Six teams are on bye in Week 8. As such, this week’s Start ’Em, Sit ’Em column will have a strong, “You may not love this guy, but…” feel to it. It doesn’t much matter which six teams are taking a seat, though, for the record, they are the Packers, Cardinals, Rams, Jaguars, Titans and Giants. Whenever that many teams are off the table, the bar for starting a player is significantly lower.
Think of it this way. Even the shallowest fantasy leagues—typically something on the order of 10 teamers where every team starts two running backs, three receivers, and a flex—has a total of 20 starting running backs and 30 starting receivers, plus 10 more back plus receivers, possibly with an extra tight end or two thrown in among the flexes. Now, think of how many players you would absolutely be comfortable starting this week. It thins out pretty quickly with just 26 teams to choose from, right? Now imagine a deeper league, one with, say, 12 teams that starts two running backs, three receivers and two flexes. In short, it’s harder to be a sit than a start in Week 8.
One of the players whose fantasy value increases with a shallower pool, but doesn’t necessarily need it to get into starting lineups, is Andy Dalton. He and the Bengals host the Colts in a game where they’re favored to win by 10 points. In four games with Bill Lazor as the offensive coordinator, Dalton has thrown for 966 yards, 7.85 yards per attempt, and nine touchdowns against four interceptions, translating to the 12th-most points per game among quarterbacks in that span. He has reached at least 9.0 YPA twice, and has multiple scores in three of those games. What’s more, he has done it against a tough slate of defenses, facing units ranked fifth (Bills), sixth (Steelers) and 14th (Packers) in 4for4’s schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed metric (aFPA).
The good news for Dalton is he will not face such a defense this week. The Colts are 29th against quarterbacks in aFPA, better than only the Patriots, Browns and Buccaneers. The Colts surrendered 25.08 points to DeShone Kizer (though, to be fair, 10.4 of those came via his legs), 22.12 points to Brian Hoyer, and 17.31 points to Blake Bortles. Hoyer and Bortles combined for 683 yards, 9.49 YPA, three touchdowns and zero picks in their games against the 49ers. Dalton should be able to follow suit with relative ease.
Dalton is my No. 8 quarterback of the week, and I have more confidence in him finishing as a top-five player at the position rather than falling out of the top 10. He’s one of the players on the positive side of this column you won’t have to hold your nose at while inserting in your starting lineup. Not all of them will be that way.
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Jameis Winston, Buccaneers (vs. Panthers)
Winston had his best game of the season last week, shaking off a mild shoulder sprain to throw for 384 yards, 8.73 YPA and three touchdowns in Buffalo against one of the league’s stingiest pass defenses. The Buccaneers didn’t come out of it with a win, but that was hardly Winston’s fault. He’ll face a similarly tough test against the Panthers, with Luke Kuechly expected back on the field after missing last week’s loss to the Bears with a concussion. Still, Winston has delivered in tough matchups this season with not only the Bills, but the Giants and Vikings, as well. Don’t let another good defense scare you away.
Tyrod Taylor, Bills (vs. Raiders)
Eventually, the fantasy community at large will finally accept that Taylor delivers more often than not, regardless of what’s around him. The Buccaneers defense isn’t exactly a world beater, but that shouldn’t detract from Taylor Week 7 performance, during which racked up 268 yards, 8.12 YPA, one touchdown and 53 rushing yards, leading the Bills to an impressive comeback win. He faces a Raiders defense this week that ranks 24th in quarterback aFPA, failing to take the next step as a unit. The Bills are slight favorites at home, both of which are contextual factors that work in Taylor’s favor.
Case Keenum, Vikings (vs. Browns in London)
The Vikings aren’t winning in spite of Keenum, but they aren’t winning because of him, either. They’re winning with him just sort of there, doing enough good quarterbacking while mostly staying out of the way. Having said that, this is an excellent week to fire him up as a QB2 in leagues where you start two quarterbacks. Remember, Keenum does have one great game under his belt this season, a 369-yard, three-touchdown effort against the Buccaneers in Week 3. The Buccaneers rank 32nd in quarterback aFPA this season. Keenum’s opponent this week, the Browns, ranks 31st. Stefon Diggs will make the trip to London, and it’s hard to imagine the team bringing him along for a transatlantic flight if it didn’t think he had a real chance to play. With or without Diggs, though, Keenum should be able to carve up one of the league’s worst pass defenses.
