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.
Appetizer: Firecracker shrimp
This spicy starter has a nice kick to it. And speaking of kick, let's begin this week's feast with a few quick notes about kickers, the forgotten men of fantasy football.
There were a couple of significant placekicker injuries last week, which is why we saw Wes Welker and, more comically, Ndamukong Suh attempting extra points in Week Nine.
The Patriots have put Stephen Gostkowski on injured reserve with a torn quad muscle. His replacement is Shayne Graham, a reliable point producer for the Bengals over much of the past decade. I like Graham's fantasy prospects the rest of the way and recommend him to any Gostkowski owner or anyone else in need of a kicker. The Patriots will put up some points, and yet the Pats don't have quite as much firepower as they've had in recent years, and they're no longer as proficient at ringing up touchdowns once they get into the red zone. It's not hard to envision Graham being a top-five kicker from this point on. That said, it might not be a bad idea to keep Graham on the bench this week. The Patriots play a road game against the stingy Steelers, and not only is the Pittsburgh defense tough, but Heinz Field has always been a tough place for kickers to ply their trade.
Detroit's Jason Hanson will be out for a few weeks after he sprained a knee ligament when he was fallen upon by massive Jets DE Trevor Pryce. Until now, Hanson had missed only one game since entering the NFL back in the Jurassic period (1992, to be exact). The Lions have been surprisingly frisky this season, so Hanson was on pace for a 110-point season. Hanson's temporary replacement is Dave Rayner. When Rayner was kicking for the Packers in '06 and the Chiefs in '07, he was 41-of-57 on FG attempts, a poor rate. But the Lions have favorable matchups coming up, visiting Buffalo this week and Dallas in Week 11. Rayner's accuracy may be suspect, but he could be a reasonable stopgap for the next two weeks.
One last kicker-related item: Ryan Succop is reasonably reliable, and the proficiency of the Chiefs' offense has been a pleasant surprise, but I wouldn't want Succop in my starting lineup at any point this season. Why? Because Chiefs head coach Todd Haley loves to go for it on fourth down. He isn't one to settle for three points when the Chiefs are in enemy territory and facing 4th-and-short. And personally, I'm on board with that philosophy. But if Succop is on your team, there's a good chance you feel otherwise.
Salad: Mediterranean rice salad
If you've been holding on to Sidney Rice all season, the payoff is just around the corner. Rice is set to return from a hip injury that's kept him out of action all season, and he's expected to take the field against the Bears in Chicago this Sunday.
But you may want to wait at least a week before sticking Sir Sid into your starting lineup. Weighing in from Death Row, Vikings head coach Brad Childress said it isn't realistic to expect Rice to play 60-70 snaps in his first week back. It may be more like 30-35 plays for Rice in his 2010 debut. It's also worth considering that the Bears have given up only five TD passes all season — the lowest total in the league. Let Rice cool his heels on your bench for another week, rather than banking on him to make the most of limited playing time.
But beyond this week, don't hesitate to start Rice, even against a good Green Bay pass defense in Week 11. Rice is the best deep threat on the Vikings by far, and if he's close to 100 percent healthy, he'll quickly re-establish himself as Brett Favre's favorite downfield target.
Entrée: Monkfish thermidor
Monkfish is sometimes referred to as "poor man's lobster," and in this dish, monkfish gets the full lobster treatment.
In most years, at about at the midpoint of the fantasy season, you could cobble together a team of players who went undrafted in your fantasy league and hypothetically be competitive against other teams in your league. This year, the all-undrafted team might be good enough to win your league. It's been a banner year for the draft-day afterthoughts. I thought it would be fun to assemble this year's all-undrafted team — Team Monkfish, if you will. I'd be willing to put this collection of poor man's lobster up against bona fide fantasy football crustaceans.
QB: Ryan Fitzpatrick — He's thrown 13 TD passes in his six starts, and only once has he thrown for fewer than 220 yards. He's also averaging better than 25 rushing yards per start. The Bills' offense is suddenly respectable, and it's because Fitzpatrick has been so effective as the triggerman. (Backup: Colt McCoy) Note: I'm sure there were some small leagues in which Michael Vick and/or Sam Bradford went undrafted, but I have to assume they were taken in most fantasy drafts.
RB1: Peyton Hillis — The funniest thing about the trade that sent Peyton Hillis from Denver to Cleveland in exchange for Brady Quinn (!) is that the Browns are still going to get more out of the deal. The Broncos also threw in a sixth-round draft pick in 2011 and a conditional draft pick in 2012. At Browns team headquarters, they've run the pants of Broncos GM Brian Xanders up the flagpole, where they now hang just below the Stars and Stripes. Hillis has been an absolute beast this year, with 644 rushing yards, 873 yards from scrimmage and eight TDs in eight games. He's a good bet to make the Pro Bowl this season, and he's the unquestioned MVP of Team Monkfish.
RB2: Brandon Jackson — The former caddie to Ryan Grant has played respectably in the injured Grant's absence, with 653 yards from scrimmage and four TDs, including a pair of scores in the Packers' blowout of Dallas last week. Jackson got off to a sluggish start but has become a steady contributor, averaging 93.2 yards from scrimmage over his last five games. (Backups: LeGarrette Blount, Mike Tolbert, Danny Woodhead)
WR1: Brandon Lloyd — He's enjoying a career renaissance after appearing to be on his way out of the NFL. This journeyman had played for three different teams over the previous three seasons and caught only 36 passes over that span. The 29-year-old Lloyd has never even sniffed a 1,000-yard season before. Now, he leads the NFL in receiving yards by a healthy margin. (Roddy White is his closest pursuer, 82 yards behind.) Lloyd is averaging 20.9 yards per reception and has become the unquestioned go-to guy in a pass-happy Broncos offense.
