12 Rule Changes Sure to Dramatically Improve your Fantasy Football League

By Will Mirrer

Fantasy football’s default rules and customs have stubbornly failed to evolve to reflect what actually works well and what does not.  Behold a dozen changes that will make your fantasy football experience significantly more fun, fairer, and more sophisticated.

No Kickers:  In standard leagues, a long field goal is worth up to 5 points, which is more than Aaron Rodgers receives for a passing touchdown and more than AP accrues for a 45-yard scamper.  It’s jarring to see kickers play such an outsized role in fantasy football outcomes compared to their more moderate impact on real games.  Far worse, however, is that kickers’ gaudy point totals don’t correlate with fantasy owner skill, as the data suggests that kicker fantasy performance is essentially random.  We all know there’s enough randomness in fantasy football to begin with.  Kickers are variance’s worst transgressors, and eliminating them altogether will allow your fantasy skill to shine.

The Sacko:  Losing owners often ruin fantasy leagues by giving up on their under-performing teams, failing to set their lineups and thus swinging key matchups and the course of the season.  To fix this, borrow a page from The League’s playbook by instituting the Sacko, a punishment for the worst team.  Prior to the season the league votes on a fun, creative, but daunting punishment.  Then the four losingest teams play a tournament in the fantasy post-season with the loser of each matchup advancing until the worst team is “awarded” the Sacko.  In my league, punishments have ranged from performing stand-up at a comedy club to street performance in a public park.  A good punishment will ensure that terrible teams follow their rosters intently all season, desperate to avoid the stigma of the Sacko.

Auction Free Agency:  The waiver wire is an integral component of any savvy fantasy owner’s toolkit, with stars such as Odell Beckham and Cam Newton culled from waivers in years past.  Yet default waiver settings reward blind luck, with the team fortunate enough to have the top waiver preference handed the pick of the litter among free agents. This advantage can be especially pronounced in week one, when we may finally know who is starting for certain teams.  In auction free agency, on the other hand, owners bid against each other for free agents in a hidden auction.  The opportunity cost of a winning bid is fewer available funds for other players, creating a de facto salary cap.  Auction free agency is a fairer, more exciting system where the team that values a player most acquires him.

Decimal Scoring:  If you use “1 point every 10 yards” for rushing and receiving yardage, and “1 point every 25 yards” for passing, you’re still using the antiquated integer scoring system.  With integer scoring, a 79-yard rushing game illogically equals only 7 fantasy points (not 7.9) because points are only counted upon reaching the next 10 (or 25) yard plateau.  Not only is this inaccurate, but so much rounding down inevitably creates tied matchups decided with thorny tiebreakers.  Solve the issue by changing your scoring to “0.1 points per yard” for rushing and receiving, and “0.04 points per yard” for passing yardage.  Decimal scoring fairly counts each yard gained, not in arbitrary 10 or 25 yard chunks.

1/2 PPR:  Reasonable arguments exist for both full PPR, where receptions are worth one point, and for standard reception scoring, where catches have no independent value. Full PPR proponents can point to possession receivers and receiving backs, guys who create value with first downs and lots of catches without compiling huge yardage.  Standard scoring fans counter that it doesn’t make sense to reward every catch when some receptions are harmful, like a catch for no gain that loses a down.  They also contend that a full point per reception increases the relative importance of running backs and receivers such that quarterback value is significantly diminished.  Fortunately, a logical compromise exists: ½ PPR, or 0.5 points per reception.  Splitting the difference has worked well for many leagues, as chain movers still get a value bump from the half point without going so far as to severely skew positional value.

Increase QB Points:  Now that you’ve instituted ½ PPR, consider increasing points per passing touchdown to 5 to help prevent quarterbacks from falling too far in the draft vis à vis pass catchers, and to make touchdowns more important than total yardage for quarterback fantasy scoring.  Increase points per interception to -2.5 (or even -3) to stop the madness of barely penalizing pivotal turnovers, thus matching quarterbacks’ point totals with their actual on-field quality of play.

Commissioner Trade Veto:  In leagues with a majority vote trade veto, many owners act in their self-interest by voting against any deals with perceived lopsided value.  Our rules shouldn’t discourage free trade, however, because a beneficial deal requires football savvy, and trades add excitement to the league.  Scratch the majority veto and institute a sole commissioner veto.  Your commissioner must be guided by a laissez-faire philosophy, overturning deals in only two special circumstances: evidence of collusion or evidence of one team not trying to improve.  Bargaining success, on the other hand, is a skill that should not be discouraged.  A commissioner veto also sidesteps the two-day voting waiting period that hampers dealmaking on and around game day.  Your Commissioner should have Ned Stark’s honor – he or she must be trusted to exercise the veto power impartially and only when absolutely necessary.

No Player Rentals:  A player “rental” occurs when two teams swap players temporarily on the assumption that the next week they’ll swap them back to their original teams.  This is collusion because the two rivals help each other out to avoid bye weeks or roster space restrictions, and to harm specific opponents.  The head-to-head nature of fantasy football exacerbates the issue, as there is no downside to executing rentals every week with an opponent you’re not facing that specific week.  Simply ban any trades that require a follow-up reversal of the deal in a following week.

