A partial list of notable players that I have strong feelings—good and bad—about their rest of season outlook.
QB Derek Carr: There are two big factors why I trust Carr's fantasy outlook for the rest of the year that have nothing to do with the quarterback and they are his two best receivers and the Raiders defense. Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper are a weekly route running clinic and Carr is locked into them. The Oakland defense is vulnerable to the run on the right side of its line, vulnerable to tight ends in the middle of the field, and vulnerable to most wide receivers facing cornerback Sean Smith. It's not the Saints defense, but the unit does just enough to keep Carr and company airborne. Fantasy football's No.5 quarterback also has a favorable schedule of the Chiefs (twice), Jaguars, Buccaneers, Panthers, Chargers, and Colts.
Russell Wilson: The early bye week places Wilson at No.27 among fantasy quarterbacks but after the offensive line's early-season growing pains, Wilson was the No.8 fantasy passer during the second half of September. I'm also enthusiastic about the ways the offense is creating match-ups for its wide receivers and whatever you call Jimmy Graham. I could go into more detail about the Seahawks schedule that includes Atlanta, Arizona, New Orleans, and Carolina, but with the balance this unit is achieving and Wilson likely to be back to his full athletic prowess after the bye, he's a must-start against teams that can author a pass rush. He's also Belichick-proof. Look it up.
Drew Brees: The Saints' field general was the No.2 fantasy quarterback through week 4. Unless I missed it, New Orleans didn't play a game in Week 5. My buddy Bloom broached Brees as a potential sell because he wasn't enthusiastic about some of the Saints' opponents left on the schedule. I'm still happy with what I've seen on the field. I'll leave it at that.
Matt Ryan: My colleague Charles McDonald, who also covers the Falcons, says the Atlanta message board crazies had a theory last year that Kyle Shanahan was ruining Ryan's mechanics. No, the offensive line that allowed too much pressure every week was forcing Ryan to deliver throws from less than ideal stances. And, there were moments in each game where Ryan perceived pressure that wasn't there and delivered off-target throws. It happens to the best of quarterbacks and Ryan— by fantasy standards—is the best quarterback in the league. In real football, Ryan is a good quarterback who needs a good protection up front and he's got it this year. I'm predicting his worst week comes against Seattle because it's the one time that can rush and cover—even Tevin Coleman. Otherwise, trust Ryan as a good QB1.
Matt Stafford: I think Aaron Donald will wreak havoc on Stafford this weekend but if he can survive the onslaught, I'm confident he'll remain a good fantasy starter. Like my rationale for Derek Carr, the Lions' defense is just bad enough that Stafford has to throw to keep this team in most contests. No early lead is safe with the Lions' defense this year. The addition by subtraction with Calvin Johnson idea I floated this preseason has also proven true. The future Hall of Famer couldn't be everywhere. This year, Detroit has three receivers that run good routes and have reliable hands: Marvin Jones Jr, Anquan Boldin, and Theo Riddick. I was always mildly surprised that Tate has been as reliable as he was before this year because he's never been a strong technician at his position. Now that Tate isn't essential, Stafford's life is easier and it's showing in the box score.
RB Todd Gurley: It's a tough call but as I mentioned On The Couch this week, if there's a team that time forgot it's Jeff Fisher's Rams. I've always called Gurley "Eddie Georgia" and I think Fisher is alright with feeding a high-volume, low efficiency ground game if it's doing enough to keep the team competitive as a whole. Based on the Rams' record, it is. If you can get a high-end RB2 and a WR2 in a deal for Gurley, I'd consider it. If not, don't sweat the fact that Gurley's numbers aren't spectacular. He'll remain effective.
RB Devonta Freeman: Tevin Coleman has out-produced Freeman 4 weeks to 1 thus far on despite Freeman earning 30 more touches than Coleman. It's difficult to trust the volume differential unless your league starts at least three backs and you have the luxury to call Coleman your RB1. If that's you, you're talking trash to Floyd Mayweather with your buddies Bruce Lee and Ken Shamrock flanking you. If your league only starts two backs, calling Coleman your RB1 and sticking with him is a gutsier call because it's relying on Kyle Shanahan to remain creative enough for Coleman to continue earning these high-efficiency targets. Coleman is doing great work but Freeman is earning his the old-fashioned way. The stats may say Coleman has more quality games but Freeman's volume and skill makes his lower risk.
