High-profile quarterback injuries have struck more teams this year than any in recent memory. From Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh to Peyton Manning in Denver and Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, a number of AFC contenders have had to make due without their most important player for significant portions of the season. One NFC team has been part of that unfortunate club as well, but that player will finally make his return in Week 11. Somehow, his team is still realistically in the playoff hunt, despite a brutal seven-game losing streak in the time he's been out. That quarterback helps kick off our Risers heading into Week 11. On the other side of the coin, Manning’s injury, and the uncertainty surrounding his replacement, pushes down his top two receivers.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Bills
McCoy was compromised by injury early on this season, got off to a slow start, and seemed to confirm all the fears surrounding him when he had to miss a few games in October with a hamstring injury. Since returning, however, he has looked like the McCoy of old. In his last four games, he has 382 rushing yards, 11 receptions, 94 receiving yards and two touchdowns. That comes out to 14.9 points per game in standard-scoring leagues, which would stand as the sixth-highest average among running backs if McCoy had it for the full season. Karlos Williams still has a role in the offense, but McCoy is out-touching him at a rate of about 3 to 1. He has had between 18 and 24 touches in each of his last four games, a range we can expect him to hit every week for the rest of the season. Health is always going to be a concern, but production won’t be so long as he’s on the field.
The Dallas offense
The Cowboys aren’t yet saying it officially, but Tony Romo will make his return from a broken collarbone this week. The team has been in shambles since Romo went down in Week 2. The Cowboys have lost seven straight games and have averaged just 17 points per game during that streak. There’s no doubt that it all stems from the play of Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel. With Romo back under center and a healthy Dez Bryant out wide, we’ll get to see the Cowboys as they were constructed for 2015 for the first time since Week 1. What’s remarkable is that they could still feasibly take the NFC East crown if they win out. That’s not really a far-fetched scenario with Romo, easily the division’s best quarterback, on the field once again. Jason Witten scored two touchdowns in that Week 1 win over the Giants. He hasn’t found the end zone since. It seems a safe bet that he’ll end the drought now that he doesn’t have to deal with Weeden or Cassel. Bryant, Witten, Darren McFadden and Terrance Williams are all more valuable with Romo back, and the quarterback himself immediately enters the QB1 discussion.
Ryan Mathews, RB, Eagles
Mathews is the Karlos Williams in Philadelphia to DeMarco Murray’s LeSean McCoy. The thing is both of the bit players are doing a lot with limited opportunity, yet only Williams seems to be getting credit for it. Mathews has six touchdowns this season. He hasn’t gone more than one game without getting in the end zone, and he has scored in each of his last three games. When the Eagles had to turn to him as the starter for one game, he had 108 yards on 24 carries and scored on one of his two receptions. He’s averaging 5.7 yards per carry, and that includes an eight-carry, 18-yard performance last week that was compromised by his suffering a concussion. Despite having just 89 touches, he’s 24th among running backs in points per game. He may not get a huge workload, but he’s always a part of the RB2 mix. He’s worth a start if he is able to make it through the concussion protocol this week.
Danny Amendola, WR, Patriots
We typically shy away from tabbing a player a Riser the same week he’s in the waiver wire, but this is a special situation. Amendola will step into the role previously inhabited by Julian Edelman, who will be out 6-to-8 weeks with a broken bone in his foot. It’s the same injury that held Dez Bryant out for seven weeks, so that timeline appears right on the money. Amendola got a slight taste of his new role in the win over the Giants and did a great rendition of Edelman, catching 10 of his 11 targets for 79 yards. As good as Edelman is, this isn’t a situation like Aaron Rodgers losing Jordy Nelson. The machine isn’t going to stop because Edelman is injured. Amendola is a perfectly capable cog. The Patriots will keep rolling, and Amendola will reap the benefits.
Michael Floyd, WR, Cardinals
This is the Floyd everyone expected to see last season. Over the last four weeks, he has 19 catches on 29 targets for 328 yards and five touchdowns, good for an average of 15.7 points per game. Larry Fitzgerald was the star of the passing game for the first month of the season, but he has quietly slowed down over the Cardinals’ last five games, while Floyd has surged to the forefront. Fitzgerald is still the No. 1 show in town, but Floyd is comfortably ahead of John Brown in the pecking order, and will remain there so long as the hamstring injury he suffered last week isn’t too serious. Meanwhile, Carson Palmer is Pro Football Focus’ top-rated quarterback this season, and with the way he’s playing he can easily support two top-20 receivers for the rest of the season. Floyd is a safe bet to be one of those guys.
