Ezekiel Elliott is back for the Dallas Cowboys, and that should be music to the ears of Dak Prescott owners. He's back on the right side of the ledger to kick off Week 16 Start ’Em, Sit ’Em.
Check out this series of numbers and see if you can decipher its meaning: 17.12, 17.92, 22.92, 23.58, 30.74, 29.96, 7.32, 26.66. Clearly they are fantasy scores. Any guesses on their source? Perhaps the fact that there are eight entries, six shy of a full season to this point, is a clue?
The numbers above are Dak Prescott’s weekly fantasy scores in standard-scoring leagues for the Cowboys first eight games of the season. You know, the eight games in which Ezekiel Elliott played. Elliott’s six-game suspension is over, and, with the Cowboys sitting at 8-6 one game behind Atlanta for the final playoff spot in the NFC, the star running back is set to return. That’s obviously great news for any fantasy owner who made it to the championship with Elliott stashed on his or her roster. It’s nearly as good for those who have Prescott.
In eight games with Elliott active, Prescott has averaged 22.03 points per game. Russell Wilson, fantasy’s top-scoring quarterback with two weeks remaining in the season, is putting up 23.35 points per game. Carson Wentz finished the season at 22.44 points per game. Deshaun Watson was at a ridiculous 25.41 points per game, and that includes the half he played in Week 1 in relief of Tom Savage. They’re the only three who outscored Prescott, with Elliott on the field, on a per-game basis.
Prescott’s fortunes took a nosedive during Elliott’s suspension. In those six games, Prescott scored 13.39 points per game, on par with the season-long marks of Andy Dalton, Jacoby Brissett and Eli Manning. That’s quite the fall from grace from the heady company of Wilson and Wentz. From Week 10 through Week 15, Prescott was a top-15 quarterback once, when he threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Giants Week 14. That was also the only time he scored more than 16 points in standard-scoring leagues without Elliott. Left tackle Tyron Smith missed the first three games of Elliott’s suspension, but he was back for the Cowboys three most recent games, and Prescott had 14.88 and 15.68 points in two of those, far short of what he did in the first half of the season.
Elliott is the rising tide that lifts all the ships in the Cowboys offense. His return is a boon for everyone in the offense, most notably Prescott. The Cowboys host the Seahawks in Week 16, a matchup that clearly is not what it once was. Since losing Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor for the season, the Seahawks have allowed three of the five quarterbacks they’ve faced to score at least 17 points. One they held south of 17 points was C.J. Beathard, and the other was Jared Goff last week, though that was largely because Todd Gurley was carving them up on the ground. Goff still managed two touchdown passes in the 42-7 Rams win. With the Cowboys at full strength for the first time since Week 9, the Seahawks could be in for a long afternoon in Dallas.
All of this adds up to give Prescott his rosiest prospects in nearly two months. It’s entirely possible that his owners fell short of the championship because of his play without Elliott, but if you’re still playing and Prescott is on your roster, you’ll want him in your lineup in Week 16. The wait for Elliott will ultimately prove worth it.
Jared Goff, Rams (at Titans)
Goff didn’t have his best game of the season last week, throwing for 120 yards, 5.71 yards per attempt and two touchdowns, but a lot of that had to do with game flow. The Rams led the Seahawks 20-0 by the midway point of the second quarter, and took a 34-0 lead into halftime, largely thanks to Todd Gurley. Goff is in a good spot against a Titans defense that is slightly worse than league-average against quarterbacks by 4for4’s schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed metric (aFPA). The Rams are favored by a touchdown and have an implied total of 27.75 points.
Alex Smith, Chiefs (vs. Dolphins)
Despite a downturn in the middle of the season, Smith is the No. 4 quarterback in standard-scoring leagues, trailing Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz and Cam Newton. Tom Brady? Drew Brees? Ben Roethlisberger? All of them have scored fewer fantasy points than Smith. He gets a matchup at home with a Dolphins defense ranked 23rd in the league in quarterback aFPA. The Chiefs are favored by 10 points had have an implied total of 27 points. There is some concern that Kareem Hunt could dominate the offense in the second half if the Chiefs are cruising to a win, but Smith would likely have a major hand in getting the game to that point.