WR/TE Flex or a Third Receiver Position:  Starting running backs are much scarcer than wide receivers in fantasy because there are only 32 starting backs, and far fewer bell cows because of time share backfields.  On the other hand, there are 64 starting NFL wideouts to go around – and really more, including elite slot guys and teams that regularly trot out three receiver sets.  Eliminating RB from the flex reduces fringe running back value and forces you to dig deeper into the receiver talent pool, which makes sense in today’s pass-friendly NFL.  With no RB option, one may balk at the paradoxical lack of flexibility in the flex position.  If so, keep your flex as-is but consider adding a third wideout position in order to similarly make more receivers suddenly fantasy relevant.

Tweak Defensive Scoring:  Defensive and special teams touchdowns can be pretty fluky week by week, so consider decreasing points per touchdown from 6 to 5 (or even 4).  For added nuance and excitement add two new statistics, stuffs and passes defensed.  I suggest only .25 points per stuff (run for loss or no gain) and .1 points per pass defensed (tipped pass) so as to not overinflate defensive scoring.  To even out expected scoring, you could proportionately shade down the “points against” categories (i.e., one fewer fantasy point for giving up 1-6 points; one fewer for giving up 7-13 points, etc.).

Draft Closer to Season’s Start:  The preseason doesn’t typically begin until early to mid-August, and the regular season kicks off a month later, in early September.  If you’re drafting in the first half of August (or July), that’s simply too much time for disasters beyond your control to strike.  Nobody’s having fun drafting Kelvin Benjamin only to see him tear his ACL in an early preseason practice.  It’s similarly frustrating to draft before you can reasonably estimate how a team’ depth chart will shake out.  Injuries will happen all season, of course, but drafting long before the regular season introduces an extra layer of luck to your league for each unforeseeable preseason injury or depth chart shake-up.  There’s enough luck in fantasy football to begin with, so minimize it by drafting no earlier than the latter half of August.

Live Draft:  Fantasy football is fun – that’s why we play.  What’s more fun, drafting alone at a computer or while getting rowdy with friends at a bar, clowning on every bad pick? If you’re all in the same city, great. If not, it’s financially and logistically harder, but is a great excuse to get together annually with friends for a weekend.  Of course, in an auction draft you’re involved in every pick, so a live draft makes less sense.  But for a traditional snake draft, nothing is better than drafting live to improve your league’s sustainability, pride and fun factor.  So go buy that live draft board – and lock down that open bar.

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Why Colin Kaepernick and RGIII Should be NFL Teammates Right Now

By Will Mirrer

Acquiring a franchise quarterback is hard work.  NFL teams lucky enough to find one in the draft generally don’t let them hit free agency.  But because the position is so important, general managers can never stop trying to find a talented signal caller.  So what is a quarterback-needy team to do?  Savvy fantasy football managers often pass on drafting an early-round quarterback, waiting until the later rounds to draft two passers with low floors, but immense upside, banking on a solid chance of at least one of them panning out.  In 2015, that could have meant foregoing Andrew Luck or Aaron Rodgers at the top of the fantasy draft and instead taking Cam Newton and Phillip Rivers, or Carson Palmer and Jameis Winston, later on.  Quarterbacks drafted so late naturally have a lower floor and higher variance in expected outcome.  Yet in taking two (or even three) such quarterbacks, the odds increase dramatically that at least one will realize his potential for top tier performance.  Can we draw any parallels from this strategy for NFL GMs stuck without a clear path to a franchise quarterback?

In the NFL’s 2016 free agency period, we saw many intriguing, but flawed quarterbacks hit the market all at once.  Kirk Cousins, Sam Bradford, and Brock Osweiler were the consensus top targets, and all commanded big paychecks worth no less than $18 million annually.  To varying degrees, they fit our paradigm of the low floor, high ceiling passer.  Cousins played like one of the best quarterbacks around during a blistering finish to the 2015 season, with a 23:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his final ten games.  But he hadn’t played nearly as well prior to that stretch, tossing 24 touchdowns and 27 interceptions in his career before the hot streak. Is his dramatic improvement in avoiding interceptions here to stay, or should we expect regression, as we saw after Nick Foles’ 27:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2013?  Similarly, Osweiler’s upside stems from decent play for the Broncos last season, but what will happen in a larger sample size? And why was he benched for Manning before the playoffs?  Meanwhile, Bradford’s perceived upside dates all the way back to his college heyday and status as the first pick in the 2010 draft, but his floor is obvious: he’s notoriously injury-prone, and even when he’s managed to stay on the field, he’s yet to log a healthy season at an average or better level.

Because of the difficulties in acquiring a franchise quarterback, swinging for the fences with Cousins or Osweiler is a defensible strategy.  A safer course would be to snag both of them, and play the one who turns out to be the better talent.  The glaring downside to this approach is that they are far too expensive.  At no less than $18 million per year, a team simply cannot take on two such salaries at once: it’s fair to say that no one wants to pay 50% more than a top quarterback’s annual salary for the combination of Brock Osweiler and Sam Bradford.  So, what do you do if you’re in desperate need of a field general and are not willing to bet on Osweiler or Bradford at $18 million a year?  In this scenario, GMs have to dig deeper than the top of the free agent market.

