Matt Forte and Eddie Lacy entered the year as two of the few sure things at the running back position. There was an emerging consensus as the summer progressed that anointed receivers were the safer, better picks starting toward the end of the first round all the way through the second, but that backs like Forte and Lacy (and, of course, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson) were still the rightful top selections in a draft. This thought process has not checked out thus far, as Forte and Lacy have both underperformed through the first three games. Forte ranks 23rd among running backs and has yet to find the end zone this year. Lacy, meanwhile, has arguably been the most disappointing player to this point, ranking 52nd among backs and gaining just 151 total yards from scrimmage. Josh McCown has more rushing touchdowns than Forte and Lacy combined. The two backs will be in the same building this week as the Packers and Bears meet at Soldier Field for their first of two games this year. And both Forte and Lacy should finally play up to expectations on Sunday.
Let’s begin with Forte. A lot has been made of the Bears’ unbalanced play selection this year. Chicago has run 202 plays in its first three games. Just 46 of those have been designed runs. Expect that to change this weekend. The Packers have surrendered the fifth-most fantasy points to running backs and have allowed an opposing back in all three of their games to score at least 10 points. They gave up a combined 214 yards and four touchdowns on 45 carries to Marshawn Lynch, Chris Ivory and Reggie Bush. Green Bay ranks 24th against the run according to Pro Football Focus, allowing 4.6 yards per touch to backs. Given that Forte is such a weapon as a runner and a receiver, he should have a huge game against the Packers.
Brandon Marshall is still dealing with an ankle injury that has him listed as questionable yet again for Sunday’s game. He was able to play through the injury in the second half last week, which certainly bodes well for the Bears, but there’s no guarantee that he will be available. If Marshall is out, the Bears would likely lean even more heavily on Forte.
Lacy, meanwhile, lost much of Week 1 to a concussion suffered early against the Seahawks. He got just 13 carries against the Jets in Week 2, running for 43 yards and remaining largely ineffective. The Lions completely shut down the Packers last week, holding Lacy to 36 yards on 11 carries. While a lot of his struggles owe to a Green Bay offensive line that grades as the third-worst run-blocking unit according to Pro Football Focus, the Packers have faced potentially the toughest slate of run defenses this year. Pro Football Focus has the Seahawks, Jets and Lions all in the top 10 against the run.
Chicago’s defense has been much better than most people expected. They’re eighth in overall defense and 16th against the run. At the same time, they haven’t faced an offense quite like Green Bay’s this year. The Bears’ first three games have been against the Bills, 49ers and Jets, who don’t quite measure up to Aaron Rodgers and company, all their issues notwithstanding. The Packers and Bears are set to play the NFC North shootout the fantasy community thought it was getting with the Packers and Lions last week. Forte and Lacy will finally make their owners happy on Sunday.
Back to the fantasy bench for Cam
Newton clearly wasn’t himself toward the end of last week’s loss to the Steelers. He appeared to tweak the ankle on which he had offseason surgery, and gave way to Derek Anderson with the game comfortably out of reach. Newton isn’t in any real danger of sitting this week, but he simply is not the guy we’ve seen over the last few seasons. With plenty of other viable options this week, Newton won’t be one of the top-10 scoring quarterbacks.
Newton’s dim prospects aren’t just tied to his gimpy ankle and lack of success on the ground this year. The Carolina offensive line ranks 22nd in pass blocking this season, according to Pro Football Focus. Newton has been under pressure on 33 of his 81 dropbacks, a touch more than 40 percent. On top of that, the Ravens have been great against quarterbacks this year, allowing the sixth-fewest fantasy points to signal callers. Ben Roethlisberger threw for just 217 yards and an interception against the Ravens in Week 2. They had Andy Dalton completely in check until a 71-yard touchdown hookup with A.J. Green late in the fourth quarter. This is simply a formula for disaster for Newton. You’re better off going in another direction.
Rookie QBs down south and up north
Chad Henne and Matt Cassel were always nothing more than seat-warmers this year in Jacksonville and Minnesota. At some point, they were going to give way to their understudies. That point for both quarterbacks, proved to be last week. Now, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater will get their first career starts in Week 4 of the 2014 NFL season.
Jaguars and Vikings fans have every reason to be excited about this week, and that’s a beautiful thing because Jaguars and Vikings fans may not have a whole lot of exciting weeks ahead of them this season. Both rookie quarterbacks bring an element of hope that just wasn’t present with Henne and Cassel on the field. Fantasy owners, too, should be paying close attention to what the two rookies do on Sunday. While neither is an advisable play in traditional one-quarterback leagues, both should be started in two-quarterback formats. They also deserve to be owned universally, and could factor into one-QB leagues depending on their play.
