Searching for the fantasy playoff difference-makers

Brandon Marianne Lee searches for players who are most likely to be surprise big-time performers down the stretch.

| 7 months ago
(Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

(Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Searching for the fantasy playoff difference-makers

Monday, I wrote about our misguided recency bias during draft season that led many fantasy football players to abandon balance in favor of a wide receiver heavy team. We looked at the top running backs from the 2015 season and figured the position had gone to Hades in a handbasket. And then this year David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott and DeMarco Murray have all scored more than Antonio Brown in full PPR leagues.

But using current information and weighing performance from the here-and-now is a good thing, especially this time of year. Let’s try to marry historical data and current conditions to give fantasy players a clear advantage.

It’s time to get creative, but with purpose.

In 2015, these were the top five players on championship teams in ESPN leagues, and where they were drafted that year (per the Fantasy Football Calculator archives):

  1. Tim Hightower, 33.6 percent, undrafted
  2. David Johnson, 25.5 percent, 11th round
  3. Doug Baldwin, 24.3 percent, undrafted
  4. Jordan Reed, 23.4 percent, undrafted
  5. Charcandrick West, 21.4 percent, undrafted

In 2014, these were the top five players on championship teams in ESPN leagues, and where they were drafted:

  1. Odell Bechkham Jr., 31 percent, undrafted
  2. Antonio Brown, 22 percent, second round
  3. J. Anderson, 22 percent, undrafted
  4. DeMarco Murray, 22 percent, second round
  5. Le’Veon Bell, 18 percent, third round

60 percent of these players were undrafted in the years that they took their managers to the fantasy championship. None of the first-round players are on these lists. And only one player was in the double-digit sleeper rounds of their draft.

The constant between these two lists is the late-season surge. Charcandrick West is the only player that fell outside of the top-six at his position in total points scored from Week 13 to 16 in standard scoring. His presence on the championship teams seems tenuous, but look at the other players on this list:


  • Tim Hightower, 13.25 points per game (fourth, tied)
  • David Johnson, 22.25 points per game (first)
  • Doug Baldwin, 20.25 points per game (first)
  • Jordan Reed, 16.75 points per game (first)
  • Charcandrick West, 7.50 points per game (28th)


  • Odell Beckham Jr., 22.00 points per game (first)
  • Antonio Brown, 14.75 points per game (sixth)
  • C.J. Anderson, 19.5 points per game (second, tied)
  • DeMarco Murray, 19.5 points per game (second, tied)
  • Le’Veon Bell, 27.5 points per game (first)

What about this year?

Let’s go ahead and work backward to see if there are any players that stick out as big-time fantasy scorers over the last four weeks.


The following quarterbacks are in the top-10 at their position in terms of average points per game from Week 9 to 12. They are listed along with their ownership percentages in ESPN leagues:

  1. Aaron Rodgers, 26.5 points, 99.9 percent
  2. Kirk Cousins, 25.33 points, 78.8 percent
  3. Colin Kaepernick, 25.25 points, 22.8 percent
  4. Marcus Mariota, 25.25 points, 84.4 percent
  5. Drew Brees, 24.5 points, 99.4 percent
  6. Dak Prescott, 23.00 points, 89.4 percent
  7. Russell Wilson, 20.00 points, 95.9 percent
  8. Eli Manning, 19.25 points, 77.7 percent
  9. Jameis Winston, 19.25 points, 69.2 percent
  10. Ben Roethlisberger, 18.75 points, 97.6 percent

The glaring value player on this list that may be available to you is Kaepernick. The 49ers may not win a game with him under center, but you will. Kaepernick is averaging 55.75 rushing yards per game over the last four weeks. To put that into perspective, last year Cam Newton went over 55.75 rushing yards in only three games all season.

Interestingly, only three of these players (Brees, Prescott and Cousins) have an adjusted completion percentage over 76.0 over that same time. And while all nine other quarterbacks on this list have a 9.2-yard aDOT or higher, Drew Brees is all the way down at 33rd in the league with a 7.2-yard depth per aimed throw (though he does lead the league in overall passing yards, with 3,587). Yes, Brees’ average depth per aimed throw is a whole two yards shorter than Kaepernick’s.

