Exploiting the Matchups: Week 17 Start/Sit
Exploiting the Matchups: Week 17 Start/Sit

This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.

The final week of the regular season brings the added challenge of figuring out which teams will prioritize winning and which will prioritize staying healthy or evaluating inexperienced players. It also restarts the longstanding debate about how a coach should approach a Week 17 game when his team is locked in for a specific playoff seed.

The way I see it, there are subjective arguments on both sides of the debate. Pro-rest people will point to the perceived value of a week off, perhaps using the term 'fresh legs' or something along those lines. The anti-rest crowd will counter with 'momentum' or an argument about the importance of avoiding "rust". 

The latter group might mention that the NFL's dominant franchise has repeatedly played its starters in Week 17 games without any seeding implications. Maybe that's why the Patriots win so many Super Bowls, or maybe it's because they're good enough to frequently be in that position in the first place.

It's certainly possible the Patriots have captured some value with their 100-percent-at-all-times, high-intensity organizational "culture", but I don't think other teams can replicate it simply by playing their star players Week 17 — no more than they can replicate it by playing with slightly deflated footballs. Copy-catting a single aspect of the dynasty, or even a few aspects, doesn't carry any assurance of similar results.

Personally, I think both sides make valid points, but I don't have much interest in attempting to weigh the relative merits of subjective arguments that are nearly impossible to quantify. What I do know, without any doubt, is that players are more likely to suffer injuries when they're on the field rather than standing on the sideline.

So, sure, go ahead and make your arguments about the value of momentum or avoiding rust. I'm not saying those things don't matter, but I am saying there are arguments of a similarly subjective nature on the other side. The one thing we can all agree on — the possibility of injuries — tells us that the Ravens, Bills and Vikings should rest as many key players as possible.

As of Thursday afternoon, only the Ravens have decisively announced intent to rest multiple starters, while Sean McDermott (Bills), Sean McVay (Rams) and Kirk Cousins (Vikings) all have acknowledged the possibility. As a general rule, coaches with poor job security on non-playoff teams are more likely to go all-out in pursuit of a victory. McVay and Kliff Kingsbury, for example, don't have as much on the line as Dan Quinn, Doug Marrone or even the interim coaches in Washington and Carolina.

In some cases, coaches will reveal their plans before Sunday. Others will keep quiet, and a few may even outright lie. Fortunately, Pete Carroll's team has plenty left to play for, so we won't have to deal with dishonest quotes about resting players from the NFL's No. 1 repeat fabricator (just don't trust anything he says about the backfield mess). 

Before we get into specific players to upgrade or downgrade for Week 17, here are some of my favorite tools for analyzing matchups:

Note: Discussion below mostly is limited to players that are being started in 10-to-90 percent of lineups on Yahoo. There are plenty of other players with good or bad matchups, but we'll focus our energy on the guys most likely to be involved in difficult lineup decisions.

Note, Pt. 2: References to 'fantasy points' are based on scoring with 25/10 yardage, 4/6 TDs and 0.5 PPR, i.e., standard settings on Yahoo and FanDuel.

Upgrades

 QUARTERBACK

Limited to five touchdown passes the past five weeks, Prescott is slumping at the worst possible time, with a series of difficult matchups (NE, BUF, CHI, LAR, PHI) contributing to his lack of production. A home draw against Washington will be the best matchup he's seen since November, especially now that the Redskins have top cornerback Quinton Dunbar (hamstring) on injured reserve and their other three starters in the secondary missing practice with various injuries. For what it's worth, Prescott has been much better at home this year, averaging 331 passing yards and 2.6 total touchdowns per game. With both matchup and talent working in his favor, it's worth taking a risk on Prescott's sore shoulder.

RUNNING BACK

Williams picked up right where he left off in November, instantly recouping the lead backfield role after he missed Weeks 13-15. He got 16 carries and three targets on 53 percent snap share in last week's 26-3 win over Chicago, while nominal starter Spencer Ware was limited to seven touches before exiting with a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter. Ware was then placed on injured reserve, leaving Darwin Thompson and LeSean McCoy as the only options behind Williams. 

There is a chance the Chiefs pull starters at some point during Sunday's game, but it probably won't happen before the fourth quarter, considering they have a slim shot to move up to the No. 2 seed (with a win plus a Patriots loss) and a more realistic shot to drop down to No. 4 (with a loss plus a Texans win). As such, Williams figures to get a dozen or more touches against a Chargers defense that ranks 23rd in DVOA against the run (-2.7%) and 20th in fantasy points allowed to running backs (22.6 per game).

Mack has been gifted the perfect opportunity to finish his inconsistent season on a high note, facing a pair of defenses that rank 31st and 32nd for both DVOA against the run and yards allowed per carry. He smacked the Panthers for 16-95-1 and a pair of catches last week, handling 16 of the Colts' 19 RB carries before Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines combined for seven touches deep into garbage time. Next up is a matchup with Jacksonville, a team that's yielded 5.3 YPC and 119.1 rushing yards per game to RBs. The Jaguars are on track for the second-worst mark of the decade in run defense DVOA (11.4%), with only the 2019 Panthers (20.4%) posting an inferior mark. 

Random note: In terms of performance relative to league-average, Carolina's run defense arguably has been just as much of an outlier as New England's pass defense or Baltimore's rush offense.

WIDE RECEIVER

Chark checks off a couple of the boxes that I look for in Week 17. First, his coach is on the hot seat, fighting to keep his job or else hoping to make a good impression on prospective future employers. Second, Chark is closing in on a round number (1,000 yards) that we've collectively agreed to assign some level of significance. As such, I expect the second-year pro to see a full workload, after he logged 87 percent of snaps last week in his first game back from an ankle injury.

