Carolina, Chicago, Jacksonville and New Orleans get the week off. That means two stud running backs are unavailable, two stud receivers and one superstar quarterback. With Jimmy Graham (ankle) hurting, he likely wouldn't be worth a start even if he could suit up this week, so the tight end landscape looks unscathed by these off weeks. What does hurt the fantasy prospects of many, though, is the absence of three awful defenses. That translates to less promising matchups for your starters and last-minute decisions.
Still, there are always plenty of deep options worth rolling out if you're in a bad way from bye weeks or injuries. There's always a player looking to step into a starting role and thrive when someone goes down. The NFL is about that "next man up" mentality and by playing the waiver wire smartly and paying attention to depth chart fluctuations, matchups, minor injuries, etc., good starts can be found all over — sometimes where you least expect to find them (spoiler alert, a Cleveland receiver and Arizona running back made the cut this week).
Often when top talent isn't readily available the best factor to look for from fringe players is volume (pass attempts, rush attempts, targets). When you can combine bulk opportunity with an attractive matchup, that's when a bold move crosses the line to a calculated one. That doesn't mean bench elite players, of course, matchup be damned; it simply serves as a basic formula for finding those weekly plays that can boost your lineup if it is crying for help, a la James Jones' last two (soon to be three) weeks.
No. 2 QUARTERBACKS
1. Alex Smith vs. New York Giants - After dismantling the Jets and Bills the last two weeks, the Niners welcome the Giants for a revenge match with the team that narrowly stole their shot at the Super Bowl. The Niners come into this game, though, with more weapons surrounding Smith, the league's highest rated passer, and they face a Giants defense that is nowhere near as hot as last year's champs. Through five weeks the G-Men are in the bottom quarter of the league in sacks with eight and have allowed both Josh Freeman and Brandon Weeden to post two scores. Smith is coming off a pristine performance and is poised for an equally strong follow-up in what figures to be a midseason war.
2. Andy Dalton at Cleveland - Star corner Joe Haden will return to Cleveland after serving a four-game suspension, but that shouldn't phase Dalton much. While Haden is an elite talent, he could be a bit rusty after not practicing the last month. And drawing A.J. Green, who is playing as well as any receiver in the league, is a particularly daunting assignment. Moreover, the Browns allowed 300-plus yards and two scores to Michael Vick in Week 1 with Haden playing. And though the Browns return Haden, defensive leader D'Qwell Jackson, who picked off Dalton and sacked him three times in Week 2, might miss this contest after suffering a concussion versus the Giants.
3. Brandon Weeden vs. Cincinnati - The Bengals let Weeden go off in their first meeting, giving up 322 yards and two touchdowns to the rookie in just his second start - and following a 12-of-35, 118-yard, four-INT performance in Week 1. Weeden has grown increasingly comfortable since, posting more than 600 combined yards versus the Ravens and Giants on the road the last two games. With Trent Richardson providing a threat out of the backfield and Weeden slinging it a ton (he's second with 40 pass attempts per game), the numbers will keep coming for this old rookie signal caller.
4. Christian Ponder at Washington - No team has allowed more passing yards or scores than the Skins this year. Although Ponder hasn't thrown it a ton so far, he's been very efficient when he has. Additionally, he's added more than 30 rushing yards two of the last three weeks. If the Skins, who are ranked 10th against the run, can slow Adrian Peterson at all, Ponder will take advantage of Washington's inability to cover or pressure the quarterback.
5. Ryan Fitzpatrick at Arizona - Fitzpatrick was shut out of the end zone by the 49ers defense last week and yet he is still third in the league with 12 touchdown passes. Staying out west this Sunday he'll draw a Cardinals defense that's struggled a bit the last two weeks following a red-hot start. After allowing just two passing scores in the first three games, including just one between Tom Brady and Michael Vick, the Cards have let Ryan Tannehill and Sam Bradford combine for three, and Tannehill also topped 400 yards. With the Bills strong offensive line capable of slowing an aggressive Arizona pass rush, Fitzpatrick figures to bounce-back nicely from last week's stinker.
6. Mark Sanchez vs. Indianapolis - Sanchez should finally get tight end Dustin Keller (hamstring, questionable) back this week, and the athletic receiver should instantly boost Sanchez's efficiency as well as open things up for the rest of his ragtag group of wideouts. And call it a hunch, but if Sanchez can throw for 230 yards on a stifling Houston defense without Keller, who's to say he can't top 300 facing a Colts D that's allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a 102.8 average passer rating?
7. Brady Quinn at Tampa Bay - The Chiefs are not about to rush Matt Cassel back from a concussion when the veteran starter was already struggling badly with turnovers. Expect them to give Quinn a shot versus a Bucs defense that's dead last in pass yards allowed per attempt and per game. Admittedly, this would be a risky play given that Quinn has not started a single game since 2009, but the 2007 first-round pick does have enough ability to put up some points and a stud in Dwayne Bowe to help him. In fact, were it not for a questionable offensive pass interference call on Dexter McCluster, Quinn would have thrown a potential game-winning touchdown to Bowe on his only drive versus the Ravens.
1. Randall Cobb at Houston - The Texans have a top-5 pass defense. But the Packers have Aaron Rodgers. It's clear that a terrible offensive line (among other things) has had Rodgers and the Pack offense a bit out of sorts this year, but with Cedric Benson (foot) out and minimal threat of a rushing attack, Rodgers will have to throw it a lot. Greg Jennings likely will miss another week to let his groin injury properly heal, and after a terrific performance versus the Colts, Green Bay has no choice but to get Cobb more involved in the gameplan. His dynamic after-the-catch ability should lead to a nice day yardage-wise.
2. James Jones at Houston - See Cobb, Randall. No Jennings, at best a limited Jermichael Finley (if he even plays), an underperforming Jordy Nelson and lots of passing. All those factors should translate to Jones and Cobb being the frequent go-tos for Rodgers. Furthermore, through five games Jones has increasingly become Rodgers' favorite option in the red zone with all five of Jones' scores coming from inside of 20 yards.
3. Jordan Norwood vs. Cincinnati - Greg Little was phased out of the passing attack versus the Giants as the coaching staff has apparently lost faith in him due to his chronic issue with drops. Norwood emerged in his absence and proved to be quite sure-handed as he brought in all nine of his targets. Although those nine catches went for just 81 yards, Norwood has the makings of an excellent possession receiver due to his quickness, smooth route-running and reliable hands. With Brandon Weeden attempting passes at an incredible rate, count on Norwood to continue seeing plenty of targets and racking up the catches. The Bengals allowed Weeden to throw for 322 yards and two scores in Cincinnati just four weeks ago, so Norwood figures to do some serious damage in PPR formats with a solid floor in all standard leagues.
4. Jeremy Kerley vs. Indianapolis - The Colts have not been particularly good versus the pass. Even with their numbers buoyed by a subpar performance in Week 3 from Blaine Gabbert, the Colts pass defense has allowed eight touchdowns to just two picks. That means even Mark Sanchez behind a shaky line should be able to connect with his targets. And his top target right now is clearly Kerley. Against a brutally tough Houston D, Kerley saw nine targets and turned five catches into 94 yards. And those totals could be even better with a visit from Indy this week leading to a better catch rate.
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