After RGIII won the Heisman Trophy and went second in the 2012 NFL Draft, he led Washington to an unlikely playoff appearance.  He won rookie of the year (besting Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson) and even made the Pro Bowl.  Play at this high level for an entire season establishes RGIII’s immense upside. At his best, he played incredible football with plenty of room to grow.  But a gruesome playoff knee injury required surgery after his rookie year, and RGIII regressed in his second season.  In 2014, he was mostly hurt, but did not play particularly well in his few games.  Then, in 2015, RGIII tumbled all the way to third on the Redskins’ quarterback depth chart, and he became a free agent this offseason.  His fall from grace can be explained in part by his many injuries, by what has been described as a “prima donna attitude,” by failing to study enough tape and even allegedly telling Mike Shanahan which plays were (and were not) acceptable to run.  That magical rookie season is just recent enough to provide the tantalizing upside GMs dream of, yet the series of red flags since then establish his unusually low floor — as a brittle, below-replacement level quarterback.

Similar highs and lows accompany Colin Kaepernick’s time in the NFL.  After replacing Alex Smith during the 2012 season, Kaepernick took the 49ers to the playoffs.  In his first playoff start, Kaep eviscerated the Packers through the air and especially on the ground, rushing for an incredible 181 yards and two touchdowns.  He went on to take his team to the Super Bowl, where the 49ers nearly beat the Ravens and a super hero version of Joe Flacco.  Kaepernick then played well in the 2013 season before narrowly falling to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.  In 2014, Kaepernick’s quarterback rating dipped a bit as the 49ers took a big step backward as a team after losing key contributors on both sides of the ball.  In 2015, after Coach Harbaugh left for the Wolverines, Kaep regressed dramatically and was even benched for Blaine Gabbert.  The 2012 and 2013 seasons firmly established Kaep’s upside as someone who could single-handedly destroy a playoff team like the Packers, and as someone who could win a Super Bowl.  And everything since 2013 has suggested a lower and lower floor to the point at which, like RGIII, it’s no longer clear if Kaepernick is even a starting-caliber quarterback.  Kaep and RGIII’s recent struggles have significantly lowered their respective going rates in the NFL marketplace.

The Cleveland Browns acquired RGIII this offseason for $15 million over two years.  By way of comparison, the Eagles retained Sam Bradford for two years and $35 million.  RGIII is now one of the lowest paid starting quarterbacks not on a cost-controlled rookie contract.   His cap hit this year is just $5 million, and should RGIII bomb out and the Browns cut him in the 2017 offseason, they’ll have only $1.75 million in dead money counting against next year’s cap.  For the Browns, whose adjusted salary cap is $176.69 million, RGIII’s $5 million cap hit is just 2.8% of the cap, a pittance for the most important position in the game.  At such a low price, the Browns’ signing of RGIII represents a lottery ticket.  He may never recreate his old magic, but the Browns aren’t sacrificing much cap flexibility in finding out.  And if the old RGIII is lurking somewhere, well, the Browns will have hit a home run with one of the most valuable contracts in football.  It’s a lot like taking your quarterback in the 10th round of your fantasy draft – he might bomb, but you’re not investing much to find out, and if you’re right, you’ve got yourself a steal.  Yet the risk inherent in signing RGIII has two components.  The contract itself is all upside, with very little financial risk.  But from an on-field performance perspective, putting all your eggs in one basket with RGIII at quarterback is as risky as it gets, with a high chance of injury or ineffective play dooming the Browns’ season.  So why not take a second quarterback in the 11th round of your fantasy draft, so to speak?  Why not invest similarly paltry assets in a second quarterback with upside?  Why not double the chances that a quarterback pans out by acquiring a second lottery ticket, such as by pairing RGIII with Colin Kaepernick?

Colin Kaepernick wouldn’t come quite as cheap.  There is some evidence he’s valued on the same tier as RGIII, as the Broncos offered Kaep $7 million a year for 2016 and 2017 during trade negotiations.   However, he’s under contract with the 49ers with a current salary of $11.9 million this year, and Kaepernick would have to agree to a restructured deal as part of a trade in order for a team to pay him less.  While Kaep turned down $7 million a year, he publicly admitted he’d consider a deal “slightly below his salary” if traded, presumably due to his deteriorating relationship with the 49ers’ front office.  He had leverage given his guaranteed $11.9 million price tag, but so did teams negotiating a trade this past offseason, knowing how badly Kaepernick wanted out of the Bay Area.  Given his willingness to take a pay cut from his $11.9 million rate, and given his rejection of a $7 million a year offer, it seems reasonable to split the difference and expect that teams could have traded for Kaepernick at a $9-10 million price tag for 2016.  That’s still less than almost all starting quarterbacks aside from those on cost-controlled rookie deals.  Even after a disappointing 2014 season, observers had pegged Kaepernick’s trade value at a first round pick, or possibly more.  Just a year later, Kaepernick was seemingly available for just a 3rd or 4th rounder.

