE Visanthe Shiancoe, WR Michael Jenkins, K Ryan Longwell, D/ST Vikings
Ponder might get some garbage-time yardage again in the second half, but this should be an ugly start to his era. The Packers are going to give much ground, even if they are up four touchdowns in the first half. Don't use any Vikings not named Peterson or Harvin, unless you merely don't want to cut someone because of so many players being on bye.
• WR Reggie Wayne, WR Pierre Garcon, TE Dallas Clark, K Adam Vinatieri
There is little chance the Colts pull off an upset on the road here, but Curtis Painter has at least been good enough to make Garcon productive. Clark finally got in on the action last week, too, while Wayne remains good enough to start through the bye season. The Saints figure to get up early and Painter should get plenty of chances to air it out in garbage time. You might even consider the completely absent Austin Collie as a desperation play here.
• RB Mark Ingram, RB Darren Sproles, WR Marques Colston, K John Kasay, D/ST Saints
This is a "start all" game for the Saints, save for the diminished returns of receivers Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore since the return to health and prominence by Colston. You can use Meachem as necessary, but you need a prayer or two to get anything out of Moore or Henderson. It is clear TE Jimmy Graham is the leading target for the equal must-start Drew Brees. The Saints running backs have been a timeshare mess, with Sproles actually outperforming the Ingram and the incumbent Pierre Thomas. We advise using Ingram and Sproles in this matchup, though.
• RB Donald Brown
Delone Carter is the Colts back to have with Joseph Addai still out, but we wouldn't advise either Colts back. Brown might be tempting as a red-zone TD threat -- he scored last week -- but the Colts don't figure to stay in the game long enough to stick with the run. Carter is a marginal option to use only out of necessity. Brown should be avoided altogether.
• QB Joe Flacco, WR Anquan Boldin, D/ST Ravens, K Billy Cundiff
Yet another lopsided night game that demands all of your Ravens. You might even find some value out of fringe guys like TE Ed Dickson -- the Jags are eighth-worst in fantasy vs. TEs -- RB Ricky Williams and WR Torrey Smith. If you have Ravens, you stand the chance to stage a huge fantasy rally in this Monday nighter.
• WR Mike Thomas, TE Marcedes Lewis, WR Mike Sims-Walker
Blaine Gabbert is going to be junk against a Ravens defense that is No. 2 against QBs. It should make for a huge blowout and worthless Jaguars, especially the recently re-acquired Sims-Walker. You likely cannot afford to sit Maurice Jones-Drew during the bye season, but he won't be any great shakes against a Ravens front that is second to only the 49ers against RBs in fantasy. This is about as obvious as a "sit all" game as we get in fantasy.
Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com, including the Start 'em, Sit 'em, the Weekend Fantasy Watchlist and his Sunday night staple Fantasy Football Fast Forward. If you need a further clarification on lineups this week hit him up on Twitter. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy.