Week 14 fantasy start/sit advice
The fantasy football playoffs are here and you have final lineup decisions to make. I’m here to help. In the space below, I will take a look at 10 really close calls for Week 14. These players are likely fringe starters currently on your bench or in your lineups. Some of these players have been every-week starters for you — until now. Others have been on your bench or even the waiver wire, but they now have the perfect matchup to exploit.
As always, I’m here to help on Twitter as well. Send any start/sit decisions or players you want help with to @DanSchneierNFL and I will get back to you as soon as possible. Let’s get after it and advance to the next round of the playoffs this week by making the tough calls.
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Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals (vs. Browns)
Dalton hasn’t been a superstar for fantasy owners since A.J. Green tore his hamstring, but he’s still getting it done in the right matchups. While Dalton has struggled against the Ravens, Giants and Bills, he scored more than 20 fantasy points in the other three of his past six games — against the Eagles (without Green), Redskins and Browns. Dalton may only be a matchup-dependent quarterback, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore him when he has an ideal opponent.
The Browns have been awful all season long when it comes to stopping the pass. They currently own our 26th-”best” pass-rush grade and our 26th-”best” pass-coverage grade. After years of missing in drafts and letting talent walk in free agency, Joe Haden is probably the only name you’ll recognize on their defense, and he no longer plays at a high level.
With Green out, Dalton has leaned more frequently on Tyler Eifert as his No. 1 option. He has found more success against defenses that struggle to defense the tight end and this is excellent news for this matchup. The Browns have allowed the sixth-most fantasy points to opposing tight ends this season. We already knew that Dalton will have the advantage on the outside and in the slot, even with middling receivers like Brandon LaFell and Tyler Boyd, but he will really be able to lean on Eifert for big plays early and often.
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Matt Forte, RB, Jets (vs. 49ers)
If you watched the first half of the Jets’ Week 13 game against the Colts, you might have thought you were watching the old Forte. He was heavily involved immediately and the passing game funneled through him. Forte finished with just 79 total yards, but he did it on just 12 touches. Of course, the Colts jumped out to a huge three-score lead early, the Jets finished with just 52 offensive plays, and Forte sat most of the second half. Game flow led him to just 24 snaps and he saw the football on 50 percent of them.
These are all issues that won’t repeat themselves in Week 14. The Jets take on a 49ers run defense that is awful, just like the Colts, but in this game they don’t match up against an offense who can take over. The 49ers’ defense has allowed the most offensive snaps and been on the field for the most time in 2016 — in part due to their offensive failures. If the Jets approach the game just like they did at the start of Week 13, with an eye on getting Forte the ball early and often, they’ll have more opportunities to do it.
They will also have more success running the football. The 49ers own our 29th-”best” run-defense ranking, they are allowing the most yards per game and yards per carry in the NFL, and most importantly, they’re allowing the most fantasy points per game to opposing running backs.
Todd Gurley, RB, Rams (vs. Falcons)
If you own Gurley, you might have already reached your breaking point. We even suggested last week in this column to leave him on your benches. Now, it’s the fantasy football playoffs, and we’re suggesting you give him one last shot to redeem himself. In the most important of times — the first round of your postseason — rely on the matchups. Gurley was never going to get going against the Patriots (our second-best run defense), but a matchup with the Falcons tells a different story.
The Falcons have allowed the second-most fantasy points to opposing running backs in 2016. The NFL is a copycat league, and they run the same defensive scheme as the Seahawks, only they don’t have the players to make it work. The Falcons own just our 25th-”best” run defense. The biggest issue has been their play at the second and third levels of the defense. Deion Jones is simply not built to play the linebacker role they have him slotted in. Rookie safety Keanu Neal has been excellent in pass coverage, but he has struggled against the run. Adrian Clayborn was one of just a few Falcons defenders who played well against the run this season, but he’s out with an injury.