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seahawks
Lynch has dealt with a number of interrelated injuries this year. First it was his hamstring. A few weeks later, we learned he had a back issue. Last week, Lynch was a true game-time decision because of an abdominal problem. He got just eight carries, though he showed up for fantasy owners who rolled the dice by picking up 42 yards and a touchdown. Still, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if we saw more of Thomas Rawls over the final seven weeks of the season. The Seahawks are 4-5 and in the thick of the NFC playoff race, and they'll need all hands on deck to secure one of the wild card spots. At this stage, they might be better off using a combination of Lynch and Rawls rather than leaning on Lynch as heavily as they have in recent years.
Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, WRs, Broncos
No one can be sure how good or bad Brock Osweiler will be as a starter in the NFL, and anyone who tries to give you a scouting report is selling you snake oil, unless they’re an actual pro scout. Even that would be entirely based on preseason games and Osweiler’s college career at Arizona State. What we do know is that Thomas and Sanders just don’t have the same ceiling without a fully healthy Manning under center. Osweiler could be great, or he could suffer though major growing pains. He could play like a league-average quarterback, or something resembling it. No matter how he plays, though, the fantasy community shouldn’t view Thomas as more than a low-end WR1 and Sanders as anything better than a low-end WR2. Until they prove otherwise, that’s where both receivers slot for the remainder of the season.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Titans
Mariota has put together a solid rookie season, highlighted by a pair of four-touchdown games. He is tied with Jay Cutler for 15th among quarterbacks in points per game, ahead of players like Matt Ryan, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson. A deeper dive into the schedule shows that Mariota hasn’t been quite as good as his overall numbers would suggest. In matchups with the Buccaneers, Browns, Colts and Saints, Mariota has 1,204 yards, 8.92 yards per attempt and 12 touchdowns against two interceptions. In games with the Bills, Dolphins and Panthers, Mariota has 591 yards, 6.64 YPA, one touchdown and four picks. In other words, Mariota has been a completely different quarterback depending on the caliber of defense opposing him. To be fair, Mariota does have a handful of good matchups remaining including the next three weeks, in which he’ll get the Raiders sandwiched by a pair of games with the Jaguars. The Titans, however, play the Jets, Patriots and Texans during the fantasy playoffs. Mariota could come up short for his owners, especially those in two-quarterback leagues.
James Starks, RB, Packers
Starks has held the primary role in the Green Bay backfield for two weeks, but he hasn’t actually made much impact as a runner in that time. He has 81 yards on 25 carries in the back-to-back losses to the Panthers and Lions. Starks has had two very nice games through the air, catching a total of 12 passes for 137 yards and a score, but it’s hard to bet on him consistently delivering as a receiver. No matter what the team says about Eddie Lacy, he’s not going to disappear completely from the game plan when he’s healthy. Starks is still a worthwhile starter this week, even in a tough matchup with the Vikings. He likely will stick as a low-end RB2, but he doesn’t have nearly the value of the typical Green Bay starting running back from recent seasons.
Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions
Johnson’s low touchdown total is partially responsible for his disappointing fantasy season, but that’s going to happen with a statistic as volatile as receiving touchdowns. He, of course, isn’t the only one. Injuries have played a role for some of the following players, but all of these receivers have three or fewer touchdowns: Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Alshon Jeffery, Mike Evans, T.Y. Hilton, Jeremy Maclin and Sammy Watkins. What is concerning, however, is Johnson’s yardage total. He has just one 100-yard game this season, which is equal to his number of games with fewer than 40 yards. He hasn’t had too many duds, putting up at least 80 yards in four other games, but his 82.2 yards per game would be his lowest total over a full season since 2010, when he had 1,120 yards in 15 games (74.7 average). Of course, his owners that season didn’t care too much because he had 12 touchdowns. The lack of scores and the solid-but-not-spectacular yardage totals have conspired to limit Johnson’s ceiling more than ever before in his illustrious career.
Photos: Al Bello/Getty Images (McCoy), Rich Schultz/Getty Images (Matthews), Stephen Brashear/AP (Lynch), Rob Foldy/Getty Images (Mariota)