It’s time for our weekly stroll across the league, looking at all the start and sit possibilities for every fantasy-relevant player. Remember, the conditional start players will depend on your roster and league parameters. Use those in conjunction with our weekly rankings to build your best possible lineup.
Brock Osweiler will get his first career start on Sunday against a Chicago defense that is, despite the popular belief, league average against the pass. The Bears have, however, struggled against the run, which could lead to more Hillman than ever on Sunday. You’re still starting Thomas and Sanders, but understand that they are now a low-end WR1 and low-end WR2, respectively. Langford has starred in his first two starts with the Bears and should be started with confidence so long as Matt Forte is out, even against a strong Denver defense. Jeffery gutted through a groin injury last week and doesn’t appear to be at any risk of sitting out against Denver. Zach Miller has stolen all the tight end headlines in Chicago, but that’s more circumstance than anything, as well as a reflection that the Bears like their two tight end sets. Bennett is still the go-to player at the position for Jay Cutler.
Conditional start: Jay Cutler, C.J. Anderson, Bears DST
We know the Denver defense is about as tough a matchup as a quarterback can get this season. Having said that, Cutler is 15th among quarterbacks in points per game and has scored no fewer than 18.2 points in a game since returning from his hamstring injury in Week 4. If you bet on Anderson this week, you’re betting that the Broncos take the ball out of Osweiler’s hands and lean on the run game. That’s a risky bet, but realistic enough that Anderson is a low-end RB3 this week.
As I wrote in this week’s Risers and Sliders, anyone who tries to give you a detailed scouting report on Osweiler had better be one of his previous coaches in Denver or Arizona State, or they don’t know what they’re talking about. Chicago’s pass defense is in the middle of the pack of all advanced metrics and has allowed the 13th-fewest points per game to quarterbacks.
The Lions’ defense ranks 21st in pass rush and 26th in pass coverage. That’s not the sort of unit you want to bring to a Carr show. This is a key game for the Raiders to stay in the AFC playoff race, one that they should, quite frankly, win. It’ll be up to Carr and the passing game to get them there. With that said, the Lions have also allowed the fifth-most points per game to running backs. Forget about being on the road and traveling from the Pacific time zone to the Eastern. The Raiders are simply the far superior team in this game. Johnson isn’t making big plays down the field this season, and that is curbing his fantasy value. The good news, though, is that this is a great matchup and the Raiders should be able to force Matthew Stafford to put the ball in the air 40 times.
Conditional start: Matthew Stafford, Golden Tate, Raiders DST
Volume is the name of the game for both of these players. Neither has been efficient or, for that matter, any good this season. Stafford is 28th among quarterbacks in points per game, while 64th among receivers. The over/under between the Raiders and Lions, though, is 48.5, and that could open the door for Stafford to attempt 40 or more passes. That makes him a mid-tier QB2 and gives Tate a WR3 ceiling.
There’s no worse backfield to invest in than Detroit’s. I’ve lambasted Washington’s all season, but at least it has generated some value in a few games. The Abdullah-Bell-Riddick three-headed trainwreck has been nothing but a pain for fantasy owners all season. That won’t change this week.
Indianapolis Colts at Atlanta Falcons
This Colts defense could be the exact cure for what ails the Falcons, especially when it comes to making plays down the field. The Colts rank 21st in pass defense DVOA and have allowed the 11th-most points per game to quarterbacks. Vontae Davis will be a tough assignment for Jones, but he always has the upper hand, regardless of the caliber of cornerback. Frank Gore becomes a whole lot more important to the Colts with Andrew Luck out. In Matt Hasselbeck’s two previous starts this year, Gore had 151 yards on 39 carries, 34 receiving yards on five receptions, and one touchdown. The Falcons have allowed the seventh-most points per game to running backs, so you can bet that Gore will be featured early and often in this one. Freeman, meanwhile, proved before the Falcons’ bye that there’s no keeping him down. He ran for just 12 yards on 12 carries in the loss to the 49ers, but had eight catches for 67 yards and a score.
