Roundtable: Fantasy football's thin RB pool and more Week 9 topics
- If the Cubs can win the World Series, you can win your fantasy league. SI's fantasy experts discuss how to play this week's lack of tight ends and which running backs you should buy low on for the stretch run.
Pat Fitzmaurice: They did it, Beller. The Cubs won the World Series. Congratulations, my friend.
We’ll get to fantasy football in a moment, dear reader, because that’s why you’re here. But let’s talk about the Cubs for just a minute, because this eagerly awaited triumph for a long-suffering franchise gets to the heart of why so many of us love sports, including our fantasy sports.
Beller is a Cubs fan, in case you weren’t aware. A huge Cubs fan. A descendant of Cubs fans. I’m not a Cubs fan, not at all. I know a lot of Cubs fans and have some within my family, and I’m happy for them. But I’ll be honest: As a monogamous Brewers fan waking up in Chicagoland Thursday morning to a championship that wasn’t mine, I was jealous as hell. As a lifelong supporter of the Packers, I’ve felt that championship ecstasy, and there are few better feelings in the world, if any. The longer you wait for your team to win a title, the more intense the ecstasy. No one has waited longer or suffered more indignity than Cubs fans. Many of the Cubs’ faithful didn’t live long enough to experience this, and in some cases their survivors wrote messages to them on the walls of Wrigley Field. (Excuse me ... I’m getting a little verklempt.) The Cubs fans still alive had borne their crosses long enough. They’d walked the Via Dolorosa with Mark DeRosa and Sammy Sosa. It was time.
And perhaps it will be time for you one day, too, Browns fans and Lions fans. It could even one day happen for Vikings fans, who have been kicked in the undercarriage more times than they care to remember. Eagles fans, Bengals fans, Chiefs fans—there are a lot of loyal NFL fan bases long overdue. Cubs Nation is now a beacon for downtrodden fans looking for hope. Cubs fans have shown us that all the suffering makes the rare successes that much sweeter. Sports would be boring if we were treated to an unending string of victories. Sports fans are defined more by their suffering than by their championships. Ditto for a lot of fantasy owners. Some people have been in leagues for 20-plus years without winning a championship. Some have been this close only to experience some sort of Bill Buckner-esque heartbreak. If you’re one of those owners, don’t lose hope. Channel your inner Theo Epstein. Ruthlessly self-evaluate your approach, fix what’s broken and then trust the process.
I could use Theo to help me manage my fantasy teams this week, Beller. We have another six-team bye week, and it’s a doozy. The TE position is a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Rob Gronkowski, Jordan Reed, Tyler Eifert, Martellus Bennett, Zach Miller and the suddenly vibrant C.J. Fiedorowicz are all on bye. In various leagues I’m going to be rolling out Dennis Pitta, Antonio Gates, Cameron Brate and Austin Hooper at tight end. Any off-brand TEs who appeal to you this week, Beller? Also, how are you feeling about Jay Ajayi this week, fresh from Miami’s bye? A third consecutive 200-yard rushing day is probably too much to ask against a tough Jets run defense, but is Ajayi still a top-10 running back for you this week? I have him at RB8. There’s no matchup I’m looking forward to more than the road-grading Miami offensive line against the nearly impregnable Jets defensive line. That’ll be trench warfare at its finest.
And of course, I need you to tell me how a Cubs championship feels.
Michael Beller: I’m still struggling to put it into words, Fitz. I haven’t exactly hid my Cubs fandom, but the full truth is that I’m the archetypal Cubs fan. I was born in Skokie, Ill., which is a real town about 15 miles north of downtown Chicago, not just a The Usual Suspects reference. My childhood home is 12 miles, door to door, from Wrigley Field. My grandfather, who would have turned 99 one week ago, grew up on the northwest side of the city and set his descendants on a path of unceasing loyalty to the Cubs. I’ve spent about 28 of my 32 years on the planet in Chicago, and now I live just a mile from Wrigley Field. Mark Grace and Ryne Sandberg were my childhood heroes. The Cubs have been as much a part of my life as my family and friends, and that’s no exaggeration.
I woke up on this lovely Thursday morning in Chicago as happy as I’ve ever been. To date, Nov. 2, 2016, goes down as the second best day of my life, behind the day I got engaged. I watched the game at my apartment with a group of 14 people, the closest friends in my life—most of them Cubs fans, but one White Sox fan mixed in for good measure—and their significant others. From Dexter Fowler’s homer in the first to Rajai Davis’s soul-crushing shot off Aroldis Chapman in the eighth, we were living and dying with every pitch. Of course there had to be a rain delay before the start of the 10th inning. It’s the Cubs and Indians in the World Series. There’s no possible script Hollywood would accept that this could play to. When it was over, I didn’t cry. I screamed, I laughed, I hugged my best friends, I drank champagne, and I walked to Wrigley Field to celebrate with tens of thousands of Cubs fans. It was only on Thursday morning, when the adrenaline faded and the moment fully sank in, that I cried.
