A favorable matchup with the Buccaneers this weekend gives Matt Ryan a chance to get back on track. Plus, nine other players fantasy owners will be watching.
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. David Johnson at Rams: An old-school coach through and through, Bruce Arians has followed the old-school code with his running backs this season, relegating rookie David Johnson to third-string status behind veterans Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington even though some observers believe the rookie is the best of the bunch. Not that Arians has buried his young back, mind you. The charismatic coach has sprinkled the rookie into his game plans throughout the year, giving Johnson a handful of touches every week.
With C.J. and Ellington both going down with injuries in Week 12, Arians now has little choice but to toss his rookie runner into the deep end of the pool. Chris Johnson has a fractured tibia and will miss the rest of the regular season. Ellington has turf toe and will probably miss at least a week, perhaps longer. It will be fascinating to see what David Johnson can do with a full load of touches. Over the first five games of the season, he had five touchdowns from scrimmage on just 18 carries and nine catches. For the season, the rookie has 35 carries for 139 yards (a 4.0 average), along with 19 catches for 241 yards and three TDs. Johnson was known for his receiving prowess coming out of Northern Iowa, which will help prop up his fantasy floor when he encounters strong run defenses. On Sunday he’ll face the Rams, who are better against the pass than the run. In a Week 4 game against St. Louis, Johnson had three carries for 18 yards and caught four passes for 63 yards and a TD.
2. Todd Gurley vs. Cardinals: It’s hard for a running back to operate effectively in an offense that can’t threaten opponents through the air, and a lack of aerial support is taking a toll on Gurley. The magnificent rookie averaged 131 rushing yards over a five-game stretch from Week 4 to Week 9, but he’s averaged just 43.3 rushing yards in the three games since. He was held to 19 yards on nine carries last weekend in the Rams’ unsightly 31–7 loss to the Bengals.
Opponents are selling out to stop Gurley, and why shouldn’t they? Nick Foles and Case Keenum are bottom-rung quarterbacks, and while Tavon Austin is a nifty little gadget player, the Rams don’t have a receiver who can reliably make plays downfield. As a result, Gurley is running against boxes packed tighter than a nightclub dance floor on New Year’s Eve, and the Rams’ mediocre offensive line is ill-equipped to manage that sort of traffic. Gurley has a Week 13 date with the Cardinals, against whom he had his breakout game back in Week 4, rushing 19 times for 146 yards. But Arizona has been stingy against the run for most of the year, allowing just 91.1 rushing yards per game.
3. Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Jets: As of Wednesday morning, Jets CB Darrelle Revis was still in the NFL’s concussion protocol after being knocked out of a Week 11 game against Houston and missing Week 12. Beckham owners might not relish the possibility of an OBJ–Revis matchup, but boy, that would be a real treat for anyone who loves football.
With or without Revis lined up in front of him, Beckham will be a central figure in this week’s critical Battle of New York. He’s rattled off four consecutive 100-yard games, with five touchdowns over that span. His touchdown against Washington in Week 12 was a contender for catch of the year, a diving one-handed beauty that bordered on the impossible. Eli Manning had targeted Beckham 47 times over the last three games, so even if Revis is cleared for Sunday, Beckham owners shouldn’t fret: Eli has no compunction about throwing to Beckham even when he’s well-covered.
4. Matt Forte vs. 49ers: The Bears’ running back situation has turned into a delicate matter of diplomacy. Forte has been Chicago’s workhorse for years, amassing 12,251 yards from scrimmage and 60 touchdowns over seven-plus seasons of service. The RB position is a minefield in fantasy football, and Forte has been the North Star to fantasy owners, always there, shining through the darkness. But Forte is in the final year of his contract and is not expected to be re-signed. After Forte sprained his MCL in Week 8, rookie Jeremy Langford stepped in and performed superbly, totaling 366 yards from scrimmage and four TDs in the three games Forte missed.
Forte was back for the Bears’ Thanksgiving night win in Green Bay, and the Bears split work almost evenly between the veteran and the rookie, with Forte getting 55% of the snaps and Langford getting 45%. Forte had 15 carries for 44 yards; Langford had 12 carries for 48 yards and a touchdown (although Forte had more red-zone touches). In Forte’s first game back from injury, the Bears could easily justify a near-even split. But what now? Do the Bears honor their longtime incumbent by giving the lead role back to him, or do they consider him a lame duck and continue to give a healthy dose of snaps to their back of the future? Forte owners are hoping for the former, but that may be wishful thinking.
5. Cam Newton at Saints: Perhaps that Tennessee mom wouldn’t have complained about Cam’s celebratory dancing a few weeks ago if she had him on her fantasy team. Newton ranks second in fantasy scoring behind only Tom Brady, averaging 21.9 fantasy points per game. He has 20 touchdowns through the air and seven on the ground, and he’s thriving despite being saddled with one of the weakest collections of wide receivers in the league.
Cam and the Panthers visit New Orleans this weekend to face the Saints and their beleaguered pass defense, which has given up 30 TD passes and 8.8 yards per pass attempt, ranking last in both categories by a wide margin. In Week 3, Newton dropped 315 passing yards on the Saints and averaged 10.2 yards per pass attempt. He threw for two TDs in that game and ran for another. If you have a must-win game this week and have to face Cam, lots of luck.
