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Doug Orth | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer


Gearing up for the Playoffs
All Out Blitz: Volume 132
11/30/17

For the majority of owners, the fantasy playoffs begin next week. In some high-stakes leagues like the The Fantasy Championship (TFC), the postseason begins this week and the league champion is decided next week (although the postseason continues through Week 16 as owners compete for the $200,000 grand prize). In some other high-stakes leagues, the playoffs are already underway. In some of those same leagues, waivers/free-agent pickups are no longer allowed. For those folks, this week's contribution probably won't help you much. For everyone else, owners need to find players who can help carry them to the finish line and have a bit of faith their limited - in many cases - resumes will lead their owners to fantasy glory.

Every season tends to produce at least a few under-the-radar players who end up being the difference between a fantasy championship and a playoff run that falls just short. Some of those players are still on the waiver wire even as we head into December. A late-season injury to a current starter tends to be the most common path for these rags-to-riches stories, but that is usually only half the battle, as the situation must be at least somewhat conducive to success and it certainly helps if the schedule cooperates.

Obviously, I am of no service to you if I only provide players that are nearly universally owned, so the purpose of this article will be to identify the longshot players available in most leagues capable of contributing. Many analysts will try to do this kind of thing next week, but a lot of folks in highly competitive leagues don't need or want after-the-fact waiver wire pieces; they need analysts willing to be wrong in the hope they will be right. Fantasy football tends to favor the owners who are a little quicker on the draw and trust what they see, thus avoiding the high FAAB cost when a player you've been eyeing breaks out the following week.

Instead of using the criteria I did last year for a similar article - 75 percent available on Yahoo - I have chosen simply to discuss players I have seen available in the multiple high-stakes leagues in which I am involved. My rationale for this is simple: if said players are available (or have been in the last week or two) in what should be among the most competitive of leagues with 18- or 20-man rosters, chances are most of them will be available in your leagues as well. The purpose of this article is not to find an elite option on the waiver wire - the odds of that happening at this time of the year are long unless some owners decides he/she is going to "stick it" to the league and drop such a player - but rather highlight some potential non-obvious options who could round out an otherwise powerful lineup before the fantasy playoffs are over. Unlike previous years, I'm focusing more on players who can help you based on talent and situation and less due to schedule.

Blake Bortles

It may be gross, but keep your mind open on Bortles who has positive matchups on the schedule.

Quarterbacks

Blake Bortles, Jacksonville
Remaining fantasy schedule: IND, SEA, HOU, @SF

First of all, if Aaron Rodgers is available in your league like he was in half of my RTS leagues, pick him up immediately. The idea you could get perhaps the best quarterback in the league back for the two most important games of your fantasy season - despite the fact his matchups would be against the Panthers and Vikings - should be reason enough. If it's not, think about how much he could help your potential opponent during your league's final two playoff rounds.

Assuming Rodgers is not an option, I don't like the selection of Bortles any more than you do, but my job isn't to pick out my favorites and ignore those I don't like based on what they may or may not have done in the past. For starters, Leonard Fournette hasn't been the same runner since Week 6. Over that same time, Bortles has seen his involvement in the offense pick up dramatically. Through six games, he averaged 28.3 pass attempts. Over his last five, he's averaging 35.6. He's lowered his interception rate slightly over that time as well, but the biggest change is that he is running more often. In recent weeks, he has displayed a fairly steady if unspectacular floor, which means something when one considers the current state of the quarterback position outside of the recognized every-week fantasy starts such as Tom Brady and Carson Wentz. There is no way I'm trusting Bortles to lead my team to a fantasy championship by choice, but owners will be hard-pressed to find a more favorable rest-of-season slate if their QB1 gets hurt in the next week or two. The Colts (Week 13) and Seahawks (Week 14) are without their top cornerbacks, while the Texans (Week 15) and 49ers (Week 16) have been hemorrhaging fantasy points to quarterbacks for the majority of the season.