Acquiring both RGIII (2016 cap hit: $5 million) and Kaepernick (estimated restructured deal at $9-10 million), then, would cost approximately $14-15 million combined, and a mid-round draft pick.  Remember, Sam Bradford got $18 million per year.  Osweiler got $72 million over 4 years.  That doesn’t necessarily mean teams should prefer Kaep & RGIII to one of these other free agents, but it does illustrate that acquiring both former stars still represents only a modest investment at the quarterback position.  Bradford gives you a higher floor (when healthy) than either RGIII or Kaepernick.  Yet RGIII and Kaepernick each have more upside, given that we’ve actually seen each of them perform at an elite level in the past, unlike Bradford.  While Osweiler has performed adequately far more recently than our two fallen stars, he’s still a rich venture into the unknown at $18 million per year for 4 long years with $37 million guaranteed.  On the other hand, Kaepernick and RGIII together, fighting it out for the starting job in training camp, would cost less combined than even average veteran quarterbacks fetch these days.  By acquiring two affordable high variance options, a QB-hungry team could effectively double the chances of finding a diamond in the rough.  It helps that RGIII and Kaep play a similar style as dual-threats through the air or on the ground, minimizing transition costs should one of the passers falter or get hurt.  And with relatively little guaranteed money committed beyond 2016, teams would have the flexibility to move on from the two passers quickly without damaging their cap sheets.

After letting several free agents walk, the Browns are flush with cap space. They would have no problem fitting both passers under the cap, with cap flexibility moving forward to boot.  One could argue they’d balk at the mid-round draft pick it’d take to nab Kaepernick, given their focus on acquiring draft picks to build for the future.  And yet, the Browns were willing to use one of their three third-round picks on Cody Kessler, a quarterback scouts weren’t too excited about.  Very few quarterbacks every play at an elite level in the pros.  Kaepernick appears more likely to regain his former glory, or at least produce average NFL quarterback play, than does a total unknown mid-rounder in Cody Kessler.  Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but the Jets, currently stuck at an impasse with Ryan Fitzpatrick, could have made another ideal destination for the Kaep-RGIII package.  Even the 49ers, who have decided to keep Kaepernick, could have traded for RGIII.  They, too, have the cap space to fit both, and a quarterback competition between RGIII and Kaepernick provides a higher ceiling than settling for Blaine Gabbert.

It’s of course possible that both Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick are completely finished.  RGIII has tons of talent, but perhaps some combination of injuries, alleged attitude issues and questionable film habits have left him a shell of his former self.  Kaepernick looked like a bona fide star in his first couple seasons, but he’s backslid since then, most dramatically in 2015, when he had lost his coach and supporting cast.  Was the brilliant Jim Harbaugh merely coaching him up?  We just don’t know.  RGIII is 26.  Kaepernick is 28.   Father Time, at the very least, is not the cause of their respective declines.  It’s at least plausible that the Browns’ Hue Jackson could coach up Griffin or Kaep, as he did for Andy Dalton this past season in Cincinnati.

In a league in which quarterback dwarfs the value of any other position, and top-caliber talent at the position is scarce, just the chance of finding a decent starting quarterback can overheat the market.  That’s why Brock Osweiler and Sam Bradford make nearly $20 million a year.  But if you’re not convinced Osweiler or Bradford is the next star, perhaps you’re not willing to commit so much guaranteed money.  Handing Kirk Cousins a long-term deal with the kind of guarantees Aaron Rodgers got from Ted Thompson might similarly be too financially risky.  The Browns instead went for what is financially a low risk, high reward contract in signing RGIII.  But by now we know the kind of risk RGIII presents on the field.  Adding Kaepernick to the mix would have halved their on-field risk – perhaps RGIII bombs or gets hurt, and Kaepernick plays well, or vice versa.  Given the on-field risk in signing either one, they came so cheap that a forward-thinking team could have affordably signed both to reap the upside, with insurance against realizing the downside. The Browns are taking a reasonable risk on RGIII’s promise.  But awash with cap space, acquiring both Kaep and RGIII would have significantly improved Cleveland’s chance of ending up with a franchise quarterback, or at least a competent signal caller.  Anytime you can give yourself more chances at finding a quarterback without destroying your cap sheet, that’s a risk well worth taking.

The Other Blind Side: Lefty Quarterbacks and Market Inefficiency at Right Tackle

Will Mirrer

The NFL salary cap can treat great general managers cruelly.  Just look at this offseason’s free agent exodus from the Super Bowl-winning Broncos: John Elway’s success assembling a generational defense priced himself out in free agency, with contributors such as Malik Jackson’s value skyrocketing beyond his budget.  And so the cap forces great general managers to always be looking for an edge to maximize their return on a dollar.  Bill Belichick’s commitment to finding useful running backs at a tiny cost (Woodhead, Blount, Vereen, and now Dion Lewis) presents one example of exploiting a market inefficiency to deal with limited cap space: don’t shell out on a premium running back when you might get 90% of his production with a 5th round pick.  What other positional considerations could help manage a tight salary cap?

Lefties make up about ten percent of the general population.  And yet with notable southpaws Michael Vick and Tim Tebow far-removed from their days as NFL starters, no current NFL starting quarterback is left-handed.  Theories abound to explain the lack of lefties: coaches at lower levels preferring to build a gameplan for righties, less talented receivers’ minor discomfort with a slightly different spin on the ball from left-handers, and the lure of baseball for big-armed southpaws – where being a lefty is an on-field advantage.  And yet talent evaluators would never pass on drafting a quarterback prospect because he is a lefty – the small effect of different spin on the ball would be far down a list of priorities in evaluating a lefty prospect.  And we know, of course, that lefties such as Mark Brunell, Mike Vick and Hall of Famer Steve Young have had their fair share of success in the NFL.  Therefore, with no compelling reason why we won’t see additional southpaw NFL quarterbacks moving forward, could employing a left-handed quarterback present its own cost efficiency gains for an NFL team?

As Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side made famous, left tackle is one of the most vital positions in the NFL due to its integral role in protecting right-handed quarterbacks’ blind spots.  Quarterback is of course the most important position, and as we know, the vast majority of quarterbacks are righties.  Righties will naturally have a more difficult time evading a pass rush coming from the left side, behind the quarterback’s head, than from the right side, directly in front of the quarterback’s eyes.  They may not even see the rush coming from the blind side at all.  It is paramount to protect the highest-paid player on the field, and investing in a premium at left tackle protects the quarterback’s most vulnerable angle: the one he may not see coming.  Michael Lewis had deemed left tackle the second-most important position in football. While edge rushers have likely surpassed left tackles in positional value, Bucky Brooks of NFL.com recently concluded that left tackle was still the third most important position – behind only quarterbacks and the pass rushers lined up opposite left tackle.  Right tackles, on Brooks’ same list, ranked 13th.

Given so many right-handed passers in the NFL, the marketplace reflects the stronger demand for left tackles vis-à-vis their bookend on the right side.  Per data compiled from Spotrac, the mean of the ten highest-paid left tackles’ per-year average salaries is $11.7 million.  Right tackles? A mean among the top 10 of only 6.5 million – over 5 million dollars less per year.  So, for instance, investing in the second-highest-paid right tackle, the elite Bryan Bulaga ($6,750,000), costs less than investing in just the seventeenth highest-paid left tackle (King Dunlap – $7,000,000).  In analyzing practically guaranteed money amongst the top ten highest-paid at each tackle position, the story is no different: these premium left tackles average $29.2 million in practically guaranteed money on their contracts, whereas premium right tackles average only 11.7 million (just 40% as much guaranteed money).

When a team acquires the next Michael Vick or Steve Young – that is, a franchise lefty quarterback – the team’s protection incentives are flipped, with the right tackle becoming the quarterback’s blind side.  So a team led by a lefty under center will want to invest more in a premium right tackle, unlike the rest of the league.   Fortunately, they can do so cheaply and efficiently: the $5 million in savings per year could be used to plug a hole at another position or to lock up a key contributor with an extension.  With guaranteed money far lower for right tackles, the signing risk is lower, freeing general managers to change their strategy quickly should the team move on to a different quarterback.  And with defenses scheming edge rushers to attack more often from the right tackle’s side, it becomes even more critical to ensure adequate protection for our lefty’s blindside. We also wouldn’t necessarily expect left and right tackles to switch places on the line when a lefty takes the reins – it just wouldn’t be an efficient use of resources to be paying premium left tackles’ market rate to play on the right side.  Additionally, most linemen are more efficient at playing one side of the line than the other.

As quarterback is clearly the most important position in football, it is naturally the differences among quarterback prospects’ on-field ability that will determine their draft position – no one is drafting a clearly inferior southpaw quarterback just to realize the team-building financial gains of pairing him with an artificially cheap elite right tackle.  And yet, in the modern cap-driven NFL, cost savings of this magnitude are critical to gaining a competitive edge.  We should thus expect GMs employing the next left-handed signal callers to invest in an elite right tackle and to skimp more at left tackle.  Team-building in this fashion opens up millions to invest elsewhere – great news for savvy general managers constrained by a demanding cap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HOT ROUTES: WEEK 16 WAIVER WIRE PICKUPS

By Will Mirrer

Weekly recommended fantasy football free agent pickups.  The fantasy championship is upon us.

 

QB:

  • Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    • You probably don’t want to be relying on a rookie who’s been inconsistent the last few weeks in your fantasy football championship game.  Nevertheless, famous Jameis is still putting up points most weeks, and Winston and the Bucs have the below average Chicago Bears defense during the week 16 championship matchup.  The floor is low, but the ceiling is quite high.  If you’re an underdog and your regular QB is a no-go (say, if Brees can’t play this week), Winston makes a defensible upside play.
  • Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins
    • Kirk Cousins led all quarterbacks in scoring a week ago, and he’s only been getting better each week.  In fact, at this point it may be safe to call Cousins an average quarterback.  He’s been getting more consistent with his deep ball as well.  The Redskins have an enormously important game this week on the road against the division rival Philadelphia Eagles, and while relying on Cousins is always a bit scary, that’s mitigated by his improved play of late and the Skins’ “must-win” status – wouldn’t you rather rely on a team that has to win at the end of the season, and not one just playing out the string?