WR2: Stevie Johnson — In his first two seasons in the NFL, Johnson caught 12 passes for 112 yards. He's been one of the bigger breakout performers of the 2010 season, and he just keeps getting better and better. Last week, Johnson failed to score a TD for the first time since Week Two, but he made up for it (especially in PPR leagues) by ringing up 11 catches for 145 yards. He's had 29 receptions in his last four games, with no fewer than five catches in any of those contests. You could make a reasonable case for Johnson to be the WR1 on Team Monkfish ahead of Lloyd. (Backups: Mike Williams, Tampa Bay; Jordan Shipley; Davone Bess)
TE: Jacob Tamme — Tough call here since Tamme has only been relevant for two games, but among the Team Monkfish candidates at tight end, Tamme appears to have the best fantasy prospects going forward. Peyton Manning's No. 1 tight end is bound to get a lot of action, and with Dallas Clark out for the season, Tamme is the new No. 1. In the two games since the Clark injury, Tamme has caught 17 passes for 172 yards and two TDs. In his two previous NFL seasons he caught six passes for 47 yards. (Backups: Tony Moeaki, Ben Watson)
PK: Sebastian Janikowski — Who could have imagined that the kicker for the perennially hapless Raiders would turn into such a scoring machine? Janko leads the NFL in scoring, and he has a 20-point lead over his closest pursuer, Miami's Dan Carpenter. Jankowski's highest single-season scoring total over the previous five seasons was 97 points. He already has 89 points through only nine games. (Backup: Josh Scobee)
Dessert: Vanilla pudding cake with vanilla-bean ice cream
This is as white as desserts get. White is also the color of surrender, and several NFL teams have already run up the white flag on the season. What does their capitulation mean for fantasy owners? Let's take a look at the three most obvious flag-wavers a team-by-lousy-team basis:
"How 'bout them Cowboys!?!"
Sorry ... as a Packer fan who endured numerous soul-crushing Green Bay losses to Dallas in the '90s, I couldn't resist a dig at my old tormentors.
Even at 1-7, the 'Boys still have a reasonably dangerous passing game. Veteran backup Jon Kitna certainly isn't the equal of injured starter Tony Romo (especially not when it comes to throwing TD passes), but Kitna is capable of rolling up reasonably good yardage totals. Miles Austin is a star-caliber receiver, although he hasn't really clicked with Kitna the way he did with Romo. Rookie Dez Bryant is emerging as a force, and he's meshed well with Kitna. Roy Williams was a teammate of Kitna's in Detroit, but Williams is hit-or-miss as a fantasy contributor regardless of his quarterback. Jason Witten is still one of the NFL's more dependable tight ends. The possible wild card in the Dallas passing game is second-year QB Stephen McGee. It won't be long before Kitna is drawing a pension, so with their playoff aspirations down the drain, the Cowboys may want to audition McGee for a more significant future role. If McGee plays, there will be growing pains, and the fantasy value of Austin, Bryant, Williams and Witten would be threatened.
Dallas hasn't been able to run the ball all season. Marion Barber is a shadow of his former self. Felix Jones is an enigma. The Cowboys aren't likely to give up on Jones just yet, but it's clear that he isn't cut out to be a featured runner. Tashard Choice has been in the doghouse ever since his costly fumble at the end of the first half in a Week One loss to the Redskins. But there are some people (including yours truly) who suspect that Choice is the team's best running back. He may yet be given a chance to prove it.
The first agenda item: determine which rookie QB has the brighter future — Jimmy Clausen or Tony Pike. With Matt Moore out for the season with a torn labrum, the Panthers have plenty of time to figure this out. Clausen slipped to the second round of this year's NFL draft, ostensibly because potential employers weren't wild about his personality. Clausen has had chances to prove himself this season, and as a quarterback ... um, he's got a great personality? Pike was a sixth-round pick who didn't exactly make NFL teams salivate, but he was a winner at the University of Cincinnati. He may be in line for an extended audition in the weeks to come.
Second agenda item: figure out the RB situation. It's a foregone conclusion that DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart won't both be around next season. Williams will be a free agent after this season, and he's been out of action with a foot injury. Stewart has been brilliant at times in his career but hasn't looked quite right this season, and now he's dealing with a concussion. It's hard to tell how the Panthers will divvy up carries once both guys are healthy, but owners of both players have reason to be pessimistic about their fantasy prospects.
Third agenda item: figure out if either David Gettis or Brandon LaFell is a future starter at wide receiver. Neither guy can be counted on for fantasy help the rest of the way.
Buffalo has basically been in white-flag mode since the start of the season, so they'll just keep plugging along with the pleasantly surprising Fitzpatrick-to-Johnson combination as the featured fantasy attraction. The only possible sea change is an increased workload for rookie C.J. Spiller, which would obviously mean a reduced role for Fred Jackson. But don't hold your breath: We've been waiting all season for Spiller's role to increase, and it's been like waiting for Godot.