With a few statistically insignificant exceptions, anyone playing fantasy football in Week 15 is one of the final four members in his or her league. At this stage of the season, there’s a misguided instinct to dance with the players who brought you this far. But there are substantive differences between now and, say, Week 3—we know more about the players, teams and offensive environments than we did then, for example—and just because something worked last week, or five of the last six weeks, doesn’t mean it will again this week.
You’ve made it to your league’s semifinals through a mix of factors. Yes, you’ve been good. You drafted smartly back in the summer, and remained intelligently active on the waiver wire all season. You’ve been lucky, too. You likely avoided serious injuries and had the good fortune of not being saddled with a schedule that resulted in a high points-against total. You’ve also paid attention to the shifting sands of the fantasy landscape and adjusted when necessary. Just because it’s Week 15 and the northern half of the country is frozen under a sheet of ice does not mean those sands stop moving under our feet. You must remain vigilant and understand the way usage and roles are still changing, even at this final stage of the NFL regular season.
While you, the semifinal-bound fantasy owner, were celebrating your Week 14 win or enjoying your bye week, those sands shifted yet again. Here is what you might have missed that will affect who wins and who loses in Week 15.
Devontae Booker lost his job
We’ve discussed for weeks the ways in which Booker is being exposed as a starter. It was relatively clear after just a few games in the premier role that he was better cast as a change-of-pace back and wasn’t suited to handling 20-plus carries in a game. After watching Booker trudge for 266 yards on 95 yards in five games as a starter, the Broncos finally had enough, bringing in Justin Forsett last week.
Forsett promptly lost a fumble on his first carry in a Broncos uniform. If the team had any faith in Booker that could have spelled the end of Forsett’s debut. Instead, the veteran led the Broncos backfield in carries, targets, receptions and total yards, while playing one fewer snap than Booker. All told, Booker had three carries for one yard and caught two passes for 10 yards. Given his tepid performance as a starter and Forsett’s presence—remember, Forsett had his one great year in Baltimore when Gary Kubiak was the Ravens offensive coordinator—it’s clear that no fantasy owner should be starting Booker for the rest of the season.
Don’t write off Alshon Jeffery
Jeffery will return to the Bears this week after serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Judging by his 70% ownership rate in Yahoo leagues, many of his previous owners are done with him this season. Do not join their ranks.
Jeffery and the Bears host Green Bay this week and Washington next week. Neither of those teams feature a dominant pass defense, and Jeffery is likely to have the upper hand in both matchups. Despite the fact that he has had precious little practice time with Matt Barkley, there’s no doubt that Jeffery is far and away the most talented player on Chicago’s roster, and Barkley will want to make good use of the weapon that is new to him. He may have missed a month, but we’re not talking about a rookie who’s desperate for reps, and he wasn’t injured. Jeffery should be able to hit the ground running on Sunday.
Furthermore, do not forget about what’s at stake for Jeffery. I tend to fade contract-year hype, but Jeffery bet on himself this season, playing this year on the franchise tag rather than succumbing to the Bears contract demands. Even before his PED suspension, that looked like a losing bet. He has three games to remind not only the Bears, but also the 31 other teams in the league, just how good he can be when he is at his best. Jeffery may be losing that bet on himself at the moment, but I want to bet on him turning it around to end the season.
Dontrelle Inman deserves your trust
Inman has been among the receiver leaders in snap count all season, essentially taking over as the de facto No. 1 receiver in San Diego after Keenan Allen tore his ACL. That real-life role didn’t translate into meaningful fantasy production, however, until about halfway through the season. At that point, many fantasy owners had written him off as a bit player in the San Diego offense, even though he led the team in snap rate every week. Those who passed on him weeks ago may be regretting it going into the fantasy semifinals.
Inman has found the end zone in three straight weeks, totaling 14 catches for 239 yards in those games. That comes out to 13.97 points per game in standard-scoring leagues, with a somewhat sustainable 43% of those points coming via the touchdown. No one can maintain that pace for a full 16-game season, but it’s certainly doable in the short term and, in fact, isn’t even an outlier in this small of a sample.
Over those three games, Inman has 18 targets. It would be encouraging to see him at more than six targets per game, but the good news there is that game script has worked against him, and the San Diego passing game as a whole, in two of those games. Philip Rivers threw 30 passes against the Texans in Week 12 and 26 the following week against the Buccaneers. Those are his second- and fourth-fewest attempt marks in 13 games this season. As a percentage of team targets, Inman’s 18.3% rate the last three weeks is on par with the season-long totals for Davante Adams and Jamison Crowder.
The Chargers play the Raiders and Browns the next two weeks. Inman should be thought of as a WR2 the rest of the fantasy season.
