I’ve written a couple of times about overall trends in lineup construction. This is a good week to revisit that concept, because the general trend is extremely clear: a mid-priced quarterback paired with a bargain quarterback, expensive, elite running backs, cheap (underpriced) wide receivers, and whatever fits at tight end (but mostly cheap options). Remember, we’re not trying to roster a full team of contrarian plays – a couple of pivots are enough to push you past opponents up the leaderboards. Chalk is (usually) chalk for good reason. My favorite direction to pivot is rostering an expensive wideout and taking a little more risk with at least one mid-priced, high-upside running back.
Let’s take a look at some players to consider – but with a greater focus on the big picture strategy for Week 15.
Highest owned: Kirk Cousins $6,800 vs. CAR (34%), Sam Bradford $5,300 vs. IND (18%)
It’s hard to argue with the wisdom of the crowd on Kirk Cousins. Surprisingly (to me), Cousins has been pretty good this season. He hasn’t posted less than 14.9 points. Washington’s offense is very pass heavy (in part because they lack a running game), which affords Cousins lots of opportunity to rack up the yardage, which is more valuable on Fantasy Aces. He has three games with over 375 yards, two of them over 440. Carolina’s pass defense has completely imploded this season. Their 9.1 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt (ANYA) allowed, which adjusts yards per attempt to account for touchdowns and interceptions, is the fifth-highest in the league. I’m not a big believer in home/road splits, but Cousins has historically performed better at home.
Bradford’s popularity is, in my opinion, more about needing to cut corners to jam in the expensive running backs than it is any vote of confidence in Sam. The matchup against the Colts defense is decent, but not great. Their ANYA is only 8.3, 16th-highest. Bradford has put up two solid games in a row, but he’s been wildly inconsistent all season. He’s flopped in some matchups that were much better than this on paper. It’s possible Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen drag Bradford along to a decent fantasy performance, but it’s hard for me to see a high ceiling here.
Pivot: Colin Kaepernick $6,100 @ ATL (10%)
What an up and down season for Colin Kaepernick. I mean that in terms of his performances, his DFS salary, his ownership percentages, and even his public persona. The last two games were not pretty. That’s a gross understatement. I’m fairly sure the game in the snow against the Bears set back the game of football, and specifically the quarterback position, at least a decade. But let’s put that aside, because it doesn’t matter right now.
What matters is that he’s the starting quarterback and this week he gets an Atlanta defense that has been very fantasy-friendly to quarterbacks. They’re allowing the third-most fantasy points to the position. Interestingly, this has been more volume-based than because of ineffectiveness on their part. Their ANYA allowed is only 8.0, 19th-highest in the NFL. However, they’re allowing an average of over 40 pass attempts per game, the second-most. This is likely a result of the Atlanta offense scoring a lot of points and the opponent having to throw to keep up. Either way it’s good for us, because they’re allowing over 287 passing yards and 1.8 passing touchdowns per game, both the third-most.
Colin Kaepernick is a good fantasy quarterback because he adds points with his legs. Atlanta should be no threat to stop him there; they allow the second-most successful rushes. The 4.5 yards per carry they allow is good for third-most. Vegas (and everyone else) projects the 49ers to trail by a lot in this game, which should force them to keep the ball with Kaepernick more to give him the chance to air it out. He might have other ideas about what he can do on the ground, but that’s even better for us.
Highest Owned: David Johnson $6,650 vs. NO (55%), Le’Veon Bell $6,750 @ CIN (44%), LeSean McCoy $6,100 vs. CLE (33%)
One or both of David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell form the cornerstone of most lineups. I can’t even say it’s the result of recency bias following Bell’s insane game last week; Johnson is actually higher owned at roughly the same price (but a better matchup). Either is a terrifying fade, but fitting both will force some sub-optimal punts. The key for me is there are some mid-priced options at running back who have comparable ceilings for their price and allow for better players at other positions, which lets you buck the trend of cheap wide receivers and a mid-priced/low-priced quarterback pairing. I don’t think I’m brave (or crazy) enough to fade both. David Johnson is my preference. It’s not only about the matchup. The Steelers have a lot of options besides Bell. The Cardinals have Larry Fitzgerald (and a struggling Carson Palmer to get him the ball).
LeSean McCoy holds less interest for me. That could burn me, given his excellent matchup against the Browns, who allow the eighth-highest rushing success rate and have been frequently gashed by running backs, most recently Jeremy Hill for over 100 yards. But if I’m paying up to the top tier, I want Johnson.
Pivots: DeMarco Murray $5,550 @ KC (6%), Carlos Hyde $5,200 @ ATL (7%), Jonathan Stewart $4,900 @ WAS (<5%)
These three are in remarkably similar spots. They’re facing the three best matchups by rushing success rate, a situational metric measuring what percent of runs are successful in the specific down and distance. Stewart gets Washington, allowing the most success at 56.55 percent. It’s also several percentage points higher than Carlos Hyde’s opponent, Atlanta, which allows a 52.21 percent success rate, second-highest. Not far behind them at 51.84 percent, somewhat surprisingly, is Kansas City.