I’ll have plenty more to say about the Cubs over the next few days, weeks, years or as long as anyone will still listen to me talk about them. I guess I can get to fantasy football for now. As you know, I’ve been riding with my man Hunter Henry in most of my leagues since about Week 4. I’ve backed him up with Gary Barnidge in many of those leagues, and this week I was trusting Austin Hooper, who rewarded me with three catches for 46 yards and a score on Thursday night, as well. Beyond that, what do we feel about Ladarius Green? Go back four months, and he was the best thing since sliced bread. The one thing that concerned me about Green was that he was always supposed to carve out a role alongside Antonio Gates, and it never happened. Maybe he just isn’t very good? We know he’s athletic, and he’s in one of the league’s best offenses. With Ben Roethilsberger under center, it’s entirely possible that Green turns into a rock-solid TE1 for the rest of the season. He’s the off-brand TE who most has my eye this week.
As for Ajayi, I’m locking him in as a top-10 back until he proves otherwise. No one lucks their way into consecutive 200-yard games. On top of that, the Dolphins are going to give him 20-plus touches per game. I know the Jets present a tough matchup, but give me great offense over great defense every day in today’s NFL, especially from a fantasy perspective. I think we see a strong game from Ajayi, something that results in 15 or more fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues.
I know we talked about the Saints’ backfield on our podcast this week, but what sort of breakdown do you think we see between Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower? Is it possible Hightower is the guy to own going forward? My prediction is a split slightly in Ingram’s favor on the order of 60-40. If that happens, I think both backs will produce RB2 numbers. The 49ers are absolutely atrocious against the run and have surrendered the most fantasy points per game to backs in standard formats. You want Ingram and Hightower in your lineups, regardless of what the split might be.
Be the Anthony Rizzo to my Kris Bryant, Fitz, and take this figurative throw from me. Unlike Rizzo, though, you can’t pocket it like he did the final out of the World Series. We need you to keep the roundtable chugging.
Fitz: The division of labor between Ingram and Hightower is unquestionably the most vexing question of Week 9. I tend to think that Ingram should start this week, but my thoughts on the matter are irrelevant. Sean Payton’s opinion is the only one that matters. Ingram has hardly been a chronic fumbler. Entering Week 7, he’d lost three fumbles in 939 regular-season touches covering 67 games. I suspect that Payton had reasons for benching Ingram that go beyond the fumbles in consecutive weeks. I, too, can envision something like a 60-40 split, but I think Hightower is more likely to get the majority share. The good news for Ingram owners is that running on the 49ers is like running on Purdue. Even if Ingram spends most of the game in the doghouse and only gets 8–10 carries, he could still come away with, say, 60 yards and a TD.
The RB position is tapeworm-thin this week, so let’s take a deep dive on a couple of young guys who haven’t popped yet. During the Ravens’ Week 8 bye, John Harbaugh talked about wanting to get rookie Kenneth Dixon more involved. I spent weeks crying wolf on Dixon as a waiver-wire gem earlier this season before being chased out of town by pitchfork-wielding owners who dropped valuable FAAB money on a player getting two or three touches a week. Mea culpa: I didn’t think Terrance West was going to be a big factor this year. West was terrific for the first three games of October, running for 295 yards and three TDs. He hit a brick wall in Week 7, however, with eight carries for only 10 yards against the Jets. This is a tough situation to peg, but what are your instincts telling you about West and Dixon? The other guy I want to get your thoughts on is Paul Perkins. Is it just a matter of time before the rookie from UCLA gets a crack at a significant role for the Giants? Must we keep pretending that Rashad Jennings is a decent NFL running back? I say put Perkins in there and see if he percolates.
Looking at Sunday’s slate, the Broncos-Raiders game Sunday night should be a peach, but the daytime lineup looks pretty uninspiring. One of the games I’m intrigued by from a fantasy standpoint is Cowboys-Browns. Corey Coleman is expected to return from a broken hand. I’m eager to see how he fares and how targets are allotted between Coleman, Terrelle Pryor and Gary Barnidge. The Browns’ roster is obviously a work in progress, but a Coleman-Pryor combo has the potential to be wildly entertaining. I also want to see what Dez Bryant can do for an encore after dropping 113 yards and a TD on the Eagles last week. Thing is, Bryant was targeted 14 times last week but caught only four passes. It seemed as if Dez and Dak Prescott were out of sync early in that game, and Prescott forced some ill-advised throws to the star receiver. I think Prescott deserves to remain the starter over newly healed veteran Tony Romo, but I suspect that Bryant would put up shinier fantasy numbers with Romo at the rudder.
What say you, my man? And for the record, what was your drink of choice during the Cubs’ victory celebration? Did you stay in one lane, or were you throwing down whatever was put in front of you?