The most interesting player above, at least in my opinion, is Hankerson. He had established himself as the Falcons No. 2 receiver, as well as a reliable WR2/3 before going down with a hamstring injury. He’s expected to make his return this week, and would immediately get back on the field opposite Jones if he does. Remember, the Colts have struggled mightily against No. 2 receivers this season with Davis locking down the other side of the field. Hasselbeck played well, but not great, in both of his earlier starts this year. You know he’s going to take care of the ball and make a few good throws, but he doesn’t have a huge ceiling. He’s a low-end QB2 in all formats. I really wouldn’t want to start Moncrief, given that he’s totally touchdown-dependent for his fantasy value. Having said that, the matchup and Hasselbeck’s play help make him a semi-palatable WR3.
The only player here who should even be anywhere near a starting radar at all is Tamme, but he has done nearly all his damage with Hankerson out of the lineup. In games Hankerson has missed all or most of, Tamme has averaged 6.75 catches, 73.5 yards and 0.25 touchdowns. In games Hankerson has played entirely, Tamme’s averages fall to 2.75 catches, 34 yards and zero touchdowns.
New York Jets at Houston Texans
The Texans defense hasn’t allowed a touchdown for 10 quarters, most recently shutting down the Bengals in Cincinnati. That may be a tiny cause for concern, but this still projects as a good matchup for Ivory, Marshall and Decker. Houston is 11th in pass rush and 13th in coverage according to Pro Football Focus, so Marshall and Decker could have their hands full on Sunday. Hopkins and Darrelle Revis should give us one of the best, if not the very best, receiver-corner battles of the week. Hopkins is Pro Football Focus’ fourth-rated receiver on pass plays, while Revis is ranked 10th in coverage. Ivory got back on track against the Bills, picking up 99 yards on 18 carries.
Fitzpatrick underwent surgery on his left thumb after the Jets game last week. They held off until playing a Thursday game with the belief that 10 days off would be enough for him to not miss a game. If he is indeed able to start on Sunday, he’s just outside my QB1 class. The mere presence of Marshall and Decker makes him an easy play in a two-QB league every week, regardless of the opponent. Hoyer is at the low end of the QB2 scale and he, too, is dealing with an injury this week. He’s also relevant because of a receiver, with Hopkins helping Hoyer put up consistent QB2 numbers this year. He shouldn’t be near your lineups in one-QB leagues.
The Texans just won a close, hard-fought game, exactly the kind that typically lends itself well to running backs. Blue had 12 carries for 22 yards in the win over the Bengals. He is not a fantasy option unless you’re in a league with at least 16 teams. The same is true for Washington and Shorts, who should stay off Revis Island but will deal with a brutally tough matchup, nonetheless.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Philadelphia Eagles
Martin has been a serious disappointment the last three weeks in matchups with the Falcons, Giants and Cowboys, none of which really scare you with their run defense. He has failed to run for more than 71 yards or score a touchdown in any of those games. This week he goes up against an Eagles defense that has allowed the fifth-fewest points per game to backs. Murray, on the other hand, has reached double digits in four of his last five games and could be in for even more work if Ryan Mathews is out because of a concussion suffered last week. The Buccaneers are fourth in rush defense DVOA, but Murray is still a top-10 play this week. Evans might be the best fantasy play in this game. He has topped 100 yards in three of his last four games, and the Eagles have allowed the third-most points per game to receivers.
All eyes will be on the quarterbacks in this game, especially the one making his first start of the season. Sanchez had some success in Chip Kelly’s offense last year, and there’s a chance he’s a better fit for it than Sam Bradford, given his mobility. Both are worthy plays in two-QB leagues while simultaneously being safely outside the QB1 class. If you are looking for streaming help, Sanchez is the better play. Mathews has double-digit points in four of his last five games despite getting no more than 11 touches in any of them. He has proven himself capable of producing with limited opportunity, and will again be in the RB2/flex mix if he can make it through the concussion protocol. I do want to say, “I told you so,” to people out there who said I was crazy for suggesting Matthews as a droppable player after his first big game in two months last week. He followed up that effort with a three-catch, 21-yard game. Matthews is no more than a low-end WR3 for the desperate among us
Even if Mathews is out, Sproles wouldn’t be worth a speculative play this week. Mathews is having success as an inside runner, and that’s just not part of Sproles’ game. Don’t bet on either of Tampa Bay’s injured pass catchers to return this week.
