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  • Patriots' running backs are usually a problem for fantasy football owners. A rematch with the Falcons changes that.
By Michael Beller
October 19, 2017

The surest way for any football writer to look like a fool is to make a sweeping proclamation about the Patriots' backfield. A fungible backfield has been a crucial pillar of New England's success over the last 15 years. By finding malleable backs and spending precious few resources on the position, the Patriots have allowed themselves to invest heavily nearly everywhere else. It’s an effective strategy and, at the same time, altogether frustrating for fantasy owners.

With that out of the way, I’m bringing a dunce cap into my home and placing it over in the corner, just in case I need it after this weekend. Why? Because I’m about to make a sweeping proclamation about the Patriots' backfield: James White needs to be in your fantasy lineups this week.

The Patriots host the Falcons in a Super Bowl LI rematch that has lost some of its luster, largely thanks to the struggles of last year’s NFC Champions. Still, the Sunday Night Football game promises plenty of fireworks, indicated by oddsmakers installing an over/under of 55, by far the highest of the week. White is a good bet to be responsible for a fair share of those points.

White’s case doesn’t rest solely on his performance in the Patriots' dramatic Super Bowl comeback, though it is worth remembering. White should have been the Super Bowl MVP last season after he caught 14 passes for 110 yards, ran six times for 29 yards and found the endzone three times, including the touchdowns that tied and won the game. The Falcons had no answer for White through the air, as he was the most effective receiver in a game that included Julio Jones and Julian Edelman.

Of course, not having an answer for pass-catching running backs was a theme for the Falcons last season. They led the league in receptions (109), receiving yards (870) and receiving touchdowns (six) allowed to running backs, and that doesn’t include what White did against them in the Super Bowl. That deficiency has carried over to 2017.

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First, it was Chicago's Tarik Cohen, who emerged into the fantasy consciousness after catching eight passes for 47 yards and a touchdown against the Falcons in Week 1. The following week, Green Bay's Ty Montgomery burned them for six receptions, 75 yards and a score through the air. In Week 3, Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah combined for seven receptions for 77 yards for the Lions. Bills running back LeSean McCoy had three catches for 32 yards in Week 4, and the Falcons held the Dolphins backs in check last week, though that’s not a serious challenge. Every offense that features its backs as pass-catchers has been able to do so against the Falcons at will.

White is on pace for the best regular season of his career, doing nearly all his damage as a receiver. He has 42 targets this season, catching 33 of them for 252 yards. White has at least five targets in five of his six games, leads the Patriots' backfield in total snap rate, and has played the most snaps among the team’s backs in every game this season. In other words, he has a major role in the offense and is regularly schemed the ball, regardless of opponent. This week’s opponent, however, happens to be particularly susceptible to a player with his skill set. White is going to go off on Sunday. And if he doesn’t, I’ll have that dunce cap waiting for me in the corner.

Quarterbacks

Start

Tyrod Taylor, Bills (vs. Buccaneers)

Taylor has had an uneven statistical season, scoring more than 17.5 fantasy points in two games, and fewer than 13 in his other three. He should add another performance to the former group this week. The Bills are coming out of their bye and taking on a Buccaneers team that is 30th in the league at defending quarterbacks in 4for4’s schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed rankings (aFPA). We haven’t seen Taylor get much going on the ground in his last three games, but that’s likely just a short-term anomaly. Charles Clay’s absence hurts Taylor, but the fact that the Bills had two weeks to install new concepts with Taylor’s healthy weapons should help. The Bills will be favorites in this game, no matter if it’s Jameis Winston or Ryan Fitzpatrick starting for the Buccaneers.

Carson Palmer, Cardinals (vs. Rams in London)

Palmer is coming off his best game of the season, during which he threw for 283 yards, 12.86 yards per attempt, three touchdowns and one interception in the Cardinals' win over the Buccaneers. It’s far too early to say Adrian Peterson is back, but the existence of an actual run game would be a boon to Palmer’s success. The Rams have been tough on quarterbacks this season, but not to the point that you should fade Palmer. He’s a low-end QB1, but still a QB1. In addition to the players listed in the sit portion of this column, I’d start him over Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, and the next two quarterbacks in this column.

Jared Goff, Rams (vs. Cardinals in London)

Contrary to popular belief, the Cardinals have not been great against the pass this year. They’re 25th in quarterback aFPA, and just allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick to burn them for 290 yards, 9.13 YPA and three touchdowns. The one player who keeps them competent, Patrick Peterson, won’t practice much, if at all, this week because of a quadriceps injury, and is in jeopardy of being inactive. If he’s out, Goff should have his way with the Cardinals' defense. The good people of London could be in for one of the most exciting games the NFL has ever exported to their city.

