Week 18: Motivation, Incentives, And Backups
As if we didn’t have enough factors to calculate in the computer floating in our skull, Week 18 brings even more machinations to consider as players chase records, contract incentives, and teams jostle for postseason positioning or tank, or something in between.
Amid the various motivations -- or lack of motivations -- and the record chasing that will commence in the regular season’s final week are both waiver wire adds for weirdos who didn’t wrap up their fantasy leagues in Week 17 and DFS aficionados seeking any edge they can get on the armies of optimizers marauding in the streets, swallowing up all the prize pools.
So let’s get into a preview of what Week 18 might bring for teams and players, and how it might affect your lineup decisions in the regular season’s last -- often weird -- gasp.
Patrick Mahomes Chases Peyton
Mahomes, already the greatest to ever play the position, is 430 yards away from claiming the single-season passing yardage record held by Peyton Manning. I’m sure Mahomes haters -- a lonely group that bonds over their love of tinfoil hats -- will point out Mahomes had 17 games to get to 5,477 yards. Maybe that’ll make them feel better when he gets it.
The matchup could hardly be better for Mahomes. A mere three defenses have allowed a higher drop back success rate than the Raiders, and only the Bears have given up a higher expected points added (EPA) per drop back. Vegas is 20th in QB pressure rate and third in positive pass play rate allowed. You get the idea. Mahomes has 500 yards in his range of outcomes.
Obviously an all-out effort to clinch the yardage record for Mahomes would be tremendous for alpha target Travis Kelce and backfield outlet Jerick McKinnon, who has at least six targets in six of his past eight games. But who else could (should) benefit if Kansas City, with the NFL’s highest pass rate over expected, goes all out to get Mahomes to 430 yards?
Kadarius Toney: That’s who. Mecole Hardman‘s nagging abdomen injury, which could keep him sidelined this week, has forced the Chiefs to deploy Toney for more than just a smattering of pass routes. Toney’s 33.5 percent route rate in Week 17 against the Broncos was far from compelling, but a hyper-efficient pass catcher like Toney doesn’t need a lot of run to make a mark. After being among the league leaders in targets per route run last season, a finally healthy Toney has continued getting open and commanding targets at an astounding clip. He’s seen a target from Mahomes on 25.8 percent of his routes since joining KC in Week 9.
Of course, 500 passing yards for Mahomes could also translate into fantasy points for Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who continues running wind sprints in the Kansas City offense for some reason. Maybe MVS could accidentally come down with a perfectly thrown Mahomes deep shot against Vegas. The Raiders, after all, have allowed the sixth highest rate of long pass plays this season and MVS is second on the Chiefs with a 14.7 average depth of target. Justin Watson is first with a 19.1 aDOT. So maybe he’s in play as a boom-bust option.
I would be remiss -- and I’m never remiss -- if I didn’t tell you JuJu Smith-Schuster is 102 yards away from 1,000 receiving yards. It’s hard to say if that will be a priority for Andy Reid and the Chiefs.
Justin Jefferson Chases Megatron
After being humiliated by Jaire Alexander in Week 17, Justin Jefferson might be a tad more motivated than usual to cleanse himself of last week’s horrors and claim the NFL’s single-season receiving yardage record against the Bears, also known as the league’s most atrocious coverage unit.
Jefferson needs 194 yards against Chicago to break Calvin Johnson‘s record of 1,964 receiving yards, set during a 2012 season in which Megatron averaged a whopping 12.8 targets per game.
I like Jefferson’s chances of getting the record if the Vikings are ready and willing to feed him targets against a Bears defense allowing the fifth highest rate of positive pass plays. Jefferson in Week 5 against Chicago breezed to 12 catches for 154 yards on 13 targets. Fade Jefferson at your own risk in DFS contests this week.
Contract Incentive Szn
We often see coaches well aware of players’ contract incentive benchmarks in the regular season’s final week, and sometimes game plans are tweaked to ensure a player at least gets a crack at earning an extra chunk of change. Below are some offensive players whose benchmarks are very much in play for Week 18.