In addition to all of that, the Falcons’ scheme likes to play two or three high safeties, which begs for quarterbacks to pass underneath. The Rams have rookie Jared Goff in and he will likely check it down plenty to Gurley. This could be the 100-plus yard game we’ve been waiting for with Gurley and a touchdown is not out of the question in this dream matchup.
Sterling Shepard, WR, Giants (vs. Cowboys)
Last week was supposed to be the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” game for Shepard, but then the Giants’ passing game completely collapsed. You can thank left tackle Ereck Flowers for that. He was named one of PFF’s 10 worst players in Week 13 after allowing eight pressures and committing multiple costly penalties. Meanwhile, Shepard still found a way to get it done, even if his touchdown did come in garbage time. Shepard has now scored in four of his last five games and he has emerged as a top option for the Giants inside the red zone — none of these touchdowns were long plays. He may not be the No. 2 option from a volume standpoint in between the 20s, but that doesn’t matter when you consider his newfound red-zone role.
Shepard draws his easiest individual matchup since the bye week Sunday against Orlando Scandrick. There was a time when Scandrick was one of the elite slot cornerbacks in the NFL, but that time has passed. He hasn’t been the same player since recovering from an injury. And this week, Flowers likely won’t derail the Giants’ offense. The Cowboys simply don’t have an edge rusher who can get there as consistent as James Harrison did in Week 13. Flowers was fine in Week 1, when Shepard caught a touchdown, and Manning threw for three, and the offense should once again put up numbers.
Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys (vs. Giants)
Look back through my author page and you probably won’t find one positive mention of Witten in any PFF Fantasy article I’ve ever written dating back four seasons. So it says a lot that I’m willing to go with the aging veteran now, but the matchup is just too perfect to ignore. Two weeks ago when Bears tight end Zach Miller burned them, Giants safety Landon Collins said the NFL was a copycat league and the Bears tried to do what both the Eagles and Bengals did so successfully — target the tight end down the seam. Fast forward two weeks, and the Giants were giving up the same plays to a suddenly revived Ladarius Green.
Witten is not Green anymore — scratch that, he never had that kind of athleticism — but he can still work his way open with crafty route running. We’ve seen this already against the Giants. In Week 1, Witten drew 14 targets and totaled 66 yards on nine catches. In PPR leagues, that’s what we call gold. The matchup is the same and the Cowboys will have this option available to them all game as the Giants focus on taking Ezekiel Elliott and Dez Bryant out of the game. In 2016, tight ends have dropped to an all-time low when it comes to weekly scoring. Witten provides a nice floor in this specific matchup and that’s all you can ask for from a fantasy tight end.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Titans (vs. Broncos)
Mariota has earned his spot as one of fantasy’s most consistent quarterbacks in 2016, but that doesn’t mean he’s not susceptible to having a down week in a bad matchup. Do you really want your fantasy playoff hopes riding against the Broncos defense? A lot was made of the players the Broncos lost this offseason, but they’ve returned an equally dominant defense, at least when it comes to stopping the pass. The Broncos own our fourth-best pass-rush grade and our top pass-coverage grade. The Broncos have allowed the fewest fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks and the least fantasy points to opposing wide receivers. They’re healthier now than they’ve been all season and this is a terrible spot for Mariota.
One area where the Broncos haven’t been as strong is against the run. After dominating our run-defense grade in 2015, the Broncos have earned just our 10th-best cumulative grade in 2016. This is by no means a terrible overall grade, but keep in mind that the Broncos have allowed the 11th-most fantasy points to opposing running backs. The Titans will try to keep this game close and take the air out of the football. This will lead to a low volume game for Mariota against the best pass defense in the NFL. That sounds like a recipe for disaster.
LeGarrette Blount, RB, Patriots (vs. Ravens)
Blount has surprised a lot of people with his consistency from a fantasy standpoint. Many owners let him fall in the middle rounds or at the end of auction drafts with the thought that Dion Lewis or James White would render his role unpredictable. But the Patriots are running confidently and with success this season. They found an absolute gem in former fourth-round guard Shaq Mason and he has been one of the best run-blockers in the NFL over the past six weeks. Only four teams have earned a better run-blocking grade than the Patriots. Blount has reached double-digit fantasy points in six of his past seven games and nine times this season. So why are we suggesting to bench him for the fantasy playoffs? Matchup, matchup, matchup!
