For the first time in two months, fantasy owners nearly have the entire NFL at their disposal this week. The Steelers and Panthers are the final two teams to go on bye, each sitting down in Week 12. That’s bad news for Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown owners, but the vast majority of fantasy owners are playing with a full deck for the rest of the season, beginning this week.
The All-22: How Josh Gordon's return can take the Browns to the next level
That does not mean the decision-making process is any easier. Injuries are still wreaking havoc across the league, taking a few players out of the mix. However, the most interesting situation in the NFL this week concerns a player making what could be a very triumphant return.
Josh Gordon will be on an NFL field for the first time in a regular season game since finishing off one of the greatest wide receiver seasons in league history. In case you need a refresher, Gordon caught 87 passes for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in 14 games last year. He eclipsed 200 receiving yards twice last year, and put up at least 20 fantasy points in four different games. (On the flip side, Gordon had fewer than eight fantasy points just three times in 2013.)
That was last year, however. We’re concerned with what Gordon, who is by far the Browns' best weapon, will do for the remainder of the 2014 season. First of all, don’t be scared off by Brian Hoyer. Gordon did nearly all of his damage with the immortal duo of Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell at the helm last season. He should see somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 targets per game, getting the sort of attention from Hoyer that Jordy Nelson gets from Aaron Rodgers and Brown receives from Ben Roethlisberger. Cleveland’s next five games are against Atlanta, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Carolina. Gordon isn’t a guy who needs a good matchup to succeed, but it warrants mentioning that only the Bengals could potentially be considered a bad draw for a receiver.
Most importantly, this is Josh Gordon. If he weren’t suspended, he would have been considered, at worst, a top-three receiver and early-second-round pick. In more leagues than not, he would have gone in the first round. They may be a bit rusty, but he’s every bit the elite WR1 he was a year ago. Christmas or Hanukkah comes early for Gordon owners this season. He can help lead you to all the fantasy presents you imagined back in the summer.
With that, let’s get to the rest of our recommendations in the SI.com Start 'Em or Sit 'Em for Week 12.
The following recommendations are based on 12-team leagues that start one quarterback, two running backs, two receivers, one RB/WR flex, one tight end and one defense. Starters include the top-12 quarterbacks, tight ends and defenses and top-24 running backs and receivers. The remaining backs and receivers are considered for the flex position, with the best 12 players making it as starters.
Browns: Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell, Josh Gordon
The Gordon experience is back in full swing, and you didn’t hold onto him this long or trade for him just to keep him on your bench in his first game of the season. There might be a little rust, but he has been working out during his suspension, and the Falcons have allowed the seventh-most fantasy points per game to receivers. He is immediately a WR1. With Ben Tate now in Minnesota, both West and Crowell should get enough touches to finish inside the top 30 at the position this week. Crowell has been more explosive, but my preference is for West, who has gotten more touches over the last three weeks.
Falcons: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White
The Falcons’ offense has been a disappointment this year, and the Browns have surrendered the sixth-fewest fantasy points per game to quarterbacks. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that this is the week Ryan breaks out of his slump, especially since both Jones and White have played well over the course of the season. Joe Haden is a fine corner, but he gets a little more credit than he deserves for being a shutdown type. There’s still a lot of explosion in this passing game, and that will shine through on Sunday.
Browns: Brian Hoyer, Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, Miles Austin, Jordan Cameron (concussion), Gary Barnidge, Browns DST
Fantasy owners definitely want to keep Hoyer around as a backup with Gordon back on the field. It will be very interesting to see how he plays with his star receiver in the fold. In the two games Hoyer started and finished last season, he and Gordon hooked up 14 times for 217 yards and a touchdown. If Gordon elevates this entire offense, there’s a chance Hoyer would be worth playing in the right matchups down the stretch. However, make sure you see it with your own eyes before plugging him into your starting lineup.
Falcons: Steven Jackson, Devonta Freeman, Jacquizz Rodgers, Harry Douglas, Devin Hester, Levine Toilolo, Falcons DST
Jackson had a couple useful games in a row, and then laid an egg in a great matchup against the Panthers last week, running for 41 yards on 17 carries. The volume was encouraging, but he is just too unreliable with nearly a full complement of options available. Freeman has emerged as Jackson’s clear backup, and is worth owning in case the veteran goes down with an injury. The rest of these guys should be nowhere near a fantasy roster, let alone a starting lineup.
