By DEREK PERRY
Welcome to what will be the first of (hopefully) many glances into the dark and scary world of fantasy football here on Off the Trax. My name is Derek Perry, and I’m a friend of resident degenerate, self-loathing Jet fan and goofball — Editor-in-chief JJ Conrad. I’ll offer a bit of background on myself, seeing as I assume you’d like to know who you’re taking your fantasy advice from.
My first fantasy football experience came at age 14 in my freshman computer applications class. What better way for high school classmates (with daily access to computers) to bond than — you guessed it — fantasy football?
I finished third that year (a neat Yahoo feature is that they enable you to view your teams from years past), but more importantly, I became hooked on something that has grown into a cherished, albeit maddening, yearly ritual for me.
I’m not looking to move mountains with this column. My philosophy is simple: you play fantasy football to win, not to avoid losing. That means bold decisions. This year, it might’ve meant going TE-TE with your first two picks, or going with the Zero RB approach and gambling on guys like Fred Jackson, Lamar Miller and Darren Sproles to round out your RB stable. Whether you’re a first-time fantasy player or a seasoned vet, you know by now that the draft is only half the battle. It takes great in-season management to not only make the playoffs, but to take your team all the way.
Next year, we can talk about draft strategy, rankings and the like, but for now, we’ll focus on what moves can help you get to where you want to be, no matter how well or horribly your first five weeks went.
I’ll talk about waiver options, favorable matchups, prioritizing your waiver pickups and even QB and D/ST streaming if that’s something you’re into. Championships are the goal here, even though leaving a beaten, battered trail of your buddies in your wake is always fun, too (I beat JJ by 58 this week, for example).
Let’s take a quick look at where we are so far in the 2014 fantasy football season. It’s been a bizarre year due to injuries, underwhelming/overwhelming performances and bizarre player usage alike.
Here are my “Studs & Duds,” just over a third of the way into the fantasy football regular season:
Andrew Luck – Luck has rewarded those that waited for that “second tier” of QB’s (his ADP was QB5) in a big way thus far. He’s the top-scoring QB by a wide margin, with 16 total TD’s (14 pass, 2 rush). There’s little reason to think Luck won’t finish as a top five fantasy QB this year, and #1 overall is a very real possibility.
Philip Rivers – Rivers has turned the Chargers offense into one of the premier passing attacks in the league in 2014. The San Diego backfield has been a revolving door thanks to injuries, but Rivers and the passing game have been a consistent threat. He’s turned Eddie Royal and Antonio Gates, often overlooked as fantasy commodities this preseason, into viable options. As long as San Diego has questions in the backfield, Rivers remains a great start.
Matt Ryan – Ryan, as expected, has started off the campaign in a big way. With the help of Julio Jones, who ranks as the #2 wideout thus far, Ryan has reestablished himself as a must-start, every week QB — a stature he previously enjoyed before struggling in 2013.
Jay Cutler – Cutler still throws soul-crushing interceptions (six on the year) and has lost two fumbles, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s become a lineup-carrying quarterback in his second year under the “Quarterback Whisperer” Marc Trestman. He’s surrounded by redzone monsters, and a leaky Chicago D ensures they’ll continue to throw a ton. If you’re a Cutler owner, carve his name into the top of your lineup in stone and enjoy the show (but be prepared to cover your eyes at times).
Drew Brees – Both Brees and the Saints have gotten off to a rough start this year. The two wins that New Orleans have on the season came in either the last minute (vs. Cleveland) or OT (vs. Tampa Bay). Although he remains a QB1 option now and forever (you don’t just bench Drew Brees after a few rough weeks), you expect a little more from a guy that hasn’t finished worse than QB3 in the past five years. Brees owners that spent, on average, a second rounder on him are looking for a little more than QB8 numbers.
Matthew Stafford – While the Lions have started off 3-2 and sit atop the NFC North, Stafford has been relatively quiet compared to what we’ve grown accustomed to from him. He has just six touchdowns in five games, and has only thrown for 300+ yards once. The low point was a discouraging performance against Green Bay in Week 3, in which he failed to find the endzone, threw two picks and lost a fumble. A banged-up Megatron hasn’t helped matters, but Stafford is capable of a lot more in one of the league’s most pass-centric offenses.
