Now that we are completely done with byes for the 2015 season, Risers and Sliders will look a little different, particularly when it comes to the Sliders. Excluding players lost to injury, every fantasy owner will have his or her full complement of players available every week for the rest of the year. That means start/sit decisions, which are in part what Risers and Sliders is designed to assist with every week, will be more challenging.
The Sliders you see this week, and every week from now on, will be much bigger names than we’ve included thus far. Avoiding a sliding RB4 doesn’t matter now that there are no more bye weeks. Seeing a RB2’s production slide as it’s happening, however, could be the difference between making the playoffs and planning for 2016 earlier than expected.
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
You were starting Newton with a ton of confidence well before his five-touchdown thrashing of Washington on Sunday. What that game did for him, however, is firmly entrench him as one of the three best fantasy quarterbacks this season, along with Tom Brady and Carson Palmer. This seems a good time to mention that none of those three were among the top-eight quarterbacks by average draft position in the first week of September. They are the top three now, and Newton could go down as the biggest draft-day steal of the bunch. His stats always have a non-traditional look to them because he does so much of his damage with his legs, but he’s now up to 2,283 passing yards, 7.56 yards per attempt and 20 touchdowns against nine interceptions this year. That puts him on pace for 3,653 yards and 32 touchdowns, the latter of which would be a career high. From a real-life and a fantasy perspective, Newton is having the best season of his five years in the league.
Thomas Rawls, RB, Seahawks
For the second straight week, we need to make a special exception in Risers and Sliders. Rawls appeared in this week’s waiver wire column, and he’s now immediately rising with news that Marshawn Lynch could be out for the year. Rawls has seen significant time (read: at least 15 carries) in four games this season. In those games, Rawls has 530 rushing yards, 45 receiving yards and three touchdowns, which comes out to 18.88 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. We know for a fact that Rawls has an expected RB2 floor in any game he starts. The ceiling, of course, is much higher. If Rawls is the starter in Seattle for the remainder of the season, we could be looking back at him as a guy who helped his owners steal fantasy championships.
Ronnie Hillman, RB, Broncos
Brock Osweiler will get at least one more start for the Broncos, taking on the Patriots in Week 12. There’s a good chance he’s under center for the rest of the season, and that would be great news for Hillman and C.J. Anderson. With the mobile Osweiler at the helm against the Bears, the Broncos run game had one of its best overall performances of the season. Hillman racked up 102 yards on 21 carries, while Anderson totaled 59 yards on 12 totes. Both players ran for 4.9 yards per carry, but it’s Hillman who remains in control of the backfield.
Strange as it is to say, Osweiler is better for the Denver run game than Manning. We saw that in practice in Week 11, even though the Bears have a very run-friendly defense, and we’ll likely continue to see it as long as Osweiler is the starter. Hillman has a couple of great matchups looming with the Chargers in Week 13 and the Raiders in Week 14. If Osweiler is starting, Hillman will be a top-15 play at running back both of those weeks.
Matt Forte, RB, Bears
Forte hasn’t played the last three games because of a knee injury, but his stock is clearly back on the rise. Jeff Dickerson, who covers the Bears for ESPN Chicago, reported that Forte “appears on track” to return Thanksgiving night against the Packers. He went through a typical pre-game workout on Sunday, but the Bears opted to give him one more week to rest. Jeremy Langford certainly showed the coaching staff a thing or two during his three-game run as the starter, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. He had one big play against the Rams and was otherwise shut down to the tune of 73 yards on 20 carries. In the loss to Denver, he carried the ball 13 times for just 25 yards.
Langford may have earned himself a larger role when Forte returns, and he likely proved that he can head into 2016 as the team’s workhorse back if they choose to go that route, but he’s not going to supplant the usual starter when both are healthy. If Forte is back on the field this week, he returns to his familiar RB1 status.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Jaguars
Yeldon hasn’t found the end zone since the Jaguars’ Week 7 win over the Bills in London, when he also had 115 yards on 20 carries. That is unquestionably frustrating for his owners, but he has still been quietly effective in the three games since his last score. Just as importantly, the Jaguars are as dedicated to feeding him the ball as any team is its lead back. Yeldon has had fewer than 15 touches just once this year, and that was in the team’s 51–17 loss to the Patriots. In the last four games, he has averaged 19.5 touches. Denard Robinson vultured a pair of goal-line series from Yeldon in the win over the Titans last week, but he didn’t turn either of those opportunities into touchdowns. Hopefully that was no more than a blip on Yeldon’s usage radar. His volume alone guarantees RB2 value, and the right matchup could help make him an RB1 in certain weeks. He could have just such a week when the Chargers visit Jacksonville in Week 12.
