Wednesday November 25th, 2015

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.

DeAndre Hopkins at New Orleans Saints

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The Saints’ pass defense is reaching historic levels of bad. It's yielding 293.1 passing yards per game and giving up 8.9 yards per pass attempt. On top of that, it's allowed 28 touchdown passes (seven more than any other team in the league) and has recorded only four interceptions. The Saints’ opponent passer rating is 116.6, which, to put things into perspective, is exactly 20 points higher than Tom Brady’s career passer rating.

What chance does the Saints’ flammable pass defense have against Hopkins this weekend in Houston? That’s a rhetorical question, of course. Hopkins smoked Darrelle Revis and his associates for 118 yards and two touchdowns last weekend, and the Jets actually play big-boy defense. Hopkins already has 76 receptions for 1,045 yards and nine touchdowns, with five 100-yard games and three multiple-TD games. Lots of luck if you’re going against Hopkins in your fantasy league this week.

Javorius “Buck” Allen at Cleveland Browns

Buck Allen is the new starting running back for the Ravens now that Justin Forsett is done for the year with a broken arm. Replacing Forsett in Baltimore’s Week 11 win over St. Louis, Allen rushed 22 times for 67 yards and caught five passes for 48 yards.

A fourth-round pick from USC, Allen was highly regarded for his pass-catching prowess coming out of college, where he had 710 receiving yards and averaged 11.3 yards per catch over his final two seasons with the Trojans. Allen should mesh well with Ravens offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, whose running backs have traditionally amassed gaudy reception totals. (Matt Forte had 176 catches in Trestman’s two seasons as the Bears’ head coach, and the anonymous Derek Loville had 87 catches for the 49ers in 1995 with Trestman as the offensive coordinator.) Allen could make a tidy fantasy living on dump-off passes from QB Matt Schaub, who’ll start for the Ravens following the season-ending knee injury to Joe Flacco. Schaub’s career was in a downward spiral when he came to Baltimore to be a backup, and he’ll probably be checking down often as he tries to get comfortable in the Ravens’ offense.

Thomas Rawls vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

Are we witnessing a changing of the guard at running back for the Seahawks? In Week 11, Marshawn Lynch was a surprise scratch due to an abdominal injury that was later revealed to be a sports hernia, and Rawls got the start for Seattle. He ran wild in a 29–13 victory over the 49ers, carrying 30 times for 209 yards and a touchdown, and adding three receptions for 46 yards and a touchdown—the best fantasy performance by an NFL running back this season.

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An undrafted free agent out of Central Michigan, Rawls has already produced three 100-yard games and is averaging 6.0 yards per carry. Lynch was reportedly going to have surgery this week and could miss the rest of the regular season. As Seattle’s new workhorse, Rawls offers immense fantasy potential the rest of the way, and he could be auditioning for a lead role in 2016, since the 29-year-old Lynch is due to earn $9 million next year and could be deemed expendable. After fricasseeing the 49ers last weekend, Rawls will face a tougher challenge Sunday against the Steelers, who are giving up 93.0 rushing yards per game and have allowed only three touchdown runs this year.

Doug Martin at Indianapolis Colts

Martin steamrolled the Eagles for 235 rushing yards in Week 11, and with a yardage total like that, his fantasy owners can forgive him for somehow neglecting to score a touchdown. Martin became the first NFL running back to rush for more than 230 yards in a game since ... uh, since Martin himself did it as a rookie in 2012. He joins O.J. Simpson and Corey Dillon as the only running backs in league history to have rushed for 235 or more yards in a game twice.

The watershed performance against Philadelphia reversed a downward trend. After rattling off three consecutive 100-yard rushing games in October, Martin ran for only 165 yards over his first three games of November, averaging 2.9 yards per carry during that stretch. He hasn’t scored a touchdown since Week 5. The unpredictable Martin will now face a Colts defense that ranks 21st in the league against the run.

Gary Barnidge vs. Baltimore Ravens

Well, the Johnny Manziel era in Cleveland was fun while it lasted. Shortly after being named the Browns’ starting quarterback for the rest of the year, Manziel was demoted to third string after a video of Johnny Football partying at a club in Austin, Tex. surfaced. Josh McCown will start for the Browns on Monday night.

For Barnidge owners, the Manziel benching is probably a blessing. In the six games this season in which McCown has played a majority of the snaps, Barnidge has compiled 36 catches, 512 yards and six touchdowns. In four games with Manziel taking all of most of the snaps, Barnidge had 12 catches for 155 yards and one touchdown. Barnidge had his finest performance of the year in an earlier game against the Ravens (with McCown at quarterback), catching eight passes for 139 yards and a touchdown.

