This week, we'll discuss the following topics:
Cincinnati Quarterback Impact
Cincinnati will very likely be without Andy Dalton on Saturday. Assuming Dalton doesn't play, is a low-priced ($5,200) A.J. McCarron going to be in any of your lineups against a very poor Pittsburgh pass defense?
Phil Alexander: Probably not. McCarron hasn't eclipsed 18 fantasy points in any of his four starts. On top of that, Pittsburgh's offense is suspect on the road (22 points per game) and might struggle to sustain drives without D'Angelo Williams. If Ben Roethlisberger and company are unable to keep Cincinnati's foot on the gas, this game has the potential to look a lot like the Bengals 16-10 win over the Steelers in Week 8. That's not the ceiling I'm looking for on a short slate, even at an affordable price.
John Lee: Full disclosure: I do not play cash games on limited slates, such as the ones that we will be seeing during the playoffs. My rationale is that the lack of consistent, reliable options is limited, resulting in many players being owned at rates upwards of 50%. When a majority of DFS rosters have players that are more than 50% owned, the edge that a sharp player has is minimized, and luck becomes more of a factor; in a 50/50 contest, the masses will all be within a few points of one another and the difference between a win and a loss could be a key turnover, a defensive touchdown, or some other event that is less predictable (i.e. not skill-based).
If you are playing cash games, though, I cannot see playing McCarron there for two reasons: 1) he has three career starts, and his limited experience would dissuade me from rostering him in cash games; and 2) there are better cash game quarterbacks available. That said, I do think McCarron is a reasonable, but risky, GPP play. The Steelers have the league's fifth-best rush defense (FootballOutsiders' DVOA metric) but have been susceptible through the air, allowing 271.9 passing yards per game (third-most in the league); if the Bengals are to move the ball, it will likely be via the pass, which means that McCarron's number could be called more than Hue Jackson ordinarily would otherwise.
The last time these teams met, McCarron replaced Dalton early in the game and threw a pair of touchdowns. The first touchdown was a 66-yard strike to A.J. Green that resulted from poor coverage by Antwon Blake that was made worse when safety Mike Mitchell botched the tackle, allowing Green to scamper into the endzone. The second touchdown occurred during garbage time in the fourth quarter when the Bengals were trailing by 20 with a minute remaining in the game. McCarron ended the day with 280 passing yards, nearly 25% of which were from one play, and two touchdowns, both of which were the result of defensive breakdowns and/or negligence; for McCarron to have another big day, we would be counting more upon the ineptitude of the Steelers secondary than the arm of McCarron.
John Mamula: Yes. If I am building multiple GPPs lineups, I am targeting 10-15% exposure to McCarron. The Pittsburgh defense has made quaterbacks such as Brock Osweiler and Ryan Mallett look like world-beaters over the past month. The Bengals-Steelers game has the potential to turn into a shootout due mainly to the Steelers poor pass defense.
BJ VanderWoude: It's highly unlikely that Dalton plays, but if he actually did, I would likely take a shot with him in GPPs, but he is not an ideal option given the time off from injury. AJ McCarron is a capable game manager, but he does not have the ability to generate big plays in the passing game. Dalton, despite the rust, would be an immediate upgrade to the offense though in this hypothetical world in which he could play, as he's proven to be an x-factor for Cincinnati.
More specific to McCarron, I've debated the merits of playing him this weekend, and it boils down to the other options in play. Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, and Roethlisberger are all better plays in my opinion, so my exposure to McCarron will be minimal, if i have any exposure at all.
Alexander: I'm not building around Green and Eifert this week regardless of who quarterbacks the Bengals, but I'll have some exposure either way. The matchup is agreeable for both players, and they've each been productive with McCarron. In fact, Green's fantasy point per game splits are identical with McCarron and Dalton, though he's been far more reliant on touchdowns.
Lee: I would consider Eifert sheerly because of his redzone prowess; he returned last week after missing a few weeks due to concussion and scored his 13th touchdown of the season. Green is a viable option for GPP contests due to his big play ability, but I would limit my exposure to him because he has a total of 10 receptions for 128 yards (and two touchdowns) in the three games that McCarron has started; in fairness, he did put up decent numbers against the Steelers in their previous game, but half of those yards came from the single, fluky play I mentioned above.
Mamula: I would not hesitate to roster Green and Eifert this weekend. The Steelers pass defense had allowed the third-most passing yards per game (271.9) this season. This defense has benefited from turnovers and smoke-and-mirrors this season. If the Bengals can limit turnovers and the Pittsburgh pass rush, the Steelers defense will be exposed on the back end. Green and Eifert are both players that have multiple touchdown upside in this matchup and can help you win a GPP tournament.