Todd Gurley, RB, Rams
Gurley’s slide is through absolutely no fault of his own, but it’s an understandable product of the anemic passing attack in St. Louis. He has found the end zone in each of the last three weeks, so he’s still posting strong fantasy numbers, but his yards per carry have dipped significantly in that span.
Gurley has notched fewer than four yards per rush in all three games, bottoming out at just 2.6 YPC in the loss to the Ravens. He has supplemented his production with a total of six catches for 64 yards, but he needs to live on the ground. Unfortunately, neither Nick Foles nor Case Keenum can do anything to force defenses to pay any attention to the passing game. Teams are perfectly happy committing eight players to the run and daring Foles or Keenum to beat them. Neither has been capable thus far, and that’s starting to erode Gurley’s numbers. He remains a rock-solid RB1, but the ceiling isn’t as high as it was a few weeks ago.
Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers
Through eight games, Rivers was having one of his finest statistical seasons and looked like he had an outside chance to finish the season as the top scorer among all quarterbacks. At that time, he had 2,753 yards, 7.91 YPA and 18 touchdowns with seven interceptions. In that eighth game of the year, however, Keenan Allen suffered a season-ending kidney injury. It hasn’t been the same since for Rivers.
In his last two games, he has completed 62.5% of his passes (down from 69.8% the first eight games) and thrown for 458 yards, 6.36 YPA and one touchdown against one pick. Life just isn’t the same for Rivers without Allen, and that’s his reality for the rest of the season. He’s better than a matchup play, but not by much. Rivers is a low-end QB1 for the final six weeks of the year.
Amari Cooper, WR, Raiders
We’ve all been so busy being mesmerized by the things Cooper already does so well—route running and after-catch exploits, to be specific—that we’ve failed to highlight some of the deficiencies in his game. Cooper is second in the NFL with 10 drops and a drop rate of 16.39%, ahead of only Mike Evans. While he has put together a few banner performances and already has a substantial highlight reel just 10 games into his career, he has given his owners more than a few duds this season.
Cooper has four games with fewer than five fantasy points and a fifth in which he failed to reach 50 yards, though he did find the end zone in that contest. He drew one of his toughest matchups of the year in Week 11 with the Lions’ Darius Slay. The breakout corner held him to just one catch for four yards, though Cooper contributed by dropping two passes from Derek Carr. Cooper should still be locked into your starting lineups, but we need to think of his typical game as mid-tier WR2, not low-end WR1.
Stefon Diggs, WR, Vikings
Like Gurley, this is another environment-based slider. Diggs is unquestionably the No. 1 receiver in Minnesota’s offense. Unfortunately, that might not mean what it does on other teams. Diggs has turned in three straight underwhelming fantasy performances, combining for just 11 catches and 154 yards in that window. In the first two games of the stretch, he totaled seven targets. He got nine looks from Teddy Bridgewater in the loss to Green Bay, catching six of them for 66 yards. What’s more, he has had just two targets of more than 20 yards in those games, after having six such targets in his first three games of the season. Diggs hauled in five of those six passes for 137 yards and a touchdown, and he is clearly a significant deep threat. The Vikings need to get back to using him to challenge defenses down the field.
Carlos Hyde, RB, 49ers
Hyde missed his third straight game with a foot injury, again giving way to Shaun Draughn. When he does return, he’ll be rejoining what is arguably the worst offense in the league, and certainly one that will make it very tough on him to show up for his fantasy owners. That, of course, assumes that he does come back at some point this season. The 49ers are 3–7 and clearly aren’t going anywhere in 2015. Hyde remains an important part of their future. They don’t need him worsening a foot injury in any of their six meaningless games left on the schedule. It’s entirely possible they decide that discretion is indeed the better part of valor and shut him down for the season. If that ends up happening, the next time you see his name on these pages will be when I write him up as an intriguing undervalued player for 2016.
Photos: Grant Halverson/Getty Images (Newton), David Banks/Getty Images (Hillman), Patrick Smith/Getty Images (Gurley), Adam Bettcher/Getty Images (Diggs)