This article is part of our Exploiting the Matchups series.
In the interest of full disclosure, Week 6 was absolutely brutal for my start/sit recommendations. To be more specific, the 'sits' did in fact stink it up, but the 'starts' somehow were even worse, capped off by Monday-night duds from Andy Dalton and Mecole "M.I.A." Hardman.
Public humiliation is probably the correct punishment for anyone who relies on Dalton or Hardman to make them look smart, so here I set myself forth to be dragged. I ask only that you give me the chance to redeem myself and regain your trust. No Hardman this week, I promise.
Before we get into specific players to upgrade or downgrade, here are some of my favorite tools for analyzing matchups:
- RotoWire's weekly projections
- RW weekly composite rankings
- RW Betting odds
- RW Target share page
- RW Snap count page
- RW Defense vs. Position stats
- RW pages for advanced stats and TE route data.
- Pace stats and DVOA from Football Outsiders
- Next Gen Stats from NFL.com
- Player Grades and Premium Stats from Pro Football Focus
- Personnel Grouping Frequencies and Run:Pass Ratios from SharpFootballStats.com
Note: Discussion below mostly is limited to players that are being started in less than 80 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 start/sit decisions. Unless otherwise noted, references to 'fantasy points' are based on scoring with 25/10 yardage, 4/6 TDs and 0.5 PPR, a.k.a. standard settings on Yahoo and FanDuel.
Thursday Night Breakdown
Darius Slayton at PHI — DOWNGRADE
% started on Yahoo, % on ESPN
Any lingering questions about Slayton's talent have more or less been answered, with Daniel Jones producing 9.2 YPA on throws to the second-year pro but only 5.2 YPA on all other passes. The combination of target share (23.2 percent, 24th in the league) and downfield usage (12.7 aDOT) give Slayton a nice weekly ceiling, something we saw last season when he burnt the Eagles for 5-154-2 in Week 13. Unfortunately, the upcoming matchup makes him unlikely to reach said ceiling.
The 2020 version of the Philly defense isn't dominant by any means, but it's done a much better job limiting production from No. 1 receivers, with Chase Claypool and slot man Tyler Boyd being the only WRs so far to put up more than 81 yards against the Eagles. There's even a chance Slayton sees shadow coverage from Darius Slay, who hasn't yet given up a touchdown for his new team and is tied for 36th among 100 qualified CBs (100-snap min.) with 1.08 yards allowed per cover snap, per PFF.
Slay isn't even the biggest problem here. No, that would be the mismatch between the Giants offensive line (32nd in PFF pass-block grade, 29th in pass-block win rate) and the Eagles pass rush (3rd in PFF grade, 7th in pass-rush win rate). That's especially problematic for a receiver who relies on deep and intermediate passes, whereas Evan Engram, Golden Tate and Devonta Freeman have been getting most of the short-area work.
Of course, a quick look at the game logs makes it clear none of those guys can be trusted, especially if Sterling Shepard (foot) returns Thursday night. Shepard's presence would be good news for the Giants offense as a whole, but it wouldn't change the reality of the mismatch in the trenches, and it might push Slayton's target share down by a few percentage points moving forward.
That was the long version. The short version is that the Giants offense stinks, and it's playing a road game on a short week against a decent defense. None of the pieces, not even Slayton, can be safely relied on.
For Philadelphia, it's the usual deal where anyone who had a key role last week is probably too hurt to play this week. Zach Ertz (ankle) and Miles Sanders (knee) have been ruled out, leaving Boston Scott and Richard Rodgers as the likely starters at tight end and running back. Scott had a 33-to-7 snap advantage over Corey Clement after Sanders left Sunday's loss to the Ravens, but it was closer to a committee when Sanders missed a game back in Week 1 — Scott got 11 touches on 56 percent of snaps, while Clement had eight touches on 37 percent.
There is some good news for the Eagles, with WR DeSean Jackson (hamstring) and RT Lane Johnson (ankle) both cleared to return Thursday night. Philly may have only two of its projected O-line starters healthy, but those two are Johnson and C Jason Kelce, both among the league's best at their positions.
Jackson figures to replace a struggling John Hightower, who has caught just one of his team-high nine targets 20-plus yards downfield (per PFF). Travis Fulgham has hauled in four of his five deep targets, plus he's added plenty of value with short and intermediate stuff. Fulgham's target share might be impacted by Jackson's return, but the snap/route numbers shouldn't change too much.
The Giants defense has surprisingly been half-decent this year, and there aren't really any major upgrades/downgrades in term of individual matchups. Top cornerback James Bradberry has been playing really well, but it isn't clear he'll shadow Fulgham, especially now that Jackson is back. Greg Ward might actually have the best individual matchup against Logan Ryan or Darnay Holmes (neck) in the slot, but Ward is down to five targets and 27.7 yards per game in the Fulgham Era.