Deshaun Watson, Texans (at Seahawks)
I love Watson. You love Watson. We all love Deshaun Watson. But this is going to be a test unlike one he has faced this season. That would probably be true no matter which defenses he had seen to this point, given that the Seahawks are a singular opponent, especially when they’re at home. Watson, however, has spent most of his season torching bad pass defenses. The four units against which he has looked like a star—the Patriots, Titans, Chiefs and Browns—rank 30th, 23rd, 22nd and 31st, respectively in quarterback aFPA. They aren’t much better by more traditional measures, slotting 32nd, 18th, 28th and 15th in passing defense. The Seahawks, meanwhile, are second in quarterback aFPA, and eighth in passing defense. Watson is still my QB15, but I’d go with the players listed in the start section, as well as Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and the next player in this section over him, if I had them as options.
Derek Carr, Raiders (at Bills)
Carr is my QB14 for Week 8. Like Watson, I’d be comfortable starting him if I had no other option. Consider this a head’s up to look for one. Carr and the Raiders head to Buffalo to take on a Bills defense that ranks fifth in quarterback aFPA. They’ve held five of the six quarterbacks they’ve faced this season to 15.5 or fewer points in standard-scoring leagues. To be fair, two of those quarterbacks were Josh McCown and Trevor Siemian, but the other three were Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Andy Dalton. No matter how good you think Carr is, or what you think he might become, it would be a stretch to say he’s objectively better than those three quarterbacks right now. Don’t sleep on circadian-rhythm theory, either, with the West-Coast based raiders heading to the Eastern time zone for a 1 pm ET start.
Matthew Stafford, Lions (vs. Steelers)
The Lions are coming out of their bye and playing at home, both of which should work to Stafford’s favor. At the same time, there’s a strong chance this Steelers defense is really good, and it seems to just be hitting its stride. The Steelers rank sixth in quarterback aFPA, and held Alex Smith and Andy Dalton to a combined 386 yards, 6.03 YPA and three touchdowns with two interceptions the last two weeks. Stafford likely will be playing without Golden Tate, who is nursing a shoulder injury, making Marvin Jones and Theo Riddick his two best pass-catchers. Kenny Golladay should mix in more, too, but Tate’s absence will be felt against a fast, versatile Pittsburgh defense.
Latavius Murray, Vikings (vs. Browns in London)
The Vikings have pretty well showed their backfield cards to us since Dalvin Cook tore his ACL. If one back is ahead of the other on the depth chart, it’s Jerick McKinnon, who is unquestionably the more dynamic player. Murray, however, will get a lot of work when the game script calls for one back to move the chains and salt away the clock with the lead, as it did in the win over the Ravens last week. The script will almost certainly be the same in London on Sunday, and while identical scripts can make for awful movies, they’re a beautiful sight to see for fantasy owners invested in the right player. You might have to wait until the second half for Murray to pay off, but he will in a game the Vikings should handle from start to finish.
Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington, Raiders (at Bills)
No, I would not start both Richard and Washington on the same fantasy team, unless I was absolutely desperate. Yes, I would start either one with Marshawn Lynch suspended this week. Richard figures to handle more work, especially since he’s the superior pass-catcher, while Washington will likely take care of the goal-line duties. They split the backfield right down the middle last week, with both backs getting nine carries and four targets. Richard played 26 snaps, while Washington played 25. Richard was the more dynamic back, thanks largely to catching all four of his targets for 45 yards. Washington, on the other hand, turned his four targets into three receptions for seven yards. It’s that sort of explosiveness that makes Richard my favored Oakland back this week, but both have enough upside to be in the low-end RB2 and flex mix.
