Week 15’s most intriguing players: Robinson, Hightower get their chance
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.
Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Carolina Panthers: After winning his much-anticipated Week 14 battle against Julio Jones, Panthers cornerback Josh Norman has a Week 15 matchup with Beckham, who’s been laying opposing defenses to waste for the last month and a half. More on OBJ in a moment, but first let’s give props to Norman, who’s emerged as one of the two or three best cornerbacks in the league. (Some contend that he’s No. 1.) Norman held Jones in check Sunday, and while Jones finished with seven catches for 88 yards, much of his yardage came against other defenders in late-game garbage time.
Jones is a terrific receiver, but Beckham is otherworldly. OBJ has produced six consecutive 100-yard games dating back to Halloween weekend, with eight touchdowns over that stretch. He blistered the Dolphins for a season-high 166 yards on Monday night and scored two touchdowns, including an 84-yard TD in the fourth quarter that proved to be the decisive score in the Giants’ much-needed 31–24 victory. Beckham has 85 catches for 1,320 yards this season and is tied for the league lead with 12 touchdown catches. If Norman can put the wraps on Beckham, he deserves to be recognized as the NFL’s best cornerback.
Tim Hightower vs. Detroit Lions: Sometimes fantasy value turns up in the unlikeliest of places. Hightower was a decent but unremarkable timeshare back for the Cardinals from 2008 to 2010, scoring 23 TDs but never rushing for more than 736 yards in a single season. He tore his ACL with the Redskins in 2011, then tried to come back in 2012 but was cut. In 2013, it was discovered that Hightower’s knee hadn’t healed properly, so he underwent another surgery and missed all of that year and the next. He initially made the Saints’ 53-man cut this season, but the team released him just days before the opener. The Saints re-signed him after Khiry Robinson was placed on injured reserve, and now with Mark Ingram lost to a shoulder injury, Hightower has become the Saints’ main man.
Hightower had a career-high 28 carries Sunday against a tough Buccaneers run defense, hammering out 85 yards and a TD. He’ll have an easier matchup Monday night against the Lions, who have allowed a league-high 18 rushing touchdowns. Suddenly, a guy who was out of the league for three-plus years looks like a compelling fantasy play at the most critical time of the season.
Rob Gronkowski vs. Tennessee Titans: Gronk owners can still vividly remember the despair they felt on Nov. 29 as they watched their transcendent tight end flop around on the snow-covered grass in Denver like a freshly caught salmon. Gronkowski had just sustained a knee injury that most onlookers assumed to be season-ending, and Gronk owners were grief-stricken. As they abandoned their championship aspirations that night, few of those owners would have imagined that just two weeks later, Gronk would catch four passes for 87 yards and a touchdown against the Texans.
The injury Gronkowski sustained in Denver turned out to be a mere bruise, and he played 61% the Patriots’ offensive snaps Sunday night in Houston, wearing a knee brace for added protection. His fantasy owners are obviously thrilled to be able to roll him out for the playoffs, since he’s one of only a handful of difference-making tight ends. Gronk has caught 10 TD passes in 12 games and is averaging 84.8 receiving yards. Hail Gronk!
Denard Robinson vs. Atlanta Falcons: T.J. Yeldon sprained his MCL Sunday, and Robinson came on in relief to rush for 75 yards and a touchdown in the Jaguars’ 51–16 demolition of the Colts. With Yeldon likely out for the coming weeks, Robinson suddenly becomes a very interesting fantasy property.
After being lightly used as a rookie, the QB-turned-RB was effective in spurts last season, putting together one four-game stretch in which he ran for 389 yards and four TDs. Robinson has a respectable career average of 4.3 yards per carry and could be a sneaky weapon for fantasy owners in their playoff games this week. He has a promising matchup with the reeling Falcons, who have given up 17 rushing touchdowns, the second-highest total in the league.
Calvin Johnson at New Orleans Saints: Megatron was targeted five times and was held to one reception for 16 yards Sunday in Detroit’s 21–14 loss in St. Louis. In the two games since his three-TD performance on Thanksgiving Day, Johnson has caught four passes for 60 yards and a touchdown. With 71 catches for 981 yards and seven TDs, Johnson is hardly having a disastrous fantasy season, but his current average of 13.8 yards per catch would be the lowest of his career. He’s had only a single 100-yard game, and he’s failed to produce a touchdown in eight of his 13 outings.
There’s good reason to be optimistic about Megatron’s Week 15 prospects, however, with the Lions playing a Monday night game in New Orleans. The Saints’ defense has been historically inept this season, allowing 36 TD passes so far and yielding a league-worst 8.5 yards per pass. Johnson is likely to get some face time with struggling Saints CB Brandon Browner, who, in the words of analyst Shannon Sharpe, “couldn’t cover a twin bed with a king sheet.” But as a member of the Patriots last season, Browner was matched up against Johnson often in a Week 12 game and helped hold the Lions’ star receiver to four catches for 58 yards.
