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Roundtable Week 13

This week's topics: Kareem Hunt, Josh Gordon, Vikings-Falcons, and Second-Half Surprises. 

A slump, a reinstatement, a pivotal NFC contest loaded with fantasy starters, and second-half surprises comprise our Week 13 Footballguys Roundtable:

Let's roll.
 

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Kareem Hunt's slump

Matt Waldman: Hunt has been the No. 41 fantasy RB since Week 8 in PPR leagues. This includes a 17-yard rushing output against a Bills defense that allowed 614 yards and 9 touchdowns in the previous four matchups. 

After LeSean McCoy earned 110 yards against the Jets in the season opener, New York hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher since. Let's this matchup and Hunt's downturn:

  • Under what circumstances should fantasy owners bench Hunt this week?
  • Do you believe Hunt and the Chiefs will overcome this five-week slump?
  • Any recommendations for patient Hunt owners who have by-passed opportunities to sell him high?
Let it rip.
 
Justin Howe: Hunt still isn’t benched for most of his owners. Odds are, if he’s still your roster’s RB1 or RB2, it’s because he’s been a top-two option for you all season. And it’s rarely shrewd to bench a lead back with the volume on his side – Hunt has taken 12+ touches in every game thus far, and 21+ touches in 5 of his last 8 – in favor of a lesser-used, more volatile option. In other words: if you’re choosing between Hunt and Alex Collins, you can play around a bit. But if it’s Hunt or J.D. McKissic, stand pat with the volume.

I’m not sure whether I expect Kansas City to win outright Sunday; this looks like a team that’s not just fallen to earth but landed with a thud. But I do expect their offense to bring more pace and scoring opportunities to the table.
 
Kansas City games tend to score noticeably more away from Arrowhead, with often tighter spreads and even less defense than usual. Dating back to last season, Chiefs games have averaged 40.6 points at Arrowhead but 48.6 away.
 
So I  think their skill players deserve a small boost in valuation as we set our lineups. That said, it’s more of a floor thing; I’m not looking for the same upside we saw over the season’s first month. Some of their more dynamic pieces – Hunt and Tyreek Hill, for example – have been studied and understood more, and their slide has been inarguable.

Don’t be in a rush to ditch him. You won’t get much value if you do; at this point in the season, the most attractive assets are the most stable ones. Hunt doesn’t feel stable, but he’s a volume guy on an offense with a moderate ceiling. Relax and enjoy that – and while you’re at it, savor his schedule for the fantasy playoffs (OAK, LAC, and MIA, all at home).

Andy Hicks: It depends on what your options are, but the Chiefs only have losing teams on their schedule until the playoffs, if they make it. The Chiefs haven't looked like the team that started the season red hot and have lost badly to the Giants and Bills since their bye. You are hoping that Andy Reid can fix this offense. You have to run with Hunt unless you have clearly better options on your roster such as Kamara, Gurley, Bell etc.  
 
Dan Hindery: I currently have Hunt ranked as RB12 this week behind Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, Leonard Fournette, Melvin Gordon III, Carlos Hyde, Samaje Perine, LeSean McCoy, Jordan Howard and Christian McCaffrey. If you have 2 or more of the 11 running backs listed, then it is worth putting Hunt on your bench. However, he still ranks as a fringe RB1/RB2 based on his likelihood of seeing 15-20 touches in a decent offense. 

I suspect the Chiefs will bounce back somewhat. They are better than their recent record and performances indicate. However, those monster early-season games were probably a mirage. Going forward, Alex Smith is more likely to be the steady, unspectacular guy who puts up 200-to-250 passing yards per week and rarely throws more than two touchdowns in any game. Don't expect him to bounce back to his high-end fantasy QB1 performances from early in the season. 

The time to sell high on Hunt has passed, so it is best to appreciate him for what he is: a talented but sometimes underutilized player in an average offense. He should be a top-15 running back the rest of the way, which is basically in line with where he was being drafted in the preseason. As long as you aren’t expecting Le’Veon Bell/Todd Gurley type numbers from Hunt, he remains a decent fantasy option.
 
Danny Tuccitto: I'm a firm believer in the "dance with the one that brung ya" philosophy of late-season lineup decision-making. If you're in the playoffs or the playoff hunt right now, it's likely that Hunt's early season performance is part of the reason why. Of course, there are exceptions to any rule, so if you have a viable replacement with a talent and skill level commensurate with Hunt's, then it's OK to bench him. What I categorically would not do is bench him for a mediocre option that happens to have a great statistical matchup (e.g., Adrian Peterson this week).

Although I do believe in Hunt as an individual player, I don't believe the Chiefs will right their offensive ship over the coming weeks. My take on their downfall is that the rest of the league caught up to their gimmicky early-season offense, and Andy Reid hasn't been able to effectively adjust his strategy/tactics accordingly. Lack of adjustment, be it in-season or in-game, has been the knock on Reid for years of course, so I don't see this particular leopard changing its spots.
 
Adam Harstad: I think the only real reason to bench Hunt right now is if you have a pair of top-12 options to run within his place. Now, this late in the season there are always a bunch of bench/depth guys who are really starting to get some run — think Alvin Kamara, Samaje Perine, Alex Collins, Jamaal Williams if Ty Montgomery is out — so it's possible some Hunt owners have two better options out there. But I'd wager the vast majority do not.

As frustrating as Hunt's production has been, the volume has been there. Since week 4 he ranks 21st in fantasy points among running backs (standard scoring), but he ranks 5th in touches. In the long run, that latter stat holds more predictive power than the former. The slump will probably end at some point, and I think Hunt owners should just keep starting him until it does.

Waldman: The "Start Your Studs" and "Dance With The One Who Brung Ya" maxims are fitting when we're talking about a productive player who has a bad week or two due to variables that will revert to the levels that made said player productive: weather, returning supporting cast after time away due to injury, or a bad game script. Hunt failed as a fantasy option against the likes of the Cowboys and Bills. 
 
