The NFL season is five weeks old, and this is when we usually start to see positional changes that could affect the fantasy landscape down the stretch. We saw one last week in the Washington backfield with Ryan Torain, and both injuries and ineffectiveness have led to the rapid emergence of Victor Cruz, the Giants wideout who has 369 receiving yards over his last three games.
It’s the quickly rising names that are often the difference between riches and razzing in December, making the trigger finger on the waiver wire just as important right now as weekly roster decisions.
But trying to rank 60 players is much more fun, so let’s do this.
1. Aaron Rodgers vs. STL – Even with fantasy football’s points leader there can still be concern about a week that could fall lower than the lofty standards Rodgers has set for himself, and this week those concerns start with an opponent that has the league’s worst run defense. Could James Starks and Ryan Grant thrive while Rodgers plays caretaker after a big early lead? Maybe, but two weeks ago against another poor run defense in Denver he had 408 passing yards and four touchdowns.
2. Tom Brady vs. DAL –The presence of DeMarcus Ware is always troubling, but a sturdy offensive line that’s surrendered only eight sacks should give Brady plenty of time to pick apart a mediocre secondary.
3. Tony Romo @ NE — Dez Bryant and Miles Austin will be back to full health against the league’s worst secondary.
4. Michael Vick @ WAS — This Washington defense isn’t the same unit that allowed Vick to rack up 333 passing yards, 80 rushing yards and six total touchdowns during a very black Monday night in November last year. Ryan Kerrigan’s instant chemistry with Brian Orakpo has already led to 15 Redskins sacks, and Kerrakpo will be unleashed on a weak Philly offensive line that’s forced quick throws by Vick, and already more interceptions than what he had last year.
5. Drew Brees @ TB — It seems that I’ve developed a pattern of ranking one elite and usually unstoppable pivot slightly lower than his typical lofty perch each week. Yes, Brees is gunning for a franchise-record fourth straight game with 350 or more passing yards. But over his last four games against Ronde Barber, Aqib Talib, and the steady Tampa Bay secondary he’s averaged only 226 yards, and in two of those games he had less than 200 yards.
6. Matthew Stafford vs. SF — Despite the few sacks they’ve surrendered I’m still building trust in this offensive line after watching Stafford get knocked around regularly. But a trip across the country should slow Patrick Willis et al by a few steps.
7. Ben Roethlisberger vs. JAC — Instinctively skeptical eyes needed a few regular season games to be convinced that the Jaguars’ offseason additions (Paul Posluzny, Dawan Landry) would make a significant difference for a poor run defense. The Jags are now averaging only slightly above 100 yards per game, and Rashard Mendenhall is returning from a hamstring injury. That’s the kind of equation that leads to a nice fantasy day for the biggest Ben, although there’s a few people around the Interwebs that may protest that title.
8. Eli Manning vs. BUF — Kyle Williams’ run stuffing and pass rushing presence could be absent Sunday.
9. Matt Ryan vs. CAR — Matty Ice is averaging about 19 fantasy points per game against Carolina.
10. Cam Newton @ ATL — The Falcons allowed only a combined 73 rushing yards to quarterbacks in their games against three other highly mobile pivots (Tarvaris Jackson, Josh Freeman, and Michael Vick).
Notable omission(s): Ryan Fitzpatrick’s pocket will be tighter than a pair of new hipster jeans against a Giants pass rush that’s been fortified by the return of Osi Umenyiora and his four sacks over the last two weeks. This means Fred Jackson will be leaned on heavily to ease the tension, and it could be a pedestrian day for a Bills quarterback who’s averaging just 196 passing yards over his last two games after moving along nicely at a 280 clip over his first three.
1. Adrian Peterson @ CHI– There was a time when I wouldn’t dare give the top RB spot to a back who’s pitted against the Chicago defense. That time was last year when the Bears ranked second in run defense, and were one of just six units to give up less than 100 yards per game. Now we kinda like Peteron’s chances if Jahvid Best can get 163 yards on the ground against this defense after finishing with just 190 combined yards over Detroit’s first four games.
2. Darren McFadden vs. CLE — If you like your football lean, mean, and with multiple grass stains, make this the only Browns game you watch all year. Both teams have poor run defenses, poor passing offenses, and strong downfield runners.
