Congratulations on making it this far. Let's see if we can help you bring it home this weekend. This week's Gut Check is devoted to players on and off the fantasy radar that I think could help teams in their Championship matchups.
on the radar: RB Christian McCaffrey
McCaffrey told the FOX broadcast crew that he has been asking for greater responsibility in the offense on a weekly basis. Demonstrating that he is up to the task, the Panthers staff has incrementally added more to McCaffrey's role since midseason.
One of those roles is more work as an outside receiver. McCaffrey was recognized at Stanford for his work as a receiver split from the formation, but the Panthers haven't used him that often in this capacity. They've aligned him as a wideout but rarely threw the ball to him beyond the line of scrimmage.
Against the Packers, Cam Newton targeted McCaffrey as a wideout against tight coverage.
While this is encouraging news for those with McCaffrey on their squads, when it comes to targets split from the formation, I'm not expecting the floodgates to open. It's an added dimension that could give McCaffrey an extra catch or two per game. If an injury or odd match-up advantage occurs that Carolina can continue exploiting, it heightens McCaffrey's absolute ceiling.
The layer of analysis that bolster's McCaffrey's floor moving forward is Cam Newton's accuracy on outlet passes. A month ago, Newton struggled on these targets to McCaffrey in the flat. During the past two weeks, Newton's accuracy has been notably better.
With Greg Olsen healthy, the Panthers use their tight end on post routes where his size is an advantage in the back of the end zone. Olsen's route assignments also have an ancillary effect of clearing out the underneath zone for McCaffrey as an outlet.
This McCaffrey touchdown reception is a dramatic example.
McCaffrey's usage, Newton's improvement on short throws, and the return of Olsen all play into this weekend's game with the Buccaneers. Tampa gave Atlanta's offense massive amounts of space in the shallow zones of the field, which the Falcons' running backs exploited for significant yards after the catch on angle routes.
With the Buccaneers likely missing Anthony McCoy, Lavonte David, and multiple cornerbacks, look for McCaffrey to earn a lot of targets in the middle of the field as both the primary option and outlet. With Olsen drawing away coverage, look for McCaffrey to score again this weekend. He's good for 9-12 touches per game and that range has increased to 11-18 during the past three weeks.
Off The Radar: RBs Theo Riddick and Tion Green
The Vikings confused the Bengals linebackers and safeties in Week 15 and when they didn't confuse them, they physically outmatched them. The Bengals gave up 130 rushing yards to Cleveland's backfield tandem, 194 total yards to the Steelers backs, 217 rushing yards to the Bears backfield, and 242 total yards to the duo of Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray.
All four opponents have solid if not strong offensive lines and the Lions are the worst rushing attack in the NFL. However, the Bengals have given up 399 receiving yards to running backs in the past five weeks — including a pair of 100-yard games to individual runners.
It makes Riddick the obvious off-the-radar play if you need an upside match-up this weekend. During the past three weeks, Riddick has earned 14 receptions for 117 yards against the Ravens (5-41), Buccaneers (6-64), and Bears (3-12). He's also earned 27 carries, 99 yards and 3 scores on the ground.
(This includes a pair of rushing touchdowns against the Buccaneers — do you have a further understanding why McCaffrey is a hot play this weekend?)
If you're really desperate — and I mean so desperate that you don't even have access to the Giants backs on the waiver wire — Tion Green could be a stopgap who should provide a modest total with potential for a touchdown.
Green is the player that the perpetually clueless are actually describing when they're writing about LeGarrette Blount. Listed at 220 pounds, I'd be shocked if the needle on the scale is below 235-240. A big back with good feet, Green is much more of a plodder than Blount.
Where Blount's acceleration and change of direction speed are far more liquid than characterized, Green moves like honey poured from a bottle.
Green has good, if not excellent feet, and flexible hips to change direction. He's also a patient runner who has some occasionally tentative runs as he's acclimating to his teammates. Because he's earning more playing time than Ameer Abdullah in recent weeks, Green is worth a look if you're truly scraping the bottom of the barrel and you must start a specific number of backs.
On the Radar: QB Blake Bortles and WR Keelan Cole
The 49ers host the Jaguars in Week 16 and despite Jimmy Garoppolo elevating the morale of this team with his play, the pass defense is still vulnerable. It doesn't appear this way statistically, but consider their past six opponents:
- The Cardinals are starting Blaine Gabbert.
- The Giants started Geno Smith, which precipitated a coaching change.
- The Seahawks don't have an offensive line.
- The Bears throw as little as possible and when they do, Mitchell Trubisky is inconsistent, at best.
- Tom Savage got knocked out of the 49ers game in the first half.
- Marcus Mariota has been struggling.
Despite this murderer's row of All-Pro quarterbacks, the 49ers gave up 6-95-1 to Rishard Matthews, 5-63 to Eric Decker, 11-149-2 to DeAndre Hopkins, 4-70 to Paul Richardson, 11-142 to Sterling Shepard, and a combined 6-122 to Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown.
