It isn’t just Ben Roethlisberger owners who are excited that the big man is expected to return this week; owners of Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant and especially Antonio Brown are giddy about it as well.
People magazine runs an annual feature on the 25 most intriguing people of the year. Barbara Walters hosts an annual special on the 10 most fascinating people of the year. Borrowing People’s adjective and Babs’ number, we offer you the 10 most intriguing fantasy football performers of the week. This is a subjective list, of course. It might not include some of the players most intriguing to you personally. But for one reason or another, a great many fantasy owners are anxious to see how these players fare in their upcoming games.
1. Ben Roethlisberger vs. Cincinnati Bengals
It isn’t just Roethlisberger owners who are excited that the big man is expected to return from a sprained MCL and bone bruise this week; owners of Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant and especially Antonio Brown are giddy about it as well. Roethlisberger went down in a Week 3 win over the Rams, and while he was out, Brown was a nonfactor for three weeks before producing 124 yards against the Chiefs last Sunday. Bell, who was returning from a two-game suspension the day Roethlisberger got hurt, has been running well but has barely been a factor as a pass catcher after racking up 83 receptions last season. Bryant returned from a suspension of his own two weeks ago and has already scored three touchdowns, but his owners are drooling at the thought of what this freakish young receiver might do with Roethlisberger triggering the offense.
Roethlisberger is back just in time for a critical divisional showdown against the undefeated Bengals. But as excited as fantasy owners with a stake in the Steelers’ offense have to be, there’s also reason for nervousness. No quarterback is more willing to hold onto the ball and wait for his receivers to get open while the pocket collapses around him than Big Ben—and that’s a scary thing given the condition of his knee. It doesn’t help that starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum tore his ACL, leaving the relatively untested Alejandro Villanueva to protect Roethlisberger’s blind side.
2. Todd Gurley vs. San Francisco 49ers
Gurley appeared on this list just a few weeks ago, but now that he’s been ripping defenses apart with his bare teeth, it’s worth circling back with a couple of Gurley-related thoughts. For starters, can we abandon the idea that it’s never wise to draft a player who can provide only delayed gratification? Sometimes it doesn’t work out (see: Gordon, Josh). In Gurley’s case, it’s working out splendidly. Many of the owners who drafted Gurley knowing he wouldn’t contribute right away are sitting pretty right now. Congratulations to those who bought Gurley at a discount.
If you were drafting today for a 2016 standard-scoring league and had the No. 1 pick, who would you take? Le’Veon Bell would surely be tempting. Some might go with Devonta Freeman. But Gurley warrants consideration, doesn’t he? He’s pounded out 433 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the three games since the Rams turned him completely loose, and he’s averaging 6.0 yards a carry. Gurley has been phenomenal, and watching him has been one of the great joys of the season to date. A month ago, I wouldn’t have imagined being able to gin up any excitement over a Rams–49ers game, but I can’t wait to watch Gurley in action this Sunday.
3. Eddie Lacy at Denver Broncos
In August, when fantasy owners were deliberating over how to rank the top running backs, a sizeable contingent put Lacy atop the list, reasoning that the Packers’ battering ram had the highest floor among the contenders. Well, the floor is crumbling away. After opening the season with 19 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown against the Bears, Lacy has carried 48 times for 175 yards in the five games since, with zero touchdowns. His only decent games in that span were a 90-yard rushing day against the 49ers and a game against the Chiefs in which he totaled 87 yards from scrimmage. In fairness, Lacy sprained his ankle early in a Week 2 game against Seattle, then was used sparingly against Kansas City the following week. But the last two weeks? Dudsville. Against the Rams and Chargers, Lacy totaled only 55 yards from scrimmage and shared work with James Starks. Now, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is talking about a platoon. “I’m not really interested in running one of my running backs 20–25 times in a game,” McCarthy said last week. Uh-oh.
It’s possible that Lacy’s ankle was still bothering him in recent weeks, but he should be fine now after a Week 7 bye. The Packers may need a significant contribution from their running game Sunday night in Denver, where they’ll face a Broncos defense that ranks No. 1 against the pass and is capable of putting heat on Aaron Rodgers. The Broncos aren’t shabby against the run either, allowing 89.2 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry. It will be interesting to see if McCarthy deploys Lacy and Starks in equal measure this week or lets the 234-pound Lacy try to soften up the Denver defense.
4. Amari Cooper vs. New York Jets
OK, kid. Think you’re hot stuff? Let’s see how you handle a three-hour tour of Revis Island. Cooper has been terrific in his first six games, exceeding 100 receiving yards in three of them and scoring three touchdowns. The fourth pick in this year’s draft scorched the Chargers on Sunday, catching five passes for 133 yards and a touchdown. His 52-yard score against San Diego was a thing of beauty, a catch-and-run on a screen pass that Cooper finished off with a move so fiendish, it sent a defender careening helplessly past Cooper and crashing into one of his own teammates.
But alas, things could be much tougher for Cooper this week against Revis, perhaps the NFL’s premier cover man. After putting the Patriots’ Julian Edelman on lockdown last week, Revis will try to throw a blanket on the Raiders’ Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate. Cooper’s worst day of the season so far, a four-catch, 47-yard day against the Broncos, came against the tight coverage of Denver CBs Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, suggesting that for all his talents, Cooper is not yet matchup-proof.
5. Darren McFadden vs. Seattle Seahawks
Last week, Christine Michael was the waiver-wire darling of fantasy leagues across the country, with the Cowboys hinting that they were going to give the talented but enigmatic ex-Seahawk a great deal more work. There was indeed a shakeup of the Cowboys’ backfield in Week 7, though the new feature back turned out not to be Michael, but rather our old friend Darren McFadden, who had 29 carries for 152 yards and a touchdown.
