Fitz on Fantasy: The 10 Biggest Stories of the Season So Far

Hard to believe we’ve already reached the quarter post of the fantasy season. It seems like only yesterday that I was hailing Ray Rice as the most foolproof of the top running backs, questioning Dez Bryant’s staying power, recommending Cam Newton over Peyton Manning, second-guessing Jordan Cameron’s breakout potential, and touting Chris Ivory and Chris Givens as underrated gems.

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Some of you are off to 4-0 starts and feeling happier than Guy Fieri at a chili cook-off. Some of you are 0-4 and feeling gloomier than Kurt Cobain at a dentist’s appointment. (Yeah, he’s dead, but you get the idea.) I’m obliged to throw out the disclaimer that there’s a lot of season left, and that fantasy fortunes can turn on a dime, and that there are many more twists and turns and bizarre developments to come, and blah, blah, blah, cliché, cliché, cliché. But with four weeks in the books, this is a good time to take stock. Here are 10 choices for the top stories of the fantasy season so far.

1. Peyton the Great ’Un

Props to analyst Lance Zierlein for nailing this one. In a podcast with Sigmund Bloom of Football Guys shortly before the start of the season, Zierlein predicted that the Denver passing game was about to explode, and that Manning was going to put up some zany numbers. A lot of people were bullish on Peyton, but Zierlein was positively giddy about the possibilities.

Through four games, Manning has thrown 16 TD passes and zero interceptions. He’s averaging 367.5 passing yards per game. WRs Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker and TE Julius Thomas are all ringing up big numbers, and the party is just getting started. Manning’s 4,557-yard, 49-TD season in 2004 might look like a mere amuse-bouche by the time this season is over.

2. Trent to Own

In-season trades in the NFL are rare. In-season blockbusters come along as often as Halley’s Comet. But the Browns and Colts stunned us on Sept. 18 by agreeing to a deal (presaged by a series of cryptic tweets by Colts owner Jim Irsay) that sent Trent Richardson to Indianapolis in exchange for a first-round pick in next year’s draft. Richardson was a first-round pick in most fantasy drafts, and his owners are hoping the change of venue will fully unlock his perceived potential.

The Colts sacrificed a valuable draft pick for a workhorse running back who could provide immediate help. The Browns appeared to be flying a white flag on the 2013 season and positioning themselves for a major talent infusion in 2014. But so far, things haven’t quite followed the scripted narrative. In the two games since the trade, two different running backs not named Trent Richardson (Ahmad Bradshaw and Donald Brown) have led the Colts in rushing yardage — though T-Rich has kept his fantasy owners content by scoring a TD in each of those games. The Browns, meanwhile, have gone 2-0 since the megadeal, with Brian Hoyer now quarterbacking a pass-heavy offense that uses an odd hodgepodge of running backs. (Hello, Willis McGahee.)

Implications of this deal will continue to ripple through the fantasy season in the weeks to come.

3. Running on Empty

It happens every year: Running backs we expect to do well suddenly go belly-up, threatening the playoff aspirations of countless fantasy owners. But it seems that an unusually high number of RB land mines were planted for 2013.

C.J. Spiller is averaging 64.8 yards from scrimmage per game and hasn’t scored a TD. Ray Rice still hasn’t reached 100 rushing yards for the season, and his struggles can’t be blamed entirely on a hip injury. The talented but fickle Chris Johnson is averaging 3.3 yards per carry and hasn’t reached the end zone. David Wilson once again found his way into Tom Coughlin’s doghouse and is only now beginning to poke his head out. Steven Jackson scored a quick touchdown in his first game with the Falcons but injured his hamstring on the play and seems nowhere close to returning. Maurice Jones-Drew is averaging 2.4 yards per carry and hasn’t had more than 45 rushing yards in any of his four games. Stevan Ridley gone from boss status to committee membership with the Patriots.

All of these guys were consensus top-20 running backs, and all of them have been busts so far, putting the bust rate among top-20 RBs at 35%.

4. The Fantastic Flaccid Four

Young QBs Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson took the NFL and fantasy football by storm last year. This year? Meh.

Griffin, returning from the devastating knee injury he sustained late last season, is averaging just over 300 passing yards per game, but he’s been amassing a lot of late-game garbage yardage in Redskins losses, and the electrifying runs have disappeared from his repertoire.

Kaepernick once again flummoxed defensive coordinator Dom Capers by lighting up the Packers in the season opener, but Kaep hasn’t thrown for more than 167 yards in any game since. A shortage of passing-game weaponry isn’t helping. Vernon Davis has been banged up. And while Anquan Boldin has terrific hands and is a tackle breaker extraordinaire, he’s only slightly faster than the Sleestaks from “Land of the Lost.”

Luck is playing in a retooled offense that uses the running game heavily and asks him to be more of a game manager. (It’s painful to apply that term to a passer so talented.) As a result, Luck’s owners have been getting Andy Dalton-type numbers.

