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Exploiting the Matchups: Upgrades, Downgades Week 3

Luke Hoover

Luke Hoover has covered fantasy football for Rotowire.com since 2011 and is most proud of recommending Victor Cruz as a starter in his breakout game against the Eagles. He's a lifelong fan of Notre Dame, the Packers and, unfortunately, the Knicks.

Next man up. That's the NFL mentality and needs to be any fantasy owner's mantra as well after an injury-riddled Week 2 has depth charts shuffling more than a deck of cards in a Vegas casino. And that's even without accounting for the Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice sagas. Injuries or suspensions have changed the landscape - temporarily at least - of at least 10 backfields given what preseason expectations may have been for the league entering Week 3. And with that theme this edition will focus on the unusual number of handcuff or timeshare backs that should now see a featured opportunity this Sunday with a good shot at success.

Cleveland already found a new fantasy gem in Terrance West, while Bobby Rainey staked his claim for carries in Tampa and Ahmad Bradshaw leapfrogged Trent Richardson as the better fantasy option in Indy. Now Jamaal Charles (ankle), Knowshon Moreno (elbow) and Ryan Mathews (knee) will miss time with capable backups in place. All three were top-10 fantasy running backs in 2013, but their handcuffs have all flashed strong ability in limited career action. Meanwhile, a red-hot start for Mark Ingram took an ice bath with a broken hand opening the door back up for Khiry Robinson, the breakout candidate many thought would have the Saints job from Day 1. With so many reserves or timeshare guys set to handle the bulk of work this week and a number of star backs with unfavorable matchups, it's shaping up to be a highly unusual fantasy week. And that's just the running backs.

The season's most significant injury thus far will give Kirk Cousins an extended chance to prove once and for all that he is among the 32 best quarterbacks in the NFL. Robert Griffin's dislocated ankle may not keep him out the full year, but it could forever change the direction of the Washington franchise if Cousins excels. A.J. Green's toe injury and DeSean Jackson's shoulder injury also shook the receiver position, though neither seems particularly serious. Regardless, those nicks must be accounted for when grading player matchups and opportunities in the last week before the bye schedule begins. So if this is your first time reading this piece, keep in mind it's not intended as a traditional start/sit column. Players who are upgraded are those you wouldn't consistently start, while those downgraded generally are lineup mainstays. The designations are simply a guide to make those close calls easier.

UPGRADE

Quarterback

Jay Cutler, CHI at NYJ

Cutler was far from efficient with just 5.2 YPA against the Niners, but he did find the end zone four times without getting picked and still has the sublime Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett to shred a Jets secondary that's allowed five scores in two contests without generating a turnover.

Kirk Cousins, WAS at PHI

The Eagles defended the Colts pass attack quiet well, but they were pummeled on the ground and couldn't defend the flat inside the 10. Cousins excels at touch passes and should have opportunities to find paydirt with a rushing attack that will get him in scoring range.

Matt Cassel, MIN at NO

The Saints are the worst pass defense in football so far (324 yards per game), and Cassel is not as bad as the four picks he threw against New England. Expect a regression to the mean with quality weapons and a pass-heavy attack to play catch-up to Drew Brees and Co.

Austin Davis, STL vs. DAL

That's right. The Rams third stringer has played six quarters and thrown for 427 yards at a blistering 73.1 percent completion rate. The Dallas defense has overachieved, but it's still not very good. In two quarterback leagues Davis is worth a one-week flier (assuming Shaun Hill rests again with the Rams on bye next week).

Running Back

Knile Davis, KC at MIA

Dating to last year, Charles has sat or been knocked out early in three of the last four games. In those three contests Davis has posted no less than 85 total yards and two touchdowns, while getting a huge workload (82 total touches). Defensive matchup be damned. When Charles (ankle) sits, Davis should in your lineup.

Ahmad Bradshaw/Trent Richardson, IND at JAC

The Redskins backfield just chewed up the Jags to the tune of 151 yards and three scores. Richardson finally displayed the power and burst he flashed as a rookie in a Colts uniform, while Bradshaw is playing the role of the chip-on-the-shoulder vet with plenty left in the tank to perfection. Both should stay featured plenty in the Colts' suddenly powerful ground game.

Stevan Ridley, NE vs. OAK

The Raiders have been brutalized on the ground through two weeks, allowing an average of 200 yards per game. They're playing this one in Foxboro where they're sure to get whipped cleanly. Ridley saw 25 carries last week. This is like second-grade math.

Jonathan Stewart, CAR vs. PIT

Although the Lions are the second-best run defense in football, Stewart was totaled 59 yards and a score on them. The Steelers, on the other hand, are allowing 170 yards per game with four backs topping 6.2 YPC. With or without DeAngelo Williams (thigh) Stewart should be flexed.

Donald Brown, SD at BUF

Brown led the NFL with a whopping 3.3 YPC after contact in 2013 and now steps in as the starter with Mathews (knee) out. The Bills have a terrific defensive line, but they're about to be exposed by this versatile veteran.

Matt Asiata, MIN at NO

Even in a blowout loss the Vikings kept Asiata involved enough to hit 86 total yards as the natural receiver hauled in five grabs for 48 yards and a score. Against Drew Brees at home in a must-win, Asiata's hands will be needed again. Of course, a porous Saints run D should also make him more effective on the ground, too.

Khiry Robinson, NO vs. MIN

Just when Mark Ingram was taking ownership of the Saints backfield, he breaks his hand. With him out, the equally physical Robinson should see the bulk of early down work against a Vikes D that just gave up a 100-yard rusher in a blowout - are you also sensing a repeat here?

