All season long, we’ve seen injuries turn backups into Risers as they’ve taken advantage of new opportunities. That same construct is at work this week, albeit in a few ways that we haven’t really seen. Out in Denver, an injury (or whatever it is) to Peyton Manning has sent the stock of the team’s two primary running backs climbing with no ceiling in sight. Meanwhile, the division-rival Chiefs have been able to weather the storm of losing Jamaal Charles to a season-ending knee injury with a few different options in the backfield. With that, let’s get to this week’s Risers and Sliders.
Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions
Through five games, Stafford appeared headed for a lost fantasy season. The Lions were 0–5 and Stafford’s best weekly finish at the quarterback position was 16th. He was outside the top 20 more frequently than he was inside it, and it appeared he was no more than a low-end QB2. Then he threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns in a win over the Bears and the script flipped. Stafford still isn’t a rock-solid QB1 by any means, but he has at least looked the part of a competent quarterback in his last six games. In that time frame, he has 1,739 yards, 8.09 yards per attempt, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. He has also rushed for 92 yards and a score during the stretch, giving him 22.13 points per game in standard-scoring leagues.
For a point of reference, only Tom Brady (24.3) and Cam Newton (23.1) are averaging more than that over the entire season. It must be said that two big performances—the win over Chicago and the Thanksgiving thrashing of Philadelphia—have lifted Stafford to that average, but he has been a top-14 quarterback in three of the other four games during the six-game run. What’s more, Stafford might not be done making noise this season. His next two games are against the Packers and Rams, but he finishes with the Saints and 49ers, two of the league’s worst pass defenses.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Lions
While we're here, let's keep it in Detroit. Abdullah got a season-high 16 carries last week, picking up 63 yards in the win over the Eagles. Game flow certainly had a little something to do with Abdullah’s workload, but it’s clear the rookie out of Nebraska has finally grabbed a stranglehold of the lead running back role for the Lions. Theo Riddick has a significant role as a receiver out of the backfield, but he got just two carries in the win and has 28 all season. His presence does limit Abdullah’s upside, but it appears the team is finally moving on from Joique Bell.
The Lions still have a faint pulse in the NFC wild card race, but their sights are more realistically set on 2016, when Abdullah can be a player who really moves the needle. If they’re going to feel comfortable committing to him as their starter next season, however, they’ll need to see more of him this season. Don’t be surprised if he averages 15-plus touches per game for the rest of the year.
Broncos running game
We covered this in-depth in our Fact or Fiction this week, so we’ll just give you the abridged version here. In short, Brock Osweiler’s ability and willingness to play from under center has taken the shackles off of Gary Kubiak’s playbook. He’s now free to run all the toss sweeps and stretch plays his heart desires, and both C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman are enjoying the rewards. In Osweiler’s two starts, Anderson has rumbled for 172 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries, while Hillman has 161 yards and a score on 35 totes. In Manning’s nine starts, the backfield duo combined for three 100-yard games. They’re two-for-two with Osweiler at the helm.
The Broncos have also had their two most productive games in terms of net rushing yards over the last two weeks. Osweiler gives them their best chance to win, and it’s not just because he can make throws Manning no longer can, such as the strike down the left sideline to Emmanuel Sanders to set up the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter of the win over New England. It’s also because his mobility has opened up the run game, and has, in turn, made Anderson and Hillman RB2 or high-upside flex options for the remainder of the season.
Eddie Lacy, RB, Packers
In two games since finally taking a one-week rest due to various leg injuries, Lacy has looked every bit the first-round pick he was in all fantasy leagues back in August and September. After running for 100 yards on 22 carries against the Vikings in Week 11, he trampled the Bears for 105 on the ground, 34 yards through the air, and a touchdown in the Packers’ surprising 17–13 loss. It was his best game of the season, and it came not a moment too soon for his fantasy owners.
Remember, Lacy has a track record of getting better in the second half. Last year, he had 428 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the first eight games of the season. Over the final eight he racked up 711 yards and five scores, and added four more as a receiver. Lacy’s first- and second-half rushing yards were almost identical in his rookie season, but he had seven touchdowns after the halfway point compared with four before it. He also came alive as a pass-catcher, hauling in 23 passes for 179 yards in the second half of the season. He had just 12 catches for 78 yards in his first seven games. The Lacy second-half surge is upon us.