Wild-card

Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City
Remaining fantasy schedule: @NYJ, OAK, LAC, @NYJ

This is nothing more than a gut feeling based on how far the Chiefs' offense has fallen off in recent weeks, and he is certainly no than a stash candidate for now in deep leagues. Alex Smith hasn't regressed, he has simply morphed back into the player he was prior to the first two months of this season. Why? Largely because defenses went back to the way they've played him in the past, using a heavy dose of zone coverage to contain the speed of Tyreek Hill and make Smith anticipate throws, which is something that he has been hesitant to do dating back to his final years in San Francisco. While seeing a receiver come open before throwing it goes a long way in keeping interceptions down (a Smith trademark), it also goes a long way in keeping touchdown totals down as well (another Smith trademark). Or, in the words of Cardinals HC Bruce Arians: "No risk it, no biscuit." Even freaky athletes like Travis Kelce and Hill can't always get open in the three seconds (or fewer) quarterbacks typically have to throw the ball. When this happens, Smith seems to default to leaving the pocket as opposed to going through his progressions.

In all likelihood, Mahomes is nowhere close to being ready to run a NFL team yet. He is everything Smith is not: aggressive, reckless and impulsive. And yet, he is exactly what this offense needs in order to get to what it really wants to do, namely someone to give Kareem Hunt some running room in order to set up play-action for Kelce and Hill. Mahomes' gunslinger mentality and bazooka of an arm would, at the very least, force defenders to back up instead of relentlessly shooting the gap on predictable running downs. This is a big deal because the offensive line has struggled so much over the last month. (The regularity with which Hunt is being forced to avoid tacklers in the backfield moving east and west is an incredible departure from what we saw through the first five or six weeks of the season.) The irony of it all is the same kind of shotgun-heavy, somewhat-gimmicky offense that made Smith a MVP candidate for the first half of the season actually fits the rookie better. Even though HC Andy Reid has done a fine job of squashing any talk of Smith losing his job, a move to Mahomes is probably closer to happening than many believe.

Running Backs

Aaron Jones, Green Bay
Remaining fantasy schedule: TB, @CLE, @CAR, MIN

The reason to add/stash Jones ties directly into my earlier (optimistic?) stance on Rodgers. If the best quarterback in the league is ready to return for the stretch run, doesn't it make sense owners might want the running back who will likely be tied to his hip over that same time frame? I get it, hoping/expecting two injured players to return and help owners deliver a fantasy championship is risky business, but this little hobby of ours isn't exactly known for its predictability either. I also understand the Packers' backfield could get to be a crowded one fairly soon if Jamaal Williams is able to build upon his Week 12 performance and Ty Montgomery (ribs) returns soon, but there is little question Jones was the best back in Green Bay for the short time he was healthy.

Jones offers big-play ability the other two do not, so owners can probably overlook his relative lack of involvement in the passing game for a potential RB2 many can pick up off waivers this week. He also returned to practice this week, which obviously is a good sign he could be ready for the stretch run. Perhaps he does nothing more than share carries the rest of the way, but I find it hard to believe HC Mike McCarthy would resort to a committee when his team isn't going to have any margin for error the rest of the way when it comes to wins and losses. Hoping Montgomery and Williams will be the difference against a team like Minnesota isn't going to help Green Bay get in the playoffs. Jones has already proven he can be a difference-maker.

Austin Ekeler, LA Chargers
Remaining fantasy schedule: CLE, WAS, @KC, @NYJ

By now, Ekeler should be owned in the vast majority of PPR leagues, even if most folks are just looking at his contributions to the box score and nothing else. The undrafted rookie free agent out of Western State has logged his three highest snap counts over the last three games, essentially filling the role Danny Woodhead occupied in 2015 without stealing the bulk of Melvin Gordon's touches in the red zone. It's an ideal situation for both players and one the Chargers will probably stick with for a while since the offense has started to come alive in recent weeks. Owners hoping to steal a victory over the next three weeks could do a lot worse than Ekeler, since Cleveland, Washington and Kansas City do not exactly constitute a murderer's row of stout defenses, especially for backs like Ekeler who do their best work in the passing game.

