It may be late in the season, but there are still players whose stock is just now climbing to must-start levels. This week, we find ourselves with three running backs and two receivers who were all barely on the fantasy radar as recently as one month ago, yet now belong in the starting lineups for all their owners in the first week of the playoffs. We also have a third receiver who could find his way into a lot of starting lineups this week, though his candidacy is bit more circumstantial. Either way, these six players prove that the best fantasy owners know they have to remain vigilant all season long. One week’s waiver wire darling is the following week’s playoff hero.
Doug Baldwin, WR, Seahawks
The Seahawks, which have won five of their last six games, now appear to be almost a shoo-in for the playoffs, and Russell Wilson has spearheaded the team’s offensive explosion over the last few weeks by hooking up repeatedly with Baldwin. The latter was one of the hottest fantasy players in the season’s most recent month, hauling in 24 passes for 433 yards and six touchdowns, which comes out to just shy of 20 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. He’s now the No. 12 receiver on the season, with more points than the likes of Jarvis Landry, Amari Cooper and Demaryius Thomas. Baldwin should continue his run, especially over the next two weeks, with the Ravens and Browns ranked 26th and 29th, respectively, in pass defense DVOA.
David Johnson, RB, Cardinals
Johnson looked every bit the capable starter last week, running for 99 yards on 22 carries, and catching two passes for 21 yards and a score. What’s more, he got just two touches in the fourth quarter with the win well in hand, meaning he did all that damage in just about 45 minutes of work. Johnson has the stature to handle the heavy workload of a starter, and he has some of the freshest legs in the league after having just a complementary role in Arizona’s offense for the first three months of the season. With Chris Johnson on IR and Andre Ellington arguably the most fragile player in the NFL, the rookie out of Northern Iowa could have the backfield to himself for the remainder of the season. As we said in this week’s Fact or Fiction, that helps give him an RB1 ceiling for the fantasy playoffs. At the very least, he should find himself in the top 20 at the position over the next three weeks.
DeVante Parker, WR, Dolphins
Parker has had an interesting arc in his rookie year. The Dolphins selected him with the 14th pick in the draft despite the fact that he missed a part of his final season at Louisville with a foot injury. That injury required surgery after the draft, a development the Dolphins had to be aware of before they tabbed him. The Dolphins eased him in early in the season, but just when it appeared he was breaking through for more playing time, he fell behind Rishard Matthews on the depth chart. Parker was quiet for most of the middle of the season, but, with the team out of the playoff hunt and Matthews banged up over the last few weeks, he has finally received an opportunity to show what he can do.
Parker has found the end zone in both of the previous two games, flashing his athleticism and ball skills on the one last week against the Ravens. Miami’s next two games are against the Giants and Chargers, which rank 25th and 28th, respectively, in pass defense DVOA. Parker has a great chance to shine during the fantasy playoffs.
Danny Amendola, WR, Patriots
Amendola returned from a one-week absence to catch seven of his 13 targets for 62 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots’ loss to the Eagles last week. In not quite three full games played since Julian Edelman’s foot injury, Amendola has 26 receptions on 36 targets for 258 yards and a touchdown. His target number may have been a bit inflated last week thanks to Rob Gronkowski being out, but Scott Chandler still hogged seven targets.
In other words, it’s hard to imagine Amendola getting fewer than 10 targets in any game for the rest of the season. Brandon LaFell couldn’t possibly be further out of rhythm than he is with Brady. That means Amendola and Gronkowski will be the quarterback’s two favored weapons over the next four weeks. Expect Amendola to coast to WR2 numbers during the fantasy playoffs.
Jeremy Hill, RB, Bengals
You could forgive many of Hill’s owners if they aren’t exactly thrilled about his potential RB1 turn this late in the season—it’s entirely possible he’s making the transition too late for them, given the fact that he cost them a first or early-second round pick back in draft season. If you did manage to make it to the postseason with Hill on your roster, however, it appears he’s finally ready to pay off that draft-day price.
Over his last three games, Hill has rushed for 229 yards and three touchdowns on 51 carries. He has had at least 10 points in standard-scoring leagues in all three games, and seems to have relegated Giovani Bernard to a change-of-pace and pass-catching role. The one caveat, however, is the schedule. The Bengals get the Steelers, 49ers and Broncos during the fantasy playoffs. The bookends are both in the top 10 in rush defense DVOA, and the Steelers could very well force Andy Dalton to throw the ball 40 times in what might be a fun shootout on Sunday. The only plus-matchup is with the 49ers, a team that sits at 27th in rush DVOA and has allowed the second-most points to running backs this year.
