This week, we'll discuss the following topics:
- Top Notch Wide Receivers
- Game Scripts
- Oakland vs. Tight Ends
- Running Back Matchups
- Value Running Backs
Top Notch Wide Receivers
Through the first few weeks, it has been nearly imperative to have a top-flight wide receiver on your roster to succeed. With Ben Roethlisberger lost for multiple weeks, Antonio Brown may take a hit. Does that make it imperative to roster either Julio Jones or Odell Beckham Jr in cash games this week?
Jeff Pasquino: I'll say no, only because it has been hard to find value at the wide receiver position with high floors. The smarter plays of late have been to take stud wide receivers, an underpriced stud like Larry Fitzgerald, and then round that out with a value running back with a stud running back. At least, that's the way it has felt to me. Finding cheaper running backs that are getting a lot of touches like Devonta Freeman or Dion Lewis has been easier in the first few weeks. Once injuries start to move some wide receivers as the only target (like Demaryius Thomas last fall with several Broncos hobbled), then we can find better value at wide receiver and pay up for the top running backs.
Also keep in mind the Pittsburgh situation for the first two weeks. With LeVeon Bell out and DeAngelo WIlliams as the starter, that reduced the top-five running back pool by one and also gave us a cheap starting back. Now with Bell back, he could be worth paying up for, and more value wide receivers will be in play as a result.
The other wrinkle here has also been getting Rob Gronkowski on your roster. Paying up at tight end also forces more values to be found, and that value has presented itself more at running back spots than anywhere else.
Dan Hindery: I can't fade Julio Jones right now in a cash game. He's just getting too many targets and playing at too high a level not to pay the few thousand extra dollars to make sure I own the top wide receiver in the game. Jones has already received 46 targets and has a catch rate just shy of 75%. He’s also increased his targets each week from 11 to 15 to 20. Atlanta is 3-0 and averaging 30 points per game, so it makes little sense for them to go away from what has worked so far.
Plus, there are still plenty of strong options under $5,000 that make it relatively easy to pay up for a top option like Jones. Another factor making Jones an easy decision for me this week is the poor matchups for the top running backs. Adrian Peterson travels to Denver to face a tough defense, and Jamaal Charles travels to Cincinnati on a short week to face the stingy Bengals run defense. There is little incentive to pay heavily at the RB position in Week 4, which allows you to pay up for at least one top wide receiver like Jones.
Scott Bischoff: This is a great question and I can see the merit of the arguments that Jeff and Dan have made. Both have answered this really well, but I'm leaning toward Dan's line of thinking. If Jones is going to command this kind of volume, he's almost an automatic pick for cash games, and I'd follow him up with an A.J. Green ($7,600 in a home game vs. Kansas City) and find cheaper running backs to fill out my roster.
Justin Howe: I've been on the "roster two of Jones, Brown, and Beckham every week" bandwagon all season, but now looks like a good time to scale that back. I won a solid haul in Week 2 by making it a point to play two of those guys in every lineup, but I backed off a bit last week – only one in most of my lineups – and still managed to succeed. Now, I don't advocate doing so for the sole purpose of squeezing some shaky top-eight(ish) running back into your lineup. Don't pivot from Jones, for example, just to afford an uninspiring Justin Forsett. These three guys remain matchup-proof dominators who carry better ceilings and floors than any running back not named LeVeon Bell; therefore, they're the safest cash plays in town.
But it's not quite as necessary right now. A few guys in the next two price tiers are developing strong weekly top-six outlooks. Brandon Marshall will absolutely dominate opportunity while Eric Decker and Chris Ivory are hobbled and/or sitting out; DeAndre Hopkins is the unquestioned leader and star of the league's most pass-happy offense, and he's been predictably great in the red zone. A.J. Green and Randall Cobb are high-salaried, but they're always capable of a top-tier stat line. Any of those guys carry strong weekly potential to reach 4x value but also have insanely high floors. They're all solid options to sub for one of the “Big Three” in a cash setting.
Pick any game on this week’s slate and discuss how you think it will go. Which player(s) will benefit most from this game script?