VanderWoude: For the most part, yes. Green and Eifert are pretty touchdown-dependent. If I had to choose one, though, I would opt for Eifert, as his price has come down accordingly, and he has been the Bengals preferred red-zone option throughout the season.
Washington has the second-highest team total of the weekend, according to Las Vegas odds. But Kirk Cousins' performances this season have been very matchup-driven.
Against Green Bay's pass defense (allowed the fifth-fewest fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks this season), is Washington's offense appealing to you?
Phil Alexander: It's hard to ignore Cousins' 23:3 TD:INT ratio over the last 10 games, but using him this week doesn't pass the smell test for me. If you had told me before the season started I'd have an opportunity to wager against Cousins in a playoff game against Aaron Rodgers -- and Green Bay was getting points (Moderator's Note: Washington opened as a one-point favorite, but the line has since moved to Green Bay by one) -- I would have hauled ass to the bank and taken out a second mortgage.
I've seen with my own eyes how dysfunctional the Packers offense has become, but everything in my bones is telling me to fade Cousins in this spot. It's a short slate of course, so I'll have my share of Cousins-centric lineups just in case, but I'm generally treading lightly on Washington players. I love Jordan Reed as much as any player on the slate, but it seems like the easiest ways to cut the chalk is to fade him. Outside of Reed, DeSean Jackson warrants consideration because one big play can (nearly) pay off his salary, and Pierre Garcon is worth a dart throw, especially if Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields remains out.
John Lee: I have to applaud Cousins' second-half resurgence, but I am not buying any Cousins' stock any time soon. Since Washington's Week 8 bye, Cousins has faced two legitimate pass defenses (New England and Carolina) and he averaged 213 yards and a touchdown in those efforts; in his games with plus matchups (New Orleans, New York Giants, Dallas [twice], Chicago, Buffalo, Philadelphia), he averaged 286.4 passing yards and 2.6 touchdowns. Those are some contrasting numbers that strongly suggest Cousins' success is based more on opponent than his own skill set. Against Green Bay, the league's sixth-best pass defense unit (FootballOutsiders' DVOA metric) that should see the return of their best coverage cornerback (Shields), he is going to struggle to surpass around 220 yards and a touchdown.
Washington's best chance of success lies in their ability to move the ball on the ground against a Packers front seven that is allowing 4.5 yards per carry this season (29th in the league). Matt Jones should return from a hip injury, and Alfred Morris will also be featured; of these two options, I prefer Jones, if he is fully healthy, because Jones is a better pass-catcher, is seeing more offensive snaps, and gets the majority of goal line carries. That said, the 'yards per carry' statistic I shared above in artificially inflated by the Packers' inability to defend rushing quarterbacks, who have averaged nearly 6.0 yards per carry this season for a lofty 380 rushing yards. When rushing yards from the quarterback are removed from the equation, the Packers are allowing only 4.1 yards per carry and are the league's 12th-best defense against the run (fantasy points allowed per game), which tempers enthusiasm for the Washington ground game, as well.
In sum, I do not like any of Washington's options this week for DFS contests. Reed is probably the best option because he is heavily-used at a position that is highly-volatile, but he is priced accordingly at $6,300. Jones is a value-based GPP flyer, but I suspect the Packers will get things together this weekend and pull off the mild upset (Moderator's Note: again, the line has moved, so perhaps the word "upset" isn't necessary any more) by minimizing the entire offense.
John Mamula: I disagree with Phil and John. Cousins has been much better at home this season averaging 23.4 fantasy points per game as compared to 17.7 on the road. Even though the Packers are ranked sixth-best against the pass, they are limping into this matchup. They have allowed a minimum of 20 points over the past three weeks. If playing multiple GPP tournaments this weekend, I would target around 20%-25% exposure to Cousins in my lineups. The only viable options to stack with him would be Jackson or Reed. Due to recency bias, Reed will be one of the more popular tight ends this weekend. I prefer to fade Reed for a tight end with similar upside, such as Tyler Eifert or Travis Kelce.
