Fantasy football roundtable: Talent, schedule make Luck early surprise
The NFL fantasy season is full of decisions. Join SI's roundtable of fantasy experts each week to help sort through the lineup choices, injuries and waiver-wire options that can make or break a season. Each week, we'll also feature a question from our readers, which you are free to submit each Sunday of the season at the @SInow Twitter feed.
1. Andrew Luck has improved every week of the season. Has he become an every-week starter or should owners still be cautious?
Mike Beacom: He's a fringe starter at this point. Sure, he ranks third in passing yards, but his completion percentage and touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio leave a lot to be desired. He ranks 24th in yards per attempt (i.e. big-play factor) and eight quarterbacks have more passing touchdowns per start. Fantasy owners will like the fact that Luck and the Colts pass the ball because they need to, not necessarily because they choose to, but in terms of fantasy production he'll be hit-or-miss for much of the season.
Will Carroll: Luck is good. No, really good. On an emotional day, he had a great half in Week 5. Part of it was Reggie Wayne, but he should have Wayne the rest of his games this year as well. My question is how much was emotion? The Colts have some talent, but that was inspired football. I like Luck, but no one was asking if he was an every-down guy when they were losing against the Jags. Luck is still a rookie, will still have growing pains and will still be a must-own in keeper leagues.
Eric Mack: He is an every-week starter at home right now, but the jury is out when he plays on the road. You might not want him as your fantasy starter in fantasy Week 15 at Houston. But the fact the rookie is already one of the top-12 fantasy quarterbacks regardless of the matchup makes it possible for you to trade the quarterback you drafted as your starter. Luck has already had his bye and you can turn your previous No. 1 signal-caller into help at another position now.
David Sabino: Until Week 15 there is not a single team on the Colts schedule that would make me shy away from using Luck, who has thrown for 300 yards in three of his four games so far. So unless I have someone like Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, and so long as his receiving corps, namely Reggie Wayne, stays healthy, yes, I'd use Luck on a weekly basis with maybe that one exception against the Texans.
2. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson have seen their early-season promise falter the last few weeks. Is this a function of a tough schedule or a harbinger for the rest of the season?
Beacom: Both are banged up, the Bills are facing one good defense after another and the team seems content splitting carries. Group Buffalo's backs with New England and Carolina as complicated situations fantasy owners may want to stay away from.
Carroll: Spiller has the bigger upside since he can break off the big play at any given time. Having shown it to the world, he's going to get more attention. He and the offense will need to adjust and he'll have to exploit mistakes and show that he can create big plays rather than wait for them to happen. That's the reality of Spiller and why he wasn't talked about as a top-tier back. Think back a couple weeks to the expectations there. He wasn't drafted at all in nearly half of leagues and there's a reason for that. Jackson's down a bit on injuries, but he's also not an elite back. I think they may be a victim of unrealistic expectations more than them failing to meet them.
Mack: The Bills had some success at home throwing the ball around in blowouts. They realized they need to get back to what their strengths are: Running Jackson and Spiller early and often, and throwing to them out of the backfield when they are not merely handing it to them. The schedule will be tough in Week 6 (at Arizona), Week 8 (bye), Week 9 (at Houston), Week 11 (vs. Miami), Week 15 (vs. Seattle) and Week 16 (at Miami), though. That rough track and the fact both backs are going to take a chunk out of each other might make it a time to sell on them.
Sabino: They've been put in a tough position as both are deserving of being a lead back, however neither stood much of a chance against the 49ers this past week and neither was fully healthy the week before. Their individual performances rely largely on each other's health. The only way one separates himself is if the other goes back down. But with the Cardinals, Texans and Dolphins in three of the next five games, there won't be much week-to-week consistency for either.
3. Cam Newton has produced few of the explosive performances many fantasy owners expected before the season. Will he turn things around, and if not, who can be trusted in the Panthers offense?
Beacom: Take away his dismal showing on Sunday and Newton has not been all that bad this season; through his first four games he had scored three rushing touchdowns and was on pace to throw for more than 4,000 yards. The only area of concern is his low touchdown pass total. Forgive him for struggling against Seattle -- who hasn't this season?
Carroll: Without Newton being on his game -- and his Week 5 performance worries me more than last week's -- then no. The running game is a mish-mash by design, and Steve Smith is a product of Newton's scrambling and strong arm. Newton right now is a hold. There's no injury and all the talent is still there, but for whatever reason, he's not getting results.