Titans: Bishop Sankey
Sankey did a few nice things for the Titans against the Steelers last week, but the numbers were still relatively ugly. He had 38 yards on 11 carries and caught one pass for seven yards. Luckily, he got in the end zone to give himself a respectable fantasy performance. He’s no better than a flex play this week, but his owners have to like the matchup. The Eagles have allowed the 12th-most fantasy points per game to running backs. If you’re deep at running back, you can probably do better, but if it’s a position of need, Sankey is a decent play this week.
Eagles: Mark Sanchez, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, Jordan Matthews, Zach Ertz, Eagles DST
Sanchez may have had an ugly real-life performance, but 346 yards and two touchdowns, even with two interceptions, will always make him a start in fantasy leagues. Maclin rebounded with nine catches for 93 yards and a score, while Matthews continued to tear it up with Sanchez at the helm. He had five grabs for 107 yards and a touchdown, and now has 14 catches for 280 yards and four touchdowns since Nick Foles’ injury. You’ve probably long since given up on McCoy as an RB1, and while there’s plenty of justification for that, he remains an easy every-week play given his role in a potent offense. Brent Celek played more snaps than Ertz last week, but Ertz ran more routes. He had four catches for 55 yards, and is a low-end TE1 this week.
Titans: Zach Mettenberger, Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter, Nate Washington, Delanie Walker (concussion), Titans DST
The Titans just had their best offensive game with Mettenberger as the starter last week. Wright had four catches for 70 yards, while Hunter caught two balls for 48 yards. And yes, I did say best in the first sentence. Even with a great matchup against the Eagles, you don’t have any reason to invest in this passing game. Walker is a sit recommendation for now because of his concussion, but there’s a chance he will get back on the field this week. Thankfully, this is an early game, so we will know for sure if he’s playing before we have to set lineups. If he’s out there, he will be a low-end TE1.
Eagles: Darren Sproles, Riley Cooper, Brent Celek
Sproles’ usefulness has likely expired now that byes are all but behind us. He had four touches for 44 yards last week. He simply doesn’t get the ball enough to trust in most fantasy formats. Matthews had long ago passed Cooper in terms of fantasy value, but he finally played more snaps than him last week for the first time this season.
Lions: Matthew Stafford, Joique Bell, Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate
Stafford and the passing game never got going against the Cardinals last week, but that says more about Arizona’s defense than it does about Detroit’s offense. Even with a strong defense of their own, the Lions are going to have to score some points to have any chance of knocking off the Patriots in Foxboro this week. Expect Johnson to see a ton of Darelle Revis, which could spell big things for Tate. Bell picked up 85 yards on just 14 carries last week, and is in command with Reggie Bush still nursing an ankle injury.
Patriots: Tom Brady, Shane Vereen, Brandon LaFell, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Patriots DST
Brady gave way to the Jonas Gray show last week, but you can expect the Michigan man to be back in command on Sunday, especially for fantasy purposes. The Lions have one of the league’s best run defenses, and Bill Belichick is an expert at going away from the strength of his opponents. Gronkowski is once again king of the tight end mountain, even if he isn’t throwing defenders out of the club. As Brady goes, so go Vereen, LaFell and Edelman. After what Gray did last week, this just has the feel of a game where Vereen will be featured in the passing game.
Lions: Reggie Bush (ankle), Theo Riddick, Jeremy Ross, Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew, Lions DST
All signs point to Bush getting back on the field this week, and that makes Riddick, who really only has value in full PPR leagues, an easy sit. Bush, too, belongs on your bench. After a great 2013 season, he has been plagued by injuries and inconsistency this year. He has just one touchdown and one game with double-digit fantasy points. If you own the Lions defense, you’ll likely want to go in another direction this week. However, do not drop a player with value for a one-week defense. If that’s the situation you find yourself in, you’re much better off rolling the Lions out there and dealing with the consequences for just one week. All it takes is a couple sacks or takeaways for them to offset any damage Brady might do.
