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The Calm Before The Storm?

By Doug Orth | 12/7/23 |

The NFL has a way of making sure fantasy managers don't get too comfortable. For example, 52 quarterbacks have already made at least one start through 13 weeks (with a couple more preparing to add to that total this week). With that kind of chaos at what is widely considered the most important position in team sports, how can teams expect to enjoy any degree of offensive consistency?

A total of 133 running backs and fullbacks have recorded at least one carry so far. Nineteen of them average/averaged at least 14 rush attempts, but nine of them have missed at least three games or are out for the season.

Fantasy managers were handed another dose of reality in Week 13. Trevor Lawrence (ankle) is unlikely to recapture the form he was starting to show over the last three games after suffering a high-ankle sprain against the Bengals. Rhamondre Stevenson (ankle) may not have been having the kind of season most of us were expecting this summer, but he was a player most of us were plugging into our lineups without much thought every week. Ditto for Brian Robinson Jr. (hamstring). Christian Kirk (core) was losing some steam over the last month, but he was an every-week start as well. He may be done for the year.

It is rare to find a single player on the waiver wire who can be the difference between an early exit and a fantasy championship run, but it is not impossible. Although there are exceptions, fantasy playoff teams tend to have one or two weaknesses at most, so filling one of those with a surprise stud can be the thing that pushes that team over the top.

Just as I did around this time last year, this week's focus will be trying to identify that one surprise stud in Week 15, Week 16 and Week 17 at each of the traditional fantasy positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). The main criterion is that each "surprise stud" could be available on the waiver wire or likely not considered a weekly starter right now. To be clear, the hope is that most of the players below can return flex value or be matchup-based starters for one week at best.

Geno Smith


Week 15: Geno Smith, Seahawks (vs. PHI)

Smith has flirted with the kind of upside in 2023 that he showed on a regular basis throughout the first half of last season. However, it was not until arguably his most difficult matchup of the season that he reached his ceiling. The secret sauce for Seattle in Week 13 may have consisted of three important ingredients: Dallas plays a lot of man coverage, DK Metcalf is very good at beating man coverage and the Seahawks put a heavier emphasis on getting the ball out of Smith's hand quickly.

The Eagles do not utilize nearly as much man coverage on defense as the Cowboys, but it may not matter in Week 15 if DC Sean Desai cannot fix what ails his pass defense soon. Eight of 12 starting quarterbacks to face Philadelphia have accounted for at least two scores. Seven have amassed at least 300 total yards. Six of those seven have done both. The beauty of using quarterbacks against the Eagles this season is that Philadelphia's run defense has been among the best in the league, which forces opponents to air it out at a high rate. The Eagles' pass rush is nowhere close to what it was in 2022, so quarterbacks are having success via the air. Whether or not Week 13 was the spark Smith needed to go on a torrid stretch is impossible to answer this point, but it is always easier to take a calculated risk on a quarterback when he comes attached to one of the most talented receiver trios in the league.

Backup option in Week 15: Matthew Stafford, Rams (vs. WAS)

Week 16: Baker Mayfield, Bucs (vs. JAC)

There has been nothing wildly impressive about Mayfield's season through 13 weeks, other than possibly his ability to feed the ball to Mike Evans and Rachaad White. To his credit, he has consistently delivered high-end QB2/low-end QB1 production for most of the year, especially since the team's Week 5 bye. Volume has been on his side on occasion with three games of at least 42 pass attempts, but most of his fantasy value is coming from the six times he has managed to throw for at least two scores.

Jacksonville's pass defense was not anything special over the first half of the season, but the train has gone off the rails since the team's Week 9 bye. Brock Purdy, Will Levis, C.J. Stroud and Jake Browning have combined to complete 78 percent of their pass attempts while averaging 280 passing yards and 2.5 total touchdowns against the Jags. Mayfield may not be in Purdy or Stroud's class and Browning may be playing at a higher level than Mayfield, but even the best of the best quarterbacks should not be able to complete 32 of their 37 pass attempts against a defense like Browning did last week. For the season, the Jaguars have allowed quarterbacks to score at least 17.4 fantasy points (four points per passing touchdown) in 75 percent of their games. Kenny Pickett is the only starting quarterback who failed to throw for at least one score against them and that likely only happened because he was forced to leave Week 8 early.

Backup option in Week 16: Joshua Dobbs, Vikings (vs. DET)

Week 17: Derek Carr/Jameis Winston, Saints (@ TB)

The odds are slim that fantasy managers who find themselves in their league's championship game will need to break open the "in case of emergency" box at quarterback. However, a Trevor Lawrence-like situation could occur in Week 16 and force a manager's hand. The Buccaneers have managed to keep only three starting quarterbacks under 16.6 fantasy points this season, two rookies (Will Levis and Bryce Young) and Carr. Some may remember that Carr was less than a week removed from a shoulder injury that he should have rested.