Beller: During the game, I was drinking various Lagunitas brews. Mostly Little Sumpin and 12th of Never, which is an ale. After the game, I made a move over to champagne. My friends and I might have had a few flasks filled with bourbon with us once we made the walk up to Wrigley, too (don’t tell the Chicago police). From start to finish, it was an incredible night, one I will never be forgetting the rest of my life.
I was right there with you on Dixon, but I think I’m out now. I just don’t trust the Baltimore brain trust right now, and that’s half the battle. Talent is great, but workload is crucial, and I’m not willing to bet Dixon will have a significant one. I’m still happy to have him on my roster for depth, especially with 14 teams going on bye over the next three weeks, but I’m not expecting anything from him. The one thing working in his favor is his receiving chops, which should help him carve out a role in the offense. I’m totally in agreement on Perkins. Jennings is a cooked goose. It’s time to see what Perkins can do. The Giants aren’t long on playmakers at running back. At the very least, we know Perkins is a great athlete. The Giants would be foolish to keep him in the garage in the second half of the season. Of course, Ben McAdoo hasn’t inspired much confidence in his first season as head coach, so we’ll see if and how he deploys Perkins on Sunday.
You know what game I’m pumped for, Fitz? Titans-Chargers. The Titans are right in the thick of the AFC South and wild-card race, and no team will want to see them in the playoffs. The Chargers have a long road ahead of them to get to the playoffs, and they’ll likely regret those games they gave away early in the season. Still, they’re one of the most entertaining teams in the league, thanks in large part to Philip Rivers. With the San Diego passing game and Melvin Gordon on one side, and Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee rushing attack—whether it’s DeMarco Murray or Derrick Henry leading the way—on the other, I’m expecting an entertaining show in San Diego this weekend. I actually like the Titans to go in there and get a victory in one of the best-played games this week. Are there any upsets on your radar?
Let’s assume Ben Roethlisberger plays on Sunday. What are we expecting to see from the Steelers? We know Roethlisberger is a different quarterback on the road than he is at home, and he hasn’t played since Week 6. Are you tempering your expectations for Antonio Brown or Le’Veon Bell, especially considering the Ravens’ defense has been rather stout this season?
Fitz: I have mixed feelings about Big Ben’s prospects if he’s able to return. As you mentioned, his road splits have been surprisingly anemic, and it’s fair to wonder if he’ll be anywhere near the height of his powers coming off the knee injury. I’m less worried about Bell. As our buddy Rich Hribar over at Rotoworld noted, Bell hasn’t scored a TD in the four games since he’s been back but has still been a top-12 scorer every week. I’m not too worried about Antonio Brown either. The Ravens don’t have a cornerback capable of blanketing him. The guy I’m curious about is Sammie Coates. He hasn’t missed any practice time this week, which suggests that his hand injury has healed. He’s such a big-play threat, and if Roethlisberger is himself, Coates could detonate. He’s going to pose a lineup dilemma for a lot of owners this week.
Is it insane to think that the Browns could bump off the Cowboys this week? The Browns aren’t going 0–16. Not happening. It feels like this could be a hangover game for the Cowboys after their Sunday-night win over the division-rival Eagles. The Cowboys are the league’s longest running soap opera, so it’s not hard to imagine Dak Prescott hitting a rookie speed-bump and sparking a full-blown QB controversy in Dallas. Give me the Browns to cover the seven points (7.5 in some spots) and possibly win outright.
All right, Beller. You’re tired and happy, so it’s time to wrap this up and let you get some well-deserved sleep. But before we go, I need two things from you. Now that the Cubs’ long drought has ended, I need you to tell me which NFL championship drought you’d like to see end—and you can’t give me your beloved Bears. It has to be someone else. For me it’s the Browns. Ohio is the cradle of American football, and those fans have had it rough. How about you? And finally, paint a picture for me: Give me one thing you witnessed or experienced during the championship celebration that you’ll remember forever.
Beller: With all due respect to the Lions and Browns and their faithful fans, I’ll say the Vikings. That’s a fan base that has dealt with a ton of heartbreak, most recently in the 2010 playoffs in that incredible overtime loss to the Saints in the NFC Championship Game. Minnesota as a whole has had some great teams recently, most notably the Ron Gardenhire Twins and Kevin Garnett Timberwolves, but they haven’t won a championship since the Twins took home the World Series in 1991. We both know a lot of Minnesotans from our time at Wisconsin. They’re good people. I’d like to see them get a title, especially for their beloved Vikings.
Fitz, I grew up with a very close-knit group of friends. We all go back to at least high school, and I’ve been friends with some of them since we were five years old. Most of us still live in Chicago, and we’re together all the time. But we never had a night like this past Wednesday. We used to watch Mark Grace and Ryne Sandberg together. Then it was Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Mark Grudzielanek. Then it was Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee. Now it’s Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, the best starting staff in baseball and the rest of Chicago’s greatest heroes. Getting to celebrate a Cubs World Series championship with my best friends is something I will treasure forever.
Enjoy the games this weekend.