Week 4 begins gut-check time for fantasy football owners, bringing with it the first of the staggered bye weeks that will stretch lineups thin for the rest of the fantasy season. As usual, there are also plenty of injuries and head-scratching performances to process as the first month of the season winds down. From Sunday morning’s potentially defense-optional showdown of the Colts and Jaguars overseas to Monday night’s NFC slugfest in Minnesota, SI.com fantasy experts Michael Beller and Pat Fitzmaurice discuss a handful of topics to help owners sift through the news and trends leading up to this weekend’s action.
Fitz: Like Ray Charles, I’ve got Georgia on my mind this week, Beller. Where are you on the Atlanta running backs after Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman wrought double destruction upon the Saints?
Granted, there’s always an asterisk attached to anything done against the New Orleans defense. Some fantasy analyst—and I wish I could bestow proper credit, but I can’t recall who it was—compared the Saints Effect in fantasy football to the Coors Field Effect in fantasy baseball. Just as fantasy baseball owners want a stake in Rockies home games because of the thin mountain air, fantasy football owners want to have players going in Saints games, since the Saints can move the ball with ease but couldn’t stop a Pop Warner offense.
That said, Freeman and Coleman both looked terrific on Monday. Now they face a good Carolina run defense. It’s interesting that the Falcons aren’t playing their RBs situationally; they’re using pretty much the entire playbook regardless of which one is on the field. Coleman punched in the three TDs Monday night, but I was more impressed with Freeman. It’s just an eye-test thing for me: Freeman is harder to tackle. That’s not to say Coleman is unworthy of the work he’s getting, but in a tough matchup like the one the Atlanta RBs have this week, I’m feeling more confident about Freeman. Where are you putting Coleman and Freeman in your RB rankings this week?
Can I also take your temperature on a few quarterbacks? I’d love to get some quick thoughts from you on double-consonant QBs Blake Bortles, Kirk Cousins and Tyrod Taylor.
I watched the replay of Ravens-Jaguars on my train ride home last night and almost missed my stop because I couldn’t avert my eyes from the Bortles disaster. He was awful, Beller, just awful. Even some of his shorter throws were badly off target. I’m starting to wonder if he’s really the Jaguars’ quarterback of the future. The more I see of him, the less I think of his NFL future. And yet, Bortles has a pretty appealing matchup against the Colts in Merry Olde England. Cousins has an appealing matchup, too, going up against a Browns defense that might be without its best player, cornerback Joe Haden.
You know I’m not a big Cousins fan, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Jay Gruden benched him for Colt McCoy at some point. But aside from his red-zone woes—Cousins couldn’t complete a fade pass if his life depended on it—he hasn’t been that bad so far. He and Bortles are both in my top 10 at quarterback this week despite my misgivings about both guys.
But Taylor? I don’t like his prospects against the Patriots this week. He’s managed to produce good fantasy numbers the last two weeks, but Taylor is so completely scattershot on short- and medium-range passes that I find it hard to take the leap of faith and insert him into one of my lineups, hoping he squeezes out enough rushing yards to make his weekly quota. It’s weird that Taylor throws such a nice deep ball yet is so Tebow-esque on shorter throws.
Make sense of it all for me, amigo.
Beller: “Georgia on My Mind”. Such a great song. Have you ever heard The Band’s version of it? That Richard Manuel could sing. Best North American band of all-time, and I don’t even want to hear any other suggestions.
O.K., back to the football. I was blown away by what Freeman and Coleman were able to do last week. It’s remarkable how both have been so good without having too significant an effect on the other. We’ve seen it for three weeks now, and that’s enough for me to believe it can continue all season. I agree, however, that Freeman is the superior play this week. For my money, Freeman is a high-end RB2, while Coleman is on the low end. I could tweak their rankings before kickoff, but I’ve got Freeman 13th among running backs and Coleman 23rd.
You know where I stand on Cousins, but I’m with you this week. Every quarterback goes into a game against the Browns with a floor of 250 yards and two touchdowns. I’ll begrudgingly admit that Cousins is competent enough that when you give him a cache of weapons that includes Jordan Reed, DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder, Pierre Garcon and Chris Thompson, and a solid play-caller and offensive schemer like Jay Gruden, he’s going to produce from a fantasy perspective more often than not. Give him all that and a matchup with the Browns, and the fireworks are primed. Not only do I expect a big game from him this week, but I also have heavy exposure to him in my DFS lineups.