Nick Foles – Foles’ numbers to date are being skewed by a dismal performance against San Francisco in Week 4. He managed just 195 yards while throwing two interceptions in a tough road loss. Taking away that game, he’s averaging around 17.5 points (in a league where a passing TD = 4 points) this season. Those are respectable numbers, but Foles owners drafted him with the hope that he could build on last year’s success. Foles needs more games like he had against Washington (325 yards, 3 TD’s) if he’s going to carry you to the promised land.
Le’Veon Bell – Bell looks as though he’s shed half a human since entering the league as a rookie out of Michigan State. Big Ten running backs are often thought of as big, lumbering, one-cut runners, but Bell has shown that he’s dynamic in almost every facet of the game. He’s third in the league in receptions by a RB (24) and second in rushing yards (460). He’s only found the endzone once thus far, so we might just be seeing the beginning of something special from a back that should be at or near the top of fantasy drafts for years to come.
DeMarco Murray – Murray is on pace for more than 400 carries, which would be the most since Larry Johnson toted the rock 416 times in 2006. Murray is making the most of each and every one, leading the NFL with 670 yards – 210 more than any other back. He’s also finding the endzone – leading the league with five rushing scores. He’s easily the #1-scoring RB thus far. Oddly enough, he’s lost four fumbles; but the Cowboys are taking advantage of Murray’s talent along with an elite offensive line and running it down everyone’s throats. If you took Murray in the late first/early second, you are loving life right now.
Justin Forsett – Forsett has taken advantage of the chaos that is the Ravens’ backfield and turned it into an extremely respectable start to his year. Though the Ravens are still going with a running back by committee (Forsett, Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro), Forsett seems to be the “hot hand” — rushing for three touchdowns and catching 23 passes to date.
Ahmad Bradshaw – Bradshaw, who finally out-touched Trent Richardson in Week 5, has shown he still has plenty left in the tank after joining the Colts. He leads all running backs with four touchdown receptions, and should only see his touches increase as it becomes even more apparent to the Colts’ staff who the better back is. Bradshaw is returning some terrific value at this point, given his ADP.
LeSean McCoy – McCoy’s disappointing start can be attributed to his own performance as well as some questionable usage by the Philadelphia coaching staff. After predicting 2,000 yards rushing for himself before the season began, McCoy has been a disappointment to owners everywhere that, in a lot of cases, took him first overall. Obviously, McCoy has more than enough time to turn things around and save his season and yours, but there is certainly cause for concern.
Eddie Lacy – His performance against the sieve that is the Vikings defense notwithstanding, Lacy has struggled early on. He failed to rush for more than 48 yards in any of his first four games. Like McCoy, I believe Lacy has plenty of time to turn himself into the top back we thought he could be in the preseason. He will always be touchdown-dependent from a fantasy perspective, and has three favorable matchups against Miami, Carolina and New Orleans coming up to continue what he started against Minnesota.
Montee Ball – After Knowshon Moreno finished last year as RB5, people thought Ball’s ceiling would be through the roof before this season started. Unfortunately for him, he has struggled and now finds himself on the shelf for up to three weeks with a groin injury. Needless to say, Ball might be the biggest disappointment from a RB perspective so far.
Antonio Brown – There’s really not much to say about Brown. He has at least five catches and at least 50 yards in twenty straight games. That’s an incredible streak, and something you can plug into your lineup with extreme confidence every week. Is there anyone else in the league is essentially an automatic ten points? Add all that to the fact that Brown has already found the endzone five times. Brown is the #1 PPR WR to this point.
Julio Jones – Jones has quickly put any injury concerns to rest, catching three touchdowns with a league-leading 40 catches to date. With Roddy White in and out of the lineup, Julio has become Matty Ice’s unquestioned #1 target and safety blanket.
Steve Smith, Sr. – Before the season started, a lot of pundits harped on the fact that Torrey Smith would be playing the “X” position in the same offense that saw Pierre Garcon lead the league in targets in that same role last year. Dennis Pitta was finally healthy. Steve Smith was old, signed to complement Torrey before calling it quits in a season or two. He proceeded to flip everyone’s predictions upside down, and has maneuvered himself into the #5-scoring WR thus far. His monster “revenge game” against Carolina was undoubtedly a week-winner for some.
Golden Tate – Tate has taken advantage of a banged-up Megatron and become a favorite target of Stafford’s, catching 31 passes to date. He’s in this group over guys like Jordy Nelson and Dez Bryant, because at this point, while those two are certainly meeting their lofty expectations, Tate is vastly exceeding those set for him in the preseason.
