Fantasy Football is like a calculus problem. Not because both are done by nerds and number-loving geeks, but because they both have many variables that must be solved for and known before reaching the final result.
One of these unknown variables that we must solve for every week is a player’s matchup. Outside of skill and opportunity, a player’s matchup has the greatest impact on their final scoring output. But sometimes, nothing means more than the matchup. Every week we see a few players with little to no skill or talent thrive solely due to who they are playing *Jeremy Kerley and Josh McCown high-five each other*.
This means that an integral part of setting your expectations for a player’s possible point total on Sunday or deciding who to start or bench is to analyze their matchup. What is the opposing defense’s strength? Weakness? Are any key personnel injured? Is garbage time likely?
So every week in this column, I’m going to give you three running backs, receivers, and tight ends who have either exceedingly easy, remarkably hard, or surprisingly deceiving matchups and how you should shift your expectations for those players on Sundays.
Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers
Those who stuck with Lacy through the first couple weeks of his frustrating rookie campaign are now starting to reap the benefits. The man deemed too fat in training camp has been fed an average of 25 touches the past three weeks, and all that food has been digested into a league-leading 301 rushing yards in that span. Expect the feast to continue this Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. If you thought the Vikes were a train wreck on offense, the other side of the ball is even more of a dumpster fire.
Adjusted for schedule, Leslie Frazier’s crew ranks 31st in defensive rush net expected points per rush (Adj. RNEP/rush). This metric allows us to see how well above (or in this case below) expectation a team is preforming in terms of real life points. Because of that, this horrid defense has given up an average of 22.9 fantasy points per game to opposing running backs. Due to the matchup, and the fact the Packers lost multiple of their top receiving options to injury thus relaying more on the run, Lacy should put up high-end RB1 numbers this week.
DeSean Jackson, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
This boom or bust receiver struggled mightily with Nick Foles last week, but fret not my friends, the boom shall return this week. Djax gets his big-play partner-in-crime, Michael Vick back this week in a delightful matchup against the New York Football Giants. At .12, the G-Men rank 22nd in the NFL in adjusted defensive passing NEP/pass, and that includes last week’s “game” against Josh Freeman and the Vikings. In Jackson’s previous matchup with the Giants, he torched them for a line of 9 catches for 132 yards and one touchdown. I’d expect him to add to his league leading nine receptions of 20-plus yards this week, in route to an elite WR1 day against one of the worse defenses in football.
Tony Gonzalez, TE, Atlanta Falcons
After a disappointing two catches for 30 yards last week, a bounce back of epic proportions is likely to ensue this week for the ageless wonder. Gonzalez takes on the Cardinals, who are the worst team in the league against opposing tight ends by almost every metric. Allowing the most catches, yards, and touchdowns to the position, the Cardinals are also last in the NFL in fantasy points allowed to them. This was more than evident last week as the likes of Zach Miller, Kellen Davis and Luke Wilson (the actor probably could have gone for 50 yards as well) shred Arizona to the tune of 18.4 fantasy points. As Matt Ryan’s number one option, there is a solid chance Tony G surpasses the 16.8 fantasy points the Cards give up on average.
Roy Helu, RB, Washington Redskins
Helu said “hello” to the fantasy community in a big way last week, scoring three touchdowns in a shootout with the Bears. While Alfred Morris is still the unquestionable early-down back for the Redskins, Helu is their every-down back when they are in their hurry-up or “turbo” packages. But all that gets thrown out the window when the Skins face off against Denver and their number one ranked rush defense according to our defensive adjusted rushing net expected points per rush metric. Or does it?
While ranking first in real football, the Broncos are a distant 24th in the NFL against opposing running backs in fake football, allowing 19.0 fantasy points per game. So should that bode well for Morris, or does Helu steals the show again? Everyone knows how potent the Broncos offense is, so I wouldn’t exactly be going out on a limb by saying there is a good chance the Redskins will either be playing from behind or in hurry-up mode for a good chunk of the game. Knowing that Helu will be the running back in these “turbo” sets, it’s very conceivable that he could play a good portion of the snaps against a poor fantasy run defense and post RB2 numbers.