Rod Smith, Dallas
Remaining fantasy schedule: WAS, @NYG, @OAK, SEA

This one seems fairly obvious considering Smith is getting more playing time than Alfred Morris since Ezekiel Elliott's suspension was upheld and the more trusted back in the passing game. With that said, he's still available in enough leagues to be included here. The Cowboys could fall out of the playoff race very soon and will probably play from behind more often than not while Zeke serves the final three games of his suspension, so why not use that time to find out if Smith should be the long-term backup to Zeke? Dallas' remaining schedule without Elliott - at home versus Washington before hitting the road to face the Giants and Raiders - is less daunting than the first three games were - Atlanta, Philadelphia and the LA Chargers - so a strong argument can be made Smith has a shot to be flex-worthy through the end of Week 15.

Chris Carson/Mike Davis, Seattle
Remaining fantasy schedule: PHI, @JAC, LAR, @DAL

Indulge me for a second while I take a bit of time to get around why I am listing two players here. With each passing week, I appreciate a little bit more how good Chris Carson must be. Consider the 2017 seventh-round draft pick is still the team's second-leading rusher (behind QB Russell Wilson) despite the fact he got hurt late in Week 4. Also, of the Seattle running backs with at least 10 carries (of which there are five), only Carson (4.2) and J.D. McKissic (4.5) are averaging more than 2.6 yards per carry. At any rate, if reports Carson may return to practice this week prove accurate, then he is almost certainly the Seahawks' running back owners will want to add over the next week or two.

Assuming Seattle is merely using December to get Carson back to full speed before unleashing him for a potential playoff game - which seems the more likely alternative of the two given the seriousness of his injury - then Davis is someone owners need to consider as bench depth at the very least. Davis' numbers in Week 11 weren't overly impressive prior to his groin injury, but most of us only needed to see the eight touches he had during that Monday Night Football game against the Atlanta Falcons to see he was clearly the best "big back" the Seahawks have trotted out since Carson went down.

With Philadelphia, Jacksonville and the Los Angeles Rams next on the schedule, I doubt we are talking about a huge upside with either player. With that said, running backs capable of posting 10 PPR points in any week during the fantasy playoffs are always in short supply, and Davis (or definitely Carson) would qualify if either one is given the lion's share of the touches, allowing McKissic to settle into more of the scatback role he is more ideally suited for at the moment. Given the likely game script in each of their next three games, one could easily make the case McKissic would be the best option anyway, but the odds of him still being available in deeper and/or more competitive leagues is probably a 50-50 proposition at best.

Wild-card

James Conner, Pittsburgh
Remaining fantasy schedule: @CIN, BAL, NE, @HOU

Maybe this is the year Le'Veon Bell doesn't crack and he survives 400-plus touches Ö or maybe not. To give you some sense on just how much I doubt Bell will last the final five games, I own Conner in four TFC leagues and don't have Bell. (I didnít land a pick above No. 4 this year and there is no trading in TFC, so I never had a shot at Bell.). Bell is on pace for 455 touches, and last week was the first time since Week 6 he averaged more than four yards per carry. At his current pace of 28 touches per game, the 25-year-old needs to avoid getting injured on roughly 140 touches in December. While he has defied the odds to this point, it's hard to imagine he'll continue to do so much longer. The Steelers have long avoided a committee backfield, so it stands to reason they would saddle up Conner should Bell miss time down the stretch. As is the case with Jamaal Williams in Green Bay at the moment, Conner is not an elite talent and Pittsburgh's remaining schedule is not exactly favorable to runners, but any back in line for 25-30 touches is going to be relevant in fantasy almost regardless of his situation.