I’ve got Bortles right on the QB1-2 borderline. I listed him as a sit in my start/sit column for Week 4, but that was mostly by circumstance. He’s my No. 13 quarterback, so there are plenty of guys I’d start him over. He’s just maddeningly erratic. Some of the throws he has missed this year have rightly set off alarm bells in Jacksonville. I agree wholeheartedly that there’s no guarantee he’s the answer at quarterback for the Jaguars. The rest of this season should be viewed as 13 weeks of make-good time for Bortles. He’s in his third year now. These misses shouldn’t be happening. And yet, the matchup is so appealing that I understand fantasy owners plugging him into their lineups this week. I’m playing him over the likes of Eli Manning and Russell Wilson.
I loved Taylor coming into the season, but his stats belie the fact that he simply hasn’t been good. A couple of long touchdown passes will do that for you. I think the domino effect of Sammy Watkins’s absence gives him some cover, but you’re right on with his Tebow-esque accuracy on short and intermediate routes. Maybe we can get Taylor to the instructional league, let him hit a homer in his first plate appearance to build up his confidence, and get him back to the Bills before kickoff Sunday. Short of that, I can’t imagine playing him in a fantasy league any time soon. He’s a low-end QB2 who’s still attractive in superflex leagues because of his rushing floor, but I don’t even view him as a regular streamer in traditional leagues.
I’m aboard the Dwayne Washington train in a big way this week. My thinking: A) He’s a good runner, certainly better than Theo Riddick; B) The Lions would be unwise to risk Riddick’s health on middling gains in the run game; C) The Bears’ defense is atrocious; and D) Lions-Bears should be a high-scoring game. I think Washington can give you RB2 numbers this week. He’s another guy I love in DFS contests. Am I too bullish on the rookie?
This is the week Lamar Miller owners have been waiting for. I own him in more leagues than any other top-20 ADP player, and he was my No. 1 running back coming into the season. Houston has treated him like the feature back he is, but he has yet to get in the end zone. I think that ends in a big way this week. I’m calling a two-touchdown game for Miller. The running backs are going to be the stars of that show. Houston’s run defense was already foundering, and now J.J. Watt is done for the season. I think we get a pair of top-five RB performances in Texans-Titans, with DeMarco Murray continuing his standout debut season in Nashville.
I’ll conclude with a question. What do you make of Rob Gronkowski this week? He was a virtual no-show last week, but has had 10 days off and has to be near 100%. Do you trust him, considering prior shenanigans and the quarterback uncertainties in New England?
Fitz: Afraid I don’t share your enthusiasm for Dwayne Washington this week, Beller. I mean, sure, if Matthew Stafford is handing the ball off, it should be to D-Wash, not Riddick. But Stafford has thrown 39, 40 and 41 passes in Detroit’s first three games, and it’s hard to envision Stafford and Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter collaborating on a run-heavy (or even balanced, for that matter) plan of attack. Also, the Detroit offensive line couldn’t open a hole in a wall of cotton candy. (Not that the Bears’ defense provides as much resistance as cotton candy, but the point stands.) I realize Washington is attractively priced in DFS. But his value is too TD-dependent, and I’d rather not leave everything to the vagaries of TD-scoring. He might not get enough carries to put up a big yardage total, and we know that Riddick owns the pass-catching opportunities in that backfield.
Indeed, DeMarco Murray should have a big day for the Titans on Sunday. The Houston pass defense obviously won’t be as fearsome without J.J. Watt, but the Texans are still going to be much better against the pass than they are against the run. Results have been mixed for the Titans’ “Exotic Smashmouth” offense. The Exotic hasn’t been working so well, but the Smashmouth has worked quite well. Murray and Derrick Henry are going to hammer away at that Texans defense all day.
I’m not as sure about Miller. Numbers wizard and Stratego enthusiast Rich Hribar of Rotoworld noted that of the 23 running backs with 40 or more touches this season, Murray ranks first with 1.22 fantasy points per touch, and Miller ranks last with .50 fantasy points per touch. Miller owners are obviously thrilled with the volume he’s been getting, but you have to wonder if former Dolphins coach Joe Philbin is chuckling about Miller’s lack of production so far. I think Miller is going to break loose soon, but if the colossally overpaid Brock Osweiler doesn’t start converting the occasional third down, who knows?
What to do with Gronk? I rank him below the other three top-tier tight ends—Jordan Reed, Greg Olsen and Travis Kelce—but ahead of everyone else. Congratulations to Kyle Rudolph on his fast start, and maybe it’s even sustainable in light of the heavy target share he’s been getting, but there is no freaking way I can rank Rudolph or anyone of his ilk ahead of Rob Gronkowski. If that means I have my head in the sand about his quarterback and his recovery from the hamstring injury, then I’ll live with the grit in my teeth.
