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. Julio Jones at Panthers: The moment of matchup truth is upon us. Many of Jones’s owners have spent weeks fretting over his impending duels with ace Panthers cornerback Josh Norman in Weeks 14 and 16. Some of those owners may have even traded away Jones, fearful that Norman’s blanket coverage could derail their fantasy playoff run.
Yes, Norman has been a revelation this season, joining Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis and perhaps a few others in the elite class of cornerbacks so good that they need to be factored into fantasy owners’ lineup decisions. Another concern for Jones owners is the recent downturn in the Atlanta passing game. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has fallen into a funk, and Jones hasn’t had a TD catch since Halloween weekend. The volume has been stable, with Jones averaging 14 targets and eight catches a week during his current four-game scoring drought. But Jones has produced only 149 yards over his last two games, and it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll make his fantasy quota against Norman and the Panthers on Sunday.
2. LeSean McCoy at Eagles: Grudge match! You might recall that after Eagles head coach/GM Chip Kelly traded McCoy to the Bills in the off-season, McCoy vented about Kelly’s personnel moves. “There’s a reason he got rid of all the black players—the good ones—like that,” McCoy told ESPN. In an interview with Philadelphia radio station WIP-FM this week, McCoy claimed he had no issues with Kelly but refused to soften his earlier position. “I stand by it,” McCoy said. “I don’t take it back.”
With their upset of the Patriots last weekend, the Eagles are tied for first in the NFC East despite looking like they were quitting on Kelly just a couple of weeks ago. But the red-hot McCoy could help deal the Eagles’ playoff hopes a major blow this weekend. Shady has averaged 122.8 yards from scrimmage over his last five games and has punched in three touchdowns over that stretch.
3. Ben Roethlisberger at Bengals: Since returning from a sprained MCL in Week 8, Roethlisberger has averaged 359 passing yards per game, with 11 TDs and seven INTs. He’s thrown for at least 334 yards in four consecutive starts, and he just went all Red Wedding on the Colts, throwing for 364 yards and four TDs in a 45–10 bloodbath. Big Ben’s worst game since his return was his first game back, a home game against the Bengals, whom he’ll be facing again this week. Roethlisberger completed 28 of 45 passes for 262 yards against Cincinnati the first time around, throwing one TD pass and three interceptions.
There’s reason to believe things will be different this time, as the Pittsburgh passing game has been operating with lethal precision. Big Ben is averaging an outrageous 9.44 yards per pass attempt over his last three games, a run that included a matchup with Seattle’s smothering pass defense in which Big Ben dropped 456 yards on the Seahawks. Roethlisberger has a lethal pair of receivers in Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, and he’s been getting adequate pocket protection despite the losses of center Maurkice Pouncey and left tackle Kelvin Beachum to injury. But the Bengals’ pass defense is miserly, ranking fifth in the league in opponent passer rating and fourth in interceptions.
4. Jarvis Landry vs. Giants: Landry has been such a dependable reception machine that his fantasy owners were no doubt shocked by his two-catch, five-yard showing Sunday in Miami’s 15–13 win over Baltimore. Landry was more upset about it than his fantasy owners were, throwing a sideline tantrum that would make Terrell Owens blush. Fantasy owners who survived Landry’s worst statistical output of the season have to be at least slightly concerned by the sudden emergence of rookie DaVante Parker, who’s had a TD catch in two consecutive games and looks like a star in the making. Parker could potentially siphon targets away from Landry down the stretch.
But Landry owners have good reason to expect a rebound. The Dolphins host this week’s Monday night game against the Giants, who have allowed a league-high 328 completions and rank last in the league against the pass, giving up 314.5 yards per game through the air. Landry should also be motivated to deliver a good showing against the team that features his good buddy and former roommate at LSU, Odell Beckham Jr.
5. Charcandrick West vs. Chargers: There might not be a player causing more agita for his fantasy owners this week than West. After missing Week 12 with a hamstring injury, West returned to action in Week 13 but had just nine carries for 35 yards against the Raiders. Meanwhile, Kansas City’s other surprisingly good second-year running back, Spencer Ware, had seven carries for 26 yards and a touchdown, giving him four TDs in his last three games.
After Jamaal Charles was lost to a season-ending knee injury, West was terrific over a three-game stretch from late October to mid-November, piling up 412 yards from scrimmage and four TDs. But West owners are worried that the hamstring injury halted their man’s momentum and gave Ware an opening to crash the party. Perhaps they should take solace in the fact that West played 84% of the Chiefs’ offensive snaps on Sunday, while Ware played only 33%. Those owners should also feel good about a matchup with the Chargers, who’ve given up 12 rushing touchdowns this season and are being gashed for 4.7 yards per carry.
