People magazine runs an annual feature on the 25 most intriguing people of the year. Barbara Walters hosts an annual special on the 10 most fascinating people of the year. Borrowing People’s adjective and Babs’ number, we offer you the 10 most intriguing fantasy football performers of the week. This is a subjective list, of course. It might not include some of the players most intriguing to you personally. But for one reason or another, a great many fantasy owners are anxious to see how these players fare in their upcoming games.
1. Devonta Freeman vs. Washington
Freeman is hotter than Satan’s sauna. After a drab rookie season in which he was unable to dislodge a washed-up Steven Jackson from the starter’s job, Freeman is now steamrolling defenses like no Atlanta running back since Jamal Anderson in 1998. Freeman has run for three touchdowns in each of his last two games, amassing 342 yards from scrimmage in the process.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the Falcons play their hand at running back now that Tevin Coleman is returning from a broken rib. Coleman looked good in Atlanta’s first two games, rushing 20 times for 80 yards against a tough Eagles run defense, then carrying nine times for 32 yards and a touchdown vs. the Giants before getting injured. Freeman had 22 carries for only 43 yards in the Falcons’ first two games, though he caught seven passes for 63 yards.
One would think the Falcons would continue to ride the sizzling Freeman, but if Coleman looks sharp upon his return, this could easily become a timeshare, with Coleman getting a majority of the early-down work and Freeman working as the passing-down back and change-of-pace guy. (And by the way, who would have imagined that the Falcons’ running game would be generating so much fantasy interest?) Freeman is about to encounter a strong Washington run defense that’s allowing 78.0 rushing yards per game and has conceded only one touchdown run.
2. Todd Gurley at Green Bay
How gratifying it must have been for Gurley owners to see the rookie lay waste to the Cardinals’ defense in the late stages of the Rams’ upset win in Arizona on Sunday. Gurley was held out of the Rams’ first two games and only had a smattering of carries in a Week 3 loss to the Steelers. He started slowly against the Cardinals before revving the engines in the second half and showing the same sort of magic he had displayed over two and a half seasons at the University of Georgia before ripping up his knee midway through his junior year.
Gurley finished with 116 rushing yards against the Cardinals on 19 carries, and he would have had a few more yards and his first NFL touchdown had he not astutely laid down short of the goal line on a late breakaway dash, allowing the Rams to run out the clock with a QB kneel-down. Gurley might be the most electrifying runner to come out of the college ranks since Adrian Peterson in 2007, and now that the genie is out of the bottle, Gurley owners are asking for their first wish: a big day this weekend in Green Bay. It will be an interesting test for Gurley, since the Packers have fared well in a small sample size against power backs this season, bottling up Marshawn Lynch and Carlos Hyde.
3. Calvin Johnson vs. Arizona
Just a few nights ago, Megatron was a central figure in one of the wilder finishes in the history of Monday Night Football. The Lions were mounting a fourth-quarter comeback in Seattle and had the ball deep in Seahawks territory with time running out. Johnson caught a short pass from Matt Stafford, raced toward the end zone and went airborne upon encountering a phalanx of Seattle defenders. Safety Kam Chancellor batted the ball out of Johnson’s hands just inches from the goal line. It bounced through the end zone (with an illegal assist from K.J. Wright), and the Lions missed their chance to get off the schneid with a monumental upset.
It’s been that sort of a season for Johnson. He’s averaging a paltry 9.4 yards per catch and has one touchdown. With 27 receptions, he’s on pace to exceed 100 catches for just the second time in his career, but fantasy owners didn’t draft the great Megatron to be PPR specialist. Perhaps Johnson will come back from the ignominy of Monday night with a vengeance this weekend, but a reprisal won’t come easy. The Lions host the Cardinals, who are giving up an average of 199.2 passing yards per game, and Johnson is apt to see a lot of Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson, a fine cover man. In a midseason game against the Cardinals last year, Johnson was held to a stat line of 5-59-0.
4. Russell Wilson at Cincinnati
Wilson was sacked six times by the Lions on Monday night and lost two fumbles. He’s now been sacked 18 times in four games, only once fewer than leading NFL sackee Alex Smith, and no other quarterback has been dumped more than 14 times. Think about that for a moment. Wilson’s escapability puts the ghost of Harry Houdini to shame. Watching Wilson elude would-be tacklers is one of the great pleasures of being an NFL fan in the current era. When a quarterback as slippery as mercury is being sacked four times a game, how bad is his offensive line? That’s a rhetorical question of course: Seattle’s line is awful. I wouldn’t trust the Seahawks’ front five to protect a freshly baked pie cooling on a windowsill.
Despite the sieve-like performance of his blockers, Wilson is having a statistically typical season. There haven’t been any big aerial shows yet, but he’s had more than 200 passing yards and at least one touchdown pass in all four starts. He’s also on pace for more than 700 rushing yards. About the only complaint Wilson’s fantasy owners could have is that Russ doesn’t have a rushing touchdown yet. Well, I suppose his owners can also complain about that dreadful offensive line, which will be put to the test Sunday in Cincinnati against a tough Bengals defense that’s tied for sixth in the league in sacks.
