Friday update, 4:00 PM EST: Antonio Brown removed; Ben Roethlisberger, Martavis Bryant, Markus Wheaton updated; Darrius Heyward-Bey added to Tier Four; Spencer Ware updated; Marshawn Lynch added to Tier Two; Christine Michael moved to Tier Four; Jeremy Maclin, Chris Conley, Albert Wilson updated.
If you played any DFS contests in the Wild-card round you know that unless you had the Chiefs D/ST (they scored 29 points), you probably didn’t get very far up the leaderboard. Sometimes that happens in these short slates. One defense or a certain player will score a ton of fantasy points leaving those who didn’t roster them behind.
We’re moving on to the Divisional Round.
Here’s my automatic disclaimer for this column: since these are “tiers”, they are not meant to be linear ranks. Each “tier” separates the relative strength of play and the player order inside of the relative tier is not necessarily a direct rank.
This is the final week of fantasy football with a decent sized player pool until the 2016 pre-season and it’s shaping up to be a fairly strong slate in terms of strength of plays. Let’s get to it.
Cam Newton: No one should be shocked that he’s here. Newton threw a touchdown pass on 7.1% of his attempts during the regular season, the highest efficiency mark in the league. Cam also added a rushing touchdown and/or 40-plus yards on the ground in all but three games this season -- so even in a tough matchup against Seattle’s No. 3 ranked DVOA pass defense, he may have the highest floor of any signal caller on the slate.
Carson Palmer: When Green Bay and Arizona met in Week 16, Carson Palmer completed 18 of his 27 attempts for 265 yards and two touchdowns as the Cardinals took their foot off of the gas in a 38-8 demolition. Expected to be without CB Sam Shields (concussion) for a fifth straight game, Green Bay has allowed 265-plus passing yards in all but one game without Shields. Now they get to face Palmer who just finished up a career-best season in yards per-game (291.9). Just as a pricing note for DFS: Palmer is the highest-priced option on FanDuel ($8900) but is the third-cheapest option on DraftKings ($6500).
Tom Brady: Below are Brady’s per-game splits in his nine games with and seven games without Julian Edelman (foot) this season via Rotoviz’s Game Splits App. One of the Patriots main drive sustainers, Edelman is set to return this week after a nine week absence. With Edelman Brady averaged: 27.8-of-41 passing, 337.2 yards (8.4 yards/attempt), and 2.67 touchdowns per-game; Without Edelman: 21.6-of-36.3 passing, 246.7 yards (6.9 yards/attempt), and 1.71 touchdowns per-game.
Russell Wilson: Unlike last week, this slate is chock full of solid quarterback options. Wilson really could be in Tier Two, but I’m not ready to put him there after one bad game in sub-freezing temperatures against Minnesota. Seattle was lucky to escape the Wild-card round with a win, but there is plenty of reason to expect a bounce back for Wilson in the Divisional Round. Last week’s game against the Vikings marked the first time Wilson has failed to throw multiple passing touchdowns in a game since Week 10. The Panthers have surely been stout against the pass all year, but they finished the season by allowing a four-touchdown performance to Eli Manning in Week 15 and back-to-back 300-plus yard outings to Matt Ryan and Jameis Winston. If Marshawn Lynch (abdomen) misses again, the offense will be on Wilson’s shoulders for another game.
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Aaron Rodgers: He was solid against a lackluster Washington secondary last week (210 yards and two touchdowns on 36 attempts), but now gets the Cardinals No. 4 ranked DVOA pass defense that held him to 151 yards and one touchdown (on 28 attempts) just three weeks ago. Any way you slice it, the Packers’ passing offense does not match up well at all across the board against the Cardinals. I’ll also note here that Rodgers has not eclipsed 300 yards passing since Week 10.
Ben Roethlisberger: Even in a tough matchup against Denver, Roethlisberger would be in Tier One if it weren’t for a sprained AC joint and torn ligaments in his throwing shoulder. I’ll update this section once we have a bit more information on Antonio Brown (concussion) and Roethlisberger’s own availability later in the week. One thing to keep in mind is Big Ben lit the Broncos’ stout secondary on fire back in Week 15 for 380 yards and three touchdowns, but he wasn’t dealing a painful shoulder injury and that game was in the cozy confines of Heinz Field. Pittsburgh is on the road in the Divisional Round.
