Brad Pinkerton recaps the highlights (and lowlights) from week 16 and gives his thoughts on what to expect heading into week 17.
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Looking back at 2012 fantasy football drafts, a popular strategy in standard leagues was to go with one of the Big Three quarterbacks — Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or Tom Brady — if you couldn’t land an elite running back. In general, that approach likely paid off handsomely for many owners as those three QBs entered Week 16 ranked as the top three fantasy scorers in standard formats (1. Brady, 2. Brees, 3. Rodgers).
That trio came through again Sunday in what was the championship game for most leagues. Rodgers led the way with 342 yards and four total touchdowns; Brees slung the rock for 446 yards and three scores; and Brady posted a relatively modest 276 yards with two TD passes, although a pair of picks put him under the 20-point mark for just the third time all season.
While the first-round QB strategy worked out this season, fantasy owners may want to take the exact opposite approach in 2013. An already deep quarterback pool got even deeper this year with the emergence of Matt Ryan, the return of Peyton Manning and the additions of rookies Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck. As many as six signal-callers could flirt with 400 fantasy points, which is the new goal for an elite QB.
Meanwhile, ACL surgery survivors Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles have returned to the first-round conversation. They will likely be joined by the now-trusty Marshawn Lynch, soon-to-be super sophomores Doug Martin, Trent Richardson and Alfred Morris and the usual suspects Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy and Chris Johnson. And don’t forget about Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden and Matt Forte.
Suddenly, the first round (or two) could be flush with running backs again, while there should be several 400-point QB candidates scattered throughout the first five rounds. To put the QB depth into perspective, former studs Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Michael Vick could all be common No. 2 QBs next season, especially if Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson continue to improve their fantasy stock.
The point is, fantasy football owners must continue to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of the NFL. What worked this season, may not fly next year. Keep that in mind as we wrap up 2012 and start planning for 2013.
1. RGIII hesitant to run. Redskins QB Robert Griffin III returned from a one-game absence with a knee injury to throw for 198 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. It was a subpar performance relative to what we’ve come to expect from the exciting rookie, largely because he ran just two times for 4 yards. Griffin kept the ball on a zone-read play in the first quarter, but was running at far less than full speed and looked hesitant to make any cuts or seek out contact (that’s probably a good thing in the long-run). With his health in question and the playoffs on the horizon for Washington, fantasy owners shouldn’t bank on RGIII racking up yards on the ground against Dallas unless absolutely necessary. Once healthy, though, I expect Griffin will be running wild once again, so this isn’t likely a permanent shift in his gameday approach.
2. Romo, Bryant becoming BFFs. Tony Romo threw for a whopping 416 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in Dallas’ overtime loss to the Saints. Nine of Romo’s 26 completions, including two 58-yard touchdowns, went to his new best friend, Dez Bryant, who piled up a career-high 224 yards. These two have hooked up for 46 completions, 808 yards and 10 touchdowns in the past seven weeks, and that’s with Bryant playing through a broken finger. Bryant is starting to mature into an elite fantasy receiver, which appears to have helped Romo settle down. After committing 15 turnovers through the first seven games, Romo has a 16-4 TD-to-INT ratio in the last seven. Expect this dynamic duo to remain red-hot next week against the Redskins; Romo torched Washington for 441 yards and three TDs in Week 12, while Bryant had 145 receiving yards and two of those scores.
3. Spiller set to become elite in 2013. Spiller totaled 173 yards Sunday against Miami, which may not seem like a huge deal, but it continues a very encouraging trend for the explosive third-year back. In five games this season without Fred Jackson on the field, Spiller has topped 100 total yards four times, averaging roughly 126 per game, while scoring four times. It’s a dangerously small sample size, but those numbers would put Spiller on pace to total more than 2,000 yards with around 13 TDs in a 16-game season with the backfield all to himself. Putting that into perspective, that would be more than 17 standard fantasy points per week, or roughly what Foster was averaging entering Week 16. Oh, and he’s averaging 6.48 yards per carry this year. It’s still uncertain if the Bills are willing to turn Spiller loose as a feature back in 2013, but it’s worth noting that he averaged 16 carries in those five games without Jackson. He’ll get a chance to build on those stats against the Jets in Week 17.