The over/under on this game is 41.5, and it’s almost a surprise it’s that high. The Rams have a dominant defense and run game, while the Ravens can’t really move the ball through the air with a ton of consistency or explosion. That’s a great setup for a low-scoring game. The Ravens are about league average against the run according to most metrics, which isn’t good when Gurley comes to town. The Rams, meanwhile, are fifth in rush defense DVOA and first against the run according to Pro Football Focus. Forsett has two touchdowns this year and just two games with more than 100 yards from scrimmage. He has a low-end RB2 feel.
Conditional start: Kamar Aiken, Ravens DST
Aiken has been serviceable as the No. 1 receiver in Baltimore, catching 22 passes for 290 yards and a touchdown in the four games Steve Smith has missed either entirely or partially. He got a season-high 14 targets last week, catching seven of them for 73 yards. The expected volume alone makes him a high-end WR3. You rarely want to trust the Baltimore defense, but they don’t get to play Case Keenum too often. They’re a matchup-based streamer this week.
The Rams had no choice but to bench Nick Foles, but that doesn’t mean Keenum is going to swoop in like a savior and revive the passing attack. If the two quarterbacks traded teams, Flacco would actually be mildly intriguing, but he’s not even worth a play in two-QB formats with the Rams on the other side of the field.
Dallas Cowboys at Miami Dolphins
Romo’s back, and surprisingly it’s not too late for the Cowboys. It probably isn’t too late for his fantasy owners, either, who should have been able to weather the storm at quarterback. Now that Romo is on the field again, we can finally see this Dallas offense as it was constructed. This suddenly becomes a great matchup for the passing game, with new life breathed into Witten, who hasn’t done a thing since Romo broke his collarbone. Bryant, meanwhile, just might be the top play at receiver, especially with Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham on a bye this week. In the five games since Joe Philbin’s firing, Miller is averaging 20.8 points per game in standard-scoring leagues, tops among all running backs. He now has the fourth-most points at the position for the season and is ninth in points per game (those standings include Jamaal Charles, Le’Veon Bell and Arian Foster). He’s a true RB1.
At this stage of the season, Tannehill is who he is. He’s not likely to give you a complete dud, but he’s nearly as unlikely to be among the 10 highest scorers at the quarterback position. He is forever a bland QB2. For what it’s worth, the Cowboys have allowed the fourth-fewest points per game to quarterbacks this season. After a couple straight lackluster games, Matthews bounced back with five catches for 93 yards last week. Like Tannehill, the floor and ceiling for Matthews aren’t that far apart. You can safely consider him a high-end WR3 every week.
Ajayi made his season debut two weeks ago and should have a role in the offense for the rest of the year. While he has been impressive, he has been nothing more than a spell back for Miller. There’s no reason to expect that to change this week. That’s not the kind of role you can count on in your fantasy lineup.
Washington Redskins at Carolina Panthers
Tom Brady is going to run away with the total points crown at quarterback this season. There’s a heated race for second between Newton, Drew Brees and Carson Palmer. Brees is currently 0.4 points ahead of Newton, but he missed one game this season due to injury. No matter what happens, Newton is going to go down as one of the fantasy stars of 2015. He’s just 21st in the league in pass yards, but he already has 366 rushing yards and six scores on the ground. Just imagine what his numbers would look like if Kelvin Benjamin were healthy. Washington is well below average against the run and in pass coverage, so the Panthers should be able to control this game in all facets. Stewart leads all backs in missed tackles forced on run plays this season, which has helped him climb to 16th at the position in total points. The best battle might be which tight end has the better fantasy day.
