Most intriguing players of Week 9: Honing in on star WRs and more
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. DeAngelo Williams vs. Oakland Raiders
The season-ending knee injury to Le’Veon Bell last weekend was soul-crushing for the Steelers and their fans, not to mention for Bell’s fantasy owners. With Bell gone, Pittsburgh will once against turn to Williams, who led all running backs in fantasy scoring over the first two weeks of the season while Bell was serving a two-game suspension. Williams ran for 204 yards and three touchdowns in those two games, averaging 4.98 yards per carry. The 10-year veteran also fared well Sunday against the Bengals after Bell was carted off, rushing nine times for 71 yards and catching four passes for 39 yards.
It’s not unreasonable to think that Williams could be a top-10 fantasy running back the rest of the way. He had 21 and 20 carries in the two games Bell missed earlier in the year and will get all the work he can handle. Defenses have to respect the fearsome Pittsburgh passing game, so Williams should have plenty of space in which to operate. He’ll be tested this week by a stingy Oakland run defense that’s giving up only 89.2 rushing yards per game and has yielded just three touchdowns on the ground.
2. Derek Carr at Pittsburgh Steelers
When do we transition from classifying Carr as a promising young quarterback to simply calling him a good NFL quarterback? We may have reached that tipping point with Carr’s Week 8 dismantling of a very good Jets defense—the second-year man from Fresno State blistered the Jets for 333 passing yards and four touchdowns, throwing no interceptions. In his last two games, Carr has thrown seven touchdown passes, completed 70.1% of his throws and averaged 9.28 yards per pass attempt. He’s thrown 15 touchdown passes this year against only three interceptions, and he’s on pace for 4,098 passing yards.
The crazy thing is that Carr remains unowned in many fantasy leagues, as owners seem unwilling to believe that his 2015 breakout is for real. Carr will try to keep the momentum going Sunday in Pittsburgh, where he’ll face a Steelers defense that has recorded 22 sacks and did an admirable job of containing the Bengals’ Andy Dalton last week.
3. Tavon Austin at Minnesota Vikings
The Rams’ Frank Cignetti is one of the more anonymous offensive coordinators in the league, and he’s not likely to be heralded as a great innovator with the Rams running a Todd Gurley-centric offense that would have fit comfortably into the NFL of the 1970s. But you have to hand it to Cignetti for this: He’s helped turn Tavon Austin into something more than just a dangerous return man. Cignetti’s predecessor, Brian Schottenheimer, never seemed to have a clue about how to use Austin, even though the Rams had eagerly traded up to take Austin with the eighth pick of the 2013 draft.
With Schottenheimer directing the St. Louis offense, Austin had seven touchdowns from scrimmage in 28 games and averaged 37.0 scrimmage yards per game. With Cignetti calling the plays, Austin has scored six touchdowns from scrimmage in seven games and is averaging 60.9 yards from scrimmage. The 5'8", 176-pound waterbug has 285 yards and four touchdowns as a receiver and 141 yards and two touchdowns as a runner (with an average of 8.3 yards per carry). Austin was nothing more than a desperation play for fantasy owners in his first two NFL seasons, but he’s now starting to find his way into starting lineups. On Sunday he’ll be in Minnesota, where the Vikings used to deploy a similarly versatile and elusive playmaker named Percy Harvin.
4. Ben Watson vs. Tennessee Titans
When the Saints traded Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks in the off-season, fantasy owners looked for potential TE value in New Orleans and zeroed in on Josh Hill, a big, athletic third-year man who had scored five touchdowns last season on only 14 receptions. Even after it became apparent that Hill wasn’t ready for prime time, few people paid attention to Watson, a 34-year-old veteran who’d had some decent seasons for the Patriots and Browns but had never made much more than a small ripple in the fantasy world.
Watson has blown up the last few weeks, and it’s fair to wonder whether he might now be a more valuable fantasy property than Graham, who’s still settling into his new home in Seattle, unpacking boxes and waiting for the cable guy to show up. Watson had 10 catches for 127 yards and a touchdown in a Thursday night win over the Falcons in Week 6 and nine catches for 147 yards and a score in the Saints’ 52–49 shootout victory over the Giants in Week 8. The 12-year veteran is now preparing to face a Titans defense that’s been generous to opposing tight ends this season, making Watson a very attractive fantasy option for this weekend.
5. Randall Cobb at Carolina Panthers
Three games into the season, Cobb had 20 catches for 245 yards and four touchdowns. In the four games since, he’s had 16 catches for 132 yards and zero touchdowns. There's no doubt that Cobb's fantasy owners are panicking. The Packers have averaged just under 20 points per game during Cobb’s fallow four-game stretch. The absence of WR Jordy Nelson has clearly robbed the Green Bay passing game of some of its thunder, and it doesn’t help that Cobb has been dealing with a shoulder injury all season.
Normally, Cobb is the Packers’ Swiss Army knife, lining up in a wide variety of spots, including the backfield, and getting favorable matchups. Because of the way the Packers use Cobb, he probably won’t be shadowed by the Panthers’ ace cornerback, Josh Norman, when the Packers visit Charlotte on Sunday, but Carolina has one of the better slot nickel corners in the league in Bene Benwikere.