The Jaguars made Bortles the first quarterback off the board in the 2014 NFL Draft, taking him with the third overall pick. They may have been hesitant about playing him behind a line that is in shambles, but there’s no turning back now. The line may not exactly be the strong point of this team -- it ranks 23rd in pass blocking according to Pro Football Focus -- but Bortles has an underrated collection of weapons at his disposal. Allen Robinson, Cecil Shorts and Allen Hurns give the rookie out of Central Florida an explosive, diverse set of receivers in his first start. He should soon get back fellow rookie Marqise Lee, who could be the best of the bunch. Bortles won’t be hurting for options when he drops back to pass. And judging by the way the Jaguars have played this season, he’ll likely be doing that often.
Do not forget that Bridgewater, however, was widely considered the top quarterback in the country during and immediately after the college season last year. His stock fell because of a subpar pro day and a bizarre obsession with the size of his hands. My bet is that we look back in five years and wonder how the Vikings ever got him with the 32nd pick in the draft. He doesn’t have the quantity of weapons available to Bortles, but he does have the quality with Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings. Bridgewater, Patterson and offensive coordinator Norv Turner seem like they were all engineered to work together in an offense. With Patterson as the clear best playmaker in Minnesota, Turner will undoubtedly try to get him the ball on short and intermediate routes, letting him create mismatches and space and taking advantage of Bridgewater’s accuracy. This trio can definitely take advantage an Atlanta defense that is in the middle of the pack in both pass rush and pass coverage.
Bortles and Bridgewater are still available in most leagues. There is no rush to get them in one-quarterback formats, but both of these guys will be well-known to fantasy owners before the year is out.
Mike Evans vs. Pittsburgh Steelers -- On the surface, the early going of Evans’ rookie year has been a mild disappointment. He has 13 catches for 138 yards and has yet to find the end zone. At the same time, he has just 18 targets, showing an impressive catch rate and has more yards per route run than Demaryius Thomas, Randall Cobb and Cordarrelle Patterson. The point here is that it’s still plenty early. Evans is set to turn around his season this week. The Steelers have done well against receivers this year, but Kelvin Benjamin burned them for eight catches, 115 yards and a touchdown. Evans and Benjamin both check in at 6-foot-5, and while Benjamin is a bit bulkier, both are much bigger than the average receiver and, perhaps more importantly, the average defensive back. Expect Evans to notch his first career touchdown and somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 yards on Sunday.
Toby Gerhart vs. San Diego Chargers -- I know, I know. At this point, no Gerhart owner could possibly have any confidence in him. However, with six teams sitting out this week, you’re going to have to make some hard choices. The Chargers have allowed the ninth-most fantasy points to running backs this year, and we’re not talking about a huge group of world-beaters. Robert Turbin put up double-digit points against them, and Fred Jackson threw up nearly a 20-spot. They’ve allowed four receiving touchdowns to running backs, and while we haven’t seen it this year, Gerhart has solid pass-catching abilities. He caught at least 20 balls in a limited role as Adrian Peterson’s backup in three of his four years in Minnesota. The switch to Blake Bortles gives the entire Jacksonville offense a shot in the arm. This rising tide should lift Gerhart’s ship into the top-25 running backs this week.
Bishop Sankey vs. Indianapolis Colts -- Let me preface this by saying Sankey is a deeper option, and one you’ll need to have some guts to bet on this week. Having said that, there is reason for optimism surrounding the Titans’ rookie running back. He got 61 yards on 10 carries against the Bengals last week and clearly displayed his upside. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt can talk about Sankey’s poor footwork all he wants, but it’s obvious that he could have two left feet and still be a better runner than Shonn Greene. The Titans’ offense has struggled the last two weeks, and could benefit from getting Sankey more touches. There could be a changing of the guard this week.
Jeremy Kerley vs. Detroit Lions –- Kerley got 11 targets last week with Eric Decker out for most of the game because of his hamstring injury. Kerley is likely to be the No. 1 receiver for Geno Smith again this week, but that doesn’t mean you should start him. The Lions just shut down the Packers’ passing game and have allowed the second-fewest fantasy points to receivers. Victor Cruz, Kelvin Benjamin, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have combined for 12 catches for 158 yards and zero touchdowns against the Lions. Kerley belongs on your bench.