Their workloads are also comparable, especially factoring the price differences. In the last month, Stewart averaged 17 carries and one target per game. Hyde averaged 17 carries and three targets. Murray had the most usage, getting 19 carries and three targets on average. I think Stewart could see a little added work with Cam Newton a bit banged up. If he finds success early, which he should, Carolina could keep feeding him to help keep Kirk Cousins and the surprisingly effective Washington offense off the field. He seems completely forgotten and could be a sneaky play to carry you to the top on Monday night.
That’s not to say I don’t like Hyde, who absolutely destroyed the Jets’ top-ranked rush defense last week for nearly 200 yards and now gets a soft rush defense. DeMarco Murray has been one of the most consistent running backs all season and should be a focal point of the offense against Kansas City, who are much tougher against the pass than the run. This is a rare week where I’m inclined to play several nearly identical lineups with just one pivot play changing, like rotating these three backs.
Highest Owned: Jamison Crowder $4,450 vs. CAR (18%), Tyrell Williams $4,400 vs. OAK (16%), Taylor Gabriel $4,350 vs. SF (16%)
Crowder and Williams are underpriced. Really underpriced. This doesn’t seem like a bad place to side with the chalk. Crowder has a nice matchup against Leonard Johnson, who is a bottom-ten rated cornerback by Pro Football Focus (PFF). He averages six targets per game, less than I’d like. However, he leads the team in Red Zone targets for the season. Cousins has looked his way 15 times inside-the-20 this season, which has turned into three touchdowns on eight receptions. Williams doesn’t have as inviting a matchup, but he leads his team in targets per game over the last month with seven. That’s skewed with fewer targets in the most recent games, a concerning trend. Without Melvin Gordon, I expect the Chargers to air it out even more and that should boost Williams’ target numbers again. Before the last game, he had a four-game touchdown streak and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him burn Oakland cornerback Sean Smith for a long score this week.
Gabriel I’m not excited about. He’s a gadget player – the Falcons’ Tavon Austin. His gain from Julio Jones being out is minimal, especially with Sanu set to return this week. Sanu is a much more interesting option. He should be an every down player and see a noticeable uptick in targets sans Julio. Gabriel might break a long play for a score against the 49ers defense, but his opportunities to do so will be much more limited than other options in the same price range.
Pivot: Mike Evans $5,850 @ DAL (6%), Adam Thielen $4,450 vs. IND (7%)
When I talked about paying up at wide receiver, I had one guy in mind: Mike Evans. He’s had a couple of down games and been forgotten. With everyone cramming in the expensive running backs, few have salary to spare for Evans. Evans projects to draw shadow coverage from Brandon Carr. This is still a good matchup for him, but it has as much to do with how good Mike Evans is as it does with Carr’s skills. Evans is PFF’s top rated wide receiver this season. Part of the problem is the last two games he saw only six and eight targets, respectively. That’s not enough. Tampa Bay struggled. It’s always risky to bet on coaches doing the smart thing, but in this case I think it’s worth it since we know they (and Jameis) have always had a tendency to force the ball to Evans. Tampa Bay’s defense is not going to be able to stop Ezekiel Elliot. If they want to compete in this game, they’re going to need to score points and Mike Evans is their best option for that.
In the same price range as the chalk guys, we’ve got Adam Thielen. I’m not going to lie; I didn’t know who Adam Thielen was until a couple weeks into this season. He’s been a good complement to Diggs that few saw coming and this week, he projects to see a lot of Vontae Davis in coverage. And that’s a good thing. Davis has gone from being a shutdown corner to avoid at all costs to a liability in coverage. He’s PFF’s sixth-worst rated corner this season. The other Colts defensive backs aren’t anything special either. They just lost Patrick Robinson, shaking up their starters in the defensive backfield. I think it’s a great spot for Thielen, who has seen as many as 11 targets in a game this month, to put up a huge line while Diggs draws most of the defensive attention.
Highest Owned: Antonio Gates $3,900 vs. OAK (20%)
Guys. I get it, it’s Antonio Gates. He’s really cheap. But he’s also really old and he’s shown a trend since at least 2013 of significant decline in the latter half of the season. Every season since 2013, after Week 10 his half PPR per game production declines nearly three full fantasy points. He had a good game against Oakland back at the beginning of the season. But so did Hunter Henry, and the rookie is less likely to be worn down than the aging veteran. At best, he’s still significant competition for the high value targets. This one is an easy fade for me.
Pivot: Ladarius Green $4,150 @ CIN (6%)
Ladarius at sub-10 percent ownership? Yes, please. His performance last week against Buffalo was a disappointment, but he still saw six targets. He’s not seeing as many snaps as I’d like, but his usage in the pass game when he is on the field is extremely high. He’s basically a big wide receiver in the Pittsburgh offense. He’s just one game removed from posting a 6-110-1 line on 11 targets. Now he gets to face a Bengals defense that gives up the fifth-most points to the tight end position. Most importantly for tournaments, he offers a ceiling that Gates simply can’t match.
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