Tarik Cohen, Bears (at Saints)
In case you haven’t heard, the Bears won a game last week in which starting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who took every snap, went 4-for-7 on pass attempts. I’m honestly not sure which number is more mind-boggling. I think it’s the seven attempts, but it’s awfully close. One of those four completions, though, resulted in a 70-yard catch-and-run by Cohen, and that’s the important takeaway here. Even after trading for Dontrelle Inman, the Bears are desperate for playmakers in the passing game. Cohen has proved that he can be one. It’s now up to the team to give him the opportunity to make the most of his gifts. Not only do I believe it will do that this week, I think the Saints offense will give it no choice. As good as the Bears defense has been this season, I can’t see it shutting down Drew Brees and this offense playing at home, especially now that is found a run game.
Marlon Mack, Colts (at Bengals)
Just like the Vikings have showed us who they are in the backfield, so, too, have the Colts. They made it clear in last week’s 27-0 loss to the Jaguars that when they get in a deep, early hole, Mack will play a ton. There are a number of scenarios that could play out in Cincinnati this week, but a lot of them have the Colts falling into that same deep, early hole. Mack has flashed too great a playmaking skill set to get the ball in his hands any less than 10 or 12 times per game. If I’m a fantasy owner looking at a team ravaged by bye weeks, I want a player like Mack getting double-digit touches in my starting lineup.
Matt Forte, Jets (vs. Falcons)
Forte churned out 82 yards on 12 touches last week, getting seven carries and five receptions. He and Bilal Powell are locked into an even timeshare in the Jets backfield, which does place both of them on the flex radar. It also curbs their respective ceilings, given that neither is likely to secure more than 15 touches. Forte has looked good as a receiver in the team’s last two games, though it’s worth noting that the first of those came with Powell inactive because of a calf injury. Powell is a worthy start because he still has the explosiveness necessary to make big plays happen, while Forte is more volume-dependent than ever in his age-31 season.
Wendell Smallwood, Eagles (vs. 49ers)
Last week, Smallwood got eight carries and two targets, while LeGarrette Blount ran the ball 14 times. For the season, Smallwood has a slightly higher snap rate than Blount, but it’s the latter who comfortably leads the team in carries. Smallwood eats into that touch deficit in the passing game, but not enough to command a co-equal spot in the Eagles backfield. In short, Smallwood has the ability to pop off for a big game, and it will be a punch to the gut if he does it on your bench, but it has such a low probability of happening that you couldn’t be upset with the process. Smallwood is averaging just more than nine touches per game, and no back is worth starting if you can’t count on him having the ball in his hands more than nine times. No matter how much he flashes, no matter the opponent, Smallwood needs a larger role to command a starting gig in fantasy leagues, even in a week with six teams on bye.
Isaiah Crowell, Browns (vs. Vikings in London)
How? How are we doing this again? How could my fellow rankers in the fantasy football world still be slotting Crowell as a top-35 back? Such a ranking places him firmly on the flex radar any week, let alone one in which six teams are taking a rest. That means most of them would rate Crowell a worthy starter in Week 8. This is despite the fact that he had another terrible game, adding to a season full of them, when he ran for 35 yards on 17 carries in the Browns Week 7 loss to the Titans. He did catch four passes for 36 yards, but all that did was get him just above seven points in standard-scoring leagues for the second time all season. Now he’s going to produce starter’s numbers against a Vikings defense that ranks second in running back aFPA? Give me a break. Crowell should be closer to a waiver wire than a starting lineup this week.
Tyrell Williams, Chargers (at Patriots)
Williams’s personal season hit rock bottom last week when he caught one pass for 11 yards in the win over the Broncos. He has just five catches and six targets the last three weeks, and a total of 21 catches on 30 targets for 298 yards and a touchdown this season. Those are disappointing numbers, given that he posted a 69-130-1,059-7 line last season. Williams, however, is still a key part of the Chargers offense, playing 85% of the snaps on the season, and at least 68% in every game. Travis Benjamin went off for two big touchdowns last week, but he played just 38% of the team’s snaps. When in doubt, bet on the guy who’s on the field for at least seven of every 10 plays. The Patriots have played better on defense of late, but they still rank 28th in wide receiver aFPA, and 30th in quarterback aFPA on the season.
