Week 3 of the NFL preseason—when Tony Romo broke a bone in his back after an awkward hit from Seattle’s Cliff Avril—feels like a lifetime ago. At the time, the dramatic turn felt like it was for the worse for the Cowboys. Rookie QB Dak Prescott had played quite well up to that point of the preseason, but even his strongest supporters couldn’t be sure how that would carry over to the regular season.
Fast forward almost three months. If and when Romo is able to return, he will do so as a backup. Prescott has looked every bit as good as he did in the preseason and then some, leading the Cowboys to a 7–1 record and to the top of the NFC East at the halfway point of the regular season. Prescott has completed 66.5% of his passes for 2,020 yards, 8.15 yards per attempt and 12 touchdowns against two interceptions. He has added another element to the Dallas offense by running for 125 yards and four touchdowns, teaming with Ezekiel Elliott to give the Cowboys a tandem of rookies the likes of which we haven’t seen before in the NFL.
Prescott has been just as good in the fantasy world. The rookie out of Mississippi State is ninth among quarterbacks in total points and seventh in points per game in standard-scoring leagues. He has scored at least 17.5 points in all but one game, and that was his NFL debut. Prescott’s two best fantasy games came in the last two weeks, when he scored 28.28 and 23.88 points. He has been remarkably efficient, posting five games with at least 9.0 YPA, making him the 11th quarterback in NFL history with at least five such performances in his rookie year. Of course, Prescott has eight games left to reach Matt Ryan’s rookie record of eight games with at least 9.0 YPA
It’s time to admit that Prescott is a safe QB1. He might be toward the low end of that class, but you now have to look for a reason to bench him, not one to start him. The Cowboys visit the Steelers in what will be one of the marquee games of the week for both fantasy and real-life purposes. The game has an over/under of 49.5 points, which is one of the highest totals on the board this week. Prescott is a must-start for his owners.
Eli Manning (vs. Cincinnati)
Manning threw for 257 yards and four touchdowns in a big win over the Eagles last week, his third game this season with at least three touchdown passes. It has been a year characterized by fits and starts for Manning, but the fact that the offense came out firing through the air after its bye week is a great sign. He gets a Bengals defense on Monday night that has allowed the fifth-most standard-league points per game to quarterbacks, with all but two passers, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ryan Tannehill, scoring at least 17.5 points against them. Manning is in a great spot this week.
Jameis Winston (vs. Chicago)
Winston’s efficiency this year leaves something to be desired, especially for a No. 1 overall pick in his second year in the league. He has completed fewer than 60% of his passes for 6.66 YPA. What he is doing is finding the end zone with regularity, throwing 17 touchdown passes in eight games. He’s almost following the Blake Bortles career arc to perfection, which isn’t a good thing. Still, he’s worth a play against Chicago this week, a team woefully undermanned to slow down Mike Evans. The big receiver will help carry Winston to a top-10 finish at the quarterback position.
Trevor Siemian (at New Orleans)
This is mostly a matchup play, but oh what a matchup it is. The Saints have allowed the 10th-most points per game to quarterbacks, and are ill equipped to slow down a receiver duo like Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. As great as Denver’s defense is, Drew Brees is a force in the Superdome, and the bet here is he still manages to throw up 24 or 27 points. That’s certainly what Vegas expects, with an over/under of 48.5 and the Saints favored by 2.5 points. As Brees and the New Orleans passing game goes, so, too, will Siemian have to try to make sure the Denver one can match it. He’s one of the best streamers this week, along with Jay Cutler and Carson Wentz.
Joe Flacco (vs. Cleveland)
Flacco is also a popular streamer this week, but I’m not so confident in the Baltimore signal caller. Sure, his best game of the season came in the first meeting between the Ravens and Browns in Week 2, throwing for 302 yards and two touchdowns. He also got just 6.71 YPA and tossed two interceptions. In his 293 pass attempts that have not come against the Browns, Flacco has four touchdown passes. The matchup isn’t enough to push Flacco over the hump. He’s an easy start in superflex leagues, but Siemian, Cutler and Wentz are all superior streamers.