That all three of these players are potential starters depending on your overall roster should illustrate the realities for the Washington offense in this game. Reed is the only player who has to start. There are realistic scenarios in which the three players above post strong fantasy numbers, but none is a strong bet to do so. Jackson and Garcon are low-end WR3s, while Jones is an RB3. Remember, the Saints team that Jones carved up could set futility records this season.
As clear a starter as Cousins was last week, he’s just as obviously a sit this week. The Panthers are not the Saints. They are far superior in every facet of the game defensively. Cousins is the first Washington quarterback since Joe Theismann in 1983 to throw at least one touchdown in the team’s first nine games, but he has turned in top-12 quarterback weeks in just three of those.
The over/under on this game is a modest 44.5, and it feels like it can get north of that, even without Jamaal Charles and Keenan Allen. Rivers is fifth among quarterbacks in total points this year, but he wasn’t great in his first game without Allen. In fact, he had his second-worst fantasy performance of the season, scoring just 18 points in standard-scoring leagues (280 yards, 6.67 YPA, one touchdown). This could be a new normal for him. The new normal for West is the life of a true RB1. He has 276 rushing yards, 136 receiving yards and four touchdowns in his last three games. Just as importantly, he’s averaging 25 touches per contest. The Chargers have allowed the most points per game to running backs this season. Johnson played well in the first game without Allen, catching seven of his 10 targets for 68 yards. With Malcom Floyd also on the shelf, he should continue to be a target monster.
Conditional start: Alex Smith, Chiefs DST
Smith is an easy play in two-QB leagues this week, but he might not stop there. The Chargers are 27th in pass defense DVOA this season. They’ve allowed four of the last five quarterbacks they’ve faced to score at least 20.6 points in standard-scoring leagues, with Michael Vick being the only one who came up short. Even Vick had his best game of the season against San Diego. Smith will exploit this defense.
The Chargers are 2–7 and out of the playoff race. At some point, they’re going to have to see what they have in Melvin Gordon, and that will mean keeping him on the field of extended stretches. Still, he has yet to top 100 total yards in a game or score a touchdown this season. He’s had more than 80 total yards twice. There’s no way to believe in him from a fantasy perspective.
When was the last time the Packers had this few must-start players? We might have to go back to Rodgers's eight-game absence in 2013 to find the most recent instance. The trickle-down effect of Jordy Nelson’s injury is being felt all across this offense, and the absence of a run game certainly isn’t helping matters. I’ve got Rodgers fifth in my quarterback rankings this week, and I feel very safe having Tom Brady, Derek Carr, Cam Newton and Carson Palmer ahead of him. Peterson is quietly up to 961 rushing yards on the year, which is actually more than he had through nine games in his 2,097-yard season in 2012 (957). He has a way of dominating the NFC North, but the Vikings need to find a way to get the ball back in Diggs’ hands after a couple of down games from the rookie.
Starks has done nearly all his damage as a receiver over the last two weeks, and that’s what has him down in the conditional start range. Unless you’re Danny Woodhead, I don’t want to bet on a back getting the job done wholly as a receiver. The good news is that Minnesota’s rush defense is 28th in DVOA. Starks is a low-end RB2. Adams got a ridiculous 21 targets last week. That’s the good news. The bad news is he amassed a paltry 3.76 yards per target. Adams already has the volume. Now he has to do more with it.
Jones is averaging just more than three targets per game in Green Bay’s last five weeks. He saved the first two of those with touchdowns, but he hasn’t found the end zone since the middle of October. He hit rock bottom last week, getting completely shut out by the Lions. He should be off the fantasy radar.