Zay Jones: The Jaguars’ de facto No. 1 wideout has quite a bit to play for in Week 18 against a poor Tennessee secondary. Jones netted $250,000 for hitting 70 receptions, and he’ll get another quarter million for recording 80 catches. Jones would get yet another $250,000 for 90 catches. He enters Week 18 with 78 receptions on 115 targets. Against the Titans in Week 14, he had eight catches for 77 yards on 12 targets. His bonus cash will be secondary to Jacksonville’s push for the postseason, but it’s worth keeping in mind when building DFS lineups.
Christian Kirk: Kirk gets a cool half million for 80, 90, and 100 receptions this season. The Jags slot man enters Week 18 with 78 grabs. A pass-heavy approach for the Jaguars could make their wideouts a little offseason spending money.
DeAndre Carter: Carter would get half a million bucks if he nets 55 receiving yards against the Broncos in Week 18. If he scored two touchdowns in the season’s final week, Carter would see another $500,000.
JuJu Smith-Schuster: With one of the most incentive-laden deals in the league, Smith-Schuster is two receiving yards away from clearing 900 yards and getting $1.5 million.
Marques Valdes-Scantling: If MVS can wrangle 21 receptions this week against Vegas, he’ll get an extra $500,000. Let’s see if he can do it.
Kalif Raymond: A 100-yard outing against Green Bay on Sunday night would net Raymond $125,000 in incentives. That he ran a route on 40 percent of the Lions’ Week 17 drop backs doesn’t inspire much confidence he can see the necessary volume to go for a 100 yards this week.
Jamaal Williams: He’s a mere four yards away from 1,000 rushing yards and an extra $250,000. I’m thinking he’ll manage five yards on the ground against Green Bay on Sunday night.
Deebo Samuel: If he’s able to suit up in Week 18 -- a long shot -- Deebo could earn a half million dollars with 152 rushing yards.
Gerald Everett: Everett’s 2022 deal with LA includes $250,000 bonuses at 50, 60, and 70 receptions. He has 55 catches through Week 17. The Chargers could conceivably let Everett play until he hits the 60-catch mark. It’s something to watch.
Tyler Higbee: The Rams tight end needs 13 more receiving yards to cash in on a $500,000 incentive for hitting 600 yards on the year. Higbee has 17 receptions over this past three games, leading all LA pass catchers.
Long Live The Scrubs
The Giants, Chargers, and Bucs have claimed postseason spots and can’t help or hurt their seeding in Week 18. Some would call this a meaningless game. Others, like Bucs head coach Todd Bowles, would say there’s no such thing as a meaningless game and insist he’s going to play all his banged-up veterans against the Falcons in Week 18. Sure, Jan.
It’s (very) likely Blaine Gabbert szn this week. When he’s not saving people in the ocean, Gabbert is checking down to his short-area targets. Who that might be in Week 18 remains to be seen.
We’ll likely see a lot of Breshad Perriman, Scotty Miller, and Deven Thompkins as Tampa’s starting receivers take the day off. Maybe rookie TE Cade Otton gets the gig to himself while Cam Brate rests.
Certainly Ke’Shawn Vaughn will serve as the team’s lead back with Leonard Fournette and Rachaad White seeing limited snaps against Atlanta. Vaughn profiles as the most interesting Week 18 Bucs option if he takes over the backfield’s pass-catching duties along with early-down work. Giovani Bernard could have something to say about that.
Gary Brightwell -- who has been low-key outstanding in limited touches this year -- and Matt Breida could split the backfield workload this week against the Eagles if Saquon Barkley sits (he will). Breida would shape up as the likely pass-catching back in such a scenario.
Tyrod Taylor should draw the Week 18 start. Taylor has some rushing-based fantasy appeal, but against a ferocious Eagles defense fighting for postseason seeding, things could get ugly for New York’s backups in a hurry.
