We are three weeks into the season and the fantasy landscape is starting to take shape. This week I'll take a look at the top 15-20 players by fantasy points (PPR scoring) from each skill position, and provide my take on which players belong and which are destined to decline.
The Usual Suspects - Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are in the Top 4 after three games. Tom Brady has been sensational in the last two weeks after a disappointing Week 1 home loss to Kansas City. He has catapulted to the top, despite losing his top receiver, Julian Edelman. The Patriots and their offensive system continue to thrive, no matter who earns their way onto the field. Aaron Rodgers has three 300-yard games, but he has an interception in each game. His yardage and six touchdown passes is enough to be ranked 2nd among quarterbacks, and he's doing it while two big receivers have missed action in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Drew Brees has fewer yards, but he has six touchdowns and zero interceptions while boasting one of the better QB ratings in the league (109.7) despite a 1-2 record.
Hanging around - Alex Smith may not be a high yardage quarterback, but he's the captain of a prolific offense with outstanding coaching and play calling. As a result, he's a fantasy commodity that is shining bright right now. Smith is not a career Top 10 quarterback, but sometimes average quarterbacks have great years. This may be one of those years for Alex Smith. He has play makers all around him on offense and the Chiefs defense is making it easier, giving the offense short fields, not to mention momentum.
Carson Wentz has two 300-yard games with five total touchdowns and two interceptions. No player on the Eagles has over 100 yards receiving or rushing in a game this year which makes Wentz's stats all the more impressive. He's spreading the ball around as evidenced by four different receivers with 100 yards receiving this season with four different receivers catching touchdowns. Wentz is coming together in his second year in the league. I'm not sure where his ceiling is, but he definitely looks better than last year's version. The uncertainty of the ground game may slow down his progression, but for now, enjoy the ride.
Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson and Trevor Siemian make up 6th - 8th place in the rankings. Dak Prescott, Kirk Cousins and Jared Goff aren't that far behind. The difference between 16th ranked Blake Bortles and 4th ranked Drew Brees is a mere 10 fantasy points. It's early and margins haven't started to grow yet, but that's an encouraging sign for those who prefer to stream quarterbacks.
Streaming Options - Week 4
Playing matchups and streaming quarterbacks is a science that can be successful if the right decisions are made. The Patriots, Saints, Colts, Vikings and Titans have been determined to be the teams that allow the most passing yards to this point. They can be exploited - however there are exceptions, look at Carolina vs. New Orleans last week. The Saints came into the game with a 141.4 QB rating against through two games. They were 32nd in the league in total defense and both tackles and cornerbacks were out. Seems inviting doesn't it? There were some hints of uncertainty, and many people, this author included, didn't pay much attention to them. Keep in mind, this was a divisional game and Carolina was without their two best offensive weapons in Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin (granted Benjamin's injury happened early in the game). Cam Newton hasn't shown signs of being completely healed from his off season shoulder surgery. Either that, or he isn't mentally prepared to make the right read or he lacks touch on short passes. Whatever the reason, Newton isn't in MVP form, at least not yet. Their All-Pro center Ryan Kalil was out for the second game in a row. Their All-Pro right guard Trai Turner left the game early, causing the offensive line to adjust on the fly, which didn't bode well. It all resulted in a lackluster effort that was over once Carolina became one-dimensional. When Drew Brees and the Saints get a lead, they are hard to beat. The matchup looked great, but whatever glitters isn't always gold. Several favored teams learned that lesson last week.
Jay Cutler will get a crack at the Saints in London in what could be a favorable game script for the Dolphins. Houston hosts Tennessee, which also looks like an inviting matchup, but again it's a divisional game. Watson may be a rookie, but these two teams know each other well. Perhaps he's not the best option to stream. Minnesota will host Detroit. So far the home Vikings quarterback, whether it's Sam Bradford or Case Keenum has been surprisingly effective and impressive. This is one example of a divisional matchup that I might look to exploit. Keenum would be my second option after Cutler. Jared Goff vs. Dallas is appealing as long as the Rams offensive line can withstand Demarcus Lawrence and the Dallas pass rush. Eli Manning at Tampa Bay may have some teeth, especially with the defensive injuries that are affecting the Buccaneers.
RUNNING BACK (PPR)
There's a ton of surprises here. Just like at this time last year, nearly everyone is a surprise. Devonta Freeman and Melvin Gordon III are the only Top 10 backs that were drafted as a Top 10 back, unless you count Kareem Hunt, if you drafted after Hunt's Thursday night opener. Todd Gurley, Leonard Fournette, Ty Montgomery, Carlos Hyde and maybe Dalvin Cook are the only others who were remotely close to their preseason draft ADP. This definitely supports the notion of using the upside down drafting strategy or "zero-running back" strategy.