5. Ahmad Bradshaw vs. BUF — Buffalo’s 12 interceptions will lead to a more conservative approach. Combine that with the possible absence of Williams and the 138.4 rushing yards per game that Buffalo is giving up, and this could be a mighty fine Sunday for Bradshaw. Leeriness still lingers though over Bradshaw’s fumbleitis, and the Bills lead the league in turnover differential.
4. LeSean McCoy @ WAS — McCoy finished second among running backs in receiving yards last year, and eventually he has to be established again as a threat in the flats to alleviate the pressure on Vick. He has only 110 receiving yards this year, the same number he had in one game against Washington last November.
5. Ray Rice vs. HOU –Mario Williams is gone, but Ray Rice owners shouldn’t care too much about that this week. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend caring about it at all. If you’d like a reason to get giddy about Rice’s matchup, please consult the yards per carry column, where Houston’s number is 4.8.
6. Fred Jackson @ NYG — Similarly, the continued absence of Justin Tuck shouldn’t inspire schoolgirl giddiness for Jackson owners. But Marshawn Lynch should after the Seahawks running back had a season-high 98 rushing yards last week against the Giants for a 29th ranked Seattle rushing offense.
7. Frank Gore @ DET — Gore faces a defense with an excellent pass rush, but the front seven has been fickle so far against elite rushers, holding Peterson to just 78 yards in Week 2, but coughing up 116 yards to Matt Forte last week.
7. Peyton Hillis @ OAK — The usual warning about a trip across the country applies here, but Hillis is in prime position for his first stud performance this season against a defense that’s already allowed nine runs of 20 yards or more.
8. Michael Turner vs. CAR – The Panthers have seen opposing running backs scamper for 325 yards over the last two weeks.
9. Arian Foster @ BAL — Even with Foster rolling Houston’s offensive focus will likely shift to the air against one of the two defenses that’s giving up less than 75 rushing yards per game.
10. Matt Forte vs. MIN – Don’t be too scared by Minnesota’s efficiency against the run. They’ve faced two teams in the bottom half of the league in rushing (Detroit and Arizona), and a Chiefs offense in Week 2 that was playing its first game without Jamaal Charles.
Notable omission(s): Maurice Jones-Drew ranks fourth in rushing, but this is the week when being the lone reliable weapon in Jacksonville’s offense finally catches up to him. Sure, James Harrison is still out, but the Blaine Gabbert problem remains, and the Steelers defense is still too strong and too physical to be trampled on by a running back who will be their primary focus all afternoon.
1. Calvin Johnson vs. SF — The 49ers have played five games, and they’ve allowed a 40-yard pass five times.
2. Wes Welker vs. DAL — Take away Welker’s two receptions for 172 yards (a 99-yarder in Week 1 and a 73-yarder last week) and he still has 568 yards and a record-breaking pace. That should be illegal.
3. Greg Jennings vs. STL — The earlier concern about this game being a massive blowout applies here too, but it’s a mild one. The Rams have been outscored 113-46 in their four losses, and in those games the opposition’s top wide receiver is still averaging 93 yards.
4. Miles Austin @ DAL — Devin McCourty will often be occupied by Dez Bryant on the other side of the field, leaving the leader in fantasy points per game among wide receivers to showcase his speed against a secondary that still hasn’t stopped a quality passing offense.
5. Mike Wallace vs. JAC –Roethlisberger’s wonky foot didn’t limit Wallace’s productivity or his targets last week.
6. Steve Smith @ ATL — Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes are risk takers, often relying too heavily on instinct that leads to a lunge for the game-changing hit or interception. That’s yummy for a wideout who’s moving along at a 121.3 yards per game pace, and whose game is based on blazing speed.
7. Hakeem Nicks vs. BUF – He can only burn who he plays, and half of Nicks’ 412 yards have come against secondaries ranked 20th or lower (Arizona and Seattle). He’ll get a chance to add to those numbers this week with Buffalo ranked 26th.
8. Roddy White vs. CAR– There’s hesitancy here because of another game that will likely be run-heavy. But with Julio Jones out White should see a lot more butchered cow thrown in his direction.