Running backs

The following running backs are in the top-10 at their position in terms of average points per game from Week 9 to 12. They are also listed with their ownership percentages in ESPN leagues:

  1. Ezekiel Elliott, 24.25 points, 100.0 percent
  2. Le’Veon Bell, 19.5 points, 99.9 percent
  3. Latavius Murray, 18.33 points, 94.9 percent
  4. David A. Johnson, 18.00 points, 100.0 percent
  5. Mark Ingram, 18.00 points, 97.9 percent
  6. Melvin Gordon, 18.00 points, 98.8 percent
  7. LeSean McCoy, 15.66 points, 99.8 percent
  8. Rob Kelley, 15.00 points, 83.1 percent
  9. LeGarrette Blount, 14.66 points, 97.9 percent
  10. DeMarco Murray, 14.25 points, 99.4 percent

There are no surprises on this list and all the players are highly owned. There might be a crazy person who gives up on Kelley due to his bad game last week against the Cowboys. That would be the only way you could add any of these players now.

However, this is interesting information for the DFS player. First, there is an exorbitant amount of consistency at the running back position. For instance, Johnson has yet to score under 10 fantasy points in standard scoring, under 14 points in PPR leagues. He’s done this regardless of matchup. He’s faced the Patriots, the Rams, the Seahawks, the Panthers, the Vikings… none of it matters.

If we step outside of the top 10, here are some stats to consider moving forward:

  • Mark Ingram leads the league over the last four weeks with 8.1 yards per carry. The next highest average of any running back with at least 25 carries during that time, is Jordan Howard with 5.1 yards per carry. In other words, it’s not even close.
  • This week in “shocking things you never thought you would read,” Theo Riddick leads the league among running backs with at least 25 carries over the last four weeks with an average of 4.2 yards after contact.
  • In another pro-Jordan Howard stat, Howard averages 19.8 yards after the catch. That leads the league among running backs with at least 10 catches since Week 9. Ezekiel Elliott, Melvin Gordon, Latavius Murray, and Tim Hightower all average 10 or more yards after the catch.

Wide receivers

The following wide receivers are in the top-20 at their position in terms of average points per game from Weeks 9 to 12. They are also listed with their ownership percentages in ESPN league:

  1. Antonio Brown, 17.5 points per game, 100.0 percent
  2. Mike Evans, 16.50 points per game, 99.8 percent
  3. Taylor Gabriel, 16.33 points per game, 3.6 percent
  4. Tyrell Williams, 14.66 points per game, 73.7 percent
  5. Odell Beckham Jr., 14.50 points per game, 100.0 percent
  6. Rishard Matthews, 13.75 points per game, 72.1 percent
  7. Davante Adams, 13.25 points per game, 83.8 percent
  8. Jordy Nelson, 13.00 points per game, 99.9 percent
  9. Michael Thomas, 13.00 points per game, 81.6 percent
  10. Doug Baldwin, 11.75 points per game, 97.1 percent
  11. Dez Bryant, 11.75 points per game, 99.3 percent
  12. Jamison Crowder, 11.66 points per game, 76.5 percent
  13. Julio Jones, 11.33 points per game, 100.0 percent
  14. Malcolm Mitchell, 11.00 points per game, 2.7 percent
  15. Julian Edelman, 11.00 points per game, 96.8 percent
  16. Emmanuel Sanders, 10.6 points per game, 95.6 percent
  17. Donte Moncrief, 10.6 points per game, 85.9 percent
  18. Allen Robinson, 10.00 points per game, 99.2 percent
  19. Pierre Garcon, 10.00 points per game, 48.4 percent
  20. Ted Ginn, 9.75 points per game, 10.1 percent

You may have a difficult time digesting Taylor Gabriel at No. 3, but he is not a fluke. His last four games have been incredible. He has five targets in three games in a row. He has 52 or more yards in each of his last four outings and four touchdowns within that same time span. He is available in most leagues. Go get him.

Malcolm Mitchell is harder to trust. Over the past two weeks his numbers saw a spike due to Chris Hogan and Rob Gronkowski injuries. I say that, but if Gronkowski continues to struggle with injuries, and if any other pass-catchers go down, Mitchell could resume his usage. Three touchdowns in two games cannot be ignored.

