Injuries have opened the door for two running backs to carry the load for fantasy owners during the 2014 Bye Week Apocalypse. The opportunity and expected volume makes both Bobby Rainey and Jeremy Hill solid fantasy starters, but the latter has a serious chance to disappoint his owners this week.
Let’s start on the good side of the coin. During a week in which Matt Forte, Eddie Lacy, Joique Bell and Reggie Bush are all out, Rainey can come to your rescue. Doug Martin is dealing with an ankle injury and general underperformance that has plagued him all season long. Martin didn’t practice all week, and that makes Rainey the presumed starter.
When given a chance, Rainey has starred for the Buccaneers this season. He has rushed 62 times for 287 yards, caught 22 passes for 180 yards, and hit paydirt two times. He’s averaging 5.56 yards per touch this year, just a shade behind DeMarco Murray’s 5.57 yards per touch, albeit in a much smaller sample. Rainey has had trouble with ball security, fumbling three times in his limited duty this season, but that shouldn’t stop the Buccaneers from giving him 15-plus touches in what should be a great matchup. The Browns have conceded the seventh-most fantasy points per game to running backs.
Bucs rookie Charles Sims could be activated from the IR/eligible to return list after missing the entire season to this point with an ankle injury. Sims could very well become the feature back in Tampa, as many reports suggest, but it’s unlikely he’d start in that role in his first career game. The rookie has a ton of long-term potential, and we could see his presence increase week after week. Rainey may just have this one-week window to make a fantasy impact, but if that leads you to a win, it doesn’t matter if it slams shut in Week 10.
The Bengals' Giovani Bernard has already been ruled out this week because of a hip injury. As a result his backup Hill will get his first career start in what many would assume is a good matchup against the Jaguars. While volume could certainly be his best friend on Sunday, allow me to expose a few red flags on the rookie out of LSU.
To begin, Hill simply hasn’t been very good this year. He has 195 yards on 50 carries, a touch less than four yards per carry, and hasn’t had one run go for at least 15 yards. Hill ran well in Cincinnati’s Week 2 win over Atlanta, but outside of that game hasn’t made a huge impact, other than a goal-line touchdown here and there. Remember, opportunity isn’t everything. The player in question actually has to do something with that opportunity. There’s no guarantee that Hill does so in Week 9.
Second, everyone loves to snicker about the Jaguars, but their defense, particularly against the run, has been very good recently. In the last three weeks, they’ve allowed just 3.3 yards per carry. Go back two weeks further, and their yards per carry allowed is a stingy 3.4. It’s not like they’ve only faced pushovers, either. That stretch includes games against Le’Veon Bell and Lamar Miller. In the last five weeks, the Jaguars have allowed the fourth-fewest fantasy points per game to running backs.
With Bernard out and A.J. Green likely to return from a toe injury, expect Andy Dalton and the passing game to be the focal point of the Bengals’ offense. Hill does have 13 receptions for 131 yards this year, but pass catching is not his strong suit. He is a low-end RB2 for the week, but beware of the flop potential here.
Let’s get to the rest of the last-minute news you need for Week 9.
A surprise rider on the defense carousel
Reliability is nice, isn’t it? The Jaguars, Rams and Jets have all been rather friendly to the defense streamers out there, allowing the most, second-most and fifth-most fantasy points per game to defenses this year. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to stream against them in most leagues this week, as all three are playing teams (Jaguars-Bengals, Rams-49ers, Jets-Chiefs) that feature widely-owned defenses. If you’re a defense-carousel rider without a plastic horse to ride on, give some love to the Minnesota Vikings.
You may not realize it, but the Vikings have been the seventh-highest scoring fantasy defense this year. They’re second in the league with 25 sacks, and have 11 takeaways and two touchdowns. The Vikings aren’t just blindly falling into good statistical games, either. Pro Football Focus grades teams in run defense, pass rush and pass coverage. The Vikings are one of just five teams that has a positive grade in all three facets of defense, along with the Broncos, Lions, Dolphins and Giants. Individually, Everson Griffen is third in the league with eight sacks, while Harrison Smith ranks third in interceptions, picking off three passes this year.
Washington may be getting Robert Griffin III back this week, but that shouldn’t scare you away. Part of what makes Griffin such a dangerous player is his ability to break contain and make things happen with his legs, but that isn’t likely to happen in his first game off a dislocated ankle. He’s returning a bit ahead of schedule, and didn’t get in much practice time this week. Griffin may be a great long-term play for the rest of this season, but he cannot be trusted in his first game back. The defense opposite him, however, should post a top-10 game this week.
Andrew Hawkins to do his best Jordy Nelson impression
By now, you’re well aware that the Packers, Bears, Lions, Falcons, Bills and Titans are on bye this week. I don’t care if you’re in a six-team league, those teams contribute at least eight regular starting receivers to the fantasy community. Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Julio Jones and Sammy Watkins should be active in all fantasy leagues every week, and, in most cases, Roddy White is in that group, as well. A wide swath of the community is without at least one receiver this week.
That makes it even harder to figure out why Hawkins is A) so widely available, and B) on so many benches this week.
Hawkins is available in 51 percent of Yahoo leagues and started in just 38 percent. That ownership rate is hard to believe, simply by virtue of what Hawkins has done this season. He’s the 38th-ranked receiver in standard-scoring leagues, putting up 36 receptions for 471 yards and one touchdown. Some players you know, and maybe even own, that he has outscored this year include Reggie Wayne, Vincent Jackson, Michael Crabtree and Michael Floyd. Even if he weren’t a great play in a week during which the wide receiver pool is seriously depleted, he would be worth owning.
