When we begin preparation for our annual fantasy campaigns, we're all hoping for players who will deliver championship-caliber production wire-to-wire. We're also dreading the idea that, in Weeks 15 and 16, we'll face the prospect of starting players we wouldn't draft to help us take the title home.
Blake Bortles and Keelan Cole whose Weeks 15 and 16 led all fantasy quarterbacks and wide receivers last year. Kapri Bibbs, Alfred Blue, and Benny Cunningham, who offered top-tier RB3 fantasy production during the same stretch. Jakeem Grant, Tavarres King, Jaydon Mickens, and Damiere Byrd were fantasy free agents who became Week l5 and 16's No.13, No.14, No.16, and No.17 fantasy receivers in standard leagues.
It happens every year. Look here, and you'll find players with starter production who would not be drafted in the first 15 rounds of any format at that time: Zach Zenner, DeAndre Washington, Marcel Reece, Tim Hightower, Cameron Meredith, Eli Rodgers, Deonte Thompson, Dontrelle Inman, Mike Gillislee, Rashad Jennings, Donald Brown, Travaris Cadet, Matt Barkley, and Matt Moore.
These backups, underachievers, journeymen, and positional misfits may not be on your mind as you're jockeying for playoff position, but they are all part of a crew of backdoor men that you can sneakily add to the end of your rosters with the expectation of delivering at the right moment. This week, we'll look at potential members of 2018's Backdoor Playoff Crew. It's best to do this now because if you have starters ahead of any of these players and room to add one of these players, it's likely a free, preemptive addition this week or during the next 2-3.
The Chiefs have a chance of wrapping up home-field advantage for the playoffs early enough to rest its starters. We'll see if Andy Reid will feel comfortable resting its young stars and for how long. It will depend on the Chargers' contention for the divisional crown. If the playoff positions solidify by Week 15 and there's a possibility they will play the other early in the postseason, look for both squads to field reserves.
If Reid rests his skill options, Chris Conley and Demarcus Robinson are obvious candidates for this backdoor crew. Conley and Robinson are both capable of breaking big plays in this offense and winning at the catch point on fade routes. Robinson seems most equipped to earn carries on Jet Sweeps if the Chiefs use the concept. However, they are already known contributors who earn time with Sammy Watkins or Tyreek Hill need a rest.
The sneaky option of note is Marcus Kemp — a route-savvy possession receiver who wins a lot of tough targets and has worked enough with Patrick Mahomes II and Chad Henne for the past two years to surprise in this area. He's a worthwhile PPR candidate if the Chiefs go 13-1 and wrap up No.1 playoff seed, and Reid rests Hill and Watkins — and considering how they play and Watkins' foot issues, it's likely Reid will go this route.
As with the Marcus Kemp situation above, the obvious play at running back would be Spencer Ware. Anyone who has read the Gut Check for a few years knows that Ware is a favorite, and it's possible that Kansas City could let Ware earn a significant amount of Hunt's workload against the Chargers and Seahawks.
Count on this happening for at least half of the Chargers' game if this contest's playoff implications are meaningless for both teams. If the Seahawks game is meaningless for the Chiefs, it's also possible that the Chiefs rest both Ware and Hunt and roll with Williams, whose receiving skill, straight-line power, and long speed could make him a top fantasy producer during the championship round.
Ware is on most rosters 20-deep but Williams could be the guy who earns the most meaningful touches Week 16 if the Chiefs have wrapped up the AFC.
The Chargers, Patriots, Steelers, and maybe, the Texans have a shot at the No.2 seed. The first three teams all face each other before Week 15 and it could solidify AFC positions early enough that the Chargers will rest its key players for a week — and maybe much of two weeks.
As with the Chiefs' running back situation, Austin Ekeler could be the marked man to earn touches for a rested Melvin Gordon III. However, like Spencer Ware, Ekeler is a valued role player in the offense and the Chargers could decide it's time to give Jackson an opportunity.
