This week, our panel discusses on potential bargain-bin Week 16 options, the slumping Rams offense, ugly and beautiful Week 16 matchups, and hot production from unlikely sources heading into this weekend.
The Week 16 Bargain Bin
Matt Waldman: Fantasy football gets wild in the final weeks of the season because a lot of lesser-known players without a track record of pro production earn playing time in lieu of injured stars or bad teams assessing its depth chart.
Last week, we saw a number of players earn notable playing time and/or fantasy-caliber production:
1. Kalen Ballage
2. Tyler Conklin
3. Darrel Williams
4. Jaylen Samuels
5. Tim Patrick
6. Trent Sherfield
7. Jeremy Sprinkle
8. Darren Waller
9. Matt LaCosse
10. Blake Jarwin
Obviously, most teams in the championship rounds will need to consider these options but let's do our due diligence for those who might. Pick three players you believe to have the best shot of helping a desperate fantasy team as a flex or spot-start and provide analysis based on film, data, and/or match-up.
Chad Parsons: I have been a huge Kalen Ballage fan dating back to mid-career at Arizona State. Ballage was a high-variance prospect as he was never the true feature back at Arizona State but he had the ideal size-movement-receiving profile to be all-in as a mid-Round 2 or later rookie pick. Ballage looks to inherit the Frank Gore role but offers much more big-play ability than Gore as shown last week on the long touchdown. Ballage is the type of RB2/Flex option to roll with unless GMs have an auto-start lined up this week.
Jaylen Samuels (pending James Conner's status) is an auto-start. The Steelers are in must-win mode and Samuels is yet another running back posting big numbers in the Pittsburgh running back conveyor belt of RB1 production. Samuels is tough to keep out of lineups unless Conner is active.
Blake Jarwin is firmly on the tight end streamer track to close the fantasy season as Dalton Schultz, who was sparsely productive at Stanford, has yet to show much and Jarwin is seeing enough volume at an inherently volatile position to keep a tight end-starved contender afloat.
Andy Hicks: We know that Frank Gore is out for the rest of the season and it wasn’t Kenyan Drake who got the carries when Gore left with an injury. Drake only had one rushing attempt all game, while Ballage logged 12. Against Jacksonville this week, who are away from home, so Miami should run the ball all day. I would have some reservation as Ballage had eight carries for 11 yards all season before that, with a previous best of four carries for three yards.
Like Chad mentioned, you have to grab Samuels if James Conner cannot go. Samuels/Conner will have a tough matchup against the Saints who haven’t allowed more than 76 yards to any running back all season. The back who got 76 yards was Ezekiel Elliott who was fed the ball 23 times for his yardage. That said amongst the players listed he will at least touch the ball more than a couple of times.
Since the loss of Emmanuel Sanders, Tim Patrick has had two solid fantasy games with a five and seven catch effort for a combined 150 yards. Against the Raiders the Broncos may be able to run the ball at will, but the other rookie receivers have been less reliable than Patrick to date, so he seems the safest out of all the inexperienced Broncos receivers.
Maurile Tremblay: Ballage stands out as the player I'd want from that list. With Frank Gore expected to miss the rest of the season, Kalen Ballage and Kenyan Drake will man the Dolphins' backfield. If last week is any indication, Ballage will be the lead back. He was effective in the lead role with Drake mostly watching from the sidelines, and after the game, head coach Adam Gase said that Drake's limited playing time didn't have anything to do with an injury. Ballage's speed makes him a big-play threat, though he needs decent blocking to be effective.
Samuels has more upside potential than Ballage, but it's contingent on James Conner missing more time, or being limited. If Conner is healthy, Samuels is still likely to get carries, but not enough to be a solid fantasy contributor. If Conner is out, Samuels becomes a borderline fantasy RB1-RB2. No part of Samuels's game is spectacular, but he's a steady, high-effort player who will keep grinding out whatever yards are available.
Blake Jarwin rounds out my list. With Geoff Swaim on the shelf, Blake Jarwin has emerged over the past two weeks as the Cowboys' preferred receiving tight end. He's gotten 7 targets in each of the past two games. I wouldn't want to have to start him in my fantasy championship, but I'd take him over the remaining players on this list, especially given his juicy matchup against the Buccaneers in Week 16.
