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Exploiting the Matchups: Don't Mess With the JuJu

Luke Hoover

Luke Hoover has covered fantasy football for Rotowire.com since 2011 and is most proud of recommending Victor Cruz as a starter in his breakout game against the Eagles. He's a lifelong fan of Notre Dame, the Packers and, unfortunately, the Knicks.

Nothing makes sense anymore.

Well, almost nothing. There’s always been a short list of guys you could play every week with confidence, irrespective of opponent. But that shortlist typically went at least 8-to-10 deep at each position, and possibly even deeper at receiver. That list still exists but it’s a lot shorter than usual. In a season when so many elite talents have fallen, including three quarterbacks, the “start your studs” mantra is no longer carved in stone.

With Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Andrew Luck, David Johnson, Dalvin Cook and Odell Beckham all on IR, that short list is down to around five at every position (I could argue a tad longer at RB and a tad shorter at WR and TE), and it means that paying acute attention to usage trends and matchups is more critical than ever. It also likely means there are players sitting on your league’s waiver wire that could very well be critical pieces to championship puzzles in the coming weeks.

In years past no name was safe from the downgrade portion of this column, but generally speaking, outside of DFS play, those true-blue studs were still recommended starts. In the current state of the NFL, where most offensive lines and many quarterbacks are unreliable, that’s no longer really the case. Nothing hammered that home more than last week when Mike Evans and A.J. Green – perennial 1,000-yard wideouts – turned up in the downgrade section. Their presence there largely was due to the two young corners they were facing, but also tied to circumstances surrounding the expectations of how their quarterbacks might perform. In years past these unfortunate matchups would still need to be overlooked to play your best players, but as we saw with their combined 19 yards and respective scuffles, the decision to start Evans or Green cost many fantasy owners a win. As I said earlier, almost nothing makes sense anymore.

Antonio Brown blistered Jacksonville for 157 yards in Week 5 because he is the truth. But even then, it took him 19 targets. Given his role in Pittsburgh’s offense and relationship with Ben Roethlisberger, he’s currently the ONLY matchup-proof wide receiver. That’s the state of the current NFL. A handful of bell cow running backs and MVP-caliber quarterbacks are going to get their weekly due, as well as several uncoverable tight ends, but anyone else must be questioned on a weekly basis. The owners that embrace this volatility and decrease their range of outcomes with safe weekly floors will take home championships. So, ditch the old standard and go outsmart your competitors on the way to a title.

As always, this is not intended as a traditional start/sit piece. Upgrades are players you wouldn't roll out every week while downgrades are generally lineup mainstays but for whom you might want to consider an alternative based on elements of their opponent/situation. With that out of the way, let's get to it.

Upgrade

Quarterback

Josh McCown, NYJ at TB


McCown extended his streak of multiple touchdown games to five, and he managed to do so while throwing just 20 passes against the Bills. A reeling Buccaneers team riding its own five-game streak (of losses) and minus Jameis Winston (shoulder) and Mike Evans (suspension) may provide a similar game script this week, but that shouldn’t prevent McCown from keeping on schedule. The last two aging pocket passers the Bucs faced, Carson Palmer and Drew Brees, threw a combined five touchdowns on just 49 attempts.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, TB vs. NYJ

There are two streaks the Jets will keep going this week for quarterback touchdowns: their own signal caller’s five-game run of multiple-score performances and their defense’s streak of five straight outings with an opposing QB tallying at least two scores. That stretch includes last week’s three-score performance by Tyrod Taylor that was aided by garbage time, as well as Browns backup Kevin Hogan doing the deed in two quarters and BOTH Miami Dolphins quarterbacks tossing two touchdowns. In fact, no defense in football has allowed more than the 20 scores Gang Green has given up to quarterbacks. So although Fitzpatrick doesn’t have Evans and will be making his first start of the year, he’s still set up nicely to join the club with no standards. After all, if Fitzpatrick can throw three TDs in one half of garbage action against the Cardinals (when he replaced Jameis Winston in Week 7), imagine what he can do in a full four quarters of revenge-fueled glory..

Andy Dalton, CIN at TEN

A meeting with the Jaguars is not really a fair measure of quarterback play. Jacksonville has allowed a meager four touchdown passes in eight games while picking off 10. They’ve evolved into a dominant defense, and Dalton’s lackluster performance against them bears no real weight on his value moving forward, which actually looks somewhat promising. A.J. Green was not suspended for his MMA takedown of Jalen Ramsey, and now he and Dalton can take out their frustrations on a Tennessee secondary that allowed Joe Flacco to top 250 yards with two scores. If NFL “elite” like Flacco can post such numbers on the Titans, Dalton can get back on the track that saw him throw for at least 328 yards or multiple touchdowns in his five games prior to the Jacksonville bust, with 11 scores in that stretch.