Tyrod Taylor, Bills (at Patriots)
The Patriots stifled Taylor three weeks ago, holding him to 65 yards, 3.61 YPA and 32 rushing yards while picking him once before he left the game with an injury. Still, Taylor’s rushing floor increases his fantasy value against any opponent, especially in a game with an over/under of 47. Yes, the Patriots are expected to account for 29.5 of those 47 points, but the fact remains that it will be a good scoring environment in Foxboro. If Taylor can hit one passing touchdown and keep his turnovers to a minimum, he’ll deliver at least mid-tier QB2 production.
Jameis Winston, Buccaneers (at Panthers)
Winston had one of his best games of the season in Week 15, throwing for 299 yards, 8.54 YPA and three touchdowns in the Buccaneers 24-21 loss to the Falcons. He’ll have a much tougher test against the Panthers in Week 16. He missed the first meeting between these teams because of his shoulder injury, but we don’t need any previous data to know he’ll have his hands full. He does get a bit of a break with Thomas Davis suspended, but this remains a tough matchup for any quarterback, especially on the road. With all that said, I don’t think he’s a terrible play. He’s my QB14, ahead of Tyrod Taylor and Matt Ryan (more on him shortly).
Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers (vs. Jaguars)
Garoppolo has been everything the 49ers could have hoped he’d be when they traded for him just before the deadline. The team is 3-0 with him under center, and, outside of some red-zone struggles, he has looked the part of a franchise quarterback. In Garoppolo’s three starts, he has thrown for for 1,008 yards, 8.92 YPA and three touchdowns against two interceptions, averaging 16.94 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. Yet, two of those starts were against the Texans and Titans. The AFC South defense that will line up against him this week is an entirely different beast. Jacksonville’s elite pass defense, coupled with Garoppolo’s limited weaponry, makes it hard to trust him this week.
Matt Ryan, Falcons (at Saints)
Ryan turned in another bland performance on Monday, throwing for 212 yards, 6.84 YPA and one touchdown in the win over the Buccaneers. Ryan hasn’t been bad this season, but he hasn’t been particularly good, either. He doesn’t have a three-touchdown game, but he does have two games with three interceptions. He has topped 300 yards just twice. He has failed to exploit the truly terrible defenses he has faced, including a pair of disappointing one-touchdown efforts against the hapless Buccaneers. Now he goes up against a Saints defense that picked him off three times two weeks ago. That game, you’ll remember, was in his stadium. This one is in New Orleans. Ryan’s disappointing season should end with him on your bench.
Kirk Cousins, Redskins (vs. Broncos)
We’ve been down this road each of the last few weeks. The injuries on Washington’s offense have finally caught up to its typically hyper-efficient quarterback. As such, Cousins hasn’t scored more than 17.08 points in his last four games. Not coincidentally, the last game in which Cousins put up at least 20 points was the last game Chris Thompson played before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Denver may be a bad team overall, but the defense is still one of the league’s best. Cousins will be back in the good graces of the fantasy community next season, possibly on another team, but he shouldn’t be in your championship week plans.
Jay Ajayi, Eagles (vs. Raiders)
Ajayi didn’t have the big game so many, myself included, predicted last week, but he did outpace his LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement in a way he did not when Carson Wentz was healthy. Ajayi got 12 carries and two targets in the 34-29 win over the Giants. Blount had seven carries and zero targets, while Clement had four carries and one target. We can safely bet on 15 carries plus targets for Ajayi, and that puts him squarely in RB2 territory. Given the Raiders' struggles against running backs—they’re 20th in running back aFPA in standard leagues, and 26th in PPR formats—there’s also an RB1 ceiling here.
Jamaal Williams, Packers (vs. Vikings)
First and foremost, we don’t have to worry about Williams with Brett Hundley back at the helm for the Packers. In fact, Williams had his best games before Rodgers’s return, in which he ran for just 30 yards on 10 carries. The Vikings defense is a major concern, but Williams is in command of the Green Bay backfield. Even in a tough matchup, he’s a volume-based RB2 this week. If he gets in the end zone, he’ll easily finish as a top-20 back.