Wide Receivers

Josh Gordon, Cleveland
Remaining fantasy schedule: @LAC, GB, BAL, @CHI

Let's address the elephant in the room right away. Not only is Gordon a complete wild-card in the sense he will play his first NFL game in three years in Week 13, but his supporters tend to forget he wasn't all that great the last time he played. Furthermore, most owners who have "big plans" for him this fantasy postseason will only get one look at him before they need to decide if they want to take the plunge. So let's be clear that Gordon is not for everyone: there is a significantly higher chance he fails to do anything of note over the final four weeks of the fantasy regular season than any possibility he will dominate like he did in 2013.

With that said, would it really surprise anyone if he did dominate? After all, we're talking about a player who averaged 117.6 yards receiving during a season during which he was reportedly and supposedly under the influence of drugs for every game. The fact he pulled off this feat with Jason Campbell, Brian Hoyer and Brandon Weeden as his quarterbacks makes it all the more incredible and is probably the very reason why some owners never lost faith in him.

Hereís my advice (since I was surprisingly able to land him on the cheap in one 20-man roster RTS league three weeks ago where I could use a little help at receiver and could afford to burn a roster spot on such a high-upside player in my pursuit of the $200 K grand prize): he will almost certainly receive shadow coverage from Casey Hayward this week. Hayward is Pro Football Focus' top-ranked coverage cornerback as well as its highest-graded overall corner. IF Gordon can post something close to a 4-55-0 line or better, I will strongly consider using him against Green Bay in Week 14. Depending on those performances, I will decide whether or not he should get the nod in Weeks 15 and 16.

(Warning: humble team brag): Fortune favors the bold, so on a roster with Russell Wilson, Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, Melvin Gordon, Adam Thielen and Jimmy Graham, I'm shooting for the stars. Do I expect Gordon will return to 2013 form this year? No. But as is the case with Aaron Rodgers, I'd rather have him on my bench doing squat than watch him be the final piece to someone else's puzzle. It's the very reason I added him in the FF Today Staff League last week and The Huddle Expert Auction League before that.

Chester Rogers, Indianapolis
Remaining fantasy schedule: @JAC, @BUF, DEN, @BAL

I'm not sure Rogers will pass Donte Moncrief on the official depth chart this season. But for fantasy purposes (and possibly in Jacoby Brissett's mind), he probably already has. Ten targets over the last two weeks is not exactly something to write home about, but it works out to three more targets than Moncrief has seen over the last four games combined. One good thing about Rogers is that he was generating plenty of hype from the team during the preseason prior to suffering a hamstring injury that put them out of commission for the better part of September. His snap counts are still lagging well behind Moncrief's (101-82 over the last two weeks), but as a rule, owners should be more concerned with how often a player is getting targeted when he's in the game more than his number of snaps. His 6-104-1 line in Week 11 against the Pittsburgh Steelers is proof he can deliver the goods with Brissett at the controls, but owners mostly turned a blind eye toward Rogers because Brissett hasn't earned enough respect in the fantasy community to make owners/analysts believe in him. (After all, if he can't make T.Y. Hilton relevant, why would Rogers be any different? Right?)

The reason to give some consideration to Rogers after this week against the Jaguars is because the rest of the schedule does not shape up well for Hilton, and it would be unreasonable to think every contest from here on out will be "a Jack Doyle game." Is that enough for him to return anything more than WR4 value? I'd say he has a shot to do just that in Week 14 at Buffalo and perhaps even Week 15 against Denver.

Dontrelle Inman, Chicago
Remaining fantasy schedule: SF, @CIN, @DET, CLE

After Chicago made its midseason trade with the Chargers for Inman, I'm not sure there was ever much doubt he would eventually emerge as the top option in Chicago. It turns out owners only had to wait about a month, as he has been Mitchell Trubisky's clear top option since the Bears' Week 9 bye. Inman's 22 targets over the last three weeks is highly encouraging for a team noted for its run-heavy offense, and it's hard not to like upcoming games against the 49ers (Week 13) and Browns (Week 16). The Virginia product has served as a nice fill-in on a couple of my playoff-bound teams already, and I am as confident in him to score 10 PPR points in a given week as any other receiver currently available on most of my leagues' waiver wires.