Garbage time beneficiaries for the G-people could include preseason staple David Sills, who has 11 receptions for 106 yards in nine games this season, Marcus Johnson, and receiver-turned-tight-end Lawrence Cager. Cager functioned as the team’s every-down tight end when Daniel Bellinger was sidelined with an eye injury last month.
Our former analytics king Brandon Staley probably won’t pretend he’ll play Justin Herbert and the Bolts’ offensive starters this week against the Broncos. We can assume none of the team’s main offensive weapons will play more than a few snaps against Denver.
Either Larry Roundtree or Isaiah Spiller will lead the LA backfield with Austin Ekeler and Joshua Kelley likely resting in Week 18. Spiller, a healthy scratch in recent weeks who hasn’t seen a carry since Week 12, could be the preferred option since Roundtree has been active and seen limited snaps over the past month.
Look for preseason DFS hero Michael Bandy to play a full complement of snaps against Denver. Bandy in Week 9 against Atlanta caught four of eight targets for 26 yards when forced into action amid a series of wideout injuries. DeAndre Carter and his aforementioned incentives could also see expanded playing time, along with Donald Parham or Tre McKitty. Fantasy players should watch for LA’s Week 18 inactives.
Eliminated Teams And Their Potential Weirdness
Teams officially eliminated from postseason contention are as follows: The Raiders, Rams, Jets, Panthers, Commanders, Browns, Texans, Broncos, Colts, Cardinals, Falcons, Bears, and Saints.
Washington, whose head coach may or may not know his squad has been eliminated from the Wild Card chase, could finally roll out rookie QB Sam Howell in Week 18 against the Cowboys, who still have quite for which to play. Taylor Heinicke will reportedly start for the Commanders but Howell is expected to play. How much? No one knows. Maybe including Ron Rivera.
Howell in three preseason games showed a willingness to be aggressive downfield (with a 10.3 aDOT) and some rushing chops, going for 94 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in those three outings. Howell might not have Terry McClaurin as a main target if Washington sits their most valuable offensive player in a meaningless affair.
If the Commanders sit both Antonio Gibson (ankle, knee) and Brian Robinson, JoNathan Williams would be the next guy up as a potential lead back against Dallas. Williams over the past two weeks has 12 carries for 44 yards and five receptions on eight targets. He would be a candidate for 20 touches against a vulnerable Dallas run defense if Gibson and Robinson sit in Week 18. His pass-game involvement could make Williams shockingly game script-proof.
Dealing with a shin injury in the tail end of yet another lost season for the Cardinals, James Conner has little chance to suit up this week against the 49ers. Corey Clement profiles as Arizona’s lead back if Conner is out. Last week against Atlanta, Clement logged 32 snaps to just one snap for Keaontay Ingram after Conner exited with his shin injury.
Clement has almost no fantasy appeal against San Francisco’s defense unless third-string QB David Blough checks down over and over again in a blowout game script. There’s also a chance Ingram could split the backfield workload with Clement. If you’re looking to get cute here, beware.
Trey McBride, after doing close to nothing with a heady route rate in recent weeks, blew up for seven receptions, 78 yards, and a touchdown on ten targets last week against the Falcons. McBride’s 93 percent route rate in Week 17 was tremendous, and a good indicator he could be a volume-driven fantasy play in Week 18.
Finally, I’d like to note that Blough -- like all Arizona quarterbacks this season -- is Dortchpilled. He targeted Dortch on 29 percent of his attempts against Atlanta in Week 17. That it didn’t amount to much (four catches for 15 yards) is another issue altogether.
D.J. Moore needs 152 yards to crack 1,000 yards for the season, which, if adjusted for Carolina’s quarterback play, would qualify as the greatest wideout season in history. Maybe Sam Darnold will make an extra effort to jam Moore targets this week against New Orleans.
I take zero pleasure in saying Russell Wilson and the Broncos are in a fantastic spot to close the season. They play a Chargers team with nothing to gain in Week 18; there’s no chance the Bolts will play their offensive or defensive starters for more than a few snaps, if any.