- Ben Roethlisberger at TEN
41% started on Yahoo, 42% on ESPN
At first glance, this doesn't quite have the eye-popping appeal of Matt Stafford's matchup with the Falcons or Justin Herbert's home date with the Jags. But Roethlisberger has better receiving weapons than both those guys, and the only thing holding him back so far has been a lack of volume in some easy wins.
Fortunately, his Week 7 opponent has an efficient, fast-paced offense to keep up with the Steelers, not to mention a shoddy defense ranked 24th in DVOA against the pass (16.8%), 25th in NY/A (7.0) and 26th in fantasy points allowed to QBs (22.2 per game). Diontae Johnson's return from a back injury could complicate things for those of us in fantasy world, but it's one of them good problems if you're looking for points from Roethlisberger and aren't so worried about which guy is catching the ball.
- Antonio Gibson vs. DAL
53% started on Yahoo, 64% on ESPN
A matchup between the Washington offense and Dallas defense probably isn't the reason you paid $400 for NFL Sunday Ticket, but it is fertile ground for a running back to break out, considering the Cowboys previously allowed season-best performances to the likes of Malcolm Brown (18-79-2), D'Ernest Johnson (13-95-0), Devonta Freeman (17-60-1) and Kenyan Drake (20-164-2). Gibson is just as good as those guys, if not better, and he's now seen exactly five targets in three straight games, on top of taking nine or more carries each week this season.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys are 29th in run-defense DVOA (7.9%), 29th in YPC (5.1) and 24th in fantasy points allowed to running backs (24.0). It doesn't hurt that Gibson could be playing as a slight favorite — or at least a pick'em — for the first time in his NFL career. Negative game scripts have led to more playing time for J.D. McKissic, but Gibson nonetheless has accounted for 55 of the team's 90 RB carries (61.1 percent) over the past five games. It could be closer to 75 percent if Washington actually jumps out to a lead for once.
- Justin Jackson vs. JAX
25% started on Yahoo, 38% on ESPN
This is also a good matchup for Joshua Kelley, but Jackson is more likely to be the lead back, as he was last seen playing 19 of the final 24 snaps in a Week 5 overtime loss to New Orleans. While the rookie finished that game with only 11 carries for 29 yards to drop to 3.2 YPC for the season, Jackson gained 71 yards on his 15 totes and also caught five of six targets for 23 yards. The Week 5 results could impact their respective roles coming out of a bye week, but even if they don't, Jackson has a timeshare on the ground and a clear advantage on passing downs. (Check out Week 5: Backfield Breakdown to freshen up on how that Jackson/Kelley split played out . And remember, CTL+F is your friend).
- Jamison Crowder vs. BUF
55% started on Yahoo, 56% on ESPN
The Dolphins became the first team to hold Crowder under 100 yards this year, limiting him to a 7-48-0 receiving line on 13 targets last Sunday. He was never likely to maintain the WR1 fantasy numbers in an offense this bad, but Crowder should still be started as a WR2/3 in the vast majority of leagues, considering he's a talented player who ranks second in the league in target share (31.5 percent).
Benching should only be a consideration in the very toughest of matchups, and Crowder's Week 7 draw doesn't qualify. In addition to their defense generally being a disappointment, the Bills have received especially poor play from nickelback Taron Johnson, who has given up a league-high 331 yards in slot coverage (98 more than any other player), per PFF. Johnson did hold his own against Crowder in Week 1, but the wide receiver nonetheless finished with a 7-115-1 receiving line, taking a screen pass 69 yards to the house against a soft zone on 3rd-and-7. Those types of mistakes have been all too frequent for the Buffalo defense this year.
- Tee Higgins vs. CLE
38% started on Yahoo, 31% on ESPN
Higgins' per-game averages are a bit deceiving, as he saw only 15 snaps and zero targets in the season opener. Since then, he's averaging 4.4 catches for 67.8 yards and 0.4 TDs on 7.6 targets, including four straight games with double-digit PPR points. The Browns did limit him to 3-35-0 back in Week 2, but that's partially because Higgins ran routes on only 62 percent of Joe Burrow's dropbacks. That number went up to 83 percent over the past four games, tying Tyler Boyd for the team lead.
Overall, the Cleveland pass defense has been mediocre-to-supbar, ranking 19th in DVOA (11.4%), 16th in NY/A (6.6) and 29th in fantasy points allowed to WRs (37.1). That last number is partially a product of a wild game in Dallas, but we've also seen a few other high-aDOT wideouts — namely James Washington, Marquise Brown and T.Y. Hilton — post their top yardage totals of the season against Cleveland. While top cornerback Denzel Ward remains steady, the Brown' safety play might be the worst in the league.
