Risers/Sliders: Johnson, Barnidge emerging as Browns' top targets
You’re going to remember where you were when you read the Week 5 edition of the SI.com Risers and Sliders for the 2015 season. Why is that, you ask? Well, one of the most famously anemic offenses has a pair of players trending in the right direction. If it weren’t for the marginalizing of quarterbacks in one-QB fantasy formats, that same team could actually claim three risers with one-third of a season in the books. It has been a long time since the franchise in question had the attention of the fantasy community, but times change in the fantasy community. It’s an incredible world in which we live.
Devonta Freeman, RB, Falcons
Few people beat a drum as loudly as I beat the “sell Freeman high” drum over the last few weeks. Maybe just John Bonham, Keith Moon and Nick Cannon in Drumline have matched my intensity. However, I now have to admit that my efforts were a little too aggressive. Freeman posted another huge game, running for 153 yards and a touchdown against a Washington defense that hadn’t allowed a running back to go for more than 53 yards in the first four weeks of the season.
Tevin Coleman returned from his rib injury last week, though he was just shaking off the rust and re-acclimating himself to game action. He still will have a role in the offense, but the Falcons’ brain trust cannot significantly reduce Freeman’s role, given the way he has played over the last three weeks. We are trying to read Dan Quinn’s and Kyle Shanahan’s minds here, but fantasy football can be an exercise in telepathy every now and again. Freeman has had 35, 19 and 34 touches over his last three games. Expect him to settle somewhere in the mid-20s per game going forward.
Duke Johnson, RB, Browns
Johnson has 25 targets in the last three weeks—more than Amari Cooper, Anquan Boldin, Travis Kelce, Jordan Matthews, Le’Veon Bell and Vincent Jackson have seen— and he has caught 21 of those passes for 172 yards and a touchdown. Not coincidentally, the Browns offense has had its three best games, and Josh McCown has placed himself back on the fantasy radar since Johnson took on a larger role in the offense. In other words, don’t expect anything to change.
Isaiah Crowell remains the primary runner, but Johnson is averaging eight carries per game. In an average contest, he’s likely to have the ball in his hands 14 or 15 times, and could have upwards of 20 carries and targets combined. He has proven that he can do enough with that sort of volume to be in the RB2/3 and flex discussion every single week.
Gary Barnidge, TE, Browns
Two Browns on the positive side of the Riser/Slider ledger in the same week? We need to mark down this date for posterity. When Barnidge torched the Raiders for 105 yards and a touchdown in Week 3, many in the fantasy community, myself included, thought he was just taking advantage of a good matchup. When he caught all six of his targets for 75 yards and a touchdown against the Chargers a week later, he signaled that he might be for real. After hauling in eight passes for 139 yards and another score last week, it’s time to consider Barnidge a safe TE1.
Now, to be fair, he’s probably not going to catch too many touchdowns with his knees in the future, and McCown probably won’t put the ball in the air 40-plus times every game this season. The fact remains, however, that he, along with Johnson and Travis Benjamin, is one of the primary weapons in Cleveland’s passing game. He has had more targets over the last three weeks (26) than every tight end other than Martellus Bennett (29). Barnidge has lifted himself off the TE1/2 borderline.
Antonio Gates, TE, Chargers
So there wasn’t much rust for Gates to shake off after serving a four game suspension, was there? Gates and Philip Rivers picked up right where they left off, hooking up nine times on 11 targets for 92 yards and two touchdowns. Gates was arguably the first of the new breed of tight end, but he has always been more Tony Gonzlaez than Rob Gronkowski. Top-tier tight ends like Shannon Sharpe and Gonzalez typically age well, and Gates is following that script. He was the No. 2 fantasy tight end last year at 34 years old. He should keep on rolling this year. Remember, Rivers loves him in the red zone. There’s no reason that will change in Gates’ age-35 season.
