Chargers injuries threatening Rivers' fantasy prospects in 2012

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It has to be disconcerting for owners hoping for a rebound year from the Chargers' QB, who is coming off a turnover-filled season and lost his leading receiver, Vincent Jackson, to the Bucs via free agency.

This preseason was supposed to help Rivers find new go-to men. Instead, he's left searching deeper.

And they say preseason results don't matter. They prove they do once again. We break it all down in depth in the Fantasy Fast Forward:

1. Vincent Brown injured

He reeled in an 18-yard TD from Rivers and looked like he might be this year's breakthrough receiver of the year. Nope. Instead, he left the game with a broken ankle that required surgery and will keep him off the field for eight weeks -- a second blow in two weeks to one of Rivers' top weapons.

Brown might not even be worth drafting in a standard league, even if he can be an impact player in the second half of the season.

Rivers, meanwhile, threw a pair of picks, both attributable to throwing into coverage. With a sketchy Malcom Floyd, an aging Antonio Gates and a still-unfamiliar Robert Meachem as Rivers' leading targets, you might consider avoiding him as your starting fantasy QB. He will throw for 4,000 yards and 25 TDs, perhaps, but it won't be easy and it will come with plenty of throws into tight coverage. His group of receivers just don't get a lot of separation, or do much after the catch.

2. Justin Blackmon debuts

That is how you make an entrance. Blackmon needed all of one preseason drive to look like the best rookie receiver in fantasy. He reeled in a short pass in traffic and spun for a 16-yard touchdown.

"You could see his skills," Jacksonville coach Mike Mularkey said. "He's got strong hands and he knows how to find the end zone."

Blackmon, the No. 5 pick in last spring's draft, shouldn't be picked as a WR fantasy starter, or even a flex starter, but he looks early like he can be this year's A.J. Green-like revelation. Target Blackmon after you have your starters on draft day. There is serious upside here, even with the sketchiness of the Jaguars' QB situation.

3. Matt Ryan stars

For those loving the late-round QB strategy, you have to be loving the Falcons' Ryan. He went 18-for-21 for 174 yards and one TD (to his fullback).

"We really wanted to look at the passing game," head coach Mike Smith said. "It was more so of an emphasis of what we wanted to do. There were some nice opportunities."

The Falcons are opening things up under Ryan this year and might even be going with some no huddle. Spreading out the offense and connecting with nine receivers, Ryan completed passes of at least 20 yards to Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones and Michael Palmer, a backup tight end.

Those looking for 5,000 yards and 30-plus TDs may find it in Ryan.

4. RB Ryan Williams, Cardinals

Beanie Wells (knee) is still the projected starter -- and will play this week -- but Williams' debut was an exciting one. Playing for the first time since tearing his right patella tendon in the preseason a year ago, Williams rushed five times for 25 yards, including a three-yard touchdown run.

"I can't even lie, I was so nervous," Williams said. "I felt like I was six-years old again playing Pop Warner."

This Williams might be the most productive fantasy back picked in the middle rounds, no matter the health and initial starting status of Wells.

5. Jake Locker starts

He might have looked like he handed the job back to veteran Matt Hasselbeck this weekend, but the sophomore QB was chosen the starter by Monday morning, according to reports. Locker winning the job does more in fantasy for those around him, though. He remains merely a late-round fantasy backup.

With Kenny Britt (knee) returning from surgery and not expected to be ready for Week 1 or 2 -- and awaiting a possible suspension in those games -- Nate Washington and rookie Kendall Wright are expected to be the starting wide receivers. Third-year WR Damian Williams is a late-round sleeper as an option off the bench, too. A running game and a good tight end (Jared Cook) are a young QB's best friend. The Titans have enough weapons to be a productive offense. Cook might be the leading target.

Johnson sure didn't look this good a year ago. Heck, he was still on the couch this time last season.

With Locker projected to start, Johnson is going to be key for the Titans in the running and passing game. CJ2K sure looked smooth on his pair of 14-yard TD runs. A healthy training camp is key for the 2011 bust who held out and frustrated fantasy owners until late in the year.

With so many question marks in the thick second-tier at the RB position, Johnson just might be your best pick after Arian Foster, LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice, Aaron Rodgers and Calvin Johnson.

This bad is a matter of a tease. Mendenhall was brought off the PUP list last week in a bit of a surprising move, but he still isn't expected to be ready to go until October. The fact the Steelers found it necessary to get him practicing now is telling, though.

Isaac Redman (groin, hip) will not need surgery but he remains a question mark for the start of the season. That makes Jonathan Dwyer and rookie Chris Rainey intriguing sleepers in the early weeks. The Steelers backs are something that needs to sort itself out in the coming days before you slot them on your boards.