Kerwynn Williams, Cardinals (vs. Giants)
Every week of the fantasy season, there are seemingly random players who pop up with a big week. Mike Gillislee scored three touchdowns in Week 1. Elijah McGuire ran for 93 yards and a touchdown in Week 4. Corey Clement found the end zone three times in Week 9. Week 16 is no different, it’s just that the stakes are much higher. Williams has a great chance to be that seemingly random guy for the fantasy championship. He’s in control of the Arizona backfield, handling 54 of the teams 71 touches by running backs the last three weeks. Elijhaa Penny’s presence could be an annoyance this week after he got 10 carries a week ago, but Williams should be in line for 15-plus touches. The Giants, meanwhile, have been terrible against running backs, ranking 29th in aFPA. Williams just might be a fantasy championship hero.
Jerick McKinnon, Vikings (at Packers)
The Packers are a particularly good matchup for a back like McKinnon, who does a ton of damage as a receiver. The Packers rank 12th in running back aFPA in standard leagues, but 21st in PPR formats, suggesting they’ve been burned by pass-catching backs. McKinnon himself torched them for 99 total yards and two touchdowns on 20 touches when the Vikings beat the Packers in Week 6. He’s coming off one of his best games of the season, a seven-catch, 114-yard effort in the win over the Bengals. McKinnon is a worthy play this week, no matter if you’re in a standard or PPR league.
DeMarco Murray, Titans (vs. Rams)
Murray has rushed for more than 3.5 yards per carry in one game since the middle of October. The last time he did it in consecutive games, the MLB was still in the midst of the first round of its postseason. He has turned into an entirely touchdown-dependent player, and I almost never want to ride with a player like that unless I have to. My desire to do so is lessened against a Rams defense that has surrendered four rushing touchdowns in its last eight games. It also won’t help Murray that the Rams are favored by a touchdown. If the game plays to that script, he’ll struggle to get enough volume to justify a spot in a fantasy starting lineup.
Joe Mixon, Bengals (vs. Lions)
Mixon is expected to return this week after missing the last two games because of a concussion. Starting a player in his first game back after missing multiple weeks due to injury is always a risk. It goes doubly so for someone who wasn’t playing particularly well before he got hurt. Mixon ran all over the hapless Browns during Thanksgiving week, but has been otherwise ineffective in his rookie season. Despite plenty of opportunity since Bill Lazor took over as offensive coordinator, Mixon has rushed for more than the unimpressive total of 50 yards in exactly three games. He has 518 yards on 157 carries, which translates to 3.3 yards per carry.
Frank Gore, Colts (at Ravens)
This is simply too tough a spot for Gore to believe in him from a fantasy perspective. The Ravens are much better against the pass than they are against the run, but the Colts might not get to test that. The Ravens are 14.5-point favorites in this game, and could make it a laugher by the end of the first half. If that happens, Gore will be game-scripted out of the offense for the Colts. There’s enough of a risk of that happening to make Gore a relatively easy sit in Week 16.
Mike Davis, Seahawks (at Cowboys)
Davis is another back who needs positive game flow to put up useful fantasy numbers. It’s hard to count on him getting that with the Seahawks in Dallas, playing a Cowboys team that will have Ezekiel Elliott active for the first time in nearly two months. Even if the Seahawks keep it close, it will be Russell Wilson and the passing game doing the heavy lifting. Davis would need to get fortunate with a short-yardage score to post RB2 or flex production, and that’s not a bet you want to make.
Jordy Nelson, Packers (vs. Vikings)
I'm all alone on this one. That's fine, I'll own it. I know the instinct is to fade Nelson with Brett Hundley back under center. That would be my instinct, too, if Davante Adams were going to play. After suffering his second concussion of the season last week, though, Adams, however, is out this week. Seemingly everyone else in the fantasy ranking universe would have you believe that you can't touch Nelson now that he's set for a full dose of Xavier Rhodes. I do not think that's the case. With Adams out, and with the Vikings favored by double-digits, the Packers are going to have to throw the ball. Nelson is one of two reliable pass-catchers in the offense, and maybe three if you want to count Geronimo Allison. Hundley can't just drop back and force feed Randall Cobb all game. Nelson is going to get plenty of target share, and even with one of the league's best corners on him, that'll make him worthy of a start. I don't think he's going to throw it back to the vintage days of yore, but I do think he can volume his way to a WR3 day.