David Johnson, RB, Cardinals
Johnson will get at least one week as the starter in Arizona, and it’s entirely possible he holds onto the job for a whole lot longer. Chris Johnson is out indefinitely with a fractured tibia, while Andre Ellington is already questionable for Sunday because of turf toe. There's a good chance Ellington could miss more than one week, gifting Johnson all the backfield work in one of the league's best offenses. He’s the rare example of someone going right from the waiver wire to fantasy playoff prominence. If you’re able to snag him this week, or if you were holding onto him all season, you’d have to be very deep at running back to keep him on your bench for the foreseeable future.
Allen Hurns, WR, Jaguars
Hurns suffered a concussion last week, but he’s not on this list because of injury. We’ve spent a good chunk of the year calling out James Jones and Donte Moncrief as pumpkins posing as carriages that would soon suffer their midnight fate when their unsustainably high touchdown rates came back down to earth. And now it's time to call out Hurns—the Jacksonville WR has three 100-yard games this season, so he isn’t quite as extreme in the touchdown-dependence department as Jones and Moncrief, but he isn’t far off, either.
Hurns had three games this year in which he showed up for his fantasy owners only because he hit pay dirt. Hurns has been held out of the end zone the last two weeks, and the results haven’t been pretty. In that time, he has a total of seven catches for 61 yards, and he now has fewer than 70 yards in five of his last six games. He’s sliding back into WR3 territory.
Randall Cobb, WR, Packers
Just like Aaron Rodgers, Cobb is feeling the negative side effects of not having Jordy Nelson on the field. Cobb has one 100-yard game this season. He had five last year, and two more where he came up just short. He also has just six touchdowns, three of which game in the same game. He has found the end zone twice in his last eight games, and has more games with fewer than five points (four) than games with more than 10 (three).
Without Rodgers stretching the field and occupying two defenders on almost every play, Cobb has for less room to operate out of the slot. Cobb is getting just 6.67 yards per target this year, compared with 10.21 last year—a decrease of 34.7%, which would seem impossible if we hadn’t all seen it occur right before our eyes. The harsh reality is that without Nelson, Cobb is no more than a low-end WR2.
Charcandrick West, RB, Chiefs
West owners have every reason to be afraid, unless they scooped Spencer Ware off the wire last week. Ware carved up the Bills to the tune of 114 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Before taking over for West after he injured his hamstring in Week 11, Ware had a total of six carries on the season. In the last two weeks, he has carried the ball 30 times, racking up 210 yards and three scores. Even when West returns, this has the makings of a timeshare. It could end up being one that is effective for the Chiefs in real life, but is nothing more than a cannibalizing headache for fantasy owners.
If neither West nor Ware is able to garner a feature role, it’s entirely possible neither will post reliable RB2 numbers the rest of the season. It would be nearly a guarantee that at least one of them would get to that RB2 threshold, but it would be a serious challenge to predict which one that would be on a week-to-week basis.
Lamar Miller, RB, Dolphins
I know Joe Philbin isn’t back in Miami, but is his ghost haunting Dan Campbell’s office? Miller has a total of 12 carries in the last two games, which have, unsurprisingly, been losses for the Dolphins. Game flow is partially responsible, but it’s disheartening seeing the Dolphins abandon the run so quickly just so Ryan Tannehill can attempt 58 passes in a game like he did last week.
What’s even more discouraging is that Jay Ajayi is turning into a go-to back for Miami in obvious passing downs. With the Dolphins chasing the Jets all game in Week 12, Ajayi played 41 snaps, compared with Miller’s 23, and racked up six targets. Over the last two weeks, Miller has had 17 touches, while Ajayi totaled 13. Miller remains the primary runner, and that status isn’t going to change all season. Unfortunately, it appears Ajayi will continue eating into his workload as a receiver, and Miller has done some of his best work this season through the air. If that is indeed the case, we have no choice but to downgrade Miller. He’s just not going to get the volume that he did during the first month of the Campbell era.
Photos: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images (Stafford), Justin Edmonds/Getty Images (Broncos), Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP (Hurns), Matt Dunham/AP (West)