Kirk Cousins (vs. Minnesota)
You already know that the Vikings present a terrible matchup for any quarterback. The most telling number is the 6.11 YPA they’ve allowed this season. In other words, it’s incredibly hard to be efficient against Minnesota, and efficiency is what drives quarterback fantasy scoring. Cousins has been better than I expected him to be this year, but he still ranks just 14th in total points and 17th in points per game. He lives on the QB1/2 border, and a matchup with Minnesota pushes him safely into QB2 territory.
Blake Bortles (vs. Houston)
Bortles is the king of garbage time, somehow scoring the 11th-most points and 10th-most points per game at the quarterback position, despite arguably being the worst starting quarterback in the league from a real-life perspective. A garbage-time bonanza is always a possibility, but it’s not something fantasy owners should be counting on from their quarterback. What’s more likely is that Bortles and the Jacksonville passing game gets shut down by a Houston defense that has surrendered the second-fewest points per game to quarterbacks this season.
Chris Ivory (vs. Houston)
Ivory injected some life into the Jacksonville rushing attack last week, something the team has sorely missed all season. He ran for 107 yards on 18 carries, and was robbed of a touchdown on a botched replay review. The Jaguars have been desperate for a pulse on the ground this season, so they’d be foolish to go away from Ivory when the meet the Texans this week. As long as game script allows, we have to figure that Ivory will get at least 15 or 16 touches on Sunday. Houston has been far more vulnerable to the run than the pass this year, surrendering the 11th-most points per game to running backs in standard-scoring leagues.
Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard (at New York Giants)
The running back ranks have thinned out over the weeks, making it awfully hard to ignore a couple of known commodities like Hill and Bernard. The duo has had plenty of parallel success in its time together, and Bengals-Giants figures to be one of the higher-scoring games in Week 10. The Giants have been about league average against running backs this year, but they’ve also faced a relatively easy slate that has included Minnesota (after Adrian Peterson’s injury), Washington, Green Bay, Baltimore, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Hill and Bernard will present a far greater challenge on Monday.
Tim Hightower (vs. Denver)
We need to take everything Hightower and Mark Ingram did last week with a grain of salt, given that the 49ers could end up as the worst run defense in NFL history. The good news for those of you who bought Hightower off the waiver wire last week is that the committee doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. It’s unlikely that the game script will allow Hightower and Ingram to combine for 38 carries like it did a week ago, but something in the high-20s is realistic. Again, both project as RB2s against a Denver defense that has allowed the seventh-most points per game to running backs.
Peyton Barber (vs. Chicago)
For now, let’s assume Doug Martin misses one more week because of his hamstring injury. On its face, this would seem a great matchup for Barber, who would then handle the entire workload for the Buccaneers this week. Chicago is 2-6 and has the sixth-worst point differential in the league. The Bears, however, have been tough on running backs this year, surrendering the fourth-fewest fantasy points per game to the position. They’ve allowed just 3.74 yards per carry and have completely shut down backs through the air. The only backs to score double-digit fantasy points against them this season are Lamar Miller, Ezekiel Elliott and Ryan Mathews, the latter of which did so thanks to two short-yardage touchdowns. Barber needs to volume his way to RB2 numbers, and that’s something I’m not willing to bet on happening.
Darren Sproles (vs. Atlanta)
Sproles is officially the lead back in Philadelphia, with the word handed down from on high by Doug Pederson. What that exactly looks like is up for debate. We know that Sproles is not a back who’s going to handle 15-carry games week in, week out. He’s not built that way and he’s 33 years old. He’s still big-play dependant, creating a boom-or-bust nature that isn’t going to go away simply because he’s in command of the backfield. His ceiling sits at low-end RB2 and flex play, but the meat of his range of outcomes is in RB3 territory.