The Slumping Rams Offense
Waldman: For the past three weeks, I have posed a question about the Rams offense based on performances that have been trending downward and for the past three weeks, the overall tenor of the panel has been to stay with them.
Should we continue giving this recommendation despite the passing game's struggles against the Lions, Bears, and Eagles or will the Cardinals be the game that the Rams turn things around for fantasy players?
While there's an increased likelihood that managers with the slumping Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, and Jared Goff as their every-week starters haven't made it to their championship rounds, let's continue our due diligence with the more difficult choices that may occur:
Do you expect the Rams offense to produce against the Cardinals?
Who are the "worst" quarterbacks you'd start ahead of Goff?
Who are the "worst" receivers you'd start ahead of Cooks and Woods?
Tuccitto: I would have pegged this game as being closer than people think ... until the Cardinals got molly-whopped by the Falcons. I usually make it a point not to play armchair sports psychologist, but that performance had the distinct stench of "we've checked out for 2018." Therefore, yes, I do think the Rams offense will produce plenty on Sunday.
That said, I also think it's going to be Todd Gurley (or his replacement if he sits), not the passing game, that carries the load. Arizona has allowed the fourth-most PPR points per game to opposing running backs this season. And according to Austin Lee's normalized strength of schedule, they've allowed the second-most over their past five games. When Tevin Coleman has more rushing yards against you than he had in his previous four games combined, you know something's wrong with your run defense.
I tend to be a "dance with the one that brung ya" kind of manager in the fantasy playoffs, so I'd still start Goff ahead of "worse" quarterbacks with better matchups, like Baker Mayfield and Mitchell Trubisky. Similarly, unless you're playing in the shallowest of shallow leagues, I don't see how you can bench Cooks or Woods. If I absolutely had to choose one to bench, it would be Cooks, as he's likely to see more of Patrick Peterson on the outside. True, he went for 7-159-0 in the first meeting between these teams, but that was way back in Week 2 (i.e., prior to Cooper Kupp's injury).
Tremblay: I thought Goff's struggles against Chicago were predictable, but I didn't expect him to be so ineffective against Detroit or Philadelphia. Nonetheless, I see the Cardinals offering him a bounce-back game.
If the Rams get an early lead, it might be the running game rather than the passing game that gets most of the fantasy stats. But this is the perfect game for the Rams' offense, in general, to get back on track.
As I write this, I have Goff as my QB9 this week. Seven of the eight quarterbacks ahead of him are all very solid quarterbacks. The other is Dak Prescott, whom I consider to be a below-average NFL quarterback; but I'd start him over Goff this week because of his terrific matchup against the Buccaneers.
I like Woods better than Cooks based on this recent trend: since the Rams' Week 12 bye, Woods has out-targeted Cooks by 31 to 20. I've currently got Woods as my WR9 this week, and there's nobody ahead of him that I'd consider being a remotely poor wide receiver, so it's odd to call one of them the worst. (Julio Jones? Antonio Brown? Tyreek Hill? DeAndre Hopkins? They're the four WRs I have ranked just ahead of Woods -- who is worst?)
Some of the receivers I'd rank ahead of Cooks, though, are not great receivers in general -- they just benefit from matchups or injury situations this week. Adam Humphries, Curtis Samuel, Robby Anderson, and Mike Williams fit into that category.
Hicks: At least Goff and the Rams were able to acquire passing yardage against the Eagles and were it not for a fumble in the final three minutes, had a chance to square it up. I have little doubt that the Cardinals are the perfect tonic to fix any offensive woes.
If I had Goff as my starter and was still in it for the super bowl, I would play him this week with little hesitation. With doubts surrounding Todd Gurley and few other options to run the ball, then the passing offense is all they've got.
It is possible that I have another option apart from Goff to start this week, but it would have to be an elite matchup or a Patrick Mahomes II type to play ahead of Goff this week.
If I had Cooks and/or Woods they would be starting this week. Even in Goff's poor weeks, they have still received the targets of a fantasy WR.
Waldman: I'll note that John Kelly is an excellent young player who can run the football. If he were in about 10-12 other cities, he'd be a weekly contributor right now. Justin Davis is also an interesting option most don't know about.