A.J. Green at San Francisco 49ers: Green is heating up just when his fantasy owners need him most, producing two straight 100-yard games and scoring four touchdowns over the last three weeks. He’s now topped the 1,000-yard mark in each of his five NFL seasons, and if he can catch two more TD passes over his next three games, he’ll hit double digits in touchdowns for the third time in his career.
The big question is whether Green can continue to post strong numbers without Andy Dalton, who fractured his thumb in a Week 14 loss to the Steelers. Green had six catches for 132 yards and a touchdown Sunday against Pittsburgh and did most of that damage with backup A.J. McCarron at quarterback. McCarron and Green connected on a 66-yard TD pass in the second quarter not long after McCarron had entered the game. But obviously, there’s likely to be a drop-off in the Bengals’ QB play, as Dalton had been performing at a near-MVP level for most of the season. At least McCarron and Green have a favorable matchup this week against the 49ers, who rank 27th against the pass.
Devonta Freeman at Jacksonville Jaguars: Wisdom holds that a rising tide lifts all boats. The corollary is that a receding tide can leave even mighty battleships aground, and as the Falcons’ season has gone back out to sea, the S.S. Freeman has been stuck in the muck. Freeman was the biggest fantasy story of the regular season’s first half, producing 10 touchdowns over Atlanta’s first eight games. After taking over as the lead back in Week 3, Freeman had a remarkable six-game stretch in which he averaged 159.3 yards from scrimmage and piled up nine touchdowns.
But as the Falcons have plumbed the depths during a losing streak that has reached six games, Freeman’s production has evaporated. He hasn’t scored a touchdown since Week 10, and after missing Week 11 with a concussion, he’s rushed for fewer than 50 yards in three straight contests. The owners who rode Freeman during his fast start are hoping he can return to form for the fantasy playoffs, but this week he faces a tough Jaguars run defense that’s allowing 102.4 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry.
Michael Floyd at Philadelphia Eagles: Despite having to share targets with Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown, Floyd is earning a reputation as one of the NFL’s most dangerous receivers. He’s scored six touchdowns in his last seven games, and he’s topped the 100-yard mark in four of his last five. Since Week 6, Floyd’s only poor game was a one-catch day against the 49ers in his return from a hamstring injury that had sidelined him the previous week.
Floyd is making serious hay despite modest target volume. He’s third on the team in targets behind Fitzgerald and Brown, and Floyd has seen double-digit targets in only one game this season. Fitz, Brown and Floyd each offer fantasy owners high weekly ceilings, but Carson Palmer’s egalitarian pass distribution also gives his three receivers dangerously low week-to-week floors. The risk is mitigated somewhat when Arizona faces an opponent with a shabby pass defense, and that will be the case this weekend, with the Cards facing an Eagles defense that has been torched by opposing wide receivers all year. Philadelphia ranks 24th against the pass and has yielded 29 TD passes, the second-highest total in the league.
Aaron Rodgers at Oakland Raiders: Here’s an unexpected stat: Until Green Bay encountered the bumbling Matt Cassel in Week 14, the Packers’ opponents had posted a better passer rating than Rodgers in six consecutive games. And it’s not as if the Packers were facing a murderer’s row of opposing QBs over that span; the list includes Teddy Bridgewater, Jay Cutler and an enfeebled Peyton Manning. Over his last 10 starts, Rodgers has averaged 240.4 passing yards and 1.8 TD passes. Those numbers aren’t terrible, but it certainly isn’t what Rodgers owners had in mind when they burned a high draft pick on a quarterback many consider to be on the short list of the greatest in the game.
With no receivers who can get open downfield, Rodgers has become a glorified game manager. In throwing for 218 yards and two TDs against the Cowboys on Sunday, Rodgers’ longest completion went for 24 yards, and he did much of his damage on dump-offs and screens. If you own Rodgers this week, you’re probably not benching him, but I wouldn’t blame you for at least considering it. His matchup against the Raiders isn’t as favorable as it might appear. Oakland has given up more passing yardage than all but four other teams, but the Raiders rank a respectable 13th in opponent passer rating.
Eric Decker at Dallas Cowboys: For weeks I’ve been looking for reasons to include Decker in this column, but in truth there’s little “intriguing” about him from a fantasy standpoint: He’s been fantasy football’s most consistently dependable performer this season. Decker has had either 80-plus receiving yards or a touchdown in all 12 of his starts. He’s failed to produce a TD only three times, and he’s averaged 92 yards in his TD-free outings.
Remarkably, Decker has been able to churn out strong numbers week after week despite being the Jets’ No. 2 receiver. The Jets’ go-to guy, Brandon Marshall, has 89 catches for 1,187 yards and 11 TDs, while Decker has 66 catches for 875 yards and nine TDs. The Jets’ dynamic duo has a difficult matchup Saturday night in Dallas, facing a Cowboys defense that ranks fourth against the pass. The Cowboys are allowing 221.1 passing yards per game and have given up 14 TD throws in 13 games.