Whoa, whoa, whoa ... The Band as the best North American band of all time? You can’t seriously think I’m going to let that one pass without argument, do you, Beller? All due respect to The Band: They have a fine catalog, and you certainly have to credit them for all the music they made with Bob Dylan. I just don’t know if the highs were high enough. I think there’s an excellent case to be made for R.E.M. as the greatest North American band of all time (though the case would be even stronger if they’d packed it in after the release of Automatic for the People). And aren’t you a Pearl Jam fan? I think their case gets stronger each year, bolstered by their reputation for great concerts. And what about Nirvana? The catalog may be light, but did any North American band ever burn hotter while they were around? The Band is Curtis Martin; Nirvana is Gayle Sayers. And while I won’t personally go to bat for either the Beach Boys or Creedence Clearwater Revival, others have made their cases pretty convincingly.
And you said North American bands, did you not? Levon Helm was a hell of a musician, but purely as a drummer, he wasn’t fit to polish Neil Peart’s cymbals. Perhaps the greatest North American band ever hails from north of the border. Don’t you dare undersell Rush, Beller.
Beller: That’s a quality stat on Miller and Murray from Hribar. He and I actually had a very important exchange on Twitter about nicknames on Thursday that I suggest you all check out. It’s time for our Cameron Brate (mine) and Adam Humphries (his) nickname ideas to stick. I still have all the faith in the world in Miller, though. The talent and opportunity are both too great for him to stay under wraps another week.
I’m right there with you on Gronk. The only tight ends I’d play ahead of him are Reed and Olsen. I think he got his feet wet last week and will be mostly unleashed against the Bills this week. Bill Belichick isn’t going to let Rex Ryan get one over on him. The usual ceiling isn’t there for Gronk, but I’m predicting he not only gets his first handful of catches on the year but finds the end zone, as well.
Let’s stick at tight end for a second. How weird has the position been this season? Back in the summer, it appeared like it would be reliably deep. By the time we were drafting, it shallowed out because of injuries and headlines like (I’m paraphrasing) “Coby Fleener still doesn’t know where New Orleans is.” Over the last two weeks, the pool filled out again. Eric Ebron is turning into a legitimate weapon, especially given the design of Jim Bob Cooter’s offense. Kyle Rudolph has put together three strong games and is the No. 2 tight end in standard-scoring and PPR leagues. Dennis Pitta got healthy and is picking up where he left off before hip injuries derailed his career. Zach Miller is the second most reliable pass catcher in Chicago. Fleener found New Orleans on a map, and then had his way with the Falcons. And now Hunter Henry has a chance to emerge with Antonio Gates on the shelf. Give me a quick rest-of-season ranking of those guys.
If you’re a fan of 1-on-1 matchups within the greater context of a football game, especially out wide, Week 4 was meant for you. There are a few great receiver-corner showdowns on the horizon. I’m going to list these with a “v.” instead of “vs.” because I like to pretend they’re Supreme Court cases. Antonio Brown v. Marcus Peters? Allen Robinson v. Vontae Davis? Brandin Cooks v. Jason Verrett? Kelvin Benjamin v. Desmond Trufant? Mike Evans v. Aqib Talib and Chris Harris? Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz v. the Minnesota secondary (assuming the Giants’ line can keep the Vikings’ fearsome pass rush off Eli Manning)? Alshon Jeffery v. Darius Slay? In a given week, any of those could be the best receiver-corner matchup on tap. That all are in Week 4 is a bounty for those of us who love watching the best receivers and corners go heads-up for 60 minutes.
Time for the upset pick portion of the roundtable. Give me the Jets over the Seahawks. The Jets will be without Eric Decker, and possibly won’t have him back for a while, because of a partially torn rotator cuff, but I think they gut this one out. Russell Wilson isn’t 100%, and we know how challenging it can be for a West Coast team to fly all the way east and play a 1 p.m. ET game, which is 10 a.m. back in the Pacific time zone. It doesn’t help that Seattle-to-New York is about as far a flight as you can have in the continental United States. The Jets squeak this one out, 17–16. Call me crazy, but I think the Bucs pull a stunner and knock the Broncos from the ranks of the unbeaten. I’m not sure how they do it, but I know it involves everyone finally agreeing after the game that Mike Evans is one of the premier receivers in the NFL.
Please tell me you’re not putting R.E.M. anywhere near The Band. Tell me you didn’t just do that, Fitz. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, these are great bands. But no band has ever matched the pure musicality of The Band. They could turn themselves into a five-piece orchestra at the drop of a hat, and then rock as hard as the Stones the very next song. Three different lead singers, all of whose voices lend to different styles. The highs weren’t high enough? I think someone’s in need of some education backstage. As for Neil Peart, get back to me when he does this.
