This week, we'll discuss the following topics:
Let's start simple. Talk about the most exploitable matchup from each game. We'll begin with Kansas City at New England and continue in chronological order.
Phil Alexander: This one's just a GPP dart, but perimeter receivers have made good targets against Kansas City for most of the season. While the Chiefs pass defense admittedly improved a great deal as the year went along, Kamar Aiken's 8-128-1 line in Week 15 stands out as a recent reminder that Kansas City can still be beaten by wide receivers on the outside. Brandon LaFell (who I'm aware has played terrible most of the season) has played on at least 90% of New England's offensive snaps since Week 11 and should find himself in favorable coverage with Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, and Rob Gronkowski all demanding coverage from the Chiefs defenders. It wouldn't take much more than a few catches and a touchdown for LaFell to return his $4,000 price tag, and he at least theoretically profiles as a red zone threat on an offense that posted the third-most red zone scoring attempts per game this year.
Dan Hindery: Against Kansas City's excellent pass rush, the Patriots are going to have to get the ball out quickly. The Chiefs have been excellent against opposing running backs and tight ends in the passing game, which leaves the wide receivers as the one area where Tom Brady may be able to find some favorable matchups. Edelman in the slot could see a huge workload on quick throws and looks like the strongest fantasy option in this game (which isn’t saying much as the defenses on both sides look capable of containing the opposing offense).
Interesting and opposing points of view in terms of New England's receivers. Now let's move to the Saturday night game, Green Bay at Arizona.
Jeff Pasquino: The Cardinals against Green Bay could be a strong matchup for David Johnson. He is far and away the top running back for this week. Green Bay's rush defense isn't a weak one. But none of the teams in play this weekend are weak, as evidenced by the fact that none are in the bottom 10 when it comes to running back points allowed. In fact, all but two of the teams are in the top 12, which means only Carolina (13th-most running back points against) and Green Bay (18th) should be viewed as the better or more favorable running back matchups. But selecting a Seattle running back is not strongly advised with Marshawn Lynch both overpriced ($6,400) and not at full strength. This leaves Johnson as the best fantasy asset in this game in the context of positional scarcity.
Alexander: The matchup most of the crowd will be looking to exploit this week is Arizona's pass catchers against Green Bay's secondary. Michael Floyd's price ($5,100) is still nowhere close to reflecting his expected production, making him an excellent play in any format. I've also got my eye on John Brown, who should run the slight majority of his routes against rookie cornerback Damarious Randall (regardless of Sam Shields' availability for the Packers). According to Pro Football Focus, Randall has allowed the third-most fantasy points per route defended among the cornerbacks in play this week.
Hindery: It is tough to pick just one matchup in the Cardinals game. The Packers defense struggled in the second half of the season, and Arizona has favorable matchups all over the field. I agree with Phil that the two players who should have the most favorable matchups will be Brown and Floyd. While Green Bay’s cornerbacks (when healthy) are talented, the scheme asks a lot of the outside corners who regularly are left on an island in press coverage. Bruce Arians is well-known for his belief in trying to take deep shots as often as possible, so expect both Brown and Floyd to get big-play opportunities when singled up outside. Even if the Packers corners win their fair share of those matchups, it only takes one big play for Floyd or Brown to pay off as fantasy options.
Good stuff, guys. Let's move on to Sunday, starting in the early afternoon with Seattle at Carolina. Phil, fire away.
Alexander: The Seahawks defense doesn't have many weaknesses, but they were exposed by tight ends on several occasions this season. Seattle ranked 26th in Football Outsiders pass defense DVOA to opposing tight ends, and let up the 10th-most fantasy points per game to the position. It's great news for Greg Olsen, who lit up Seattle for a 7-131-1 receiving line when these teams faced off in Week 6.
Hindery: Olsen is the obvious matchup to exploit in the Seattle game for all the reasons Phil noted, and that would be my top choice. In the interest of variety, though, I will go a different route to note an interesting GPP option; the starting Seattle running back (whether it is Lynch or Christine Michael) has a sneaky good matchup as well. The Panthers are ranked only 20th against opposing running backs and gave up a number of big games to opposing runners down the stretch. Over the final three weeks, Carolina gave up 17.8 or more DraftKings points apiece to five different opposing running backs (Doug Martin and Charles Sims in Week 17, Devonta Freeman in Week 16, Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen in Week 15). If Lynch is eventually ruled out, Michael is an especially strong play with a great chance to top 20 touches.