Perhaps Russ will have a chance to pour on the yards and points here and give the game-clock-manager-guy-turned-head-coach a chance to compete for the full time gig. Or maybe Latavius Murray will see 25 touches in positive game script against an LA defense that struggles against the run with a full slate of starters.
Sam Ehlinger is back in the proverbial saddle for the sad-sack Colts. Maybe Jelani Woods, aka the second coming of Calvin Johnson, could be interesting if he repeats his 55 percent route rate from Week 17 -- the highest among Indy tight ends (Woods caught three of four targets for 19 yards). Zack Moss, who led the Colts backfield with 15 carries in Week 17, could get a bunch of get-us-out-of-here carries against a Houston defense allowing the seventh highest EPA per rush.
Beyond that, nothing matters. Enjoy Arby’s.
Houston faces off against the Ehlinger-led Colts in a game Congress should ban from the airwaves. I’m not sure what to say about this Texans offense besides Brandin Cooks possibly getting force fed targets in what should, mercifully, be his final game in a Texans uniform.
Don’t ask me why but this sure feels like a 25-touch day for Texans legend Rex Burkhead.
Justin Fields will sit in Week 18 against the Vikings with a hip injury he picked up in last week’s loss to Detroit. He needed just 64 yards to set the NFL’s single-season record for quarterback rushing yards. Nathan Peterman will draw the start and make Minnesota’s defense a “smash play,” per the teens.
Rookie RB Tyler Allgeier could hit the 1,000-yard mark with 100 rushing yards in Week 18 against Tampa -- a highly impressive feat considering Allgeier was trapped in a three-back committee with a mobile quarterback for much of 2022.
There’s a good chance head coach Arthur Smith will see to it that Allgeier, a favorite of Atlanta coaches, gets to 100 yards against the Bucs. He has 38 carries for 157 yards over the past two weeks.
Ty Johnson more or less rook over the Jets backfield in Week 17 against Seattle, leading New York backs in snaps, routes, targets, and carries. Zonovan Knight has been relegated to early-down banger duties, making him (extremely) sensitive to game script.
Knight might have some sneaky appeal in Week 18 against a Miami team quarterbacked by rookie Skylar Thompson, who is … not good. New York’s backfield is probably a big, fat fade.
Mike White, who is also not good, once again targeted his tight ends heavily in Week 17. Both C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin saw six targets against the Seahawks; Garrett Wilson was the only Jets pass catcher to see more targets (10). The Dolphins, meanwhile, have given up the third most tight end receptions in 2022.
Expect Cleveland to continue going all out in Week 18 against the Steelers. Pittsburgh, of course, is clawing for a chance to have their butts kicked in the Wild Card Round. A full game of Steelers starters is bad news for Deshaun Watson and the Browns. D’Ernest Johnson, who’s been good every time he’s served as the team’s lead back, could get playing time if the team rests Nick Chubb and/or Kareem Hunt.
Cleveland’s 18.5-point implied total doesn’t inspire much confidence in what should be an ugly, low-scoring affair. The Browns defense has been quietly elite of late. Since Week 11, only Dallas and San Francisco have allowed a lower EPA per play to opposing offenses.
There’s a compelling case to be made for Rasheed Shahid as the Saints’ top receiver after he caught all six of his targets for 78 yards -- while out-targeting Chris Olave -- in Week 17 against the Eagles. Shahid, a bona fide downfield burner, led all New Orleans receivers in expected fantasy points and nearly matched Olave’s air yards share against Philadelphia.
Shahid is running all the routes in the Saints offense and in Week 18 he takes on a Panthers secondary that was scorched by Tom Brady and the Bucs in Week 17. Carolina has allowed the tenth highest EPA per drop back on the season.
One last note on the Saints this week: Juwan Johnson has a 33 percent air yards share over the team’s past four games. That’s mind blowing for a tight end. Stacking Panthers-Saints might make you gag but could pay off bigly.