LeSean McCoy, Le'Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott are waiting in the Top 20. They did not start off strong out of the gate, but I am a firm believer that each of them will be back to the Top 10 sooner rather than later. Chris Thompson and Tarik Cohen are the biggest surprises on this list. Both occupy the same role with their respective teams and both have been active on nearly every down, not just third down. They are offensive weapons and they are being used anyway they can. I don't expect to see an increase in snaps or carries from either back, but what they are doing in limited opportunities is impressive and potentially sustainable. There will be better games than others, but their role is firmly carved in their team's offense. I don't see their role growing, but I also don't see it diminishing. They may eventually fall out of the Top 10, but I see them continuing to be key contributors and fantasy commodities.
What if there's an injury? There's always injuries. Proactive waiver claims and roster stashes are a big part of fantasy success. Two running backs that I have my eye on include Malcolm Brown (Rams) and D'Onta Foreman (Texans). Alvin Kamara is growing on me, but there's still too many options in the Saints backfield for him to be a difference maker. Mark Ingram II would have to go down for me to be all-in on Kamara. I still think James White is going to be a difference maker for New England, but their offensive tendencies at running back vary week to week. A general rule of thumb for New England backs is to target pass-catching backs against teams with strong run defenses. If New England struggles to run, a quick 3-5 yard pass is just as good. This week against Carolina appears to be a game that favors the short passing game. Carolina will scheme to take the big play away and give away short yardage plays. This favors James White.
Not pictured includes many, but the main ones are Marshawn Lynch, Lamar Miller, DeMarco Murray, Ameer Abdullah, Bilal Powell, Jay Ajayi, Joe Mixon etc. Some of these may rebound to the Top 20, but others won't, whether it's injury related or not. It's the cycle of an NFL running back. Here one day, gone the next. In order to stay on top of things you need to have some luck, skill to see opportunities, and ability to make trades, especially buy low trades.
It's early but the rules of thumb are starting to take shape. Generally speaking stay away from these opponents for rushing: Denver, Washington, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Chicago, Arizona. Exploit these opponents: NY Giants, Los Angeles (Rams and Chargers), Seattle, Jacksonville, NY Jets, New England, Cincinnati, New Orleans and San Francisco.
WIDE RECEIVER (PPR)
Stefon Diggs has looked incredible in two of his three games (both home). In his two home games he has 7-93-2 and 8-173-2. His lone road game at Pittsburgh he had a dismal 2-27 performance. He's home again this week against Detroit, who have given up three touchdowns to wide receivers this season. Diggs is a player I had my eye on in the draft season as someone who could potentially reach the Top 10. He's proving me correct early on this season. So far the Vikings have had outstanding efficiency at quarterback, especially at home. Adam Thielen cracked the Top 10 despite not scoring a touchdown yet. The Vikings receiving duo has started off red hot and with five of their first seven games at home, that streak may continue.
Like Diggs, Tyreek Hill is a surprise in the Top 10. My opinion of Hill started to take a turn in his direction as the draft season ended and as I began to realize how potent the Chiefs offense can be. What makes Tyreek Hill (and Kareem Hunt for that matter) so special is Andy Reid and the Chiefs coaching staff's ability to harness their strengths and incorporate it into their offense. Hill has developed into a solid receiver with the skills to get separation in routes and after the catch. As long as Kansas City continues to have experience under center and Andy Reid's play calling, Hill should continue to thrive.
New England - There's gold to be mined in the Patriots receiving corps. So far, no one player has picked up the slack in Julian Edelman's place. At this time last year Edelman led the Patriots with 18 catches. This year the top receiver outside of Rob Gronkowski is James White with 12 receptions. We've seen Danny Amendola, James White, Chris Hogan and Brandin Cooks be the go-to target for Tom Brady on different occasions. We should start to see someone emerge soon enough, but so far the story is too complicated to read. The water is too murky and the fantasy lineups are too difficult to decide. The matchup this week against Carolina leans to favor Gronkowski and potentially Chris Hogan. Brandin Cooks could be a big play guy this week, but I don't see him as a conistent option unless they make him more of a short yardage receiver.
I suspect Julio Jones, Jordy Nelson and Odell Beckham Jr Jr. will vault into the Top 15 and perhaps the Top 10 soon enough. Beckham is finally healthy and he showed it last week with a two-touchdown performance. Nelson and Jones are right around the corner and should produce a big game soon. Michael Crabtree continues to be the better fantasy receiver over teammate Amari Cooper. Crabtree has capitalized on red zone plays and Cooper has not. The biggest difference is Crabtree has caught 81% of his targets, while Cooper (a dismal 43.5%) has not. TY Hilton's clutch Week 3 performance (7-153-1) has him in the Top 15 and with Andrew Luck lurking around the corner, things are looking up for the Colts early season MVP. He has established a rapport with Jacoby Brissett, which will help his numbers until Luck returns (hopefully Week 6). Hopefully Luck won't have any ill-effects of his shoulder rehabilitation. We've already seen Cam Newton struggle after having a similar but less-invasive procedure.