Chris Johnson, RB, Cardinals
When the Cardinals signed Johnson back in the summer, it didn’t draw a whole lot of attention from the fantasy world, save for some ridicule and a few guffaws. Looks like Arizona GM Steve Keim will get the last laugh. Johnson has put together three strong games in a row, running for 296 yards and two touchdowns on 49 carries. Even with Andre Ellington back from a knee injury last week, Johnson remained the team’s primary back. Ellington sure seems like he’s better cast in a change-of-pace role, freeing up Johnson to get 15-plus carries per game. Rookie David Johnson is going to vulture a touchdown here or there, but the veteran Johnson is the one who enjoys a lucrative fantasy role in the Arizona backfield. He looks like an RB2 for the remainder of the season.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Chargers
Gordon has rushed for fewer than four yards per carry in four of his five games this season—most recently last week when he picked up just 42 yards on 15 carries in the Chargers’ loss to the Steelers. He did catch seven of his nine targets for 52 yards in that game, but that owed more to matchup than anything else. Danny Woodhead also had a good game as a receiver against Pittsburgh, catching five passes for 66 yards.
Gordon was supposed to be the thunder in the Chargers’ backfield pairing, but it just hasn’t been in the cards thus far. Gordon has shown good burst pretty much every week, but the Chargers’ offensive line hasn’t created enough running room for him. As such, he hasn’t been able to get much going with his somewhat limited running opportunities. Woodhead continues to dominate the touches out of the backfield in the red zone, making Gordon’s path to RB2 value even more obstructed.
Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos
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Manning’s team is 5–0, but they’ve gotten there in about the most un-Manning way possible. The Broncos have won two of their five games without the benefit of an offensive touchdown and, for the first time in Manning’s career, his defense is better than the unit he captains. Before you let him slide too far, understand that Manning remains a QB1.
The Broncos, however, can win with their defense, and they, like every team in the league, don’t exactly care about your and your fantasy needs. It’s not just that they can’t lean on Manning to win games anymore. They don’t need to. That’s bad news for fantasy owners. Manning should be thought of as a low-end QB1, and if I owned I’d make sure to have a reliable backup.
Jeremy Maclin, WR, Chiefs
Maclin is serving as a proxy here for the entire Kansas City offense. He and Travis Kelce are still going to get theirs to an extent, but Jamaal Charles is the sort of player who makes an offense. This entire offense is going to lose a large measure of its efficiency. It’s going to stall more often, both early on in drives and in the red zone. Maclin may get more looks from Alex Smith, but don’t have any illusions regarding his role. Losing Charles is a bad thing for Maclin because it’s a terrible thing for the Chiefs’ offense. You’re still going to start him every week, but the ceiling that he once had isn’t there because this offense just doesn’t have much juice without its best player.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Lions
Let Abdullah serve as your latest cautionary tale for the rookie with the greatest helium effect in the preseason. By time the true draft season rolled around at the end of August and beginning of September, Abdullah’s average draft position was up into the fourth round of a 12-team league. After one week, it seemed like that ADP was right on the mark. Abdullah had 94 total yards and a touchdown in that game, but he put the ball on the carpet once. Since then, he has just 130 yards from scrimmage and as many touchdowns as lost fumbles (one). He landed in Jim Caldwell’s doghouse last week after fumbling twice, and could continue ceding touches to Zach Zenner. Abdullah has had more than 11 touches once in five games. It’s hard to do much damage with that few opportunities.
Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers
In two-and-three-quarters games with Ben Roethlisberger under center, Brown had 29 catches for 436 yards and two touchdowns. He was well on his way to being one of the top-three receivers in the league, as well as a top-five or six fantasy player regardless of position. In the two-plus games with Michael Vick starting, Brown has eight catches for 87 yards. The last time Brown went two straight games without totaling 100 yards between them was Week 8 and 9 of the 2012 season. It’s not Brown’s fault that he has slid down the rest-of-season rankings, but there’s nothing he can do about it until Roethlisberger heals and gets back in the starting lineup. Until then, the Vick effect is going to hold him back.