Scott Bischoff: Seattle hosts the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football this week. Through three games, Detroit has been beaten on defense in different ways, but a major reason is that the Lions haven't been able to hide their deficiencies on defense through their offense. From play-calling to multiple issues up front on the offensive line, as well as the inability to run the ball, the Lions are simply dreadful on offense right now. That puts a ton of pressure on the defense to consistently make plays and to not make mistakes, and that has been a problem for them.
This plays right into Seattle's hands, especially at home. I see Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, wide receiver Doug Baldwin and certainly tight end Jimmy Graham as the main beneficiaries of the game script. Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch didn't finish the Week 3 game and his status for this game is up in the air. The Lions defend the run better than they defend the pass, and there aren't a lot of playmakers on that defense right now, with the exception of DeAndre Levy who hasn't played yet in 2015. In the case where Lynch is limited, I see Wilson, Baldwin and Graham as very good options this week.
Dan Hindery: The Bengals-Chiefs game looks like it should be a low-scoring affair. I can’t see either team being able to have consistent success running the football, and big plays in the passing game are likely to be few and far between. The Chiefs passing defense has struggled the past two weeks, but the return of Sean Smith at cornerback (after a three-game suspension) will solve many of their issues. With Smith on one side and impressive rookie Marcus Peters on the other, neither A.J. Green nor Marvin Jones is likely to have a big week. Aside from one inspired half of football from Steve Smith Sr, the Bengals defense has been quite strong against the pass as well.
Where I see this game being decided is in which team can find the most running room after the catch on shorter passes. The one area the Bengals have had some trouble in defending has been short passes to backs and receivers that lead to bigger gains after a broken tackle. Both Smith and Danny Woodhead were able to generate yardage through the short passing game. Kansas City will probably have to look to get Jamaal Charles going with short passes instead of giving him 20 handoffs. Similarly, if the Bengals outside receivers can’t create a lot of separation from the Chiefs corners, Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert will be key components of the passing game. Bernard’s ability in the screen game could be especially crucial in slowing down Justin Houston and the Chiefs pass rush.
Overall, this matchup feels like it will be a 20-17 type of game that comes down to the final possession with both yards and touchdowns difficult to come by. But we should still see the running backs and tight ends post solid fantasy totals due to heavier than normal involvement in the passing game.
BJ VanderWoude: With the news that LeSean McCoy will be most likely be held out of Sunday's game against the Giants, Karlos Williams steps into a great situation that will allow him to be successful from the jump. Despite playing second fiddle to McCoy, Williams has rushed for more yards (Williams: 186, McCoy: 146) and more touchdowns (Williams: 3, McCoy: 0) on roughly half the carries. Williams has the highest yards per carry average among running backs with at least 20 carries, while also generating a 20+ yard run every twelve carries, which is also leading the league.
The Bills play the Giants at home, and are currently favored by a touchdown. This is an ideal game script for a running back, but even more so for a capable backup who is filling in for an injured star. The Bills organization gets to see how Williams fares throughout four quarters when given a starter’s workload, and Williams has his first opportunity to prove he should be a starter, either in Buffalo or on another team. He will not face competition for carries – whether it be between the 20's or in the red zone – making him a sure bet to score at least one touchdown. He will also play on passing downs, enabling him to get in the open field and show off his impressive blend of size and speed.
I will have quite a bit of exposure to Williams this weekend.
Jeff Pasquino: I think the simplest game to break down will be Dallas and New Orleans. Dallas is going to run the ball – all game, non-stop. The Saints are averaging 126 yards against on the ground (26th in the league), and Dallas just ran the ball a ton last week against Atlanta and had four rushing touchdowns – and then forgot to finish the game on the ground. Dallas won't let that happen this week as they have to continue to minimize the passing game without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant and possibly little to no Jason Witten. That's a recipe that calls for 40 rushing plays and several dump-off passes to Lance Dunbar (who had 10 receptions for 100 yards last week).
The Saints are marching home, with or without Drew Brees under center. Even if he is playing, he does not play defense, and apparently neither do the rest of the Saints against the run. Brees may be able to get some offense going, but Dallas is going to upset New Orleans in New Orleans this week (and I find it very hard to see how Dallas is getting four points, but I don't own a sports book, so what do I know).