Superflex Special

Brett Hundley, Packers (vs. Saints)

Hundley should go right from the waiver wire to your lineup if you grabbed him in a superflex league earlier this week. He may not be Aaron Rodgers, but he gets to play with all of the same toys against a Saints defense that ranks 21st in quarterback aFPA. Hundley is an athletic quarterback who can make teams pay with his legs, but the fact that he threw a red-zone touchdown on his second possession leading the Green Bay offense is the most encouraging take away from a week ago. He was in a terrible position in that game, entering on the fly after getting no practice time, playing a stout pass defense on the road. Contrast that with this week, when he’ll take all the reps in practice, and face a soft defense at home.

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Sit

Jameis Winston, Buccaneers (at Bills)

Winston may play on Sunday after spraining his shoulder in the loss to the Cardinals last week, but that shouldn’t matter to fantasy owners. Winston does not belong in your lineup for Week 7. The Bills have had one of the fiercest defenses in the league this season, ranking second in quarterback aFPA. Even if Winston does play, he could be at less than 100%, and even if he were fully healthy, he’d have his work cut out for him. This is a tough spot for any quarterback, and a legitimately bad one of a quarterback who’s a week removed from the incidence of a shoulder sprain

Philip Rivers, Chargers (vs. Broncos)

Don’t be bluffed by Rivers’s three-touchdown game against the Broncos in Week 1. He got just 5.82 YPA in that game, and was the beneficiary of some fluky touchdown luck. The Chargers had one pass play longer than 14 yards, clamping down on Rivers’s receivers, and generally making life impossible for the entire passing game. Since then, the Broncos have allowed six passing touchdowns and 5.89 YPA in four games. Rivers made a few plays in the red zone, to his credit, but his fantasy owners shouldn’t bet on that happening again. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Rivers will be done with the Broncos this season after Sunday.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers (vs. Bengals)

Roethlsiberger endured another dreadful performance a week ago, one in which his mediocre numbers don’t tell the full story. He threw for 252 yards, 10.08 YPA and a touchdown, but the score was one of the most fortunate plays for the season. The pass should have been intercepted, but it went through Philip Gaines’s hands and into Antonio Brown’s, who took it to the house. If Gaines makes the play on that ball, Roethlisberger finishes the game with 201 yards, 8.04 YPA, zero touchdowns and two picks. The Bengals, meanwhile, rank seventh in quarterback aFPA. Roethlisberger may be back at home, but the last time he faced a top defense at Heinz Field, he threw five passes to the Jaguars.

Running Backs

Start

Dion Lewis, Patriots (vs. Falcons)

If you aren’t lucky enough to own James White, there’s plenty of expected production in the Patriots' offense to start Lewis, too. He seems to have wrested the primary running gig from Mike Gillislee after leading the team in rushing yards in both of its last two games. In that time, he has rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. He won’t usurp White’s pass-catching role, but he’s still effective as a receiver, giving Tom Brady the confidence to go no-huddle with him on the field. There’s almost no bad way to get invested in Falcons-Patriots.

Bilal Powell, Jets (at Dolphins)

On Wednesday, Powell made his first appearance in a Jets practice since injuring his calf in their Week 5 win over the Browns. Powell still has some work to do to get back on the field, but the mere fact that he was able to participate at all in a mid-week practice is a great sign. The Dolphins' defense is no joke against the run, ranking fifth in running back aFPA, but Powell should be in for a big workload if he’s healthy enough to play on Sunday. More often than not, betting on volume is a worthy enterprise at the running back position. Powell doesn’t carry more than mid-tier RB2 upside, and his projection is more in the low-end RB2/high-end RB3 range, but that should be enough to get him into most starting lineups.

Aaron Jones, Packers (vs. Saints)

Ty Montgomery, Packers (vs. Saints)

This does not mean that I would start both of these backs on the same fantasy team. It does mean, however, that if I own one of them, I’d feel comfortable betting on flex production out of him, no matter who it is. The Saints rank 21st in running back aFPA this season. They’ve also surrendered the sixth-most receptions and third-most receiving yards to backs, despite already having their bye. Jones and Montgomery will split touches, but both of them could be dangerous with just 11 or 12 opportunities. Remember, start/sit isn’t just about saying, “This player will be a top-20 back.” It’s also about making wise decisions based on a reasonable range of outcomes. Betting on either Green Bay back to fall on the positive side of his range is a winning decision.