Moreover, Hunt's offensive line is banged up and struggling. Stud ground games usually have stud surrounding talent. Ground games are a 'unit' more often than they are an individual.
 
An example of what I'm talking about is Le'Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers during his first and second season — the narrative is one of the greatest recent myths perpetuated upon the football public. We all know the story (and most of you believe it): Bell wasn't very good as a rookie and after he dropped weight he was an All-Pro. 
 
What we conveniently ignore is that the Steeler's offensive line was injured during Bell's rookie year. We also ignore that Bell's workout metrics were on par with scatbacks like Ahmad Bradshaw and Jahvid Best. 
 
Did Bell get lighter and quicker? Yes, but he already displayed rare short-area quickness and burst when he was 230-plus-pounds! The greatest difference with Bell was a healthier offensive line. 
 
Would you 'dance with the date that brung ya' if that date fell and broke its leg? I don't think so.
 
I like the Chiefs' schedule, but I need proof that the entire run unit that is "fantasy player Kareem Hunt" is better than it has been against recent opposition that couldn't stop anyone but Hunt. Unless the potential replacement earns no more than 5-7 touches per game, I'd seriously consider benching Hunt this week.
 
B.J. VanderWoude: It is nearly impossible to bench Hunt unless you have a very deep team at running back, but then again, the injuries to the Chiefs offensive line have made it very hard for Hunt to give you the return you need to play him each week. Add in his large work load to start the season, Hunt most likely hitting the rookie wall, and the fantasy playoffs looming and you have to face reality. Hunt is nothing more than a flex option at this point.
 
I don't see Hunt being the same running back he was, mainly because so much of his production came on big plays. There is so much variance in those long touchdowns, and Hunt is not getting the same volume he was early in the season so his chances at making those big plays have taken a big hit.

 My advice to Hunt owners is to play him unless you have another running back or wide receiver--if you are playing him in the flex--who can consistently get you double-digit points. The Chiefs will continue to feed him the ball, and there are few running backs who are given the opportunity that Hunt has, so it is a situation where you most likely have to play him and hope Andy Reid can be creative enough to fix the problems up front. 

Jeff Haseley: I agree with the majority of the panel in that you should continue to play Kareem Hunt this week, despite his recent shortcomings. It’s not so much him, but the Chiefs offense in general.

They cannot get any traction or rhythm established on offense and they are quick to abandon the run game when they are trailing. Hunt is still one of the hardest backs to bring down and his “after contact” success continues to stay high despite the volume struggles.

Let’s face it, he over-achieved earlier in the year with some big plays both rushing and receiving, but those plays were a result of his ability to shed tacklers and find the hole through the trenches. For whatever reason, those holes have gotten smaller and the volume of touches has diminished.

I still think there’s value to be found with Hunt, but the offense needs to continue to evolve and find ways to get Hunt more involved. Last year, the Chiefs leaned heavily on Spencer Ware’s receiving skills, making him the top back in yards per catch. I would argue that Hunt is a better receiver than Ware, so where is that same production?

That’s on Andy Reid. As for this week, Hunt and the Chiefs will be facing a gritty Jets team on the road who have not given up a 100-yard rusher since Week 1 and only two rushing touchdowns to running backs since Week 6. The matchup isn’t the greatest. If you roster both Hunt and a player like Samaje Perine, Jamaal Williams, I would take a long look at making a switch to either back over Hunt this week. 

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josh Gordon's conditional reinstatement

Waldman: Gordon was conditionally reinstated in November, and Hue Jackson told reporters this week that he hopes to play Gordon 'as much as possible.' The Chargers have an excellent press-man corner in Casey Hayward, who will likely see a lot of Gordon when the Brown is on the field. 

What is your outlook for Gordon this week, the rest of the season, and in dynasty leagues?

Tuccitto: As mentioned, this week presents what would be a tough matchup for any wide receiver, let alone one that hasn't played in three years, so I don't think he's a fantasy starter this week. If there is to be a renaissance for Gordon this season, it will likely begin next week when he faces the Packers' bad pass defense.

Cleveland's final three games — vs. Baltimore, at Chicago, and at Pittsburgh — are much tougher, so I think Gordon's main value for fantasy owners comes in dynasty and keeper leagues. In addition to Gordon's undeniable talent and skill, I'm also bullish on him those formats because of his potential perennial pairing with Deshone Kizer.

Ranking 10th among quarterbacks in average depth of target (aDOT) this season, Kizer is a downfield passer. Back in 2013, Gordon ranked 23rd among wide receivers in aDOT, with everyone ranking ahead of him except Calvin Johnson being a situational deep threat. 

Hindery: I am expecting very little from Gordon this week. Casey Hayward is one of the league’s best cornerbacks and the pass-rushing duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram III as dynamic as they come. There is a reason why Cleveland’s implied team total is just 14.5 points against the red-hot Chargers defense. The Browns offense is a mess. The team has been struggling with pass protection since Joe Thomas went down. DeShone Kizer is overmatched at the NFL level. The receivers are not particularly talented either, though Gordon potentially changes that equation. 

It is impossible to have a definitive longer-term take on Gordon because we cannot know from the outside whether he will be able to control his demons. You have to factor the uncertainty in heavily and discount accordingly. Gordon is also a player who has more value for some dynasty teams than other. For teams with strong wide receiver depth, it is easier to take a risk on a boom-or-bust prospect like Gordon. Teams with depth issues have to look for more reliable options and cannot afford to be left in the lurch should Gordon relapse. 

Howe: I have little interest this week, and not a ton beyond, either. Gordon hasn’t played in three calendar years, and while I’m sure he’s in much better shape than in his 2014 return, that’s a hellacious layoff. And while he was/is an absurdly gifted specimen, he won’t be stepping into some upside-laden offense just itching for a better WR1.

