Every season, a handful of lightly regarded fantasy players surprisingly turn into playoff heroes. They don’t necessarily emerge from complete obscurity, but rarely is it only the Le’Veon Bells and Ezekiel Elliotts of the world who lead their owners to titles.
Last year, after running for 238 yards through the first 13 weeks of the season, David Johnson led the NFL in rushing from Week 14 through 16, totaling 318 yards while making four trips to the end zone. He came out of nowhere to lead his owners to championships last season.
So, too, did Tim Hightower, who took over as the starter in New Orleans after Mark Ingram’s injury and ran for 261 yards and three scores. Isaiah Crowell posted two big games in the fantasy playoffs, racking up 256 yards and three touchdowns. Meanwhile, the good times kept rolling for Doug Baldwin who led all backs and receivers with six touchdowns during the three weeks of the fantasy playoffs. Ted Ginn and Golden Tate both hit pay dirt four times, putting exclamation points on what had been solid, though not spectacular seasons.
It was Kirk Cousins, however, who was last year’s fantasy MVP. Cousins scored at least 22.3 points in all three fantasy playoff weeks last year, twice surpassing the 30-point mark. All told, he threw for 984 yards and nine touchdowns, adding two scores on the ground for a total of 88.36 standard-league points, or 29.45 points per game. During the fantasy regular season, Cousins averaged 14.85 points per game. Anyone who improbably stuck with him through that likely raised a fantasy championship trophy last season.
Three weeks from now, the fantasy community will exalt the players who shined during the playoffs. The following 10 players could be this year’s Cousins, Johnson and Baldwin.
Jameis Winston, QB, Buccaneers
Winston isn’t quite as far off the radar as Cousins was a season ago. He’s 10th among quarterbacks in total points, 14th in points per game and owned in four out of every five leagues. Still, he has been up and down this season and is far from a sure thing from a fantasy perspective. He has two big factors working in his favor. First, Winston has been remarkably efficient of late, throwing for at least 7.86 yards per attempt in his last four games, and at least 8.49 YPA in three of those games. Second, the Buccaneers will meet the Saints two times in the next three weeks. Those both figure to be high-scoring games, with the Saints struggling mightily to slow down Mike Evans and Cameron Brate. Winston is a strong bet to be a top-10 quarterback with top-five upside both of those weeks, and he gets a friendly enough matchup with the Cowboys in Week 15.
Tyrod Taylor, QB, Bills
I’d like to give a tip of the hat to Chris Trapasso of NFL.com, who’s an excellent follow on Twitter, for the following stat: In 12 games with Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods healthy, Taylor has completed 62.9% of his passes for 8.25 YPA, 21 touchdowns and five interceptions. In 14 games that at least one of them has missed, he has a 61.5% completion percentage for 6.55 YPA, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. Guess who’s healthy for the Bills right now? Taylor always has a high rushing floor, and with Watkins and Woods on the field, he’s set to unleash a strong three-week run against the Steelers, Browns and Dolphins. I predicted Taylor would be a top-five quarterback this season. That didn’t come to fruition, due in part to Watkins’s foot injury, but he just might be one across your three most important games of the season.
Jonathan Stewart, RB, Panthers
It has been a nightmare season for the Panthers, who will almost certainly miss the playoffs after going to the Super Bowl last year. Stewart has been an effective fantasy running back, though, ranking 20th in points per game among backs who have played at least nine games. The Panthers have the softest schedule against the run remaining, with matchups against the Chargers, Redskins and Falcons in the fantasy playoffs. Those three defenses have allowed the eighth-, sixth- and fourth-most fantasy points to running backs this season. So long as the games remain competitive, Stewart is going to play a large role. He has RB1 juice for the rest of the year.
Latavius Murray, RB, Raiders
Murray is turning into a workhorse for the Raiders and his fantasy owners at the perfect time of the season. He played a season-high 70% of the team’s snaps last week, running for 82 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. The Raiders are likely on their way to the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season, and are finally sticking with what works in the backfield. DeAndre Washington has been a healthy scratch the last two weeks, helping Murray into a feature role. His remaining schedule features matchups with the Chiefs, Chargers and Colts, the latter two of which are both soft run defenses. No matter the matchups, though, Murray is trending in the right direction in terms of usage. There is top-five upside here.