Thanks for the extra selection there, Dan. I'm sure that's overlooked about Carolina's defense. Let's end it with the Sunday night AFC game, Pittsburgh at Denver.
Alexander: Emmanuel Sanders vs. Antwon Blake is the one that jumps off the page to me. Blake is PFF's lowest graded cornerback on the slate, giving Sanders immense upside in a revenge game against his old team. Sanders has six games with 20+ fantasy points this season, with a season-high 39.5 coming in Week 15, when he last played against Blake and the Steelers. There are eight wide receivers priced ahead of Sanders this week, but I only see four or five with as good a chance to finish as the number one overall wide receiver. I have a strong hunch Sanders will need to be in your lineups if you want to run deep in GPPs.
Pasquino: Heath Miller ($3,200) is another guy on my radar. Finding great matchups is hard with only eight teams on any slate, but when you get to the elite teams, you are not likely to find fantastic positional matchups. Denver is going to be a very tough defense to beat, but Miller should be on the radar for some folks as the Broncos are really solid against outside wide receivers but around average over the middle (giving up the 14th-most points to tight ends this season in DraftKings scoring). With Ben Roethlisberger ailing and Antonio Brown a question mark [Moderator's Note: Brown is OUT as of Friday moring], Miller is much more likely to be in the game plan as a receiver.
Hindery: Sanders and Demaryius Thomas both have excellent matchups against the poor Pittsburgh secondary. Thomas has averaged over 93 receiving yards per game this season when Manning gets the start. He is a safe bet for solid production and has a bit more upside than Sanders because Manning is likely to look to get the ball off to quickly, and we should see plenty of the screens where Thomas is so scary. He can take a short pass the distance with his elite size and speed combination. The last time Pittsburgh visited Denver in the playoffs, Thomas broke a tackle in overtime for a long game-winning touchdown, and he has a real chance to make a similar play this weekend.
With Pittsburgh's three most important skill players either missing the game or highly likely to be impacted by injuries if they do play, is the Pittsburgh offense a "sucker bet?"
Phil Alexander: When you factor in the injuries and the strength of Denver's defense (especially at home), I can see why the public will consider Steelers players a "sucker bet." I'm not targeting Pittsbugh players by any means, but I see a few as worthy contrarian plays in GPPs.
If Antonio Brown is cleared [Moderator's Note: Brown is OUT as of Friday moring], you need at least a little exposure. He's the best wide receiver in fantasy football, and even if Ben Roethlisberger is hobbled by his bad shoulder (which I fully expect him to be), Brown doesn't need deep bombs to score fantasy points in bunches.
The running back position is razor thin behind David Johnson, which puts Fitzgerald Toussaint (who saw 66% of Pittsburgh's snaps last week) back in play. Pittsburgh should be playing from behind, and Roethlisberger clearly couldn't throw downfield after returning from his shoulder injury. Both factors point to another busy receiving day for Toussaint, who had four catches for 60 yards last week.
Martavis Bryant is capable of scoring a touchdown from anywhere on the field. I want guys like that in my GPP lineups regardless of what's happening around them. However, I wouldn't suggest more than 15% exposure to Bryant if you're making multiple tournament lineups.
BJ VanderWoude: With Brown out, I would look at the Pittsburgh backfield as a solid volume play. Brown does a lot of his damage on short routes, which would open the door for both Toussaint and Jordan Todman to receive work in the passing game. Due to receiving the majority of snaps, Toussaint would be the preferred play, as he seems like a better fit to play on passing downs and in the red zone. With that said, I would not sleep on Todman either. He looked explosive last Saturday, and led the team in rushing (65 yards) despite having six fewer carries than his counterpart. Without Brown, the Steelers will need to manufacture big plays, so I expect the Steelers coaching staff to come up with some creative packages to get Todman on the field more.
With respect to the passing game, Bryant will fill in for Brown as the Steelers top option. He would be in line for a high volume of targets, and I could see myself having 20% exposure to him. Bryant has a diverse skill set and can gain yards after the catch or beat corners down the field with his speed and ability to high point the ball in 50/50 situations.
On the flipside, I'd expect Denver to double team him with bracket coverage and make someone else beat them. This is where Heath Miller steps in. He's not going to put up 30+ points, but when you factor in his price ($3,200), he only needs to have something like five catches for 50 yards to reach cash game value, and seven catches for 70 yards to hit GPP value. Usually, with so many mouths to feed on the offense, this would be asking a lot, but without Brown and a true, three-down workhorse back, the veteran tight end could find himself in a position where he is depended on to move the chains.