Not pictured - Mike Evans, DeVante Parker, Jarvis Landry (all with one less game), Allen Hurns, Randall Cobb, Dez Bryant, Alshon Jeffery, Rishard Matthews, etc. Several of these receivers will make a jump into the Top 20. I'm confident in that. Bye weeks, injuries or matchups have been key factors in their struggles or lower ranking.
Generally speaking, target wide receivers facing these teams: Tampa Bay, WR 2 playing Minnesota, Philadelphia, Tennessee, Arizona, New England, Dallas, NY Jets, LA Chargers, New Orleans.
Generally speaking, tend to fade wide receivers facing these teams: Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, Washington, NY Giants, Baltimore, LA Rams, Cincinnati, Carolina, Green Bay
TIGHT END (PPR)
Rob Gronkowski's place at the top is not a surprise, but there are some eyebrow raisers at the tight end position. I had Zach Ertz in my preseason Top 5 and so far he has proven me correct with a number two ranking. The trade of Jordan Matthews and no firm rushing attack has funneled plays to Ertz and so far, he's making good on his chances. Charles Clay has become the top receiving threat for Buffalo outside of LeSean McCoy. Jordan Matthews and Zay Jones have not hit their stride yet and Tyrod Taylor has lived on the short-intermediate passing game, which is right in Clay's wheelhouse. Jason Witten is another beneficiary of an efficient offense. Dak Prescott is learning to trust his arm more and more, but his go-to target is still a high percentage short or mid-range pass, which is perfect for Witten.
Rookies Evan Engram and David Njoku are in the Top 15, but that may change as we get further into the season. Engram is third on the Giants in targets with 19, but Odell Beckham Jr (18) will soon pass him, making him less of an offensive fixture. Njoku has two scores, but only seven catches in three games mean he is not a consistent fantasy option yet.
The Ravens statistically look like they have played only two games. The mistake in London is hopefully just an anomaly, but bad numbers aside, Ben Watson's 11 receptions leads the team. He has come alive in the last two games (even against Jacksonville) and keep in mind, he had only one target Week 1. The Ravens offense is productive when the tight end is heavily involved. If Watson becomes more of a fixture in the offense, good things will come. I can see him making a jump into the Top 10 if his usage continues to increase. Only Mike Wallace has more offensive snaps for the Ravens than Watson heading into Week 4.
Teams who have not allowed a touchdown to a tight end: San Francisco, Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Cincinnati, LA Chargers, Arizona, Buffalo, Kansas City.
New England and NY Giants have allowed a touchdown to a tight end in every game this season. Baltimore has allowed four touchdowns to tight ends, including three to Marcedes Lewis last week. Remember that when considering Jesse James this week.
Nearly every team in the Top 10 is a surprise. Deciding to wait on defense is a popular strategy and one that continues to pay off. Streaming a defense is definitely in and the method for doing so takes some clever schedule glancing. Making waiver decisions for defense is best done by scouting the schedule and finding gems either for the upcoming week or if you really like a matchup, a full week ahead. I usually look at these four factors. Sacks, sacks allowed, home team and opponent's record.
Top teams in sacks include: Jacksonville, Dallas, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, LA Chargers, Buffalo, Cincinnati and LA Rams.
Most sacks allowed include: Houston, Green Bay, Kansas City, Arizona, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, New England, San Francisco, Carolina.
Home Team - most of the teams in the Top 10 are on the road this week, but Jacksonville (at NY Jets) is appealing, as is Cincinnati (at Cleveland). Of the home matchups, Atlanta at home vs. Buffalo is decent, so is LA Chargers vs Philadelphia or Arizona vs. San Francisco. Kansas City vs. Washington is appealing, but the Chiefs defense is probably not available on the waiver wire. Seattle is tempting at home vs. Indianapolis, but there are some hints that might lean towards fading the Seahawks defense, even at home.
Not pictured - Minnesota, Seattle, New England and Denver are nowhere to be found in the Top 15. All four were consensus Top 5-8 defenses selected in drafts. That's not to say those teams won't rebound, but as of now, they are under-performing. Minnesota, Denver and Seattle have a combined 0 fumble recoveries and 0 defensive touchdowns. Seattle is averaging a hefty 146 rushing yards allowed per game. Denver and Minnesota are a much stronger 59 and 62 respectively. That stat alone tells me a rebound is more likely for them than Seattle. It's still only three games into the season, but the tendencies and weaknesses are starting to reveal themselves. We'll know more about Seattle after their Week 4 game vs. Indianapolis. If things continue to sputter, it may not be their season.
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