Julio Jones is returning and Tevin Coleman is healthy, but Taylor Gabriel is still of interest
“Necessity is the mother of invention” is one of those sayings that has endured for a reason. It’s largely true. We invent because we need to make a process simpler or fill a void. The need to do the latter arose in Atlanta at the end of October, and they invented a new way to keep their offense humming right along. The person embodied within that inventive new gameplan is now a key player for the fantasy playoffs.
Back in Week 7, Coleman, who had become a crucial cog in the Falcons offense, went down with a hamstring injury. To that point of the season, he had 59 carries for 234 yards, 19 catches for 320 yards, and six total touchdowns. Even with Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman upright, the Falcons needed to find a way to replace Coleman’s production. That is where and when Gabriel entered the spotlight.
Through Atlanta’s first seven games, Gabriel had a minor role in the offense. He had eight receptions for 107 yards during that timeframe, and was a healthy scratch in Week 7, the game in which Coleman injured his hamstring. With Coleman out for the foreseeable future, the team turned to Gabriel, the 5’ 8”, 165-pound speedster, who seemed the best bet on the team to be able to recreate what Coleman did for the offense. In that first game with Coleman on the shelf, Gabriel caught three passes for 68 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown. He hasn’t looked back since.
Including that first big game, Gabriel has now had a sizable role in the Atlanta offense for six weeks. He has 21 catches for 397 yards, four carries for 51 yards, and six total touchdowns. In essence, he replaced exactly the production they got from Coleman in the first half of the season. Coleman has been back for three games, but that hasn’t slowed Gabriel one bit. In Coleman’s return, Gabriel caught four of five targets for 75 yards and two touchdowns. Last week, he had three grabs for 82 yards and a score. In the lone game of the last three he didn’t score, he still had a season-high six targets.
To be fair, it’s hard for any offense to produce four fantasy-relevant players, not including its quarterback, and Gabriel is still running fourth behind Jones, Coleman and Devonta Freeman. Still, if you own him, now is not the time to shunt him to the bench. The Falcons have a dream matchup with the 49ers on Sunday, and Gabriel has been too good for the team to ignore him now. He was the invention that satisfied what they needed at the midpoint of the season, and he can be the same for fantasy owners in the semifinals.
Zach Ertz is a must-start
Since Week 9, the top-three scorers at the tight end position in standard formats are Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce and Ertz. The Eagles tight end leads the position with 42 receptions and is second with 414 yards. It took way longer than any of his most dedicated backers believed it would, but Ertz, at least over the last six games, has turned into a top-end TE1. There’s reason to believe he’ll remain there for the rest of the fantasy playoffs.
The Eagles offense has been a work in progress all season, which isn’t really a surprise given that they handed the reins to a rookie who missed most of the preseason less than week before their first game. They’ve mixed and matched in the backfield while learning Carson Wentz’s strengths and weaknesses on the fly. One that that has become clear in the second half of the season, though, is that Ertz can be a real weapon when he’s given enough of an opportunity to make plays.
Remember, Doug Pederson spent the previous three seasons as the offensive coordinator in Kansas City, where Travis Kelce was arguably his most dangerous player. The limitations imposed by Andy Reid’s style and Alex Smith’s skill set held back what Kelce could do, but Pederson still found ways to feature the elite tight end. He has done the same with Ertz for the better part of the last two months. Don’t let the Eagles’ remaining schedule—they visit the Ravens this week and host the Giants next week—intimidate you. Ertz needs to be in your lineup so long as you’re alive in the playoffs.
Brandon Marshall is benchable
The following is not hyperbole. It’s not a stretch. It’s not technically true, yet misleading. It is fact, plan and simple.
Brandon Marshall is in the worst stretch of his career.
The last time Marshall went north of 100 yards, all four division series in the MLB playoffs were still underway. Forget about the century mark. Marshall hasn’t topped 70 yards since that Week 5 game against the Steelers, a run of eight games. Marshall hasn’t had an eight-game stretch without a 100-yard game since 2007, his second year in the league. He hadn’t failed to hit 80 yards in eight straight games since his rookie year, when he played only eight games all season and was a minor player in the Denver offense, a fourth-round pick learning the ropes from veteran Rod Smith. In fact, he wasn’t even the most promising young receiver on Denver at the time. That honor belonged to Javon Walker, who would be out of the league four years later but racked up 69 catches, 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns that season.
Marshall has been just as cold in the touchdown department. He has one touchdown in his last eight games, the first time since 2011 that he has visited the red zone once in an eight-game sample. Beginning with Week 6, he is the 62nd-ranked wide receiver in standard-scoring fantasy leagues, trailing Breshad Perriman, Tyler Boyd, Devin Funchess and Kendall Wright. Marshall is too good to suffer the indignity of rubbing elbows with those players, but such is life for a receiver. The infrastructure required to get Marshall the ball has broken down completely in the Jets offense. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s ineptitude, Eric Decker’s injury and Bryce Petty’s limitations have all played a role, but the bottom-line takeaway is that Marshall cannot be trusted for the rest of the playoffs.