Fantasy football Start ‘Em, Sit ‘Em: How to set your lineups for Week 13
One quarterback is in the top five in the NFL in pass attempts, yards and yards per attempt. From a fantasy perspective, these are probably the three most important statistics. Yes, of course, you want your quarterback to throw for a lot of touchdowns, but chances are good that if he’s attempting a lot of passes and racking up yards, both in absolute and relative terms, the touchdowns will follow. The attempts-yards-YPA trinity is as sure a foundation for fantasy production as a quarterback can have.
Back to this column’s opening sentence: Do you know who is the only quarterback in the top five of all three stats this season? Drew Brees? Good guess, but that’s wrong. Brees leads the league in attempts and yards, but his 7.87 YPA ranks sixth. Sure, the top five is an arbitrary endpoint, and Brees more than makes up for his comparatively low YPA with attempts and yards, but we’re not going to let that ruin a good narrative.
How about Matt Ryan? The Falcons’ quarterback is in the MVP discussion, leading his team to the top of the NFC South with his right arm. He leads the NFL at 9.25 YPA and is third with 3,516 yards, but, every so often, his volume leaves something to be desired. Ryan is 15th in the league with 380 attempts, fewer than Carson Wentz, Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston. He has been incredibly efficient, but Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have taken away more than their fair share of would-be pass attempts.
The only quarterback in the top five in attempts, yards and YPA is Washington’s Kirk Cousins. His 437 attempts are good for fifth in the league. Only Brees has more than his 3,540 yards. And he has been rather efficient with all those passes, racking up 8.1 YPA, which has him fourth behind Ryan, Tom Brady and Dak Prescott. Cousins is ninth in the league with 20 touchdowns, but he has been everything his owners possibly could have hoped for this season.
I was possibly Cousins’s greatest detractor this summer, and that was probably my greatest whiff of draft season. He has proved me wrong from the jump this year, delivering for his fantasy owners on a consistent basis while providing a high ceiling. I may have been wrong on him before the year, but I will not be wrong on him this week.
Cousins has a consensus rank on FantasyPros of QB12, likely because of a tough matchup at Arizona. My fellow rankers are putting too much stock in that matchup, ignoring the fact that Cousins has earned our trust. I don’t have too many hard and fast rules in fantasy football. It’s a fluid game from week to week, let alone season to season. The best owners are the ones who remain flexible. One rule I do stand by, though, is that when a quarterback throws for 3,540 yards and 8.1 YPA across 11 games while averaging just shy of 40 attempts per game, I generally slot him into my lineup regardless of matchup. The Cardinals aren’t scaring me away from Cousins. They shouldn’t bother you, either.
Colin Kaepernick (at Chicago)
Everyone is falling over themselves to tell you to start Kaepernick this week. You can add my voice to the chorus, though I’m not quite as bullish as most are. I think he makes a solid play with the 49ers visiting the Bears. After rushing for 113 yards last week, Kaepernick is averaging 7.22 points per game as a runner. That’s about 90% of the way to two extra passing touchdowns per game. Understand, however, that the over/under for this game is just 43.5 and that the forecast is pretty much what you’d expect for Dec. 4 in Chicago (snow, wind, 37 degrees). Kaepernick is a QB1, but he’s on the low end, not the high end.
Derek Carr (vs. Buffalo)
Carr is in the same class as Cousins for me. The third-year starter out of Fresno State has 3,115 yards, 7.36 YPA, 22 touchdowns and five interceptions this season. I need a compelling reason to sit him, not one to start him, and I don’t have one with the Bills in town this week. All reports are that his pinky, which he injured last week, won’t be an issue for him on Sunday. I’m playing Carr over Philip Rivers and Cam Newton this week.
