We’ve reached the final edition of Risers and Sliders for the 2015 season. These risers, however, is possibly the most important batch of the year. Anyone climbing up season-long rankings boards this week could be a player who ends up winning you a fantasy championship. The first two players on the list certainly fit that bill, and both of them spent time this season completely off the fantasy radar. Only one of them was even draftable back in the summer, and he was no more than late-round flier. The other wouldn’t have crashed the party if not for an injury to one of the biggest names in the NFL. Such is life in the fantasy football world.
David Johnson, RB, Cardinals
Johnson has played three games as the starter this season. In those games, he has rushed for 378 yards, caught 11 passes for 94 yards, and scored four total touchdowns. That translates to 23.73 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. Johnson is turning himself into a top pick for 2016, but he still has plenty of work left to do this season. He’s our No. 1 running back for Week 16, and while it’s still early in the week and we will be making changes here and there as we get closer to Sunday, he won’t budge. Johnson owns a key role in perhaps the most bankable offense in the NFL, and has proven himself adept in four key facets of the game for running backs. Johnson showed the world long ago he can convert at the goal line with regularity. His 47-yard touchdown run in the win over the Eagles flashed his big-play ability. That Johnson has 11 receptions in his three starts and 30 total on the year displays that he can be a threat catching the ball. Finally, his pass-blocking efficiency, according to Pro Football Focus, is 86.4%, a rate that doesn’t place him among the league leaders, but is certainly one teams can live with when you consider what he does on the ground and through the air. When the Cardinals and Packers take the field on Sunday, Johnson will be the most dangerous fantasy player. Given that last year’s MVP and an MVP candidate this year will be on that field, as well, that’s saying a whole lot about how far Johnson has come in his rookie year.
Charcandrick West, RB, Chiefs
Let’s take a look at another three-game sample. West has been back for three games since suffering a hamstring injury a little more than a month ago. He ran for 35 yards on nine carries in the first one, in which he was just getting his feet wet again. He picked up 54 yards on 10 carries in the second one, but it was a sloppy track in Kansas City that week, and it didn’t make a ton of sense to risk re-injury for West given the conditions. Last week, with Spencer Ware active-in-name-only, West racked up 76 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. Ware could very well be 100% this week, but that won’t matter. West is safely atop the depth chart in Kansas City, which is exactly where he belongs with Jamaal Charles on the shelf. The second-year back out of Abilene Christian has four games with at least 15 carries this season. In those games, he has 352 rushing yards, 11 catches, 145 receiving yards and five total touchdowns, good for an average of 19.93 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. The Chiefs draw the Browns this week, a team that ranks 29th in Football Outsiders DVOA against the rush, and has surrendered the eighth-most fantasy points to running backs. In Week 16, David Johnson and Charcandrick West are our top-two running backs. It’s a wild world, and fantasy universe, that we inhabit.
Karlos Williams, RB, Bills
Did you hold onto Williams after grabbing him when he was of fantasy relevance earlier in the season? Congratulations, you just stumbled into an RB1 for the fantasy championship. LeSean McCoy will almost certainly miss this week’s game against the Cowboys after suffering a sprained knee last week. That will leave Williams as the team’s workhorse, a role in which he has thrived this season. Williams has just two games with double-digit touches this season. In those games, he has 180 yards from scrimmage and a pair of touchdowns. Add in what Williams has done in limited doses all season, and there’s reason to believe he could be a true season-long starter for a team if given the chance. All that matters for fantasy owners is what he might do on Sunday. The Cowboys are 26th in rush DVOA and have surrendered the sixth-most fantasy points to running backs this season. Williams should be locked into your lineups this week.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Bills
Doug Baldwin has hogged all the, “Hottest Receiver in the League” headlines of late, but Watkins isn’t that far behind him from production standpoint. Over the last four weeks, Watkins has 19 catches for 459 yards and six touchdowns. That comes out to 17.48 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. Watkins begged for more targets earlier in the year, a plea he shouldn’t have had to make, but it has certainly paid off for everyone involved. Through his first seven games, he had zero games with double-digit targets. He has had three in the last four weeks, and the results speak for themselves. No receiver is going to consistently produce when he’s getting the 5.1 targets per game Watkins was in his first seven contests this season. He’s up to nine per game in his last four, and he has been, unsurprisingly, one of the best receivers in the league in that span. He should keep that rolling against Dallas on Sunday, and that helps to make the Bills one of my favorite fantasy investments for championship week.