Carlos Hyde: He's another tough call because of the moribund 49ers offense, but I'm only referring to the rest of the skill players. Unlike the Rams, the offensive line remains a solid unit. Hyde also creates enough in difficult situations that he consistently earns a little more than what his teammates provide. The schedule also has its positives.
Christine Michael: I doubt Thomas Rawls makes a big dent in Michael's workload upon his return. Michael has played well enough that I don't think Rawls earns a big enough split to re-take the job. I also fear Rawls will continue having difficulties staying healthy this year. Young players—and vets who've never missed time with injury—often have to learn how to manage injuries and rehab. It's an acquired skill. I bet a lot more players than we imagine mismanage their recovery or at best, don't understand how to optimize the recovery process. It's a question I intend to ask Jene Bramel on this week's Audible. This offense is on the verge of going off and Michael will be one of the pistons in this powerful engine.
Jordan Howard: As long as Josh Sitton stays healthy, Howard's compact, powerful style and Chicago's run-friendly schedule makes the rookie a player I'll hold onto despite the trials and tribulations of its passing game.
Marvin Jones Jr: Sorry Bloom, but I disagree with your assessment that Jones won't remain a top-5 receiver. The party line from fantasy writers this preseason was "Jones should be good, but he's no Calvin Johnson." That's a true statement. But if Calvin Johnson in his prime was in this offense in Jones' place, Johnson might have 45 catches for 650 yards and hold a significant lead as the top fantasy receiver after 5 weeks.
In 2011, Johnson had 29 catches for 451 yards and 9 touchdowns after Week 5 and finished with a 96-catch, 1681-yard, 16-TD year thanks to Nate Burleson and Titus Young's combined 121-catch, 1364-yard, 9-TD support and Brandon Pettigrew's 83-catch, 777-yard effort. Johnson finished 2011 almost 50 points better than any other fantasy receiver. Jones lacks this caliber of big-play support but I think the cast is just good enough to keep Jones productive every week.
Right now, he's earning 4.8 catches and 103 yards per game. Let's drop that pace to 4.3 catches and 75 yards per game and you're looking at 79 catches for 1419 yards. If Jones scores 6 more touchdowns during this 12-game span at the reduced rate that I'm projecting, he's still performing as a top-12 receiver by 2015's standards for Weeks 6-17.
Because Jones is just good enough to excel but not dominant enough to force double teams, I wouldn't be shocked if his production even dips this much. I just can't project a 19-yard-per-catch figure throughout the year and feel reasonable about it, given historical context at the position. Even Geekly Weekly, Jones is good and the situation is good enough not to forecast a strong slide.
Michael Crabtree: Amari Cooper and Crabtree are the new Jimmy Smith-Keenan McCardell pairing in the AFC. Excluding Derek Carr, Crabtree is the greatest beneficiary of the Raiders' defensive woes and having Cooper working alongside him. He's the No.7 receiver right now and I don't expect him to drop below the top-15.
Tyrell Williams: The 17-yards-per-catch average surprised me despite watching San Diego every week. Yards after the catch stats help, but Williams is also getting it done over the middle. I love what I'm seeing from him versus contact and adjusting to the football. His body control and concentration were two notables during the preseason and I think he remains a low-end WR2.
Doug Baldwin: The emergence of the Seahawks' offensive line, Jimmy Graham, and Christine Michael will make it difficult for teams to contain Baldwin. The Seattle receiver had 12 catches for 218 yards over the two-week span prior to its bye week. The way this offense is pairing receivers outside makes life easier for Russell Wilson. And with Wilson's skill for improvisation and the quality of his deep ball when life hasn't been easy, defenses aren't happy.
Michael Thomas: He's been my choice as the most productive fantasy rookie at the position since July and I'm sticking with it. Thomas was a on a two-week, top-20 clip of production prior to the Week 5 bye and I don't think it changes. Brandin Cooks has always had some boom-bust embedded into this strength-weakness profile as a straight-line speed guy and Willie Snead IV is the Matt Ryan of receivers—good with help, but not dynamic in his own right. Thomas is the best all-around option on the Saints corps. Experience is his greatest weakness and I'm confident that learning curve won't be a huge factor down the stretch.
