Nickel Coverage: Five fantasy questions that need answers before Week 3

ByTom Carpenter ESPN logo
Friday, September 25, 2015

Surprise players such asDion Lewis and veterans such asPeyton Manning made fantasy owners happy in Week 2, but the biggest storylines largely were filled with disappointment. Early-round running backs Jeremy Hill, Justin Forsett and DeMarco Murray couldn't get anything going. Mike Evans and C.J. Spiller returned from their respective injuries, but you wouldn't know it from the box score. And players on the Indianapolis Colts were a collective train wreck for fantasy owners on Monday night.

What are we supposed to do with these players in Week 3 and beyond? Don't worry -- we have the answers for you right here.

Each week throughout the season, I will posit five of the week's most intriguing fantasy questions to a rotating panel of experts from ESPN, ESPN Fantasy and NFL Nation. Five questions for five analysts, thus, Nickel Coverage.

Responses this week come from ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell, SportsCenter and Fantasy Football Now anchor Robert Flores, ESPN Fantasy analysts Ken Daube and KC Joyner, and NFL Insider columnist Mike Sando.

Dion Lewis has produced two weeks in a row and dominated the snaps in the process. While historically it's been difficult to trust Patriots running backs from week to week, is Lewis a must-start until further notice?

The consensus is it depends on the Patriots' weekly game plan and whether you are in a PPR league.

Daube: It depends on your league format. For anyone playing in a point-per-reception league, the answer is yes; for those playing in standard formats, the answer depends on your other options. That might sound like a cop-out, but you can count on at least four catches from Lewis, who has grabbed complete control of the old Shane Vereen role in the Patriots' offense. If you aren't playing PPR, don't be too encouraged by seeing the Jacksonville Jaguars as this week's opponent. The Jags have the fifth-best rushing defense in this young season, surrendering fewer than 74 rushing yards per game.

Joyner: Bill Belichick's running backs get their carries based on game plan, not on talent. Lewis is a space running back, so he'll be used against teams where speed at that position is at a premium. Against teams that don't fare as well against the power-rushing attack, LeGarrette Blount will get the call. The Jaguars look to be a team that the power game would work better against, but that's not a slam dunk, so Lewis has to be considered a risky flex play this week.

Sando: I think so. It was telling when the Patriots stuck with Lewis after he fumbled. It was also telling when Tom Brady almost went over the top in his praise for Lewis as an all-around threat whose value remains high no matter what style the team plays. You get the feeling Lewis is going to be a featured player in run-heavy games, and you get the feeling -- we saw it, so it's more than a feeling -- Lewis can remain a factor even when the Patriots are slamming the accelerator to the floor in the passing game. I'm intrigued and would rather be proved wrong rolling with him than regret sitting a player who seems to have earned a role in a great offense.

Which stumbling starting running back are you most concerned about using this week and why: Jeremy Hill, Justin Forsett or DeMarco Murray?

All of our analysts agree that it is Murray.

Bell: Hill did not have a great overall game in Week 2, but he did have good moments -- fumbling twice was not among them. Expect him to bounce back this week. Forsett has not shown much of the burst he displayed last season, but he did improve his yards per carry in Week 2 and caught a few passes. His teammate, Lorenzo Taliaferro, returned from an MCL injury and snagged the touchdown. Unfortunately for Taliaferro, he now has a foot injury, which could sideline him this week, and Forsett should benefit. Murray, however, is going in the wrong direction. He left Wednesday's practice with a hamstring strain and did not practice Thursday. While our own Ashley Fox reports Murray will play on Sunday, we're still left to wonder whether he can be more effective.

Daube: It doesn't make a difference to me if we are talking about just this week or for the rest of the season; my answer is Murray. He was dominant last year, but he had several advantages that are non-existent this year. First, Murray was playing behind the best run-blocking offensive line in the NFL. Second, he had several years of familiarity in the system in which he was playing. Finally, there were other skill-position players on the Cowboys (Dez Bryant,Jason Witten) whom the other team's defense needed to stop as well. With all three of those advantages gone, and playing a defense as strong as the New York Jets, I don't see how anyone could start Murray this week.

Joyner: You can check out Joyner's detailed thoughts on Murray in this video.

Upon returning from injuries last week, Mike Evans and C.J. Spiller flopped in the box score, as both saw limited snaps and workloads. Do you trust either as a flex play in Week 3?

Our analysts' opinions vary greatly on this one.

Bell: Both. As for Spiller, he had no setback following the game and is expected to see more action after practicing fully so far this week. Notably, he could have an even bigger role in the passing game this week than the Saints originally intended given QB Drew Brees' bruised rotator cuff. He hopes to play but may struggle with deep passes and be forced to rely more on the run and the short-passing game, Spiller's strength.