4. Wilson vs. Kaepernick begins. It’s going to be fun watching the Colin Kaepernick vs. Russell Wilson rivalry build in the NFC West over the coming years. Wilson won the first round Sunday night, throwing for 171 yards and four touchdowns while also rushing for 29 yards in Seattle’s dominant 42-13 victory. Meanwhile, Kaepernick was held to 244 yards with a garbage-time TD and a pick to go with 31 rushing yards. Even though Kaepernick was owned in far more Yahoo! leagues (56 percent to 40 percent) at the end of Sunday’s game, Wilson actually averaged more fantasy points during the playoffs (Weeks 14-16), 28 to 22.4. Wilson has also topped 20 fantasy points in six of the last seven games and seven of the last nine; Kaepernick reached 20 points in half of his six starts. Who will go higher in fantasy drafts next season? My guess is Kaepernick, even though it might not be deserved.
5. Records continue to fall. Detroit’s Calvin Johnson got the record-breaking ball rolling Saturday night when he racked up 225 yards to break Jerry Rice’s single-season yardage record. He also became the first receiver with eight straight 100-yard games and the first with four games of 10-plus receptions in a season. With 1,892 yards on the year, Megatron has a great chance to reach 2,000 yards in Week 17, while his quarterback, Matthew Stafford, looks to break the NFL record for passing attempts in a season.
On Sunday, Cowboys TE Jason Witten caught six passes for 60 yards to give him 103 catches on the season, breaking Tony Gonzalez’s single-season mark of 102. Also, the aforementioned Luck broke Cam Newton’s single-season rookie passing record with 205 yards to give him 4,183 yards with a game to go. And Vikings rookie K Blair Walsh hit a season-best 56-yard field goal Sunday to set an NFL season record by going 9-for-9 on field-goal attempts from 50-plus yards. Meanwhile, Adrian Peterson got 86 rushing yards closer to 2,000 (102 away), but Eric Dickerson’s single-season mark sits 207 yards in the distance. Peterson will have to run all day against Green Bay to catch Dickerson next week. While we’re talking about records, here’s a fun fact: Cardinals QB Ryan Lindley holds the dubious NFL record for most passes in a season (171) without a touchdown toss.
UP to the booth
One week after mustering just 10 rushing yards against Oakland, Jamaal Charles busted out for 226 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in the Chiefs’ loss to Indianapolis. In a Jekyll-and-Hyde season, Charles has posted seven 100-yard rushing games, topping 200 rushing yards twice, but has also rushed for 10 yards or fewer three times. Those are drastic peaks and valleys, but owners should not be wondering about Charles’ ability. Instead, they should be asking why a team as bad as the Chiefs would not give the ball to their best player more often in those three awful games (20 carries for 17 yards).
Reggie Bush is finishing strong in a contract year. The current Dolphins running back totaled 107 yards and three touchdowns, two receiving, against the Bills on Sunday, giving him three straight games with 100 total yards. Bush is now up to eight touchdowns on the season, which ties a career high, and he is just 40 yards away from his second straight (and second career) 1,000-yard rushing season. Perhaps most important for his next contract, Bush has managed to play in every game this season (so far) for the first time since his rookie year. It will be interesting to see if he can find another feature role in 2013.
Baltimore’s Ray Rice rushed 24 times for 107 yards and added six catches for 51 yards with a touchdown in a 33-14 victory against the Giants. It’s not fair to say that Rice, who set a career high with 30 touches, has been freed now that former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is gone — after all, Rice had just 41 total yards last week in his first game without Cameron — but it’s very encouraging to see the Ravens feeding their workhorse when fantasy owners needed it most.
DOWN to the field
It’s only fitting that first-round disappointments Darren McFadden and Chris Johnson ended their fantasy seasons with a dud in Week 16. DMC managed just 48 total yards at Carolina, while Johnson totaled 41 yards and missed some action in the first half with an ankle injury. It has been a lost season for McFadden, who missed four games and was ineffective even when healthy in Greg Knapp’s new zone-blocking scheme. It was an up-and-down season for Johnson, who had more than 100 total yards eight times but was also held to 51 rushing yards or less seven times. Of the two, only Johnson deserves first-round consideration in 2013.
Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace was held to one catch for 13 yards in Sunday’s loss to the Bengals. It was Wallace’s first stinker with Big Ben back, but this is yet another letdown from the boom-or-bust receiver after holding out most of the preseason. Although he has eight touchdowns this season, Wallace has just two 100-yard games and is 164 yards shy of his third straight 1,000-yard campaign. To make matters worse, he’ll draw Joe Haden in coverage next week against the Browns. Whether the holdout was to blame, the new offensive coordinator or the brief absence of his starting QB, this Week 16 flop punctuates an overall down fantasy season for Wallace.
A pair of tight ends who likely carried their fantasy owners deep into the playoffs promptly dropped them in Week 16. Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez caught just one pass for 9 yards Saturday night before New England’s Aaron Hernandez was held to one catch for 13 yards Sunday. For Gonzalez, it’s the first game he’s had under 29 yards all season, and the first time he’s finished with fewer than four catches since Week 13. For Hernandez, he had averaged 82 yards with three TDs in the past three games entering Sunday. Both should bounce back in Week 17, but keep in mind Hernandez could be competing for targets and touchdowns with fellow TE Rob Gronkowski, who’s expected to return from a broken forearm.
Arian Foster was unable to finish the game Sunday because of an irregular heartbeat. Though the issue sounds serious, both Foster and Texans coach Gary Kubiak downplayed the situation after the game. It’s unclear if Foster, who had just 15 yards on 10 carries and lost a fumble before leaving, will be available for Week 17. If not, Ben Tate would handle the workload.
Jaguars WR Cecil Shorts suffered another concussion Sunday, his second since Week 13. Shorts, who caught six passes for 54 yards before leaving, missed Week 14 with the first ailment and will almost certainly miss Week 17 as well. If so, bump up Justin Blackmon.
Packers WR Randall Cobb went down with an ankle injury at the end of a punt return in the third quarter and never returned. The team hopes the injury is not serious, but it’s a concern for the explosiveness of the versatile receiver.
Steelers TE Heath Miller damaged both the PCL and MCL in his right knee Sunday. He may have also damaged his ACL, but Miller’s bounce-back season is done regardless. He set career highs in yardage (816) and touchdowns (eight).
Struggling 49ers TE Vernon Davis was knocked out of Sunday night’s game at Seattle with a concussion on a vicious, albeit legal, hit from Seahawks S Kam Chancellor. Davis will be questionable for Week 17, but he’s no longer a viable No. 1 fantasy tight end anyway.
Bears RB Matt Forte aggravated his right ankle injury in Sunday’s blowout win and did not return. He was later seen wearing a walking boot, indicating that the new injury could keep him out of Week 17. Armando Allen and Kahlil Bell closed out Sunday’s game for Chicago.
Browns RB Trent Richardson left late in the fourth quarter with a left leg injury after getting rolled up on while pass protecting. Richardson hobbled to the sideline before being carted to the locker room, and it’s unclear if he’ll be available for Week 17.
FIND OR FLUKE
Lance Kendricks, TE, Rams. Kendricks caught four passes for 119 yards and a touchdown against the Bucs. It was his first career 100-yard game, much of which came on an 80-yard touchdown to open the second half. While Kendricks has some long-term upside along with the developing Sam Bradford, this was just a case of the tight end being in the right place at the right time. Ruling: Fluke.
Ryan Grant, RB, Packers. The veteran drew the start this week with Alex Green (concussion) inactive and led the Packers with 20 carries for 80 yards and two touchdowns. However, it should be noted that DuJuan Harris (8-29, TD) actually scored the season’s first rushing TD by a Green Bay running back and both of Grant’s scores came in garbage time. This is still a committee backfield in a pass-first offense. Ruling: Fluke.
If your league goes to Week 17, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the real-life playoff scenarios of NFL teams. Some teams will have more to play for next week than others, so try to rely on players in meaningful games. For what it’s worth, the Colts and Bengals are already locked into their AFC wild-card spots, leaving them nothing to play for in Week 17. Same goes for the Falcons, who have clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC.