by Jared Smola and Matt Schauf
BUY orders: These are players you could obtain through a reasonable trade given their relatively low perceived fantasy value.
BUY James Starks, RB, Packers
Few guys have been as frustrating to own this year as Starks. He's the lead back for the most explosive offense in the game, is averaging 4.6 yards per carry, and runs like a bulldozer. Despite all that, Starks sits 30th among RBs in fantasy points. Opportunity has been the limiting factor. Starks is averaging just 12 carries per game, while QB Aaron Rodgers continues to slice defenses through the air. The lack of red zone work has been even more disheartening. Green Bay gets near the goal line seemingly every time they touch the ball, yet Starks ranks just 22nd in the league with 16 red zone carries. None of this is trending in the right direction either. Starks has seen exactly 13 carries in each of his past 4 games. He's received just 4 red zone totes over that span (3 came last week). With the Packers sitting at 9-0, there's little reason to believe they'll alter the offensive game plan. But outside factors -- namely weather -- could force their hand. Green Bay's December/January schedule includes 3 homes tilts and games in New York and Kansas City. Wintry weather could at least limit the Rodgers Show in any or all of those games. Remember that in 2 cold weather playoff games last season, Starks racked up 197 yards and a score on a workmanlike 55 carries. That upside makes him worth trading for, especially with what's likely a deflated price tag. And even if Starks' workload doesn't change, you'll be getting a pretty reliable RB3 or flex. He's posted at least 59 total yards in 6-straight games.
BUY Brandon Marshall, WR, Miami
It’s no coincidence that Marshall has produced his 2 best catch rates of the season the past 2 weeks. Matt Moore isn’t a terrible QB. That’s no ringing endorsement, but it might have been tough to argue after his 2-INT debut in Week 6 as Dolphins starter. Since then, Moore has completed 66.7% or more of his passes in 3 of 4 games. He has thrown just 2 more INTs over that span, vs. 4 TDs. He has drawn 4 consecutive positive ratings from the Pro Football Focus crew, including his 3 highest marks of the year the past 3 weeks. Moore is solid, as he was starting for the Panthers (at least before 2010). There, Moore helped WR Steve Smith to better numbers than Jake Delhomme did. All of this is a long way of saying that Marshall doesn’t have John Beck as his QB. He has a solid, experienced passer. For his part, Marshall now ranks 3rd in the league in targets. His 61% catch rate stands a bit ahead of last season’s and 2nd best among his 5 years as an NFL starter. Marshall is also producing yardage at the best clip of his starting career. His 14 yards-per-catch average stands at least 1 ahead of his numbers from each of the past 4 years. The TD total remains at an ugly 2, but he should at least surpass last year’s 3 -- and likely zoom by it. The schedule won’t hurt him the rest of the way either. Of the final 6 opponents, 4 rank in the league’s bottom-half in fantasy points allowed to WRs. Marshall caught 11 balls for 106 yards and a TD the last time he faced Buffalo, the opponent this weekend (and Week 15). He went for 139 yards on the Patriots back in Week 1. He’ll face the 2nd-most generous D to fantasy WRs again in Week 16 with many fantasy titles on the line.
BUY DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
Not much is going right for D-Jax right now. He was deactivated last weekend after missing a special teams meeting. Then he sat and watched his starting QB suffer a rib injury that has him iffy for Week 11 and beyond. Even before that, Jackson was floundering. He’s sitting on just 2 TDs for the year. He’s only eclipsed the 50-yard mark 3 times, most recently back in Week 5. Since Week 6, 89 WRs have scored more fantasy points. And the cloud hanging over all this is Jackson’s desire for a new contract – a squabble that may or may not have had something to do with that meeting he missed. Too much drama and not enough production could have the D-Jax owner in your league ready to jump ship. We’d recommend pouncing on the opportunity to buy low. Listen – Jackson clearly isn’t happy with the Eagles organization. But he’ll be a free-agent this offseason. And if he wants a big payday – whether it’s from Philly or not – he needs a big 2nd half of the year. Money motivates. Beyond that, this is a talented dude who will start making big plays. Don’t forget that he’s averaged 1,045 yards and 6 TDs per year in his first 3 NFL seasons. That’s included almost 19 receptions of 20+ yards each year. He’s sitting on just 8 so far in 2011. Teams have been sticking safeties extra deep to take away big plays to Jackson. But with RB LeSean McCoy continuing to run all over teams, and TE Brent Celek re-emerging as a key piece of Philly’s passing attack, look for those safeties to start to creep up. D-Jax will always be a boom-or-bust fantasy option, but we think they’ll be more booms over the season’s final 7 weeks.
BUY Percy Harvin, WR, Vikings
Casual box score readers will see another ho-hum outing from Harvin this past week: 6 catches, 52 yards, 3 rushes, 18 yards. It was his 7th game with fewer than 60 receiving yards. He still hasn’t scored an offensive TD this season. But a closer look at that game last week reveals some encouraging signs. First, Harvin tied a season-high with 8 targets. He actually had a 9th that went for a 31-yard gain, but that was called back by a (legit) offensive pass interference call. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the fact that Harvin played 32 snaps on Monday night – his most since Week 5. And that was in a game that was decided before halftime. The rib injury that has plagued Harvin for much of this season seems to be behind him. Minnesota doesn’t seem willing to make him a full-time player, but we do expect his snap count to grow. And even if he remains a 50% player, Harvin is getting the ball when he’s out there. He’s averaging 8 looks (targets + carries) over his past 4 games. That’s a workload that can support WR2 numbers. And with QB Christian Ponder sparking this offense, Harvin will get more scoring opportunities. Does anyone really believe that this electric playmaker is going to go the entire season without a TD? We sure don’t. Harvin could very well post top-25 numbers the rest of the way. You should be able to acquire him at a cheaper price than that.
SELL orders: These are hot or big-name players that could net you more than they are actually worth.
SELL Fred Jackson, RB, Bills
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Sometimes you should aggressively sell a player because it looks like he’ll soon become worthless. That’s not the case here. Barring injury, nobody will be cutting Fred Jackson outright 3 weeks from now. Along with his dynamic 1st-half numbers, Jackson is further bolstered by the current sorry state of the fantasy RB position. There is reason for pessimism, though. For starters, the Bills have scored just 18 points over the past 2 weeks. Sure, Dallas can be a tough defensive matchup. Sunday’s blowout, however, followed the Cowboys getting beat up by the Eagles and staying relatively tight with the Seahawks. Of course, Jackson still wound up with 114 rushing yards at Dallas, but they came on just 13 carries. He’s good enough to produce that kind of efficiency any given week, but no RB will continuously repeat it. Sheer luck gets in the way. And a sagging Buffalo offense lost stud C Eric Wood for the season Sunday and watched #1 WR Stevie Johnson suffer a shoulder injury. Jackson already has gone 3 games without finding the end zone, and the schedule ahead presents some tough sledding. This weekend brings Miami and the 3rd-stingiest D in terms of fantasy points allowed to RBs (4th in PPR). Another meeting with the Dolphins awaits in Week 15 – fantasy-playoff time. Week 16 holds the Broncos, who have allowed just 1 rushing TD through 9 games. In between comes a rematch with the Jets, who limited Jackson to 82 rushing yards in Week 9. Tennessee and San Diego don’t look like big hurdles in Weeks 13 and 14, but Jackson’s situation certainly doesn’t appear as rosy as it did in the early part of the season. If you’re still sitting on a strong backfield because you snagged Jackson in Round 6 or 7 as a backup, it might be time to see about swapping him for strong value at another position. Just don’t panic if you don't find a taker. Selling low on Jackson would be a mistake.