Todd Gurley, RB, Rams
If everything went according to plan this season, Gurley would have been ineligible for this list. After a phenomenal rookie year, Gurley was a consensus first-round pick, with plenty of fantasy writers suggesting he should be the No. 1 selection. I was not in that group, but I did have him pegged as an easy top-three running back. That, of course, has not happened. Gurley ranks 20th among backs in total points and 28th in points per game, and he has yet to rush for 100 yards in a game this season. Wouldn’t it be the perfect illustration of fantasy football, though, if he came through with a huge playoff performance? Well, guess what? The schedule sets up quite nicely for him. The Rams play the Falcons this week, a defense that has surrendered the fourth-most points to running backs. After a tough draw with the Seahawks in Week 15, the Rams host the 49ers, the worst run defense in football, during fantasy championship week. If you’ve survived the regular season with Gurley, congratulations are in order. He might finally pay those RB1 dividends you were expecting last summer.
Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Patriots
If last week was any indication, Mitchell is going to have quite the lucrative role in the Patriots’ offense with Rob Gronkowski unavailable. Mitchell caught eight of his 10 targets for 82 yards last week, and his average depth of target was down at 6.2 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s a clear indication of the Patriots trying to scheme the ball into his hands. Mitchell remains a dangerous deep threat, but it seems the Patriots will deploy him all over the field for the rest of the season. Two of the Patriots’ remaining games are against the Ravens and Jets, who both sit near the top of the league in run defense. Tom Brady could very well throw the ball 40-plus times in both of those games, giving Mitchell all the opportunities in the world to be a fantasy playoff hero.
Jamison Crowder, WR, Redskins
Crowder has done his best Eric Decker impression, at least in terms of stat lines, all season, posting a touchdown or at least 80 yards in nine of 12 games. Crowder’s consistency has turned him into a reliable weekly starter, but there’s good reason to believe that he will bring a higher ceiling into the fantasy playoffs. For one thing, Jordan Reed is still dealing with a shoulder injury. In the three games Reed has missed this year, Crowder has 13 catches for 202 yards and two touchdowns. Additionally, Washington plays Carolina and Chicago in Weeks 15 and 16, two of the friendlier pass defenses in the league. Should Kirk Cousins repeat his fantasy playoff heroics of last season, you can bet that Crowder will be right there alongside him.
Kenny Britt, WR, Rams
Given the offensive environment around him in Los Angeles, Britt’s 2016 performance has been a near-miracle. The eighth-year receiver is enjoying his finest season, catching 56 passes for 855 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games. He’s on pace for 74 catches, 1,140 yards and six touchdowns (rounding down to the nearest whole number), despite being tied to an offense that ranks 29th in the league in passing and dead last in points. Like his teammate Gurley, he has one terrible matchup with the Seahawks in Week 15, but will be an easy fantasy starter against the Falcons this week and 49ers in Week 16. There’s potential here for him to be an elite fantasy performer over the next three weeks.
Ladarius Green, TE, Steelers
Green’s concussion issues robbed the fantasy community of what should have been his first full season with the Steelers, but he’s here to become a playoff star. Green caught six passes for 110 yards and a touchdown in the Steelers’ 24–14 win over the Giants last week. He’s the third option behind Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell in an offense that is more than capable of supporting three non-quarterback fantasy-relevant players every week. The tight end position has thinned out with injuries to Gronkowski and Reed, but we’re not concerned with low-end starters in this space. Green has all the makings of a top-five tight end for the rest of the season.
Hunter Henry, TE, Chargers
Now here’s one that would truly come out of nowhere. Henry has given way to Antonio Gates, with the veteran playing more snaps in all of the Chargers last five games. Henry missed one of those games due to injury and has a total of just 10 targets in the other four. Still, Philip Rivers looks his direction in the red zone, with the rookie hitting pay dirt twice in his last three games despite his decreased role in the offense. The Chargers face the Panthers, Raiders and Browns over the next three weeks—they rank first, 11th and fourth, respectively, in terms of most fantasy points allowed to tight ends this season. Henry may not rack up a ton of targets, but Gates has really struggled the last few weeks, and the Arkansas product remains involved in the offense to a noticeable degree. Remember, no one expected Tim Hightower to be a playoff hero last season, and then the games happened. Henry has that ability this season.