Josh Doctson, Redskins (vs. Cowboys)
Doctson overtook Terrelle Pryor on the depth chart before last week’s loss to the Eagles. Doctson played 54 of the team’s 64 snaps in the game, while Pryor played just 30. Only one of those snaps came before halftime, as strong an indication as any that Pryor’s role has changed. Doctson didn’t do much with his opportunity, catching three of five targets for 39 yards, but both Kirk Cousins and Jay Gruden had glowing things to say about what he could mean to the offense after the game. Remember, he was the 22nd pick in the draft just one year ago after an excellent career at TCU. There’s no doubt that Doctson has the talent to become a No. 1 receiver, and he’s in the right brand of offense to realize that potential. The Cowboys rank 24th in receiver aFPA, and the over/under on the game is a robust 50.5 points, the highest in Week 8.
Jordan Matthews, Bills (vs. Raiders)
Matthews returned last week, just three weeks after breaking his thumb. With that in mind, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that he had just two catches for 10 yards. Matthews deserves some slack for being in shake-the-rust-off mode last week. He also deserves consideration as a fantasy starter in Week 8. Tyrod Taylor has proved his ability to put up numbers despite one of the league’s worst receiving groups, but that doesn’t mean he likes it. He’d probably rather have someone outside the numbers he could actually use as a downfield weapon. As well as new Buffalo receiver Deonte Thompson played last week (four catches, 107 yards), Matthews is the best bet to be that guy. The likelihood of Matthews being Taylor’s top receiver, coupled with the Raiders 23rd aFPA ranking against receivers, makes him a worthy gamble this week.
Robby Anderson, Jets (vs. Falcons)
Anderson has 17 targets over the last two weeks, catching seven of them for 111 yards and a touchdown. The Jets are a surprise, even at a modest 3-4, and Josh McCown has played well, but that still doesn’t mean it’s easy to bet on a Jet receiver showing up in meaningful way in fantasy leagues. Anderson, however, should get plenty of volume, even with Jermaine Kearse leading the team in snap rate. Kearse has been on the field for more plays, but Anderson has nine more targets, and he gets more shots deep down the field.
I admit that the names listed here might seem like no-brainers—it should drive home just how low the bar to be a starting fantasy receiver this week, and just how bad of options the next three guys are.
Paul Richardson, Seahawks (vs. Texans)
Richardson has made some splash plays this season, scoring three touchdowns despite just 16 receptions and 29 targets. Seattle’s passing game is rounding into form, and Russell Wilson is making magic again, despite a terrible offensive line. Still, most of Richardson’s big plays are deep down the field. Those come either on snaps where the line somehow holds up to allow routes to develop, or Wilson extends the play with his legs. Neither of those are outcomes you want to bet on happening. Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham are strong plays because of Wilson, and the deficiencies of the line. Richardson showing up, as he did last week, is merely a happy coincidence.
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Mohamed Sanu, Falcons (at Jets)
Volume is great for receivers, there is no doubting that. Sanu got plenty of it last week, catching six of 10 targets for 65 yards. With that sort of volume, six teams on bye, and the belief that there has to be more to this Atlanta offense, it won’t be a surprise to see a lot of fantasy owners roll out Sanu this weekend. And yet, doesn’t it say something that Sanu got 10 targets in what was Atlanta’s low point of the season. Doesn’t it suggest that the Falcons might finally go back to the drawing board during practice this week, and that what they come up with might not look a whole lot like what it did a week ago? If anything, I’d argue that Sanu’s 10 targets in a game where the Falcons scored seven points, and were nearly held scoreless, against what had been one of the worst defenses in the league is an indictment of the receiver, not an endorsement.
Terrelle Pryor, Redskins (vs. Cowboys)
You read the capsule above on Josh Doctson, right? If you didn’t, go read it now. It explains why Pryor is down here. Unless last week was some form of motivation from Jay Gruden, it’s hard to see Pryor having a role that makes him a worthy fantasy starter anytime soon.