SELL Frank Gore, RB, 49ers
This is a tricky one. Gore is coming off a 6-carry, 0-yard effort that saw him miss about half the game with a tweaked knee. That’s on top of a sprained ankle. A lot of owners if your league may be avoiding this guy like the plague. But there’s a good chance that there’s a believer out there too. A guy who’s looking at Gore’s 5-straight 100-yard outings prior to Week 10, and the fact that neither the knee nor ankle are considered serious issues. If you can find that guy, open up the trade lines. Gore is looking like a dangerous guy to rely on down the stretch. First of all, he’s been overworked this season. Even after last week’s minimal workload, he’s on pace for 318 touches – his most since 2006. Gore’s 28-year-old body – and 38 year-old-knees – aren’t capable of handling that workload. The recent knee and ankle injuries are a sure sign of a guy who’s wearing down. The ‘Niners seem to have noticed too. HC Jim Harbaugh is talking about deploying more of a committee attack going forward. “You just feel like right now that we've got a stable of backs," Harbaugh said. "We've got Frank Gore. We've got Kendall Hunter. We've got fresh legs in Anthony Dixon.” Hunter, especially, is a threat to Gore’s touches. The rookie has been impressive this season, averaging 4.8 yards per carry and 15.6 yards per catch. Look for his role to grow in the coming weeks as San Fran looks to keep Gore fresh for a postseason appearance. On top of that, Gore faces a tough stretch of run defenses down the stretch. While he still gets 2 more games each against the Cardinals and Rams, his other 3 games are against Baltimore, Seattle, and Pittsburgh. All 3 teams rank among the 12 most-stingiest units in yards allowed per carry. Gore is currently sitting 9th among RBs in standard-scoring fantasy leagues. If you can get that kind of value for him in a trade, don’t hesitate to pull the trigger.
SELL Eric Decker, WR, Broncos
This one shouldn’t be tough to figure out. Decker sits tied for 2nd among all WRs with 7 TDs. The guy ahead of him is Calvin Johnson. The 2 tied with him are Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson. Decker and Nelson actually have the exact same season reception total (34), and the Bronco has seen 18 more targets. A 12-target Week 8 against the Lions stands as an obvious outlier, though. Among his past 5 games, that was the only week Decker caught more than 3 passes. He caught 2 or fewer 3 times. He has reached 60 yards once since Week 2 and sits 171 yards behind Nelson for the season. The fact that Decker has scored in 3 straight games (all with Tim Tebow) just means that he’s Robert Meachem on a team thin at WR. You’re probably well aware that his 56-yard TD reception Sunday was 1 of 2 Broncos completions in the game. Tebow completed just 10 throws the week before. That makes 2 straight games the Denver QB has finished with more rushing attempts than completed passes. Let’s just say Decker’s scoring pace doesn’t look sustainable. That said, plenty of folks might be interested in a WR with 7 TDs for the year and scores each of the past 3 weeks. Be sure to pump that up as you unload Decker for someone more dependable.
SELL Vernon Davis, TE, 49ers
His 40-yard, 1-TD effort last week presents owners one last chance to ship Davis off their fantasy rosters for a reasonable return. He’s sitting 10th among TEs in standard-scoring leagues, and we don’t expect him to elevate much from that spot. It has nothing to do with his ability. VD is still one of the most physically-gifted TEs in the league. But the opportunities just aren’t there. San Fran ranks 29th in passing offense and dead-last in pass attempts per game. That’s resulted in a paltry 42 targets for Davis – 21st among TEs. It’s tough to produce consistent numbers with so few looks, especially with a less-than-elite QB tossing the rock. The ‘Niners are sitting pretty at 8-1, though, so there’s little reason to believe that their game plan will change. On top of that, Davis’ schedule the rest of the way is brutal. He still has 3 games against the league’s top-2 defenses against TEs, and only 2 against teams ranked in the bottom-half of the league. That leaves him as just another one of the multitude of matchup TE1 plays out there.
HOLD orders: These players might or might not be performing, but you should keep them rostered for now.
