1. Devonta Freeman at Titans
Holy hat, what a year this guy is having. It’s early, yes, but Freeman is conjuring memories of 2006 LaDainian Tomlinson, 1998 Terrell Davis and 1973 O.J. Simpson. But must the comps begin and end with great seasons by running backs? Freeman has thus far been the fantasy equivalent of 1605 William Shakespeare, 1879 Thomas Edison or 1976 Peter Frampton. (Trust me, kids, Frampton was HUGE that year.)
Through six games, Freeman has racked up 801 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns. He’s churned out nine of those TDs in his last four games, a span in which he’s averaged 181.3 yards from scrimmage. Can he continue to produce such gaudy numbers? Well, the Matt Ryan–Julio Jones connection discourages opponents from stacking the box to stop the run, and Football Outsiders’ metrics indicate that Atlanta’s offensive line has been one of the better run-blocking units in the league. The Falcons visit Tennessee this weekend, and Freeman will face a Titans defense that’s being gouged for 129.6 rushing yards per game.
2. Cam Newton vs. Eagles
Newton has been the MacGyver of fantasy football this year, capable of creating wondrous things out of ordinary materials. Newton was pushed down fantasy draft boards in August because of legitimate concerns that the season-ending knee injury to Kelvin Benjamin left the cupboard bare at wide receiver. Ted Ginn Jr. makes the occasional play but is woefully inefficient, with 13 receptions on 29 targets this season for a 44.8% catch rate. Rookie Devin Funchess is raw, Philly Brown has ping-pong paddles for hands and Jerricho Cotchery is barely clinging to NFL life. The only dependable tool in Newton’s kit is tight end Greg Olsen, who probably deserves to be targeted 25 times per game.
Yet somehow, Newton ranks fourth among quarterbacks in fantasy points per game, behind only Tom Brady, Andy Dalton and Aaron Rodgers. Of course, much of Cam’s fantasy value depends on his legs. He’s averaging 45 rushing yards per game and has three TD runs. Newton is completing only 55.4% of his passes, and his current mark of 6.87 yards per pass attempt would be the lowest of his career, but Newton has never been a pinpoint passer. (And for crying out loud, his best wide receiver is Ted Ginn Jr.!) Newton and the Panthers begin a three-game homestand Sunday against the Eagles.
3. Christine Michael at Giants
Coming out of their bye week, the Cowboys have all but announced a changing of the guard at running back. Joseph Randle’s overall numbers aren’t terrible, but take away his first three runs of the day against the Falcons in Week 3, and Randle would be averaging 2.9 yards per carry. Team officials have been straightforward about wanting to get Michael more involved. “We’re going to take the reins off and let him rock,” Cowboys running backs coach Gary Brown said last week.
Observers have long touted Michael’s talent, but his inability to push past Robert Turbin on the Seahawks’ depth chart the last two seasons was mystifying, and with little more than preseason work to go on, it’s hard to handicap Michael’s chances to succeed in a substantial role. The Dallas offensive line is terrific, which will help. But Randle isn’t entirely out of the picture, and opponents will continue to stack the box against the Cowboys until Week 11 at the earliest, when QB Tony Romo (shoulder) is eligible to come off the injured reserve/designated to return list.
4. Stefon Diggs at Lions
Vikings receiver Mike Wallace recently said that Diggs reminds him of Antonio Brown, Wallace’s former Steelers teammate. (Actually, Wallace reminded reporters that he’s been making this comparison since training camp, when Diggs’s skills quickly became evident.) Wallace says Diggs’s “routes are crazy” and also touts the rookie’s speed and hands. Unfortunately for Wallace, the comparison might be apt in another way: Brown made Wallace expendable in Pittsburgh, and Diggs might soon do the same to Wallace in Minnesota.
A fifth-round draft pick from Maryland, the 21-year-old Diggs has only been active for two games but already has 13 catches for 216 yards on 19 targets. Diggs was activated in Week 4 because of a rib injury to starter Charles Johnson, who had been a disappointment in his first few games. Diggs had seven catches for 129 yards against the Chiefs on Sunday, and this week he’ll face a Lions defense that’s giving up a league-worst 9.1 yards per pass attempt.
5. Philip Rivers vs. Raiders
Rivers already had been producing big yardage totals early in the season, but Antonio Gates’s return from a four-game suspension has put a little extra pep in the quarterback’s step. In the two games since Gates has been back, Rivers has thrown for 868 yards and four TDs. The 33-year-old Rivers is averaging 352.7 yards per game and is on pace to finish with 5,643, which would break Peyton Manning’s single-season record by 166 yards.