Chark was held to two receptions in the loss to Atlanta, but he should do better another week removed from the injury, this time facing a Colts defense that he roasted for 8-104-2 in Week 11. The Colts rare 23rd in both fantasy points allowed to wide receivers (30.9) and DVOA against No. 1 WRs (7.3%), with supposed top cornerback Pierre Desir enduring a miserable season prior to last week's two-pick effort against Will Grier. Desir ranks No. 101 in yards allowed per cover snap (1.58) among the 110 cornerbacks with 200-plus coverage snaps, per PFF.

Sanu makes for a sneaky deep-league play, coming off back-to-back weeks with full-time snap shares (86, 96 percent) but minimal production. His ankle injury no longer seems like a major issue, while fellow wide receiver Julian Edelman continues to battle through knee and shoulder ailments. The Patriots will play all their starters in a game they need to win to secure a bye week, but they could ease up on Edelman if the 15.5-point spread proves accurate. Long story short, Sanu is in a good position to see five or more targets against the worst pass defense in the NFL.

TIGHT END

Goedert has seen a consistent workload since October, recording five or more targets in seven straight games even before he broke out for 9-91-1 in last week's win over Dallas. His huge day helped the Eagles offense get by with a banged-up Zach Ertz, whose rib injury may cause him to be absent or limited for Week 17. An absence would leave Goedert as the odds-on favorite to lead the Eagles in targets, facing a Giants defense that ranks 15th in fantasy points allowed (9.7) but 22nd in DVOA (5.5%) against tight ends. Goedert is a top-10 option at tight end if Ertz plays and a top-five choice if the veteran sits.

Kicker

Folk is coming off back-to-back weeks with 12 fantasy points and now facing a team that's allowed the fourth-most points to kickers. This is as easy as it gets, with the Patriots carrying the largest implied total (30.5) of the week for a game that doesn't appear to have weather concerns.

Downgrades

QUARTERBACK

Griffin is far out of the picture in most fantasy leagues, but he'll likely generate some hype as a cheap DFS play or a QB2 for superflex formats. Although I understand the appeal at first glance, we need to remember that he'll play much of Sunday's game with Hayden Hurst, Justice Hill and Chris Moore at his side, rather than Mark Andrews (ankle), Mark Ingram (calf) and Marquise Brown. In addition to the lackluster skill-position talent, Baltimore will rest LG Marshal Yanda and possibly LT Ronnie Stanley. There's also the matter of a difficult matchup, with Pittsburgh ranking fifth in DVOA against the pass (-13.4%) and fourth in fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks (14.4). Last but not least, it's been six years since we saw evidence of RG3 being a decent starting QB... yeah, I think that matters. 

RUNNING BACK

I'm not saying Gurley won't play at all, but we can't expect the same type of workload now that his team has been eliminated from playoff contention. Coach Sean McVay hinted at easing up on some of his players, with Gurley's troublesome knee likely putting him at the front of that group. The 25-year-old running back has been getting by on touchdowns and sheer volume, producing just 3.9 yards per carry and 4.0 yards per target. The poor efficiency behind a subpar line makes him tough to trust without assurances about the snap count.

Sean McDermott seems like a smart guy. Maybe not smart enough to bench key players for a meaningless game, but probably smart enough to remove them from said contest before the second half. As such, Singletary likely is headed for a restricted workload against a Jets defense ranked 10th in fantasy points allowed to running backs (18.8) and second in yards per carry (3.2). I'll also avoid Josh Allen, John Brown and Cole Beasley, expecting the likes of Matt Barkley, Robert Foster and T.J. Yeldon (or Senorise Perry?) to get regular snaps in the second half.

WIDE RECEIVER

Williams is 37 yards away from 1,000 for the year, and while he should be able to reach the milestone, I'm not expecting a whole lot more. Despite some issues back in September, the Chiefs defense ranks sixth in DVOA against the pass (-11.3%) and second in fantasy points allowed to wide receivers (21.2), with DJ Chark Jr. in Week 1 the only WR to reach 100 yards against them this season. Williams will probably have a long gain because he always does, but it isn't a good spot for piling up volume or scoring a touchdown. His first matchup with KC yielded two catches for 76 yards on six targets in a 24-17 loss Week 11.

Samuel will get some attention if D.J. Moore (concussion) is ruled out, but this feels like a trap more so than a real opportunity. Poor quarterback play — rather than target volume — has been the biggest constraint on Samuel's production, and the early feedback suggests Will Grier is even worse than Kyle Allen. The Panthers' implied total of 16.5 points is third-lowest of Week 17, and the team seems to have a maniacal obsession with pumping up Christian McCaffrey's stat line. Expect the running back to see a steady stream of targets until he gets the 63 yards he needs for a 1,000-1,000 season. The real question is how many yards McCaffrey needs in order for Panthers fans to forget that their team is 3-14 in November and December the past two years? The team seems to prioritize surface-level PR over the long-term health of its best player.

TIGHT END

John Harbaugh didn't name Andrews as one of the players that will be held out for Week 17, but it's safe to assume the tight end won't handle his typical workload, given his importance to the Baltimore offense as well as the fact he's been banged up for most of the season. And even if he does get a decent numbers of snaps, Andrews will be catching passes from Robert Griffin instead of Lamar Jackson, against a defense that's No. 11 in fantasy points allowed to tight ends (9.5). Don't be surprised if Hayden Hurst draws more targets than Andrews.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jerry Donabedian
Jerry was a 2018 finalist for the FSWA's Player Notes Writer of the Year and DFS Writer of the Year awards. A Baltimore native, Jerry roots for the Ravens and watches "The Wire" in his spare time.
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