Denarius Moore, WR, Oakland Raiders
The speedy receiver has quickly become quarterback Terrelle Pryor’s number one target, as Moore has had at least five receptions and a touchdown in four games this season. This surprising consistency has let Moore post WR2 numbers this year, as he is sitting comfortably behind Dez Bryant in fantasy points per game with just under 13.0. But how will he fair against Dick LeBeau’s vaunted pass defense, ranking 6th in the NFL by allowing only 16.7 fantasy points per game to opposing receivers?
If I were a betting man, I’d say pretty well. While the Steelers have looked good defending the pass so far this season, it’s probably because they have only played one top-10 passing offense according to our passing NEP numbers. This can be seen when we look at the Steeler’s pass defense and adjust it for strength of schedule, as they rank 23rd in the NFL. Even though he'll draw coverage from Ike Taylor, Moore would make a great flex/WR2 play this week as he should take advantage of this overrated secondary.
Jordan Cameron, TE, Cleveland Browns
In the most deceiving matchup of the week, Jordan Cameron and the Browns square off against the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs. Reid’s red bunch have made a name for themselves with their suffocating defense that holds the number one spot in both adjusted defensive passing NEP/pass and defensive NEP as a whole. This has allowed them to post insane numbers against opposing fantasy tight ends, allowing only 2.9 points to them per game.
But if you dig deeper, you can see that this matchup is actually rather exploitable for Cameron. The Chiefs ridiculously low point totals against tight ends is likely due to their lack of competition at the position. They did go against Jason Witten in Week 2, but other than that? Not a whole lot. The best tight end they’ve faced is Delanie Walker outside of Witten. While it isn’t necessarily a good matchup, there is no way Cameron will be bottled up the way other tight ends have been when taking on Kansas City. Combine that with the fact that Jason Campbell will be making his first start of the year, and will constantly be looking for his check-down target and safety valve against an elite pass rush, Cameron should remain a mid-TE1 this week.
Zac Stacy, RB, St. Louis Rams
The rookie running back has taken a firm grasp of the Rams backfield, as Stacy is averaging over 18 touches a game the past three weeks. And now that quarterback Sam Bradford is lost for the year, the Rams have no choice but to give Stacy all the work he can handle. Based off pure quantity alone, Stacy will be a low-end RB2 the rest of the year, but you might want to find a replacement this week as the Rams face Seattle.
The Seahawks are by all means an elite defense, especially when it comes to stuffing the run. The third-best team in the league against the run according to our metrics, they also limit opposing running backs to a mere 12.9 fantasy points per game. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Stacy surpasses the 3.7 yards per carry that Seattle allows to opposing backs. But this game will likely be a blowout, so Stacy could benefit from a garbage time touchdown or excessive work in the receiving game.
Mike Wallace, WR, Miami Dolphins
The former Steeler looks to be developing a connection with quarterback Ryan Tannehill, as Wallace has brought in at least five catches and 76 yards the past two weeks. But this week’s matchup against the Patriots will likely bring Wallace back to his middling ways.
Bill Belichick and the Pats have long been known as a game-plan oriented team, and usually aim to take away the opposing offense’s top option. They've had tremendous success doing that this season, as cornerback Aqib Talib has been a shut-down corner all year long, strapping up opposing number one options like Jimmy Graham, Vincent Jackson, and Julio Jones. Returning this week from injury, Talib will look to do the same against Wallace. The stats back up Talib’s play as well, as New England is third in the NFL in defensive passing NEP/pass when adjusting for schedule. Now the Patriots run defense, formerly their strength, is the team’s weakness, ranking 22nd in defensive rushing efficiency. The Dolphins will likely avoid throwing at Wallace and try to attack the Patriot’s weakness on defense with the run game and Lamar Miller.
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints
Before you boo me off the stage and throw food at me, hear me out. If Graham, who still has more points than any tight end or wide receiver despite not catching a pass since Week 5, plays this week, then you’re starting him. You don’t have a better option, but prepare to adjust your expectations.
If he does suit up, he could very well play in only a limited number of snaps due to his foot injury. Not to mention his opponent, Buffalo, isn't too shabby when it comes to defending tight ends. While the Bills rank 31st against wide receivers in terms of fantasy points allowed; only the Chiefs give up fewer points to opposing tight ends, at 4.9 points per game. The Bills are also 11th in total pass defense in terms of NEP when adjusting for schedule, showing how stout the entire defense can be as a unit. The combined factors of Graham’s injury and the Bill’s stinginess against tight ends could cause Jimbo to have a mid-TE1 game instead of his usual 20-plus points.