Fitz: Don’t you dare bad-mouth Neil Peart. He’s the Jerry Rice of drummers: the greatest of all time.
Yeah, the tight end position is strange this year. The top two guys, Gronkowski and Reed, haven’t given owners much of a return on their investment so far (although Gronk obviously has an excuse). It’s been a mixed bag with the mid-tier guys. Some are paying off (Kelce, Ebron), some aren’t (Antonio Gates, Jared Cook, Gary Barnidge), and others are complete enigmas (Fleener). Of the ones you mentioned, I’ll rate them in this order for the rest of the year: Ebron, Fleener, Rudolph, Miller, Pitta, Henry.
Ebron is starting to show why he was a first-round pick (even if it was still a questionable pick by then GM Martin Mayhew), and the Lions throw the ball all over the yard. Fleener might not be any good at football, but Drew Brees will drag him kicking and screaming into the top 10 in TE fantasy scoring. It’s hard to see Rudolph continuing to get such a massive share of targets, but until rookie receiver Laquon Treadwell wakes up, Sam Bradford will only have eyes for Rudolph and Stefon Diggs. Miller is such a pedestrian talent, but it seems like he’s destined to play a big role for the Bears and their rudimentary passing attack. I’d sooner bet on the Washington Generals than on Dennis Pitta’s health, though I think Pitta will continue to produce whenever he plays. I can’t buy into any rookie TE, and it’s possible that Antonio Gates isn’t toasted yet, in which case Henry would lose relevance.
There are indeed some tasty WR-CB matchups this week. I don’t have much else to add to your rundown of the best ones, but I would urge fantasy owners not to overreact when their stud WR faces a top CB. I own Mike Evans in several leagues, and while I don’t love his matchup against the Broncos this week, there’s no way I’m sitting him for, say, Golden Tate. (Now just watch Tate score three TDs against the Bears.)
O.K., Beller, you’re forgiven for not acknowledging my Bills-over-Cardinals upset pick in last week’s exchange. Let’s keep it rolling: I like the Giants to knock off the Vikings at their new crib in Minneapolis, even though the line opened at Vikings -3.5 and has risen to -5. This is less about the Giants, the most Jekyll-and-Hyde team in the NFL, than it is about the Vikings. Yes, Minnesota’s defense is terrific, but I can’t buy into that offense, and I think Sam Bradford is due for a mistake-filled game. I also suspect that the Vikes might be feeling a little too fat and happy after consecutive wins over the Packers and Panthers. (And by the way, I don’t hate your Jets-over-Seahawks call. As mad as Todd Bowles was after the Jets’ loss to the Chiefs last week, I would at least expect the Jets to show some fire this week.)
All right, Beller. This conversation has gotten me pumped up for Week 4—and to go put on Exit...Stage Left. Before we part ways, you know what I need to hear from you, right? I need one more prediction: How will our beloved Wisconsin Badgers fare when they march into Ann Arbor tomorrow to take on the hated (by me, at least) Michigan Wolverines? Can our boys take the pleats out of Jim Harbaugh’s khakis?
Beller: I’ll take that last part first. I was shocked when Michigan opened as 10-point favorites. I thought it was going to be closer to a touchdown. I think the Wisconsin defense is far too good for the team to get blown out, even with linebacker Vince Biegel out because of a foot injury. T.J. Watt (yes, another Watt), Olive Sagapolu, Jack Cichy, T.J. Edwards, Leo Musso, Derrick Tindal ... what I’m saying is there’s a ton of talent on all three levels of the defense. Having said that, Michigan is a whole lot more talented than LSU and Michigan State, and Jim Harbaugh’s got himself quite a defense, as well. I liked what I saw from Alex Hornibrook last week, and Corey Clement can be a star, but I’m not ready to say the Badgers will leave Ann Arbor with another top-10 win. I hope I’m wrong, but I’ll say Michigan 20, Wisconsin 13.
You’ve nailed a couple upset picks in a row, so I’m going to ride with you on the Giants. I know the Minnesota pass rush is going to give Manning some trouble, but I don’t think they pitch another complete game one-hitter the way they did against the Panthers and Packers the last two weeks. I think we see Odell Beckham Jr. get in the end zone for the first time this season. Never sit Odell.
All right Fitz, I’m putting a bow on this thing this week. I’m going to go Across the Great Divide, sail Up on Cripple Creek, lift off The Weight of the work day, and get ready for Sunday. Enjoy the games, my friend.