Joique Bell vs. New York Jets -- The Jets have been great against the run this year, allowing the fewest fantasy points to running backs. In the last two weeks, they’ve held both Eddie Lacy and Matt Forte to fewer than eight points, and they’ve surrendered just 2.5 yards per carry on the season. Expect to see more Reggie Bush than Bell this week.
Carolina at Baltimore
DeAngelo Williams is probable after missing last week’s game with a thigh injury. Even though he has the backfield largely to himself, he’s not a strong play against Baltimore’s defense.
Bernard Pierce is expected back after missing last week’s game with a thigh injury of his own. There’s too much uncertainty with the breakdown between him and Lorenzo Taliaferro to have any confidence in either of them. The Ravens will also be without left tackle Eugene Monroe, who hurt his knee last week.
Green Bay at Chicago
Brandon Marshall didn’t practice all week, and is questionable with an ankle injury. If he starts for the Bears, he should start for you. You should still play Jay Cutler even if Marshall has to sit. The Bears are again without Jay Ratliff, while Chris Conte is questionable because of his shoulder injury. Aaron Rodgers could have a monster day.
Buffalo at Houston
Sammy Watkins was a full participant in practice on Friday and will play despite a rib injury.
Andre Johnson has an ankle issue, but he practiced in full on Friday and is listed as probable.
Tennessee at Indianapolis
Jake Locker could very well miss this week’s game with a wrist injury. He was a limited participant in practice all week and is questionable. Delanie Walker, too, is questionable because of a shoulder injury. If Locker is out, the ceiling of the Tennessee offense comes way down.
T.Y. Hilton (ankle) practiced fully on Friday. He’ll be out there for Andrew Luck on Sunday.
Detroit at New York Jets
Calvin Johnson finally got back to practice on Friday, but his ankle made him just a limited participant. He says he’ll be good to go, but this is something we’ll have to monitor on Sunday morning. You’re definitely starting him if he goes. Joique Bell is probable with a knee injury, but this is a terrible matchup for him.
Eric Decker was a limited participant in Friday’s practice because of that hamstring injury. He’s questionable, but you should go in another direction. Chris Johnson (ankle) is probable, but he, too, is a poor start against the front seven of the Lions.
Miami at Oakland (in London)
Charles Clay was just a limited participant in practice Friday due to a knee injury, but he’s listed as probable. He’s just outside the starting class of tight ends.
Maurice Jones-Drew is expected back after missing last week’s game with a hand injury. Darren McFadden is still expected to handle the load, so stay away from Jones-Drew on Sunday.
Tampa Bay at Pittsburgh
Josh McCown didn’t practice all week and is doubtful with a thumb injury. Mike Glennon is expected to start. Doug Martin (ankle) and Vincent Jackson (wrist) were both full participants in practice and are listed as probable. You want both in your lineups. Austin Seferian-Jenkins is also probable with an ankle injury. He’s an intriguing long-term option.
Atlanta at Minnesota
Roddy White is probable after missing last week’s game with a hamstring injury. He likely only missed Week 3 because the Falcons played on Thursday night. Harry Douglas, meanwhile, is questionable with a foot injury. You’re starting White this week.
Jacksonville at San Diego
Marqise Lee will miss his second straight game with a hamstring injury. That helps to open the door for Allen Robinson, Cecil Shorts and Allen Hurns, the latter of which is probable due to an ankle issue. Toby Gerhart is also probable with an ankle injury, and is a solid flex option, as stated earlier.
Keenan Allen (groin) was a full participant in practice on Friday. Expect him to get on track against the Jaguars. Ladarius Green, who is a decent option against a Jacksonville team that has allowed the most fantasy points to tight ends this year, is questionable with a hamstring injury. Go in another direction, especially with the late kick.
Philadelphia at San Francisco
Jordan Matthews is probable with an oblique injury. He’s a strong WR3 option this week. The 49ers have allowed the most fantasy points to receivers this year.
Vernon Davis says he will play, but he’s officially questionable because of the ankle injury that forced him to miss last week’s game. If you have another good option, you may want to go in that direction. The late kickoff here complicates matters. Michael Crabtree (quadriceps) and Frank Gore (back) are both probable.
New Orleans at Dallas
Tony Romo (back) and Dez Bryant (shoulder) are probable and only on the injury report as a precaution. Both should start for the Cowboys and fantasy owners.
New England at Kansas City
The official injury report for the Monday night game is not yet available, but it sounds like Jamaal Charles will play. If you own both him and Knile Davis, wait this situation out and see who is named the starter. If you only own one, this roll of the dice might be too risky.