San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
We’ve detailed Wilson’s fantasy struggles in this space plenty. Suffice to say he’s no more than a low-end QB1 for the rest of the season. With that in mind, understand that this should be a good matchup for him, and the Seahawks as a whole. The 49ers defense ranks 30th in overall DVOA, 31st against the pass, and 25th against the run. In short, there are plenty of ways to attack them. Wilson and the Seahawks should be able to figure this one out pretty easily. Keep an eye on Lynch’s practice participation throughout the week. It would be a major surprise if he weren’t available on Sunday.
Hyde is expected to return after missing the last two games with a foot injury. It will be exactly a month since he last took the field against these same Seahawks, a game in which the flow worked against him. That could very well be the case again on Sunday, but if he’s able to go he would slot as a worthy flex play. Baldwin had a big game last week, but the only reason he’s here is because this is a great matchup. That’s the only way you roll the dice with an inconsistent receiver in a mediocre passing attack.
Get used to basically the entire 49ers roster in the sit recommendations. Unless Carlos Hyde re-emerges, that could be the case every week for the rest of the season.
Cincinnati Bengals at Arizona Cardinals
Two teams with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations meet on Sunday night in what could be a preview of a game we see again in early February. It’s fun to get inter-conference games of such a magnitude this late in the season. Forget about what happened to the Bengals last week. Every team this side of the Patriots is going to have a no-show offensive performance at some point. Both teams should be able to get it going on Sunday night, evidenced by the over/under of 48. The only controversial names above are Bernard and Floyd. Arizona is fourth in pass defense DVOA this year, but just 15th against running backs through the air. That bodes well for Bernard, who is clearly the most effective back in Cincinnati right now. As for Floyd, he has 19 catches for 328 yards and four touchdowns in his last four games. He has clearly played his way into all fantasy starting lineups. His hamstring injury, unfortunately, complicates matters. Hopefully we get some good, concrete news on him by Sunday morning.
Hill is always going to make this section by default, but you really have to be in a bind to roll him out in your starting lineup. He had 20 total yards on 10 touches last week, and his high watermark for total yards on the season remains at 69. He has still yet to break 400 total yards this season. Brown, meanwhile, is third on the depth chart in Arizona, but he would jump right back up to WR2 level if Floyd is out. Even if the Notre Dame product plays, Brown would rate as a low-end WR3.
Ellington and Jones remain valuable real-life players for their respective teams, but they’re off the fantasy radar at this point.
Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots
These teams combined for 72 points the first time they got together, with the Bills staging a furious comeback that had the game within one score for most of the fourth quarter. The Patriots will be without Dion Lewis (knee) and Julian Edelman (foot) this time around, but so long as Brady is under center, this machine will keep on churning out yards and points. LaFell and Amendola step right into key roles that make them worthy fantasy starters. The Bills rank dead last in pass rush, according to Pro Football Focus, which isn’t exactly the way you want to attack Brady. Taylor had one of his best games of the season against the Patriots, throwing for 242 yards and three touchdowns, and adding 43 yards and a score on the ground. He did throw three picks in that game, but he still notched 29 points in standard-scoring leagues. His rushing production always gives him a high floor, and you know the Patriots offense will give the Bills no choice but to ask Taylor to sling the ball 30 or 35 times. McCoy is on a heater since returning from his hamstring injury, totaling 382 rushing yards, 94 receiving yards and two touchdowns in his last four games.
There’s no doubting that Williams has impressed this season. Here’s the problem. He’s not going to get more than 10 or 11 touches on Monday night, and he could get as few as seven or eight. It’s hard for anyone to register for fantasy owners with that few touches. He has been able to do so consistently this year, and that’s why he can still be a flex play. Still, he’s outside the top 25 at the running back position. Clay forever is a high-end TE2. You can talk yourself into him this week, given the 48.5 over/under on this game, but that’s really what you’re buying into by starting him. He hasn’t found the end zone since Week 3.
The Patriots quietly traded for Martin during the off-season, and his name was one of the first Brady mentioned when asked about who will step up with Edelman out. Keep an eye on him on Monday night. Woods has three catches for 19 yards in his last two games. Even in what should be good circumstances, he’s not much of a fantasy option.