RB:

 

  • Christine Michael, Seattle Seahawks
    • With Thomas Rawls out for the rest of the fantasy season, the Seahawks picked up two high-upside running backs who’ve never translated their athleticism into consistent production in Bryce Brown and Christine Michael. Michael looked great week 15, and earned most of the carries in the second half and will likely earn most of them again week 16.  While this may still be a committee, Michael has the upside, given his team’s proficiency and his own athleticism, to be a solid RB play in the championship game.
  • Cameron Artis-Payne, Carolina Panthers
    • At 14-0, the Panthers will likely rest their beat-up workhorse Jonathan Stewart another week.  Artis-Payne should lead the Panthers backfield in his absence.  Tolbert will steal some goalline work, and Fozzy Whittaker may be in the mix still, but the lead back for the Panthers against the Falcons defense is an inherently valuable proposition.
  • Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions
    • OK, so you’ve learned not to trust the Lions’ offensive line to produce running lanes by now.  Fine.  But hear me out – Abdullah has the 49ers pitiful defensive unit week 16.  If you need to hit a homerun this week , and have been bitten with injuries at running back, Abdullah is a high risk/high reward play to do something special. He’s also coming off his best ground game of the year week 15.
  • Jerrick McKinnon, Minnesota Vikings
    • Adrian Peterson rolled his ankle up week 15, and although he returned against the Bears, his status for this Sunday night’s game is not 100% guaranteed.  I expect Adrian Peterson to play (he’s a freak of nature, after all), but McKinnon would have a scrumptious matchup against the G-men stop unit should Peterson sit this one out.
  • Shane Vereen, New York Giants
    • Odell Beckham’s suspension was upheld for week 16.  That will mean trouble for the Giants offense, and likely an early deficit.  Enter Shane Vereen, the Giants’ pass-catching and hurry-up offense specialist. It’d be a truly speculative play, but the game flow of this one should favor Vereen ex ante.

WR:

  • Ted Ginn, Carolina Panthers
    • Ginn has caught 2 touchdowns in each of the last three games. You’ll have to sweat out the perception of a nonexistent floor, but his floor may actually be rising as Newton’s favorite target behind G-Reg.  Ginn can hit one out of the park for you if you need a new flex and are an underdog in your championship match-up.
  • Dorial Green-Beckham, Tennessee Titans
    • Zach Mettenberger will quarterback for the Titans with Mariota shut down for the year with an injury.  This is a big bump down for the Titans’ prospects in real football, but just fine for DGB in fantasy – Mettenberger has aired it out downfield more than Mariota and won’t be afraid to let ‘er rip towards his imposing, but raw, deep ball target.
  • Markus Wheaton, Pittsburgh Steelers
    • The Steelers offense is unstoppable right now, most recently evidenced by the destruction of Denver’s number one ranked defense in week 15.  Wheaton finished with 6 receptions for 62 yards and a touchdown, and has generally seen an uptick in targets with enough of them to go around for the Steelers offense, even with Brown and Bryant well ahead of him in the pecking order.
  • Rishard Matthews, Miami Dolphins
    • Matthews should return from his rib injury this week (he practiced Wednesday), and could supplant Devante Parker in the number 2 wide receiver role again, at least for this season.
  • Jermaine Kearse, Seattle Seahawks
    • With Russell Wilson the best quarterback in football the last month, all Seattle receivers receive a big boost.  While Baldwin and Lockett should already be snatched up in your league, Kearse may be on the waiver wire and represents a low floor, high upside dart throw.

 TE:

  • Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles
    • Former second round draft pick Zach Ertz went off for 8 catches, 78 yards and a touchdown against the Cardinals week 15, and has generally been seeing increased volume as of late.  Expect a high target count to continue against Washington.
  • Zach Miller, Chicago Bears
    • With Martellus Bennett on injured reserve, and with Bennett unlikely to return to the Bears next year, expect John Fox and co. to feed decent target levels Miller’s direction, in case he could be an answer to the question of next season’s starter at TE for Chicago.  Fire him up if Alshon Jeffrey can’t play this week.
  • Will Tye, New York Giants
    • Larry Donnell, the Giants’ regular starting tight end, is on injured reserve and will therefore miss the rest of the season.  Tye has been arguably a better receiver since taking over, and now Odell Beckham will miss the fantasy championship with a suspension.  While the Giants’ offense will be somewhat limited as a result, Tye could serve as the number two (or one) option in the passing game as a result of the suspension.
  • DEF:

(This list only includes defenses owned in fewer than 50% of ESPN leagues in order to limit it to likely streaming candidates)

  • Detroit Lions (vs. San Francisco 49ers)
    • The Lions’ defense has been an above-average unit over the second half of the season, and it does not appear to be a fluke.  Darius Slay and Ezekiel Ansah give this team a star on the defensive line and secondary, respectively.  And now Blaine Gabbert is coming to town, only one of the worst starting quarterbacks of our generation.  I’m starting the Lions D in my own fantasy championship with confidence.
  • Minnesota Vikings (vs. New York Giants)
    • The formerly strong Vikings defense has been beat up recently and not been performing quite as well lately, so keep tabs on the Sunday statuses of Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith.  Most of their key defensive personnel should be back week 16, however, and face the Odell Beckham-less New York Giants.

HOT ROUTES: WEEK 15 WAIVER WIRE PICKUPS

By Will Mirrer 

Weekly recommended fantasy football free agent pickups.  The fantasy semi-finals are upon us.