Alex Smith (at Atlanta)
The Chiefs have asked even less of Smith this season than they have in previous years, and they certainly haven’t suffered, sitting at 8–3 heading into a Week 13 clash with the Falcons. They likely won’t be able to hide Smith this week, however, with the Falcons’ offense clicking and playing at home. Smith should be capable of exploiting Atlanta’s defense, which has allowed the most points to quarterbacks this season. Tyreek Hill has emerged as a true threat in the offense, and the reins seem to be off Travis Kelce, as well. Smith is an easy QB2 with top-15 upside this week.
Eli Manning (at Pittsburgh)
Manning is on a bit of a hot streak, throwing 12 touchdowns in his last four games. Even with all those trips to the end zone, he scored fewer than 20 points in two of the contests thanks to low yardage totals. He has had fewer than 260 yards in all four games while totaling 6.42 YPA. There is some hope that this could be a high-scoring game with the Steelers’ offense playing at home, but Manning’s lack of efficiency is hard to trust in an environment like Heinz Field. He’s no more than a mid-tier QB2.
Dak Prescott (at Minnesota)
There’s not much we can say about Prescott that hasn’t been said time and again this season. He’s in the midst of a special, possibly historic, rookie season, and it’s hard to fault any fantasy owner for trusting him every single week. A short-week trip to take on the Vikings’ elite pass defense, however, is an awfully tough spot. Prescott has been hyper-efficient this season, throwing for 8.34 YPA and 18 touchdowns against two interceptions, but the Vikings have wrecked quarterback efficiency all year. He’s my QB15 for this week, making him a high-end QB2. In other words, I’d want to look elsewhere, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do so.
Cam Newton (at Seattle)
Newton is in the same boat as Prescott. If you own him, you may not have another quarterback on your roster, and the options on your waiver wire could be ugly. If that’s the case, you can play him. You don’t need to grab Matt Barkley or Joe Flacco to sidestep the Seattle matchup. If you do have another palatable option, someone like Jameis Winston or Carr, for example, you’ll want to go in that direction. The Seahawks remain a nightmare matchup for quarterbacks, especially when they’re playing at home.
Jonathan Stewart (at Seattle)
The calculation at running back is a bit different, with the position thinned out by injury and poor performance. There aren’t many, if any, Stewart owners who have the luxury of benching him, no matter the matchup. Stewart brings a high touchdown upside into every game he plays, and he’s averaging more than 18 carries per game, not including his early exit due to injury in Week 2. That’s a strong enough formula to get him into your starting lineup this week.
Kenneth Dixon (vs. Miami)
As I wrote in this week’s Target and Snap Report, Dixon may be taking over in Baltimore. He outsnapped and out-touched Terrance West last week, racking up 80 yards on 17 combined carries and receptions. The facts that he played eight more snaps and was clearly the more explosive player cannot be ignored. Dixon brings an element to the Baltimore offense that it does not have when he’s off the field. Given the Ravens’ offensive struggles all season, they aren’t the sort of team that can afford to use Dixon in fits and starts. He needs a large role in the offense, and that should translate into RB2 production this week.
Tim Hightower (vs. Detroit)
Hightower also received glowing covering in this week’s Target and Snap Report. The abridged version is that the Saints run a ton of plays, score a lot of points (especially at home), and give plenty of touches to both Hightower and Mark Ingram. The over/under on Lions-Saints is 53.5, with the home team laying 5.5 points. If you own a player in this game, you’re going to want to start him. Hightower should get 15-plus touches, and he has made the most of his opportunities all year.
Wendell Smallwood (at Cincinnati)
The only certainty in the Philadelphia backfield is uncertainty. With Ryan Mathews (knee) out last week, Smallwood was in line to lead the team as the primary runner. That came to fruition, but resulted in only nine carries and 10 total touches. Unpredictability is a fantasy owner’s greatest enemy. Even if Smallwood gets, say, 15 or more touches, his ceiling is that of a low-end RB2. If he’s in the 10-touch neighborhood again, he’s an RB4. Stay away from him this week.