Friday update: Antonio Brown (concussion) has indeed been ruled out. Surprisingly, Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder) was listed as a "full" participant in Friday's practice. Big Ben has notoriously been a fast healer and has an uncanny ability to play through pain, but Brown's absence is obviously a massive blow to this offense. Roethlisberger's fantasy ceiling takes a huge hit with Brown out of the lineup against Denver's excellent pass defense.
Alex Smith: As I noted last week, Smith has a decent floor in fantasy but his ceiling is very, very limited. His potential for a fantasy scoring outburst will be further dampened if Jeremy Maclin (ankle) can’t play against the Patriots. I’ll update Smith’s analysis once we have more news on Maclin.
Peyton Manning: In every start Manning made in Week 1-10, he threw at least one interception and had five multiple interception outings. Maybe the extended absence dealing with a plantar fascia injury has helped, or maybe he’s still playing at significantly weakened powers. Either way, it’s hard to see Manning posting massive numbers even against Pittsburgh’s No. 15 ranked DVOA pass defense. I'd rather play Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders in DFS this weekend.
David Johnson: The clear-cut No. 1 option this week, Johnson finished the last five weeks of the regular season as the top-scoring running back (22.6 PPR points per-game). The last time the Cardinals and Packers played (in Week 16), David Johnson rushed for 9-39-1 (4.33 YPC) and added 3-88 (on six targets) receiving in a 38-8 Arizona route. Johnson easily has the highest fantasy ceiling on this four-game slate and will be chalk on DFS sites, for excellent reason.
Jonathan Stewart: As noted by 4for4’s Chris Raybon, before his Week 14 foot injury, Stewart carried the ball 20-plus times in eight consecutive games. During that eight game streak (Week 6-13), Stewart handled 36-of-60 (60 percent) red zone carries while Cam Newton had 15 and Mike Tolbert carried the ball inside of the 20-yard line seven times. The main rub with Stewart this week is his matchup with a Seattle defense that just held Adrian Peterson to 23-45 rushing in the Wild-card round – but as you will continue reading below – this week’s slate is completely devoid of running back options after David Johnson and Stewart himself.
Marshawn Lynch (Friday addition): Late news dropped in the Wild-card round that Lynch didn't travel with the team, but he's apparently "ready" to play in the Divisional Round against Carolina. Just like last week, I'll admit I have zero idea what to expect from BeastMode after a two month layoff. On one hand, the volume should be there. On the flip side, Lynch hasn't played since November 15th and Carolina finished the season as Football Outsiders' sixth ranked DVOA run defense. The Panthers did cede 4.22 yards per carry to enemy backs in their final five games (14th most), so perhaps Seattle can poke enough holes in Carolina's front-seven for Lynch to have a decent day.
C.J. Anderson/Ronnie Hillman: You know this is another bad week for running back options when only three running backs (Johnson, Stewart, and Lynch) make up the opening two tiers. In any event, here’s how Anderson and Hillman split the backfield in Denver since Week 12: Anderson (158 snaps, 50 attempts, and 10 targets) and Hillman (231 snaps, 83 attempts, and 16 targets). During that span, Hillman rushed for 83-335-2 (4.0 yards per carry) while Anderson was far more productive: 50-337-4 (6.7 YPC).Anderson did miss a game during that six game stretch, but it's clear Denver is fine splitting the touches right down the middle despite Anderson's superior effectiveness.
Spencer Ware: Here’s a great stat via Evan Silva on the Chiefs backfield split and effectiveness over the past two weeks: Spencer Ware has 32 touches, has played on 53 percent of snaps, and averaged 4.47 yards per carry while Charcandrick West has 23 touches, has played on 42 percent of snaps, and is averaging a paltry 2.86 YPC. Ware has sharply out-played West in his opportunities, and has five red zone carries to West’s two over the last two weeks. Ware will likely lead the Chiefs backfield in carries against a Patriots front that stiffened over the final five weeks of the regular season allowing 124-474-0 (3.82 YPC) to Eagles, Texans, Titans, Jets, and Dolphins backs.