Mack: The latter part of the question is the problem: The Panthers don't run with their backs enough. That makes Newton a one-man show on a team that doesn't have great receiving targets down field. And then, what's worse, Newton is showing some signs of his struggles getting to him mentally. It isn't a disaster yet, but the schedule really is not that easy with the bye, Dallas, Chicago, Washington, Denver, Tampa Bay and Philly on the schedule through Week 12. If you're behind and not in position to be a fantasy playoff team, you might want to consider making a bold move at quarterback and trading Newton.
Sabino: In 16 of the last 17 games he's played, Newton has failed to throw for 300 yards. His rushing this season, while fine, is not making up for the lack of precision in his passing. He was downright awful late against the Seahawks, which leads me to believe that if I'm counting on him, maybe it's time to have a Plan B. Perhaps they'll make major changes during the bye week, but I'm not confident. As Cam goes, so does that offense. Stay clear of everyone but Greg Olsen, his safety valve, right now.
4. Rashard Mendenhall posted a promising season debut in Week 5. How much confidence do you have in him in the weeks ahead?
Beacom: This is what we know: The Steelers running game generated an average of 65 yards per game (2.6 yards per carry) in the team's first three games; on Sunday, Pittsburgh gained 136 yards on 31 carries with Mendenhall handling the bulk of the load. His 5.8-yard average was 2.6 yards better than Isaac Redman against Philadelphia. My confidence has been fully restored.
Carroll: I was huge on Mendenhall before the season as a sleeper. I thought he'd be back at this point and could be stolen in mid-rounds. Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles have shown that running backs can come back quickly and effectively from ACL surgery. Mendenhall showed me on one play -- that around end score -- two of the three things I want to see from a back coming off surgery. He had speed and burst, and he was able to turn the corner. He did not make a hard cut that I saw (can't wait for the game film on him) but he's the Steelers RB1 going forward and a huge addition to that offense.
Mack: That was no slouch defense he faced Sunday. "The savior is back," Ben Roethlisberger said. The Steelers have already had their bye, and the schedule is not tough in terms of run defenses until Week 11 vs. Baltimore. The next five weeks shape up well for Mendenhall as a starter in all leagues. He will lead more than a few teams to the fantasy postseason, which means his owners got great value relative to draft position. For those who have him, consider dealing your previous running starter for help at another position right now.
Sabino: My skepticism about Mendenhall was centered around the Steelers' line but they were praising Mendenhall after Sunday's win over the Eagles for understanding where he was supposed to run, something apparently lost on Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer through the first three weeks. At his best Mendenhall is a top-10 running back and I'm sure that Todd Haley is much happier having a solid rushing option around. Be confident using him against all but the league's best run defenses, only one of which (San Diego) is on Pittsburgh's remaining schedule
5. I have lost Danny Amendola just as the bye weeks hit. Who does the roundtable recommend as a WR-Flex? Need a steady-Eddie type.-- @azpob
Beacom: Try Tennessee rookie Kendall Wright. He ranks among the top-20 in targets (44) and is coming off his best performance to date (nine catches for 66 yards). He's a possession guy, much like Amendola, and Wright's role in the Titans offense will continue to grow, even after Kenny Britt returns to full health.
Carroll: This is a tough question since league context is key. Is this a smart 12-team league with a deep bench and keepers? Is this a casual 10-team office league with a vast array of free agents? I'll use the SI league I play in with a couple guys as proxy. There, the best guy might be Brandon Gibson, who looks as if he'll take Amendola's targets. Golden Tate is emerging as a solid option in Seattle and is getting touchdown looks. Armon Binns is a bit more speculative, but is close on catches and is less home-run needy than Andrew Hawkins.
Mack: Calvin Johnson. Kidding. All leagues are different, but guys like Davone Bess, Donnie Avery, James Jones, Randall Cobb and whichever receiver starts for the Giants when Hakeem Nicks (foot, knee) has been out have been good for targets in rhythm passing games. Kendall Wright is quietly among the top-20 most-targeted receivers in fantasy to date. Chaz Schilens and Stephen Hill can step forward in Santonio Holmes' (foot) absence. Among the buy-low receivers elsewhere, we should all expect Justin Blackmon, Jeremy Maclin, Denarius Moore, Mario Manningham, Donald Jones and Jerome Simpson to improve as the season moves on. Those guys are available in many leagues.
Sabino: The problem is that all of the steady types cost. Of the players with the most games of at least four catches and 50 yards, none should be on any waiver wire. The players I'd target in a trade who won't break the bank are Eric Decker, Antonio Brown or Brian Hartline. Running backs of that ilk are even harder to come by although you might be able to pry away a Steven Jackson or Willis McGahee, each of whom gained at least 50 yards from scrimmage four times this year.
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