Martavis Bryant, Steelers (at Texans)
With Antonio Brown out for the rest of the regular season with a partially torn calf, Bryant should be in starting lineups this week. He got six targets last week, catching four of them for 59 yards and a touchdown. He hasn’t been putting up big yardage numbers, but he has had at least six targets in all of his last four games, and that has been mostly with Brown on the field. The Steelers may lean on Le’Veon Bell even more than usual without Brown, but Ben Roethlisberger isn’t going to entirely pack in the passing game. Bryant and Juju Smith-Schuster are both decent bets to push up toward 10 targets, meaning both need to be started wherever they are owned.
Sterling Shepard, Giants (at Cardinals)
There is inevitably going to be a subset of Shepard owners concerned enough about the Patrick Peterson matchup that its members consider benching him. Do not be in that subset. If you’re in that subset, it’s not too late to get out. Yes, Peterson is about as tough a matchup as a receiver could have. Yet, Shepard’s ceiling is far too high to consider sitting him down in your championship. That ceiling was on full display last week, when he caught 11 of 16 targets for 139 yards and a touchdown. It was on display in his second game back from an ankle injury, when he had 11 grabs for 142 yards. In fact, there are four receivers with at least three 130-yard games this season: Antonio Brown (six!), Keenan Allen, T.Y. Hilton and Shepard. Forget about the matchup and get him in your lineup.
Rishard Matthews, Titans, (vs. Rams)
Matthews found his stride last week in his second game back from injury, catching six passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. He now has scores in three of his last five games, and at least 70 yards in all three of those contests. The Rams feature one of the best pass defenses in the league, but if the Titans are going to have any hope of keeping up in this game, Marcus Mariota is going to have to find some success in the air. We know that quarterbacks cannot live on volume alone, but receivers can. It might not be pretty, but Matthews should get enough looks that if he converts at his usual rate, he’ll put up WR3 or better numbers.
Mike Wallace, Ravens (vs. Colts)
Wallace had six catches for 89 yards last week, the fifth time in six games he had a touchdown or at least 72 yards. As I said in this week’s waiver wire column, those numbers don’t jump off the page, but they do translate to the per-game averages of a WR3. Wallace’s limited ceiling makes him less attractive in a one-off game than it does as a season-long part of your receiver rotation, but he’s a relatively safe bet to give you WR3 numbers this week. He also has the benefit of playing for a team favored by two touchdowns against a defense that’s ranked 20th in wide receiver aFPA.
T.Y. Hilton, Colts (at Ravens)
“Wait a minute,” I can hear you saying. “Didn’t you just say that Sterling Shepard’s ceiling is too high to bench him, even in a tough matchup? Isn’t this another one of the three 130-yard game guys you quoted when defending Shepard? What gives?” Yes, all that is true. So what makes Hilton different than Shepard? The Colts offense is a total mess. Hilton may have three 130-yard games but the last one came in the first week of November. Since then, he has 14 catches for 150 yards in five games. Bringing that sort of trend into a game against a Ravens defense ranked third in wide receiver aFPA and first in quarterback aFPA doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence.
Jamison Crowder, Redskins (vs. Broncos)
Sitting Crowder has a lot to do with what we’ve discussed surrounding the Washington offense for the last few weeks. The injuries to the line and other key players in the offense make it hard to trust the passing game whenever it plays a top-flight defense. Just take a look at the last two games. The Chargers and Cardinals are tough on receivers, ranking second and eighth, respectively, in wide receiver aFPA. Crowder scored against the Cardinals last week, but he totaled eight catches for 89 yards in the two games. I don’t want to bet on any touchdown-dependent receiver in a matchup with the Broncos secondary.
Nelson Agholor, Eagles (vs. Raiders)
Agholor was one of four Eagles pass-catchers to score a touchdown in Nick Foles’s first start of the season, a 34-29 Eagles win over the Giants. Still, he had just 59 yards, showing off his touchdown-dependency once again. Agholor has three games this season with 70-plus yards. Even in a good matchup, I’m uncomfortable betting on Nick Foles producing enough scoring opportunities to make the third or fourth option in the offense a strong fantasy play. That, unfortunately, is what Agholor is. He’s just inside my top-40 receivers, and I would play him over the likes of Hilton, Sammy Watkins, Kendall Wright, Ted Ginn and Emmanuel Sanders.
