Whether you’re sitting pretty in first place or just trying to avoid an embarrassing last-place finish in your league, it’s a good idea to be on the lookout for players who could be primed for upticks in performance in the second half.
Some teams’ schedules ease up, and several players are just now getting fully integrated into their coach’s gameplan. Identifying which players are set to take on bigger roles as the fantasy season winds down could be the difference between making the playoffs and getting stuck with the booby prize.
Don’t be the guy who has to pay the check at the season-ending banquet -- or whatever ritual last-place finishers have to partake in in your league.
Atlanta QB Matt Ryan (owned in 84.6 percent of ESPN leagues)
Ryan has cooled off quite a bit after a scorching start to the season, due in part to devastating injuries along Atlanta’s offensive line. But the Falcons’ schedule softens up considerably in the second half, which should help “Matty Ice” get back to delivering the type of steady performances for which he’s become known.
All of Atlanta’s next four opponents rank in the bottom half of passing defenses by yards allowed per game, with Tampa Bay (285.3) and Arizona (286.8) occupying the bottom two spots in the league. Ryan already picked apart the Buccaneers defense once this season in a memorable Thursday night contest.
In the Falcons’ most recent game before a Week 9 bye, Ryan helped build a 21-0 halftime lead over Detroit in London by completing 14-of-17 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns. Atlanta’s play call was far more conservative in the second half, as Ryan only attempted 10 passes in the final two periods. That contributed to a humiliating 22-21 defeat that likely prevented any fledgling British football fans from selecting the Falcons as their team of choice.
With head coach Mike Smith’s job in question after five consecutive losses, you can bet Smith will want the ball in the hands of his best player for the rest of the season.
Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin (owned in 92.4 percent of ESPN leagues, started in 77.7 percent last week)
Benjamin is on pace to record 76 receptions on 136 targets with 1,142 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those are hefty numbers for any wide receiver, let alone a rookie.
The Florida State product still has five enticing matchups against the rest of the shockingly weak NFC South. Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Atlanta comprise three of the NFL’s five worst defenses by DVOA, which takes strength of schedule into account. And Philadelphia, whom the Panthers play on Sunday, have allowed the fourth-most fantasy points to opposing wideouts this year.
Benjamin’s owners shouldn’t be too worried about Cam Newton’s disappointing first half. Every defense Carolina plays from here on out is in the bottom half of fantasy points allowed to opposing wideouts. You might be able to snatch him from another owner since he had an off-game (two catches, 15 yards) last week against New Orleans -- but he was still targeted 10 times, signaling his status as Newton’s favorite target.
It should be noted that fellow rookie Sammy Watkins has eerily similar statistics to Benjamin at the moment -- but it’s far more difficult to trust Kyle Orton and a schedule chock-full of tough passing defenses (Kansas City, Miami, Denver, Green Bay) than Newton and a soft NFC South slate.
When this season is in the books, we may be able to look back on Benjamin’s debut as one of the best rookie wideout campaigns in NFL history.
Jaguars RB Denard Robinson (owned in 79.7 percent of ESPN leagues, started in 69 percent last week)
Over the past few weeks, Denard Robinson has emerged from a crowd of contenders to claim the lead tailback role in Jacksonville. “Shoelace” has registered 45 fantasy points and rushed 57 times for 329 yards (5.8 YPC) in the Jaguars’ last three games. He’s toted 63.3 percent of Jacksonville’s carries over that span, which makes him the unquestioned workhorse for the Jaguars.
Most people know that Robinson was a quarterback at Michigan, but he was also a track star in high school and during his freshman year in Ann Arbor. He possesses elite speed, having run the 40-yard dash in 4.32 seconds, so he has big-play potential if he gets into the open field.
It also bodes well that Jacksonville has played much better since taking beatings (negative-94 point differential) in the first four games of the season. The Jags have a negative-16 point differential in their last five games, which indicates they won’t have to play catch up through the air as much as they did in the early going. They’ll travel to London to play a Dallas team in disarray before taking a bye to prepare for the Colts and three other AFC South clashes in the second half that shouldn’t get out of hand, producing plenty of opportunities for Robinson on the ground.
Saints RB Mark Ingram (owned in 92.5 percent of ESPN leagues, started in 83.4 percent last week)
Ingram was one of the feel-good success stories of the NFL’s opening weeks before a hand injury caused him to miss three games. He’s picked up right where he left off since returning, averaging 4.5 yards on 66 carries in New Orleans’ last three contests.
Other than a poor outing against Detroit’s top-ranked run defense, Ingram has topped at least 14 points each week and is averaging 16.4 points per week even when factoring in the two-point stinker against the Lions. With 88 carries and six touchdowns in five games, Ingram is both New Orleans’ every-down back and preferred goal-line option -- a surefire RB1 considering the Saints’ high-octane attack.
He’s worth your best receiver in a trade. But you might be able to acquire him for less, and you should.
Green Bay RB Eddie Lacy (owned in 99.4 percent of ESPN leagues)
Lacy’s owners were in a tizzy after the bulking back began his season with three awful games against the brutally tough run defenses of the Seahawks, Jets and Lions (3rd, 9th and 1st in rush defense DVOA, respectively). But he quietly rebounded to become one of the more productive tailbacks in the league in October.
Lacy has averaged 13.8 points in Green Bay’s last five games, which would be the fifth-best output among running backs throughout the season. He also tied for the team lead in targets (nine) in the Packers’ Week 8 contest against the Saints, smashing his career-high in receiving yards (123) on eight catches. James Starks emerged as a challenger for major carries after Lacy’s slow start, but he has just 10 touches to Lacy’s 36 in Green Bay’s last two games.
Fresh off a bye, Lacy and the Packers face just one top-10 DVOA rush defense (Philadelphia) in their next five games, and three bottom-10 DVOA rush defenses in Minnesota, New England and Atlanta. Even the matchup with the Eagles isn’t so intimidating after Philly lost defensive linchpin DeMeco Ryans last week.
With seemingly everything breaking right for Lacy leading up to the second half, he could very well live up to the preseason projections that pegged him as a top-five fantasy back.
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