Conference championship DFS picks: Fitzgerald, Brady are mandatory buys
This weekend marks the end of the DFS football season. As you probably know, FanDuel and the other DFS sites aren’t legally permitted to run single-event contests, so there won’t be any DFS action for the Super Bowl. Got that? You won’t have any action whatsoever on the Super Bowl. (Ahem.)
The four NFL teams still alive all play lights-out defense, and the pool of available players is shallow. That makes lineup construction quite a challenge for conference championship weekend. Let’s look at the most attractive DFS options for this last-hurrah weekend.
Jonathan Stewart, RB, Panthers ($7,000) – In his first game back since spraining his ankle in Week 14, Stewart ran for 106 yards and two touchdowns in Carolina’s win over Seattle. Stewart didn’t practice on Wednesday, but he’s expected to be ready for Sunday. With so few viable options at running back this week, Stewart certainly warrants a look, and he’s $1,000 cheaper than Arizona’s David Johnson.
C.J. Anderson, RB, Broncos ($6,300) – Anderson has run for a touchdown in three consecutive games. When the Broncos beat the Patriots back in Week 12, Anderson had 153 yards from scrimmage and two TD runs, including the 48-yard game-winner in overtime.
Ronnie Hillman, RB, Broncos ($5,700) – It’s undeniable that Hillman has been less productive than C.J. Anderson over Denver’s last six games. But Hillman scored seven TDs and finished just shy of 1,000 yards from scrimmage in the regular season, and he’s splitting snaps and touches with Anderson pretty evenly. Put it this way: Hillman is $600 cheaper than his platoon partner, and is there at least a reasonable chance he’ll outperform Anderson this week? I think there is.
Jordan Norwood, WR, Broncos ($4,500) – During the regular season, it’s easy to stay under budget when constructing a DFS lineup because there’s no shortage of cheap but viable options. But now, with just four teams left, the bargain bin is nearly empty. Among the dirt-cheap players who can help clear salary-cap space for you this week, I’m drawn to Norwood. He’s been targeted 14 times in the Broncos’ last three games, catching eight passes for 95 yards.
Greg Olsen, TE, Panthers ($7,000) – Unless you want to wave the white flag with a cheap, unproductive tight end, there are only two options at the position this week: Olsen and New England’s Rob Gronkowski. Olsen is the significantly cheaper option and no less essential to the Panthers’ offense than Gronk is to the Patriots’. Olsen had six catches for 77 yards and a TD against the Seahawks last week.
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers ($8,500) – You can make a solid case for using any of the starting quarterbacks this week with the exception of the arm-weary Peyton Manning. The primary argument for Cam is that if he goes off and you don’t have him, it’s going to be awfully hard for you to make up ground on all the Cam buyers. Of course, it’s not a given that he’ll go off against a good Arizona defense. Last week we saw the combination of a tough Seattle defense and an unfavorable game script keep Newton’s numbers tamped down. Even in an MVP-caliber season, Cam has been held to just one TD (whether passing or rushing) on four occasions. On the other hand, he’s averaged 2.7 TDs per game and is the single most explosive weapon in this week’s player pool.
Tom Brady, QB, Patriots ($8,100) – Yes, Brady faces a terrific Denver defense on the road, and his wobbly offensive line must contend with the Broncos’ fearsome pass rush. But Brady faced a very good Kansas City pass defense last week and threw for 302 yards and two TDs, adding a rushing touchdown for good measure. In his last four playoff games, he’s averaged 305.8 passing yards and three TD passes. I’m finding it hard to fade Brady now that we’re deep into the playoffs, where he’s often at his best.
Carson Palmer, QB, Cardinals ($7,700) – Truth is, Palmer hasn’t been sharp in his last two games. He struggled against the Seahawks in Week 17. Although he threw for 349 yards and three TDs against the Packers last week, he threw two interceptions and had a couple of other throws that should have been intercepted. Also, his yardage numbers were padded by the 75-yard overtime catch-and-run by Larry Fitzgerald on what was essentially a broken play. The upside? Palmer remains a terrific QB, and he’s priced cheaper than Newton and Brady. The Cardinals also have three fine receivers in Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and John Brown. Buying Palmer is a way to leverage the collective talent of that group without the guesswork of trying to determine which of them will put up good numbers Sunday in Charlotte.