Wild-card

Mack Hollins, Philadelphia
Remaining fantasy schedule: @SEA, @LAR, @NYG, OAK

Over the final four to five weeks of the RTS regular season, I strongly considered Hollins each and every time. I ultimately opted to go in a different direction each time, but only because there isn't a lot of clarity at receiver in Philly behind Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor. It's entirely possible Hollins' time won't come until 2018, so take what I'm about to say however you wish. Hollins is in many ways a younger and more dependable version of Torrey Smith, and the Eagles are treating him as such of late, giving him nearly as many snaps as Smith in two of the last three games. Will that grow into a more substantial role as the Eagles clinch their division and perhaps the NFC in the coming weeks? Only time will tell, but it seems logical they would do so, especially if they are committing 30 snaps per game to him now with nothing wrapped up yet.

Tight Ends

Ricky Seals-Jones, Arizona
Remaining fantasy schedule: LAR, TEN, @WAS, NYG

It's a story we see play out year after year. Backup quarterbacks tend to build a rapport with the receivers he plays with the most often. In most cases, those players aren't on the first-team and, quite often, they are on the practice squad/scout team. As most fans know, players on practice squads/scout teams can be filled with players who are just hanging on for their NFL lives or attempting to start a career. Others, like Seals-Jones, are making the switch from undrafted and oversized college spread receiver to a position more befitting of their 6-5, 243-pound frame.

As luck would have it in Arizona this season, the first two quarterbacks - each of whom HC Bruce Arians was more familiar with - suffered injuries, leaving third-stringer Blaine Gabbert playing for his first reputable play-caller in the NFL. Seals-Jones, who had not considered playing tight end until cousin Eric Dickerson (yes, the Hall-of-Fame running back) encouraged him to do so this spring. Fast forward ahead to Week 11 and the Gabbert-to-Seals-Jones connection is alive and well, rooted primarily in the hours they spent together this summer.

While some will be quick to dismiss his splashy start (seven catches for 126 yards and three touchdowns) as a fluke, very few players go from no playing time to five or six targets per game in the blink of an eye unless they are flashing some serious potential in practice, and HC Bruce Arians already admitted that was the case with Seals-Jones. What's perhaps the most amazing development with Seals-Jones is that Arians is not limiting him in terms of his route tree. Two weeks ago, he lined out wide and beat Texans CB Johnathan Joseph for his first career touchdown catch on his second career reception. He later high-pointed the ball on a double move on another TD catch against Houston CB Kevin Johnson the next time he was targeted later in the game. Just as impressive, Jaguars safety Barry Church almost completely whiffed on his attempted jam of Seals-Jones on the line of scrimmage on his first catch of the game last week.

Folks, I'm here to tell you that kind of thing doesn't happen very often with tight ends, and particularly not ones who are in the beginning stages of learning their position regardless of whether or not they have a receiver background. Limited snaps be damned (all 25 of them over the last two weeks), I'm willing to bet Seals-Jones is more than just a flash in the pan because he's going to be targeted when he's in the game. Most importantly, his new quarterback seems to love him, so as long as Gabbert is pulling the trigger and the Cardinals continue to increase Seals-Jones' snaps (and why wouldn't they?), I believe we are looking at a player who could help owners bring home some fantasy titles at what can sometimes be a hopeless position in fantasy, especially with games against a pair of defenses who have shown little ability to contain tight ends (Week 15 against the Redskins, Week 16 versus the Giants).



Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and been featured in USA Today’s Fantasy Football Preview magazine since 2010. He hosted USA Today’s hour-long, pre-kickoff fantasy football internet chat every Sunday in 2012-13 and appears as a guest analyst on a number of national sports radio shows, including Sirius XM’s “Fantasy Drive”. Doug is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.