Tom Brady at Denver Broncos

As good as Brady has been all season, his fantasy owners have to be feeling jittery. The Patriots had already lost RB Dion Lewis and WR Julian Edelman to major injuries in consecutive weeks, and then WR Danny Amendola left the Patriots’ Monday-night win over the Bills with a sprained knee. It’s believed to be a relatively minor injury, but it seems likely he’ll be out at least a week, perhaps longer. New England also lost WR Aaron Dobson to an ankle injury in the game against Buffalo. Brady still has sublime TE Rob Gronkowski, of course, and Brandon LaFell is a capable outside receiver. But short throws to quick, shifty receivers have always been such an important part of Brady’s repertoire, and his supply of such pass catchers is running low. The Patriots may be forced to give significant roles to peripheral contributors such as RB James White and WR Keshawn Martin.

With his weaponry depleted, Brady had trouble moving the ball against the Bills in Week 11 even before the Amendola injury. He completed a season-low 51.3% of his throws for 277 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. Sunday night in Denver, he’ll face a smothering Broncos pass defense that has given up fewer passing yards (190.6 per game), yards per pass attempt (6.2) and touchdown passes (eight) than any other team in the league.

Calvin Johnson vs. Philadelphia Eagles

It’s not as if Johnson is having a terrible season—he’s on pace for 94 catches and 1,325 receiving yards—but many of his fantasy owners feel unfulfilled. Megatron has scored three touchdowns this year and has produced just a single 100-yard game. He’s had four consecutive games with yardage totals in the 80s, which is fairly symbolic of the bland fantasy production the 30-year-old receiver has been offering.

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If there’s anything that can perk up Calvin, though, it’s Thanksgiving Day. He’s routinely feasted in Detroit’s traditional early-Thursday start, with eight touchdown catches in eight career Thanksgiving games. The only time Johnson didn’t score a Turkey Day touchdown was in 2008, his second season, when the Titans pan-roasted the Lions 47–10. Over his last three Thanksgivings, Megatron has piled his plate with 25 catches for 387 yards and four touchdowns. On Thursday he’ll face the Eagles, who just gave up five touchdown passes to the Buccaneers and look as if they’re quitting on coach Chip Kelly.

Sammy Watkins at Kansas City Chiefs

Bills coach Rex Ryan is talking about the need to get Watkins more touches, but can that be of any solace to frustrated Watkins owners at this point? It looked as if Watkins was finally ready for a much-anticipated breakout when he returned from an ankle injury in Week 9 and had eight catches for 168 yards and a touchdown against the Dolphins. But in the two games since, he’s had six catches for 53 yards. Watkins has 25 catches on the year, and he hasn’t been targeted more than eight times in any game.

Watkins has flashed tantalizing glimpses of his ability, and it’s clear that the dude can run an exquisite route. But the net results have been underwhelming in his two NFL seasons. It only makes sense that the Bills would do more to try to leverage his talents, considering that they dealt away their first- and fourth-round picks in this year’s draft in order to move up five spots to draft him fourth overall in 2014, ahead of receivers such as Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans. Watkins will be in Kansas City this week to take on the Chiefs, whose pass defense has been terrific lately after a wretched start. The Chiefs have held each of their last five opponents to 13 points or fewer.

Philip Rivers at Jacksonville Jaguars

Tom Brady isn’t the only quarterback dealing with a depleted cache of weapons. Rivers lost star WR Keenan Allen to a lacerated kidney in Week 8, and field-stretching WR Malcom Floyd sustained a shoulder injury in Week 9 that could keep him out the rest of the year. TEs Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green have been dealing with assorted ailments, and the Chargers seem to lose an offensive lineman to injury nearly every week.

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With his supporting cast dwindling, Rivers has slowed down after a torrid start. Over his first eight games, he threw 18 touchdown passes and averaged 344.1 passing yards. Over his last two games, he’s thrown one touchdown pass and averaged 229.0 passing yards. With the Chargers’ season circling the drain, frustration seemed to boil over in a 33–3 home loss to the Chiefs last weekend, as Rivers and Gates got into a heated sideline exchange. Rivers will try to get back on track Sunday against the Jaguars, but it might be difficult for him to recapture the early-season magic while relying on unaccomplished receivers such as Dontrelle Inman and Javontee Herndon.

Martavis Bryant at Seattle Seahawks

The matchup between the Steelers’ offense and the Seahawks’ defense is going to be a treat, and Bryant is a big part of the intrigue. The explosive second-year receiver has caught five touchdown passes in five games this season. (He missed four games due to suspension and one due to injury.) In his last game before Pittsburgh’s Week 11 bye, Bryant victimized the Browns for 178 yards and a touchdown.

If the Seahawks elect to have their cornerbacks stay rooted in their normal positions, as they often do, Bryan will get a lot of face time with ace cover man Richard Sherman. That would leave Antonio Brown to face either Cary Williams or DeShawn Shead—a glaring mismatch in Pittsburgh’s favor. But Seattle occasionally has Sherman shadow No. 1 receivers, and if they elect to put him on Brown … well, pick your poison, Seahawks.

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