All but the luckiest fantasy owners at some point need to find the proverbial diamond in the rough—a waiver wire or bench player capable of putting up some points in a pinch. This weekly feature is dedicated to that part of fantasy football. It's not pretty, but it's part of the game.
A good way to identify a potential spot start is to leverage 4for4’s signature strength-of-schedule metric, adjusted fantasy points allowed (aFPA). Many sites publish raw fantasy points allowed by position, but 4for4 goes a step further and adjusts those numbers for a defense’s relative year-to-date schedule strength. So if a defense has seen a murderer’s row of running backs, it will be reflected in the defense’s aFPA. As a ranker, I use this metric weekly when putting together our award-winning projections.
Most leagues hold their championship games in Week 16, so it’s crunch time. Injuries to Aaron Rodgers, Antonio Brown, Davante Adams, Rex Burkhead, Marqise Lee and Hunter Henry will have more than a few owners scrambling for options. With prize money and bragging rights on the line, let’s take a look at the top Sneaky Starts for Week 16 (positional aFPA in parentheses):
Joe Flacco, Ravens (vs. Colts, 19th)
In his last three games—all favorable matchups—Flacco has averaged 275 yards and 2.0 total touchdowns, including a rushing touchdown last week against the Browns. He has a nice matchup against the Colts, who lead the league in yards per attempt allowed (8.3) and are third in passing yards allowed per game (257). Over the last three seasons, Flacco has averaged 1.47 passing touchdowns at home against 0.95 on the road.
Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon, Vikings (at Packers, 12th)
Both players delivered in a great matchup against a banged up Bengals defense, and the duo should continue to produce as a heavy favorite against the Packers, who were just eliminated from playoff contention. Murray is averaging 78 total yards and 0.83 touchdowns in his last six games. For his part, McKinnon has averaged 68 total yards and 0.17 touchdowns (with 3.7 receptions per game) in the same span, though he carved up the Packers for 99 total yards and two touchdowns in October.
Mike Gillislee, Patriots (vs. Bills, 32nd)
Gillislee has been on the shelf since Week 9, but his snaps really started to dry up after he fumbled in Week 6. With Rex Burkhead out, I’m expecting Dion Lewis to serve as the lead back for the Patriots, but Gillislee could see plenty of touches in a great matchup against the Bills, who are last in the league in running back aFPA.
JuJu Smith-Schuster & Martavis Bryant, Steelers (at Texans, 32nd)
With Antonio Brown out for a fantastic matchup against the Texans, I’m expecting both Smith-Schuster and Bryant to step into larger roles. Ben Roethlisberger has targeted Brown on almost 31% of his pass attempts, which represents 11.6 targets per game. Both Smith-Schuster and Bryant have averaged around 5 to 6 targets per game, but both should see 7 to 10 against the Texans in Week 16.
Dede Westbrook & Keelan Cole, Jaguars (at 49ers, 10th)
Marqise Lee reportedly suffered a high-ankle sprain and seems doubtful for Week 16. Westbrook had a quiet Week 15, while Cole exploded with seven catches for 186 yards and a touchdown. (Jaydon Mickens came out of nowhere with a 4-61-2 line as well.) The matchups are pretty favorable across the board for these three, but I’d expect Westbrook and Cole to get the most attention from Blake Bortles.
Cameron Brate, Buccaneers (@ Panthers, 13th)
Brate played through a knee injury last week, so we’ll have to keep an eye on his practice participation ahead of a Week 16 matchup with the Panthers. O.J. Howard has been placed on IR, so Brate should see a spike in snaps. In 26 games with Jameis Winston over the last two seasons, Brate has averaged 3.7 catches for 45 yards and 0.54 touchdowns per game.
Antonio Gates, Chargers (at Jets, 24th)
Gates has only played 43% of the snaps this year but that number might double in Week 16 with Hunter Henry on injured reserve. He’s not the player he once was, but he’s still capable of a two-touchdown game if he gets the necessary red-zone targets.