Blount looked to suffer a serious knee injury when he crumpled into a heap Friday night. It would have handed rookie Doug Martin the feature role and made Martin a rock-solid second-round pick.

Not so fast.

"It's not a knee, it's more up in his groin area. He just got bent a funny way," head coach Greg Schiano said. "LeGarrette's a tough kid and I don't think it is something that will sideline him too long. But if it does, we'll deal with that."

The uncertainty will have to linger longer, though, because Blount might have dodged serious injury.

"I'll be back soon. I'll be good," Blount said. "I haven't had an injury like it. I've had nicks and bruises. That's kind of what it is. ... It hurt. It's just something that we're going to have to look into."

Martin will get a chance to start the all-important third game of the preseason and might just have a chance to run away with the starting job. He might be the most important player to watch this coming weekend. A big effort, coupled with bad news for Blount, might even rise Martin into late Round 1, seriously.


Matthew Stafford, Lions -- This is old news, but after Stafford's impressive effort we looked it up again: Stafford is one of only three QBs to have thrown for 5,000 yards and 40-plus TDs, joining Dan Marino (1984) and Drew Brees (2011). Tom Brady just missed a year ago, too, and Aaron Rodgers has never done it. Stafford looks like a great pick late in Round 2, maybe someone to take even before Cam Newton.

Jay Cutler, Bears -- He was impressive in his preseason debut, including hooking up with Brandon Marshall on a 41-yard deep ball. "That combination is going for a lot of yards, a lot of catches, and hopefully a lot of touchdowns," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. The line seemed to play better in front of him and they used the tight end to chip out of the shotgun. With time to throw, Cutler can be lethal. He is a top-notch fantasy backup QB who can perform like an elite starter.

Andrew Luck, Colts -- As impressive as Luck's debut was, Sunday night's performance might have been better, despite the pick-six he threw among his two interceptions in the first half against a tough Steelers defense. The key was he bounced back and led the Colts on yet another scoring drive. "You never want to throw any interceptions, even if they are tipped, bobbled, whatever," Luck said. "I've got to cut down on those, but I think showing we can bounce back from those mistakes and kind of climb out of that hole was a good sign." Luck is going to have bad plays like every rookie QB, but he's never going to be out of making a great one the next throw. He is still not a fantasy starter, but he will wind up there by the end of the year.

Peyton Manning, Broncos -- A lot will be made of his three interceptions to no TDs through two preseason games, but Manning is merely weighing the trust of his new receiver mates. He isn't going to be throwing picks in the regular season. Count on that. Manning is healthy and a viable fantasy starter in the middle rounds, despite the poor numbers to date. As for taking a hit, he took a big one, bounced right back up and ripped a 22-yarder on the very next play. Check, check. He's crossing things off his preseason checklist.

Andy Dalton, Bengals -- He tossed a deep ball to A.J. Green for a 50-yard TD, quelling talk he doesn't have the arm strength of a big-time NFL QB. "It's not holding me back," Dalton said. "It's not changing the way I play the game. They can say whatever they want. As long as we win games, as long as I'm getting completions to my guys, I'm not worried about it." Dalton remains merely a fantasy backup QB -- mostly because he doesn't have a good secondary target.

Sam Bradford, Rams -- He looked like his 2010 version with a pair of first-half TDs to Danny Amendola and Lance Kendricks, two intriguing late-round sleepers at WR and TE. Bradford is a decent backup with upside, even if he will be playing the whole year with a troublesome ankle that might require offseason surgery.

John Skelton, Cardinals -- He outplayed Kevin Kolb again, despite getting only five snaps. Skelton went 3-for-3 with a TD. "I think I'll have to get John some extended time this next week," head coach Ken Whisenhunt said. Why did Skelton get just five snaps? Coach Whiz didn't want him playing behind the backup line. "There's a little frustration, but at the same time you kind of understand it," Skelton said. "They want to give everyone an equal opportunity but at the same time you can't have the O-line in there for an extended period of time just to make everything equal. I kind of was a little mad about the decision but at the same time I understand it." It is telling that the Cardinals are leaning toward Skelton as their starter.

Christian Ponder, Vikings -- He looked sharp and is a viable late-round backup QB, particularly if you consider the potential of his running game.

Blaine Gabbert, Jaguars -- Was that really Gabbert? He has looked like a new man this preseason, giving some value to the receivers around him, including Laurent Robinson and TE Marcedes Lewis. Gabbert also will have a running game to take the pressure off. We wouldn't draft Gabbert in a standard league, but we are less turned off by those around him now.

Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins -- He wasn't great and doesn't have a set of receivers worthy of using in fantasy, but he did enough to earn the start for the important third preseason week. He might be closing in on the starting job. That will make his backs and tight ends important receivers.

Tim Tebow, Jets -- He has shown very little thus far this preseason. He did lead an impressive first drive against the Giants but he woefully missed a wide-open receiver for a TD. There is nothing to date to suggest Tebow warrants being drafted in fantasy. Preseason Week 3 might showcase him in the wildcat, though.

Vince Young, Bills -- He appears to be winning the backup QB job, which is noteworthy because Ryan Fitzpatrick was anything but a sure thing after signing his contract extension at midseason a year ago. The bet here is Young gets time for the Bills and in fantasy starting lineups before the end of the year. Young looks good.

Running backs

Trent Richardson, Browns -- He is reportedly ahead of schedule after the knee 'scope that knocked him out of the preseason. Handcuff Montario Hardesty bounced back from an early fumble to have a solid first half. Hardesty will be an intriguing sleeper if Richardson has a setback. The Browns are going to rely on the run.

Adrian Peterson, Vikings -- He is off the PUP list, getting reps with the first team and might even get time in Friday's game. That would be huge news, even if he will start the season a bit slow in terms of touches. Peterson should be considered late in Round 2. Watch him closely in his few touches this week, perhaps.

Reggie Bush, Dolphins -- With Ryan Tannehill closing in on the starting job, expect Bush to be a frequently targeted receiver. Bush is a must-start option in PPR formats and a solid third-round pick. Bush, remember, is in a contract year.

DeAngelo Williams, Panthers -- He scored on a pass from Cam Newton while Jonathan Stewart, who signed a contract extension last week, left with an injury nick (calf). Williams will be used more often as a receiver than he has been in years (Stewart was the third-down back a year ago). That may elevate Williams back to the elite. His average draft position of 35th at RB is incredibly low. The bet here is Williams performs consistently like a fantasy starter again.

Donald Brown, Colts -- He had another good week and is rising up draft lists. The key is he has distanced himself significantly ahead of backups Delone Carter and rookie Vick Ballard. Veteran Mewelde Moore might be the third-down back and Carter the goal-line back, but Brown had a long pass reception in Week 1 (Luck's first Colts pass) and a 1-yard TD run in Week 2. There is no reason the Colts need to split time with Brown, apparently. He might be earning feature a back role now. It may be time to start picking Brown as a fantasy starter, particularly since Luck has shown so much pluck.

Michael Bush, Bears -- Bad news for Matt Forte owners; Bush was used at the goal-line twice with the first unit, scoring a pair of TDs. Forte looks like he has a TD vulture that will make him more of a second-round pick than a first-rounder in non-PPR formats. Bush is a solid handcuff, perhaps even a flex starter to open the season.

Peyton Hillis, Chiefs -- Speaking of TD vultures, Hillis is the goal-line back for Jamaal Charles, which should keep the latter in the second round. Charles and Hillis both look healthy after injury-plagued years.

Cedric Benson, Packers -- Reports have Benson as the likely Week 1 starter with James Starks (turf toe) unlikely to be ready and Alex Green not a feature guy. Benson should play this week and might solidify himself as a fantasy starter to target on draft day.

David Wilson, Giants -- He showed explosiveness again, but the rookie first-rounder remains buried on the depth chart. D.J. Ware backs up Ahmad Bradshaw and even Andre Brown (of "He got a ring" fame) comes into games before Wilson. That talent is intriguing but his draft position (38th at RB in ADP, being picked around starters) is a bit early compared to his projected opening role right now.

Daniel Thomas, Dolphins -- He carried just once, but he did it at the goal line. Thomas figures to be Reggie Bush's TD vulture. Thomas is merely a handcuff pick, though, since the Dolphins don't figure to have a high-scoring offense.

Brandon Jacobs, 49ers">49ers -- He left with a knee injury that will likely hold him out the rest of the preseason after fantasyland originally feared he might miss the entire season. Rookie LaMichael James also left with a scary injury, but both appear OK to back-up Frank Gore to start the season. Kendall Hunter, the first backup, had a productive game.

Mikel Leshoure, Lions -- He missed another game with his sore hamstring, but he returned to practice Sunday and might play in Week 3. Kevin Smith is still the starter with Jahvid Best (concussion) likely to open the season on the PUP list, but if Leshoure doesn't emerge soon, Keiland Williams might be the handcuff of choice for Smith owners.

