1. Riley Cooper worth a gamble at WR
Since taking over for Jeremy Maclin (hamstring/shoulder), Cooper has performed admirably for Philadelphia.
The second-year player from Florida surpassed 70 yards receiving in both of his two starts, accumulating eight catches for 146 yards and a touchdown in the two games. With Maclin almost certain to miss Thursday's game against Seattle, Cooper likely will get a third consecutive start. In that case, Cooper is worth a spot start in plenty of leagues this week, albeit primarily those of the deeper sort.
Despite his status as a generally unproven player, it's difficult not to like his on-paper situation at the moment. Cooper is a big (6-foot-3, 222) and athletic player who can make big plays, and he saw 17 targets the last two weeks. It also can't hurt that, as a backup prior to Maclin's injury, he likely had a lot of time in practice to develop a rapport with quarterback Vince Young, who took second-team snaps behind Michael Vick most of this season.
2. Michael Crabtree poised for a strong finish
If I'm a Crabtree owner, especially in PPR leagues, I'm feeling fairly confident about leaving him in the starting lineup for most of the season's remainder.
While Braylon Edwards is the more gifted athlete, the free-agent acquisition has been mostly a non-factor in San Francisco, catching 14 passes for 172 yards and no touchdowns in seven games. Playing through knee and shoulder issues might have had something to do with it, but whatever the reason, Edwards' ineffectiveness has allowed Crabtree to take almost sole ownership of the wideout production in San Francisco.
Alex Smith has completed 103 passes since Week 6, and 46 of those completions went to players who aren't wide receivers. Crabtree hauled in 33 of those completions, while Edwards, Ted Ginn and Kyle Williams combined for just 24 catches over those six weeks. Crabtree totaled 52 targets over that same span.
His Dec. 19 matchup with Pittsburgh is brutal, but the other three opponents in Crabtree's next four games (St. Louis, Arizona and Seattle) have beatable secondaries. It would be a disappointment if Crabtree didn't continue to average at least five catches per game against those teams.
3. Yates bad news for Andre Johnson, but Delhomme would be worse
It's still difficult to suggest that Johnson shouldn't be started by most or all of his owners, but at the same time, it's probably reasonable to abandon high hopes at this point.
With Matt Leinart (collarbone) gone for the year, Johnson's quarterback situation changes from a former starter who had been groomed for more than a year in coach Gary Kubiak's system to rookie fifth-round pick T.J. Yates. Yates' backup is Jake Delhomme, who threw 10 touchdowns and 25 interceptions in his last 16 games.
It wouldn't surprise if Yates struggled and Delhomme saw the field as a result, but it might be best for Johnson's fantasy prospects if Yates remains the starter. Delhomme had a negative effect on the fantasy value of the last elite receiver he threw to - Steve Smith in 2009. Smith caught 46 passes for 604 yards and four touchdowns in the 11 games Delhomme started that season. Through the same number of games in 2011, Smith has 1,060 yards and five touchdowns through the air.
Yates, on the other hand, had an extensive history in college of locking on to his top target - a tendency that Johnson's owners should hope carries over to the NFL. Yates' favorite receivers at North Carolina were, in chronological order, Hakeem Nicks, Greg Little and Dwight Jones. In 18 games with Yates as the starter in 2007 and 2008, Nicks caught 105 passes for 1,493 yards and 17 touchdowns while the rest of the Tar Heels wideouts combined for just 82 catches. Little caught 62 passes in 2009, which was two less than what the rest of the receivers totaled. Finally, the 2010 season saw Jones catch 62 passes for 946 yards, while the next most productive receiver had 25 catches for 348 yards.
If Yates is smart, he'll make these games easier for himself and won't do much more than throw the ball up to Johnson most plays. If Yates plays the game like he has up to this point, he can be expected to do it.
4. Matthew Stafford's current value unclear
While Stafford claims his fractured throwing-hand index finger hasn't compromised his passing ability, his performances against Chicago (Nov. 13) and Green Bay (Nov. 24) indicate that something wasn't quite right with him.
Of course, the fact that Stafford had a 335-yard, five-touchdown showing against Carolina between those two games complicates things a bit, but it's probably safe to say that those numbers were due to the incompetence of the Carolina defense more than Stafford throwing especially well. Stafford was consistently bad against the Bears and Packers, rarely showing the ability to make accurate throws beyond eight yards or so as he combined for two touchdowns and seven interceptions.
The good news is that Stafford practiced without the gloves and splint he previously played with, so perhaps that indicates the finger is improving. Also, Stafford's upcoming schedule features defenses that are more the Panthers than Packers and Bears. Outside of a tough road game against Oakland on Dec. 18, Stafford's remaining non-Week 17 matchups (New Orleans, Minnesota and San Diego) have allowed a combined 60 touchdowns compared to 22 interceptions.
Stafford is a risk until he conclusively shows he's over the finger issue, but the Carolina game indicates that he's a justifiable start as long as the defense isn't threatening.
5. Brent Celek should be starting in most leagues
With Sunday's five-catch, 75-yard performance against New England, Celek now has six consecutive games with solid fantasy numbers. For most of his owners, Celek is an advised start at this point rather than a mere justifiable one.
That six-game span resulted in 33 catches for 384 yards and two touchdowns on 46 targets. At the moment, he's producing like he did when he became such a valued fantasy commodity in 2009, when he caught 76 passes for 971 yards and eight touchdowns.
With DeSean Jackson making a poor impression both on and off the field and Jeremy Maclin (hamstring/shoulder) potentially missing more time, there's not much reason to expect a drop-off from Celek. He's Philadelphia's most effective receiver.