Rather, he’ll catch balls from arguably the league’s worst starter (at the moment) in a passing game that’s struggled mightily to throw down the field (a pitiful 3.38 adjusted net yards per attempt). Gordon’s upside resides entirely in his physical traits and whispers of his 2013 excellence, and not even a little bit in this situation, which is typically more crucial than talent.

Not to mention, Corey Coleman seems to have something going with DeShone Kizer. The two were one of the preseason’s more prominent pairings, and Coleman led the team with 13 targets before his Week 3 injury. He’s now drawn 19 targets over 2 games upon returning, and he looked ready to produce in Week 12, registering a 44-yard catch and dropping an open 29-yard touchdown.
 
Of course, it could very well turn out that Gordon remains a better receiver than Coleman. But this isn’t a very high-volume passing game, so how many weekly targets can we realistically project for Gordon and his warts? A ceiling of 6-8 seems fair, and that’s not enough to nose Gordon past an established WR3/flex and into fantasy lineups this week. I’m truly not sure that will be the case at all prior to Rest Week (Week 17).
 
Haseley: It remains to be seen how involved and how effective Josh Gordon will be after being out of football for three years, but my gut says we’ll be impressed – once again. He did play a preseason game in 2016 against the Buccaneers where he was targeted twice, catching both balls for 87 yards including a 43-yard touchdown. Both receptions were against top corner Brent Grimes.
 
Gordon may have had a checkered past, but he has shined when given an opportunity on the field. I am expecting him to perform well when called upon and will be surprised if he doesn’t. In Gordon’s case, the glass is half full, rather than empty. If there’s one area of concern for me it’s the risk of injury and lack of game conditioning, but that may not appear until his second or third game.
 
I foresee the Browns leaning in his direction early and often to see what he can provide to the offense. He’s still only 26 years old and has a lot of football left in him. He’s the ultimate flier in a dynasty sense. The biggest detractor for him dynasty-wise was his ineligibility. Now that he’s eligible, it’s game on. The sky is the limit and opportunity is once again knocking. He’s the very definition of boom/bust player and we’ll soon know just how valuable he’ll be. 
 
Harstad: I'm a heuristics/rules of thumb kind of guy. I like to look to history to give us a rough idea of what we can expect in the future. And there aren't a lot of great comps for something like Gordon where an elite player was out of the game for nearly three years.

We've seen elite WRs miss the early season and come back around this time before. I'm thinking of Vincent Jackson in the uncapped season and Gordon himself back in 2014. The results weren't terrible, but they weren't terribly encouraging either. There's just not a lot of precedent for a guy showing up and dominating from jump street after that long away.

Longer term, I think there's more reason for optimism. I'm reminded of Mike Williams, former top-10 pick for the Lions who was on his way to being one of the biggest busts of all time when he returned after two years away and was a useful receiver for the Seahawks. Gordon's better than Williams ever was, and if he can stay clean I could see him once again becoming a very good NFL receiver.

But, of course, given his (admitted) history, that "if he stays clean" is a really big caveat. I'm rooting for him. But I wouldn't necessarily be counting on him. I'd view everything he gave from this point out as a very nice bonus for his owners in dynasty.
 
VanderWoude: I've been waiting patiently to answer this question. If you are a fan, you have to be excited at the prospects of a healthy, focused and most importantly, sober Josh Gordon.

While participating in his favorite vices, Gordon was an absolute monster during the 2013 season. He had a four-game stretch where he averaged 193.5 receiving yards per game with five total touchdowns, including back to back 200+ yard games. 

His natural talent is something that you just don't see often. Now to the question, you have to temper your expectations for Gordon the rest of the season. We just don't know what type of shape he is in, and whether he has mentally adjusted to playing football sober.

He's not a guy I'd risk playing in a fantasy playoff game without first seeing how he's adjusted to the game. But if you are desperate for a flex option and your team is facing a superior opponent, he is a guy that could be the ultimate equalizer.

The real answer is we just don't know. As far as dynasty leagues go, if you are lucky enough to have Gordon, you probably didn't pay much for him and his upside is too high to let go of if you held onto him this long. 

Hicks: To me, pinning any kind of hope in Josh Gordon is likely to end in disappointment. I've talked numerous times this season on Martavis Bryant and the difficulty of making it back after being suspended for a year. 

Three years and it is just silly to expect a good result. Now, I would expect nothing except knocking the rust off for the rest of this year for Josh Gordon and dynasty owners can hope for better in 2018, but Cleveland is likely to blow it all up in the offseason, so really what can a new regime do with the mess left behind?

He is worth holding in deep dynasty leagues, but expectations have to be realistic. 

Waldman: I believe this topic underscores the differences of approach among the fantasy community. Do you base your assessments on likelihoods generated from sample sizes and past history or do you base your assessments on the cause-and-effect of technique, matchups, and football concepts as they play out on the field?

Andy and several others here are clearly in the first category. If you're playing the odds, Gordon is one of the most dangerous players to court for your fantasy team. Separate Gordon's story into individual components and each one is a low-odds proposition: 
 
  • Addiction
  • Multiple suspensions
  • Basement-dwelling team with a rookie quarterback
  • Unstable organization
  • Three-year layoff
These are enough arguments to avoid Gordon. If you make decisions with strict boundaries about low-odds propositions, don't take Gordon. However, let's not conflate these five issues with the actual cause-and-effect of football. Because if Gordon stays healthy, sober, and out of trouble, I cannot agree with most of the on-field points here. 
 

Gordon not only destroyed Pro-Bowler Brent Grimes last preseason, he did it about 15-25 pounds heavier than he is now. If you read about Gordon in this week's Sports Illustrated piece, Gordon was not sober last year or training for anywhere near the length of time that he has this offseason. 

Think about that fact and reread the previous paragraph. Brent Grimes used to hold his own with Calvin Johnson during Johnson's prime. Gordon has also destroyed Aqib Talib and Adam Jones in 2013 — a season he wasn't clean and sober but dominated the league with Brandon Weeden, Jason Campbell, and Brian Hoyer throwing to him. 

Remember Weeden and Hoyer killing DeAndre Hopkins' value last year? 

Wide receivers can simulate a ton of their on-field work with training and Gordon has been training. He ran a 4.35-second 40 in practice last week. He's also not a bigger version of Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jeff Janis, and Sammie Coates Jr — big-tall-fast receivers who can't run routes and catching the football is a crapshoot. 

Gordon is a polished route runner. I don't throw around the word 'gifted' when discussing football talent. However, I'm with B.J., Gordon is the exceptional talent. 

My greatest concern is the rookie Kizer and how soon he'll trust Gordon on targets that we see go to stud options. It's wise to avoid Gordon this week, but I'm not writing off a 26-year-old receiver's ability to be in shape. 

If Gordon shows half of what he did against Grimes in Tampa Bay, I'll lessen the risks associated with starting him. Long-term, if you have Gordon, you've been holding onto him or you bought him low. You stand more to lose if you sell or drop him now.

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vikings-falcons 

Waldman: Let's discuss this excellent-looking Week 13 contest in greater detail: 

  • Julio Jones earned roughly half of Atlanta's offensive output in last week's victory over the Buccaneers, but Jones will draw top cover corner, Xavier Rhodes. Do the matchup and the overall skill of the Vikings defense change your fantasy outlook for Jones?
  • As the writer who has written the weekly recap for Atlanta during the past 5-6 years, I've seen enough of Matt Ryan to say that he has an exploitable weakness — his accuracy and willingness to hang in the pocket against interior pressure is highly selective, at best. If the game is on the line, he'll hang tough. If not, forget it. Although a difficult type of pressure for defenses to generate, the Vikings specialize in creating it and Atlanta's guards are the offensive line's weakest link. How concerned are you about Ryan's Week 13 production in light of the Vikings' pressure packages, Jones drawing Rhodes, and the weakness of the Falcons' offensive line potentially conspiring to exacerbate Ryan's worst flaw?
  • Atlanta's Desmond Trufant left the Buccaneers game late in the half with a head injury. If Trufant can't go on Sunday, which Viking's receiver offers the greatest likelihood of production? If Trufant plays, how does it change your assessment?
  • What's your prediction for this game? Include the score, a summary of how you see it playing out, and notable fantasy production beyond what you may have mentioned above. 

On paper, this is the game of the week.

Haseley: Yes it does.

I'm concerned about Julio Jones. As good as he is, I don’t see him as a matchup-proof wide receiver. He tends to get his points in bunches, and in most cases, large bunches.

Last week’s 12-253-2 is a prime example of that. Jones has three touchdowns this year (two of which came last week), yet he is the 4th overall fantasy wide receiver in PPR format. Julio has been far from consistent this year as evidenced by his weekly fantasy rankings.

In 11 games, Jones has only two Top 10 finishes, three Top 15 finishes and six finishes outside of the Top 30. Six!

This matchup against Xavier Rhodes and the Vikings defense is not a favorable one and it would not shock me to see him struggle to gain traction, leading to another potential finish outside of the Top 30.

The worst part of it all is that you cannot, 'not start' Jones. You have to take what’s given and what’s earned. There is a chance that any given week the expectation is greater than reality regarding Jones. For that reason, I am officially on guard with Jones finishing as a top-flight receiver this week, or any week he faces a challenging defense or skilled cover corner. 

There is a reason why Minnesota is 9-2 and it’s largely on the consistent performance of their defense, particularly their front line and secondary. Those two factors happen to be Kryptonite for Matt Ryan. The way to beat Ryan is to force him into throwing early, making his passes more inaccurate. If the defense can exert pressure on him and still maintain a structured and intact secondary, it will give Ryan problems.

That formula is going to be alive and well this week when Atlanta faces Minnesota. Home game or not, this is not a favorable matchup for Ryan or the Falcons offense and the game will be won on Ryan’s ability (or inability) to perform when under duress. My gut says Minnesota will dominate this area of the game and as a result, be the victors at the end of the day. 

I see Minnesota’s defense being too much for Atlanta to handle, making them the ones who will prevail in the end. If Atlanta is without Desmond Trufant, I expect the Vikings to exploit that weakness with a combination of targets to both Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Diggs may benefit more as the X receiver while Thielen sees a lot of snaps in the slot. Both should be peppered with targets, but I lean Diggs as the one who will benefit the most.

Waldman: Stellar analysis, Jeff.

Howe: I’m not totally undeterred by Jones this week. Part of that is because simply put, Jones is not a very predictable fantasy play, often underwhelming in great matchups while intermittently posting 250 yards out of the blue.

While I definitely respect Rhodes, he’s not an unbeatable force – Marvin Jones Jr ate his lunch on Thanksgiving. Besides, Rhodes won’t spend 100% of snaps (nor particularly close to it) locking down Jones, and Jones should find himself matched against softer coverage for enough snaps to make a difference.

All told, I’m not really moving my floor expectation below roughly 5 for 70. And Jones, a Hall of Fame talent if I’ve ever seen one, carries matchup-proof weekly upside for simply mammoth numbers.

On the whole, I’m concerned enough about the matchup that I have extremely low all-around expectations for this passing game. I generally prefer to favor volume and scoring expectation over matchup when I’m evaluating starts, but this one tips the scales, and I’d simply hate to rely on Ryan this week.
 
Put it this way: in one of my key season-long leagues, I’m sitting him for Marcus Mariota, who’s been really #BadAtFootball lately.
 