We’ve been avoiding the Ravens run defense like the plague for the entire season in this column and it has paid off every single time. Not even Ezekiel Elliott could crack this front. The Ravens have earned our top cumulative run grade and the next best team is not even close. The Ravens are also allowing the third-fewest fantasy points to opposing running backs. The Patriots play to their matchups. They know their advantage does not lie in their ability to line up seven blockers and run at the Ravens. If you start Blount, you run the risk of a seriously low floor in a game that could decide the fate of your fantasy season. Contact me on Twitter and we’ll find another solution — don’t let a 12-carry, 39-yard, zero-touchdown day be the difference.
Rishard Matthews, WR, Titans (vs. Broncos)
No one is really talking about it, but Matthews has been on an absolute tear over his past five games. Over that span (Weeks 8-12), he has the fourth-most fantasy points, behind elite players like Mike Evans, Antonio Brown and Jordy Nelson. If you’re lucky enough to have drafted or added him in free agency, you likely have him locked into your lineup right now. I’m here to tell you that’s wrong and it’s time to move him out. Matthews has produced like an every-week WR in that span, but he hasn’t faced a matchup as difficult as he will in Week 14 the entire season.
Above, we wrote about why the Titans will likely take the air out of the football. The same reasons why you should bench Mariota apply here to his pass-catchers. But it’s not just the overall matchup that stings. The individual matchup is brutal. Matthews will likely see a majority of his snaps against Broncos top cornerback Aqib Talib. Matthews has played nearly double the snaps at right wide receiver than any other position and Talib has played just under 90 percent of his snaps at left cornerback. It’s a matchup made in hell and Matthews isn’t going to get past Talib much. After all, he’s our top-rated cornerback in the entire NFL this season.
DeVante Parker, WR, Dolphins (vs. Cardinals)
Parker has turned into a somewhat consistent fantasy play, having scored yet another touchdown in Week 13. Over the past four weeks, only 11 wide receivers have more fantasy points than Parker. Just when you think you can get him locked and loaded in your lineup, he runs into Patrick Peterson and the Cardinals pass defense.
First of all, Ryan Tannehill is going to struggle to move the football. The Cardinals own our third-best pass-rush grade after adding edge rusher Chandler Jones to the mix this offseason. They get pressure every week and the Dolphins pass protection is, well, our 25th-”best” overall. That’s the exact opposite of the matchup you want to see if you’re an owner of any piece of this Dolphins passing game.
There’s more bad news for the Dolphins and more specifically Parker. The Cardinals have used Peterson on the vast majority of his snaps at left cornerback this season. Occasionally, he has followed the stud receivers around, but in a game like this one, you can expect him to stick there for most of the game. This is awful news for Parker who plays the majority of his snaps at right wide receiver. Peterson grades out as our sixth-best cornerback in the NFL this season.
Dwayne Allen, TE, Colts (vs. Texans)
One of my favorite things to do in fantasy football is to avoid chasing points. When you look at last week’s box score, it’s easy to make the connection that Allen is here to help fantasy owners. In reality, the opposite is true. The Jets have struggled to defend tight ends — and any pass-catchers with a pulse — and the matchup was great for Allen. That’s why he thrived. Don’t forget the Colts were a few inches away from getting a fourth tight end touchdown in the first half.
The matchup completely flips this week against the Texans. This Texans defense has been one of the best at shutting down tight ends all season. Only three teams have allowed fewer fantasy points to opposing tight ends than the Texans. If you’re playing season-long fantasy, you can do better with a prime matchup play like Witten or a game-breaker like Ladarius Green. If you’re thinking DFS, keep in mind that many DFS players will chase the points. Allen will have higher ownership than he should and you will gain by avoiding him in a bad matchup.