These players are must-starts in all formats.
New York Giants @ Dallas: Miles Austin – There’s an old saying in fantasy football that goes something like this – “start your studs.” Austin is certainly a stud, but his dud performances in two of his last three games (2 catches for 20 yards in Week Three and 2 catches for 12 yards in Week Six) have left some fantasy owners scratching their heads. This coupled with the emergence of Roy Williams, who has scored 5 TDs in the last 3 games, may lead some to consider benching Austin. Please don’t.
This week he faces a Giants defense that has been very good against the pass. Through the first six games of the season, they are giving up just 172 passing yards per game. A lot of this success is due to the play of Corey Webster (+4.1) and Terrell Thomas (+2.2). A closer look, however, reveals a potential chink in the armor. While Thomas has been nasty this season, racking up 31 solo tackles, his coverage leaves something to be desired. He currently grades out at -3.8 in coverage, which is due in large part to the 25 catches for 350 yards and 4 scores given up in his coverage. Austin is a big and fast receiver with a high football IQ who will exploit any openings the defense gives him. I expect a big day from him, as he’s likely to line up across from Thomas quite often. Start him with confidence as a top-end WR1.
Buffalo @ Baltimore: Joe Flacco – Since his extremely rough start to the season, Flacco (+16.9) has rolled over the last month. In that span he has averaged a hair under 250 passing yards per game and has connected with his receivers for 6 TDs. More importantly, he has thrown just 1 interception over the last four weeks. He may not give you huge fantasy numbers, but his consistency and efficiency make him a nice start this week.
Flacco faces a Buffalo defense that has been one of the poorest PFF rated units this season. Their ineffective pass rush (-5.5) and coverage (-13.5) has given opposing QBs plenty of time and space to hit their receivers. The Bills have currently given up 11 passing TDs while recording just 1 interception. Expect Flacco to take advantage of the Bills’ shortcomings in the secondary early. He’ll likely look to exploit corners Drayton Florence (-3.1) and Leodis McKelvin (-0.1), who both grade out negatively in coverage and have each given up 2 TDs this season. In a week where Peyton Manning and Matt Schaub are on bye, Flacco (if you have him) is a great option to fill in at QB.
Pittsburgh @ Miami: Mike Wallace – Wallace (-0.3) may just be the best big-play receiver in the league. Of WRS who have been on the field for at least 50% of their team’s snaps, only four average more than 20 yards per reception – Wallace, Malcom Floyd, Johnny Knox, and DeSean Jackson. Of these players, only one averages more than 22 yards per catch – Wallace at 25.1 yards per catch. Simply put, no other receiver offers more bang for your buck.
The Dolphins have been relatively strong against the pass this season, giving up an average of just 201.8 yards per game through the air. This success is a testament to their defensive personnel. Miami has an up and coming superstar cornerback in Vonte Davis (+3.6). He has been impressive in coverage, but talks of “Davis Island” may be a bit premature. Opposing receivers are catching 66.7% of balls thrown into his coverage, which is much higher than Brandon Flowers’ league leading 39.0%. So we can’t call him ‘shut-down’ just yet. This being said, I like Wallace and his big-play ability as a solid WR2 start this week.
Arizona @ Seattle: Marshawn Lynch – What a difference a trade makes. Lynch (+0.9) went from splitting time in a three-way running back by committee in Buffalo, to getting a lion’s share of the touches last week in Seattle. While Justin Forsett did have the better statistical day, Lynch got 20 touches to just 11 for Forsett and got the goal line carry in the beginning of the fourth quarter. This is all despite playing 5 less snaps than Forsett. What’s even more telling that this is now Lynch’s gig is that he received 5 touches down the crucial stretch in the 4th quarter while Forsett got just 1. The message is clear that Lynch is Pete Carroll’s guy and Forsett is merely a 3rd down back.
With another week in the Seahawk offense under his belt, we should see Lynch on the field for more snaps against the Cardinals. This is good news for Lynch owners, as Arizona sports the lowest PFF rated run defense (-33.2). They have given up an average of 173 total yards per game and have also allowed 6 TDs to opposing RBs. They have been particularly vulnerable to more powerful RBs, as both Jason Snelling in Week Two and Mike Tolbert in Week Four have shown us. Lynch is a much bigger back than Forsett, so I expect Carroll to pound away at the Cardinals with him and would not be surprised to see Lynch finish the game with 20+ touches. If you have him, he makes a great flex play with RB2 upside this week.
Cincinnati @ Atlanta: Terrell Owens – So far this season, Owens (+1.7) has been much more effective for fantasy owners than his Bengals teammate Chad Ochocinco (-7.0). Though the two have seen an almost identical amount of snaps, Owens has received 11 more targets. More looks from Carson Palmer have resulted in 160 more receiving yards than Ochocinco for Owens. Some of this success can also be attributed to his ability after the catch, where he is averaging a very respectable 5.8 yards per reception. In comparison, Ochocinco averages just 3.0 yards after catch.