At any rate, the competition to land Carr's services in fantasy leagues will not be fierce over the next two weeks. He has seemingly hurt every part of his body at various points this season and only thrown for two scores three times. He has failed to record a touchdown in four contests. To be clear, starting Carr (or Winston) in Week 17 should only be considered if a fantasy manager loses his/her starter in Week 16 and needs a serviceable option with a good matchup.

Backup option in Week 17: Matthew Stafford, Rams (@ NYG)

Running Backs

Week 15: Ty Chandler, Vikings (@ CIN)

Doing this exercise at running back is significantly more difficult than any other position because there is a strong possibility at least 60 of them are rostered in most leagues. Several of the 32 backfields across the league feature one runner. In short, there is a distinct possibility close to half of the managers in 12-team fantasy leagues have at least one third-string back on their roster. The point here is that we have to predict game script a bit more at this position for this exercise and then hope to get a bit lucky.

The Raiders have been much more of a middling matchup for running backs most of the season. With that said, Cincinnati is unlikely to force its opponents into negative game script very often - despite what we saw against the Jaguars on Monday night. That could bode well for Minnesota's running backs and specifically Chandler, who is more explosive than Alexander Mattison and arguably a better option in the passing game. In the two full games they have been without Joe Burrow, the Bengals have surrendered 197 yards and two touchdowns to the underwhelming rushing attacks of the Steelers and Jaguars. Minnesota may not be any better at running the ball than those two, but Chandler is much more likely to hit the big play than Mattison. Further consider Mattison has failed to catch even three passes in six straight, so Chandler would seem to be the better bet of the two if the Bengals can put the Vikings in negative game script.

Backup option in Week 15: Tyler Allgeier, Falcons (vs. CAR)

Week 16: AJ Dillon, Packers (@ CAR)

This one should not require a lot of explanation, but it will require some injury luck. While Aaron Jones (knee) could be fully healthy in two weeks, it seems as though that COULD have been the case for most of the season. He has not practiced or played since Week 11, nor has he shown an ability to handle a full workload this year. It seems unlikely that Green Bay will push it with him at any point in 2023 given how his body has betrayed him so far. In short, Dillon should be trusted to handle double-digit touches from here on out regardless of Jones' health. The problem is Dillon has nothing special with his increased workload.

The Panthers have been an absolute sieve versus the run for most of the season. Since Week 4, at least one running back has produced AT LEAST 17.2 fantasy points against Carolina in all but one game (Week 8; Texans). Considering the Panthers have put the clamps on the Texans and Cowboys' passing games since the Week 7 bye, it seems logical that they would also be able to slow down Jordan Love's recent surge as well. So while Dillon has been a disappointment in fantasy relative to the workload he is usually getting, the odds are relatively strong that he finds the end zone (something he has done only once through Week 13) versus the Panthers.

Backup option in Week 16: D'Onta Foreman, Bears (vs. ARI)

Week 17: Ezekiel Elliott, Patriots (@ BUF)

Of course, we would be subjected to the possibility of having to rely on Zeke yet again. Of course, we would have to consider starting someone attached to arguably the worst offense in the league in our fantasy championships. As gross as it will feel to do it, however, it may not be the worst idea to do so if your other options are injured or stuck in some kind of low-upside committees. With Rhamondre Stevenson (ankle) unlikely to return this season, it is Elliott and virtually nothing else in New England (unless you want to count on Ty Montgomery holding up). The thing about the Patriots is that they have given up only 26 points over the last three weeks, so there is a chance they can keep things close against the Bills. Even if Buffalo flips the script and turns this game into a rout, how likely is it that Zeke will still get his 20 touches?

Until D'Andre Swift mustered ONLY 84 total yards against them in Week 12, the Bills had yielded at least 13.8 fantasy points to one running back in eight consecutive weeks. Included in that streak was a 14.5-point effort by Stevenson (85 total yards, including six catches) in Week 7. Elliott posted 9.1 fantasy points (11 carries for 31 yards and a touchdown) in the same game. It seems more likely than not that Zeke will get as much work as he can handle the rest of the way. It also bodes well for him (or Montgomery?) that running backs have thrived in the passing game against Buffalo. The Bills have given up the fourth-most receptions (68) and receiving yards (559) to the running back position.

Backup option in Week 17: Elijah Mitchell/Jordan Mason, 49ers (@ WAS)

Odell Beckham Jr.

Wide Receivers

Week 15: Odell Beckham Jr., Ravens (@ JAC)

Whether it was by design or not, OBJ appeared to find his groove right about the time Baltimore was starting the second half of its schedule. Over a three-week period from Weeks 9-11, Beckham earned 16 targets - the same number as Mark Andrews and five more than Zay Flowers - and was starting to show some of his vintage big-play ability. However, in the same Week 11 game that Andrews was likely lost for the season, Beckham injured his shoulder. OBJ fought through the injury in Week 12 and was busy early on, but he was ultimately limited to 23 plays. The Week 13 bye probably came at the right time for him.

It is anyone's guess if Flowers or Beckham will take the lead over the rest of the season. While both players could ball out in Week 15 - Jacksonville has given up at least 12.7 fantasy points to two receivers from the same team five times this season - the Jaguars have struggled against receivers who can get deep. While Flowers has the speed to do just that, 47.8 percent of OBJ's targets have come in the medium (10 to 19 yards) and deep (20-plus) areas of the field versus 36.5 for Flowers. While I may be splitting hairs here, it seems as though Baltimore is content using Flowers closer to the line of scrimmage more often. Beckham may not do much for his fantasy managers after Week 15 (the Ravens face San Francisco and Miami over the final two weeks of the fantasy playoffs), but he has a good shot at helping his managers get to the semifinals in their league.

Backup option in Week 15: Noah Brown, Texans (@ TEN)

Week 16: Khalil Shakir, Bills (@ LAC)

Trying to project Buffalo's receivers since Shakir's emergence in Week 8 has been a difficult chore. Gabe Davis erupted against the Eagles in Week 12 but was a virtual no-show for his fantasy managers in the previous three games. Shakir has been at least a decent flex option in three of the last four games, but his volume is not quite where it needs to be. Regardless of how good a player is, a steady diet of four or five targets is not going to be enough most weeks.

Week 16 sets up as more of a Diggs and/or Davis game, but no one should be overly surprised if Shakir has another big game despite what will likely be another low-target game for him. We already know from his 3-115-1 performance against the Jets in Week 11 that he can overcome a bad matchup, even on limited volume (four targets). Shakir will likely see a lot of Chargers Ja'Sir Taylor, who has allowed the eighth-most yards (321) in the slot. Managers would have to be in a tough spot to consider starting Shakir in their fantasy semifinals, but Chargers-Bills should feature some offensive fireworks and Taylor is a soft enough matchup that Shakir could surprise.

Backup option in Week 16: Jalin Hyatt, Giants (@ PHI)

Week 17: Noah Brown, Texans (vs. TEN)

Brown's knee injury has been a problem since his second straight 150-plus yard game in Week 10. He returned to action in Week 13, but one has to wonder how confident he was in his ability to avoid another aggravation, which is likely the reason he was a DNP in the final practice of last week. Let's hope it is a non-issue by the time fantasy managers are playing in their title games; he is now in a position where he will be counted upon even more than he was a few weeks ago. For those who may have forgotten, he popped off for 153 yards and a touchdown in Week 9 against the Bucs and 172 yards in Week 10 versus the Bengals. The loss of Tank Dell creates a void on the perimeter for the Texans. It seems likely that Brown will fill that void and Robert Woods will remain in the slot.

While it is certainly possible that Houston's relatively easy schedule over the next four weeks will turn into the C.J. Stroud and Nico Collins show, we have already seen Brown flash in a big way when he is healthy and gets an opportunity. Perimeter receivers have torched the Titans recently, including Mike Evans (26.3 fantasy points), Calvin Ridley (31.1) and Michael Pittman Jr. (27.5). Collins should be considered the overwhelming favorite to join them in at least one of the games Houston plays Tennessee during the fantasy playoffs, but we should not discount the possibility of Brown doing the same - especially since he has already proven he can.

Backup option in Week 17: Michael Wilson, Cardinals (@ PHI)

Tight Ends

Week 15: Chigoziem Okonkwo, Titans (vs. HOU)

Okonkwo was one of the trendier sleepers at tight end this summer. It is safe to say that Tennessee did not get the memo. Even Treylon Burks' multiple absences have not been enough to spring Okonkwo into the low-end TE1 most hoped he would become. While he still has not paid a visit to the end zone yet in 2023, the last two weeks have offered hope. A 4-45-0 line followed by a 3-62-0 effort isn't the stuff of legend, but one look at the steady flow of targets he has seen over the last two months (at least six in four of eight games) is enough to fuel optimism.