The Chargers were excited to draft Jackson as late as it did and he made a fast impression during the earliest stages of training camp before getting hurt and missing the rest of August. He's seen occasional carries this year while playing special teams, so he's earning time on the field. Blessed with excellent stop-start quickness, good burst, and terrific vision as a decision-maker between the tackles, Jackson is the type of player who could deliver against the Chiefs and/or Ravens.
Following suit with the Chiefs' scenario, the Chargers could rest Keenan Allen and Tyrell Williams and give Mike Williams, Travis Benjamin, and Geremy Davis additional playing time during the final weeks. Benjamin has been a viable fantasy option in the past. Think of him as Big K Soda to DeSean Jackson's Coca-Cola — similar attributes, similar function, but not quite the same quality although some may hardly notice the difference when presented well.
Davis offers toughness at the catch point and some skill to win fades, slants, and corner routes. Benjamin is the more proven option and the one most will feel better about using in lineups but if Davis plays in Week 15, consider him in Week 16.
The Saints and Rams are the top contenders in the NFC but the Rams play the Chiefs this weekend and the Saints already have the head-to-head advantage over the Rams. If the Rams lose to the Chiefs. If the Saints can earn a two-game lead on the Rams by Week 15 or 16 and hold the tiebreaker for the top seed, Teddy Bridgewater could be starting for the Saints against the Steelers in Week 16.
Taysom Hill is the first Saints backup on most lips, but he's not an NFL-caliber passer at this time. He's a big-armed athlete with some promising quarterback characteristics but doesn't remotely possess Bridgewater's poise, decision-making smarts, accuracy, and pocket management.
You could say that Pittsburgh's defense has gotten stingier against the pass since the beginning of the year or you could see that after giving up 285-plus-yards to Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Patrick Mahomes II, the Steelers faced the mediocre quartet of Andy Dalton, Baker Mayfield, Flacco, and Cam Newton. If the Saints rest Brees, Bridgewater is worth consideration for the desperate.
It's unlikely that the Saints, Rams, or Bears will give each other enough of a break that the NFC's seeding is solidified by Week 16. If it is and the Rams cannot gain or lose its seeding, look for Malcolm Brown and John Kelly to earn the workload against the Cardinals. Brown will earn Gurley's volume with Kelly as the series substitute. Kelly was a more dynamic route runner than Brown at the college level but it will be a gamble to expect Kelly to earn a significant amount of time at Brown's expense without an injury. Both options are capable of 100-yard production.
The Bears will likely make the playoffs but not challenge for a top seed. If Chicago's destiny is sealed by Week 16, Cunningham has the all-around skills to compile yards and catches against the 49ers so the Bears can rest Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard.
This is looking less likely with Washington's offensive line woes, but if the unit can sustain victories and win a lackluster NFC East, Bibbs could earn the starting role against the Titans in Week 16. The same could happen if Washington's line causes the bottom to drop out and the team sinks to the basement and has no shot of making the playoffs. Bibbs is a smart runner with enough burst, balance, and receiving ability to deliver for you. If the Broncos weren't stuck on Devontae Booker, they would have kept Bibbs instead and got better value per play.
The Cardinals aren't challenging for anything but a top-3 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. With Atlanta and the Rams on the schedule for Weeks 15 and 16, Arizona could give David Johnson a break, see what it has in Edmonds, and feed the rookie against a pair of banged-up units. If you have Johnson, Edmonds is worth consideration for similar volume if the Cardinals shut Johnson down.
If Jackson doesn't start this week due to Joe Flacco's injury, he could start if the Ravens are eliminated from contention by Week 15 when Baltimore faces the lowly Buccaneers defense. This could be a high-scoring game and make Jackson a candidate for top-10 fantasy quarterback production. A similar week could be in store for Jackson in week 16 if the Chargers' destiny is sealed by Week 16.
If the Ravens' season becomes meaningless at this point, Baltimore could also shut down Michael Crabtree and John Brown, saving them from the pounding and give Chris Moore and Jordan Lasley playing time. Moore offers the proven big-play opportunities but Lasley is also a good deep receiver with strong hands (focus drops are there, too) at the catch point. He excels after the catch and in the red zone.