Rob Kelley (vs. Minnesota)
Jay Gruden anointed Kelley his starter after the rookie ran for 87 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries against the Bengals in London two weeks ago. Matt Jones looms behind him on the depth chart, however, and Chris Thompson will handle all the passing-down duties. That likely caps Kelley’s touch ceiling around 20, with 14 to 16 more likely. Minnesota, meanwhile, has allowed the 10th-fewest points per game to running backs this year. One player, Jordan Howard, accounts for more than one-fifth of the points backs have put up against the Vikings. Kelley is an easy sit this week.
Stefon Diggs (at Washington)
If you’re in a PPR league, you were thrilled with what you got from Diggs last week. The second-year receiver out of Maryland caught 13 of his 14 targets for 80 yards, setting a new career high for single-game receptions. Diggs hasn’t turned up on the Vikings injury report in four weeks. In those four games, he has 37 catches for 441 yards and two touchdowns. In the three where he has been on the injury report, he has 11 catches for 105 yards (and one missed game). Diggs is not on the injury report this week. Get him in there with confidence.
Julian Edelman (vs. Seattle)
Edelman has been the one key member of the Patriots offense who hasn’t shared any of the individual glory since Tom Brady’s return. In four games with Brady under center, Edelman has 22 catches for 162 yards and one touchdown, which is just 5.55 points per game in standard-scoring leagues. He can’t be this quiet forever, and with the Seahawks likely keyed on Rob Gronkowski, this is the perfect week for Edelman to break out. Remember, Seattle’s perimeter defenders are excellent, which can open up some opportunities for Brady in the middle of the field. That is Edelman’s bailiwick.
Rishard Matthews (vs. Green Bay)
Over his last five games, Matthews has 21 catches for 240 yards and five touchdowns. His touchdown rate has to decrease, but the fact that his role has grown over the last month is great news for his backers. Matthews played 87% of Tennessee’s snaps two weeks ago, and 89% of them last week. With Marcus Mariota taking another step seemingly every week, Matthews’s fantasy value is clearly on the rise. The Packers, meanwhile, have allowed the eighth-most points per game to receivers, and this game has an over/under of 49.
Steve Smith (vs. Cleveland)
Smith returned to the field last week after a two-game absence because of an ankle injury. He looked mostly like himself, catching four passes for 47 yards and playing all but 12 of Baltimore’s 70 snaps. He may not command as much of Joe Flacco’s attention as he did last year with Mike Wallace enjoying a fine season, but Smith is the most consistent presence in the Ravens passing attack. He’s a good bet for at least seven or eight targets on Thursday against a Cleveland defense that has allowed the ninth-most points per game to receivers.
Willie Snead (vs. Denver)
Drew Brees playing at home may prove to be the toughest test for the Denver defense all regular season, but chances are he won’t be able to bring along all of his receivers. There’s a clear hierarchy in New Orleans, and it has Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas tied at the top, with Snead running a distant third. There are weeks when all three are worthy fantasy starters. This is not one of those weeks. In nine games, the Broncos have yet to allow a 100-yard receiver and have had just two receivers score double-digit fantasy points against them.
DeSean Jackson (vs. Minnesota)
Forget about the matchup with Minnesota, which we know is going to be hard to navigate. Jackson has been largely non-existent this season. He has just one touchdown and hasn’t topped 60 yards since Week 3. Over his last five games, he has 16 receptions for 178 yards, which translates to a paltry 3.56 standard-league points per game. There’s simply no way to believe in him from a fantasy perspective this week.
J.J. Nelson (vs. San Francisco)
Nelson is gaining steam in the fantasy world after the last two weeks, during which he has hauled in 11 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns. The problem, however, is that Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson hog so much of the spotlight in the Arizona offense. Even though Nelson has passed Michael Floyd on the depth chart, he still has to contend with John Brown, and it’s not as though Floyd is a complete afterthought. Plus, with San Francisco’s struggles against the run, Johnson could rack up 30-plus carries. If Nelson doesn’t do it early, he won’t do it at all.