6. Peyton Manning at Indianapolis Colts
Manning’s return to Indianapolis won’t be quite the quarterback showdown that many people envisioned when the 2015 schedule was unveiled. Peyton’s successor in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck, has been a scatter-armed turnover machine this season while dealing with shoulder and rib injuries. And though Manning appeared to be in vintage form during a Week 8 win over the Packers, he’s been having his worst year since his rookie season with the Colts in 1998.
Manning has thrown seven touchdown passes in seven games and has already been picked off 11 times. To put that interception total into perspective: Manning didn’t have more than 10 interceptions in any regular season of a four-year stretch from 2003 to '06. The 39-year-old Manning didn’t throw any touchdown passes against Green Bay on Sunday night, but he completed 72.4% of his throws, averaged 11.72 yards per pass attempt and finished with 340 passing yards. A homecoming game will no doubt have Manning laser-focused on Sunday, and he’ll be working against a Colts defense that’s giving up 280 passing yards per game.
7. Stevie Johnson vs. Chicago Bears
The NFL is a more interesting place when the flamboyant Stevie J. is prominently involved. Remember when Stevie dropped what should have been a game-winning touchdown pass against the Steelers in 2010 and then blamed the Almighty via Twitter? “I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!!” Johnson tweeted hours after the game. “ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO...”
Johnson had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in Buffalo from 2010 to '12, but he had only 597 receiving yards in his final season with the Bills in '13, was even less productive in San Francisco last season and has been relegated to a secondary role with the Chargers so far this season. But that’s about to change now that Keenan Allen is out for the year after having surgery for a lacerated kidney. Chargers tight ends Antonio Gates (knee) and Ladarius Green (ankle) are also banged up, and Malcom Floyd is best used as an occasional deep threat rather than as a high-volume possession guy, so Johnson could start to see the sort of target volume that he saw in Buffalo back when he was catching passes from Ryan Fitzpatrick. Although it seems as if Johnson has been around forever, he’s just 29. It’s also worth remembering that Johnson has been one of the few receivers to ever set up beach chairs and a volleyball net on Revis Island and leave a four-star review on Yelp. From 2010 to '12, Johnson dueled with Revis five times and had 23 catches for 317 yards and three touchdowns.
8. Travis Benjamin at Cincinnati Bengals
The Josh McCown injury is a blow to anyone who was planning to use Gary Barnidge or Duke Johnson in their fantasy lineups this week. McCown and Barnidge have been impersonating Dan Fouts and Kellen Winslow for the last six weeks, and McCown has helped Johnson become one of the league’s most prolific pass-catching running backs. With Johnny Manziel subbing for a concussed McCown in the first two games of the year, Barnidge had four catches for 55 yards, and Johnson had zero catches.
The one Cleveland fantasy contributor who doesn’t have his fantasy value completely torpedoed with Johnny F. Football at quarterback is Benjamin, who had six catches for 204 yards and three touchdowns when Manziel was playing in Weeks 1 and 2. The strange thing is that Benjamin did all that Manziel-assisted damage on only seven total targets. Benjamin has averaged 9.5 targets in the six games since, yet he’s scored only one touchdown over that span and has had only one reception covering more than 25 yards. The Browns have no running game, so their best chance to move the ball against the Bengals on Thursday night is with Manziel playing sandlot ball, and Benjamin figures to be a big part of Manziel’s ad-libbed theatrics.
9. Jeremy Langford at San Diego Chargers
Among the myriad injuries wreaking havoc on the fantasy landscape on Sunday was the knee injury sustained by Matt Forte. Though not a season-ender like Le’Veon Bell’s torn ACL, Forte’s injury will keep him out this week and might put him on the shelf for a while. Just don’t expect diligent injury updates from Bears coach John Fox, who for weeks said rookie WR Kevin White was “day to day” with what turned out to be a stress fracture in his leg. White is still out and may not play at all this season. Fox would have declared the Black Knight from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” day to day with severed limbs.
The injury to Forte leaves Langford as Chicago’s starting tailback. A rookie fourth-round pick, Langford ran for 2,944 yards and 40 touchdowns in his last two seasons at Michigan State. So far this season, he’s averaging 3.0 yards on 27 carries and has run for a pair of touchdowns. Despite his inexperience, Langford is a compelling fantasy play this week against a pillow-soft San Diego defense that’s giving up 124.6 rushing yards a game and 5.0 yards per carry.
10. Dez Bryant vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Bryant was finally back in action last Sunday for the first time since Week 1, but the dual problems of shadow coverage from Richard Sherman and lousy quarterbacking from Matt Cassel limited him to two catches for 12 yards. The good news is that Bryant’s foot didn’t appear to be an issue, as he played 48 of the Cowboys’ 59 snaps. He’ll get a much easier matchup against the Eagles this week, but unfortunately, the Cassel problem remains.
Fantasy owners might not get full-on Dez until QB Tony Romo prepares to return from a broken collarbone later this month. In the meantime, Bryant is still a must-start for fantasy purposes, though poor quarterback play is almost sure to give him a statistical haircut—hopefully just a little off the top.