The annual bane of fantasy players returns this weekend with the first of seven consecutive bye weeks on the NFL schedule. Four teams – the Cowboys, Chiefs, Vikings and Bucs – get an early breather in Week 4, with the Dolphins, Patriots, Steelers and Seahawks on deck.
As if it wasn’t going to be tough enough to fill the voids left by our idled stars, Week 3 delivered another wicked round of injuries to a parade of fantasy stalwarts, including Steven Jackson (groin), Jahvid Best (toe), Ray Rice (knee), Cedric Benson (leg), Pierre Thomas (ankle), Andre Johnson (ankle), Jason Witten (knee) and Visanthe Shiancoe (leg).
Fortunately, none of those players currently appears at risk of missing more than a game or two, if that. But when you combine their potential absences with the bye-week scratches and the previously wounded – including Ryan Grant, Knowshon Moreno, Ryan Mathews, Jerome Harrison, Reggie Bush and Pierre Garcon – it’s enough to make even the cockiest fantasy owners mimic “The Scream” by Edvard Munch.
Indeed, waiver wires will be humming over the next few days, as several promising free agents are snapped up for spot or long-term duty. Don’t wait until the weekend to prepare for your next matchup, or you may find yourself screaming again.
Free agent picks and pans
To win a fantasy championship, you need to start with a good draft. But filling in your roster throughout the season with the right free agents can also make a big difference. Here’s a look at several players worth considering, and others who would look better in someone else’s lineup.
Catch ‘em while you can
Bruce Gradkowski, QB, Raiders. Teams looking for a quick fix while Tony Romo and Brett Favre rest could do much worse than Gradkowski, who played well enough to win against the Cardinals in his first start of the season Sunday. He’ll face off against the visiting Texans, who have surrendered a league-worst 1,143 passing yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions to Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb and Romo over the first three games.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB, Patriots. On Friday, I told you to watch him. Now it’s time to grab him. The third-year back posted 98 yards and a touchdown on 16 rushes against Buffalo, effectively distancing himself from the remaining competition in New England’s backfield. Fred Taylor’s toe injury – the severity of which is still uncertain – adds further luster to Green-Ellis’ rising star.
Peyton Hillis, RB, Browns. His bravado performance against a tough Ravens run defense proved that he is indeed ready to be the workhorse back in Cleveland’s offense. Though Jerome Harrison (thigh) could return this weekend, Hillis – who is still available in roughly 30 percent of fantasy leagues – is clearly the preferred option.
Willis McGahee, RB, Ravens. If Ray Rice’s knee injury costs him playing time, McGahee is in line for a heavier workload. He rushed six times for 25 yards in the fourth quarter after Rice left Sunday’s game. He’s available in roughly a third of fantasy leagues; so Rice’s owners, especially, should grab McGahee as insurance.
Lance Moore, WR, Saints. With a 149-yard, two-touchdown outburst against the Falcons, Moore served notice that he is back with a vengeance and ready to reclaim his role as one of Drew Brees’ most reliable targets. With Bush lost for several more weeks, Robert Meachem pulling another disappearing act, and Devery Henderson remaining one of the most inconsistent wideouts in Fantasyland, Moore should be snapped up immediately.
Dustin Keller, TE, Jets. Clearly in sync with his young and improving quarterback, Keller now trails only Antonio Gates among tight ends after his prolific Sunday night performance. Keller has emerged as an elite option and yet he’s still available in half of fantasy leagues. Not for long.
Don’t be fooled
Kenneth Darby, RB, Rams. He played well after Steven Jackson suffered a groin injury; but if the starter can’t return this weekend, Darby is unlikely to reap the benefits. The team has already contacted free agent Larry Johnson, and they will surely consider other options before making a final decision. If Johnson gets the nod, he becomes a marginally intriguing pickup.
Maurice Morris and Kevin Smith, RB, Lions. Rookie sensation Jahvid Best sprained his toe Sunday, but the injury is not considered serious. If he misses time, neither Morris, who took over after Best’s departure, nor Smith, who has yet to suit up this year while still recovering from knee and shoulder surgeries, would offer much hope for replicating Best’s production.
Roy Williams, WR, Cowboys. Why race to acquire a player whose first great week in a Dallas uniform was wasted on the bench of virtually every fantasy team that owned him? Williams will remain a starter in Dallas’ pass-heavy offense, but I’d bet on the Chiefs finishing 16-0 before Williams out-shines Miles Austin and Dez Bryant again.
Vincent Jackson, WR, Chargers. Now that the deadline has passed for Jackson to secure a trade that would reduce his suspension to four weeks – and with the bye weeks upon us – few teams have the luxury of carrying his dead weight any longer. Feel free to waive him for a player that actually plays.
Garrett Hartley, K, Saints. After missing what amounted to an extra point-length field goal in overtime, Hartley could soon be looking for work. Two misses in Week 1 nearly cost the Saints their opening game, but his latest whiff was devastating. John Carney has a leg up (sorry) on the competition, having filled in well during (and after) Hartley’s suspension last season.
Ladd Biro is a syndicated fantasy football columnist and host of Sporting News Radio’s weekly Fantasy Files show (Saturdays, 8-9 am CT). Follow his daily fantasy advice at the Fantasy Fools blog (fantasy-fools.blogspot.com) and via Twitter (@ladd_biro).