Julio Jones carries a great upside outlook because he’s Julio Jones, but even if he posts a strong line (say, 7 for 100 and 1 touchdown), I don’t foresee Ryan producing much elsewhere. As Matt pointed out, the Vikings’ brand of pressure should choke off most of his deep game, and there aren’t that many playmakers in the offense, to begin with.

Trufant’s injury wouldn’t directly affect Adam Thielen, as the two would likely see very little of each other in the slot. Rather, Stefon Diggs would enjoy the biggest boost on the outside. Diggs has been disappointing of late – over 4 games since returning from injury, he’s posted 32 yards or fewer twice.
 
However, he remains woven into the offense, drawing 5-7 targets in each game, and he’s been an underrated red zone producer all year. It’s not a stretch to confidently project 8 targets and a line around 5-75-1, and we all know the explosive Diggs carries the ceiling for more. Trufant’s presence would ding that upside mightily, though.

I’m bracing for the possibility of a solid Vikings win. Matt has illustrated beautifully why this is not an ideal matchup for an already-underachieving Falcons passing game, and I don’t trust the runners to snap out of their funks against such an imposing front seven.
 
I’m more interested in the upside of the Vikings defense shutting down Ryan and company and the offense riding the wave to a solid fantasy day. Despite iffy on-paper matchups, I could see Diggs, Thielen, and the running backs posting solid fantasy lines with a few short fields in their favor. Put me down for the upset: Vikings 24, Falcons 16.
 
VanderWoude: Yes, this matchup changes my outlook on Julio Jones production. Rhodes knows how to handle big, physical receivers and has had success against Jones in the past (although it is a limited sample size). 
 
Rhodes is going to cover Jones for most of the game, and it is very likely that Jones is held to less than 100 yards. Considering Jones has only scored touchdowns in two games this season (three total touchdowns), his fantasy production is likely to be somewhere in the 10-14 point range (PPR). 

I am very concerned about Ryan's production, as the Vikings have allowed multiple touchdown games and 300 yards passing to only 3 quarterbacks this year.  Ryan has gone over 300 yards 3 times and has yet to throw for 3 touchdowns in a game, something the Vikings have yet to allow this year.  Due to the Falcons play-calling and the Vikings success against running backs this year, the passing volume is likely to be there, but hoping for a big game out of Ryan is ambitious. 

I don't think it changes my assessment much, as Adam Thielen has been on fire lately. He's averaging 119 yards on roughly 10 targets per game over his last four games while scoring touchdowns in three of those four games.
 
He has become the top option in the Vikings passing game, and with all respect to Stephon Diggs, he is the Vikings primary receiver. Opposing secondaries continue to underestimate his quickness and speed and whether Trufant plays or not, I'd look for Thielen to have another big game. 

I see the Vikings winning this game 27-21, with Atlanta scoring a late touchdown to make it close. Vegas has the total pegged at 47 1/2 points and that seems very close to my assessment.
 
I'd look for Theilen and Diggs to both have good games, with Theilen once again going over 100 yards, while Case Keenum has somewhere in the neighborhood of 270 yards passing and two touchdowns. 
 
Atlanta has allowed only one running back to go over 100 yards rushing, and aside from Peyton Barber in scoring two touchdowns against them, they've allowed only three other rushing touchdowns. This limits the upside of McKinnon and Murray, but I would look for one touchdown from the tandem. 
 
Hicks: Of course you have to consider the difference in quality between the Bucs pass defense and that of the Vikings, but you are starting Julio Jones no matter what. You have to expect fewer fantasy points this week, but Jones can make any defensive back look silly and has the strength to beat any of them.

Matt Ryan is going to face a much better pass rush against the Vikings, but he has confidence and you have to ride hot players in fantasy football. Overthinking loses fantasy games and unless you have a clearly better option than Matt Ryan, stick with him. 

Thielen and Diggs both have to be played against the Falcons, but Thielen is clearly the better option. Like I said previously, you have to play your studs and Thielen is clearly in that category now. He already has 1000 yards for the season and is seeing at least 10 targets a game. The opponent doesn't matter.

This should be a really interesting high-quality matchup, between 2 sides in form and who controls the clock will be key. The Vikings would prefer it not to be a shootout, but are capable of holding their own if the Falcons get going early. The Vikings have only conceded more than 20 points 3 times this season, but 2 are in the last 3 weeks.
 
I ultimately expect a relatively high scoring game, with the Falcons just edging it 28 to 24. The Falcons will reach into the trick book a couple of times and Julio Jones should score.
 
For the Vikings I expect Thielen to hit pay dirt and Latavius Murray to reach the end zone in an otherwise quiet game for him. All of Keenum, Ryan, Coleman, Murray, McKinnon, Diggs, Thielen, Rudolph, Jones and Sanu should be startable in most formats. 
 
Hindery: This is certainly a fascinating game pitting two of the NFC’s top teams head-to-head. It could end up being a first or second-round playoff preview as well. I expect Minnesota to pull off the slight upset, 27-24.
 
The Vikings have quietly built one of the most talented rosters in the league top-to-bottom. The selection of Patrick Elflein in the third round of the 2017 draft has been a huge key in turning 2016’s fatal flaw (the offensive line) into a relative strength this season. Minnesota should have enough success running the ball against an Atlanta defense that is giving up 4.4 yards per carry to keep Atlanta’s speed rushers from pinning their ears back and rushing the passer. 

The Atlanta defense generally plays a bend-but-don’t-break style and concedes some short passes to try to prevent big plays. No team has given up more completions (71) to opposing running backs than the Falcons. Jerick McKinnon could have a big game catching the ball out of the backfield. Minnesota has proven to be comfortable taking what the defense gives them in the short passing game and match up well against the Falcons. 