Keelan Cole, Jaguars (at 49ers)
Cole is going to be a very popular play this week after he caught seven of nine targets for 186 yards and a touchdown last week. In the interest of full disclosure, I may be starting him in the championship game in my most important league, though that’s due to injuries to Davante Adams and DeSean Jackson. Cole is in the same range as Crowder and Agholor, right on the fringe of WR3 territory. The fact that he got nine targets last week is encouraging, and Marqise Lee will miss this game with an ankle injury. Still, Dede Westbrook has to be viewed as the No. 1 receiver in Jacksonville, and the 49ers have been tougher than you think against receivers, ranking 10th in aFPA to the position. Cole isn’t a terrible option, but he still projects as a WR4 type.
Jared Cook, Raiders (at Eagles)
Cook had an ugly game last week, catching two passes for 17 yards, but that’s the risk associated with every borderline starter at tight end. Anyone I recommend in this space—anyone you could easily talk yourself into if you don’t own Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, Greg Olsen or Jimmy Graham—has dud potential. Cook has been more reliable than most of his peers, he has done it over the course of the entire season, and he has a matchup with an Eagles defense that is just about league-average in tight end aFPA. There’s also a 47.5 over/under on the game, and Cook is one of Derek Carr’s best red-zone weapons. Plus, it’s the final game of Week 16, so it’ll be fun to make your opponent sweat it out if your matchup comes down to the wire.
Eric Ebron, Lions (vs. Bengals)
Ebron has 18 targets in his last two games, fully one-quarter of his 72 looks from Matthew Stafford on the season. He has pulled down 15 of those for 127 yards and a touchdown, producing his third- and fourth-best games of the season in standard-scoring leagues. The Bengals rank 26th in tight end aFPA, and have allowed touchdowns to Adam Shaheen and Kyle Rudolph the last two weeks. This is a good spot for Ebron to deliver for tight end streamers.
Charles Clay, Bills (at Patriots)
Clay and Tyrod Taylor have started and finished seven games together this season. In those seven games, Clay has 29 catches on 41 targets for 368 yards and two touchdowns. That comes out to 6.97 points per game in standard-scoring leagues, and 11.11 points per game in PPR formats. Those may not sound like big per-game scores, but if Clay had those averages across all 14 of Buffalo’s games this season, he’d be the No. 7 tight end in standard leagues, and the No. 6 tight end in PPR leagues. When both he and Taylor are healthy, he safely projects as a low-end TE1.
Vernon Davis, Redskins (vs. Broncos)
The Broncos have proved a great matchup for tight ends this season, with the strength of their corners forcing quarterbacks to attack the middle of the field. The linebackers and safeties haven’t been up to the task, resulting in a ranking of 25th in tight end aFPA. And yet, can you trust Davis, a player who six catches for 59 yards in his last four games? If you’re considering Davis, there are certain to be better streaming options available to you.
Antonio Gates, Chargers (at Jets)
With Hunter Henry on IR after suffering a lacerated spleen, Gates is going to get some attention in fantasy circles this week. I’m here to tell you that you need to leave those particular circles. He did catch a touchdown last week and he’ll be expected to dominate snap rate at the position with Henry out, but that doesn’t mean the targets will be there. More likely, Rivers will focus more on Keenan Allen and Tyrell Williams, who have showed much more consistent ability to get open this season than Gates. The Jets aren’t a bad matchup, but Gates isn’t the brand of tight end who exploits those matchups any longer.
Jesse James, Steelers (at Texans)
James is another tight end fantasy owners are going to talk themselves into this week. Antonio Brown is out, the Texans rank 31st in tight end aFPA, and James is very much in the news for a reason that will stick in fantasy owner’s heads after his controversial non-touchdown last week. He had 10 catches for 97 yards in Week 14, so that’s going to convince some fantasy owners he’s on a mini-hot streak. The only worthy piece of evidence for a James candidacy as a Week 16 starter is Brown’s absence, but the likelihood remains that the Steelers will lean on Le’Veon Bell, Juju Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant. James is just barely a top-20 tight end this week.