Following their bye, the Bengals face a Falcons defense that just gave up 3 passing scores to the Eagles. They currently grade out at just -2.1 in pass coverage, and lose starting corner Dunta Robinson (+2.6) for at least this week to a concussion. In his place, Chris Owens (-3.5) will get the start. The defensive Owens has been lackluster at best in his 181 snaps this season. Opposing receivers have caught 14 of 19 balls thrown into his coverage for an average of 12 yards per catch. Look for Palmer and the Bengals to pick on the defensive Owens by using the offensive Owens. I expect a very nice day for the offensive Owens and like him as a solid WR2
Cleveland @ New Orleans: Peyton Hillis – Hillis (+8.6) has been one of the biggest waiver wire wonders through the first half of the fantasy season. Though there were concerns last week about his injured quad, he gained 90 total yards against a Pittsburgh defense that has been very tough against opposing RBs. He also caught 6 balls in the game, bringing his total to 26 on the season. What’s more impressive is that he’s caught all of his 26 targets on the season.
This is a very juicy matchup for Hillis. He faces a Saints defense that is one of only eight teams that currently grades out negatively against the run (-4.1). They yield an average of 140.3 total yards per game and have given up 6 TDs (4 rushing and 2 receiving) to opposing RBs. Expect the Browns to use their run game to keep the high-powered New Orleans offense off the field. This will translate to a lot of touches for Hillis, who should pound his way to very good fantasy day. He’s a solid RB2 option and should be started with confidence.
Washington @ Chicago: Jay Cutler – After missing Week Five with a concussion, Cutler (+6.6) returned to throw for 290 yards against the Seahawks. While he did not throw an interception, he also failed to throw a TD. Cutler owners may be concerned, but the Seahawks have only yielded 6 scores through the air this season. What should be more alarming is that Cutler is getting sacked once every 7.57 drop backs. This is by far the lowest ratio among starting QBs and is nearly 6 times lower than the highest ratio of Peyton Manning (who is sacked once every 43.33 drop backs).
Though his high sack count can certainly raise durability issues this season, I still like Cutler this week against Washington. The Redskins are yielding the 4th most fantasy points to opposing QBs and grade out as the 3rd worst against the pass. For all the hype, DeAngelo Hall (-4.9) has been ugly this season. Opposing receivers have caught 36 of 41 balls thrown into his coverage for 417 yards and 3 scores. In comparison, Hall gave up 36 catches in all of last season. Look for Cutler to work the ball around to his open receivers, and don’t be surprised if one of them ends up having a big fantasy day (my money is on Johnny Knox). Based on the matchup, I like Cutler as a low-end QB1 this week.
These players are risky but their matchup offers potential upside.
Jacksonville @ Kansas City: Matt Cassel – The deeper leauge QB start of the week has to be Cassel (+5.0), as he faces the extremely poor Jaguars pass defense. Though the Chiefs do not pass often (145 QB drop backs out of 319 snaps for Cassel), I expect good things from Cassel this week. He hasn’t exactly been the picture of consistency, but Tom Brady’s former backup has thrown for 3 TDs in two of his last three games. Cassel’s stock has also improved due to the play of Dwayne Bowe (+2.3) in Week Six. After four games of sub-par play, Bowe showed up in a big way by catching 6 balls on 8 targets for 108 yards and 2 scores.
If you’ve read this column over the past few weeks, you already know that the Jaguars stink against the pass. Their -30.0 PFF rating for coverage is the second lowest in the league, so the Chiefs will have no problem moving the ball through the air. I like Cassel to have a big day against this Jacksonville defense that has given up 14 passing TDs to opposing QBs. In addition to Bowe, expect Cassel to target Tony Moeaki early and often, as the Bills currently yield more fantasy points than any other team to opposing TEs. If you got hit by the bye-week go out and grab Cassel.
San Francisco @ Carolina: Jonathan Stewart – Stewart (-0.1) has been extremely disappointing for fantasy owners so far this season. While this is not the best matchup, Stewart is an interesting risk/reward play this week. I particularly like his abilities in the passing game. Back in Week Four, he showed his receiving ability by getting wide-open down the field and essentially walking into the end zone for a 55-yard TD. In looking at the numbers, he has been on the field for 41 less snaps than DeAngelo Williams, but has 35 more yards receiving and rates a full PFF point higher than Williams in the passing game.
The 49ers have given up the second most receiving yards to opposing RBs (only the Redskins have given up more). They currently yield an average of 52.3 receiving yards and 6.3 catches per game to RBs. Matt Moore will have a tough time throwing against 49ers’ CBs Nate Clements (+8.0) and Shawntae Spencer (-0.1), as both have held opposing QBs to below a 76.0 QB rating when throwing into their coverage. Expect a lot of check downs from Moore. Yes, some of this will go to Williams, but if you’re hurting at RB this week, you could do a lot worse than Stewart. While this is a gamble that I can’t recommend to everyone, Stewart is one of the most sneaky flex plays this week.