Patriots: Jonas Gray, Danny Amendola, Tim Wright
It’s not often that you sit a guy after he runs for 200 yards and four touchdowns, but that’s exactly what you should do with Gray this week. The Colts have one of the worst run defenses in the league, and presented the Patriots with a golden opportunity to feature Gray on the ground. The Lions are essentially the polar opposite. While Brady has no issue with checking to a run if the defense tries to sit back in coverage, the Lions have too much muscle along their defensive front to think that Gray will be able to do even half of what he did against Indianapolis a week ago.
Packers: Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Packers DST
Say what you will about the Broncos, Patriots and Colts, this is the best offense in the league, and that’s because it is directed by the best player in the league. Rodgers has 2,748 yards, 28 touchdowns and three interceptions this year, and he has sat out all or most of the fourth quarter in three different games this passes just once since Week 3, and he racked up 418 yards and ran for a score in that game. If you’re invested in this offense, you should enjoy the final six weeks of the fantasy season.
Vikings: Kyle Rudolph
Rudolph wasn’t targeted in his first game back from injury, but he played a decent chunk of Minnesota’s snaps without incident. I’d expect him to be more involved in the passing game this week at the expense of Rhett Ellison, who found the end zone against Chicago. With the tight end crop so thin behind Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, Rudolph is a low-end TE1.
Packers: Davante Adams, Andrew Quarless, Richard Rodgers
Both Quarless and Rodgers have played more than half of Green Bay’s snaps the last two weeks, marking the first few times all year the Packers had deployed a significant number of double-tight sets. What’s more, they both had just three pass blocking assignments last week, according to Pro Football Focus. This wasn’t a case of the Packers trying to get maximum protection for Rodgers. Neither should be on your radar, but it is a situation that bears watching.
Vikings: Teddy Bridgewater, Jerick McKinnon, Matt Asiata, Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Charles Johnson, Vikings DST
The one name above that might surprise you is McKinnon. My thinking is that he’s a low-end RB2 at best, and someone who needs to benefit from game flow to come through for his fantasy owners. I see this as an ugly game for the Vikings, one in which they struggle to generate much offense in the first half. While there will be an opportunity for garbage-time production, I think that will benefit the receivers more than McKinnon. For all his explosion, he has yet to find the end zone this year.
Jaguars: Denard Robinson
Despite another terrible season, there have been a few bright spots for the Jaguars in the form of young players who can be a part of a potential turnaround for them in years to come. Robinson is such a player. In four games as the starting running back, he has 389 yards and four touchdowns. You saw what Jonas Gray did to the Colts last week, and if the Jaguars have any chance of pulling off the upset on Sunday, they’ll need to ride Robinson similar to the way the Patriots did with Gray.
Colts: Andrew Luck, Trent Richardson, T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne, Coby Fleener, Colts DST
As is usually the case with whoever plays the Jaguars, you want all your fantasy-relevant Colts active this week. Luck has thrown for at least 300 yards and multiple touchdowns in all but two games this year. Richardson is the same lackluster player he has always been, but now that he’s the feature back in a prominent offense, he should at least volume his way to RB2 production, especially in a matchup like this. With Dwayne Allen nursing an ankle injury, Fleener could be a top-five tight end. He had seven catches for 144 yards with all the tight-end production to himself a week ago.
Jaguars: Blake Bortles, Toby Gerhart, Allen Hurns, Cecil Shorts, Marqise Lee, Clay Harbor, Jaguars DST
With Allen Robinson out for the year due to a stress fracture in his foot, Hurns and Shorts each have some WR3 juice. I’d be happy to own them as a contingency plan in case of an injury to one of my starters, but I don’t want to count on either of them in my regular starting lineup. As for this week, I expect the Jaguars to do the best they can to follow New England’s game script from last week. That means as much Robinson as possible.
Colts: Dan Herron, Hakeem Nicks, Donte Moncrief, Dwayne Allen (ankle)
Herron is going to have a role in the Indianapolis offense with Ahmad Bradshaw out for the season. He’s worthy of being owned until we see with our own eyes what that role is, but he should be nowhere near a starting lineup this week. If you regularly start Allen, you’ll want to be abreast of his practice participation this week. If he is able to get some work during the week and play on Sunday, you can feel free to deploy him as usual. For now, he’s on the outside looking in. As for Nicks, he has been a favorite of Luck in the red zone, and while that hasn’t translated into a ton of fantasy production, I think his presence only increases with Bradshaw out. Add him if you can, but don’t start him.