The real reason for optimism in Week 15, however, is the Texans' defense. While Houston is still paying for its ability to defend tight ends over the first half of the season, Week 13 marked the first time since Week 4 that at least one tight end hasn't scored at least 8.4 fantasy points against the Texans. The Titans are not explosive enough on offense to make me believe Okonkwo will end his TD drought against Houston, but the Texans should be able to create a negative game script fairly early if C.J. Stroud is on his game. DeAndre Hopkins will be the focus of Houston's defensive game plan as well, which should create a situation in which Okonkwo could push for 10 targets.

Backup option in Week 15: Logan Thomas, Commanders (@ LAR)

Week 16: Pat Freiermuth, Steelers (vs. CIN)

Not much needs to be said about this matchup. Freiermuth's 9-120-0 eruption in Week 12 was yet another indictment on what the Bengals do (or don't do) against tight ends. Since Cincinnati's Week 7 bye, four tight ends have scored at least 18.1 fantasy points. Had Mark Andrews not gotten hurt early in Week 11, that number would likely have been five. Dalton Schultz settled for 71 yards on four catches in Week 10. What it means is that the Bengals have yet to find a player or scheme that accounts for a 250-pound man running down the middle of the field. While Freiermuth is highly unlikely to repeat what he did against Cincinnati the first time the teams met, he may be one of the few somewhat readily available Week 16 options that can go toe-to-toe with the likes of Travis Kelce, Sam LaPorta or T.J. Hockenson.

Backup option in Week 16: Tyler Higbee, Rams (vs. NO)

Week 17: Cade Otton, Bucs (vs. NO)

As is the case with most non-elite tight ends, the 2023 season has been mostly touchdown-or-bust for Otton. The second-year tight end has topped 10 fantasy points three times, and it should come as no surprise that two of those occurrences happened when he found the end zone. Otton has become a more regular part of the offense since the team's Week 5 bye, earning at least six targets three times and recording at least four catches five times. However, a big part of Otton's fantasy charm is that in hindsight, his big games have happened in the games they should have. Otton's double-figure efforts have come against three of the seven most forgiving opponents against tight ends.

Entering this season, the Saints have long been kryptonite for fantasy tight ends. In 2023, they have gutted New Orleans, especially lately. While there is no shame in giving up big games to Cole Kmet (23.5), Hockenson (30.4) and LaPorta (29.0), it is the sheer magnitude of those performances that should be alarming. In all, seven tight ends have scored at least 10 fantasy points versus the Saints, including Otton (10.3 in Week 4). While we cannot expect Otton to replicate what Kmet, Hockenson and LaPorta did against New Orleans, it would be surprising if OC Dave Canales does not use Otton a bit more in the rematch than he did the first time around (3-13-1 on four targets).

Backup option in Week 17: Gerald Everett, Chargers (@ DEN)

Defense/Special Teams

It is almost too obvious that we want to pick on the Jets, Giants, Panthers and Patriots. Matchups against the Commanders, Titans and Browns are also worth targeting, but there is slightly more risk that comes along with targeting them unless we are talking about a high-end defense.

With that said, fantasy managers should be targeting the following non-elite DSTs in advance of the start of the fantasy playoffs:

Texans: @ TEN, vs. CLE, vs. TEN
Packers: vs. TB, @ CAR, @ MIN
Chiefs: @ NE, vs. LV, vs. CIN
Falcons: @ CAR, vs. IND, @ CHI
Rams: vs. WAS, vs. NO, @ NYG
Jets: @ MIA, vs. WAS, @ CLE
Colts: vs. PIT, @ ATL, vs. LV

Despite the lack of a "super-soft" matchup during the fantasy playoffs, my favorite DSTs from this group are the Colts and Texans. I am going to assume the Chiefs DST is owned in most leagues at this point, so I will focus on the other two.

Indianapolis has started to hit its stride on defense over the last month, recording at least four sacks and forcing two turnovers in four straight. While the level of competition has not been great (Carolina, New England, Tampa Bay and Tennessee), the remaining schedule does not feature any powerhouse offenses either. The return of DT Grover Stewart from his six-game suspension should only enhance what the Colts have been able to do on defense lately.

Week 14 versus the Jets should serve as a true litmus test for the Texans. Anything short of a dominant effort - much like the one the Falcons turned in last week - should be a huge red flag for anyone counting on them down the stretch. If Houston is up to the challenge, however, then managers should feel relatively good about DeMeco Ryans' squad getting two cracks at a bad Tennessee offensive line that has yielded the fifth-most sacks in the league (42). In between those two games is a date against a Cleveland offense that is tied for the league lead with 24 turnovers led by a past-his-prime Joe Flacco.

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.