Case Keenum, MIN at WAS

Coming off a 288-yard, two-score performance and Minnesota’s bye week, Keenum has his full arsenal of weapons – a very impressive arsenal at that – with which to attack a Redskins defense that’s not about to scare anyone away from testing it. And with Teddy Bridgewater finally activated and chomping at the bit to get his old job back, you can rest assured Keenum will take his shots this week. With Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen and Kyle Rudolph at his disposal, that makes for a nice ceiling as far as two-quarterback leagues go.

Running Back

Matt Forte, Bilal Powell, NYJ at TB


Despite not receiving double-digit rush attempts prior to last week, Forte has tallied at least 80 scrimmage yards in four of his last five full games (he left a Week 3 win over Miami due to injury) while producing efficiently as both a runner and receiver. He averaged at least 5.5 YPC three times and has caught a fantastic 91 percent of his targets on the season. Powell, meanwhile, has at least 60 scrimmage yards in his last four full games, with five gains of at least 25 yards in that stretch, including runs of 75 and 51. Seeing as the Bucs have given up seven touchdowns to tailbacks in their last four games with three guys scoring twice while going over 100 scrimmage yards, it seems this Gang Green duo is poised to keep the good times rolling.

Damien Williams, MIA at CAR

Although Kenyan Drake outgained Williams by over 40 scrimmage yards in the first game sans Jay Ajayi, the pair split touches almost evenly – 15 for Drake, 13 for Williams – while the latter was entrusted in the red zone and scored from 10 yards out. Williams’ strength – his receiving ability – will be needed again this week against a Panthers defense that stops the run but is also one of only nine teams to have allowed 50 or more receptions to tailbacks. In a reserve role for his three-plus years in Miami, Williams has compiled 79 grabs on 104 targets for 675 yards (8.5 per catch) and six scores, so don’t be surprised if the touch distribution favors the more tenured Dolphin this Sunday.

Thomas Rawls, SEA at AZ

Ever since bursting onto the scene as a rookie who led the league in yards per carry, Rawls has been doing his best impression of a running back zombie. Just when you think he’s dead, he gets back up and keeps coming. He fought injuries and inefficiencies last year before gashing Carolina for an out-of-nowhere 102 yards and two scores in December. He then finished the regular season rushing 37 times for 56 yards in three games before setting a Seahawks playoff record with 161 yards on the ground against Detroit. And last week when Eddie Lacy was finally supposed to take control of Seattle’s backfield, a groin injury sidelined the big fella and a left-for-dead Rawls accrued 70 yards on 11 touches, easily his best effort of the season. With Lacy out, he gets to encore against a Cardinals defense that has quietly given up at least 74 yards or a score to an opposing No. 1 tailback in every contest since Week 1.

Tevin Coleman, ATL vs. DAL

The model of efficiency with 5.0 yards per carry and 12.4 per reception, Coleman has once again taken advantage of his opportunities while playing second fiddle to Devonta Freeman (knee). In fact, the explosive backup has generated at least 89 yards or a touchdown in six of his last seven performances. Set to face a Dallas defense that’s allowing 4.3 YPC and 8.3 YPR to opposing tailbacks, Coleman is well positioned to make it seven of eight.

Wide Receiver

JuJu Smith-Schuster, PIT at IND


Don’t be afraid to double down on Smith-Schuster if you were one of the wise ones to start him for his monster performance before Pittsburgh’s bye week. The Colts have allowed the fourth most yards per game to receivers (184.6 per game), and those won’t all go to Antonio Brown. And while Martavis Bryant may get fed a bit in something of a redemption contest for him, Smith-Schuster certainly won’t be ignored. The fact of the matter is that the rookie is a more well-rounded wideout than Bryant, offering route running, strong hands and YAC ability that ensure he’ll stay heavily involved the rest of the season.

Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins, LAR vs. HOU

Woods leads the Rams in targets and has produced at least 60 yards in five of the last six contests, including a 100-yard effort and last week’s two-score slicing and dicing of the Giants. Overall on the season he’s averaged 14.5 yards per catch and a very healthy 9.2 per target, so although his ceiling may be the 70 yards and two scores he produced last week, Woods’ floor is the reason to use him this Sunday. Watkins and his less than four targets per game average is a much riskier option, of course, but as the Rams’ deep threat he could have an encore of his one-catch, 67-yard scoring effort versus the Giants. After all, the Texans have allowed a league-high 16.3 yards per reception to wide receivers.