None of these teams are as remotely as balanced as the Jaguars. Even without Leonard Fournette, Blake Bortles pasted the Texans with a 21-for-29, 326-yard, 3-touchdown performance. He did this after losing Marqise Lee to injury.
As a passer, Bortles has gradually made strides towards his 2015 form.
Favorite throw by Blake this past Sunday. Feeling pressure by the defense and could easily throw the dump pass to Ivory instead tries Keelan Cole. This was an awesome play because the defender notices the pressure on Blake and assumes he would never be able to make the throw 😂 pic.twitter.com/9RQyG6ViHW— Laurie Fitzpatrick (@LaurieFitzptrck) December 19, 2017
While good to see Bortles regain some of his downfield accuracy, its the balance of intelligent aggression that is making a difference.
On this play it seems like a simple check down but when nobody is open Blake utilizes a pump fake to keep the linebackers in place then checks down to TJ Yeldon for a 9 yard gain. pic.twitter.com/Kdt4H8yhti— Laurie Fitzpatrick (@LaurieFitzptrck) December 19, 2017
If you followed our advice and started Bortles last week, I'm preaching to the choir. With the likes of Lee, Antonio Brown, Devante Adams, and possibly Keenan Allen out this weekend, Keelan Cole has become a strong consideration for those in need of a starter with big-play upside.
While I still like Dede Westbrook's long-term potential ahead of Cole, opponents have often paired its best corners on Westbrook. As I've shown in Week 13 and Week 14's Top 10 columns, Westbrook has made big plays against tight coverage and on third downs. However, it's Cole who is earning the mismatches that lead to big plays.
Off the radar: WR Jaydon Mickens
There's also enough room in this offense to consider Jaydon Mickens as a desperation play. Mickens is a former return specialist and slot receiver with the Oakland Raiders. Here's an excerpt of my report on Mickens in the 2016 Rookie Scouting Portfolio:
Mickens is a fast receiver with excellent burst off the line. He sells the vertical and puts defenders into a back pedal or forces them to turn and run. Mickens uses good footwork to get a relase and set up his stems off th eline. He routinely avoids contact with the dip of a shoulder. His speed makes him a threat to run away from defenders and earn separation in the vertical game...He has the skill to come to a quick stop, whihc gives him potential to become a difficult man to cover on underneath routes...Mickens trackes the ball over his shodulers and catches the ball with his hands. He can take a hit and hold onto the ball. He has some lapses with using the correct hand position on some targets near his frame on shorter targets...
His overall mentality with the ball in his hands is aggressive. Get him near the pylon and he'll layout for the end zone from 4-5 yards away. Create a situation where he has to show some grit, and Mickens will drop the pads and change the angle of a defender's pursuit wiht a move so he can bounce off contact or duck under. He's an intelligent, creative, and patient runner. Even so, he'll occasionally have lapses of reckless decision-making wehre he believes too much in his agility and makes that extra move he shouldn't...
[Size is] really the crux of Micken's limitations...If he's quick at 185-195 pounds there might be enough balance and power [in his frame] to earn a bigger role. Unless he's the next Marvin Harrison, Mickens will offer his greatest value in the return game and as a fourth or fifth receiver to help a team. Think of him as an aspiring Harry Douglas [with greater speed].
Mickens' speed from the slot has helped the Jaguars pair him with Cole on routes that cross under deep zone defenders and create big-play problems for opposing defenses. While the 49ers have a decent safety in Eric Reid, the rest of the secondary will have issues containing these receivers — especially with the threat of the run forcing them to cheat towards the line of scrimmage.
Tight Trips Right, Lewis goes for the fake handoff to the left, this shifts the defense away from play side. Mickens & Cole once again exposing secondaries. Blake takes advantage of Houston's zone here #Jaguars pic.twitter.com/sBAWOVwr3x— Laurie Fitzpatrick (@LaurieFitzptrck) December 19, 2017
Here's a play where Mickens benefits from the cross.
Cole runs Slo-Go route & Mickens runs a wheel which either forces the defenders to cross or they will switch if they are in zone. Since they were running man on this drive Blake Bortles knew LB couldnt keep up and drops a DIME pic.twitter.com/iXGTx0b6db— Laurie Fitzpatrick (@LaurieFitzptrck) December 19, 2017
Mickens earned five targets last week. Westbrook earned two after averaging nine the three weeks prior. Cole led the group with nine last week after averaging a little more than four during the same three-week span as Westbrook.
Mickens is a risk-reward play, but a good one. I was encouraged that the Raiders signed him as an undrafted free agent and he flashed in training camp last year. Cole is the safest option. Westbrook's sudden dip with the addition of Mickens makes him the least attractive.
With numerous options worth breaking down, these six stand out as the most obvious choices. McCaffrey, Riddick, and Bortles are likely owned but may not be weekly starters for every team (they have been for me) whereas Green, Cole, and Mickens who could be available on your waiver wire. Good luck!