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Sunday Superlatives: Todd Gurley enters the realm of the RB1s

The top running back tier took a big hit when Charles went down with his knee injury, but it also welcomed a new member to the ranks.

Way back in 1997, Michigan’s Charles Woodson and Tennessee’s Peyton Manning engaged in one of the best Heisman competitions ever. Woodson was the best defensive player in the country, intercepting seven passes while also starring as a receiver and kick returner for the Wolverines. Few players, especially in the modern game, have made as much of an impact in all three phases as Woodson did that season. He led Michigan to a Rose Bowl victory and a share of the national title. Manning, meanwhile, threw for 3,819 yards and 36 touchdowns, capping a phenomenal college career while turning himself into the next great pro prospect at the quarterback position.

Woodson beat out Manning for the Heisman that year before both launched their Hall of Fame careers. Before the Broncos and Raiders met on Sunday, Woodson and Manning had played against each other eight times in the NFL. Woodson entered Sunday’s game with 62 career interceptions, but none of those came on a pass by Manning. That streak came to an end on Sunday.

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With the Broncos driving late in the first half, Manning targeted Owen Daniels in the end zone. The throw was a bit wide of Daniels, giving Woodson his first interception against Manning in 18 years, but not his last of the day. He would add another acrobatic pick of Manning later in the game, halting a Denver drive in its tracks. Those picks may not have made much of a fantasy impact, but they were one of the most fun footnotes on an action-packed Week 5.

What else stood out this week? Find out in the Sunday Superlatives.

• Week 5 coverage hub: Highlights, news and reactions from around the NFL

The most killer injury of the season

The Chiefs opened up the second half of their Week 5 matchup with the Bears pounding with the running game and marching right down the field. After a quiet first half, Jamaal Charles was just starting to get going. Alex Smith handed him the ball on the first four plays, and he picked up 27 yards on those carries. On a second-and-four from the Chicago 32-yard line, he ran for seven more yards, pushing him to 58 for the game. He was well on his way to another 120-yards-from-scrimmage game, which has become par for the course for the star running back. Then, on his next carry, he suffered a non-contact injury to his right knee after planting his leg and trying to cut back to his left. The Chiefs will wait until Monday to confirm the diagnosis, but they expect to get the bad news that Charles tore his ACL.

Chiefs believe running back Jamaal Charles has torn ACL

First and foremost, we don’t want to see anyone get injured, especially Charles, who seems like one of the good guys. Hopefully the MRI gives him and the Chiefs good news on Monday. Assuming it doesn’t, however, this will be the worst injury to date of the 2015 season, at least from a fantasy perspective. With all due respect to Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, neither is nearly the fantasy star that Charles is. The Chiefs and his fantasy owners won’t be able to replace a guy who was rightfully a top-three pick in draft season.

Charcandrick West will take over as the starter in Kansas City, but you can bet you’ll see some Knile Davis, and likely a little DeAnthony Thomas in the backfield, as well. West ran for 31 yards on seven carries in relief of Charles, his first significant game action this season. The second-year player out of Abilene Christian didn’t even have a carry in his career until last week, when Charles had his first injury scare of the season. He’s certainly worth chasing on the waiver wire, especially if you’re a Charles owner, but you can’t expect him to be anything more than a high-end RB3, and even that low ceiling is mainly based on his expected volume.

As for Charles, perhaps the one silver lining is that this is not the same ACL he tore in 2011 when he stepped on a yard marker and suffered one of the flukiest injuries we’ve ever seen on a football field. Until we get the official word, keep your fingers crossed and hope for the best.

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The newest entrant to the elite running back class

The top running back tier took a big hit when Charles went down with his knee injury, but it also welcomed a new member to the ranks. After running for 146 yards—most of which came in the second half—on 19 carries last week, Todd Gurley entered Week 5 with massive expectations. He met those and then some, rambling for 159 yards on 30 totes in the Rams’ loss to the Packers. Gurley has had meaningful playing time in two games, and he has produced two of the top-seven single-game rushing totals of the season. He also did this. Rookies aren’t supposed to be that good at picking up a blitzer in their second start, especially when that blitzer is Clay Matthews. Gurley may be a rookie in a non-ideal offensive environment, but he’s already one of the best running backs in the league.

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The question surrounding Gurley is what, if anything, should he be dealt for on the open market? Realistically, Gurley’s owners aren’t trying to move him after what he has done the last few weeks, but it’s still a fun discussion, especially if the Gurley owner in your league is, say, 1–4, needs to make a dramatic move to get back in it and wants to capitalize on his hot start. Gurley is easily on a first-round trajectory for 2016, and if we knew he was going to be this good this fast, he likely would have been a first-rounder this season, as well. That should be your target price. The only backs I’d rather have ahead of him are Le’Veon Bell, Matt Forte and Adrian Peterson (Charles would have been in that group, too, if he didn’t get hurt). A WR1 would have to be involved if I were moving Gurley for someone at that position. He is already that good, and will continue to be, especially with a complete lack of competition in the St. Louis backfield.