Keenan Allen – Allen has yet to find the endzone this season, and has been generally disappointing, with the exception of a ten catch, 135 yard performance in Week 4. Despite his struggles, he does lead all Chargers receivers in targets. I’m willing to bet Allen turns things around sooner rather than later.
Brandon Marshall – Marshall started off the season with two very solid outings, but has since struggled and has only caught a combined six passes in his last three games. He’s has been banged up, but when he’s healthy, he remains Cutler’s favorite target and is a guy with a very high floor. I fully expect Marshall to get back to his dominant ways as he shakes off some nagging injuries.
Cordarelle Patterson – Patterson is a freak of nature. My father, a Vikings fan, went as far as to say he “runs like a deer.” However, Norv Turner and the Vikings have had difficulty getting him involved in the offense. He’s a poor route runner by NFL standards despite his athletic ability. It will be interesting to see if the Vikings can find some ways to get their best playmaker some more touches.
Victor Cruz – Are we beginning to see the passing of the torch, of sorts, for the Giants? Second-year wideout Rueben Randle is out-targeting Cruz 40-38 as Eli and new coordinator Ben McAdoo try to get the former LSU Tiger more involved in the offense. Cruz had an abysmal start to the season and was plagued by drops as the Giants offense struggled. Once Randle became more involved, the chains started moving. It appears as though the arrow is pointing up for Randle and down for Cruz.
Michael Floyd – It’s hard to blame Floyd for his struggles, as he’s a TD-dependant receiver that is bound to have peaks and valleys. That’s exactly how this season has gone – Floyd’s lines are as follows: 5/119 in Week 1, 1/19 in Week 2, 5/114 in Week 3, Bye in Week 4 and 1/7 in Week 5. His game is perfect for a downfield-thrower like Carson Palmer. Drew Stanton, on the other hand, is more of a game manager, and it’s wildly apparent that the Cardinals are far more conservative with their passing game with him at the helm. I think once Palmer is back, Floyd will rebound big time.
Martellus Bennett – While guys like Julius Thomas and Jimmy Graham are performing up to their normal incredible standards, there are a number of tight ends that have burst onto the scene and become lineup staples. Bennett is one of them – he’s benefitted from Trestman’s high-flying offense, as well as the fact that teams have to account for both Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in the redzone.
Greg Olsen – Olsen is quietly third in the NFL in receptions by a TE (27) and touchdowns (4). He’s also third in targets, and second on his team behind Kelvin Benjamin, which tells you Cam is looking his way often. Olsen came at a very fair price in drafts, and so far he’s turned out some terrific return.
Delanie Walker/Larry Donnell/Travis Kelce – These guys were available on almost all waiver wires to start the season. Now, they’re putting up consistent numbers (with the exception of a goose-egg from Donnell against Atlanta, who schemed him out of the game) on teams who were thought to have no tight end to speak of before the season started. Check out Kelce’s Ric Flair strut after his TD against San Francisco this week. If that doesn’t make him an instant favorite of yours, I’m not sure what will.
Vernon Davis – Davis is targeted significantly less when Michael Crabtree is in the lineup. Now that Crabtree is healthy, Davis is all but an afterthought in the Niners’ run-first attack. He’s been targeted just 12 times this year and has struggled with injuries.
Jason Witten – Witten has been quiet so far this year, managing 10+ points just once. He’s secured 19 of his 28 targets and has yet to find the endzone. While Dez Bryant is prospering in Scott Linehan’s offense, Witten hasn’t enjoyed the role in Dallas that he has in years past.
Zach Ertz – Ertz is a terrific talent, but he suffers from a case of “too many mouths to feed” in Philadelphia. With so many options for Foles, it’s hard to rely on Ertz as much more than a bye-week plug.
Ladarius Green – All signs from Chargers camp pointed to Green becoming a significant weapon for Philip Rivers, and possibly even usurping Gates as the #1 TE. Thus far, the Chargers seem content with waiting to get the freakish Green on the field, having only targeted him eight times. Green was worth a gamble in the preseason on the off-chance he could make an impact, but it looks like that will have to wait.