Markus Wheaton came on towards the end of the season, but his big games were a function of teams concentrating coverage on Brown and Bryant. I don't think he has the skillset to beat Denver's talented corner backs and could easily get lost in the shuffle, so aside from using him as a flier, I will be fading him in favor of other options at a similar price point.
Dan Hindery: In terms of playing Steelers this weekend, much of the decision will come down to how much you think Roethlisberger is embellishing the severity of his injury and how much the shoulder problems will actually limit him. He has had many instances in the past of making his injuries seem more serious in the press than they were in reality. He often has played very well when recovering from reported injuries, so I tend to lean towards thinking he will not be overly limited by his alleged injuries this week. I expect we will see a fully functional passing game led by Roethlisberger and with the Broncos stout front seven and ability to shut down the run, we should see at least 40 passing attempts from the Steelers.
I agree with BJ that Miller is an especially intriguing option this weekend at $3,200 if Brown is out. When the Broncos faced the Patriots injury-depleted offense last month, they allowed 12 catches for 147 yards and two touchdowns to the Patriots tight ends. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Steelers try to avoid throwing too much at the Broncos elite cornerbacks by making Miller a centerpiece of the passing offense this weekend.
Jeff Pasquino: I will never bet against Roethlisberger because of how tough and how much of a "gamer" he is, but I don't see how he can be more than 75-80% of normal strength. He's still the best option at that level though, so he will play and do whatever he can to move the ball for Pittsburgh. Brown might be more of a decoy [Moderator's Note: Brown is OUT as of Friday moring], which could be helpful for both Wheaton and Bryant, who did have a respectable performance (Wheaton: 6-62-1, Bryant 10-87) back in Week 15 when these two squared off. Neither of them come close to the big day Brown had back in December (16-189-2), but for Bryant and Wheaton to see similar defensive matchups, Brown has to take the field.
I also agree that Toussaint is also going to be in the mix as a receiver out of the backfield. He saw eight targets, four catches, and 60 yards last week. Roethlisberger is going to be looking for more underneath throws, which favors screen plays to a running back or short tosses to Miller. Big pass plays limit explosive throws to Wheaton or Bryant, but Bryant can do better than Wheaton in shorter routes. If Roethlisberger cannot go deep, the WR4, Darrius Heyward-Bey, is all but eliminated from the discussion.
Late Swapping Lynch?
It appears as if Marshawn Lynch may come down to a game-time decision this week. Discuss your approach to using him.
Will you make lineups that have Lynch in them and late-swap to someone else? Or will you just avoid the headache and fade him completely?
Phil Alexander: With pricing really loose in general and the running back options so thin behind David Johnson, it's easy enough to fit Lynch under the cap and still get most (or all) of the other players you want onto your roster. If you're making multiple GPP lineups, it makes sense to create a few Lynch variations and pivot off them if he's announced inactive. But even if Lynch plays, I'm tempering my expectations and limiting my exposure. Carolina ranks sixth in rush defense DVOA, we have no idea what type of workload Lynch is ready for after such a long layoff, and it's not like Christine Michael has done anything to play himself out of the rotation. For the majority of my rosters, I'm sure I'll be using Johnson and punting at RB2.
BJ VanderWoude: Phil nailed it. After last week, I am tempering my expectations for Lynch. Instead of making him the placeholder, and then pivoting off him (if he were to play), I will be excluding him from lineups. If/when the news comes downs that he will be playing, I'll do my best to fit him in some lineups, but I will have minimal exposure. Lynch's absence last week was self-imposed, despite the fact that he was said to be active as early as Wednesday. This leads me to believe that his injury (hernia) is one that could be tweaked very easily, and if that were to happen in pre-game warm ups, you could easily find yourself in a very bad spot close to game time. The running back pool is weak, but the risk is just not worth the reward on a short slate with limited options to pivot to.
Johnson is the guy I will be heavily invested in, from there I will do my best to include as many variations as possible. Between Charcandrick West/Spencer Ware, Eddie Lacy/James Starks, Fitzgerald Toussaint/Jordan Todman, C.J. Anderson/Ronnie Hillman, and the Patriots backfield, the correct choice will come down to game-flow, so it makes sense to have as much flexibility as possible. This is especially true when you consider the different lines and combinations you can take at tight end and wide receiver to fill out your flex spot.
