The bye weeks are gone and the fantasy playoffs are around the corner. In the first full slate of games since Week 3, there is fortunately a wide array of flex options to help get us those must wins or help others spoil a fellow owner's playoff push. Unfortunately, however, the injuries continue to pile up and with every fallen starter, there is a less certain player entering many a fantasy lineup. Does Ronnie Hillman have explosive ability and high-end upside? Sure. Is he as safe a bet as Willis McGahee (knee)? Not a chance.
There are also those who have found themselves in greatly expanded roles due to the ineffectiveness of a starter. In Green Bay and Jacksonville we saw Alex Green and Rashad Jennings meet the bench while James Starks and Jalen Parmele respectively met 20-plus carries apiece and stole jobs. This is the time of year when young, relatively unknown or previously unproven players often emerge for a few weeks because of an expanded opportunity. It behooves all owners to keep a close eye on the fantasy landscape to see which teams may have cause to give some young talent a closer look, or in the case of a Hillman, which teams HAVE to give an unproven player the ball. With the Eagles all but out of it and their star offensive weapon dealing with a concussion, an expanded role may exist for Bryce Brown - and not just for this week - to let Philly see what it has in their backup while simultaneously protecting their future. That's just one instance.
At quarterback, matchups are still key for those two QB leagues. There are no major injuries outside of a few concussed quarterbacks who could return soon, and there are plenty of lower-tier passers performing admirably enough to warrant use. For those players, recent trends are more important than their body of work, so rolling the dice on a hot Chad Henne or continuing to ride the improved play of Russell Wilson could be the difference-maker in a pivotal week.
No. 2 QUARTERBACKS
1. Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick at New Orleans - The best game of Smith's career came the last time he faced the Saints in an instant-classic 2011 playoff bout. Kaepernick just shredded an elite Bears defense that leads the league with 30 forced turnovers in his first career start. And he didn't even make use of his tremendous speed to add yards on the ground. Whichever quarterback gets the opportunity to face the Saints' dreadful defense will have a big fantasy day.
2. Russell Wilson at Miami - Marshawn Lynch is certainly matchup proof, but Miami is still a top-10 rush defense, so it's possible they slow him enough to encourage more passing from Seattle. Wilson has thrown 10 touchdowns in his last five games and has developed a strong chemistry with both Sidney Rice and Golden Tate, each of whom is capable of making a quarterback look good with his ability to snag balls in traffic and break tackles after the catch. Expect Wilson to keep up his impressive pace versus a Dolphins pass D allowing 266 yards per game.
3. Chad Henne vs. Tennessee - There is something to be said for riding the hot hand. Henne tore up a top-5 Texans pass defense for more than 350 yards and four touchdowns, but he was hot coming into the game. In not even two full possessions in the fourth quarter against Indianapolis the prior week, Henne threw for 121 yards and a score. With Justin Blackmon arriving and Marcedes Lewis providing a huge red-zone target, Henne could have another field day facing a Titans pass defense that has given up an average of 266 yards and two touchdowns per game.
4. Jake Locker at Jacksonville - The Jaguars pass defense is skewed a bit by the shellacking Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson just put on it in one of the greatest passing performances in history, but something important to consider is how much success Houston had with play-action throws. When Chris Johnson is gouging a Jacksonville front seven that's 29th in the league versus the run that might just set up Locker to take shots down field.
5. Ryan Fitzpatrick at Indianapolis - Fitzpatrick's numbers against a susceptible Dolphins pass defense were ruined because of Miami's inability to keep the game tight until late in the fourth quarter. That won't be the case against a Colts team that has played quite well lately and is pushing for a wild card spot. Expect Fitzpatrick to throw it plenty and take advantage of a below-average Indy secondary.
6. Mark Sanchez vs. New England - When Sanchez last sparred with the Patriots defense in Week 8 he got the better of it for the most part. Many quarterbacks have had some of their best games facing the dreadful Pats pass defense, so despite how poorly Sanchez and the Jets offense has been lately, he's still worth a shot. However, if Jeremy Kerley sits (he's a game-time call with heel/hamstring ailments), have a reserve ready. Sanchez threw for 328 yards in the last meeting with New England, but 120 of those were to Kerley.
1. Bryce Brown vs. Carolina - Brown is a 6-foot, 223, back with sub-4.5 speed who would have been a first-round pick if he'd stayed on the right path during his three years of college football. He's seen 12 carries the last three games and turned them into 85 yards. When LeSean McCoy (concussion) sits on Monday Night Football, don't be surprised if Brown delivers more yards on more carries against a Panthers defense that finally relented 100 yards to a back last week for the first time since Week 4.
2. Golden Tate at Miami - Tate the Touchdown Machine has six receiving scores on just 26 catches and has added one throwing for good measure. He doesn't seem likely to get you big yards any week and certainly isn't as attractive an option in PPR, but the acrobatic wideout is a big play waiting to happen. With strong hands he's able to make catches in tight coverage, and with a running back's instincts Tate is terrific after the catch. Miami's weak pass defense will learn these things first hand when Tate gets back in the end zone.
3. Jalen Parmele vs. Tennessee - Parmele surprisingly received a huge workload versus the second-ranked Texans rush defense last week and posted 80 yards on his 24 attempts. Having been named the starter over Rashad Jennings already, it will be interesting to see what he can do against a Tennessee defense sitting 28th versus the run. Chances are he'll be better than 3.3 yards per carry, which could translate to an even more productive day for the third-year back.
4. Mohamed Sanu vs. Oakland - The league is about to find out that the joke was really on every NFL team when a pranker called Sanu during the first round of the NFL Draft to say the Bengals had selected him. When Cincinnati finally did take Sanu in the third round, they found a major steal. Sanu has the physical gifts, competitiveness and natural football smarts to develop into one of the best possession receivers in football. A Raiders defense that's been lit up in recent week through the air is about to find that out the hard way.
5. Donald Jones at Indianapolis - Jones was a bust last week after posting at least 65 yards or a score in three straight games, but that can be chalked up to game circumstances. Buffalo held a two-score lead most of the game against a Dolphins offense that was not moving the ball and Ryan Fitzpatrick threw just 27 passes. The Bills won't get away with that against an Indy offense on the road that is fourth in the league in third-down conversion rate, so expect a much more competitive contest that requires Jones' full services.
6. Kenny Britt or Kendall Wright at Jacksonville - Think the Titans took notes on how the Texans burned Jacksonville consistently with play action? Yeah, that same model will work every bit as well with Chris Johnson, who's actually running much more effectively than Arian Foster lately. With the Titans looking to re-evaluate Britt's role in the offense over the bye week, that figures to translate into a more concerted effort to get him the ball. Wright and even Nate Washington also have the speed to burn the Jacksonville corners off play action, and Wright in particular has the playmaking skills to go off if Jacksonville's offense comes to play again and keeps this one competitive.
7. Brandon Stokley at Kansas City - It's never a bad thing to be Peyton Manning's slot receiver. Stokley has quietly put up five touchdowns in his past eight games. With more than 50 yards and a score in each of the last two, he's worth a gamble in deeper leagues. The absence of Willis McGahee to a torn MCL may lead to more passing - at least before the blowout - and perhaps a third straight score for Stokley who will face a thin secondary whose third corner, Jalil Brown, has one career pass breakup and zero interceptions.
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