6. Jameis Winston vs. Saints: One of the finer pleasures of the 2015 NFL regular season has been watching Winston and Marcus Mariota thrive in their rookie campaigns. (Let’s set aside the debate about who’s better, since their respective teams and fan bases have both been delighted so far.) Winston has thrown for 17 touchdowns and has run for five more. He has a reasonable chance to throw for 4,000 yards, which would be quite a feat for a rookie. He’s slightly off the pace at the moment, but that could change quickly, because ...
Oh when the Saints ... go marching in ... oh when the Saints go marching in ... Oh Lord you always count on big numbers ... when the Saints go marching in. Winston faces the New Orleans defense this week, and his fantasy owners are eager to enjoy a Cajun-themed all-you-can-eat special at the statistical buffet. The Saints have allowed 35 TD passes this season, seven more than any other team, and are yielding 287.3 passing yards per game. In his first meeting with the Saints back in Week 2, Winston didn’t go berserk, but he was ruthlessly efficient in a 26–19 Bucs win, completing 14 of 21 passes for 207 yards, throwing for one TD and running for another.
7. Dez Bryant at Packers: The Cowboys’ star receiver returns to Green Bay, where a replay ruling on his controversial non-catch in last season’s playoffs denied the Cowboys a chance to advance to the NFC Championship Game. Best not to remind Dez about that overturned call, however, as he’s already in a prickly mood these days.
With Tony Romo felled by another shoulder injury, Bryant is back to relying on Matt Cassel to deliver him the ball, and delivery from United Cassel Service is notoriously unreliable. Bryant was targeted seven times against the Redskins on Monday night and had three receptions for 62 yards—a level of production that left him visibly enraged on at least one occasion. A Dallas win may have helped smooth things over in the short term, but Bryant probably won’t be pleased this week if he isn’t getting the ball. Over his last four games, Bryant has only 14 catches for 178 yards and one TD, which is WR4-caliber production. Here’s the thorny dilemma for Dez owners: You probably shouldn’t be starting him in the playoffs, but you’d be kicking yourself for months, maybe years, if you benched one of the best receivers in the league on a day he went off and your decision to bench him led to your elimination.
8. Ryan Mathews vs. Bills: Chip Kelly says he’s going to determine his RB rotation on a week-by-week basis, which is a thinly veiled way of saying that he’s benching DeMarco Murray. In the Eagles’ upset of the Patriots on Sunday, Murray played only 14 snaps and had fewer touches than both Darren Sproles and Kenjon Barner.
Mathews has missed the last three games with a concussion but is expected back this week. Although the Eagles’ backfield situation is hard to read, it stands to reason that Mathews will play a prominent role. He’s been productive when healthy throughout his six-year career (though Mathews been dinged more often than a demolition derby car), and he’s outperformed Murray this season. Mathews is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and has scored six touchdowns on 89 touches. Murray is averaging 3.5 yards per carry and has scored five TDs on 202 touches. Sproles and Barner are wild cards, but both are miscast as anything but role players. Mathews was unowned in a lot of fantasy leagues when this week began, but he’s suddenly a very appealing commodity.
9. Johnny Manziel vs. 49ers: There’s no need to rehash all the recent Johnny Football drama in Cleveland, since it’s been force-fed to you ad nauseam for more than two weeks. But Manziel’s performance against the 49ers this week should be of interest to all fantasy footballers, regardless of whether you made the playoffs, because it’s likely to offer clues about what sort of fantasy value Mr. Football might have for 2016.
There might even be a handful of owners who are starting Manziel in playoff games this week—or at least entertaining thoughts of doing so. I happen to think Manziel is a pretty viable fantasy play for Week 14. He’ll be facing a San Francisco pass defense that’s giving up 269.9 passing yards per game and 8.0 yards per pass attempt. And Manziel surely knows that he’ll have to have a good showing against the 49ers if he wants to be regarded by the Browns—or any other team, really—as a potential full-time starter. This game basically amounts to a job interview for Manziel, and if he plays poorly on Sunday, it probably won’t be for lack of effort.
10. Larry Fitzgerald vs. Vikings: After three consecutive seasons with fewer than 1,000 yards, Fitzgerald has been enjoying a renaissance year at age 32. He has 91 catches for 1,047 yards and seven TDs, and he’ll almost surely set a new single-season high in receptions, topping the 103 that he had in 2005, his second year in the league. But Fitz has just one touchdown over his last seven games and is averaging 9.9 yards per catch over that span. He’s averaged an alarmingly low 6.7 yards per catch over his last two games, and the concern is that with speedy receivers John Brown and Michael Floyd fully recovered from recent hamstring injuries, Fitzgerald will be relegated to the role of checkdown man.
But Fitz should have some extra pep in his step Thursday night against the Vikings (even though he said this week that he hates Thursday night games). Fitzgerald is a Minneapolis native and former Vikings ball boy, so a matchup against Minnesota might mean a little more to him than some of the other games on the schedule.