Joseph Randle sustained a lower-back injury in Sunday’s loss to the Giants and is expected to be out for a few weeks, so unless the Cowboys have an abrupt change of heart and decide they want to ramp up Michael’s workload after all, McFadden is going to be the Dallas workhorse for a while. A perennial fantasy disappointment, McFadden has been more widely ridiculed than any running back not named Trent Richardson. It’s easy to understand the pessimism. But if there’s a place where McFadden’s straight-line style can work, it’s Dallas, with those road-grading offensive linemen blasting open sizeable rushing lanes.
6. Mike Evans at Atlanta Falcons
Evans’s fantasy owners must feel as if they’re sitting in the passenger seat of a car with a first-time, 15-year-old driver. It’s been heavy on the gas, heavy on the brake and a white-knuckle ride all the way. The strapping young receiver missed the first game of the year with a hamstring injury, then suited up for the second but was clearly playing at less than full capacity and was shut out. Evans rebounded with seven catches for 101 yards against Houston in Week 3, followed up with disappointing games against the Panthers and Jaguars, then detonated against Washington on Sunday, catching eight balls for 164 yards and a touchdown. (A second touchdown was negated by an offensive pass interference flag, which has become an Evans special.)
In his two 100-yard games this season, Evans had 29 total targets. With Vincent Jackson questionable with a knee injury and No. 3 receiver Louis Murphy out for the year with a torn ACL, Evans should see massive target volume Sunday when the Buccaneers meet the Falcons. He’s also likely to see a little bit of Falcons CB Desmond Trufant, one of the better young cover men in the league.
7. Alshon Jeffery vs. Minnesota Vikings
Waiting for Jeffery to return from the hamstring and calf injuries that kept him out for four games (with Bears coach John Fox calling Jeffery “day to day” all the while) was like waiting for Godot. But take heart, Vladimir and Estragon: Your man is finally here, and he’s ready to make up for lost time. In his return Sunday against the Lions, Jeffery had eight catches for 147 yards and a touchdown.
We’re finally going to get an extended look at how Jeffery fares in his first season as Chicago’s undisputed No. 1 receiver after three years of sharing passes with voluble target hog Brandon Marshall. Jeffery has been targeted 11 times in each of his two games this year, and he figures to see double-digit targets more often than not. The Bears face the Vikings this week, and Jeffery has had some big games against the men in purple. He had a season-high 11 receptions for 135 yards and a TD against the Vikes in Week 11 of last year. And Week 13 of 2013 wasn’t particularly lucky for Minnesota defensive backs, as Jeffery exploded for 12 catches, 249 yards and two touchdowns in the best game of his career.
8. Orleans Darkwa at New Orleans Saints
The Giants’ running back situation is more muddled than the mint in your mojito. It was confusing enough as a three-man arrangement with Rashad Jennings, Shane Vereen and Andre Williams sharing work. Now, the three-headed beast has sprouted a fourth head in Darkwa, a heretofore anonymous worker bee who got his first carries of the season in the Giants’ win over Dallas on Sunday. In a key second-quarter drive, Darkwa ran four times for 41 yards and finished things off with a 15-yard touchdown. In all, he had eight carries for 48 yards.
Darkwa signed with the Dolphins last year as an undrafted free agent out of Tulane. He played four games before being cut, was re-signed to Miami’s practice squad, then was poached by the Giants last November. Darkwa never had a 1,000-yard rushing season at Tulane but ran for 11 or more touchdowns in three of his four collegiate seasons. He doesn’t exactly fit the profile of the Next Big Thing, but fantasy owners know that RB production often comes from unusual places. Most likely, Darkwa will become part of a committee, possibly displacing Williams. But maybe, just maybe, the Giants will give Darkwa a chance to be their lead runner.
9. Andrew Luck at Carolina Panthers
Here’s a prime example of why many fantasy owners refuse to draft a quarterback in the early rounds. Sure, a shoulder injury caused Luck to miss two games and has undoubtedly hindered him in others (and may still be hindering him). Injuries are unpredictable, and stars aren’t immune to them. Fact is, though, Luck ranks 21st in fantasy scoring among quarterbacks, outscored by the likes of Blake Bortles, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kirk Cousins and Josh McCown, all of whom were undrafted in most 12-team leagues. The two missed games took a bite out of Luck’s overall production, but he’s barely outscoring Bortles on a per-game basis.
Luck has amassed 300-plus passing yards and three touchdowns in each of his last two starts. However, he’s thrown nine interceptions this season, and you can make a case that his only good game so far was his valiant Week 6 effort in a loss to the Patriots. Luck will be in Charlotte on Monday night to face the undefeated Panthers, whose opponent passer rating of 67.0 is the best mark in the league. Carolina has allowed only five touchdown passes and is yielding only 5.8 yards per pass attempt.
10. Demaryius Thomas vs. Green Bay Packers
Could you have imagined there would ever come a time when Thomas owners felt frustrated that their ace receiver was saddled with Peyton Manning as his quarterback? Manning’s precipitous decline has taken a toll on Thomas’s fantasy production. Thomas is averaging 11.0 yards per catch, well below his career average of 14.6. After scoring 35 touchdowns over the last three seasons, he’s scored only once this year.
Fortunately, heavy volume is preserving Thomas’s catch and yardage totals. Manning has thrown 59% of his passes to either Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders this season, and Thomas is averaging 12.5 targets per game. He’s on pace for 128 receptions and 1,405 yards. Thomas and the Broncos will host the Packers in Sunday night’s battle of unbeatens. The Green Bay pass defense has been statistically sound this season, allowing seven touchdown passes and an average of 6.8 yards per pass attempt.