David Johnson, RB, Cardinals ($8,000) – He was surprisingly quiet against the Packers last Saturday, rushing for only 35 yards and totaling 78 yards from scrimmage, but Johnson is still the cream of a weak RB crop. The Panthers’ run defense is good but not impregnable. Carolina gave up 11 rushing TDs during the regular season, more than any of the remaining playoff teams.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals ($8,000) – It’s not entirely clear which of the Arizona receivers Josh Norman will cover on Sunday, but it’s a good bet that the Panthers’ ace cornerback won’t be matched up against Fitzgerald very often. Fitz lines up in the slot a majority of the time, and Norman rarely covers slot receivers. Fitzgerald is more likely to see plenty of veteran corner Cortland Finnegan, who was out of football until the Panthers signed him in late November after putting Charles Tillman on injured reserve. That’s a mismatch Fitz should be able to exploit.
Julian Edelman, WR, Patriots ($7,800) – The high-volume receiver held up well last weekend in his first action since breaking his foot in mid-November. Edelman caught 10 of 16 targets for 100 yards in the Patriots’ victory over the Chiefs and picked up 11 yards on a reverse. The Broncos will try to cover Edelman with Chris Harris Jr., a top cornerback who’s playing at less than full strength due to a shoulder injury.
Michael Floyd, WR, Cardinals ($7,500) – It’s possible that Floyd will get a lot of face time with the aforementioned Norman, but it’s also possible Norman will be matched up against John Brown on a lot of snaps. Floyd has eight TD catches over his last 11 games and has averaged 16.4 yards per catch over that stretch. He’s been underpriced for weeks, and even though Norman is casting a shadow here, I still like Floyd’s chance of providing a satisfying return on investment.
Rob Gronkowski, WR, Patriots ($8,900) – Gronkowski is the highest-priced player on the board this week, but his two-TD performance against the Chiefs in the divisional round was a reminder that he’s often worth the money. Remember, if you’re going out with Gronk, you’re not going to end up in a dive bar; you’re going to be paying for bottle service.
Top kicker values: Graham Gano ($4,700), Stephen Gostkowski ($5,100)
Top defense values: New England ($4,600), Carolina ($5,100)
Here’s the lineup I’m entering in FanDuel’s $18K Sunday NFL Big $10 Triple Up:
Tom Brady ($8,100)
David Johnson ($8,000)
Ronnie Hillman ($5,700)
Larry Fitzgerald ($8,000)
Michael Floyd ($7,500)
Jordan Norwood ($4,500)
Rob Gronkowski ($8,900)
Graham Gano ($4,700)
New England ($4,600)
The cold hard fact is that every single QB, RB, WR and TE in action this week is going up against an excellent defense. Therefore, I began constructing my lineup by seeking out the sturdiest life raft I could find, and I could find none sturdier than the Brady-to-Gronkowski connection. Newton and Palmer have their charms, but I completely trust Brady in a critical playoff game. Gronk is apt to play a big role in any given week, but I think he’ll be particularly essential this week since the Broncos’ cornerbacks are going to pose such a challenge for the Patriots’ wide receivers.
I can only afford one of the top two RBs, and I’m paying up for the fully healthy Johnson rather than spending $1,000 less for Stewart and praying that his ankle holds up. I’m also taking the reasonably priced Hillman. Some will contend that a Stewart-Anderson combo provides better value than the Johnson-Hillman duo (and at $400 less), but I feel strongly about paying for Johnson’s high-end potential.
Fitzgerald is almost a mandatory buy due to the matchup with Cortland Finnegan. I also like Floyd at his price, even though it’s probably too much to ask for both Fitz and Floyd to have big games. I have to save money somewhere, and as mentioned above, I think Norwood is the best of the flea-market options.
Frankly, I don’t see much difference between the kickers this week. Gano is the second-cheapest this week, costing just $100 more than Catanzaro, and I suppose I’m willing to spend the $100 for home-field advantage. I like the Patriots’ defense as a way of betting against Peyton Manning, whose arm looks shot. It’s not hard to imagine the Patriots intercepting a couple of Manning flutterballs on Sunday. The folks at Pro-Football Reference noted on Twitter the other day that 15.1% of the Broncos’ drives ended with a turnover this season, the sixth-highest percentage in the league.