By Matt Lutovsky
Special to Stlouisrams.com
Things are constantly changing in the NFL, be it because of injuries or teams adjusting gameplans. Last week, we saw both Tampa Bay and Jacksonville win on the same day for the first time all year, Philip Rivers and Alex Smith stage a shootout in Kansas City, and the Rams unleash an offensive explosion against the Bears. As recently as a month ago, few would've predicted any of those things happening.
Fantasy owners have a tough job trying to keep up with the changes. It's important to adjust your perception of matchups and player value, but it's equally important to remember that some constants do exist. For instance, many fantasy owners were gun shy about starting Antonio Brown because of his matchup with Browns CB Joe Haden; some were even nervous about Calvin Johnson going against Darrelle Revis. While it is risky to start many WR1s against these guys, Bryant and Johnson were two of the six most targeted WRs heading into last week. Players of their caliber – who get that many targets -- shouldn't be sat this late in the year. Both Bryant and Johnson responded with at least 11.5 fantasy points.
It might sound like a broken record, but don't overthink. Stars are stars for a reason, and if they're healthy and playing well, sometimes you just have to trust them. Of course, you should always look for potential replacements for your secondary guys. The league keeps changing, so you should, too - to a certain extent.
Let's look at some risers and fallers at each offensive position after Week 12.
Also, there will be no Fantasy Mailbag this week because of the Thanksgiving holiday. We'll be back next week for the playoffs, ready to tackle your fantasy questions.
Peyton Manning salvaged his fantasy day with two touchdowns, but anyone who watched the Broncos-Patriots game knows he rarely looked sharp, likely because of the weather. Obviously, this could be an issue going forward, but it's not enough of a reason to bench Manning. He's too good and has too many playmakers at his disposal. Perhaps if Denver didn't run so much in the first half, he would've wound up with another three to six points.
As we've seen the past couple weeks, cold weather isn't a death knell for quarterbacks. In fact, it's really not much of a worry at all unless it's a record-setting cold or it's coupled with heavy snow/wind. But it can slow down an older quarterback like Manning, and that in turn can slow down wide receivers. Specifically for the Broncos, a cold/windy game makes it more justifiable to bench Eric Decker.
Notable Riser: Philip Rivers regained his early-season form against the Chiefs, throwing for 392 yards and three TDs. Despite Rivers' relatively disappointing fantasy performances since Week 6, it's worth noting that he's only thrown four INTs (counting last week) and completed at least 63 percent of his passes in each game. He wasn't playing poorly; he just wasn't getting touchdowns. A big performance against a good defense -- coupled with the continued emergence of rookie WR Keenan Allen -- should get him going and make him a starting option again.
Notable Faller: Andrew Luck tricked us into thinking he'd be fine without Reggie Wayne by putting up 30.8 fantasy points in his first game without No. 87. In his three games since, he's totaled just 49.8 points. His latest egg against Arizona (15.6) was his worst since Week 6, and the Colts' offense looks completely out of sync. Luck had completed over 60 percent of his passes in each game prior to last week, so, like Rivers, he wasn't necessarily playing poorly, but fantasy owners shouldn't simply chalk things up to a couple bad games. The Colts' offense has fundamentally changed, and that changes Luck's value. He's no longer a must-start.
Injuries are starting to pile up for several key backs.
Ideally, you won't need an unproven handcuff with the bye weeks over, but it doesn't hurt to pick up guys like Cunningham, Michael Bush (Forte) and Montee Ball (Moreno) when the starters in front of them get dinged up. Mathews' backup is technically Ronnie Brown, but because Danny Woodhead already handles about half the RB touches for San Diego, you don't need to burn a waiver claim on him. Continue to be proactive on the free agent wire with handcuffs, though. You never know who will emerge, as we saw in New England last weekend when Brandon Bolden shined in place of fumble-prone Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount.
Notable Riser: Steven Jackson is the definition of a “boring” starting RB option, but he finally looks like he's fully recovered from his early-season hamstring injury. Jackson ran for 63 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries and added another 16 yards on three catches against the Saints -- not great numbers, but certainly worthy of a starting spot in all fantasy formats. The Falcons' sputtering offense doesn't help his value, but he'll continue to get guaranteed touches, which is sometimes half the battle in the fantasy playoffs.
Notable Faller: Ben Tate toted the ball just seven times for one yard last week, snapping his four-game streak of at least 15 carries. He was still used as a receiving back late in the game, but undersized Dennis Johnson (13-74) handled most of the carries.
