I have no magic tricks (illusions!) up my sleeve as we go into Week 17, only the numbers.
Those numbers have already helped me write in-depth opinions on Russell Wilson, C.J. Spiller, LeSean McCoy, Eric Decker, Danario Alexander, and Owen Daniels in Wednesday's Underrated Players article. And they provided even more basis for recommending Knowshon Moreno, Antonio Brown, and Danny Amendola to start while Michael Turner, Mikel LeShoure, and Miles Austin were recommended for the bench in Thursday's Start/Sit collection.
This week, before you finalize your last lineup of the year, make sure to check out our Week 17 Projections page. But if you're looking for a more in-depth explanation of why our projections are the way they are for six crucial players on the cut line, read on for the final time this year, my friend.
Montell Owens - Jacksonville Jaguars
Projected Standard League Fantasy Points: 9.84 FP
numberFire Rank: No. 16 Ranked RB (No. 59 Overall)
Percent of Leagues Started (ESPN): 8.0%
Week 17 Opponent: at Tennessee Titans
Verdict: Start Him
All hail the magic of Wilmington, Delaware! It takes complete unknowns (like me, Aubrey Plaza, Montell Owens, Joe Biden, umm... Aubrey Plaza again?) and turns them into superstars. And not to put down the VP's football ability, but only one of those names belongs in your fantasy starting lineup this week.
Yes, I said starting lineup, he of a whole eight percent of ESPN leagues started. With Maurice Jones-Drew having foot surgery, Montell Owens remains the only back available to the Jaguars once again.
Remember last time that happened? Because our analytics do. Owens has run reasonably efficiently this season, sitting at -0.07 NEP per rush (equivalent to Ray Rice, more efficient than Arian Foster) through 42 attempts on the year. He's had two full starts, managing an average of 10.5 FP per game despite the fact that neither of those starts allowed him to have more than 14 carries.
But both of those three starts came against solid defenses in the Jets and Dolphins. Only his first action on the season, when he replaced Rashad Jennings against the Bills and had seven carries, came against a weak run defense. A weak run defense like, say, the Tennessee Titans?
Tennessee has given up -3.57 Net Expected Points (NEP) to opposing running games this season, meaning that if opposing teams had run a league-average play, they would have been expected to have scored 3.57 more points. That sounds good, but remember, league-average plays including passing plays, which are much more efficient. That -3.57 NEP figure is actually one of the poorest in the league; Tennessee is inefficient in stopping the run. In fact, according to our NEP metric, the Titans are an incredible 26th in the NFL against the run.
Ahmad Bradshaw - New York Giants
Projected Standard League Fantasy Points: 11.38 FP
numberFire Rank: No. 11 Ranked RB (No. 46 Overall)
Percent of Leagues Started (ESPN): 58.9%
Week 17 Opponent: vs. Philadelphia Eagles
Verdict: Start Him
A little bit scared about trusting a guy who was out injured two weeks ago, then only saw nine carries for 39 yards rushing last week? Well, look at the bigger picture, my friend. Because the analytics say Ahmad Bradshaw's one of the most efficient backs in the NFL this season.
At only -0.05 NEP per rush, Bradshaw ranks eighth in the NFL in rushing efficiency among backs with at least 150 carries. In the NFC, only Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore, and Marshawn Lynch are better. 112 of Bradshaw's 297 rushes can be considered "successful", meaning that he increased the Giants' chance of scoring with the rush. That 34.2 percent success rate is Bradshaw's best since 2009, his first year with over 150 carries for the Giants. He's running better than ever.
I wouldn't be worried about his carries, either. His nine carries in Week 16 were his lowest output in any of his 13 games this season. That's not normal; the Giants have rushed the ball on 42.0 percent of their offensive snaps this season. numberFire projects him at a much more reasonable 15.27 carries this week, the 12th highest total among all backs.
The Eagles may be solid against opposing backs, allowing an average -34.61 NEP to opposing running games, but that should not matter to Bradshaw. As long as he gets his carries, his prolonged pattern of efficiency this season indicates that he'll be just fine.
Darren McFadden - Oakland Raiders
Projected Standard League Fantasy Points: 8.79 FP
numberFire Rank: No. 26 Ranked RB (No. 85 Overall)
Percent of Leagues Started (ESPN): 61.4%
Week 17 Opponent: at San Diego Chargers
Verdict: Sit Him
And that's why you never trust a player with record-low NEP figures in your fantasy football championship. If there's a new metric introduced for next season, I would love for it to be "number of times a player makes his fantasy owners throw things at the TV". McFadden would be my early pick to lead the category.
Why, you ask? It may have something to do with being the single least efficient RB in the entire NFL. That's a good start.
McFadden's -0.27 NEP per rush this season isn't just bad; it's historically bad. Among backs with at least 150 rushes this season, only Michael Turner's -0.21 NEP per rush is in the same zip code. Among backs with at least McFadden's 197 carries, nobody has had such a poor average in eight years. And since 2000 given the same constraints, only 2002 Jonathan Wells (-0.36), 2001 Eddie George (-0.33), 2001 Maurice Smith (-0.30), 2002 Jarrod Baxter (-0.30), 2001 Lamar Smith (-0.29), and 2001 Travis Henry (-0.29) have been worse. Mentioned in the same breath as Jonathan Wells and Jarrod Baxter? Now that's inefficiency.