I agree with Justin’s point on how difficult it is to predict when Julio Jones will go off for a big fantasy game. He is going to be the most talented player on the field, so even top cornerbacks can’t lock him down if they are consistently tasked with defending him 1-on-1.
 
It often comes down to how many players the opposing defense is willing to use to defend against him and that can be difficult to predict. Mike Zimmer generally is willing to devote extra resources to stop an opposing team’s top weapon.
 
His Minnesota defenses have held Jones 5-56-0 and 6-82-0 in two previous meetings. While I certainly wouldn’t be shocked if Jones has a big game, I am not expecting it.  
 
Waldman: Great points concerning the Vikings' ground game and Zimmer's approach to neutralizing top targets, Dan.
 
Tuccitto: No universe exists in which I would consider benching Jones because of his matchup against Rhodes. He's not going to go for 200 yards again this week, but a 100-yard game is within the realm of possibility. After all, Mavin Jones pulled that off against Rhodes just last week.

Given that, per Pro Football Focus, Trufant plays almost exclusively on the left side of Atlanta's defense and Stefon Diggs runs half his routes on that side, my answer is Diggs if Trufant plays. If he doesn't play, my answer is 100 percent, no questions asked, slam dunk, take it to the bank Diggs.

Regarding Ryan, I think the saving grace for his fantasy owners this week is that the Falcons-Vikings game has serious shootout potential, so massive volume can overcome the pressure-based inefficiency this question implies. Both of these offense rank near the top of the league, both according to traditional metrics and more advanced ones like DVOA.

The combined offensive quality of teams tends to drive how high the final score goes rather than the quality of the defenses. In addition, the Falcons offense benefits from being at home, while the Vikings offense benefits from being in a dome.

Another thing: Minnesota's run-first offensive philosophy will benefit from going against a Falcons run defense ranked dead last per DVOA. Final score: Falcons 34, Vikings 31.

Harstad: So I've thought a lot about this question the last couple of days, and I think I'm going to have to go with the single best and most important answer a fantasy analyst can give: "I don't know."

Waldman: It's why I respect you, Adam. It's a phrase that needs to be said more often in every arena of life. 

Harstad: This is an important answer because nobody knows everything, and it's better for analysts to tell you up front what they don't know rather than leaving you to try to guess when they're talking out of their hindquarters. 

I appreciate the background information and the leading questions and the way you set me up for success on this question, Matt, but the truth is if I start delving into player-on-player matchups, there'll be a lot of hindquarters-talking going on. That's just not my game.

I'll tell you what is my game: simplifying heuristics. There's an article that I link to a lot because it basically sums up my entire fantasy philosophy: Instinct Can Beat Analytical Thinking. Here's the nut graf:

Here’s a general idea: In a big bank that needs to estimate maybe thousands of parameters to calculate its value-at-risk, the error introduced by these estimates is so big that you should make it simple. If you are in a small bank that doesn’t do big investments, you are in a much safer and more stable mode. And here, the complex calculations may actually pay. So, in general, if you are in an uncertain world, make it simple. If you are in a world that’s highly predictable, make it complex.

I'm not saying that player-on-player matchups don't matter. They do, and there's a lot of information to be gleaned from them. Guys like Mike Clay and Chad Parsons have had a lot of success with complex models with a lot of variables interacting with each other.

But football has a *lot* of moving parts that are all rubbing against each other, and all it takes is one thing happening way over here to cause a cascade effect that ripples across the entire field and are felt somewhere else entirely. There's a lot going on. So I like to simplify. And one of the simplifying assumptions I've found is that fantasy owners are bad at playing matchups. 

Consistently, across the board, fantasy players average more points per game in weeks they're benched than they do in weeks they're started. A lot of Deshaun Watson owners got scared off of him when he faced Seattle and he went out and had one of the best fantasy performances of the year.

I'm running an experiment where we simulate a quarterback streaming season with a bunch of FBGs staffers. Several of the guys grabbed Carson Wentz early on as their guy and have been riding him. From time to time, they'll bench him because they don't like his matchup. And nearly every time he's outscored the guy they benched him for.

So if Matt Ryan is your best quarterback, I think you play him against the Vikings and figure he'll probably be fine. If you've got another quarterback who is pretty comparable, maybe you let matchups be the tiebreaker, but by and large, I just keep rolling with the guys I've been rolling with and figure the matchups will work themselves out. Maybe I make an exception for a historically great defense like Jacksonville, but as good as Minnesota is, they're no Jacksonville.

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second-half Surprises

Waldman: Name three players whose second-half production is surprising to you thus far? Maybe you wrote them off earlier this year, or you knew little about them. What stands out about them?

Hicks: At this stage of the year we see many players that no one expected outside their family and friends to have fantasy production. Exhibit A is Ricky Seals-Jones. Others include a second 'unknown' and two players most wrote off before the season began: 

Austin Ekeler. The backup position with the Chargers is always going to be interesting given the heavy workload and flaws Melvin Gordon III has. Branden Oliver was expected to contribute, but Ekeler has taken advantage of his chances and is startable over the last 6 weeks. He has outscored Melvin Gordon III during the last 6 weeks as well, so his ability to take a catch and do something productive is where he clearly outplays Gordon.

Robby Anderson is on another level right now. 6 Touchdowns in his last 5 games and he clearly is Josh McCown's target of choice. Like many others, I dismissed Anderson after offseason incidents and the shaky nature of where the Jets were going at the QB position. What is clear though was that there were reports that Anderson was a standout in camp and likely to improve. After a shaky few weeks to start the season he was pushing any owners who had faith in him, but those that have stuck, have been rewarded.  

Jared Goff is rapidly developing into an elite quarterback. After seeing what he was like in training camp in his rookie season and then when he hit the field, you would not believe he is the same player. Coaching matters. So does confidence. We shouldn't get too carried away though as he is still a young quarterback with much to learn. We can see though that the coaching staff is developing him properly though and while he will have setbacks, he is on the fast track to living up to his draft slot.  