Wilson is averaging fewer than 200 passing yards per game. He threw four TD passes against the Jaguars in Week 3, but he’s thrown only two TD passes in his other three starts.

Things have to get better for these guys, right?

5. The Titanic Tight End

Oh, Jimmy Graham, you marvelous beast. Graham’s last two seasons were outstanding by conventional TE standards, but this is no conventional TE. We suspected that a truly special season wasn’t far off, and it looks as if the watershed is upon us. Through four games, Graham has 27 catches for 458 yards and six TDs. He ranks second in the NFL in receiving yardage, behind only Julio Jones, and is tied with Wes Welker for the league lead in TD catches. If you have Graham on your fantasy team, odds are you’re off to a rip-snortin’ start.

6. Patriot Pains

Injuries to key New England fantasy performers are providing ongoing fantasy drama.

The decision not to put Rob Gronkowski on the PUP list was initially seen as a sign that he’d be back early in the season, but we’re now heading into Week 5, and it’s still unclear when Gronk will return from back and arm maladies. The Patriots, who had been getting such remarkable production from Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in recent years, have gotten four receptions from tight ends so far this season.

RB Shane Vereen rolled up 159 yards from scrimmage in New England’s opener and appeared to be on his way to a big season, but he broke his wrist in that game and won’t be back until Week 11 at the earliest. Vereen’s absence has helped make LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden at least marginally fantasy-relevant.

Like Vereen, WR Danny Amendola put up nice numbers in Week 1 (10 catches for 104 yards) but sustained a multi-week injury. He seems close to returning from his groin ailment, and it will be interesting to see how his return affects the fantasy value of WRs Julian Edelman and Kenbrell Thompkins. The eventual return of Amendola and Gronk figures to perk up Tom Brady’s fantasy numbers, too.

Oh, and by the way, the Patriots are 4-0.

7. Life in the Fast Lane

A record of 1-3 won’t earn Chip Kelly a key to his new city, but damn, Eagles games are fun to watch this year, aren’t they? Even watching the Eagles get turned into mulch by the Broncos last weekend was wildly entertaining.

The average combined point total for the Eagles’ first four games is 59.3. Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson are putting up prodigious fantasy totals — and so are most of the key fantasy performers among Philadelphia’s opponents. (Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Joe Walsh could shed blocks and cover receivers better than these Eagles.) Every game involving the Eagles is a potential fantasy bonanza, and that’s unlikely to change.

8. Jordan Rules

In his two previous seasons with the Browns, Cameron had caught 26 passes in 22 games, averaging 11.8 yards per contest and producing a grand total of one touchdown. But Cameron’s latent talent and the hiring of Norv “The Tight End Whisperer” Turner as Cleveland’s new offensive coordinator raised hopes for a breakout season. The 6-foot-5 tight end has thus far exceeded even the rosiest of expectations, with 30 receptions for 360 yards and five TDs. And unlike Jimmy Graham, Cameron is doing it without an elite quarterback.

9. Charged Particles

A sketchy offensive line, a star tight end aging badly, multiple injuries decimating an already-iffy WR corps — the outlook wasn’t exactly sunny for San Diego’s passing attack this season. And yet Chargers QB Philip Rivers is off to a spectacular start, with 1,199 passing yards, 11 TD passes and a completion percentage of 73.9%. TE Antonio Gates has returned to vintage form at age 33. WR Eddie Royal, a fantasy afterthought a month ago, caught five TD passes in the Chargers’ first two games. New arrival Danny Woodhead is on pace for 88 catches.

Obviously, reports of Rivers’ demise were greatly exaggerated. But perhaps the biggest factor in the rejuvenation of the Chargers’ passing game is the tactical prowess of new head coach Mike McCoy. The design of McCoy’s offense is helping Rivers unload more quickly and easing the burden on an offensive line that has been ravaged by injuries and didn’t have a great deal of talent to begin with. Hard to tell whether McCoy, Rivers and Co. will be able to sustain this sort of aerial success, but the early results are certainly encouraging.

10. Reg-o-Matic

Some people thought Reggie Bush would be a perfect fit in the Lions’ offense, and Bush has indeed been spectacular for his new team so far — like, USC-era spectacular. But can someone please get this man fitted for a suit of armor?

Bush totaled 191 yards from scrimmage in Week 1 but dislocated his thumb and sustained a minor groin injury in the process. He played in Week 2 but took a helmet to the knee, an injury that kept him out of action in Week 3. He returned against the Bears in Week 4 and ran for 139 yards, scoring on one of the better TD runs of the season.

In three games, Bush has 254 rushing yards, 179 receiving yards and two TDs. He’s averaging 5.3 yards per carry and 16.3 yards per catch. Despite the missed game, Bush is on pace for 1,732 total yards. (He’s also on pace to injure 12 different body parts.)