Friday update: I want to note that Ware missed practice on Tuesday and Wednesday this week with an ankle inury, but returned to a limited session on Thursday. Getting in a limited practice bodes well for his availability on Saturday. He should be leaned on heavily on the road against New England.
Fitzgerald Toussaint/Jordan Todman: It’s looking likely that DeAngelo Williams (foot) will miss his second straight game in the Divisional Round, leaving Toussaint and Jordan Todman alone in the backfield against Denver. Toussaint out-snapped (49:14) and out-touched Todman (21:11) in the Wild-card round against the Bengals. Toussaint also received eight targets (on 28 routes) out of the backfield while Todman didn’t see a target (he only ran one pass route). So, we have an indication that the Steelers prefer Toussaint in the pass game over Todman and when the Steelers and Broncos played in Week 15, the Steelers were 77.3 percent pass-heavy. While Denver finished the regular season ranked No. 4 in Football Outsiders’ Rush Defense DVOA, Toussaint is the better fantasy bet over Todman in the Divisional Round due to his pass-game ability.
Friday update: DeAngelo Williams (foot) was indeed ruled out. It will be the Toussaint-Todman show again in the Divisional Round.
Eddie Lacy/James Starks: Here's how the Packers allocated running back snaps in the Wild-card round against Washington: James Starks (33), John Kuhn (30), and Eddie Lacy (27). Starks and Lacy also nearly split touches perfectly even (13:12). So we have a running back by committee against the No. 2 ranked DVOA run defense that allowed just 77.6 rushing yards per contest (10th fewest) in the regular season’s final five weeks. You’re on your own with these two in the Divisional Round.
James White: Full disclosure here: I really don’t know what to make of White against the Chiefs. In parentheses are his targets over the last six weeks (5, 13, 6, 8, 5, 3) – the only issue is he hasn’t seen more than three carries in a game all year. Rarely do I feel comfortable advocating for pass catching-only backs, but the fact is the Chiefs allowed just 70.8 rushing yards per-game to opposing backs in their final five regular season games (fifth fewest). They did just allow 99 yards to Alfred Blue in the Wild-card round, but I’m not overly confident in Steven Jackson’s abilities at this point in his career. There is more on Jackson below. Either way, White has played 34-plus percent of snaps in every game since Week 12 and is the superior fantasy bet in the Pats’ backfield in the Divisional Round.
Charcandrick West: As mentioned in the Spencer Ware section above, West has been sharply out-played over the past two weeks and has seen his snaps decrease drastically over the past three games (89.3%, 54.4%, and 28.6%). West is also no longer the Chiefs lone passing down back, either. Ware ran 12 pass routes against the Texans in the Wild-card round to West’s seven.
Steven Jackson: Jackson’s first two rushing lines with the Patriots were poor at best (7-15 and 14-35-1) and it’s worth pondering whether or not the 32-year-old has anything left in his legs after 2,764 career carries.
Andre Ellington: Saw 11 touches in the final two weeks of the season and has snap shares of just 16.9% and 33.3% in his those two games.
Christine Michael: I’ll update this item later in the week, but Seahawks head coach called Marshawn Lynch (abdomen) "day-to-day" on Tuesday. This was a week after Lynch practiced in full for the Wild-card round, but did not travel with the team. In turn, Christine Michael played on 67.2 percent of the Seahawks snaps against Minnesota, logged 22 touches, and rushed for 21-70 (3.33 YPC). Fred Jackson handled the ball just three times while Bryce Brown didn’t play a single snap.
Friday update: Marshawn Lynch (abdomen) is "ready" to play in Carolina in the Divisional Round. Michael is relegated to Seattle's No. 2 running back option and is not on the DFS radar any longer.
Demaryius Thomas: With Peyton Manning at the helm this season, Thomas averaged 11.2 targets, 7.3 receptions, and 93.3 yards per contest. With Brock Osweiler, those splits were slightly down: (10.8 targets, 5.3-61.8 per-game). As mentioned in the A.J. Green section last week, the Steelers simply can’t cover boundary receivers at this point. Pittsburgh yielded a 100-yard and a 60-yard receiving performance to opposing wide receivers four times in their final eight games of the regular season and just surrendered 5-71-1 to Green himself in the Wild-card round. Thomas ripped the Steelers for 5-61-2 with Brock Osweiler back in Week 15.
Michael Floyd: I’m going bold here. Floyd was clearly the Cardinals best receiver to close out the regular season and was quietly Carson Palmer’s top target down the stretch. From Week 8-17, Floyd had five 100-yard receiving performances in eight active games and led the team in target share from Week 13-17 (23.2%) over John Brown (20.9%) and Larry Fitzgerald (19.2%). Likely without Sam Shields (concussion), the Packers are in danger of being lit on fire again by Michael Floyd after he shredded them for 6-111 (on eight targets) in Week 16.
Emmanuel Sanders: His splits with Manning (9.3 targets, 5.1 receptions, 73.8 yards per-game) and with Brock Osweiler (8.8 targets, 5-79.4 per-game) weren’t as drastic as Demaryius Thomas’, but Sanders should still have plenty of room for a solid, if not huge day at home against the Steelers. He had his best game of the season against Pittsburgh back in Week 15, destroying them for 10-181-1 (16 targets) with Osweiler at the helm. Just a quick stat dump to switch gears, Manning’s target distribution in the red zone in 10 games this year was: Thomas (7), Owen Daniels (7), Sanders (5), Jordan Norwood (5), C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman (3).
Doug Baldwin: He ran 77.7% of his routes out of the slot in Week 13-17 plus the Wild-card round, so the major note here is that Josh Norman traveled in to the slot just 11 times out of his 1,079 snaps (1.0 percent) in the 2015-16 season. Barring a scheme change we haven’t seen from the Panthers all year, Baldwin will mostly avoid Norman’s shut-down coverage in the slot and will continue to be Russell Wilson’s de facto main target in the passing game on the road in Carolina. Because of the “Norman stigma”, I expect Baldwin’s ownership percentage in DFS to be slightly lower this week than it should be. Baldwin has 60 yards receiving and/or a touchdown in every single game except one since Week 10 and leads Seattle in target share by a mile during that span (25.7%).
John Brown: He has been a rock-solid floor play all season long, scoring double-digit PPR points in ten games but the only issue is he hit the 20-plus fantasy point apex just twice. For comparison, Michael Floyd cleared 20 PPR points five times. Brown also failed to muster more than 45 yards receiving in his final three games. He did see 9, 4, and 11 targets in those contests.
Larry Fitzgerald: In parentheses are Fitz’s targets over his last six regular season games (14, 11, 6, 5, 5, 11). As mentioned in the Michael Floyd section above, Fitzgerald slipped behind both Floyd and John Brown in target share over the final five games and he has receiving yardage totals of 55, 41, 43, 29, and 55 during that span. Fitzgerald does have at least five receptions in all but three games on the year leaving a decent floor intact, but his ceiling is not what it was earlier into the season.
Julian Edelman: After a layoff of nearly two months, I really have no idea what to expect here. Coming off a Jones’ fracture in his foot, we shouldn’t expect Edelman to come back and immediately be the same player we’re accustomed to seeing. I’ll update this section once we have a full complement of practice reports come Friday. My main stat anecdote here is that Edelman led the Patriots in target share prior to his injury (23.9%) and red zone targets per contest (1.9).
Martavis Bryant: After being challenged to “toughen up” by Roethlisberger prior to their Wild-card game, Bryant played a healthy 79.7 percent of snaps against Cincinnati and accumulated six targets (he had six total in his prior two games). The ceiling is always here for a massive game – and he did put 10-87 on the Broncos back in Week 15 – but we don’t know what this offense will look like at this point with Brown and Roethlisberger’s statuses up in the air. I’ll give a fresh Bryant update once we know more on Friday.