St. Louis @ Tampa Bay: Danario Alexander – The fantasy surprise of Week Six had to be Alexander (+2.5). In playing just 22 snaps, the rookie out of Missouri was targeted 5 times. This equaled Danny Amendola’s target total, which he accumulated in nearly double the amount of snaps. Alexander finished the game with 4 catches for 72 yards and a TD. His score came on an impressive 38-yard strike from Sam Bradford, where Alexander displayed good speed and made a nice diving catch in the end zone. With Alexander, the Rams look as if they may have found the deep threat they have missed since losing Donnie Avery in the preseason.
Tampa Bay has been unimpressive in all three PFF-graded phases of defense this season. They grade out negatively against the run (-26.1), in pass rush (-3.4), and in pass coverage (-10.2). Though the Rams are no offensive juggernaut, they should have no problem moving the ball on the Buccaneers. Like every other team in the NFL, Tampa Bay knows that Steven Jackson is a big part of the offense and will key in on him. Bradford will need to throw early to keep the Buccaneers honest. With his big-play ability, Alexander makes a really interesting WR3 play in deeper leagues.
Philadelphia @ Tennessee: Jason Avant – With teammate DeSean Jackson out with a concussion, Avant will fill in for the Eagles. He looked good last week in Jackson’s absence, and caught a season-high 5 balls on 5 targets for 62 yards. While these are by no means mind-bending numbers, he has an opportunity this week to start on an Eagles offense that loves to throw the football regardless of who is playing QB.
The Titans are a good defensive team and do very well in coverage (+17.7). So why then do I recommend Avant? It’s no secret that Jeremy Maclin is now the Eagles best receiving threat, so expect Tennessee to focus a lot of defensive attention on him. Despite grading out strongly for coverage, they do yield an average of 231 yards passing per game. With extra attention being paid to Maclin, these yards have to go somewhere. I suspect TE Brent Celek will see his share of Kevin Kolb targets, but the biggest beneficiary may end up being Avant. He’s a very interesting flex play that could pay dividends, especially in PPR formats.
New England @ San Diego: Patrick Crayton – Last week, Crayton (+2.3) seized the opportunity when Malcom Floyd (+5.1) left with an injured hamstring. With news out of San Diego stating that Floyd is unlikely to play, Crayton’s role in the offense will obviously increase. For those of you who got your hands on him, this could mean very good things. Through the first six weeks of the season, Crayton averaged 21.6 snaps per game to 60 snaps per game for Floyd. More playing time translated into 25 more targets for Floyd, but he has caught just 58.5% of passes thrown his direction. Though it’s over a smaller sample size, Crayton’s 68.8 percentage caught potentially indicates a more sure-handed receiver. With him moving into the Malcom Floyd role in this offense, big things are not out of the realm of possibility.
Though the Patriots currently sit at 4-1, they have been absolutely horrible against the pass. They currently give up an average of 273.4 yards per game passing and have yielded 11 passing TDs to opposing QBs. This is largely due to the abysmal play of their secondary. Of the eight Patriots to see playing time in the secondary, only Devin McCourty (+1.3) rates positively. Phillip Rivers will have no problem throwing the ball against this secondary. In addition to Floyd sitting out, questions about the playing status of Antonio Gates and Legedu Naanee missing practice mean Crayton could see a ton of targets. I like him as a solid flex with WR2 upside.
Oakland @ Denver: Knowshon Moreno – Moreno returned from injury last week and managed 48 yards on 12 carries against the Jets. While this is not an impressive day, Moreno owners should be happy that he received double the amount of work that Correll Buckhalter and Laurence Maroney each saw. I expect this trend to continue, as he is by far the most talented RB in Denver. Despite missing time, he still leads the team in rushing, yards per carry, and yards after contact per rushing attempt.
The Raiders have not played well against the run this season. Teams have racked up an average of 149.5 yards per game running the football on Oakland, and only the Lions yield more fantasy points to opposing RBs. Expect Josh McDaniels to attack the Raiders on the ground early and often in this contest. While this is a timeshare and all three backs will likely touch the ball, I like my chances with the best of the bunch. Moreno is an excellent flex play who could start at RB2 depending on the depth of your league.
Minnesota @ Green Bay: Brett Favre – There has certainly been a lot of talk about Favre this season. Most of this talk has had nothing to do with events on the field. This week, however, he faces his old team, so you know there will be tons of hype. I think we can safely say that Favre loves the spotlight, and I expect him to show up big on Sunday night.
The Packers have been relatively strong in coverage this season. They currently give up just 215.5 yards passing and have surrendered just 7 passing TDs through their first 6 games of the season. However, two weeks ago Donovan McNabb threw for 357 yards on them, and they gave up 2 passing TDs to Chad Henne last week. The moral of the story being that the Packers are potentially vulnerable in coverage. I like Favre to come up big in this one, and expect him to be looking often to Percy Harvin and Visanthe Shiancoe when Randy Moss is covered. If you have him, Favre is a sneaky risky/reward QB play this weekend.
If you have any questions, comments, or just want to talk football, feel free to hit me up on Twitter – @JeffRatcliffe. Good luck this weekend!