Tyler Kroft, Bengals (vs. Colts)
Kroft ranks 10th among tight ends in standard-league scoring since taking over for Tyler Eifert in Week 3, and the Bengals have had their bye since then. He’s sixth in points per game in that time, trailing only Rob Gronkowski, Zach Ertz, Cameron Brate, Jimmy Graham and Hunter Henry. Kroft is touchdown-dependent, but, then again, so is every tight end but they very few in the elite tier. Kroft is averaging five targets per game as the starter, and is regularly looked to in the red zone. The Colts, meanwhile, rank 26th in tight end aFPA.
Jack Doyle, Colts (at Bengals)
Doyle has gotten things going over his last two games, catching 13 of 18 targets for 94 yards and a touchdown. The distribution in the Colts passing game is basically down to T.Y. Hilton, Marlon Mack and him, which all but guarantees a safe target floor. He has at least seven targets in four of the team’s six games this year, and that volume isn’t going anywhere this week. The Colts are rightly 10-point underdogs at Cincinnati. Jacoby Brissett has attempted 37 passes in three of the four losses that he has started this season. Smart money is on this week’s game being the fourth.
Jason Witten, Cowboys (at Redskins)
Witten has been a more consistent weapon for the Cowboys this season, ranking sixth among tight ends in total points and eighth in points per game. Take out a couple of duds in Weeks 3 and 4, and he has 29 catches for 271 yards and three touchdowns in the other four games, good for 11.28 points per game in standard leagues, and 18.53 points per game in PPR formats. In short, Witten is a relatively safe starter most weeks. On top of that, Washington ranks 28th in tight end aFPA this season. While they’ve been understandably burned by Zach Ertz (twice) and Travis Kelce, Gerald Everett got them for 95 yards on three catches, and Jared Cook caught four passes for 43 yards and a touchdown in a Raiders win over the Redskins in Week 3.
O.J. Howard, Buccaneers (vs. Panthers)
I know we all want to believe in Howard, and his stat line from last week certainly looks impressive. Any time you’ve got a rookie tight end, who happened to be the 19th pick in the draft, catching all six of his targets for 98 yards and two touchdowns, you have to take notice. Still, Howard’s biggest play of the game, the 33-yard touchdown, was on a beautifully designed throwback against a rollout, the second such touchdown Howard has scored this season. In fact, those two catches are responsible for 54.8% of his fantasy production in standard-scoring leagues. Receiver teammates can produce alongside one another in a way that shows up in fantasy leagues. So can running back teammates. Its’s nearly impossible for tight end teammates to do so. Even in Howard’s breakout game, Cameron Brate played 53% of the snaps and got nine targets, catching six of them for 60 yards. So long as Brate is healthy, Howard is nothing more than a lottery ticket.\
George Kittle, 49ers (at Eagles)
So much for that college chemistry carrying over to the pros. Kittle and former Iowa teammate C.J. Beathard connected exactly one time for 16 yards in the latter’s first career start last week. At bottom, this remains a low-value offense that can struggle all too often to put points on the board. Kittle is my TE14 this week, so I’d still be comfortable starting him in a pinch, but I’d go with all the obvious plays at the position ahead of him, the three guys listed in the start section, and Jared Cook, all without thinking twice.
Austin Hooper, Falcons (at Jets)
When a struggling offense is trying to figure things out on the fly, the last player I want to bet on is the decent tight end who’s no more than the fourth option in the offense. I think we get a heavy dose of Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman this week, with not much to go around for the other players in Atlanta’s offense. The Jets are an inviting matchup, ranking 29th in tight end aFPA, and that’s going to have plenty of fantasy owners riding the Hooper bandwagon this week. Don’t be one of those people. Remember, all tight ends on the fringes of starting lineups are touchdown-dependent. The Falcons and, more importantly, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, have spent the better part of a month dealing with questions about Jones’s red-zone usage. Then, at the end of their worst game of the season, Jones finally got a red-zone target and made one of the most forceful touchdown catches of the season. I can’t imagine there are going to be too many red-zone targets for Hooper on Sunday.