Jeff Pasquino: Put me down as a "pass" on Lynch, regardless of his health status. While I know that prior matchups are not a full guarantee of what to expect, a look back to the Week 6 game between Carolina and Seattle gives me plenty of reasons to skip on Lynch. Carolina allowed Lynch only 54 yards despite 17 carries, and only a short touchdown run saved his fantasy day.
Even if Lynch gets 75-80 yards and a score, his $6,400 salary requires 3x to have a decent day - which means you want to get 19.2 points. That requires 100 yards and a touchdown to meet those expectations, and I just do not see it at all. Lynch is not much of a receiver either (one catch back in Week 6, and he averages about two catches a game at the most), so the full PPR scoring doesn't even help him much. I'm going to be looking elsewhere for my second RB (after Johnson); and it will probably be someone who is likely to catch a few balls out of the backfield. With a few timeshares out there, I may have to look at Starks (splits time with Lacy but has more PPR value), Hillman (similar to Starks) or West (with Ware now having an ankle injury).
Dan Hindery: I would be very interested in late-swapping to Lynch in GPPs only if the news and reports out of Seattle on Sunday indicate he is likely to see the bulk of the carries. If Lynch is ready to go, I would not be surprised to see Seattle feed him heavily. The Seahawks gave Lynch a huge $12,000,000 salary last offseason when he threatened to retire and have put up with a lot of Lynch’s eccentricities this season because they know how much of a difference-maker he can be in the playoffs. Furthermore, the way to attack Carolina in recent weeks has been on the ground. Carolina’s mediocre 20th ranking against opposing runners is in stark contrast to the general perception that Carolina has a dominant run defense. Lastly, there is a very real chance that this could be Lynch’s final game as a member of the Seahawks if Seattle loses. He should be highly motivated to go out with a bang, and I suspect that Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell doesn’t want another season to end due to throwing when he should have handed off to Lynch and is going to be more likely to run Lynch down around the goal line.
Alexander: I certainly don't disagree with passing on Lynch, but I wanted to get some other takes on the 3x multiplier Jeff cited as a reason to fade him. With the looser salaries and limited options on these slates, I've found myself tossing individual player target scores out the window and focusing on just building a lineup I think can score the most totals points. Last week, only five running backs scored double digit fantasy points. One quarterback threw for more than 230 yards. Granted, this week's slate has better options (at quarterback anyway), but does salary matter to you guys on these short slates?
Pasquino: Great question Phil. I use several criteria on a short slate. The 3x multiplier is the cash multiplier for DraftKings, and it serves only as a frame of reference. While I expect scores to be lower in general on a four game slate, I tend to target GPPs more than cash games as a result. And that's typically a 4x multiplier. I use 3x on a shorter slate, but overall I am using game scripts to dictate lineup decisions. Game script will decide the most total points for me, and I don't see Seattle running to produce much this week against a tough Carolina run defense.
I think we all agree that lineup decisions on a short slate favor GPP-type lineups, which are based on game script decisions. The leader at running back this week for me is Johnson, as he has a favorable game script (Arizona -7, at home, two weeks rest) and the backfield pretty much to himself. Jonathan Stewart would be next from a game script outlook, but he faces losing touchdowns to Cam Newton and Seattle's a tough front seven. While Kansas City is an underdog, West may have the bulk of the work for the Chiefs with Ware's ankle a concern.
Strategies for Differentiation
Last week, using two tight ends in your lineup was probably a point of differentiation for many if they used Travis Kelce and Jordan Reed. Stacking both Green Bay running backs provided great value. Give us a point of differentiation that you see this week.
Phil Alexander: Even with last week's results, I'm not sure the general public will realize how flexing a tight end can give you a unique lineup without necessarily using low-owned players. When I wrote my article last week, I theorized, "If you want to have any shot at a deep run in tournaments this weekend, you’ll need to surround your core of chalk plays with at least two under-the-radar players (think 20% owned or less on such a short slate) and probably more depending on the size of the field." While the theory mostly held water, the lineup that finished in a seven-way tie for third place in the Millionaire Maker proved me wrong. Kelce was the only player under 20% owned (11.9%) on the entire roster, and he just happened to be flexed beside Reed.