VanderWoude:  I really thought the job belonged solely to Jerick McKinnon, as he had produced some notable games in his short stint as the No. 1 running back for the Vikings. Now Latavius Murray has come on and outproduced McKinnon over the last five games.

Murray is getting the red zone touches and slightly more volume in the running game, while McKinnon has been given the passing downs. Murray has surprised me and has become a legitimate flex option. 

I agree with Andy here, Robby Anderson has really surprised me the second half of the season. He has gone from a boom or bust deep threat to a surprisingly stable No. 1 receiver in the Jets offense. He still relies on touchdowns a little too much to be a No. 1 receiver on your fantasy team but to call him anything less than a 2-A option would be an insult to his production. 

On the same front, Josh McCown continues to be the type of player he's been over his whole career, overlooked, but a guy who can really come on in positive matchups. McCown isn't a guy you can start every week, but Anderson most certainly is, and his outburst last week proved his upside. He's not just capable of contributing, he can outright win you a week. 

I don't want this to be taken the wrong way, Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II were both players who you wanted to start every week. But Kamara's production over the second half of the season has been surprising, to say the least, as he is the No. 12 player in PPR leagues from weeks 7-12. I never wrote him off, but he's gone from a strong flex option to a No. 2 running back to one of the best players you can have in your league, all in a matter of five weeks.

Ingram has been no slouch either, ranking as the No. 8 player in PPR leagues from weeks 7-12. Their production has come at the expense of Drew Brees, whose dropped to the No. 19 ranked player over that same span. Kamara's big play ability in the passing game has helped Brees, but make no mistake about it, New Orleans has become a running team this year, and their record proves it. 

Harstad: Robert Woods has been a big surprise. Not because I didn't think he was a fine receiver, I just didn't expect him to stand out from the rest of that receiving corps the way he has. That's not just a second-half thing, either; he's been killing it all year, it just became more obvious in the second half once the touchdowns started hitting.

Listing three players together because their fates have been linked, but Derek Carr, Michael Crabtree, and Amari Cooper. Really a lot of this is just on Derek Carr. I never thought he was as good as his numbers might have suggested and his profile has been ripe for regression, but the disappearing act from Oakland's entire passing game over the second half of the year was unexpected.

Finally, Carson Wentz is one of the biggest regression-busters I've ever seen. He's throwing touchdowns at an unfathomable rate, and everything suggests there's no way he can keep it up, yet he somehow does. He's playing very well, though I think it's closer to "5th-best quarterback in the NFL" than "best quarterback in the NFL", he's producing touchdown rate stats we normally only see in a Peyton Manning 2004 / 2013, Tom Brady 2007 type of season.

Haseley: All three of my examples come from the NFC North. Jamaal Williams looked unimpressive in his season debut, where Aaron Jones outplayed him and earned the first crack at the lead back role. Now that Jones is injured, Williams has stepped up his game, making him a viable option in the Green Bay offense, not just as a rusher, but as a receiver as well. Williams has shown a nose for the end zone (three scores in the last four games) and he has 8 receptions over the last two games. 

Marvin Jones Jr has exploded over the last four games with 5 touchdowns and hefty 17.9 yards per catch on 18 receptions. Golden Tate is a great possession receiver for Detroit, but his strength isn’t making big plays down the field. Where Tate fails to perform, Jones has excelled. He is now the Lions primary receiving and scoring threat. The early season injury to Kenny Golladay has also paved the way for Jones to develop and while Golladay may be in the team’s future, Jones has established a rapport with Matthew Stafford that will be difficult to break. 
 
Latavius Murray has answered the bell when the Vikings needed someone to step up and be a contributor replacing the injured Dalvin Cook. He has come on strong lately with 52 carries for 247 yards and 4 rushing touchdowns in the last three games. Murray has overcome his early season ankle injury and has quickly become a reliable RB2 who has arrived just in time for the fantasy playoffs. Murray’s strength is converting near the goal line and not so much as a receiving threat out of the backfield. As long as Minnesota continues to move the ball effectively, he’ll be a common piece utilized in the offense, especially at the goal line where he can rack up fantasy points. 
 
Howe: Dion Lewis – This just goes to show how little I ever truly grasp the Patriots backfield. During the preseason, I eventually soured on Mike Gillislee and began to love Rex Burkhead, whose versatility was on display all August. But I didn’t pay much mind at all to Lewis; I figured his heavy preseason playing time suggested the Patriots were showcasing him for a trade (or merely resting their “real” backs). Right on cue, I was wrong, and Lewis looks fantastic. He’s running well both inside and outside, catching passes, and seeing his share of red zone work, too.
 
Marvin Jones Jr – I actually wrote Jones off long ago, during his 2016 disappearing act, which was truly a thing of puzzling magic. But I’m becoming a believer. It’s clear by now that Golden Tate’s standing as Matthew Stafford’s top option is fickle – he hasn’t drawn double-digit targets since Week 3. Jones, on the other hand, has registered three such games over that span and is producing touchdowns at a remarkable rate. He’s drawn 6 targets from inside the 10-yard line on the year – more than Michael Thomas, Alshon Jeffery, or Devin Funchess – and he’s tied for sixth league-wide with 14 catches of 20+ yards.
 
Jimmy Graham – I’m genuinely surprised Graham has undergone this resurgence. I know how gifted he is, of course, but I’d begun to doubt his week-to-week health and his fit into this offense. Remember, Graham was not the first flawed yet high-ceiling offensive weapon they’ve tried out and cut bait on in recent years. I feel a little silly now for expecting Graham to wind up in a similar boat as Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin did. He’s more of a passing game fixture than the two young, big-play wideouts (Paul Richardson Jr and Tyler Lockett) many of us had assumed would take this volume. And if his health keeps cooperating, there’s no reason to doubt him as a weekly top-four tight end option.
 