I'll do another one while I am at it. San Francisco is hosting Aaron Rodgers, who has a great narrative as he returns home (graduated from Cal, from Chico, CA). Rodgers is going to light up a 49ers team that gave up 47 points on the road at Arizona last week as Colin "Pick 12" Kaepernick threw two interceptions that the Cardinals ran back for touchdowns in the first quarter. Rodgers had five touchdown passes against the Chiefs and is red hot right now. I don't care if the Packers score 21 points on defense because Rodgers is going to impress his friends and family once again in a live performance for 300+ yards and three touchdowns (with possibly one running it in himself).
Justin Howe: I see a lot of passing – and a decent amount of scoring – in the Houston-Atlanta matchup. Vegas agrees, projecting the game at 47 points, the second-highest mark of the week. Atlanta remains among the league's most pass-happy teams, but the Texans have thrown the ball more than anyone. Ryan Mallett isn't efficient with the ball, but in the absence of Arian Foster, they've had to rely on the short passing game to move down the field. Foster may return this week, but it's hard for me to expect the team to rush him into a between-the-tackles grind-fest. Most likely, he'll make his biggest impact as a situational runner and a dynamic receiver, something the team has lacked thus far.
Most importantly, both teams feature a game-breaking wideout capable of carrying the offense. I don't need to waste everyone's time discussing Julio Jones, through whom the Falcons operate even in run-heavy gameplans like last week's. On the other side, DeAndre Hopkins is seeing 13 targets a game and dominating in the red zone (three touchdowns on seven targets). Jones always carries a top-three WR outlook, but Hopkins looks like a solid bet to post a great line himself. Both will be expensive, but I'm confident both will easily return 3x value.
Pasquino: Good breakdown, Justin. I just wanted to chime in that last time I checked, the Texans are running the most plays per second on offense of any team – more than New England or Philadelphia. This is something to keep in mind for forecasting purposes.
Oakland vs. Tight Ends
20 receptions, 297 yards, and five touchdowns. Those are the numbers Oakland has allowed to the three starting tight ends they’ve faced. This is a group that includes Gary Barnidge of Cleveland last week. If you’re not rostering Martellus Bennett in cash games, what’s the reason and who are you choosing instead?
Jeff Pasquino: I'd start any tight end against Oakland right now. Before Week 3 was even over, once I saw that Barnidge (who I didn't even know was on a roster, let alone starting for Cleveland) had 100 yards and a score, I made a note to take whoever was starting at tight end in Week 4 against the Raiders. To hear that it is a solid TE1 option anyway makes me smile. I'm definitely going to have Bennett in several cash lineups and some GPPs possibly as well.
Dan Hindery: It depends upon whether or not Jay Cutler is back. If Jimmy Clausen is starting, I will not own any Bears, no matter how enticing the matchup looks on paper. Clausen completed only 9 passes last week for 63 yards and we’ve seen enough of him over the years to know he is not a good NFL quarterback.
While the Raiders defense is not in the same league as the Seahawks defense, they actually looked pretty solid last week against Cleveland. The Raiders carried a 20-3 lead late into the third quarter before Cleveland finally made a little bit of a run late fueled by a Raiders fumble and some prevent defense. For most of the game, the Raiders gave up nothing to the Browns and Josh McCown.
Pasquino: When it comes to covering tight ends, the Raiders did NOT look good. Look at Barnidge's touchdown.
The play is a variant on Jon Gruden's favorite play, Spider 2 Y Banana. Barnidge gets a free release and is completely ignored as he runs down the seam then turns to the side where McCown is rolling.
If Martellus Bennett gets just one play like this, he is worth the pick this week. Maybe not a popular pick, but certainly worth considering given the Oakland history against tight ends and no Rob Gronkowski this week.
I tend to fall in line with Dan here. As our esteemed colleague Sigmund Bloom likes to say, owning any receiver is putting a chip on his quarterback too. If Clausen is in, Bennett doesn't strike me as a cash game lock, regardless of how easy the matchup looks to be. Is anyone else running away from Clausen, or is the matchup so good you can get over it?
Hindery: Well said, Ryan, and that better explains my position. I do buy that the Raiders are especially weak against the tight end and I’m certainly onboard with riding Bennett if Cutler returns to action in Week 4. I just have a hard time trusting Clausen and any of his targets.