- Honorable Mentions: Tyler Boyd, CIN vs. CLE; Brandin Cooks, HOU vs. GB; Mike Williams, LAC vs. JAX; John Brown, BUF at NYJ; Marvin Jones, DET at ATL; Marquez Valdes-Scantling, GB at HOU
- Hunter Henry vs. JAX
62% started on Yahoo, 52% on ESPN
The blow-up game still hasn't happened, but Henry has quietly been one of the more reliable players at an unreliable position, scoring double-digit PPR points in four of five games. His 20 percent target share is fifth best among tight ends, so he should see a handful of passes even if the Chargers enjoy a comfortable win. The Jaguars are 16th in fantasy points allowed to TEs (13.3), yielding 10.6 YPT and five TDs.
- Mason Crosby at HOU
47% started on Yahoo, 52% on ESPN
Crosby's past three weeks were comprised of one game where Aaron Rodgers was uber-efficient in the red zone, a bye week and then one game where the Packers got shut down by an elite defense. The veteran kicker should bounce back this week, playing indoors for a team with the top implied total (30.5) of Week 7.
- Jared Goff vs. CHI
26% started on Yahoo, 12% on ESPN
The Bears are Top 5 in nearly every significant pass defense stat, including DVOA (-16.4%, 2nd), NY/A (5.7, 5th) and fantasy points allowed to QBs (12.5, 1st). The Rams have a good enough offense to adequately deal with the tough matchup, but it'll probably be a slugfest rather than a shootout. The Rams are 19th in points scored (25.3 per game) and 5th in points allowed (19.0), and the Bears are 27th (21.3) and 7th (19.3), respectively.
Plus, the Rams likely will lean on their rushing attack unless they fall way behind, as they've morphed into one of the more run-heavy teams in the league this year, sporting the third-lowest pass rate (47 percent) on early downs before halftime. Efficiency tends to be more important than volume for quarterbacks, but this matchup doesn't look especially good for either.
- Kenyan Drake vs. SEA
77% started on Yahoo, 76% on ESPN
The narrative around Drake may be a little different after his MNF breakout, but it mostly just looked like the Dallas defense didn't know any tricks besides rolling over and playing dead. The Seahawks, on the other hand, have been more 'good boy' than 'bad dog' when it comes to stopping the run, ranking ninth in DVOA (-18.1%) and seventh in YPC (3.9).
They're only 12th-best in terms of fantasy points allowed to RBs, but that's largely a result of being on the field for a league-high 75.6 snaps per game. On a per-snap or per-touch basis, Seattle has been excellent against running backs and terrible at defending wide receivers, once again learning that LB Bobby Wagner can only cover about two-thirds of the field, not all of it. Given that he's averaging only 1.25 targets per week, Drake can show a pretty ugly floor when the ground game isn't working (see: Week 4 at Carolina).
- Jerick McKinnon at NE
49% started on Yahoo, 46% on ESPN
McKinnon played 92 and 62 percent of snaps in his previous two starts, dominating San Francisco's backfield work apart from garbage time in a blowout win over the Giants. He'd be an obvious fantasy start — even with the suboptimal matchup — if we knew he'd get the same type of workload this week. The problem is that we don't really know, after JaMycal Hasty took the final nine carries (for 37 yards) in last week's 24-16 win over the Rams, filling in as the lead runner with Raheem Mostert (ankle) forced out again.
It's easy enough to make an argument for keeping McKinnon in a role that mostly focused on passing downs, as he averaged only 3.3 yards on 28 carries in his two starts and subsequently has been limited to seven totes for 18 yards. There's also some chance Jeff Wilson (calf) returns for Sunday's game, and San Francisco is tied for the sixth-worst implied total (21.75) of the week.
- CeeDee Lamb at WAS
60% started on Yahoo, 44% on ESPN
For all its other issues, the Washington Football Team has proven to be a tough matchup for wide receivers, combining an impressive pass rush with a not-as-bad-as-expected secondary. WFT is No. 6 in pass-defense DVOA (-6.4%), No. 17 in NY/A (6.5) and No. 2 in fantasy points allowed to WRs (22.3), yet to surrender a 100-yard game despite facing DeAndre Hopkins, Odell Beckham, Marquise Brown, Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and Darius Slayton.