Starting two tight ends will never sit well with the season-long fantasy player in most of us, which is precisely the reason the strategy works in GPPs. You'll see plenty of rosters with Rob Gronkowski on them this week. Ditto for Greg Olsen. Kelce will be a popular option after blowing up on Wild Card Weekend and figures to remain a focal point for Kansas City if Jeremy Maclin is out or limited. All three tight ends have the upside to finish near the top of the overall fantasy points leaderboard this week, yet lineups that include two of them together will remain in the vast minority. Sure there's risk in flexing a tight end due to the unpredictability of the position, but in GPPs embracing that volatility is what will catapult you past large chunks of the field when you hit the right combination. Moderator's Note: the article that Phil linked is on our Cracking DraftKings blog. The blog is completely free, so recommend it to anyone who's not yet a Footballguys InsiderPRO if they're on the fence. Shamless self-promotion over.
Jeff Pasquino: I'm in agreement with Phil on the two tight end approach. We know that Seattle isn't great against tight ends, and Olsen had a great game against them in Week 6 (7-131-1). Kelce could easily be the top option for Alex Smith this week with Maclin's ankle a problem. I would not hesitate to use both of them in a lineup.
There are two other possible ways to differentiate your lineup this week that I see which goes against convention for building a GPP lineup. The first one that I like is using a quarterback and his tailback in the same lineup. Normally that would be a bad idea, but if you can find a good option at both spots and have a running back with the potential to run in a screen pass for a touchdown, you have some major upside and uniqueness as not many folks will employ this strategy. This leads me towards a Carson Palmer / David Johnson lineup (and probably an Arizona wide receiver as well), or even James Starks and Aaron Rodgers. Both of those have solid upside and probable uniqueness as many will roster one or the other but not both. Even Ben Roethlisberger and Fitzgerald Toussaint is in play with this strategy.
The other differentiator is to use a team defense against your starting quarterback. I am not really in favor of that this week, but if your quarterback happens to have a big day but also throws a "pick-six" or a few turnovers, both of these options could score well. That worked last playoff season in the Green Bay-Seattle game where Russell Wilson sparked an amazing comeback against the Packers after starting so poorly that he gave the Packers defense some fantasy points.
Dan Hinder: The easiest way to differentiate this week is to fade the aforementioned Johnson at running back. He could see ownership north of 75% (even in GPPs) given the weakness of the running back options on the slate. If he has a down game, you are going to be far ahead of the pack if your running backs hit. It is tough to completely fade such a talented player who is averaging over 21 touches per game each week, but if you’re playing multiple GPP lineups, fading Johnson in half or more of your entries is an easy way to separate from the pack.
Instead of trying for novel positional strategies or fading Johnson, my preferred method of generating a unique lineup is simply to roster at least one player with a sub-5% ownership. While rostering two tight ends was a nice play last week, the real separation at the very top of the Millionaire Maker tournament on DraftKings was Chris Thompson at 0.9% ownership. Thompson was way under-the-radar but was the week’s top scoring running back. There are quite a few intriguing low-ownership guys worth targeting this weekend, but one I really like is Jermaine Kearse. Doug Baldwin will have to deal with Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly manning Carolina’s zone defense across the middle of the field. Tyler Lockett should see plenty of Josh Norman outside. Kearse could end up being the top option outside, and with a tougher-than-usual matchup for Baldwin, he could get some extra red zone looks as well. After a quiet week at Minnesota, Kearse should come in at around 3% ownership.
BJ VanderWoude: Dan makes a solid point with respect to Johnson. He is a guy I will be heavily exposed to, but there is merit to fading a guy who will be so highly owned.
Last week, I was a fan of the two tight end strategy, as was I in favor of rostering Lacy/Starks and some other team running back stacks in spots. This week is somewhat different though, as there are more options at running back. I am still in favor of rostering two tight ends, specifically Gronkowski and Olsen. I don't think it will be a popular play though, as I cannot remember a week where playing two tight ends was ever popular. Phil was spot on, it is just not a strategy that the average player thinks of using.
I think the way to guarantee uniqueness this week is to roster three running backs. The running back pool was so shallow last week that I think it poisoned a lot of opinions. If you didn't have to play two running backs, I don't think many people would. More than half the playoff teams deploy a two or three running back attack with touches divided according to the relevant game script. This makes playing the "correct" back very difficult. If you were to play three running backs, you'd be taking a big risk -- assuming they are locked in a time share -- but then again, if you were to nail all three, you'd be in a select group.
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