Sterling Shepard, NYG at SF

The 49ers have allowed at least 177 yards or a touchdown to a wide receiver in all nine of their losses this season. While the first part of that stat may be misleading – the game in which T.Y. Hilton torched them for those yards is the only one a wideout didn’t score against them – it also serves to emphasize the real point: San Fran is going to allow at least one wideout to have a nice fantasy day every time they suit up. If anyone is to keep that trend going it’ll probably have to be Shepard, who caught five of nine targets for 70 yards against an improving Rams defense in his return from a two-game absence last week.

Adam Humphries, TB vs. NYJ

Both journeyman Deonte Thompson and rookie disappointment Zay Jones produced career games against the Jets last week. Their visits to the end zone bring Gang Green’s tally for scores allowed to wide receivers up to 12 (good for second most behind only the Chiefs). That spells good news for the Buccaneers wideouts, and with Mike Evans suspended, DeSean Jackson and Humphries will fill the void. While Jackson garners plenty of safety attention to keep his deep speed in check, Humphries should benefit and challenge his previous season-high of 10 targets from Week 2, a game that kicked off a four-game stretch with at least 50 yards.

Tight End

Garrett Celek, SF vs. NYG


As streaming options go for tight ends, there are far worse than Celek. His career numbers may make any fantasy owner cringe, but the Giants can fix that for one week. Half way through the season and they have allowed every tight end group they’ve faced to tally at least 40 yards and a score. With George Kittle (leg) already ruled out and no Pierre Garcon (neck/IR), targets are available for the taking. And while Celek is fairly unaccomplished for a six-year vet, he is coming off a career year that included three touchdowns and two games of at least 75 yards.

Eric Ebron, DET vs. CLE

With 10 targets and a healthy mark of 9.3 YPT over the last two weeks, Ebron is starting to re-stake his claim as the Lions’ top pass-catching tight end after falling out of favor prior to their bye week. While he’s still not an option for the faint of heart, Ebron’s floor entering this week figures to be about as high as it will get the rest of the season. Cleveland has allowed at least 52 yards or a touchdown to a tight end in all but one game.


DOWNGRADE

Quarterback

Drew Brees, NO at BUF


There is a new era in New Orleans. The Saints are winning games with a dynamic ground attack and a tenacious defense. In their last four games they’ve won by averaging 151.5 rushing yard with six ground scores by Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, in addition to holding opposing offenses to less than 16 points per game while piling up 12 sacks. Over that same span Brees has thrown 30 or fewer passes three times, with only one 300-yard outing and five passing scores to four picks. Coincidentally, the Bills just lost badly to the Jets by the same formula with which the Saints are winning. The Jets trampled Buffalo for 194 yards and three rushing touchdowns while hammering Tyrod Taylor for seven sacks. Add in Brees’ historical struggles on the road and Buffalo’s cold weather and you have the recipe for a very un-Brees-like floor this week.

Tom Brady, NE at DEN

Brady is simply not generating touchdowns at the clip his owners have become accustomed to. So while this applies more so to DFS players than weekly ones, it’s fair to question how he might perform at Denver even though he’s coming off a bye week and the Broncos are coming off a shellacking at the hands of Carson Wentz and Co. Although the Denver defense is not entirely the smothering unit it has been in years past, it’s true that Wentz is playing at a higher level than Brady. Eight of the reigning Super Bowl MVP’s 16 touchdowns came in just two games, and one of the players who is tied for the team lead in receiving scores – Chris Hogan – likely will be out for this contest due to a shoulder injury. While Brady’s ceiling remains as high as anyone’s, it’s fair to question him as an every-week, matchup-proof starter.

Cam Newton, CAR vs. MIA

Newton’s place here is largely about expected game flow. The Dolphins are tied for the fewest passes attempted against them for a reason. The Dolphins have held a two-score lead for less than a single quarter of game action this season. And given that Carolina has allowed the fewest yards per game (274.1) and fourth fewest points per contest (17.7), it seems a safe bet that Newton won’t have to put on his Superman cape to win this one. With the Panthers putting more of an emphasis on getting their ground game going with Christian McCaffrey in the post-Kelvin Benjamin days, Newton’s floor looks awfully similar to what he did in his meeting with the Bucs two weeks ago – 32 pass attempts, 154 yards through the air, 44 on the ground and one score in a 17-3 win.

Running Back

DeMarco Murray, TEN vs. CIN


Other than Le'Veon Bell, who averaged 3.8 yards on 35 carries in Week 7, Frank Gore’s 82 rushing yards in Week 8 were the most any running back has managed versus Cincinnati this season. The likes of LeSean McCoy and Lamar Miller couldn’t get out of the 60s against what has quietly been one of the league’s least forgiving defenses. In fact, the list of tailbacks to run for a touchdown on Cincinnati is among the shortest in the league. Only Terrance West and Duke Johnson have accomplished the feat, and Murray – who has six games on his resume with fewer than 70 yards and no touchdowns – figures to join the club that couldn’t crack the code against this Cincy defense.