Lamb does have the relative advantage against slot corner Jimmy Moreland, but really, this is a bad matchup for all the Dallas receivers, and the rookie is the one most likely to be involved in difficult start/sit decisions. Michael Gallup is mostly a bench guy at this point, while Amari Cooper and his 10.8 targets per game still need to be started every week. Lamb falls somewhere in the middle, where it matters if you're playing with a backup QB and a porous offensive line against a defense that has five first-round picks rushing the passer.
- Henry Ruggs vs. TB
10% started on Yahoo, 8% on ESPN
Last we saw him before a bye week, Ruggs roasted the Chiefs for a 72-yard touchdown en route to a 2-118-1 receiving line on three targets. It's that last number which feels problematic, as Ruggs has seen only 11 targets this year, accounting for 12 percent of the team total in his three active games. Do you really want to bank on that deep ball connecting against a Tampa defense ranked No. 1 in DVOA against the pass (-36.2%), No. 2 in NY/A (5.5) and No. 7 in fantasy points allowed to WRs (25.9)?
- Not-so-honorable Mentions: Robert Woods, LAR vs. CHI; Henry Ruggs, LV vs. TB; Michael Gallup, DAL at WAS; Keelan Cole + Laviska Shenault, JAX at LAC
- Jimmy Graham at LAR
33% started on Yahoo, 38% on ESPN
The Rams have only been middle of the pack in terms of fantasy points allowed to tight ends (11.5, t-20th), but that's largely on account of one big game from George Kittle and one week where Buffalo's Tyler Kroft and Lee Smith combined for three TDs from inside the 5-yard line. The Rams otherwise have shut down tight ends, not to mention passing attacks in general. Even after Sunday's poor showing in San Francisco, they're No. 11 in pass-defense DVOA (2.5%), and No. 1 in NY/A (5.4), with DT Aaron Donald leading the league in sacks (7.5). Chicago's implied total of 19.75 points is third worst in the league this week.
- Not-so-honorable Mentions: Noah Fant, DEN vs. KC
- Greg Zuerlein at WAS
87% started on Yahoo, 64% on ESPN
This isn't necessarily the worst matchup, but it also isn't the best, and Zuerlein is no longer attached to one of the league's better offenses now that Andy Dalton is playing quarterback. Zuerlein's continued popularity in fantasy leagues is mostly a product of perceived brand value — both his own, and the allure of "Dallas Cowboys offense". Neither of those things matters anymore; the more relevant bit of information is an implied total of 22.5 points. There's rarely any good reason to start a kicker whose team is projected for less than 25, unless you're trying to score fewer fantasy points.
- Not-so-honorable Mentions: Robbie Gould, SF at NE; Daniel Carlson, LV vs. TB; Stephen Gostkowski, TEN vs. PIT
For Shallow Leagues (30-69 percent rostered)
QB Joe Burrow vs. CLE
QB Gardner Minshew at LAC
QB Teddy Bridgewater at NO
RB Justin Jackson vs. JAX
RB Boston Scott vs. NYG
WR Tee Higgins vs. CLE
WR Mike Williams vs. JAX
WR John Brown at NYJ
TE Eric Ebron at TEN
K Mason Crosby at HOU
K Ka'imi Fairbairn vs. GB
D/ST Los Angeles Chargers vs. JAX
D/ST New Orleans Saints vs. CAR
For Medium-depth Leagues (10-29 percent rostered)
QB Andy Dalton at WAS
RB Jamaal Williams at HOU
RB La'Mical Perine vs. BUF
RB JaMycal Hasty at NE
WR Tim Patrick vs. KC
WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling at HOU
WR Russell Gage vs. DET
WR DeSean Jackson vs. NYG
TE Logan Thomas vs. DAL
K Jason Myers at ARZ
K Michael Badgley vs. JAX
D/ST Washington Football Team vs. DAL
For Deep Leagues (under 10 percent rostered)
QB Kyle Allen vs. DAL
QB Drew Lock vs. KC
RB Corey Clement vs. NYG
RB Jeremy McNichols vs. PIT
RB Travis Homer at ARZ
WR Greg Ward vs. NYG
WR Demarcus Robinson at DEN
WR Breshad Perriman vs. BUF
WR Damiere Byrd vs. SF
TE Richard Rodgers vs. NYG
TE Drew Sample vs. CLE
K Tyler Bass at NYJ
K Nick Folk vs. SF
K Cody Parkey at CIN
D/ST Cincinnati Bengals vs. CLE
Crowd-sourced Lineup Decision
Each week I post a twitter poll with one of the toughest start/sit decisions from my own lineups. The process will be truly democratic, which means I'm required to start the player who gets the most votes, unless there's relevant injury/virus news late in the week.
And please, feel free to drop you start/sit questions in the comments below, or you can ask me on twitter - @JerryDonabedian.