Eye on the Waiver Wire
This week will be a crucial one for the waiver wire. There are several options that could help your team, depending on what you need. Let’s take a look at who could help you the most, beginning with QB’s:
Austin Davis – The Rams have shown confidence in Davis, and he has rewarded their trust with back-to-back impressive starts. Against Dallas, he went for 327 yards and three touchdowns, and against Philadelphia he again threw for three scores in addition to 375 yards. If Davis is still available, he’s the perfect by week plug when your QB1 is off.
Carson Palmer – Palmer got off to a good start this season before sustaining a shoulder injury. If Palmer was dropped in your league, and you are in need of QB help, he’s worth a look. The Cardinals will throw a ton with Palmer in the lineup, and have some great weapons for him in Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald and newcomer John Brown.
It’s been a bizarre year at the running back position, and it’s about to get a whole lot weirder after this week. We have as many as three teams that will be changing lead backs. Here’s how you should prioritize your claims to make sure you grab the right one:
Branden Oliver – Oliver walked all over the Jets in Week 5, and has a dream matchup against the Raiders on Sunday. He doesn’t necessary compare to Sproles (despite wearing #43 and the Charger uniform), but more to Bobby Rainey or Forsett.
Andre Williams – With Jennings out, Williams managed 60+ yards and a TD for the second straight week. Now that he’s in line to be the lead back, those numbers should only get better. He has two favorable matchups against the Eagles and Cowboys coming up.
Ronnie Hillman – Hillman looked like a perfect fit when he entered for the injured Montee Ball on Sunday. He’s still extremely young, younger than Ball in fact despite being in the league a whole year longer, and should see plenty of work against the Jets this week. Tread carefully, however — the Broncos like CJ Anderson and Juwan Thompson. Thompson saw work as well on Sunday and even scored a TD. While Hillman is your best bet for points, don’t expect him to get 20+ touches like Oliver or Williams might.
Wide receivers are hard to come by at this point, especially in leagues in which you start three. The key is to look for players who are heavily targeted and could benefit from good QB play. Here are some receivers that should provide you with some upside if you’re in a bye week pinch. There’s also one tight end I feel is on the verge of a blowup game and could be a very solid bye-week option:
Jarius Wright – Wright is already a favorite of Teddy Bridgewater’s in Minnesota. Against Atlanta, Wright went off to the tune of eight catches for 132 yards. This past week, he only had three catches for 27 yards with Christian Ponder at the helm. If Bridgewater is healthy, Wright is a solid enough option that could help you coast through one of your big gun’s bye weeks.
Allen Robinson – Since Bortles took over for Henne in the second half of Week 3, Robinson has 17 catches for 168 yards. With Marqise Lee out and playing opposite Allen Hurns, Robinson is starting to show why the Jags made him their second round pick back in April out of Penn State. If he can start to catch some touchdowns (none so far), he’ll be worth starting moving forward.
Andrew Hawkins – With Josh Gordon still serving his suspension, Hawkins leads the Browns in targets through four games with 42. That’s 20 more than any other Browns player.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins – Tight end ASJ is playing nearly every offensive snap for the Bucs. He’s only been targeted twelve times, but he’s secured five of those for 81 yards. At 6’5”, 262 lbs, the Bucs’ second-round pick (38th overall) is a matchup nightmare and, after a matchup against Baltimore and a bye, faces Minnesota, Cleveland, Atlanta, Washington and Chicago.
If you’re like me, you skipped on picking a D/ST with a high pick and instead elect to stream defenses based on matchups from week to week. This is a popular strategy that has gained some steam in the last couple of years, so it’s beneficial to have more than one option as those ahead of you in the waiver order might snag the week’s best bets. Let’s examine the streaming defenses that give you the best shot for Week 6:
Tennessee vs. Jacksonville — the Jaguars are hemorrhaging points to opposing defenses. Tennessee will be playing angry fresh off the worst blown lead in NFL history against the Browns. Jacksonville has turned the ball over ten times so far this season, and given up 21 sacks.
Indianapolis @ Houston – the Colts have forced three turnovers in three straight weeks. Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown six interceptions over the past three weeks.
Baltimore @ Tampa Bay – Tampa Bay has turned the ball over twelve times this season. If Baltimore gets up early, they can force Glennon into some passing situations that might lead to more turnovers.
Please note that I’m operating under the assumption that teams like San Diego, Cincinnati, New England and Detroit are all picked up by now. San Diego, especially, has an enormous ceiling this week against Oakland.