5. Antonio Gates vs. Pittsburgh
The timing of Gates’ return from a four-game suspension couldn’t be much better for Chargers QB Philip Rivers. WRs Stevie Johnson (hamstring) and Malcom Floyd (concussion) were Week 4 casualties, and San Diego’s receiver shortage could make Gates a busy man in Week 5.
Naysayers (including yours truly) have been warning of an impending Gates decline for years, but the veteran with the velvet-soft hands just keeps rolling along. He had 69 catches for 821 yards last year, and his 12 touchdowns were the most he’s had in a season since 2004. Now 35, Gates could certainly be brought down from behind by Father Time (who was a heck of a safety back in his playing days), but to bet against the venerable tight end seems foolish. Incidentally, Gates’ next touchdown reception will be the 100th of his career, and you have to figure he has at least a 50-50 chance of reaching that milestone when the Chargers host the Steelers on Monday night.
6. Martavis Bryant at San Diego
It’s a pity that upon Bryant’s return from a four-game suspension he gets Mike Vick as his quarterback rather than Ben Roethlisberger. For a Bryant owner, it’s a bit like being paroled from prison and eagerly awaiting your first meal as a free man. But at your welcome-home party, instead of getting a steak dinner with all the trimmings, you’re handed a hot dog from a gas station.
Bryant had only 26 receptions as a rookie last year but averaged 21.1 yards per catch and scored eight touchdowns. It would be nearly impossible for Bryant to maintain such a gaudy damage rate on his receptions, but it’s been widely assumed that he’d make up for the inevitable drop in efficiency with greater volume. Well, the assumption of greater volume isn’t so safe with Vick running the Pittsburgh offense while Roethlisberger recovers from a sprained knee. But arm strength isn’t among Vick’s myriad shortcomings, and you just know that Vick is going to take at least one deep shot with Bryant when the Steelers face the Chargers in San Diego on Monday night.
7. Arian Foster vs. Indianapolis
The Texans’ do-it-all running back returned from a groin injury in Week 4, but fantasy owners who started him were disappointed, as Foster ran for only 10 yards on eight carries and had three catches for 25 yards before the Texans pulled him early in a blowout loss to the Falcons. In a Keystone Kops moment that fittingly summed up the Texans’ performance, Foster had the ball inadvertently punched out of his hands by one of his own linemen, with the Falcons returning the fumble for a touchdown.
The good news is that Foster left Atlanta no worse for the wear, and he now has a string of games against opponents whose run defenses range from suspect to indifferent: Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Miami, Tennessee. This week, Foster and the Texans return to Houston for a Thursday-night date with the Colts, who are allowing 119.5 rushing yards per game and just gave up 105 rushing yards to Jaguars rookie T.J. Yeldon. In two games against Indianapolis last season, Foster ran for 208 yards and two touchdowns.
8. Tom Brady at Cowboys
Fresh from a bye, Brady and the Patriots head to Dallas this week to face the Cowboys, who had their hearts ripped out Sunday night in New Orleans and probably aren’t registering a big number on the morale-o-meter these days. After his tumultuous offseason, Brady has been laser-focused in the early weeks of the season, averaging 370.7 passing yards per game with a 72.2% completion rate, nine touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s somehow managing to put up these insane numbers without a credible outside receiver. No matter: Brady just keeps connecting with thunderous TE Rob Gronkowski, slot man extraordinaire Julian Edelman, scatback Dion Lewis and whoever else might be available to haul in throws placed right between their two jersey numbers. Lots of luck on Sunday, Cowboys fans.
9. DeMarco Murray vs. New Orleans
In an era when NFL teams are pointedly decreasing their capital investments into the running back position, Eagles czar Chip Kelly has zigged where other have zagged, flexing his newly obtained personnel muscle by signing free-agent RB Ryan Mathews to a three-year, $11 million deal in the offseason and then opening the vault to give Murray $21 million in guaranteed money as part of a five-year, $40 million package.
Running behind an offensive line that rates as the worst run-blocking unit in the league by far, according to Football Outsiders, Murray has just 47 rushing yards and is averaging 1.6 yards per carry. After missing Week 3 with a hamstring injury, Murray returned in Week 4 to run eight times for 36 yards in a loss to Washington. The 2014 rushing champ groused to reporters afterward about not getting enough work. Kelly wants his offense to play fast and wear out opposing defenses, but Philly ranks 26th in the league in offensive plays from scrimmage and is tied for 25th in rushing attempts. The Eagles will try to pull their ground game out of the quicksand Sunday in Philadelphia against the Saints, who rank 27th in run defense.
10. Allen Hurns at Tampa Bay
Largely unowned in fantasy leagues as of Week 4, Hurns has been a popular waiver-wire acquisition the past two weeks after racking up 70 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots and lighting up Colts with 116 yards and a touchdown. He's no mere one-week wonder, however—Hurns has had at least 60 receiving yards in all four games so far this season. With 22 receptions on 30 targets, his 73.3% catch rate is among the best in the league. Hurns has accounted for 25.9% of all Jacksonville receptions this season.
Undrafted last year out of the University of Miami-Fla., Hurns has blown by 2014 second-round draft pick Marqise Lee on the depth chart and is nicely complementing fellow second-year man Allen Robinson. The Robinson-Hurns duo needs a nickname, don’t you think? ‘The Allen Wrenches’? Nah. ‘The Allen Arson Project’ because they burn defensive backs? Er, we’ll keep working on it.
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