Friday update: As mentioned, Antonio Brown (concussion) was ruled out for Sunday's game on the road in Denver. Brown accounted for 33 percent of the Steelers targets this season. Subsequently, Martavis Bryant is now the Steelers defacto No. 1 wide receiver. Bryant should see a decent target bump, but the issue is he'll garner a ton of attention from the Broncos defense with Brown off of the field. Bryant saw 8.4 targets per contest in 2015, so somewhere in the range of 9-11 targets isn't out of the realm of possibilities against the Broncos stout pass defense. He'll do battle on the outside with Aqib Talib and Bradley Roby.
Jeremy Maclin: I’m placing Maclin here until we get some clarity and more practice reports on his ankle sprain. I’ll update this section in more detail come Friday.
Friday Update: Maclin (ankle) is currently listed as questionable after not practicing all week. Since the game is on Saturday at 4:35PM EST, Maclin has one less day to recover and receive treatment. I really don't know if he will play or not -- but if he does -- it will be at less than 100 percent and he may serve as a "decoy" to even out the Patriots' coverage. It may be best to avoid Maclin in DFS contests this week.
Ted Ginn: Playing Ginn in DFS always requires a leap of faith that I’m usually not willing to make, but from Week 10 on he actually led Carolina in target share (23.2%). The problem is Seattle erases boundary receivers and he’ll see plenty of Richard Sherman when he travels to the left side of Carolina’s formation. He could theoretically get behind the coverage and rip a long touchdown off, but his floor is extraordinarily low – especially against Seattle.
Randall Cobb: When Arizona met Green Bay without Tyrann Mathieu in Week 16, it was Jerraud Powers (24 snaps in slot) not Patrick Peterson (4 snaps in slot) covering Cobb in the slot. Cobb ran 86.3 percent of his routes from the slot during the regular season. This column seems to suggest Peterson will go into the slot, but Peterson has only moved into the slot on 44-of-1,011 snaps this season. I’m betting against Peterson shadowing Cobb in the Divisional Round. Regardless, Cobb’s overall projection is middling at best. His last six receiving yardage totals are as follows: 29, 81, 40, 15, 37, and 38.
James Jones: It seems highly unlikely Davante Adams (sprained MCL) will play in the Divisional Round, which gives Jones a target boost on the outside. He’s already seen 7, 9, 11, 13, and 11 targets in his last five games. The only problems are A) Patrick Peterson and B) Arizona finished the regular season ranked fourth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA Pass Defense. I’ll provide an update below once we have official clarity on Davante Adams on Friday.
Friday update: With Brown out, Wheaton will continue to operate as Big Ben's slot receiver. He ran 71% of his routes from the slot in the 2015 season, but will face the Broncos best cover corner back in Chris Harris Jr. Harris allowed the eighth fewest yards per coverage snap out of 115 qualified corner backs in 2015, per PFF. So, Wheaton should theoretically see an increase in targets, but how often will he be open?
Friday Update: Again, Jeremy Maclin (ankle) is questionable for Saturday's game against the Patriots. If Maclin misses, Albert Wilson and Chris Conley will serve as Alex Smith's boundary receivers. In Maclin's lone missed game in Week 7 against Pittsburgh, Conley led the team in targets (7) with Albert Wilson right behind him (6). In that game, Conley went for 6-63-1 and Wilson had 3-71. Both Wilson and Conley are the best low-priced "punt" options at wide receiver in DFS in the Divisional Round if Maclin can't go.
Darrius Heyward-Bey (Friday addition): I suppose anything is possible, but Heyward-Bey is the shakiest fantasy bet on the Steelers in the Divisional Round without Antonio Brown. He'll serve as Pittsburgh's other boundary receiver opposite Martavis Bryant, but genuinely has no nuance to his game outside of being a vertical threat. He has 1, 5, and 2 targets in his last three games.
Danny Amendola: His fantasy projection diminishes with Edelman’s return, but he did see 5.3 targets per-game and played on 58.3% of snaps with Edelman active.