The Seattle defense has had a tough time in recent years against the tight end as well, and Bennett was the recipient of 35% of the passing targets for the Bears in Week 3. He still only put up 5.5 points. If Clausen gets the start, I prefer Jordan Reed ($4,500) and Tyler Eifert ($4,600) in the same price range and would also strongly consider Greg Olsen ($5,400) if I could fit his salary in without too much of an issue.
Charles Clay ($3,300) is also an intriguing low-price option against a weak Giants pass defense that has been exploited by Jason Witten and Jordan Reed. He is especially attractive if Sammy Watkins is unable to go with his calf injury because that almost guarantees Clay a healthy portion of the passing game targets.
Scott Bischoff:Everyone has made very good points, and I think the conservative approach is to think that Clausen can't make enough plays to warrant starting a player he is throwing to. I also think Sig makes a great point on this, but allow me to add a subtle point that hasn't been looked at yet. The Bears are at home, and they will be able to move the ball on Oakland even if it is through running back Matt Forte. I see Bennett as a very nice potion this week partially because I think the Bears will get just enough on offense to get Bennett to value. Alshon Jeffery should return but might be limited, so I see Bennett as a primary weapon and a matchup problem for the leaky Raiders.
Pasquino: The safe play here is clearly to use Bennett in GPPs, but not in a cash game. There are likely to be other tight end options to consider, even without Gronkowski this week (although I thought that about Kyle Rudolph last week).
Justin Howe: I'm generally not interested in a Jimmy Clausen target, no. Bennett would bring some good value without Alshon Jeffery, but I can't imagine this offense supporting one cash-game receiver, let alone two. The floor for every pass catcher in the offense just takes too strong of a hit, and the ceiling isn't very enticing itself. You can hope for touchdowns, sure, but how often do you foresee Clausen marching into the red zone? Of course, the Raiders are probably a mirage; they're still a very flawed, talent-deficient team who could easily lay an egg on Sunday, and the Bears could feed off of their mistakes and stumble into 21+ points. But that would require a bet on the probability of Clausen playing well, which I don't want to chase in a cash game.
I know that Gary Barnidge is generally “just a guy,” Bennett is a much better player, and Josh McCown isn't much better than Clausen. But Bennett is much costlier than a stab in the dark like Barnidge, so the appeal of a big completion or two down the seams is tempered here. You want around a 6-65 line and/or a touchdown from a cash game TE, and I don’t love the chances here. There are several cheaper guys (Coby Fleener, anyone?) with significantly better chances to find the end zone.
Hindery: If Jay Cutler can play this weekend, that increases the attractiveness of Bennett for me. Cutler has been limited in practice this week. Jack Del Rio also said he’d be “shocked” if the Raiders weren’t facing Cutler.
BJ VanderWoude: If Cutler is in the game, Bennett is generally a safe cash game play. However, with Jimmy Clausen specifically, I want no part of Bennett. Clausen just hasn't proven he is capable of moving the offense. I don't think Bennett's value is tied directly to touchdowns, but I want to know there will be some sort of flow with the offense. And I have no confidence in that right now.
Jordan Reed is the perfect example of the tight ends I want on my cash game squads. He is averaging just under nine targets a game and converting on 73% of those targets. He doesn't play in a high-powered system with an all-pro quarterback, but he has become such an integral part of the offense that his (high) floor is reached through receptions and yards, not touchdowns. This also keeps his salary low, making it easy to build balanced rosters around him.
You want high floor players on your cash game rosters, but in some cases, the ceiling of a player can justify the risk. That is the biggest problem I currently see with Bennett. Not only do I lack confidence in his usage between the 20's, but I don't believe he has nearly the touchdown upside he had to begin the year with Cutler. With that said, if Cutler was to be cleared to play, I would feel much better about putting Bennett in play. This is strictly a quarterback issue, not an offense or coaching issue.
Running Back Matchups
Atlanta, Cincinnati, New York Giants, Jacksonville, Carolina, Denver, and Oakland have all allowed at least eight receptions to running backs so far this season. Cincinnati and Houston have allowed multiple receiving touchdowns to running backs. Which of these matchups should we exploit this week with pass-catching running backs?