Terrance West (vs. Miami)
West has fewer than 10 carries in two of his last five games. He has rushed for fewer than four yards per carry in four of those games, and got just eight carries in the one where he eclipsed 4.0 yards per carry. He doesn’t make an impact as a receiver, and Kenneth Dixon outsnapped him last week. West’s fantasy value was always based on volume, and it’s hard to see a path to the necessary volume when he doesn’t catch passes and with Dixon heavily involved.
James Starks (vs. Houston)
In three games since returning from injury and taking over as Green Bay’s primary back, Starks has 99 yards on 33 carries. He has saved face in the fantasy world by catching 13 passes for 84 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but there’s nothing exciting, or attractive, about putting Starks in your starting lineup. His 17 carries last week were entirely based on a favorable game script, and he didn’t do anything with them, picking up a paltry 41 yards. Opportunity is great, but talent is necessary. Starks is no more than a low-end RB3 who barely registers on the flex radar.
Stefon Diggs (vs. Dallas)
Diggs has practiced all week and is on track to be absent from the injury report. We’ve discussed many times Diggs’s numbers this season when he enters a game completely healthy, so we don’t need to beat that dead horse. No matter the matchup, he is a challenging cover when he’s healthy. He’s a top-20 play at wide receiver for Week 13.
Jamison Crowder (at Arizona)
The Cardinals have been a nightmare matchup for receivers all season, allowing the eighth-fewest points to the position. Patrick Peterson isn’t going to shadow Crowder the way he did Julio Jones last week, but the second-year receiver out of Duke will still have his work cut out for him. Still, Crowder’s development into a go-to receiver for Kirk Cousins this season has earned him a spot on the right side of the start/sit debate more often than not. If Jordan Reed is out because of his shoulder injury, Crowder could be in for an even larger role. In the two games Reed missed earlier this season, Crowder totaled 10 catches for 160 yards and a touchdown.
Tyreek Hill (at Atlanta)
Hill has taken on a large role in the Kansas City offense, piling up 39 targets in his last five games. He has hauled in 31 of those for 303 yards and two touchdowns. He also has at least one carry in all but two games this season, and, as we all saw last week, is a weapon as a returner. The Chiefs are figuring out more and more ways to get the ball in his hands, which helps make up for his deficits as a receiver. The environment in Atlanta should be fruitful this week, and the usage tree for the Chiefs is as narrow as it gets. Hill is a low-end WR2 and strong flex play.
Randall Cobb (vs. Houston)
Cobb remains a key real-life player for the Packers—he came up with a few huge catches against the Eagles last week—but his fantasy value has cratered with the emergence of Davante Adams. Jordy Nelson and Adams hog all the high-fantasy-value targets, leaving Cobb to pick up the scraps in the middle of the field on short and intermediate routes. His fantasy value is largely touchdown-dependent, and that’s not the sort of player you want to bet on, especially in this matchup. The Texans have allowed the third-fewest points per game to receivers, surrendering just eight touchdowns to the position.
Mike Wallace (vs. Miami)
Speaking of touchdown-dependent players, don’t fall for the revenge game narrative with Wallace. He has one double-digit fantasy-point game in standard-scoring leagues without the benefit of a touchdown this season. That came in Week 7, when he caught 10 passes for 120 yards against the Jets. Of course, that was when Steve Smith was out because of an ankle injury. He has two more double-digit target games this season, only one of which came with Smith fully healthy. The over/under in Dolphins-Ravens is 41, the lowest of Week 13. This game could get ugly for fantasy purposes, making life tougher than usual on all its touchdown-dependent players.