Ameer Abdullah, DET vs. CLE

Abdullah may have found the end zone last week for the second time this season, but he also put the ball on the ground for the first time, and unfortunately for his owners, not just once, but twice. That’s a quick way to see the sidelines by itself, but a somewhat close second is ineffectiveness. With a Browns defense on tap that’s been surprisingly stingy against the run (they allow a league low 2.9 YPC), the timing of Abdullah’s fumbles couldn’t be much worse. When he struggles to get any traction going on the ground, don’t expect to see him in the game much after the first half.

C.J. Anderson, DEN vs. NE

In New England’s last two games, Melvin Gordon and Devonta Freeman combined for a very healthy 7.8 YPC, but much of that was due to Gordon’s 87-yard scoring sprint. Anderson and his 4.6-speed doesn’t have a career carry over 50 yards, so a home run is not in the cards. Moreover, his situation is a far cry from the favorable ones of Gordon and Freeman, each of whom plays with a prolific passer in an offense that often features their skills. The Denver backfield is now occupied by Brock Osweiler, and even worse for Anderson owners, both Jamaal Charles AND Devontae Booker in what is becoming a three-way timeshare. With at least five touches going to each of them in four straight games, there isn’t much upside left for Anderson, who has been held out of the end zone since Week 2.

Wide Receiver

Kelvin Benjamin, BUF vs. NO


In case anyone was not convinced of the greatness of Marshon Lattimore, perhaps Mike Evans posting one catch for 13 yards on six targets was enough to sway. In his first game as a Bill, Benjamin may not even be on the field full-time to begin with, and when factoring in the adjustments to a new offense and quarterback on top of the probability he’ll draw Lattimore in coverage, it shouldn’t surprise if the big guy walks away from this one without even registering a catch.

DeAndre Hopkins, HOU at LAR

The Houston Texans offense minus Deshaun Watson (knee) is downright barbaric. Behind a shaky offensive line, an even shakier quarterback can barely stand on his own two feet, let alone deliver an accurate pass. Nevertheless, Hopkins managed to produce 86 yards and a touchdown last week in Tom Savage’s first full game of the season. He required 16 targets to get there, however, and that was against the Colts’ 31st-ranked pass defense. The Rams, sitting at No. 9 in passing yards allowed per game while being one of just two teams to have at least 25 sacks and 10 interceptions, will not be as relenting, so unless Hopkins again pushes for 15-20 targets – a steep number even for him – he’s unlikely to offer the returns you might expect from a top tier fantasy wideout. DFS players take note and weekly owners adjust accordingly.

T.Y. Hilton, IND vs. PIT

Winning in fantasy football can be done in many ways, but the safe approach is to construct a lineup with the lowest range of outcomes, a.k.a. guys with high floors. Hilton may have one of the highest ceilings of any skill player, as he’s demonstrated a couple times this year including last week, but there may not be a star with a floor as low. Prior to eviscerating Houston, Hilton had just 61 yards on five receptions in his last three games combined. Dependent on the big play, Hilton has produced a single catch of at least that many yards in each of his three games topping 150 yards. The Steelers and their No. 2 ranked pass defense have not allowed a catch of that length all year, and until facing Matthew Stafford before their bye week had allowed just two grabs of more than 30 yards to wide receivers. Long story short, with Jacoby Brissett under center, Hilton has a much greater chance of landing on the floor than the ceiling.

Keenan Allen, LAC at JAC

Here's the obligatory “don’t play the No. 1 wide receiver facing Jalen Ramsey and the Jags” downgrade. And while it’s easy to just avoid the Jaguars, it’s not like this knock on Allen can solely be attributed to the stifling Jacksonville D. Not at all in fact. Allen has one touchdown on the season and none since Week 1. Moreover, his targets have dropped in three straight games to a low of five in the loss to New England prior to the Chargers’ bye. And with only two games over 67 yards and none since Week 4, it’s harder to find a reason to play Allen this Sunday than a cause to bench him.

Tight End

Hunter Henry, LAC at JAC


Henry has been the most Jekyll and Hyde tight end in the league this year. While he does have five games with at least 73 yards or a touchdown, he also has three games in which he totaled just two targets and 11 yards. That roller coaster makes for a scary play against a Jaguars defense that has not allowed a tight end to reach 80 yards this season and has given up only one score to the position since Week 3.