Pat Fitzmaurice is addicted to competitive cooking shows ("Top Chef," "Chopped," Hell's Kitchen," etc.), and he also loves to eat. Since he isn't much of a cook, he's channeling his chef obsession into Fitz's Four-Course Fantasy Feast, a regular column featuring an appetizer, salad, entrée and dessert. Bon appétit.(END ITALICS)
Appetizer: Spicy Buffalo wings
Regular readers of this column know that I have a morbid fascination with the Buffalo Bills. Before the season began, I tried to analyze the Buffalo offense and suggested that Bills head coach Chan Gailey, having proven himself an adaptable tactician in the past, would structure his offense around what appeared to be the team's greatest strength: the RB troika of Fred Jackson, C.J. Spiller and Marshawn Lynch.
So much for that idea. Buffalo suddenly has a dangerous passing game. The 2010 Bills won't make fans forget Jim Kelly and the K-Gun offense, but these new-look Bills can throw it around a little bit.
Turns out that Ryan Fitzpatrick is a pretty good quarterback. He's thrown 11 TD passes in four starts, he lit up the vaunted Baltimore defense for 382 yards and four TDs last week, and his passer rating currently stands at 102.2. Sure, a month worth of starts is a small sample size, but no way could you have watched Fitzpatrick carve up the Ravens last weekend and walked away still thinking he's a scrub. He's completed at least two-thirds of his passes in all but one of his four starts. His one bad passing game was against the Jets, who pick their teeth with opposing quarterbacks. (And in that game, Fitzpatrick still provided some fantasy value by rushing for 74 yards.) Fitzpatrick has so-so arm strength, but his quick feet and mobility are assets, and he went to Harvard, so we know he's intelligent.
Fitzpatrick can be a decent spot starter for fantasy teams the rest of the way, maybe even an every-week starter. In terms of fantasy value the rest of the way, I'd rank him even with or ahead of Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, Donovan McNabb, Carson Palmer and Matthew Stafford, all of whom were considered top-15 (or at worst, top-20) quarterbacks before the start of the season. But here's the rub for dynasty-leaguers: The 2011 NFL draft will feature some excellent QB prospects, and the Bills will be in position to take one. Unless Fitzpatrick plays at close to a league-MVP level the rest of the season, the Bills won't pass on a QB prospect such as Andrew Luck of Stanford or Ryan Mallett of Arkansas. The Bills could draft a quarterback and trade Fitzpatrick to a QB-hungry team in order to improve themselves at other positions, but more likely, they'd hang on to Fitzpatrick (who's under contract through 2011) and have him spend the first month or two of the 2011 season keeping the seat warm for his eventual successor. The latter scenario would obviously tarnish his dynasty-league value.
The other emerging force in the Buffalo passing game is WR Steve Johnson (and by the way, he prefers to go by "Stevie"). He's caught TD passes in four consecutive games, and last week he rang up a career-high 158 receiving yards on eight catches. Johnson was the 224th overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft. Buffalo took Indiana WR James Hardy in the second round of that year's draft, but Johnson's emergence in training camp this year prompted the Bills to kick Hardy to the curb. Johnson is now a viable fantasy starter, and he might be a fixture in fantasy lineups for years to come.
WR Lee Evans has always been a skilled pass catcher whose talents were mostly squandered by a steady stream of mediocre Bills quarterbacks. He's come alive lately, with 11 catches for 192 yards and four TDs in his last two games. It finally appears safe for fantasy owners to start Evans.
Even little Roscoe Parrish now offers a wee bit of fantasy value, maybe as an emergency flex option. Parrish had eight receptions last week and four receptions a week earlier. He's never been much of a TD scorer, but with his blazing speed, he could break a few long ones if Fitzgerald keeps targeting him this often.
And by the way, I wouldn't hesitate to start any of the principals in the Buffalo passing game against the Chiefs this week. Kansas City ranks 25th in the league against the pass, and don't forget that Chiefs head coach Todd Haley fired Gailey as his offensive coordinator shortly before the start of the '09 season. Gailey professes to harbor no ill will about it, but if the suddenly plucky Bills are able to get any sort of lead on the Chiefs this weekend, they probably won't let up on the throttle.
Salad: Thai crunch salad
I haven't been to the chain restaurant California Pizza Kitchen in a while, and I've been craving this salad they offer. It has a wonderful cilantro-lime dressing, and the "crunch" comes from crisp rice sticks and fried wontons.
The Buccaneers are adding some major crunch to their offense by increasing LeGarrette Blount's workload. I've discussed Blount in this space before. He piqued my interest by running for a TD against the Steelers in Week Three, but then he disappeared for a while. Blount resurfaced last week, rushing 11 times for 72 yards against the Rams. I watched the Rams-Bucs game on DirecTV's "NFL Shortcuts" and played back Blount's runs in slo-mo. The verdict on the rookie from Oregon:
(Wait for it ...)
Man, does this guy pack some power. I guarantee that a few St. Louis defenders are sporting Blount-inflicted bruises this week. And it's not like the Rams have been pantywaists against the run this year. Blount is just a bull of a runner. He won't be brought down with an arm tackle. And his Week Seven numbers would have been even better had one especially impressive run not been nullified by offsetting penalties.
Look, I admire Cadillac Williams for his willingness to keep battling back from injuries, but the Caddy isn't getting it done. He's averaging 2.5 yards a carry and has lost all of his first-step quickness. It's only a matter of time before the Buccaneers let Blount do the heavy lifting in the running game, with support from Caddy and Earnest Graham.