9. DeSean Jackson @ WAS — It takes a truly exceptional matchup for both Jeremy Maclin and Jackson to be ranked in these prestigious spaces, and with O.J. Atogwe crowding the middle this isn’t Jackson’s week. DeAngelo Hall will be able to keep up with Jackson, and in two games against the Redskins last year Philly’s speedster had 117 receiving yards, but 88 of those came on one play.
10. Dez Bryant @ NE — The exceptional matchup principle applies to the two Cowboys receivers too, at least for the three games every season that they’re healthy at the same time. This is what an exceptional matchup looks like.
Notable omission(s): As the focus on Jackson has increased in the Buffalo offense, Fitzpatrick hasn’t had quite the same eyes for Stevie Johnson as he did over the first three weeks. Johnson has been held scoreless and has just 87 yards in his last two games, and he’s a poor play against a defense that leads the league in sacks and won’t give Fitzpatrick many opportunities to uncork the deep ball.
1. Vernon Davis @ DET — Here’s likely the most beneficial per game average you’ll see this week: the Lions are giving up 54.2 yards per game to tight ends. That’s merely an average day for Davis, which leads to the potential for much more.
2. Jermichael Finley vs. STL — Once again the possibility of a blowout and a reduced role for the passing game applies here. Predicting Finley’s targets in a blowout is a crapshoot. The Packers have won by 10 or more points this year three times, and Finley had just 28 receiving yards against Denver, 67 against Atlanta, and 85 with three touchdowns against Chicago.
3. Jimmy Graham @ TB — Graham has caught 18 balls for 261 yards over the last two weeks. His hot hand started sizzling because of Marques Colston’s injury, and Graham has now likely earned at the very least an equal partnership with Colston as the top targets in the Saints’ passing offense.
4. Jason Witten @ NE — Having Bryant and Austin back at full strength may take a few looks away from Witten, but their vertical speed will also open up holes up the middle.
5. Owen Daniels @ BAL — Schaub’s eye predictably drifted towards Daniels during the first week of Andre Johnson’s brief absence. He finished with 89 yards on seven receptions in Houston’s loss to Oakland.
6. Tony Gonzalez vs. CAR — Gonzo’s only had one game with less than 50 receiving yards.
7. Jermaine Gresham vs. IND — The chemistry with Andy Dalton continues to grow, with Gresham averaging 4.2 receptions per game while the rookie QB consistently takes advantage of his large safety valve.
8. Greg Olsen @ ATL — The yardage is nearly split between Olsen and Jeremy Shockey, but the red zone looks aren’t. Olsen has touchdowns in three straight games, while Shockey is still looking for his first score.
9. Rob Gronkowski vs. DAL — It’s been the tale of two Gronks so far. The Pats tight end had 281 receiving yards in his first three games, and then just 46 over his next two.
10. Brandon Pettigrew vs. SF — Even during San Francisco’s 48-3 destruction of Tampa Bay last week Kellen Winslow Jr. still led all Bucs receivers with 54 receiving yards, showing a weakness Pettigrew can exploit.
Notable omission(s): The Dolphins aren’t too far ahead of New England in their attempt to be the NFL’s most pathetic pass defense. This is why there’s hope for Dustin Keller to revert back to being the tight end who started the year with 249 receiving yards in three games.
But he remains absent from this list because even though the matchup may be favorable, it’s difficult to place any trust in a Jets offense that has wide receivers bitching, and a quarterback who mustered only 166 passing yards against the league’s worst secondary last week.
1. Sebastian Janikowski vs. CLE
2. Jason Hansen vs. SF
3. Mason Crosby vs. STL
4. Alex Henery @ WAS
5. Dan Bailey @ NE
6. Stephen Gostkowski vs. DAL
7. Rian Lindell @ NYG
8. Shaun Suisham vs. JAC
9. Matt Bryant vs. CAR
10. Lawrence Tynes vs. BUF
1. Pittsburgh vs. JAC
2. Minnesota @ CHI
3. Detroit vs. SF
4. Green Bay vs. STL
5. Baltimore vs. HOU
6. New York Giants vs. BUF
7. Chicago vs. MINN
8. New York Jets vs. MIA
9. Cincinnati vs. IND
10. New Orleans @ TB