HOLD Tim Tebow, QB, Broncos
There’s plenty to dislike about Tebow’s game. But here’s the bottom line: Sunday marked his 7th start in the NFL. It was the 1st time he ranked outside the top-10 fantasy QBs. He was 14th. The guy attempted all of 8 passes. He completed 2. There were 12 RBs who ran for more yards in Week 10 than Tebow tallied through the air. And he still ranked 14th. That was better than Joe Flacco against the Seahawks and Michael Vick against the Cardinals, among others. QB rushing yardage can often provide hidden fantasy value, but it’s clearly what Tebow thrives on. He has run for 43+ yards in every start this year, and there’s actually still upside. He only has 1 rushing TD in 4 starts this season. Tebow had a ground score in each of his 3 season-ending starts in 2010. The passing is barely worth mentioning, because he certainly isn’t good at it. Tebow has finished just 1 NFL start with more than 50% completions. He has yet to throw for 180 yards in a game this year. That’s basically the only reason he’s a “Hold” and not a “Buy” here. He also has finished just 1 pro game with fewer than 2 total TDs. Don’t let the warranted real-football criticisms cloud his consistent fantasy success. (And don’t panic if he struggles against a well-coached Jets D on Thursday night.)
HOLD Wes Welker, WR, Patriots
Remember how Welker kicked off his 2011 campaign? The 3-time All-Pro averaged a ridiculous 9 catches, 148 yards and 1 TD over the season’s first 5 weeks. That top-tier production has since faded, though his last 4 games haven’t exactly been disastrous. Thanks in part to a pair of difficult matchups – against the likes of Ike Taylor and Darrelle Revis – Welker tallied 12 total grabs, but managed a meager 85 yards. And in all, since his hot-streak ended in Week 5, the Pats slot man has accumulated 27 grabs for just 266 yards and 1 score. He's just 23rd among WRs in standard-scoring fantasy leagues over that span. But there are several key takeaways here that point towards Welker getting back on track. The receptions are still there, and equally as important, the targets are too. Over his last 4 games, he’s averaged a healthy 9 looks per game -- a mark that places him in the top-10 over that span. Welker’s rest of way schedule is also among the most favorable league-wide, a critical factor as we head towards the fantasy playoffs. Of his next 6 opponents, just one (Washington) ranks inside the top-12 in fantasy points allowed to opposing WRs. His other 5 games – against Kansas City, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Washington, Denver, and Miami – pin him up against defenses that rank no higher than 22nd in FPs allowed. Despite a mini midseason rough patch, you’d be wise to hold tight to one of fantasy’s elite WRs.
HOLD Mike Williams, WR, Buccaneers
Some “Hold” candidates you keep because you believe they’ll continue the scoring success that has labeled them “sell high” in other places. Some guys you keep because you don’t have much chance of selling them for anything useful. Williams definitely falls in the latter category. He hasn’t reached the end zone since Week 1. To give that a little perspective, teammates Arrelious Benn and Preston Parker have 2 and 3 TDs on the year, respectively. Torrey Smith had 3 in a quarter. Dane Sanzenwhatshisface has scored 3 times. Mike Williams has scored once. He had 5 TDs through 9 games as a rookie last year. Oddly enough, though, he has seen the exact same number of targets. Williams had 76 passes thrown his way through his first 9 games last year and this year. In 2010, he caught 40 of them. This time around, he grabbed 39. The big difference appears to be in play design. His receiving average sits 4.5 yards per catch lower than last season’s. It’s worth noting that Williams leads the team (and sits tied for 3rd in the league) with 6 drops, according to ESPN Stats & Info, but the fact that his team leads the league in that category has to make you wonder about everyone involved. Williams’ 2 catches in Week 10 constituted his 2nd-lowest total of the year. But they came after 3 straight 6-catch outings. He drew 8+ targets in 6 straight games before dipping to 5 on Sunday. In PPR outfits, Williams has been decent for a while. His draft position calls for better than decent, but he hasn’t been bad enough to cut with reception scoring. Non-PPR owners could be excused for quitting on him. The fact is that things haven’t looked promising lately on the Tampa offense, and the schedule down the stretch isn’t friendly. Green Bay this week has provided the 4th-most fantasy points to wideouts. After that comes 5 straight that rank among the 10 stingiest. Williams isn’t a guy you hold/grab because he has shown signs of breaking out. He’s a guy worth keeping on the bench simply because luck is bound to bring another TD or 2 at some point. And he’s at least being thrown the ball.