The most surprisingly exploitable pass defense

Time for another blind resume. Can you guess which passing defense has allowed the following three quarterback performances in its last four games?

• Week 2: 30 of 46, 351 yards, 7.63 YPA, three touchdowns, one interception, 23 rushing yards
• Week 3: 20 of 32, 383 yards, 11.97 YPA, three touchdowns, one interception, 10 rushing yards, one rushing touchdown
• Week 5: 36 of 51, 457 yards, 8.96 YPA, two touchdowns, 12 rushing yards, one rushing touchdown

Any guesses? It is the formerly dominant Ravens defense, which has turned into one of the most pass-friendly groups in the league. Andy Dalton, who has been one of the best players in the league through five weeks, carved them up in Week 3, but those other two big games belong to Derek Carr and Josh McCown. Their two good games came against Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Week 1, before Terrell Suggs’s season-ending injury, and against Michael Vick in Week 4. This is clearly a different defense without Suggs, who is the linchpin of the entire unit. They’ve still been able to get after the quarterback, notching 11 sacks in the last four weeks, but when they don’t get home they typically get burned. There’s no reason to expect that to change. That could mean good things for Colin Kaepernick, Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers in the next few weeks.

The biggest bluff of the last two weeks

If you removed all context and just looked at Drew Brees’s game logs from the last two weeks, you would think it was business as usual for him amidst the wreckage in New Orleans. He threw for 359 yards, 8.76 YPA and two scores in Week 4, then followed that up with 335 yards, 7.79 YPA and two more touchdowns on Sunday. Of course, we cannot totally divorce performance from context, and when you add in that necessary element, you see a completely different picture for the veteran quarterback.

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​Brees needed an 80-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Spiller on a broken coverage in overtime to salvage his fantasy performance last week. If Zach Hocker made a chip shot field goal at the end of regulation, Brees would have ended that game with 279 yards and one touchdown, which translates to 15.16 points in standard-scoring leagues. The Eagles embarrassed the Saints on Sunday, a 39–17 loss that dropped New Orleans to 1–4 on the season. Heading into the fourth quarter, with the Saints trailing 29–10, Brees had 183 yards and one touchdown. With the game fully in garbage time, Brees picked the Eagles apart for 152 yards and one more touchdown on the final play of the game. The Eagles had essentially shifted their defense to “Let’s just make sure no one gets hurt” mode, and that’s when Brees made his fantasy money in Week 5.

There’s no doubt that this offense has lost a few steps, and Brees isn’t completely innocent. As good as he has been, we shouldn’t exactly be surprised that a 36-year-old quarterback is finally starting to see his play take a turn for the worse. It’s awfully hard to deal a quarterback in a one-QB league format—just look at all the depth at the position and the names of some of the quarterbacks who starred in Week 5—but now is a good time to try to deal Brees. There are smoke and mirrors hard at work in New Orleans, but they’re going to eventually evaporate and shatter. You won’t want to be invested when that happens.

The biggest offensive headache east of San Francisco

After Detroit’s loss to Arizona on Sunday, Matthew Stafford said Jim Caldwell told him at halftime that he would be benched if he threw another interception. On the team’s sixth play from scrimmage coming out of the half, Stafford threw his third interception of the day. True to his word, Caldwell lifted Stafford for Dan Orlovsky, and that was when the Lions hit the nadir of their season.

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The Lions are 0–5, the last winless team remaining in the league. That’s the eighth time in franchise history they’ve held that ignominious distinction, more than any other team. Stafford has been truly awful, throwing for 1,205 yards, 6.18 YPA, five touchdowns and eight picks. Calvin Johnson has made one trip to the end zone and has 32 catches for 322 yards. His paltry 10 yards per catch average underscores just how much trouble this team has had attacking defenses down the field, and the fact that he doesn’t yet have a 100-yard game speaks volumes. Golden Tate also hasn’t topped 100 yards in a game and sits at just 264 on the season.

It’s not just the passing game that is struggling. Prized rookie Ameer Abdullah finally got a chance to start last week with Joique Bell injured. He ran for 33 yards on 13 carries, though that was against the Seahawks, so he could be given a pass. He won’t get a pass after being removed for fumbling twice against the Cardinals, finishing with 17 yards on six carries. Bell’s impending return won’t help, given his plodding ways this season. Theo Riddick is a nice pass catcher out of the backfield, but he’s not going to move the needle. This offense has become a real problem for any fantasy owner who finds himself or herself invested at this point of the season.

As bad as things have gone this year, Johnson is actually worth targeting as a buy-low candidate. While the offense is having trouble making anything happen down the field, where Johnson has always been a monster, understand that he has seen the Vikings, Broncos, Seahawks and Cardinals this season, all of which boast very good pass defenses. Their next four games are against the Bears, Vikings, Chiefs and Packers, so a turnaround could very well be right on the horizon. Outside of Megatron, however, this could be a fantasy dumpster fire all season.