Devin Funchess: Actually led the Panthers in red zone targets with 7-of-26 (26.9%) looks over the final six weeks of the season. However, he finished fourth in Carolina’s target share distribution (14.7%) during that span behind Ted Ginn (21.7%), Greg Olsen (21.5%), and Corey Brown (15.9%).
Brandon LaFell: Was held to under 50 yards receiving in 7-of-11 games this year and only managed 5, 1, and 4 targets in his final three regular season games. He could be No. 5 on Tom Brady’s target totem pole in the Divisional Round behind Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, James White, and Danny Amendola.
Jermaine Kearse: Like Tyler Lockett above, Kearse will also see some of Josh Norman and has 8, 5, 3, and 4 targets in his last four games. I’m expecting a lot of Wilson’s passing action to funnel inside in Doug Baldwin’s direction.
Jared Abbrederis: Played 28 snaps and accumulated four targets after Davante Adams (sprained MCL) went down in the Wild-card round, but on the road in Arizona is not a good spot for a second-year wide receiver to be making his first career start.
Rob Gronkowski: One of the keys to DFS this season was actually avoiding Gronkowski at his elevated price tag and playing the likes of Jordan Reed, Greg Olsen, Delanie Walker and occasionally Gary Barnidge on a weekly basis. I’m not suggesting that is necessarily the case this week -- especially with Reed off of the slate -- but the fact is Gronk only had five games with nine or more targets in the 2015 season after having 10 such games in 2014. He’s always been relatively matchup-proof, but the Chiefs allowed the fourth fewest yards per game to opposing tight ends (40.8) on the season and allowed more than 50 yards receiving to a single tight end just three times (Antonio Gates, Tyler Eifert, and Clive Walford). Regardless, Gronk should still be the highest-owned tight end in the Divisional Round by a wide margin.
Greg Olsen: One of the most interesting plays on the slate, Olsen may be lower owned than Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce on DFS sites in the Divisional Round. Olsen finished the 2015 season with his second worst game of the year (2-16 on two targets) against Tampa Bay and the Panthers matchup with Seattle this week may seem “bad” to casual fans. Except, Seattle actually finished 26th in DVOA versus tight ends per Football Outsiders and allowed the fifth most yards per reception (11.6) to opposing tight ends during the regular season. They were in the top-4 in DVOA against No. 1 and No. 2 wide receivers. Olsen lit the middle of the field on fire in Week 6 on the road in Seattle for 7-131-1 (on 11 targets). It’s not entirely inconceivable to think Cam Newton’s targets will funnel towards the middle of the field with his outside receiving options locked up.
Travis Kelce: As hard as it is to believe, the Wild-card round marked just the second time in his career where Kelce received 10 targets in a game. Shockingly, he went for 8-128 against the Texans. It’s amazing what talented players can do when they are routinely featured in an offense. Snark aside, New England finished the season ranked 15th in DVOA vs. opposing tight ends and Kelce should be featured heavily regardless of Jeremy Maclin’s (ankle) status. Kelce saw six targets and went for 5-73 in Maclin’s lone missed game back in Week 7.
Heath Miller: Has been held below 40 yards receiving nine times (including playoffs) this season, so the floor is basement-level low. However, Denver did quietly permit the ninth most receiving yards per-game to opposing tight ends (57.1) on the year -- so Miller could be a decent low-owned “punt” option in DFS tournaments, if Antonio Brown (concussion) sits.
Richard Rodgers: Target totals of (8, 2, 4, 3, 8, 4) in his last six games and Arizona finished the season ranked seventh in DVOA vs. tight ends. There are better options on the board.
Chase Coffman/Cooper Helfet: Coffman has five and three targets in his past two games while Helfet has six and zero looks in his last two against Arizona and Minnesota. Luke Willson (concussion) is also set to return after a two game absence. Willson never saw more than four targets in a contest this season.
Darren Fells/Jermaine Gresham: Gresham finished the year with 1, 0, 2, and 3 targets while Fells had 4, 3, 0, and 2. You need a miracle and a touchdown for either of these options to pay off this weekend. Arizona doesn't care to feature their tight ends in the passing game.