Bengals: Andy Dalton, Jeremy Hill, Giovani Bernard (hip), A.J. Green
Dalton bounced back from his worst game as a pro to throw for 220 yards and three touchdowns last week. He would benefit from a Bernard return this week. Hill has rushed for more than 150 yards in two of his three starts in place of the injured Bernard. He now has 110 more yards than Bernard for the season on just four more carries. Even if Bernard returns this week, which appears likely, Hill has to have a significant role in the offense. Bernard has been practicing, albeit in a limited fashion, but it appears he will get back on the field on Sunday. Green played in 90 percent of Cincinnati’s snaps for the first time since injuring his toe, and had six catches for 127 yards and a score last week.
Texans: Arian Foster (groin), Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Texans DST
The Texans have an injured running back of their own, but it looks like Foster will be able to return after missing last week’s game with a groin injury. They, too, have a capable backup, but Foster will squeeze out Alfred Blue if he is back for Houston. From a purely statistical standpoint, Ryan Mallett didn’t really affect Johnson or Hopkins that much last week, as both posted lines indistinguishable from their time with Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starter. Consider Hopkins a WR2 and Johnson a flex or WR3 this week.
Bengals: Mohamed Sanu, Brandon Tate, Jermaine Gresham, Bengals DST
Sanu isn’t a terrible play this week, but there are a few factors working against him. First, with just two teams on bye, fantasy owners should have nearly all of their resources available to them. Second, with a healthy Green and potentially returning Bernard, there’s a chance that Sanu will be the third option in the Cincinnati passing game this week. He’s a low-end WR3 heading into Week 12.
Texans: Ryan Mallett, Alfred Blue, Garrett Graham
Blue racked up 156 yards on 36 carries last week in Houston’s win over Cleveland, but all he likely earned for himself is a token amount of carries spelling Foster on Sunday. So long as the veteran is healthy, Blue is going to have a marginal role in the Houston offense. Mallett played well enough from a real-life standpoint for the Texans to get a win in his first start, but he still does not register on the fantasy radar, unless you’re in a two-quarterback league. Even in those formats, he’s a QB3.
The Jets were on a bye last week, which had essentially zero impact on the fantasy community. All we really missed was an easy secondary to exploit.
Bills: Sammy Watkins, Bills DST
Watkins has had a few down games in a row now, posting fewer than 40 yards in each of the last two weeks. The Jets, however, could be the cure for what ails him and his owners. They’ve allowed the 10th-most points to receivers and third most to quarterbacks so far this season. It has been an up-and-down season for Watkins, but there are still more ups in his future, beginning this week. The Bills lead the league by a wide margin with 39 sacks. Philadelphia is second with 33.
Jets: Michael Vick, Chris Ivory, Chris Johnson, Percy Harvin, Eric Decker, Jeremy Kerley, Jace Amaro, Jeff Cumberland, Jets DST
Ivory, Harvin and Decker could all slot as starters, depending on your roster composition. The Bills, however, present a terrible matchup. They’ve allowed the sixth-fewest points to running backs, seventh fewest to quarterbacks, and are no better than neutral for receivers. The first time these two teams played, the Jets got fewer than four yards per play. Ivory did score twice, but he had 43 rushing yards on 13 carries, an average of just 3.3 yards per carry. Amaro led the team with 51 receiving yards in that game. There’s usually not much to like about the Jets from a fantasy standpoint, and that has never been more true than it is this week.
Bills: Kyle Orton, Fred Jackson (groin), Bryce Brown, Anthony Dixon, Robert Woods, Scott Chandler
Jackson is expected to get back on the field after missing last week’s game because of his lingering groin injury, but he’s not an advisable play for fantasy owners. We saw Jackson rush back to the field two weeks ago, only to aggravate the groin injury that was supposed to cost him four weeks in the first place. Even if he is able to play on Sunday, fantasy owners have to be worried about that same scenario playing out again. On top of that, the Jets have allowed the seventh-fewest points per game to running backs this year. Orton is nearly worth playing given the Jets’ struggles against the pass this season, but there's a restrictive ceiling on his production.