Parsons: The Cardinals have been a rebound matchup for teams all season which is why I would go back to the Rams well this week. My one big question among the skill position options is will the Rams go light on Todd Gurley after he exited twice last week with a knee issue and frankly the Rams are unlikely to need him to post an easy win over the Cardinals. Other running backs are dinged up for the Rams, but this feels like a 'Gurley is not playing in the second half if we can help it' type game as the Rams passing game is the true 'get well' component.
For Goff, I would start him in the QB8-10 range of rankings, so behind the Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott (dream matchup) level options. For Cooks and Woods, both are in the top-15 this week on my board and tough to keep out of lineups. I would need Adam Thielen, Amari Cooper, maybe Julian Edelman to consider benching one of them.
Stop the Train!/Keep it Rollin'
Waldman: These players have been hot since Week 13 (Player and positional ranking listed beside them since Week 13)
1. Josh Allen -No. 2
2. Nick Mullens - No. 3
3. Derek Carr - No. 4
1. Derrick Henry - No. 1
2. Damien Williams - No. 9
3. Justin Jackson - No. 15
1. Dante Pettis - No. 3
2. Mike Williams No. 6
3. Robby Anderson No. 11
1. Jared Cook - No .3
2. Lee Smith - No. 6
3. Levine Toilolo - No.9
Pick two from any list where you'd emphatically yell, "Stop the train before it derails!" and then pick two where you'd tell the conductor to keep it rollin'.
Parsons: I have no faith in Lee Smith and Levine Toilolo on poor passing games and at tight end where no-names pop up with quality spurts of production. I will add Robby Anderson as another concern player down the stretch on a 'spread it around' Jets passing game where I have little faith the ball follows any of the pass-catchers for long enough to projection confidence in a lineup decision.
Josh Allen and Derrick Henry provoke "keep it rolling" recommendations. For Allen, the key is the DNA of the Bills offense. They are putting Allen into 'run or deep throws' situations where he (at present) is at his best. Allen is high-variance and with a quality defense, Allen just needs a few plays a game and limiting the turnovers to give Buffalo a chance. I will be interested to see in New England chooses to play coverage with a spy this week and force Allen to beat them throwing into smaller windows. Henry's huge game a couple weeks ago was on the fluke side due to his snap rate and low volume (plus the long touchdown). However, this past week showed a shift to Henry has the clear lead back, which has not previously happened for Henry. I am willing to ride him due to the shift in approach for Tennessee as much or more than the rise in production.
Hicks: You would have to be pretty brave to start Mullens against the Bears. Chicago has allowed only six passing touchdowns in the last 8 weeks and is barely allowing 200 passing yards in that time span. Mullens has been an intriguing player since his elevation to the starting role, but this matchup seems to be above his pay grade.
Lee Smith has three catches in the last three weeks, combined. All just happened to be touchdowns. As a 31-year-old blocking tight end he is unlikely to exceed his best of 12 catches in a season this year and while it is possible he extends his stretch to four touchdown games in a row, I would be happy to bet against it.
When a running back is hot, keep them hot. Derrick Henry is finally being utilized correctly by the Titans and a matchup against the injury-ravaged Washington team comes at a perfect time for those who have managed to get to the Superbowl despite Derrick Henry's early season form.
Denver has struggled against Tight Ends all season and Jared Cook has been a starting fantasy tight end all year. This is an easy call, especially seeing George Kittle destroy this team two weeks ago.
Waldman: As a side note, Denver has been a great welcome mat for tight ends for at least the past two years.
Tremblay: I'm yelling "Stop the train" when it comes to Nick Mullens, Justin Jackson, and Lee Smith.
Nick Mullens has had three terrific fantasy games in a row -- against the Seahawks, Broncos, and Seahawks again. This week he faces the Bears. There's really no comparison between those previous defenses and the next one. The Bears have the personnel to generate a pass rush out of their base defense while also taking away the deep ball. They'll force Mullens to check down and wait for him to make mistakes, and then they'll capitalize on those mistakes. I expect an ugly week for Mullens.