QB:

  • Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
    • You know your getting your 11-13 point floor tossing Alex Smith out there.  The question is, if you’re streaming quarterbacks in the playoffs, does Smith have enough upside, given his hyper-conservative playing style, to win you a championship?  I vote yes, given that the Chiefs face the Ravens’ porous pass defense week 15, and the Browns all-around dismal “stop” unit Week 16. The matchups are almost too good to mess up, and it has to give one a bit of extra confidence to see Smith and free-agent signee wide receiver Jeremy Maclin developing a rapport lately.  Finally, the Chiefs need to keep winning to make the playoffs, and at least it can’t hurt to rely on a team that actually needs to win.
  • Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    • You probably don’t want to be relying on a rookie who’s been inconsistent the last few weeks (though pretty darn good for a rookie) in your fantasy football championship.  Nevertheless, famous Jameis is still putting up points most weeks, and Winston and the Bucs have the Chicago Bears defense during the week 16 championship matchup.  The floor is low, but the ceiling is quite high.

RB:

  • Tim Hightower, New Orleans Saints
    • With RB Mark Ingram out for the year, it was Tim Hightower who stepped up for the Saints with 85 yards and a touchdown against the Bucs.  Granted, it took 28 carries, more than he’ll likely see again this year. But an every-down starter for the Saints, facing the Jaguars defense week 16 in the fantasy championship? That’s at least worth a pickup.
  • Denard Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
    • The Jaguars starting running back, T.J. Yeldon, is doubtful week 15 with a sprained knee.  Denard “Shoelace” Robinson will pick up most, if not all, of the carries while Yeldon is out.  It looks like Yeldon may be back next week, but if not, feel free to fire up Denard against the hapless Saints defense week 16.
  • Bryce Brown and Christine Michael, Seattle Seahawks
    • With Thomas Rawls out for the rest of the fantasy season, the Seahawks will have to look elsewhere for a spark out of the backfield.  They’ve picked up two high-upside running backs who’ve never translated their athleticism into consistent production in Bryce Brown and Christine Michael.  Look for the back who plays better week 15 to get a handle on the job for championship week.  I’d avoid playing either until the pecking order is determined if you have regular starting options at running back.
  • Brandon Bolden and James White, New England Patriots
    • With LeGarrette Blount also done for the fantasy season, Belichick will be needing to look elsewhere for early down running production.  Look for Brandon Bolden to pick up some carries, as well as 3rd down specialist James White.  Bolden is the better early down fit; White is likely the better talent with more upside.  Like the Seahawks’ potential committee, either play is a gamble until we know how the carry distribution will shake out.
  • Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions
    • OK, so you’ve learned not to trust the Lions’ offensive line to produce running lanes by now.  Fine.  But hear me out – Abdullah has the Saints defense week 15, and the 49ers pitiful unit week 16.  If you need to hit a homerun this week or next, and have been bitten with injuries at running back, Abdullah is a high risk/high reward play to do something special.

WR:

  • Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks
    • The electric Seattle rookie has garnered a larger role in the offense since Jimmy Graham went down for the season and Russell Wilson caught fire this past month.  With Rawls out as well, Wilson should need to continue to air out, leaving plenty of points to go around for both Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett.
  • Ted Ginn, Carolina Panthers
    • Ginn has caught 2 touchdowns in each of the last two games, yet only had two catches in week 15 total.  Thus is the life of a Ginn owner.  You’ll have to sweat out the nonexistent floor, but Ginn can hit one out of the park for you if you need a new flex and are an underdog in your playoff matchup.
  • Rishard Matthews, Miami Dolphins
    • Matthews may return from his rib injury this week, and could supplant Devante Parker in the number 2 wide receiver role again, at least for this season.

 TE:

  • Zach Miller, Chicago Bears
    • The Zach Miller revolution some (few) expected after he took an electrifying screen to the house a few weeks ago never materialized.  Nevertheless, Martellus Bennett is headed to injured reserve, and with Bennett unlikely to return to the Bears next year, expect John Fox and co. to feed decent target levels Miller’s direction, in case he could be an answer to the question of next season’s starter at TE for Chicago.  He’s been scoring touchdowns almost every game since becoming a relevant asset for the Bears just over a month ago.
  • Will Tye, New York Giants
    • Larry Donnell, the Giants’ regular starting tight end, was added to injured reserve and will therefore miss the rest of the season.  Tye has been arguably a better receiver since taking over, and as the third option in the Giants’ passing attack, will continue to see a moderate diet of targets in the fantasy playoffs.  You could probably do better, but you could certainly do worse.
  • DEF:

(This list only includes defenses owned in fewer than 50% of ESPN leagues in order to limit it to likely streaming candidates)

  • Minnesota Vikings (vs. Chicago Bears)
    • The formerly strong Vikings defense has been beat up recently and not been performing quite as well lately, so keep tabs on the Sunday statuses of Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith.  Most of their key defensive personnel should be back week 15, however, and face a decent, but not great, Chicago offense in a big divisional showdown with the Vikings’ playoff life on the line.

HOT ROUTES: WEEK 14 WAIVER WIRE PICKUPS

By Will Mirrer

Weekly recommended fantasy football free agent pickups, all under 50% ownership in ESPN leagues. The fantasy playoffs are upon us.