Kelvin Benjamin (at Seattle)
Admittedly, you need to be pretty rich at receiver and flex to bench Benjamin. Understand, however, that it isn’t just the matchup with the Seahawks that lands him in this section. After a hot start to the season, Benjamin has been quiet for much of the last 10 weeks. In his first two games of the year, he had 13 catches for 199 yards and three touchdowns. He has 35 grabs for 537 yards and two touchdowns in nine games since, which comes out to 7.3 standard-league points per game. With Ted Ginn’s recent emergence, Greg Olsen’s constant presence, and the dual threats of Newton and Stewart on the ground, Benjamin simply doesn’t command the looks in Carolina’s offense that he might elsewhere. The Seahawks have allowed the fifth-fewest points per game to receivers this season.
Zach Ertz (at Cincinnati)
This is an exploitable matchup for Ertz, with the Bengals allowing the fourth-most points per game to tight ends this year. His production has ebbed and flowed over the last four weeks, but he has 32 targets in that span after getting just 20 in his first five games of the season. The bigger concern for him is Carson Wentz’s sporadic play, but that’s not enough to push him on the wrong side of the TE1/2 border. He’s just inside the TE1 class for Week 13.
Coby Fleener (vs. Detroit)
This is entirely a matchup and environment play, but there’s nothing wrong with that. We’ve discussed on numerous occasions Drew Brees’s success in the Superdome. He’s the rising tide that lifts all ships, and Fleener has been one of the main beneficiaries multiple times this season. With the Saints boasting an implied total of 29.5 points this week, you want to get Brees’s pass catchers active. It helps, too, that the Lions have allowed the most fantasy points to tight ends this year. Even with Josh Hill taking away some targets, Fleener is a worthwhile start.
Cameron Brate (at San Diego)
Brate is on a two-game scoring drought after hitting pay dirt in three consecutive games, though he did have one taken away after a dubious hands-to-the-face call last week. Buccaneers-Chargers features a game total of 47.5, and Brate is Jameis Winston’s No. 2 option, behind Mike Evans. He’s the sort of tight end I want to bet on in this environment if I don’t own one of the position’s luxury players.
Vance McDonald (at Chicago)
I’ll sound the same cautionary note with McDonald that I did with Kaepernick. The over/under on this game is 43.5 points, and the Bears are slight favorites. There might not be as many points to go around as everyone seems to be assuming. McDonald is largely touchdown-dependent, with just one 60-yard game this season in which he didn’t have a long trip to the end zone. He’s at the top of the TE2 tier.
Jason Witten (at Minnesota)
Witten somehow keeps on finding his way to the TE1/2 borderline on FantasyPros despite the fact that he has one meaningful fantasy performance this season. Outside of his eight-catch, 134-yard, one-touchdown game against the Browns, he has 44 receptions for 419 yards and one score this season. That translates to 4.79 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. He is, quite simply, not a fantasy option.
Hunter Henry (vs. Tampa Bay)
I’ve been driving the Henry bandwagon all season, and I can already safely say that I’ll give him his highest 2017 fantasy draft ranking. It’s impossible to ignore, however, his decrease in targets since Antonio Gates has reclaimed his role as the Chargers primary tight end. Henry has 12 targets in his last four games, and while he has converted two of those into touchdowns, he simply isn’t getting enough of a chance to make a fantasy-relevant impact.
Defenses to stream
New York Jets (vs. Indianapolis)
It’s a terrible week to stream defenses, with the vast majority of widely available options facing strong offenses, playing too badly to trust, or both. The Jets are in the mix only because of the Colts’ struggles with protecting Andrew Luck this season. New York doesn’t have a particularly strong pass rush, but defenses don’t need one to get to Luck and create havoc in the Colts’ backfield. That may not be a strong endorsement, but that’s where we are on defense this week.
Green Bay Packers (vs. Houston)
Like the Jets, the Packers are no more than a matchup play. Brock Osweiler seems to get worse with each passing week, giving the Packers an opportunity to take advantage of one of the most regularly overmatched quarterbacks in the league. The Green Bay defense has taken some serious steps backwards in recent weeks, but with the streaming options so poor this week, I’ll trust a defensive coordinator like Dom Capers to get the better of an Osweiler-led offense.