Jeff Pasquino: I think some of those stats might be a little deceiving overall, as some teams had leads that left the other team little choice. Denver's shutting down the run for most of their competition and getting out to a lead, which is the perfect game script for a receiving back. Dallas lacked decent receiving options, so they targeted Lance Dunbar in the past few weeks a ton, which added up against Atlanta. Every team seems to have at least one running back that can catch the ball well out of the backfield, and I would dare say most have two (when healthy). I'm not looking at these games for a matchup with the defense against receiving backs as much as I am looking at game scripts.
Just now looking at the Week 4 slate of games in terms of the teams mentioned in your question, I am scratching off the following defenses as targets: Jacksonville (not much receiving work for Frank Gore these days) and Atlanta (Houston has very few targets at running back if Arian Foster isn’t playing).
The Giants at the Bills is an intriguing one, but again, the Bills have very few targets to running backs (14 in three games). If I am on Karlos Williams or LeSean McCoy, it will be about the matchup on the ground, not because I foresee a ton of receptions. Tampa Bay (15) and Minnesota (12) also are light on targets to running backs, so I think I am not on either the Buccaneers hosting Carolina or the Vikings hosting the Broncos this week.
Chicago (facing Oakland) is a matchup to watch with Matt Forte. I can see him and Martellus Bennett being the top two targets for Jimmy Clausen this week. That's the one team on this list I would add value to the lead back. But Forte is already going to be at a high price, so his receptions are going to be priced in.
Give me a team with backs who are in a high scoring game where they are expected to be down in the second half; that is where you will get these extra catches and value.
Scott Bischoff: I agree with Jeff for the most part on the teams he's eliminated from contention here due to game script. I also think Forte will command many touches in the Bears game versus Oakland, but as Jeff mentioned, that's factored into his cost.
I'm looking at Texans running back Arian Foster as a player that fits this the mold, but there’s no guarantee he returns this week, and it's a ridiculous gamble paying $7,000 for a running back making his season debut and returning from the kind of injury Foster suffered. That's a bit of a shot in the dark, but one that could pay dividends with the Texans on the road in Atlanta.
Staying in Atlanta, Devonta Freeman is an intriguing option. I see the Texans as likely trying to stop wide receiver Julio Jones as a primary part of their game plan, and it should open up the underbelly of the defense to screen passes to Freeman. Vegas likes this as a high scoring game, and I see Freeman chipping away as a pass catcher.
Justin Howe: Forte looks to me like the RB1 to target. Lately, I haven't seen more than one or two rock-solid options among the top-10 salaries each week, but Forte is a fixture in my Week 4 cash lineups. Jeff is right that his price tag already has all of his upside cooked in, but that's the case with any top-tier RB. (The top receivers seem to have immeasurable ceilings, but the RBs are generally more susceptible to matchup and script concerns.) So if you're compelled to pay up for a somewhat clear RB1 option, Forte is the play. His floor of four to five catches is very important when chasing a RB1 in the current fantasy landscape.
I'm with Scott on Freeman. No, he's not that good, but at the moment he's the unquestioned backfield dominator in a reasonably high-octane offense. And the passing game is his forte. Freeman is savvy and dynamic as a receiver, and with no third-down back to vulture opportunity, he's all but guaranteed RB1 volume while Tevin Coleman is out. As you alluded to, Scott, I'm fully expecting a boost of 7-10 PPR points, giving Freeman a great floor in the chance he tumbles to earth in the run game. He can make a 15-carry, 40-yard rushing line. He’s perfectly serviceable.
Value Running Backs
One of our DraftKings lead contributors, Jeff Pasquino, had an additional question this week. Like a game that goes to overtime provides us fans with free football, we’re providing our readers with some free additional discussion this week.
Jeff Pasquino: In looking at the salaries, two jumped out at me:
Considering how Dallas just ran with next to no resistance against Atlanta and Randle had three touchdowns, is Randle a must play here?
Scott Bischoff: Is anyone giving consideration to C.J. Spiller in this matchup? Ingram is at $6,000, and Spiller is even lower at $3,900. Freeman had 35 touches last week; I can't see all of that kind of workload that going to Ingram.