Orleans Darkwa, Giants (vs. Seahawks)

Darkwa ran all over the Broncos last week, rumbling for 117 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. I’m not ready to say that he’s going to be a top-15 back or a surefire RB2 the rest of the season. I’m always who had multiple years to demand a significant role in an offense and failed to do so. Still, I am ready to say that he belongs in most fantasy lineups this week. Put simply, any back who runs for 117 yards and a score against this season’s Broncos defense deserves some run from his fantasy owners, regardless of his next matchup.

Sit

Joe Mixon, Bengals (at Steelers)

After the first two weeks of what’s shaping up to be a disappointing rookie season, fantasy owners who paid a premium for Mixon based on little more than an inflated sense of their own ability to judge talent could soothe themselves with the fact that he didn’t get much opportunity. They can no longer find that solace. Mixon has racked up 18, 17 and 15 carries in Cincinnati’s last three games. All he has to show for it is 142 yards and a touchdown, good for 6.73 points per game of rushing production. That’s about equivalent to what Chris Ivory has done in a backup role this season. The Steelers rank 10th in running back aFPA.

Mike Gillislee, Patriots (vs. Falcons)

If Dion Lewis is in, that means Gillislee is out. If you own Gillislee, I realize that you might have no choice but to hope Bill Belichick spins that running back wheel again this week, with the pointer ends up on his wedge of the wheel. Unfortunately, that looks like wishful thinking more than anything else. Plus, the way the Patriots' defense has played this season, coupled with the latent explosiveness of the Falcons' offense, could lead to a game script that veers strongly away from Gillislee’s skill set.

Isaiah Crowell, Browns (vs. Titans)

I realize this is fantasy football, but did I transport to Fantasy Land? After another ho-hum 58-yard game out of Crowell last week, I figured I could be done talking about him for the foreseeable future. He hasn’t rushed for more than 60 yards in a game, he doesn’t make any impact as a receiver, and he’s still looking for his first touchdown. Then I saw that he has a consensus ranking on FantasyPros of RB33, and 82nd among all backs, receivers and tight ends. That easily places him on the start radar this week. Why? I thought we all agreed that he wasn’t very good, and that the Browns' offense isn’t giving him enough opportunity to turn his ownership of goal-line carries into touchdowns. Please, fellow rankers, don’t make me go through this again next week.

Wide Receivers

Start

John Brown, Cardinals (vs. Rams in London)

Brown kicks off our run of four straight high-variance, boom-or-bust receivers that we’re believing in this week. In three games since returning from a calf strain, Brown has caught eight of his 18 targets for 136 yards and two touchdowns. Pay particular attention to that target number. If Brown can average six targets per game, chances are he’ll get two or three shots at making a big play down the field. The Rams have been a bit better than league average against receivers, though they did allow big games to Pierre Garcon (7-142) and Marqise Lee (5-83).

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Martavis Bryant, Steelers (vs. Bengals)

Bryant isn’t getting traded. The Steelers are better when Bryant is happy and contributing. How do you make an upset receiver happy? You get him the ball. I think there’s going to be some grease headed in the direction of this squeaky wheel on Sunday. The question, however, is whether Roethlisberger can finally find the touch on his deep ball. As we’ve discussed in this space over the last few weeks, Bryant is getting open down the field. Roethlisberger hasn’t held up his end of the bargain. The Bengals are a tough matchup, but Bryant’s big-play ability, as well as the fact that he has opened himself up on numerous occasions this year, makes him a viable fantasy starter.

Sammy Watkins, Rams (vs. Cardinals)

Despite Patrick Peterson’s presence on one side of the field, a receiver has burned the Cardinals for a big play almost every week this season. In Week 1, it was Kenny Golladay. In Week 3, it was Brice Butler. Two weeks later, Nelson Agholor got them. Last week, Mike Evans got to them late. In other words, it’s not silly to expect one of the Rams' receivers to get loose in the Arizona secondary. Watkins has just six targets in the Rams last three games, but there’s no question he’s the most talented receiver on this team. No one else is catching six of seven targets for 106 yards and two scores, as he did against the 49ers. This whole passing game gets a break after facing the Seahawks and Jaguars the previous two weeks. Watkins has significant upside in Week 7.

Taylor Gabriel, Falcons (at Patriots)

Mohamed Sanu returned to practice on Wednesday after missing last week’s game against the Dolphins with a hamstring injury. If he returns, he will significantly curb Gabriel’s upside. If he misses another game, however, Gabriel will be a worthy starter in all formats. Gabriel got eight targets in Sanu’s absence, catching four of them for 39 yards. Even if Sanu does return, Gabriel deserves a look from his fantasy owners. The Patriots are 27th in wide receiver aFPA, and 31st in quarterback aFPA. Every quarterback who has faced them has thrown for at least 300 yards and 7.26 YPA.