Fortunately, the “undesirable” platoon situations thinned out a bit last week. The Jets' Chris Ivory injured his ankle, meaning Bilal Powell should see the bulk of the carries. Lamar Miller should get the bulk of Miami's RB touches after Daniel Thomas hurt his ankle, though rookie Mike Gillislee will see some touches, too. The values of Johnson, Powell and Miller aren't great, but they all need to be owned. Hopefully, you won't have to count on them.
Similarly, Tampa's Tiquan Underwood had a big day (3-108, 2 TDs), but with just five targets and little-to-no track record of success, he's not someone you need to rush to pick up.
Notable Riser: Cleveland's Josh Gordon went off last week, catching 14 of 17 targets for 237 yards and a score. It's the latest gem in Gordon's impressive fantasy season, but it comes with an asterisk. According to Sporting News Fantasy Source's Garbage-Time Tracker, seven of those catches, 158 of those yards and the TD came when the game was out of hand, meaning Gordon was likely doing it against fairly soft coverage. He's still talented -- and Brandon Weeden subbing for the concussed Jason Campbell might actually be good for him -- but he's not quite “automatic” yet, despite the frequent targets. If you have a stacked WR corps, Gordon still isn't better than, say, Andre Johnson, who struggled last week, or Larry Fitzgerald, who's been inconsistent most of the year despite two good games in a row.
Notable Faller: As we discussed earlier, targets and production don't necessarily go hand in hand, and targets are just as important when trying to evaluate a player going forward. Alshon Jeffery only had four catches and 42 yards last week, but he received a respectable eight targets. He's still a fantasy starter. The same goes for Carolina's Steve Smith, who had a mediocre day (5-69) despite eight targets. Minnesota's Cordarrelle Patterson is a potential breakout candidate after getting 20 targets the past two weeks, but many fantasy owners might not realize it because he has just 86 yards. Detroit's Nate Burleson (7-77, TD, 10 targets) is a mix of a good day and a lot of targets. Make sure you take the full picture into account when making roster decisions.
Jordan Cameron turned in his third-straight game with fewer than 3.3 fantasy points, but his 10 targets were his most since Week 4. He was close to a touchdown at one point, but the nose of the football touched the ground as he landed after a diving attempt. Cameron has certainly disappointed lately, but few TEs have as much upside.
Contrast that with Garrett Graham. His nine targets were great, but he managed just 32 yards on five catches against Jacksonville. Unlike Cameron, he had a favorable matchup and still couldn't get anything going. On top of that, Graham has struggled in all but one game since becoming a starter. He's proven to be unreliable; Cameron has proven that he'll have disappointing games every once and awhile.
Notable Riser: Jason Witten had his fourth big game of the season, catching four of seven targets for 37 yards and two TDs. In those four performances, he has 69 fantasy points; in his other seven games, he has 24.1 points. Witten has received at least six targets in all but two games, though, so he remains a high-upside play.
Notable Faller: Oakland's Mychal Rivera had been gaining steam as a fantasy sleeper recently, but he caught just one pass last week before leaving with a concussion. At this point, you can't carry lotto tickets like Rivera. By all means, plan ahead with your TEs based on matchups, but don't waste any roster spots or take unnecessary risks.
Packers at Lions
Stat to know: The Packers played an extra quarter last week, but it's still impressive that both James Jones (12) and Jarrett Boykin (10) received double-digit targets. Regardless of who's playing quarterback for the Packers, Jordy Nelson, Boykin and Jones are all decent starts against a Lions defense allowing the second-most fantasy points per game (FPPG) to WRs (30.2).
Sleeper: WR Nate Burleson (10 targets last week; Packers allowing 12th-most FPPG to WRs.)
Raiders at Cowboys
Stat to know: Darren McFadden (hamstring) might be back for this game, but even if he is, Rashad Jennings remains a good play against Dallas, who's allowing the most FPPG to RBs (24). McFadden would be a decent flex, too.
Sleeper: WR Terrance Williams (Raiders allowing fifth-most FPPG to WRs.)
Steelers at Ravens
Stat to know: It's tough to know what to do with Ray Rice this week. The Steelers are allowing the 10th-most FPPG to RBs, but they also allow just 23.2 receiving yards per game to RBs. Consider Rice a risky flex.
Stumbler: Ravens D/ST (Steelers have allowed just 11 total fantasy points to D/STs in past three games.)