It certainly doesn't help either that the San Diego Chargers have given up -55.24 NEP to opposing rushing games this season. That's the fifth-best mark in the NFL. I don't care whether McFadden can guarantee three carries or thirty carries; I'm not trusting him on Sunday.
Jordy Nelson - Green Bay Packers
Projected Standard League Fantasy Points: 9.77 FP
numberFire Rank: No. 17 Ranked WR (No. 60 Overall)
Percent of Leagues Started (ESPN): 42.3%
Week 17 Opponent: at Minnesota Vikings
Verdict: Start Him
The Packers Receiver Roulette Wheel keeps turning. Where it stops, nobody knows! And it's slowing... slowing... and, hey look, Jordy Nelson's back! And along with James Jones, he's the best bet of Green Bay's seemingly endless receiving corps to have a big game.
Randall Cobb? Questionable after missing practice Thursday and running a limited session Friday. Greg Jennings? Had nine targets against the Titans, but still only managed 45 yards, and seven offensive touchdowns aren't likely to happen again. Donald Driver? Welcome to 2006, I hope you enjoy your stay.
Meanwhile, here are the numbers you need to know about Jordy Nelson: 32, 24, 19, 16. Those are the percentages of throws that went Nelson's way in his past four full games, the last two of which came when he was still hobbled by injury himself in Weeks 11 and 12. I don't see the supposed "rust" being a major factor; Aaron Rodgers has shown a constant desire to throw the ball his way. And Nelson makes good, with a spectacular 67.7 percent catch rate on the reason.
And to top it off, the Vikings may have a lot to play for, but their secondary hasn't exactly been part of the winning formula this season. Minnesota's allowed 104.17 points over expectation to opposing passing games this year, or an average of over a touchdown per game. That places them in 24th in the NFL.
Michael Crabtree - San Francisco 49ers
Projected Standard League Fantasy Points: 8.62 FP
numberFire Rank: No. 29 Ranked WR (No. 84 Overall)
Percent of Leagues Started (ESPN): 48.2%
Week 17 Opponent: vs. Arizona Cardinals
Verdict: Sit Him
People still trust this guy? Is there a reason? Those six fantasy points from last week aren't exactly striking fear into my heart if I'm a fantasy owner going against him this week.
I suppose the reason is the whole No. 1 target myth, but as I explained last week in this very space, that's a terrible reason to rely on somebody. The Niners have run the ball on 52.8 percent of their offensive plays this season, one of the highest proportions in the league. And that's even after Kaepernick had to continually (and ineffectively) throw the ball to try and come back against Seattle last week. The result is that Crabtree has 114 targets on the season, indeed the most on the team. But that's still a good deal less than Brandon Lloyd, whose 125 targets is second on the Patriots to Wes Welker by a long shot.
The matchup doesn't look any brighter when you take a gander at the defense on the other side. In fact, it's much, much worse. Only five NFL defenses have allowed fewer Net Expected Points to opposing passing games than what those teams would have been expected to score through a league-average play. Fifth place is the Texans. In fourth place are the Seahawks. Third's the Broncos. Second place sits the Bears. And alone at the tippy top of the mountain are the Arizona Cardinals, allowing 55.57 NEP less than expectation against opposing passing games this season.
Don't be fooled by the Arizona record; this defense is stout. Stout enough, at least, to be able to shut down an already marginal fantasy receiver. Crabtree's a major risk with not much reward this week.
Pierre Garcon - Washington Redskins
Projected Standard League Fantasy Points: 8.89 FP
numberFire Rank: No. 27 Ranked WR (No. 82 Overall)
Percent of Leagues Started (ESPN): 46.7%
Week 17 Opponent: vs. Dallas Cowboys
Verdict: Sit Him
It just wouldn't seem like a proper sendoff unless I was telling you to sit Pierre Garcon for a final time. I mean, we've now come full circle, Stone Hands Garcon back in his rightful place after a week on the Start side of the equation.
Last week continued his unusually high catch rate; he caught seven of the nine passes RGIII threw his way. He also continued as the Redskins' number one target; his nine targets represented 37.5 percent of Griffin's overall throws.
But you don't have to be a math major to pick up what's wrong with that last stat: the Redskins only threw the ball 24 times on the game against Philadelphia. And that's not unusual for the Redskins. Griffin has not attempted more than 27 passes in each of his past five games. He's only topped 30 attempts four times on the entire season. And of quarterbacks who have started at least 14 games, only fellow rookie Russell Wilson has attempted less passes.
So if that's the case, then it may not mean much that Griffin has above-average efficiency (0.22 NEP per pass) when he does actually decide to throw. It's the mass quantities that matter in fantasy football. And unless Pierre Garcon continues to see at least 30 percent of Griffin's throws per game - a streak that our analytics say is highly unsustainable - he's not going to be a solid fantasy play unless it's against the absolute weakest of secondaries (of which Dallas is not). That's just the facts, jack.