Daube: Neither. Both Evans and Spiller are talented players, but it is obvious they are nowhere close to 100 percent healthy. I understand the allure of wanting to start either player, but most of that allure is really not wanting to be burned by having a big game wasted by the player being on your bench. Trust me: It's much, much worse to be burned by grabbing a low-point total out of a roster slot that should return double-digit production.

Flores: Evans. He said after the game last week he was on a play count coming off injury but that he expects to be full-go against the Texans.

Joyner: Neither. Trust is the key word. Start them if absolutely necessary, but if it can be avoided, don't put either in a fantasy football lineup.

Sando: Evans. J.J. Watt setting up residence in the Buccaneers' backfield is a legitimate concern. That said, I think the natural reaction for Tampa Bay will be to funnel some targets Evans' way. The subject is at least on the Buccaneers' radar as a staff. With TE Austin Sefarian-Jenkins out, they do not have many alternatives. Also note three of the five TD passes Houston has allowed traveled at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage in the air. Evans ranks tied for sixth since the start of last season in catches with 15-plus air yards (he has 24).

Peyton Manning's late rally salvaged his Week 2 fantasy score, but there are concerns about him declining. Which quarterbacks would you start ahead of him in Week 3, and where would you rank him for the rest of the season?

In general, our analysts peg Manning as a top-10 quarterback for the rest of the way and would start only Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson over the Broncos' signal-caller this week. The big question is whether he will fade as the season progresses.

Bell: If last week's game tells us anything, it's that you can't simply write Manning off. He will only improve as he adapts to this new offense and will help bring his teammates along with him. And the next four matchups look promising for Manning: Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns. The only quarterbacks I'd start ahead of him this week are Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson (with honorable mention to Andrew Luck). For the next four weeks, Manning is a top-5 quarterback for me, and through the end of the season he remains in my top 10.

Flores: I think he's still a top-10 fantasy quarterback especially since the schedule gets a little easier for the next few weeks. But the days of 50 touchdown passes in a season are over.

Sando: I think there's a decent shot we're going to see backup QB Brock Osweiler starting before the season is finished, and if we do not see that happen, I'm fearful from a fantasy standpoint Manning does not have enough left physically to finish strongly. Manning is getting smashed too frequently (we can blame his line but should also remember the protection scheme has changed), and his physical limitations have shown up. Manning is only going to deteriorate physically, and when you look at the coach/general manager combinations with the guts to move on from a legend during the season, the Gary Kubiak/John Elway combo is high on any list. The way Manning finished against Kansas City was encouraging, but this is a worrisome situation for the long term.

Discounting those previously mentioned in questions above, which disappointing player will have the best bounce-back performance in Week 3?

Look for the Indianapolis Colts to get things going in Week 3.

Bell: Frank Gore. Why? He hardly ever fumbles; what happened Monday night was so out of character for him and it won't happen this week. He can still run effectively; Gore showed flashes of his former 49er self on Monday night. He also had two runs of more than 10 yards called back due to holding penalties. The matchup; the Titans have yielded the third-most fantasy points to opposing backs since the start of last season. Advantage: Gore.

Daube: Andrew Luck. The turnaround starts this week, as the medicine for Luck comes in the form of this week's opponent, the Titans. Last season, Luck shredded the Titans to the tune of 553 passing yards, six passing touchdowns and just one interception in their two regular-season meetings.

Flores: Jeremy Maclin. I'm going to take a wild guess and say Maclin. He's too talented, and Andy Reid is too good of a play-caller and designer to not find a way to have Maclin be a bigger impact.

Joyner: Jimmy Graham. Seattle brought him in to improve what was one of the worst goal-line passing offenses in the NFL last year. Graham isn't happy with his target volume, and Seattle isn't going to want him to continue to be unhappy. They will target him early and often against a Chicago defense that is playing poorly both due to a lack of talent in the secondary and a lack of discipline on their entire defense.

Sando: Andrew Luck.I feel pretty safe in saying Luck did not suddenly become a horrible player. He has struggled the first two weeks against defenses that should be strong this season. Note, also, that Luck was facing one defense that was unfamiliar to him (Buffalo's) and another led by a coach, Todd Bowles, who had the Colts' number in 2013 when he was coordinating Arizona's defense. The assumption here is Luck will not struggle forever, and he'll have a better-than-decent shot at putting up fantasy points against a Tennessee defense that had people legitimately thinking Johnny Manziel should remain the Browns' starter. Luck scored 29 and 14 fantasy points in games against the Titans last season. Let's see if he bounces back here.