Buck Allen, RB, Ravens
Allen has now had three games in command of the Ravens’ backfield, in which he's scored a minimum of 11.5 points and an average of 16.3. Allen is the only show in town in Baltimore, and it is paying off for his fantasy owners. He got 27 touches in relief of Justin Forsett after the latter broke his arm, then piled up 16 touches in a win over the Browns and 29 last week in the loss to the Dolphins. Twelve of those touches came through the air, with Allen leading the team at a robust 13 targets.
There’s no doubt that he’s the focal point of the offense, a status he could maintain into 2016. Remember, the Ravens used a fourth-round pick to grab Allen out of USC—if they want to confidently start him next year, they’re going to have to see what he can do during the remainder of the 2015 season. That means heavy workloads in their upcoming games with the Seahawks, Chiefs and Steelers. Volume could be his friend, but those are all tough matchups in which the Ravens could be playing behind throughout. The good news is that Allen, as he proved last week, is an adept receiver who won’t come off the field, regardless of score or situation.
The Chiefs backfield
The nightmare situation for Charcandrick West's and Spencer Ware's fantasy owners came true last week. The Chiefs racked up 34 points in a win over the Raiders, but the running backs were left out of the fun. West had nine carries for 35 yards, while Ware ran it seven times for 26 yards. The Chiefs appear committed to using both, with a near 50/50 split of the duties, which means more games like the one we saw in Week 13. It also means that it’s hard to trust either during the fantasy playoffs. If we get word later this week that the Chiefs are abandoning the committee, which would likely only be in favor of returning West to a workhorse role, we can revisit the situation. Short of that, you’re going to want to go in another direction in Week 14.
Brandon LaFell, WR, Patriots
LaFell had one more chance to impress the fantasy community last week. He had been largely ineffective since returning from the PUP list, but, with Rob Gronkowski on the shelf, it stood to reason that he would get more targets and have a greater presence for the Patriots in the red zone last week against the Eagles. So much for that. LaFell did get nine targets, but he caught just four of them for 27 yards.
Danny Amendola, meanwhile, had another solid game, and this one likely at less than 100%. Gronkowski could return this week, but, with regard to LaFell, it really doesn’t matter if he’s out there or not. LaFell and Brady aren’t even in the same book, let alone on the same page. It’s always tempting to get a Patriot in your starting lineup, but you can’t just shoehorn one in and hope for the best. As deep as the receiver position is, you should be able to do better than LaFell. Consider him no more than a low-end WR4.
Todd Gurley, RB, Rams
The great Todd Gurley Downturn of 2015 continued unabated last week. He actually had a solid yards-per-carry performance for the first time in more than a month, picking up 4.6 yards on his average rush. Unfortunately, he ran the ball just nine times with the Rams trailing by at least two scores for the entire second half.
The overall ineptitude of the St. Louis offense is curbing Gurley’s value, and if significant changes aren’t made in the offseason, the same could be said next year. For now, we need to concern ourselves with Gurley’s prospects for the next three weeks. It doesn’t matter if Case Keenum or Nick Foles starts for the Rams. Defenses are going to throw eight-man fronts at them, and dare the quarterback to beat them. On top of that, the Rams have tough matchups looming in Week 15 and 16 with the Buccaneers (second in rush defense DVOA) and Seahawks (11th). Gurley’s always going to boast a high ceiling, but I wouldn’t bet on him being more than a low-end RB1. Even that feels like a longshot.
DeMarco Murray, RB, Eagles
Remember that Murray resurgence in the middle of the season? Those sure were the days, weren’t they Murray owners? At this point, he cannot be trusted in any but the deepest of leagues. Murray got just eight carries in the win over the Patriots last week, totaling 24 yards. He didn’t have a target in the passing game, and got fewer carries than Darren Sproles and Kenjon Barner. With Ryan Mathews likely to return from his concussion this week, it’s entirely possible Murray will remain no higher than third in the pecking order. Mathews is the odds-on-favorite to be the feature back this week, making him the lone Eagle runner you should consider for your starting lineups. There’s just too much uncertainty in Philadelphia, and even if Murray is somehow back in pole position, the ceiling isn’t that high.
Photos: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images (Baldwin), Alex Goodlett/Getty Images (Parker), Gregory Shamus/Getty Images (Hill), Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images (Chiefs), Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images (Gurley)