by Jeff West
December 11, 2003
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    This weekly article will discuss those players “Heading North” (fantasy value is rising), “Going South” (fantasy value is falling), or “East-West” (fantasy value is still undetermined, but worth watching).

    Clinton Portis put on an incredible show against the Kansas City Chiefs in week 14.  The Chiefs have appeared vulnerable to the run recently, but Portis blew them wide open for 218 yards rushing and five TDs.  This was especially rewarding to Portis owners who suffered through his nagging injuries early in the year and his lackluster TD total (7) coming into the week 14 game.  The Browns get the next shot at Portis and, while they have been moderately successful at keeping RBs out of the endzone (7 rushing TDs allowed in 13 games), the better RBs in the league have had success against them, and Portis has proven he is one of the better ones.

    The Houston Texans showed a different look in week 14 as they started rookie QB Dave Ragone and RB Tony Hollings.  Neither had any success against the Jaguars.  Ragone completed 11 of 23 passes for only 71 yards and an INT.  He was sacked three times and also fumbled twice (losing one).  On the bright side, he showed some mobility and running skills as he gained 51 yards on five carries.  Tony Hollings, a supplemental draft pick out of Georgia Tech, carried the ball 18 times for 19 yards.  Jacksonville is already tough against the run, but Houston helped them look even better.

    Onterrio Smith declared himself the "Steal of the Draft" when selected as the eight pick in the fourth round of the 2003 NFL Draft.  When Michael Bennett went down in the preseason, there was some thought that it could be true.  Through 14 weeks Smith has not lived up to his own hype, yet has shown flashes of potential (including a four carry, 40-yard performance against the Seahawks).  The fourth round has turned out to be a gold mine for RBs.  Consider the fact that nine RBs were taken in the fourth round this past year.  Of the nine, only two have not yet seen game action in 2003.  Artose Pinner, the first RB taken in the round, could get on the field this weekend (see below).  The next back taken, Domanick Davis, is a finalist for Rookie of the Year with more than 1000 yards from scrimmage, and may turn out to be the true "Steal of the Draft" for the Texans.  Onterrio Smith was the next back taken and has 54 carries for 257 yards (and a very respectable 4.8 yards per carry average).  Quentin Griffin has taken advantage of injuries to Clinton Portis and Mike Anderson to garner 45 carries in Denver.  Lee Suggs, the next back selected, only has five carries (for a mere five yards), but should see more time as William Green and James Jackson are both out of action in Cleveland.  Jeremi Johnson, a fireplug at 5-11 and 265 pounds, has seen some action behind Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson in Cincinnati.  He has 13 carries and 14 receptions on the season.  Justin Griffith has seen quite a bit of playing time as a fullback in Atlanta.  He already has 25 carries and 19 receptions, and will continue to build upon those numbers with Warrick Dunn out for the season.  The next RB chosen, LaBrandon Toefield, has seen spot duty behind Fred Taylor in Jacksonville, but carried the ball ten times for 54 yards and a TD against Houston in week 14.  The final RB taken in the fourth round, Ovie Mughelli is a true fullback who has a bright future, but has not seen any action yet this year in Baltimore.

"Heading North" – Players whose fantasy value is rising

    While the New England Patriots have been winning game after game, Deion Branch has quietly emerged as the best receiver on the team.  Troy Brown and David Patten have missed time with injuries and that has allowed Branch to become QB Tom Brady's most reliable target.  Over the last five games, Branch has averaged nearly 77 receiving yards a game.  In Week 14 he beat the Dolphin secondary six times for 93 yards.  With the Patriots still looking to lock up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Branch could be a decent third WR or bench player for your team.

    The Browns have watched their RB corps change significantly during the season.  William Green started the season, but his off-field problems ended his season early.  James Jackson stepped in and produced nicely until an injury in the first quarter of the Monday night game put him out for the season.  Enter Jamel White who promptly rushed 16 times for 101 yards and a TD to finish the game.  White is probably the most complete back that the Browns have and will now should be getting nearly all the carries for the remainder of the season.  As long as the Browns are playing QB Roulette, White should get plenty of opportunities, although upcoming games against Denver and Baltimore do not bode well for solid fantasy production.  Despite this, White should be added to your roster in case your better RBs go down with injury.

"Going South" – Players whose fantasy value is slipping

    The quarterback situation in San Diego is tenuous at best.  Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer has yet to announce who will be starting Sunday's game against the Packers.  While Doug Flutie has been a decent fantasy play while starting, the Chargers really should turn the reins back over to Drew Brees.  Brees needs a few more starts this year to show whether he can be part of San Diego's future or if they will need to grab a franchise QB in the draft next year.  If Brees is given the opportunity to start again, don't expect much from him fantasy-wise.  David Boston, who has played well with Flutie in the lineup, will most likely see his production drop as well.

    Rookie WR Andre Johnson lived up to the hype early in the season.  As recently as four weeks ago, Johnson had a four-catch, 122-yard performance with a TD to boot.  In the three games since then, Johnson has caught six balls for only 78 yards, total.  Johnson has hit the proverbial rookie wall, and is also getting fewer opportunities as the QB shuffle continues in Houston.  David Carr went down with an injury, Tony Banks stepped in and performed well enough before he, too, was injured.  Carr returned, but went out again with the flu, allowing Dave Ragone to step in.  David Carr will be a game-time decision for week 15, but games against Tampa Bay, Tennessee, and Indianapolis to close out the season will keep the Texans from being any sort of offensive threat.

"East-West" – Players whose fantasy value is still undetermined

    Week 15 could see the debut of two rookie RBs.  Willis McGahee was far and away the most coveted college RB even after he injured his knee in the Fiesta Bowl.  Despite the prospect of McGahee being out for the entire season, Buffalo selected him with their first pick in the 2003 draft, making him the first RB taken in the 2003 draft.  McGahee might be activated for the game against Tennessee, certainly not the best opportunity for him to show off.  Furthermore, as long as the Bills are still (mathematically) in the playoff hunt, Travis Henry will get the bulk of the carries.

    Another rookie who has received a lot less publicity, but may work himself into a pretty large role is Detroit RB Artose Pinner.  Pinner, who came out of the University of Kentucky with a "poor attitude" label, could be activated for this weekend's tilt against the Chiefs.  The Chiefs have had trouble stopping RBs and a bruising back like Pinner could have some success if given enough carries.  The Lions would like to see what they have in Pinner and if he offers more than Olandis Gary and Shawn Bryson, neither of whom have established themselves as a starter.

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