Quincy Enunwa (vs. Los Angeles)
It’s hard to be efficient as a pass-catcher on the Jets this season with Ryan Fitzpatrick turning the ball over on seemingly every other possession. Volume is critical for Enunwa and Brandon Marshall, and the former just isn’t getting it. He has had four targets in two of his last three games, and caught just one pass last week. Enunwa hasn’t had more than four receptions in a game since Week 4, and he typically isn’t the style of player who can turn a couple of receptions into a big fantasy performance. He should be considered a WR4 this week.
C.J. Fiedorowicz (at Jacksonville)
The Fiedorowicz train kept rumbling right along in Houston’s last game, with the big tight end catching five of his seven targets for 43 yards and a touchdown. Over his last five games, which coincides when he took over as the primary tight end, he has 24 grabs for 272 yards and three scores, good for 9.04 points per game. If that average reflected all eight of Houston’s games, he’d be second among tight ends in total points and fourth in points per game. Simply put, Fiedorowicz is locked in as a TE1.
Zach Miller (at Tampa Bay)
In Jay Cutler’s return to action two weeks ago Miller racked up 10 targets, catching seven of them for 88 yards in what looked to be a tough spot against the Vikings. Cutler made great use of his tight end in the second half last year after Martellus Bennett’s injury, and it’s clear that he intends to do the same this season. Like Fiedorowicz, Miller is trending in the right direction. Bears-Buccaneers has a chance to be a sneakily high-scoring game, as well.
Antonio Gates (vs. Miami)
The ageless Gates shined again last week, catching five passes for 75 yards and a touchdown. With Hunter Henry potentially out again because of a knee injury, Gates could have the tight end spot all to himself. That has been the case for three weeks now, and the 36-year-old has 28 targets in that time. He likely won’t be able to help but post TE1 numbers with that sort of volume.
Gary Barnidge (at Baltimore)
Barnidge is a low-ceiling player this season, even more so with Cody Kessler back under center for the Browns. He had four catches for 37 yards the first time the Browns and Ravens played this season, numbers that have been par for the course for tight ends against Baltimore. The Ravens have allowed the second-fewest points to the position this year, most notably holding Jordan Reed to 53 yards on eight catches.
Martellus Bennett (vs. Seattle)
Since exploding for 67 yards and three touchdowns in Tom Brady’s first game of the season, Bennett has all of 10 catches for 88 yards in three games. The only sure things in the New England offense are Brady and Rob Gronkowski, and this sets up as a bad matchup for Bennett. The Seahawks have allowed the third-fewest points per game to tight ends. Julian Edelman is a much better weapon in the middle of the field against a this brand of defense.
Zach Ertz (vs. Atlanta)
I’ll admit that everything points to Ertz being a top-10 tight end this week. He got re-integrated into the offense a week ago, catching eight passes for 97 yards, and the Falcons have allowed the fifth-most fantasy points per game to tight ends this season. Still, his role has been so inconsistent that he’s hard to trust, no matter your fantasy format. Before last week’s 97-yard game he had 150 yards all season. It’s possible the Eagles retooled the offense to get Ertz a larger role, but I believe what I saw for five weeks more than what I saw for one, especially considering Ertz’s proclivity to let down his fantasy owners during his four-year career.
Defenses to stream
Houston Texans (at Jacksonville)
Hello Blake Bortles. The Jacksonville quarterback has 10 interceptions and two fumbles in eight games this season, making the Jaguars an attractive stream opponent. The team has had a ton of trouble running the ball, as well, so it may have no choice but to put the ball in Bortles hands 35-plus times. Houston should be ready to take advantage.
San Diego Chargers (vs. Miami)
This is going to sound like a broken record, but I harp on it every week because it’s true. When in doubt, trust a defense tied to a team that is favored and playing at home. The Chargers are laying four points to the Dolphins in San Diego this week. Miami’s offensive line has been excellent, but with Joey Bosa wreaking havoc on the end of San Diego’s defense, the Chargers have been able to get after the passer with consistency. Few stream defenses are perfect, and the Chargers fall into that group. They are, however, a top-10 option this week.