Wide receivers

Calvin Johnson, Lions -- He led the week in oohs and ahhs, like he usually does. He reeled in five catches for 111 yards -- including an 18-yard TD over his defender -- and looks like he is in midseason form. That isn't a shabby Ravens defense either. "You're talking about a person who should probably be running track, but he chose football," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "He's a mismatch for a lot of people. The bottom line is you've just got to make him earn his check. Today, he earned his money." Johnson is easily the best receiver on the board and warrants being picked in the top five now, particularly with all the question marks among RBs after the top three.

Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals -- Skelton starting is good news for Fitz. He was far more productive with Skelton starting than Kolb. Fitz should be busy in the first half with Skelton this week.

Victor Cruz, Giants -- Eli Manning was playing pitch and catch with him since Hakeem Nicks (foot) is still out. Manning has incredible confidence in Cruz, targeting him in traffic without hesitation. Manning used to throw a lot of picks with throws into coverage, but Cruz has become a reliable target. Cruz is showing he is no flash in the pan, a legit top-10, if not top-five, option at his position, even if he will be No. 2 to Nicks once the latter is healthy.

Steve Smith, Panthers -- It is not enough to change his ranking, but Smith wasn't getting a whole lot of separation on his targets. If you're in the camp Smith is due to regress from his rebound year, if only because of his age, this might lead you to avoid him in drafts.

Antonio Brown, Steelers -- That was an impressive 57-yard TD catch and run. The holdout of Mike Wallace should have everyone moving Brown up their board. Brown is capable of racking up 80 catches, 1,300 yards and 10 TDs in a more pass-heavy Steelers offense. That is incredible potential production for someone being picked as a low-end No. 2 fantasy WR. He is in that category of a breakthrough third-year WR. His front flip into the end zone added pizzazz but is something his fantasy owners could do without. "It'd give it an 8.5," Brown said. "I didn't stick the landing."

Austin Collie, Colts --He might not be play the rest of the preseason. That should hand a lot of targets to Reggie Wayne in determining Luck's go-to man. Wayne is worth drafting as a flex, if not a fantasy starter. LaVon Brazill and rookie T.Y. Hilton are going to be important receivers to watch next weekend for potential as late-round sleepers.

Randy Moss, 49ers -- He reeled in three catches for 24 yards, but the news this week has him limited to around 25 snaps a game. That makes him nothing more than a late-round pick in fantasy, even if he starts for the 49ers. You are better off with a younger Mario Manningham on your bench.

Alshon Jeffery, Bears -- He is having a big preseason and the second-round pick should be considered a sleeper late in drafts.

Jerome Simpson, Vikings -- He looked more like O.J. Simpson in a Hertz commercial, leaping over a defender on his 33-yard catch and run. "It's something I really can't even explain," said Simpson, who made highlight reels with his flip over a defender for a TD a year ago. "It just comes natural to me. When it's time for me to juke, that's when I juke. And when it's time for me to jump, that's when I jump." He is merely a late-round pick because he will miss the first three games of the season due to suspension.

LeStar Jean, Texans -- He caught a TD from Matt Schaub, a sign the rookie can be an impact guy right away. Jean has plenty of opportunity before him since the Texans don't have much beyond Andre Johnson, and even he is injury prone (although he played this week).

Mohamed Sanu, Bengals -- The rookie is still working with the second team, but he did reel in a 12-yard touchdown. His talent gives Dalton and Green a bit more potential for fantasy owners and makes Sanu a viable late-round sleeper.

T.J. Graham, Bills -- The rookie reeled in a 64-yard bomb from Young. He is a field stretcher who can help take some coverage off Stevie Johnson. Graham still might be in the mix to start, too.

Rueben Randle, Giants -- He showed burst on a 49-yard bomb, but he's another Giants rookie down on the depth chart. Domenik Hixon, Jerrel Jernigan and maybe even the unimpressive Ramses Barden might have more of Manning's trust right now. Randle is more of a dynasty-league keeper than a draftee in a standard league.

Tight ends

Coby Fleener, Colts -- The Colts are starting two rookie tight ends in a two-tight set, but Fleener is the fantasy option over Dwayne Allen. Fleener reeled in three catches for 33 yards and already has a connection with college teammate Luck. We should consider Fleener more of a fantasy backup until we see more, though.


Blair Walsh, Vikings -- The rookie made six field goals and figures to open the season as Minnesota's kicker. If you follow the fantasy formula that a kicker is most productive with a good running offense that has a questionable QB, Walsh is a sleeper. Consider him merely a bye-week replacement going into the season, though.

Defense/Special teams

New York Giants -- They harassed the Jets QBs with six sacks and rookie Jayron Hosley took an interception 77 yards for a score. This has the potential to be the best unit in football, particularly if Hosley (turf toe) and Terrell Thomas (knee) can prove healthy. The linebackers are not great, but former first-round pick Keith Rivers looked good and they are healthy for once ... for now.