BJ VanderWoude: This is one spot where I will be going against public opinion. I agree with John M, in that the Wsahington offense is actually in a much better spot than the Packers defensive stats might dictate. I like Cousins a lot this week and will have roughly 20% exposure him in GPPs. Reed has been the centerpiece of the offense, and I don't see that changing. He will be heavily owned, but could easily score the highest points at the tight end position, so the risk is worth the reward for me. In addition to Jackson, Garcon makes for an interesting punt. He comes into this week scoring touchdowns in three consecutive games and has five consecutive games with double-digit points. As defenses adjust to Reed, both Jackson and Garcon stand to benefit from the increase in coverage in the middle of the field.
This one is pretty straightforward: Which team defense do you like the most this week?
John Lee: For cash games, I think Seattle's defense is the obvious play. They only have to worry about shutting down one person: Adrian Peterson. And even then, Peterson, himself, is slowing down; after a torrid start, he has fewer than 70 yards rushing in four of his last five games, including an eight-carry, 18-yard stinker against this same Seahawks defense back in Week 13. If Seattle can manage to suppress him again this week, they should have no trouble containing the Vikings' lackluster receiving corps (Stefon Diggs and Mike Wallace) with the likes of Richard Sherman and Jeremy Lane. As referenced above, these teams played just a month ago and Seattle was the easy victor, 38-7. While we cannot expect the Seahawks to hold the Vikings to a solitary touchdown once again this week, it would not be surprising to see them score fewer than 15 points.
For GPPs, I will be looking towards the Houston Texans at home against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs are an away favorite, having won ten in a row after starting their season with a 1-5 record. To be completely fair, winning ten in a row in the NFL is a tremendous feat, but the Chiefs only beat two teams with winning records during that streak. The truth is that I do not believe the Chiefs are as good as they have been playing, and I also believe the Texans have the type of defense that can prove it. The Chiefs offensive line have allowed the sixth-most sacks in the league (46) this season, while the Texans have sacked the quarterback an impressive 45 times (fifth in the NFL); likewise, the Texans secondary is impressive and ranks as ProFootballFocus' fourth-best coverage unit. Houston also ranks in the top ten of both rush defense and creating a pass rush by ProFootballFocus, which strengthens the argument that Alex Smith will have his hands full on Saturday. Because the Texans are underdogs, I sense that they will be underowned, but I will take J.J. Watt and company at home in a big game against an overrated Chiefs team and feel good about doing so in GPP formats on this limited slate.
Phil Alexander: I usually choose a defense that's a heavy home favorite, but all the home teams on this slate are underdogs. If I had to choose a spread that looks wrong, it's Houston-Kansas City. Vegas is giving a fraudulent Chiefs team way too much credit. A three-point spread in Kansas City's favor on the road means that they would be a nine point favorite if this game were played at Arrowhead, which seems way off. As John pointed out, the Chiefs really have no impressive wins on their 10-game winning streak (they beat the Broncos with an injured Peyton Manning, the Steelers with Landry Jones at quarterback, and the so-so Bills for their best victories), and they don't match up well with the Texans.
Houston comes into this game having won seven of their last nine and their defense has been lights out recently. The Texans allow a league-low 15.6 points per game in home contests. They've scored a combined 51 fantasy points in their last two games (albeit against the Titans and Jaguars), and the only time they scored fewer than eight fantasy points at home since Week 8 was against New England. I don't see the Chiefs being able to run effectively on Houston (second-fewest fantasy points allowed to running backs over the last five weeks), and Smith is not equipped to win a game through the air against a defense with the third-highest sack percentage and fifth-lowest completion percentage allowed. Houston would be my choice in both cash games and GPPs.
John Mamula: I agree with John and Phil. For cash games and GPPs, I am targeting Houston this weekend. The Texans defense has played very well over the past three weeks allowing 10 points to the Colts, six points to the Titans, and six points to the Jaguars. As John mentioned, the Texans are getting pressure on the quarterback, ranking fifth in sacks this season. I envision the Texans pressuring Smith into some mistakes and a possible defensive touchdown.
The Texans will also use their Week 1 loss to the Chiefs as motivation in this matchup. In that game, Travis Kelce ran wild with six receptions for 106 yards and two touchdowns. If the Texans are able to limit Kelce and Jeremy Maclin, it should be a long game for the Chiefs.