Dan Hindery: I definitely can see the attractiveness of the Ingram matchup on paper, but I am gun shy about rostering Saints players at home right now. They’ve lost six straight at home and been big favorites in nearly all of those games. I was burnt in Week 2 with Drew Brees, Brandin Cooks, Brandon Coleman, and Mark Ingram all at relatively high ownership rates (when favored by 11 points against Tampa Bay). I want to see the Saints actually win and play well in the Superdome (for the first time since last October) before I’m betting too heavily on any of those guys again. I will probably play Ingram in a couple GPP lineups, but I do not trust him beyond that with the very real threat of the Saints putting up yet another clunker at home.
Along those same lines, the Saints opened as seven-point favorites in Vegas, and the line is already down to just four, so I am not the only one wary of the Saints being listed as big home favorites again because almost all the money seems to be coming in on Dallas early.
Justin Howe: I don't dislike Randle one bit, but he's not the hot commodity to me that he is to others – not yet, anyway. I was one of his biggest supporters through the offseason, but he's yet to prove that he is more than a fantasy RB2. And he doesn't really get a RB1 boost in a great matchup, considering Dallas has a multi-headed backfield with specified roles. Randle also doesn't see a real PPR boost with Lance Dunbar dominating the pass game. I wouldn't call him a bad play by any means. But he's still entrenched in the crowded mid-RB2 tier and doesn't quite have the look of a guy who soars up the board in a good matchup. Right now, he is what he is.
Ingram is a guy I'm fading. I benefitted greatly from his Week 1 PPR explosion, but he doesn't excite me a bit in such a marginalized role. Now imagine that role scaling back – or at least staying frustratingly low – as C.J. Spiller works into the offense. All three Saints backs should carry some value this year, and they may well shred the Cowboys on a per-touch basis, but I doubt any of them will seize a big enough slice to stand out. I need more clarity to invest in this situation in cash games; if one guy drops out of the mix, I'll sniff around, but not now.
Pasquino: After digging deeper into the Saints, I found that they are 26th against the run (126 yards per game), which only leads me further to Randle. He dominated the early part of that game last week and helped Dallas hide Brandon Weeden and all of the missing talent in the passing game.
Howe: The matchup is indeed tasty, and just like last week, I may well regret not owning Randle anywhere. I'm just wary of a back who is categorically pulled in the pass game. Guys like that can really only return RB1 value with one specific script: a run-heavy gameplan due to a comfortable lead. They sometimes buck the trend, and I know Randle did just that last week. But how often does a 16-touch game end up producing 29 fantasy points? I'm not betting on lightning striking again so quickly.
BJ VanderWoude: I agree with much of what Justin pointed out. I have a similar approach, in that I am much less likely to roster a running back who is not active in the passing game. This is multiplied when a backup quarterback like Weeden has the reigns, as the running back might see an increase in volume. However, that is generally at the expense of team red zone opportunities. This obviously wasn't the case in week 3, but I would expect many more 12-point games before he has another 30-point game. As Justin mentioned, multiple touchdown games on 14 carries with a backup quarterback are going to be few and far between.
I found it interesting that Randle dominated the headlines this weekend with a three touchdown performance but lost in the shuffle was Lance Dunbar leading the Cowboys in targets, yards and receptions. In fact, Dunbar was the better points-per-dollar play despite Randle scoring three more touchdowns. Brandon Weeden was not even interested in other receivers, and I would expect that to continue this week.
All signs point to Mark Ingram being in for a big day, although I am concerned with his lack of touches in the run game. Coming into Week 3, he is averaging 13 rushes per game, with a yards per carry average of 3.3. While he has left a lot to be desired running the ball, Ingram has stepped it up as a receiver. In the four years preceding 2015, Ingram had caught more than three passes only once in his career. This year he has caught nine, three and five balls respectively, for a solid 9.5 yards per reception. The Saints need to give the ball to Ingram 20+ times to have a shot at beating the Cowboys, which is something I am banking on when I put him in play this week. He needs that rush-volume to hit his ceiling, but it is comforting to know that he is capable of reaching his floor through the passing game.
Hindery: Just adding to the anti-Randle sentiment, there have been reports out of Dallas in the past 24 hours that Christine Michael has been getting reps with the first team and could have a bigger role this week. While I wouldn’t be shocked if Randle goes out and has another solid week behind that massive offensive line, there are some definite risks regarding his workload and upside this week.
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