However, Hawkins is, in my estimation, a WR2 this week. He has been a target monster all season, racking up 62 in seven games, and that includes a goose egg. In all six of Cleveland’s other games, Hawkins has at least nine targets. He has caught 12 of his 18 targets for 200 yards and a score in the last two weeks. On top of that, Jordan Cameron has been ruled for Sunday’s game against the Buccaneers, due to a concussion he suffered last week. In the one game Cameron missed entirely this year, Hawkins got 13 targets. I’d be surprised if he didn’t at least get into double digits this week.
The Buccaneers have been the friendliest defense to wide receivers this year. They’ve allowed the most fantasy points to the position, surrendering an average of 30.2 points per game. Quarterbacks are getting 7.9 yards per attempt when they play the Buccaneers, and receivers have found the end zone 12 times, which is the most touchdowns one team has given up to receivers this year. Hawkins will add to that total on Sunday.
Dwayne Bowe – Bowe has been a productive enough real-life receiver this year, catching 19 passes for 271 yards in the last four weeks. Of course, that doesn’t get it done for fantasy owners. Bowe came up short in a great matchup last week, but he gets a chance to run it back against a similarly weak pass defense this week. The Jets have allowed the eighth-most points per game to receivers and most to quarterbacks this season.
Brandon LaFell – LaFell’s emergence in the passing game has coincided with the awakening of the New England offense. In the last five weeks, he has a total of 26 catches for 415 yards and four touchdowns. He did most of that damage in three games, however, and the Patriots’ game with the Broncos sets up well for all the skill players on both sides. Even though the Broncos have allowed the eighth-fewest fantasy points per game to receivers, expect Tom Brady and Peyton Manning to match each other point for point in this one.
Ben Tate – Admittedly, it’s hard to sit Tate given the expected volume. However, the Cleveland run game is hamstrung without center Alex Mack. In the five games Mack played, Cleveland runners averaged 4.1 yards per carry on runs up the middle. In the two games since Mack broke his leg, they’ve averaged just 1.3 yards per carry going up either “A” gap. He should have been able to run all over the weak Raiders run defense, but picked up a paltry 26 yards on 15 carries. I think he falls short of RB2 production.
Tre Mason – The Rams spread around the touches last week, with Mason and Benny Cunningham each playing 18 snaps, while Zac Stacy was on the field for 15 plays. Mason got just seven carries, largely because the Rams were playing from behind all game. That could happen again this week, with the Rams going up against the 49ers. If that weren’t enough, San Francisco has allowed the sixth-fewest fantasy points per game to running backs.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Cincinnati Bengals
• Allen Hurns (ankle) was a full participant in practice and is listed as probable.
• Giovani Bernard is out because of a hip injury, but A.J. Green was able to get back to practice this week after missing three games with a toe injury. He’s listed as questionable, and should go for you if he starts for the Bengals.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Cleveland Browns
• Doug Martin didn’t practice all week and is listed as doubtful. Get Bobby Rainey in your lineups.
• Jordan Cameron is out due to a concussion.
Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys
• Andre Ellington (foot) fully participated in Friday’s practice is listed as probable. Calais Campbell (knee) and Patrick Peterson (concussion) are both probable, too.
• Tony Romo is questionable because of his back injury and will be a game-time decision. Even if he plays, he’d be a big risk for fantasy owners.
Philadelphia Eagles at Houston Texans
• Center Jason Kelce practiced all week and will make his return from a hernia this week. That is great news for LeSean McCoy. Darren Sproles is probable with a knee injury, but shouldn’t be on your fantasy radar.
• Andre Johnson (ankle) and Arian Foster (knee) were both limited in practice on Friday, but the duo is listed as probable. They’ll both be out there and are strong plays on Sunday.
New York Jets at Kansas City Chiefs
No significant injuries.
San Diego Chargers at Miami Dolphins
• Jason Verrett (shoulder) is out for 2-to-3 weeks, which bodes well for Ryan Tannehill. Brandon Flowers (concussion) is listed as probable.
• Charles Clay was limited in practice because of a knee injury, but he is expected to play. He is not a good fantasy option this week.
Washington Redskins at Minnesota Vikings
• Robert Griffin III will start for the first time since Week 2 after missing the last six weeks with a dislocated ankle. Make him prove to you he’s back before getting him in your starting lineup.
St. Louis Rams at San Francisco 49ers
• Patrick Williams and Tramaine Brock are both questionable with toe injuries. Even if they’re out, the 49ers’ defense is a strong play this week.
Denver Broncos at New England Patriots
• Ronnie Hillman was limited in practice for most of the week because of a shoulder injury, but he’s good to go for Sunday. He’s a strong RB2 this week.
Oakland Raiders at Seattle Seahawks
No significant injuries.
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
• Owen Daniels is questionable with a knee injury. He’s hard to trust with the Ravens playing the Sunday night game. Be ready to go in another direction.
Indianapolis Colts at New York Giants
The official injury report isn’t yet available, but Reggie Wayne could return after missing last week’s game with an elbow issue. With his status up in the air, it’s hard to count on him or Donte Moncrief. The latter would be a good play if we knew Wayne were out, but he’ll likely be relegated to a supporting role if the veteran returns.