Get on board the Blount bandwagon now, while there are still seats available.
Entrée: Roasted duck breast with duck dumpling, caramelized bok choy and coriander sauce
As mentioned in the note at the top of this column, I'm a big fan of competitive cooking shows, and Bravo's "Top Chef" is the king of the genre. The most recent "Top Chef" winner was Kevin Sbraga, who knocked it out of the park in the final challenge of the season, bowling over the judges with a remarkable four-course feast that included this innovative duck dish. "Top Chef" contestants aren't celebrity chefs. (Bravo has, however, staged two seasons of "Top Chef Masters," which does feature high-profile chefs.) Sbraga and other "Top Chef" competitors are up-and-comers turning out excellent food at restaurants across the country. The show expands their profiles and in some cases puts them on a path to culinary stardom.
In the spirit of "Top Chef," let's take a look at a few up-and-coming stars who are making quantum leaps this season and will be taken much earlier in next year's fantasy drafts than they were in this year's drafts.
Darren McFadden — Interest in McFadden had started to wane after two tepid, injury-plagued NFL seasons, but as we know now, the talent that made him a two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up during his time at the University of Arkansas does, in fact, translate to the pro level. McFadden has already reached a career high with 557 yards, which works out to better than 110 yards per game. He also has 193 receiving yards, and he's scored six TDs. What makes McFadden's ascension remarkable is the fact that the Raiders haven't really done anything to improve his supporting cast. The Raiders' run blocking has improved (Oakland ranks eighth in Football Outsiders' "adjusted line yards" run-blocking metric), but their passing game still stinks. If McFadden can play this well in a threadbare offense, it's hard to see a downside for 2011, other than a mildly concerning injury background. He looks like a top-10 fantasy pick for 2011 and could well be taken ahead of consensus top-five 2009 picks Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew in most drafts.
Hakeem Nicks — He already has eight TD receptions and is on pace for a 100-catch season. Nicks is an incredibly fluid receiver with one of the best pairs of hands in the NFL. Everything about this guy says "superstar." Even though he has to share balls with Steve Smith and Mario Manningham, good receivers in their own right, Nicks is managing to pile up gaudy stats. He'll be universally ranked as a top-five receiver next year, and he might vie with Andre Johnson and Roddy White for No. 1.
Ahmad Bradshaw — Another Giant makes the list. Some people really liked Bradshaw going into this year's drafts, but only enough to draft him in, say, the third or fourth round. Almost everyone is going to like him going into next year's draft. He's out of Brandon Jacob's ample shadow now and has become the main man in the Giants' running game. Jacobs is making a lot more money than he's worth right now, so it's a good bet the Giants will release him in the offseason, in which case there might not be anyone around to vulture a significant number of touchdowns from Bradshaw. (Jacobs already has five TDs this season.) If Jacobs leaves, Bradshaw probably becomes a first-rounder in fantasy drafts.
Kenny Britt — He's making good on the promise he flashed in spurts as a rookie. Even though he's not playing with a top-flight passer, Britt is starting to roll up some big numbers. Last week's 225-yard, three-TD performance officially heralded his arrival. He's an every-week fantasy starter now, and it will be interesting to see how he finishes the season. It's a safe bet he'll be a top-20 receiver in next year's drafts, and he could end up as a top-10 guy.
Two others worth mentioning: Peyton Hillis and Brandon Lloyd. Both were afterthoughts in this year's fantasy drafts. One or both of these guys went undrafted in a lot of leagues. That certainly won't be the case next summer.
Hillis is a beast. The reason I hesitate to include him with the group above is that his rugged style is ideally suited for a committee role rather than a featured role. Hillis is tough as nails, but the way he runs, I don't think he could withstand a 300-carry season.
Due to his age (he'll be 30 next July), Lloyd might not be an early-round pick next year, but he'll certainly be on everyone's draft lists, which is more than you could say for him this year. He didn't even make my preseason draft board. (Whoops.) Lloyd is on pace for a 1,600-yard season. He won't be available for long in 2011 drafts.
Dessert: Chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream
The pleasing contrast between hot and cold is what makes this one of my favorite desserts. We'll see this type of contrast on Monday night when the Colts host the Texans in the final game of Week Eight.
The Indy-Houston game could be a fantasy bonanza. In leagues across the country, games could take some wild swings as the Texans and Colts race up and down the field. Of course, there's always the possibility that this could end up a low-scoring affair — the NFL is funny that way. But I think there's a greater chance that you'll be attacked by zombies on your way to get coffee tomorrow morning.
The Colts rank second in the league in passing, averaging 314 passing yards per game. The Texans' pass defense is ranked dead last. Houston is the only team in the league giving up more than 300 passing yards per game. Even with TE Dallas Clark and WR Austin Collie on the shelf for this one, Peyton Manning should have no problem amassing big numbers. He threw for 433 yards and three TDs against the Texans in Week One. I'm setting the over/under number for total receiving yards by Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon for this game at 298. It's even money on whether one of them hits the 200-yard mark.
The Texans' offense ranks fifth in rushing yardage, and they've scored a league-high nine rushing touchdowns. The Colts' run defense is as reliably inferior as ever. Indy is 26th against the run, yielding 137.3 rushing yards per game and a robust 4.8 yards per carry. Arian Foster ran for 231 yards and three TDs against the Colts in Week One. Foster and the newly resurgent Derrick Ward are drooling like Pavlov's dogs over this matchup.
Hot offense, meet cold defense. Cold defense, meet hot offense. The contrast should make for a tasty Monday-night dessert course.