Rivers now has a pair of excellent pass catchers at his disposal. Gates has 18 receptions, 187 yards and two TDs over the last two weeks, but he has long been a star. Keenan Allen is new to the elite class, but his performance this season has left no doubt that he deserves that status. Allen already has 53 receptions for 601 yards and three TDs this season, and he scalded the Packers for 14 catches and 157 yards on Sunday. Rivers threw for a career-high 503 yards in the Chargers’ close loss at Lambeau Field, with 43 completions on 65 throws. Allen sustained a hip flexor injury in that game, but if he’s good to go this weekend, the Rivers-Allen-Gates triad will likely dismantle an Oakland defense that’s giving up 299.2 passing yards per game.
6. John Brown vs. Ravens
After a promising but somewhat unfulfilling five-game start, Brown devoured the Pittsburgh secondary like a Primanti Bros. sandwich last Sunday, catching 10 passes for 196 yards. It was the second-highest single-game yardage total by a receiver this season. (A.J. Green had 227 yards in Week 3.) Larry Fitzgerald has been having a magnificent season at age 32, but Fitz’s slender young running mate continues to establish himself as one of the NFL’s fastest and most dangerous playmakers. Brown has 33 catches for 497 yards and two TDs, and he’s drawn a hailstorm of yellow flags for pass interference.
Brown’s nickname is “Smokey,” which seems fitting for a Week 6 date with Baltimore, since the Ravens’ flammable defensive backfield has been burning like a brush fire all season. The Ravens are allowing 286.2 passing yards per game and have given up 11 TDs through the air.
7. Rob Gronkowski vs. Jets
Gronk ended a two-game scoring drought with a 25-yard touchdown catch against the Colts on Sunday night, but dare we say that everyone’s favorite bro is still in a bit of a slump? After detonating for 12 catches, 207 yards and four TDs in his first two games, Gronkowski has had no more than four receptions in any of his last three outings, and he’s accumulated “only” 117 yards in his last two games. For other tight ends, even top ones like Travis Kelce or Tyler Eifert, such numbers would be perfectly acceptable. But Gronk’s fantasy owners have come to expect outsize stats befitting his outsize personality.
The Patriots may need to get the big man more involved this weekend when they host the Jets, whose defense includes wideout-smothering corner Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. In two games against the Jets last year, Gronk was held to 11 catches for 99 yards and a TD, but Gang Green’s rugged defense hasn’t been especially good at defending opposing tight ends this season.
8. Lamar Miller vs. Texans
Dolphins fans may have had bigger issues with recently fired coach Joe Philbin, but Philbin’s sparing usage of Miller was often puzzling to the casual observer and maddening to Miller’s fantasy owners. Only once in 49 games under Philbin did Miller have 20 or more carries. In the four games before Philbin was shown the door this season, Miller averaged just 9.3 carries.
Interim Dolphins coach Dan Campbell was a blocking tight end for the Giants, Cowboys and Lions, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that he seems keen on reviving the moribund Miami running game. In Campbell’s head coaching debut last weekend, Miller carried 19 times for 113 yards and a TD in the Dolphins’ 38–10 pummeling of the Titans. Miller’s fantasy owners hope Campbell continues to make frequent use of Miller’s seemingly abundant talents when the Dolphins host the Texans on Sunday.
9. Andrew Luck vs. Saints
Luck’s fantasy owners haven’t quite gotten the return on investment they were seeking when they spent major draft capital on the bearded quarterback, but those owners might be treated to an all-you-can-eat numbers buffet when Luck and the Colts host the Saints on Sunday. New Orleans is allowing 271.5 passing yards per game and 8.6 yards per pass attempt. The Saints have conceded 11 TD passes and have just two INTs, and their opponent passer rating for the season is 106.8, the third-worst mark in the league.
Luck was ineffective in his first two games of the season, but he was facing two of the NFL’s better defenses in the Bills and Jets. He played slightly better against the Titans in Week 3 before missing two games with a shoulder injury. Luck’s shoulder seemed fine in Sunday night’s game against the Patriots, when he threw for 312 yards with three TDs and no INTs in a losing effort.
10. Chris Ivory at Patriots
Hey, ground-and-pound was supposed to be Rex Ryan’s thing. Does Todd Bowles have to pay a royalty? The bruising Ivory has carried the ball 49 times in his last two games, hammering out 312 rushing yards and two TDs. In four games this season (he missed one with quad/groin issues), Ivory is averaging 20.8 carries a game and 115 rushing yards. Last Sunday, against a normally sturdy Washington run defense, Ivory ran for 146 yards and a TD and added 50 receiving yards on three catches.
The Jets would love to keep the ball away from Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense this Sunday, so Bowles should probably pack Ivory a lunch pail. The New England run defense has given up 4.8 yards per carry, so Ivory should be able to do some business if the resurgent Jets can keep things close.
Photos: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images (Newton), Hannah Foslien/Getty Images (Diggs), Andy Lyons/Getty Images (Gronkowski)