BJ VanderWoude: I agree with the consensus on Houston; they are the defense I have continued to target in cash games and GPPs. Both the Chiefs and Texans are driven by their defense, but if I had to choose one, I'd go with the home team, especially when the home team also has the best defensive player in the league in Watt. The Chiefs offense looks to be on a roll, but as mentioned by Phil and John, they have taken advantage of a rather soft schedule and have not been tested much by top tier defenses (outside of Denver). The Texans will lock down on the run and force Smith to beat them through the air, which will cause complications for the Chiefs if they cannot set up the pass through play action. Additionally, Maclin has been dealing with a hip injury (returned to practice on Wednesday), which will further limit the Chiefs ability to create big plays. They are not the most expensive defense this week ($3,900, compared to the Chiefs at $4,000 and Seahawks at $4,100), yet they are the only one of the top three playing at home.
This Week's "Cheat Code"
A number of analysts in the community use this term when describing a player who makes DFS games so easy due to his massive performance that it ends up feeling like a video game being played with a cheat code on. For example, Chris Raybon authored this tweet about Odell Beckham Jr in December, 2014. As you can see from Beckham's 2014 game log, there probably weren't many people losing money with Beckham on their rosters.
With that in mind, which player is the "DFS Cheat Code" that you'll absolutely need on your team this weekend?
John Lee: The obvious "Cheat Code" this weekend is Antonio Brown, but I will save him for another person. The player that I will be rolling out in my lineups this weekend is James Jones. Jones is fairly priced at $4,100 and will anchor many of my lineups because of his value, matchup, and veteran savvy. He is currently Aaron Rodgers' favorite target and the Packers' best wide receiver at this point in the season. He has 33 targets over the past three games, including six redzone targets. This resulted in 14 receptions for 230 receiving yards and a touchdown. Jones should run more than half of his routes at undrafted free agent rookie, Quinton Dunbar, who has looked serviceable in limited action since earning a starting gig late in the season, but has not yet faced a quarterback of Rodgers' ability. Lastly, getting Jones into my lineups should afford me the ability to go expensive elsewhere for a player like the aforementioned Brown.
Phil Alexander: I'm disappointed to see John touting Jones for two reasons. First, he was the player that stood out to me most when I did my initial research, and I wanted to be that guy with the sneaky DFS Cheat Code. Second (and more importantly), if other sharp players are all over Jones, I probably won't be sneaking him past anyone this weekend. John did a great job making the case for Jones based on his recent target share and one-on-one matchup with Dunbar. A few other nuggets that pointed me in his direction:
- Football Outsiders ranks Washington 30th vs. WR2s in their DVOA metric (adjusted for down, distance, strength of schedule)
- Washington has allowed 58 pass plays of 20+ yards this season (sixth-most in the league)
- Jones has 18 catches of 20+ yards (11th-most in the league)
John Mamula: While I agree that Jones is a solid target, the player that I believe to be the "Cheat Code" this weekend is A.J. Green. Many will shy away from Green due to his quarterback situation. When Andy Dalton went down during the last Steelers game, Green still thrived. Looking back over Green's career, he has owned the Steelers over the past three seasons.
- Week 8: 11 receptions, 118 yards, 1 touchdown
- Week 14: 6 receptions, 132 yards, 1 touchdown
- Week 14: 11 receptions, 224 yards, 1 touchdown
- Week 17: 8 receptions, 82 yards
- Week 2: 6 receptions, 41 yards
- Week 15: 9 receptions 93 yards
I envision this game turning into a shootout due to Pittsburgh's lackluster secondary. 100 yards and a touchdown are the floor for Green in this matchup.
BJ VanderWoude: I like the calls of Jones, Green, and Brown. However, I see Jordan Reed as the "Cheat Code" this week. The biggest salary gap at any position is Reed ($6,300) to Eifert ($5,000), and I think that translates into scoring as well. Brown has the highest ceiling of any player this weekend, but it won't come as a total shock if Green or DeAndre Hopkins outscore him. With A.J. McCarron at quarterback for the Bengals, Eifert's ceiling is limited, and he will have to score to even reach cash game value. In games where he didn't score a touchdown, Eifert averaged roughly five points per game, which is roughly six points fewer than Reed in similar circumstances.
Reed has an established ceiling of 37 points, the highest of any tight end in play this weekend by six-plus points. He's scored multiple touchdowns in four different games and caught five or more passes in 10 of his 16 regular season games. Reed averaged 7.1 targets per game, the highest among all Washington players. He is the centerpiece of the Washington offense, and in order for them to pull off a win at home against Green Bay, Reed will have to play a big part. Furthermore, he is averaging the third-most points (18 points per game) among all skill position players (Brown averages 26.1, Hopkins 21.8). Both Reed and Eifert make solid points-per-dollar plays, and I will have quite a few lineups that feature both tight ends.
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Ryan Hester - Moderator