Martellus Bennett: With all that I've mentioned about 12 personnel every other week? No-brainer. Next...
Jimmy Graham: The engine just needed warming up in Seattle.
Jesse James: I don't believe in Ladarius Green's return. And if I'm wrong, he won't be blocking or working those middle zones as much as he'll be replacing Markus Wheaton in the lineup. James is a good blocker and has the Heath Miller role down. He's also reliable in the red zone in ways I have not seen from Green—ever.
Kirk Cousins: I don't trust Cousins' decision-making under pressure because I'm still seeing plays where his reach exceeds his grasp when staring down the rush. He's compelled to target routes that are at the razor's edge of his arm strength in these situations. It's a problem he's had since his college days and I saw it last week against Baltimore.
Unfortunately, he continues to attempt these targets because he'll stumble into success and he hasn't learned to discern which situations to try or avoid.
This completed pass covered 25 yards from the opposite hash while pressured. Compare this play to the ease that Matt Stafford flicks the ball 20 yards to the opposite hash while fading away from pressure in his face. He doesn't require the same effort as Cousins and it helps him avoid the hit while delivering the ball.
Cousins will have some big games but I don't trust him because he doesn't know his limitations in ways that he should by now.
C.J. Anderson: I trust him as a player but I don't trust John Elway. Anderson won the negotiation with Elway because the Broncos knew it didn't have anyone behind him worthwhile and there was no certainty about the organization getting a back in the draft that was capable of starting immediately. You get the feeling that Elway gives Anderson the stinkeye and would like nothing more than to see "his guy" Devontae Booker earn the job and put Anderson on a mule out of town.
The Broncos offensive line is missing two starting tackles. If they return soon, I'll feel better about Anderson because he's the most patient and creative runner on the roster. If not, Booker's fast-hitting style to the hole may prove a better match.
Spencer Ware: It breaks my heart to put him on this list because I believe in his talent and the fumbling issue isn't a major deal. One of them against the Jets was a poor decision of ball handling. The other was a strong hit. If the Chiefs were better in the red zone, Ware would be a top-5 back right now.
Ware's red zone touches by week: 2,1,2, and 3. Gordon's red zone touches by week: 3,9,4,6, and 5. Ware has 54 attempts for 284 yards and 1 score. Gordon has 89 attempts for 299 yards and 6 scores. Gordon is the No.4 RB. Ware is the No.17 RB.
The real factor is Jamaal Charles. If Charles has the goods to look like he did prior to his second ACL tear, he's still an upgrade to Ware. I anticipate Ware to have a role but unless Andy Reid's offense becomes as imaginative with its backs as Atlanta's offense, my doubts are growing about Ware remaining an RB2 with RB1 upside.
Right or wrong, I can't bring myself to selling him because his potential as an injury substitute could make him a league winner.
Jeremy Hill: After a promising start, he's faded. I think Dan Fouts is right, Hill looks like he's running with too much caution after that playoff fumble. Combine that with a shoulder injury, Giovanni Bernard's all-around ability, and a defense that's giving up big plays, and I'm not seeing an environment that encourages a good fantasy outlook for Hill.
Latavius Murray: If you want me to have permanent side eye, stick a photo of Murray in front of me every week. Jalen Richard has out-produced Murray on the ground by 3 yards and 15 fewer carries and through the air by 42 yards on one more reception. Buh-bye.
Kelvin Benjamin: For the past three weeks, he's the No.50 fantasy receiver. He can't defeat press coverage and his remaining schedule is a mix of good and bad matchups based on who can and can't press him. Benjamin should have a good chance to produce against the Saints this week but even the weaker defenses on this schedule have pretty good man corners who will see enough time against the receiver to render him a mediocre play. Plus, Delvin Breaux, a good press corner will get a second shot at Benjamin by season's end. That No.11 ranking in standard leagues is cause for major side eye.
Will Fuller V: If Fuller was a Steeler, I'd feel almost as comfortable with him as I do with Sammie Coates Jr, who needs a few coats of Stickum to hold onto more than 50 percent of his targets but has the support of his team. Coates also isn't anywhere near the go-to guy. Fuller has a higher priority role, hands as suspect as Coates, and a quarterback lacking Ben Roethlisberger's skill. I like Fuller long-term and I still expect good weeks, but rest-of-season WR2 production is cause for the side eye.