Tuccitto: At quarterback, Case Keenum is averaging 25.2 points since Week 8, throwing for at least 280 yards in all four games. Two explanations come to mind: The return of Stefon Diggs and the scuttlebutt surrounding Teddy Bridgewater taking his starting job. Still, I don't believe Keenum is a Top-10 quarterback in the league, yet he's played that way over the past month, and it shocks me. His passing performance in a running game script against a Rams defense that's softer against the run than the pass was particularly impressive.

As others have mentioned, Marvin Jones Jr has been a surprise over the past month. He's averaged 15.0 standard fantasy points since Week 8, with three of five games against Top 10 pass defenses (per DVOA), the last of which involved shadow coverage by Xavier Rhodes. I saw none of this coming, especially after a subpar 2016 and a mediocre start to the season.

My eyes see it, but I still can't believe Eric Ebron is No. 10 in standard fantasy points since Week 8. In his first six games of 2017, he had 102 yards on 26 targets, with four of six ending in single-digit yardage. Over his last five games, Ebron has 215 yards on 24 targets, with 35 being his lowest yardage output in any single game.
 
Hindery: Marshawn Lynch — I had mostly written Marshawn Lynch off as a reliable fantasy starter by midseason. He wasn't playing enough and Oakland often looked more effective with backups Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington in the game. However, the Raiders limiting Lynch to less than 50% of the snaps early in the season looks like it may be a positive for Lynch’s prospects in the second half. Lynch looks fresh and has at least 70 total yards per game in each of the last three weeks. He has also scored three touchdowns in his last three games. In Week 12, Lynch touched the ball a season-high 29 times. He may be rounding into shape just in time to be a top-12 running back option through the fantasy playoffs. 

Jamison Crowder — Crowder’s lack of production throughout the first half of the season was puzzling. Through seven weeks, he was averaging under 3.0 targets per game and never topped 52 receiving yards in any game. It has since been revealed that Crowder was much more bothered by his hamstring injury than was publicly known. He has been healthier of late and one of the league’s most productive pass catchers so far in the second-half of the season. In his last four games, Crowder has looked like the explosive player he was in recent years. Over the four-game stretch, he has seen a whopping 42 targets and caught 27 passes for 412 yards. Crowder should remain a top-15 receiving option over the final weeks of the season.

Devin Funchess — I have never been a big fan of Funchess’ game. He always seemed a little soft and the sum of the parts never quite matched up to the elite athletic gifts. However, it looks like he has turned a corner somewhat this season. In his last three games, Funchess has scored twice and racked up 286 receiving yards and ranks as WR13. While I am not fully convinced that Funchess is a top-20 receiver moving forward, I am much more open to the possibility now than I was a few weeks ago. 

Waldman: I agree with Dan about Funchess. I wrote him off as an athlete with a limited game that didn't show signs of development during the first two years of his NFL career. However, Funchess' routes have gotten a lot better. 

Funchess remade his body so he's no longer a 'tweener but a true wide receiver. His explosion, flexibility, and development as a route runner are all markedly better than when he entered the league. Many of his intermediate perimeter routes have enough precision that he looks a little like Julio Jones. His arrow is pointing up long-term. 

I thought Kamara was a great fit with the Saints, but I was skeptical of a massive impact beyond a flex or low-end fantasy RB this year. One reason was his ball security woes at Tennessee. He fumbled the ball at a higher rate than most quality NFL prospects.
 
Kamara also had a penchant for foolishly bouncing interior runs outside when the crease up the middle was there to be had. Although both issues weren't automatic career-killers, the are numerous stars and busts who had one or both of these issues as prospects.
 
Tiki Barber overcame his ball security woes and succeeded. David Wilson is now an Olympic hopeful. Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy learned to tame their forays to the corner, but C.J. Spiller and Laurence Maroney couldn't resist. 
 
Kamara has made a concerted effort to carry the ball high and tight and I have rarely seen him bounce a play outside. In fact, he has displayed excellent anticipation with closed creases that opened upon his well-timed approach. I'm thoroughly impressed with Kamara shoring up these issues and I no longer have any reservations about his long-term outlook as a lead back moving forward.
 
I'm surprised that the Eagles did a great job of minimizing Carson Wentz's flaws. This sounds like a backhanded compliment of Wentz, but I had a high grade for the quarterback when he was a prospect. My surprise has more to do with the way NFL teams try to ramrod players into schemes and expect improvement of skills that may never get better. 
 
Wentz ran a West Coast Offense at North Dakota State, but his footwork — specifically with his setups, pivots from one progression to the next, and willingness to reset his feet after avoiding pressure — was bad. It's why he wasn't accurate on most vertical routes that were thrown in rhythm with his drop, and he sailed other throws after maneuvering away from a defender in the pocket. 
 
I figured the Eagles would rigidly stick to the expectation that Wentz would refine his footwork and become a pinpoint rhythm passer off 3-, 5-, and 7-step drops. After all, Wentz and Doug Pederson have backgrounds in the West Coast.
 
Instead, the staff is running an offense predominantly from the shotgun and pistol where Wentz hops into a throwing position without drop footwork and throws the ball no more than 30 yards downfield. This is the range of his accuracy without the use of traditional footwork. He's actually doing a lot of what Robert Griffin III did as a rookie in Washington. 
 
As a result, Wentz's legs become more of a factor but the offense hides his deficiencies with traditional quarterback techniques. It doesn't mean Wentz was or is a bad quarterback, but it's a great example of a team fitting the scheme to a talent who would have likely experienced a much slower trajectory of improvement if he was forced to stay in a traditional scheme. Think about Kurt Cousins' ups and downs in Washington and I believe that's what we would have seen with Wentz.

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