Jordan Reed, TE, Redskins
Where will Reed rank at the tight end position for 2016? Rob Gronkowski is still the undisputed king of the hill, Greg Olsen is rock solid and is already north of 1,000 yards, and Tyler Eifert and Gary Barnidge broke out this season. Still, it’s hard to argue that there’s a tight end better, not named Gronkowski, than Reed. In 12 games this season, he has 74 receptions for 778 yards and nine touchdowns. That means 1,000-plus yards and 10-plus touchdowns is within his reach, though he would need a couple of big yardage games to wrap up the season to get there. Reed is fourth among tight ends in total points, but second in points per game. Health will always be a question for him, but as long as he’s on the field, he’s one of the truly elite tight ends in the league.
Ted Ginn, WR, Panthers
Speaking of that wild world and fantasy universe, how are you going to tell your kids the story of Ted Ginn, fantasy playoff hero? Ginn has six touchdowns over the last three weeks, placing his name in the fantasy playoff MVP discussion. He has 28 targets in that time, catching 13 of them for 285 yards. What’s even more remarkable about that target number is that Ginn had just three targets in the middle game, meaning he had 25 in the two bookends. Olsen may be Cam Newton’s favorite target, but Ginn is the vertical threat in the offense. With the way Newton is playing, that makes the ninth-year player out of Ohio State a must-start receiver in the fantasy championship. The Panthers visit Atlanta this week, taking on a Falcons team that is 24th in pass DVOA this season. The first meeting between these teams was just two weeks ago, when Ginn turned his three targets into 120 yards and two scores.
Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions
It’s entirely possible that Ginn is a better play in Week 16 than Johnson, a reality no one thought we’d ever confront. Johnson has a total of two catches the last two weeks. I don’t know if that or the fact that he has just six targets in those two games is worse. What I do know is that Johnson has turned into a WR2 this season, and he seems to be slowing down at just the wrong time for his fantasy owners. Since his three-touchdown game against the Eagles on Thanksgiving, Johnson has five catches for 79 yards and a score. It’d be one thing if the Detroit offense were completely dormant in that timeframe, but it has scored 72 points, highlighted by a 35-point outburst against the Saints last week. Johnson had one catch for 19 yards in that game. It’d be awfully hard to bench Johnson on Sunday, but it’s something you can consider, depending on your wide receiver and flex depth.
Chris Ivory, RB, Jets
Ivory will go down as one of 2016’s success stories, regardless of how Week 16 goes for him. He enters the week sixth among running backs in total points and 10th in points per game, following through on the breakout potential so many believed he had back in the summer. Still, there’s no way to ignore that he has slowed down considerably in the second half, a decline hastened by the return of Bilal Powell. Since Powell came back from injury in Week 11, he has outgained Ivory in three of five games, and outscored him, in fantasy terms, four times. Powell has 393 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns over the Jets’ last five games. Ivory has 365 total yards and one score. In his first eight games of the season, Ivory averaged 15.24 points in standard-scoring leagues. In his last five, he has put up just 8.5 points in a typical contest. That’s largely thanks to Powell’s presence, and with a game against the high-flying Patriots looming, the run game could once again take a backseat to Ryan Fitzpatrick. That would be bad news for Ivory and his fantasy owners.
Ronnie Hillman, RB, Broncos
This is about as academic as any slider this season. Hillman enjoyed an eight-game stretch in the middle of the season in which he had at least 11 points in standard-scoring leagues six times. He hasn’t had more than 6.1 points in a game over the last three weeks, a direct result of the Denver offense struggling to find a solid foothold with Brock Osweiler under center. What’s even more troubling for Hillman owners is that C.J. Anderson, for all intents and purposes, hasn’t had a role over this three-game sample, and Hillman still hasn’t been able to do anything meaningful. Remember, before this season, the most carries Hillman had in a year was 106. He’s already up to 183 this year, and could be hitting a wall. It’s hard to have a ton of confidence in him this week, with the Broncos hosting a Bengals team that is 10th in rush defense DVOA.
Latavius Murray, RB, Raiders
Murray’s slider status isn’t quite as academic as Hillman’s but he, too, has sputtered in the second half of the season. Hillman hasn’t rushed for 100 yards since the final day of the 2015 World Series and has just two touchdowns since Halloween. In that same timeframe, he has had four games with fewer than 60 yards, and hasn’t topped 100 yards from scrimmage once. Murray had a total 99 touches last season. He’s up to 268 this year. It would be neither a surprise, nor a dishonor, if the wear and tear was getting to him. Oakland does have a good matchup with the Chargers in town this weekend, but Murray’s recent production places him in low-end RB2 range for the fantasy championship.
Photos: Elsa/Getty Images (David Johnson), Patrick Smith/Getty Images (Watkins), Jonathan Bachman/AP (Calvin Johnson), Gregory Shamus/Getty Images (Hillman)