Sit

Randall Cobb, Packers (vs. Saints)

The Packers are confident in Brett Hundley, but he can’t support three fantasy receivers the way Aaron Rodgers can. The bet here is that, over the course of the rest of the season, Cobb will be the odd man out. There certainly will be weeks where it’s Davante Adams or Jordy Nelson falling short, but Cobb has the least touchdown upside of the three, and that’s what’s most likely to carry them in a post-Rodgers world. The Saints have a lower aFPA against receivers in PPR leagues than standard formats, which suggests they are more susceptible to big-play receivers, rather than those, like Cobb, who grind out their production.

Mike Wallace, Ravens (at Vikings)

I’m a big fan of Wallace’s, and I’d love to have him on any of my teams with all the bye weeks we still have ahead of us. This, however, is not a good week for him. He’s likely to see a heavy dose of Xavier Rhodes, a shadow cornerback who has turned into one of the deadliest covers in the league. Michael Thomas, Antonio Brown, Mike Evans and Jordy Nelson have all faced off with Rhodes this season. None found the end zone, and all were held to 67 yards or fewer. Wallace isn’t likely to fare any better.

Jermaine Kearse, Jets (at Dolphins)

Kearse caught all four of his targets last week for a season-high 79 yards. Kearse may be the de facto No. 1 receiver on the Jets, but he has five or fewer targets in four of the team’s six games, and 42 or fewer yards in three games. He has a low ceiling and his floor is close to a goose egg. Remember, too, that he was playing the Patriots bottom-of-the-barrel pass defense last week. That won’t be the case in Miami on Sunday.

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Tight Ends

Start

George Kittle, 49ers (vs. Cowboys)

Kittle has racked up 17 targets over the 49ers' last two games, catching 11 of them for 129 yards and a touchdown. He got three of his four catches for 41 yards last week after C.J. Beathard took over for Brian Hoyer. If Beathard-to-Kittle sounds familiar, it’s because they were college teammates at Iowa. Over their junior and senior years in Iowa City, they connected 42 times for 604 yards and 10 touchdowns. Kittle is worth a start this week, and could stick on your roster if you’re in need of a consistent tight end.

Hunter Henry, Chargers (vs. Broncos)

The strength of the Broncos' pass defense is on the outside of the field. While they’ve locked down receivers for the fourth-straight season, tight ends have found some room to roam against the Broncos. They rank 27th in tight end aFPA, surrendering a combined 21 receptions for 218 yards and two touchdowns to Jason Witten, Charles Clay and Evan Engram. Then there’s the fact that Henry has wrested the torch from Antonio Gates, and is asserting himself as the No. 1 tight end for the Chargers. In his three games with more than five targets, he has 15 catches for 212 yards and a score.

Austin Hooper, Falcons (at Patriots)

This is mostly a matchup play, but that shouldn’t scare you away if you need help at tight end this week. The Patriots rank 28th in tight end aFPA, allowing big games to Ryan Griffin (5-61-1), Cameron Brate (5-68-1) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (8-46-1, and he was robbed of a second touchdown on a dubious replay). Hooper has 16 targets in the Falcons last two games, catching 12 of them for 98 yards.

Sit

Jason Witten, Cowboys (at 49ers)

Would you believe that the 49ers have done a great job of covering tight ends? Greg Olsen, Jimmy Graham and Jordan Reed combined for seven catches for 56 yards against the 49ers, with both Olsen and Graham held south of 20 yards. Witten is not far behind the TE1 class, but this is a legitimately tough matchup. He has had three games with at least nine targets this year, but two of those came against defenses vulnerable against tight ends. With the Cowboys six-point favorites in San Francisco this week, it has the feel of a game where Witten spends a lot of his time blocking for Ezekiel Elliott.

Ben Watson, Ravens (at Vikings)

Watson won’t ever be a terrible projected play, but do you really want to invest in the Baltimore offense on the road against a defense like Minnesota’s if you don’t have to. What argument is there for starting Watson over Hooper, who’s available in about half of all fantasy leagues? What argument is there for Watson over Zach Miller, who’s available in three of every four leagues? Watson has 30 yards on 12 targets over the last two weeks, a sign of the impotence of Baltimore’s offense. It’s hard to see the Ravens finding a ton of success in Minnesota.

Jack Doyle, Colts (vs. Jaguars)

Doyle had his best game of the season last week, catching seven of 11 targets for 50 yards and a touchdown. He also had two drops, one of which nearly was ruled a fumble. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which the Colts' offense has much success against the Jaguars' pass defense. The Colts may be 2-4 and Jacoby Brissett has generated some positive press, but this team’s two wins came against the Browns and 49ers, who are a combined 0-12 on the year. Life against the Jaguars will be a whole lot tougher.

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