QB:

  • Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (40.5% ownership)
    • Winston has exceeded expectations all season after an embarrassing opening week as a rookie starter for the Bucs.  This recommendation, however, is mostly matchup-based: Winston faces the comically awful New Orleans Saints defense at home this week (week 14), and gets the (not as) awful Chicago defense week 16 – championship week.
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York Jets (26.3% ownership)
    • I can’t say I’d be thrilled about my season coming down to conjuring some FitzMagic, but he did finally look healthy week 12 against the Dolphins and threw for 4 touchdowns.  This past week, Fitzpatrick lit up the Giants in the second half and finished with 390(!) yards passing and 2 touchdowns, tossing the pigskin up there to Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker and having the big fellas go get it with regularity.  If you need a plug-in quarterback, Fitzpatrick does have the Titans week 14, a somewhat appetizing quarterback fantasy matchup.  The Cowboys in week 15 won’t scare you or the Jets offense away, but look for help from someone other than the Crimson man week 16 when the Jets face defensive mastermind Bill Belichick and the Pats.

RB:

  • James White, New England Patriots (38.6% ownership)
    • White caught 10 passes for 115 yards and a touchdown week 13 against the Eagles, with the Patriots passing nearly every down while playing catch-up in the second half.  I wouldn’t expect this kind of production again, given the unlikelihood of the Patriots falling far behind in any given contest.  Still, it’s clear now that White has a firm grasp on the Dion Lewis role in New England’s passing attack.
  • Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions (47.9% ownership)
    • Finally, belatedly, the Lions are giving lightning quick rookie Ameer Abdullah the primary workload in the Detroit backfield, presumably for the rest of the season.  Sure, it’s been near impossible to trust the Lions ground game all season, but Abdullah’s quicks and open field moves provide greater upside.  More importantly, the Lions’ offensive line has improved (somewhat) since their mid-season change at offensive coordinator, and the Lions face these two delectably soft defenses during the all-important weeks 15 and 16 matchups: the Saints and the 49ers.

WR:

  • Devante Parker, Miami Dolphins (34% ownership)
    • Devante Parker, a first round draft pick out of Louisville, has been a disappointment his rookie year, alternately hurt and unable to get on the field much at all for the Dolphins.  With Rishard Matthews hurt with multiple fractured ribs, Devante Parker has been finally serving in the number 2 wide receiver role, having scored his first career touchdown week 12.  In week 13, Parker followed that up with another touchdown to make that two straight weeks. It’s still a speculative start for the fantasy playoffs, but expect Parker’s talent to keep making noise.
  • Dorial Green-Beckham, Tennessee Titans (13.7% ownership)
    • DGB is another rookie who has struggled to make an impact until late in the season.  The raw second-rounder with well-publicized first round talent, DGB came through for the first time in a big way week 13 with 5 catches, 119 yards and a touchdown, the latter of which included a sick broken tackle through several would-be tacklers.  His floor is still as low as can be, but his upside is enormous, and you can start to expect more of it to materialize these next few weeks as the Titans look to develop the Mariota-DGB connection, and with Kendall Wright seemingly constantly injured in 2015.
  • Brandon Coleman, New Orleans Saints (2.0% ownership)
    • Coleman stepped up with a touchdown with Willie Snead out with a calf injury last week, and though Snead could return week 14, Coleman is worth a speculative add with Snead’s status uncertain and with Marques Colston a nonfactor at his advanced age.
  •  TE:
    • Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (26.1% ownership)
      • ASJ only played 21 snaps week 13 in his first game back from a seemingly never-ending injury that saw ASJ miss every game since week 2.  However, expect his snaps to increase this week, just as the Bucs get to face the inviting Saints defense.  Even with likely another week of less than a full snap count, ASJ makes for a solid streaming decision this week against the Saints.
    • Will Tye, New York Giants (7.1% ownership)
      • Larry Donnell, the Giants’ regular starting tight end, has been added to injured reserve and will therefore miss the rest of the season.  Tye has been arguably a better receiver since taking over, and as the third option in the Giants’ passing attack, will continue to see a moderate diet of targets in the fantasy playoffs.  You could probably do better, but you could certainly do worse.
    • Zach Miller, Chicago Bears (18% ownership)
      • The Zach Miller revolution some (few) expected after he took an electrifying screen to the house a few weeks ago never materialized.  Nevertheless, Martellus Bennett is headed to injured reserve, and with Bennett unlikely to return to the Bears next year, expect John Fox and co. to feed decent target levels Miller’s direction, in case he could be an answer to the question of next season’s starter at TE for Chicago.

DEF:

(Remember, this list only includes defenses owned in fewer than 50% of ESPN leagues and thus applies only to those who stream defenses weekly)

  • Detroit Lions (@ St. Louis; 49.7%)
    • The Lions defense has been better and better in recent weeks, including two strong performances against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, and a demolition of Derek Carr and the Raiders.  It starts with Ziggy Ansah upfront, and ends with Darius Slay in the defensive backfield.  While it’s reasonable to expect something of a letdown after the Lions saw Rodgers’ Hail Mary blow up their dim playoff hopes, Detroit still gets to face Case Keenum and the offensively challenged St. Louis Rams in Week 14.  Facing the (albeit, improved) Blaine Gabbert week 16 for the fantasy championship is just icing on the cake.

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