Meanwhile, Lee Smith is on a ridiculous streak of scoring a touchdown every time he's been targeted over the last three weeks ... but averaging one target a game is just not a recipe for sustained fantasy success. He's been a total fluke and won't it won't continue.
I'd keep it rolling with Derrick Henry and Mike Williams.
Derrick Henry has a tremendous combination of size, strength, and speed; and he's been on a mission over the past two weeks. I don't know exactly what clicked, but he's been so dominant lately that you can't possibly bench him. He's a fantasy RB1 right now.
Mike Williams has been a solid red-zone target all season, but when Keenan Allen missed the second half of the game last week, Williams took over. Allen is questionable this week, but even if he plays, I'd expect Williams to finish the season on a hot note with a few more touchdowns over the next couple weeks.
Danny Tuccitto: As our resident 49ers fan, I follow Mullens and Pettis the closest. And since the performance of one depends on the other, I'm going to say "stop the train before it derails" for both of them, especially if we're talking specifically about Week 16.
It's not unexpected for a rookie quarterback, but the one area in which Mullens has had considerable difficulty is dealing with pressure from the pass rush. He doesn't seem to have that sixth sense of "feeling" imminent pressure. And when the pressure arrives, he has a tendency to try to throw the ball anyway, therefore late, which is never a good thing for a quarterback.
He's gotten better at this over the past few weeks, but the main reason he's done so well from a fantasy perspective is that Seattle and Denver didn't dial up their pass rush via the blitz unless they absolutely needed to late in the game. Furthermore, let's not forget that in that first Seattle game in Week 13, the Seahawks called off the dogs with a huge fourth-quarter lead, and that's when Mullens threw for over half of his yards.
As for Pettis, he has more than enough ability to beat whatever coverage Chicago throws at him. I just don't think Mullens is going to be upright for long enough to get Pettis the ball enough to warrant starting him this week.
Waldman: Name one known starter in any 12-team, 1 QB, 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE league that you expect to have a beautiful fantasy game this weekend and one whose performance will be down-right ugly.
Tuccitto: As all pass-catching backs have feasted on Atlanta for several years running now, Christian McCaffrey will have a beautiful game at home against the Falcons on Sunday. And as the Saints defense has been downright stingy lately (344 combined passing yards allowed to Cam Newton and Jameis Winston the past two weeks), I think it could get downright ugly for Ben Roethlisberger in New Orleans.
Tremblay: Dak Prescott is set up for a beautiful week against the Buccaneers. The Bucs are allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete a league-high 72% of their pass attempts. They've given up 30 touchdown passes in 14 games (second behind the Raiders). They're giving up a league-worst 8.3 yards per pass attempt (and a league-worst 8.8 adjusted yards per attempt. Opposing quarterbacks have a combined passer rating of 111.1 on the season.
I don't consider Dak Prescott to be an every-week starter, but I consider him a must-start in Week 16.
I expect an ugly performance from Kyle Rudolph. His matchup is fine, but he's been losing target-share to Tyler Conklin over the past few weeks, and I expect that trend to continue. Conklin has earned more snaps at Rudolph's expense. Consider it a prelude to a changing of the guard that will be consummated next season.
Hicks: I am going at the quarterback position for both here.
If you have Patrick Mahomes II and are in the Super Bowl, this will be a good week for you. Seattle's pass defense has been good for at least two touchdowns and 250 yards almost every week and the Chiefs have everything to play for.
In the last nine weeks, Baltimore has only given up more than 220 yards to Patrick Mahomes II and Ben Roethlisberger and have conceded only 12 touchdowns in that timespan, never more than two in any game. With doubts about his top two weapons in Melvin Gordon III and Keenan Allen, Philip Rivers will be hard to start if you need a big performance this week.
Parsons: I will hitch my wagon to Amari Cooper against Tampa Bay at home. This is a dream rebound spot for a Dallas offense who looked asleep in Indianapolis last week. Cooper is a good bet for more than 100 yards and a touchdown.
I am fading Melvin Gordon III this week. His first game back from injury and drawing the worst adjusted running back matchup in Baltimore. The Ravens have only allowed two games of 20+ PPR points all season (James Conner, Christian McCaffrey) and both were fueled by receiving touchdowns.