Lamar Miller, MIA vs. KC

No Moreno, a Bill Lazor offense and a Kansas City team that can't run up the score on anybody? This is setting up nicely for Miller's second career 100-yard rushing game.

Wide Receiver

Brian Quick, STL vs. DAL

Consecutive games with nine targets, seven grabs and at least 74 yards. This is a 1,000-yard receiver in the making and the most consistent weapon for St. Louis. Owners should take advantage in what will be one of his sweetest matchups.

Mohamed Sanu, CIN vs. TEN

This is more a speculative guess that the Bengals will rest rather than risk Green (toe) with the bye week looming. It just makes more sense to lean on a great ground game and feed Sanu, who has the size and athleticism of a legit No. 1 target - as he displayed last week with 84 yards and a long score.

Golden Tate, DET vs. GB

After a strong Lions debut, Tate and the entire Detroit offense fell flat in Carolina. On the Ford Field fast track in what should be a shootout, the Packers D will not be nearly as stingy.

Brandin Cooks, NO vs. MIN

The rookie came back down to Earth after exploding in Week 1, but in an 0-2 hole, at home, with Drew Brees against a reeling team, all the toys will get some play in an offense that forgets the break petal exists.

Tight End

Dwayne Allen, IND at JAC

Bounce-back time! Allen followed up a big Week 1 with a Monday Night flop, failing to register a target against Philly. The Jaguars, however, are allowing the fourth most fantasy points to tight ends and have let Niles Paul and Zach Ertz burn them for a combined 176 yards and two TDs.

Larry Donnell, NYG vs. HOU

Why not keep him rolling? Eli Manning's favorite target is no longer Victor Cruz. Donnell followed up a score in Week 1 with 81 yards last week, and Houston's coverage in the middle of the field is sub-standard.

DOWNGRADE

Quarterback

Peyton Manning, DEN at SEA

Take the Chargers game and throw it away. This rematch means a lot to both teams, but in Seattle everything is different. Obviously, benching Manning is like asking to be struck by lightning, but take one look at the Packers box score from Week 1 and admit you're not scared. The number of passers that will outscore Manning this week will exceed two hands worth.

Andy Dalton, CIN vs. TEN

No team has given up fewer passing yards than the Titans. Green will be either out or limited with turf toe and both Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert are already missing. With 80 touchdown passes in his first three years, Dalton has had some awfully productive days. This won't be one.

Colin Kaepernick, SF at AZ

Kaepernick has tossed as many picks as touchdowns (three) in two games versus sub-standard defenses, and now Vernon Davis may be limited with an ankle injury. On the road against a good Cardinals secondary things might not be pretty for the face of the 49ers.

Running Back

Montee Ball, DEN at SEA

See Lacy, Eddie, Week 1. Or, a little thing called Super Bowl XLVIII when the Broncos ran 14 times for 27 yards. And don't think for a second the defending champs aren't equally motivated for this rematch.

Matt Forte, CHI at NYJ

Forte has so much ability that benching him would be too risky. However, the Jets do boast the best run defense in football and just shut down Eddie Lacy, which, as it turns out can happen to Forte - as displayed by the 12 for 21 rushing line the Niners limited him to last week.

Andre Ellington, AZ vs. SF

See Forte, Matt. Ellington has been running well, but is still dealing with a foot injury and won't have the benefit of Carson Palmer (shoulder) keeping the nasty Niners defense honest.

Shane Vereen, NE vs. OAK

The Raiders have been the worst run defense in football and Vereen still deserves a downgrade this week, albeit a small one. Fact is, Vereen makes his fantasy dough catching the ball. The Patriots smoked Minnesota last week and barely threw it (21 passes, one target for Vereen). A dreadful Oakland team is about to create those same circumstances.

Wide Receiver

Demaryius Thomas, DEN at SEA

Don't see Thomas getting 18 targets like he did in the Super Bowl, and Seattle limited Jordy Nelson to 83 yards in Week 1. This is a statement that Nelson is a better receiver than Thomas.

A.J. Green, CIN vs. TEN

This one should seem completely obvious, but even if Green is activated by Marvin Lewis, he probably shouldn't be for your fantasy team. His turf toe injury would likely limit his snaps even if he does suit up and might make him less effective on the field anyways. Best to roll with a safer option despite Green's starpower talent.

Michael Floyd/Larry Fitzgerald, AZ vs. SF

Drew Stanton couldn't even complete 50 percent of his passes against the Giants defense (14-of-29). The 49ers present a whole other level of problems for him, and they're sure to be fuming after letting Brandon Marshall snag away a win last week.

James Jones, OAK at NE

Thinking of rolling the dice on the top wideout in an offense that has to throw it to stay in ballgames? Think again. A couple solid outings has Jones (146 yards and two touchdowns in two games) among the top scoring fantasy wideouts thus far, but Darrelle Revis and a Bill Belichick defense will snuff out that hot start.

Tight End

Niles Paul, WAS at PHI

Paul has been terrific for Washington in place of the banged up Jordan Reed, easily leading them in receiving yards with 185 (good for seventh in the entire league). That train may come off the tracks, however. The Eagles linebackers have the speed to matchup with Paul, and its still possible Reed will return from a hammy injury to steal snaps.

Jason Witten, DAL at STL

Witten has caught just six balls for 46 yards in two games as the Cowboys have become a run-heavy offense. With St. Louis' athletic linebackers set to provide tight coverage, now is not likely the time for him to bust loose.