6. Scott Chandler vs. Eagles: There was mass agony Sunday night on Twitter when Rob Gronkowski went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury. It’s been a brutal season for injuries, even by NFL standards, and the prospect of the rest of the season playing out with the Patriots’ playboy tight end on the sidelines was unbearable to many. Mercifully, Gronk sustained only a sprain and bone bruise, and he’ll likely miss only a game or two.
But Gronk’s injury comes on the heels of major injuries to Dion Lewis and Julian Edelman, plus a knee injury that kept Danny Amendola out of action in Week 12 and has his status for Week 13 in question. With the Patriots perilously low on pass catchers, into the void steps Chandler, a former No. 1 tight end for Buffalo who’s been living in Gronk’s shadow this season. (But then, aren’t we all just living in Gronk’s shadow?) Chandler hadn’t been targeted more than five times in a game this season before the Pats’ Sunday night loss in Denver, where he was targeted 11 times and had five catches for 58 yards and a TD. Chandler figures to play a substantial role this weekend when the injury-depleted Patriots host the Eagles, making him a compelling short-term fantasy play. The Eagles are usually stingy against opposing tight ends, but the Philadelphia players appear to have checked out on coach Chip Kelly and might spend much of Sunday afternoon daydreaming about January vacations in Cabo.
7. Matt Ryan at Buccaneers: Fantasy owners and Falcons fans alike are growing disenchanted with the Matty Ice Capades. Ryan has come unglued the last two weeks, tossing five interceptions in home losses to the Colts and Vikings. He completed a season-low 54.3% of his passes against the Colts and had a season-low 230 passing yards against Minnesota.
There were signs that something was amiss with Ryan and the Falcons’ passing game even before the current four-game losing streak began. Ryan played poorly in an overtime win against the Redskins in Week 5, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. He had a tolerable performance in a Week 6 loss in New Orleans, throwing for 295 yards and two TDs but failing to fully exploit the Saints’ pass defense the way so many other quarterbacks have this season. Ryan was lackluster in a 10–7 win over the Titans in Week 7, averaging 6.61 yards per pass attempt, with one TD and two INTs. A favorable matchup with the Buccaneers this weekend gives Ryan a chance to get back on track. When the Falcons began their current four-game slide with a 23–20 overtime loss to Tampa Bay back in Week 8, Ryan acquitted himself well, completing 37 of 45 passes for 397 yards, with two TDs and one pick.
8. T.Y. Hilton at Steelers: It was nice to see Hilton score a pair of touchdowns in the Colts’ win over the Buccaneers last weekend because 1) he may have the best arsenal of touchdown dances in the league, and 2) he ended a three-game touchdown drought. The streaky Hilton has taken his fantasy owners on quite a ride this season. He had 27 catches over the first five weeks of the season but produced no touchdowns or 100-yard games. Hilton piled up 224 yards and three touchdowns in Weeks 6 and 7, then ran into some tough pass defenses over a three-game stretch against the Panthers, Broncos and Falcons. (Hilton had a decent 82-yard day against Denver but was held to three combined catches for 36 yards in the games against Carolina and Atlanta.)
With six catches for 95 yards and the two scores against the Bucs on Sunday, perhaps Hilton is back on track. The Colts visit Pittsburgh on Sunday night, and there’s reason to believe the Indy offense will be pass-heavy in this one: The Steelers have been piling up points, so the Colts may have to throw to keep up; Colts running back Frank Gore is, in the words of erudite head coach Chuck Pagano, “beat to crap,” and the Steelers’ pass defense is far weaker than their run defense.
9. Matthew Stafford vs. Packers: After flaying the Eagles with five touchdown passes on Thanksgiving Day, Stafford will try to keep the Thursday mojo flowing this week against Green Bay. And who could have imagined that the Packers would be the ones bringing a dysfunctional passing game into this NFC North matchup?
Stafford has really pulled it together after a rocky start to the season. Over his first five games, Stafford averaged 241.0 passing yards, with six touchdowns and eight interceptions. In his last six games, he’s averaged 289.8 passing yards, with 14 TDs and four INTs. Stafford has completed 65.1% of his passes during that stretch, whereas his counterpart this week, Aaron Rodgers, has completed 54.0% of his passes over his last six games. Stafford’s completion percentage for the season is 64.9%, well above his career mark of 60.2%, and remarkably, he hasn’t completed fewer than 60% of his throws in any game this season.
10. Doug Baldwin at Vikings: Baldwin had a career day against the Steelers on Sunday, hauling in six passes for 145 yards and three TDs, including an 80-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter that sealed a much-needed victory for Seattle. It was the third straight game in which Baldwin has had six or more catches, and he’s rolled up 339 yards and four TDs over that span while catching 79.2% of the balls thrown his way.
Russell Wilson will probably continue to lean heavily on Baldwin in the weeks to come now that tight end Jimmy Graham has been lost to a torn patellar tendon. The Seahawks won’t have an easy time moving the ball through the air this weekend against an unyielding Vikings defense that is allowing 223.5 passing yards per game and completely throttled the Atlanta passing attack last week despite the absence of star safety Harrison Smith.