And then there’s Ted Ginn. His numbers are propped up by back-to-back games with a touchdown. Those are the only two touchdowns he’s scored all season, so it’s hard to feel good about his chances for that production moving forward. And this week they’re at Seattle, so he’s a no-go.

Some interesting wide receiver stats from Week 9 to the present to consider moving forward when it comes to receivers that didn’t make this list:

Terrelle Pryor has put up 323 receiving yards, fifth-most in the league, since Week 9 without having a solid quarterback. If this team can solidify a quarterback during their Week 13 bye, he could be a sneak play moving forward.

Seventh in yardage over the last four weeks is Mike Wallace. He’s also third in the league with an average of 13.8 yards after the catch. He’s propped up by his 124-yard performance against the Steelers, but considering he’ll face Pittsburgh against in Week 16, he’s worth a look.

Not one of the players in the top-20 points-per-game list is also in the top 20 in terms of average depth per aimed throw. The highest is Davante Adams with a 15.9 aDOT, 21st in the league. Then Mike Evans and Malcolm Mitchell tie at 15.3, 26th among wide receivers playing in at least 25 percent of their team’s offensive snaps.

Stefon Diggs has been dealing with injuries, but it’s worth noting that when he does play, he’s incredibly reliable. Over the last four weeks, he has the highest completion percentage among all wide receivers with at least 10 catches on the season. He did log one drop, but other than that he caught 32 of his 36 targets for 281 yards.

Tight ends

The following tight ends are in the top 10 at their position in terms of average points per game from Weeks 9 to 12. They are also listed with their ownership percentages in ESPN league:

  1. Jordan Reed, 11.33 points per game,
  2. Jimmy Graham, 11.00 points per game,
  3. Delanie Walker, 10.75 points per game,
  4. Vance McDonald, 9.00 points per game,
  5. Tyler Eifert, 8.66 points per game,
  6. Antonio Gates, 8.66 points per game,
  7. Jason Witten, 8.00 points per game,
  8. Cameron Brate, 7.75 points per game,
  9. Jermaine Gresham, 7.33 points per game,
  10. Eric Ebron, 7.33 points per game,

Look at that list. That is a complete and utter disaster. Only three players (Reed, Graham and Walker) are averaging over 10 fantasy points per game. Where is Gronk? Greg Olsen? Travis Kelce?

In PPR leagues, Kelce jumps all the way up to fifth in average fantasy points per game since Week 9. His inability to get into the end zone is killing him in standard leagues. But Gronk and Olsen — yeah, they still don’t crack the top-10 over the last month.

Here are some additional stats to mull over while you think long and hard about whether you want to stop playing with kickers as much as you would like to stop playing with tight ends:

Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, Delanie Walker, Jason Witten, Vance McDonald, Greg Olsen Jimmy Graham, Jordan Reed, and C.J. Fiedorowicz are all averaging six or more targets per game since Week 9.

For some unknown reason, Antonio Gates is averaging 11.6 yards per aimed throw, the most among tight ends with more than 10 targets since Week 9. Second is Vernon Davis, with 11.2 yards per aimed throw. Gates is 36 years old. Davis is 32.

In the last four games, Vance McDonald has led tight ends, with an average of 9.5 yards after the catch.

Prior to his donut against Minnesota, Eric Ebron had three straight games with 70 or more yards.

Prior to Gates’ Sunday donut, he had three games with back-to-back touchdowns and four or more catches in five of his last six games.

Hopefully this look could marry together the past to the present to best set you up for your future championship.

Brandon Marianne Lee is a PFF Fantasy contributor, a SiriusXM host, co-founder of Her Fantasy Football and was a finalist for FSWA's Newcomer of the Year in 2014.

  • negative_man

    Great, great article. I’d love to see more like these throughout next season if possible — looking at the players who are surging over the last 3-4 weeks. Thanks for this!!

    • Brandon Marianne Lee

      Thank you! And thank you for taking the time to read it. Have a great day (and go get Taylor Gabriel because it’s not a fluke).

      • Jacob M. Lundeen

        I submitted a waiver for Gabriel, but I was to low. Did get Watkins though, maybe he will light it up.

  • Vitor

    Great job! I was wondering if I should drop T. Benjamin for T. Gabriel. Guess it’s a good move.

  • gronks

    where is brady….