Fantasy Football Start or Sit: Week 15
The start/sit question is one that many a fantasy football analyst dreads. And yet, it's often the most important one.
As fantasy football enthusiasts, we spend the offseason poring over stats, news, projections, rankings -- whatever we can get our hands on -- all in anticipation of dominating our leagues on draft night.
But while we might agonize over whether Player A will have a better season than Player B as the clock ticks down on our eighth pick, the truth is that once the dust settles and the games actually begin, a good chunk of our roster will be cycling in and out of our lineups all season. At the end of the day, it won't matter that you picked the right guy if you started him in all the wrong weeks.
Of course, leagues come in all shapes and sizes, so it's near impossible to tackle every start-or-sit scenario. A must-start for one team could be a bench option in another.
With all that being said, we're here to help at numberFire! This column will try to highlight some of those tough lineup decisions you have to make every week and will hopefully be able to sway you in one direction or another. And away we go!
Start Kyler Murray (vs. Cleveland): Kyler Murray failed to produce in a tough matchup against Pittsburgh in Week 14, throwing a season-high three picks and uncharacteristically only rushing for two yards on six carries. He's now fallen short of 200 yards passing in three straight games, though two of those came against the aforementioned Steelers and the 49ers -- both top-four against the pass in Adjusted Defensive Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play.
Cleveland isn't a cupcake matchup, ranking 11th in schedule-adjusted pass defense, but they've allowed big rushing performances to opposing quarterbacks, including Lamar Jackson (9/66/0), Russell Wilson (9/31/1) Josh Allen (6/28/2), and even Ryan Fitzpatrick (5/45/1). Murray has 4 rushing scores this season and is averaging 5.9 carries and 34.5 rushing yards per game.
This game also has some shootout potential, with the total moving up to 49.0 on FanDuel Sportsbook since opening at 46.5. This looks like a solid spot for Murray to bounce back, and numberFire's projections wholeheartedly agree, ranking him as the QB5.
Start Jimmy Garoppolo (vs. Atlanta): Jimmy Garoppolo began the season as a mostly boring fantasy quarterback with questionable upside in a run-heavy offense, but over the last six weeks, he's now put up three four-touchdown games with 349, 424, and 317 passing yards. Two of those may have come over the lowly Cardinals, but last week's explosion was against a respectable Saints defense, and Garoppolo now gets a chance to take advantage of the Falcons.
Atlanta ranks 28th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, 29th in fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks, and 30th in Football Outsiders' adjusted sack rate. San Francisco is favored by 10.5 points, so there is some blowout risk here, but the ceiling is worth shooting for in such a favorable spot. Garoppolo is projected for a QB9 finish this week.
Start Ryan Tannehill (vs. Houston): Since taking over as the Titans' starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill has thrown multiple touchdowns in five of seven starts and exceeded 300 yards three times, and he's even pitched in on the ground, rushing for 37 or more yards in three games and totaling 3 rushing touchdowns.
Yet, he's thrown fewer than 30 pass attempts in five of those starts and hasn't hit 40 attempts all season. His 9.8 yards per attempt leads all quarterbacks by a wide margin, and his 7.4% touchdown rate trails only Lamar Jackson -- impressive for sure but almost certainly unsustainable. Tannehill's career marks are 7.2 and 4.4%, and even Patrick Mahomes' brilliant 2018 campaign falls short of what Tannehill's achieved thus far (8.8 and 8.6%).
All that being said, there's no question Tannehill has played well, as his 0.25 Passing NEP per drop back ranks seventh among quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs, sitting slightly behind Dak Prescott (0.28) and Drew Brees (0.28) and ahead of Garoppolo (0.23) and Deshaun Watson (0.21).
Even if he's played a bit over his head, Tannehill should submit another strong performance in a plus spot against the Texans, who rank 25th in schedule-adjusted pass defense and 27th in both fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks and adjusted sack rate. Tannehill is numberFire's QB11 in this week's projections.
Sit Josh Allen (at Pittsburgh): Josh Allen is coming off a down game against Baltimore, and things won't get any easier this week against Pittsburgh. The Steelers are numberFire's fourth-best schedule-adjusted pass defense and have allowed the fourth-fewest fantasy points to quarterbacks. Throw in a sluggish Pittsburgh offense led by Devlin Hodges and a solid Buffalo defense, and this game has a paltry 35.5 total -- easily the lowest of the week -- suggesting a defensive battle and a decidedly ugly setting for fantasy points. Even with Allen's floor-boosting rushing ability, it's hard to see him coming through with the type of performance you're looking for in the fantasy playoffs.
Other quarterbacks to start: Jameis Winston (at Detroit; expected to play through a thumb injury), Jared Goff (at Dallas), Baker Mayfield (at Arizona), Eli Manning (vs. Miami; deep formats if he starts again)
Start Miles Sanders (at Washington): Boston Scott may have stolen the show on Monday against the Giants, but his increased usage was due in large part to Miles Sanders dealing with cramps during the game. Despite the issue, Sanders still finished with more opportunities (20-16) and a higher snap rate (56.2% to 43.8%), and assuming Jordan Howard remains out, Sanders should continue to serve as the lead back. Prior to Week 14, Sanders had seen at least 84% of the snaps in three straight games sans Howard, and has now seen opportunity totals of 15, 17, 22, and 20 over the four-game stretch. Even if Scott sees an uptick in snaps moving forward, Sanders' workload should be safe.
Sanders gets the right matchup for a lucrative fantasy outing against Washington, which ranks 22nd in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play and 23rd in fantasy points allowed to running backs. He sits just outside the top-20 running backs in this week's projections.
Start Kenyan Drake (vs. Cleveland): Kenyan Drake had another quiet performance in Week 14, but it came in a tough matchup against Pittsburgh, and he still led Arizona's backfield in opportunities (14) and snap rate (65.0%), with David Johnson firmly behind in the pecking order (5 and 36.7%). Drake hasn't been an exciting fantasy performer since blowing up in his Week 9 Cardinals debut, but this has been a truly rough stretch of opponents, as the Steelers, Rams, 49ers, and Buccaneers are all top-seven schedule-adjusted run defenses.
Well, Drake finally gets a plus matchup versus Cleveland, numberFire's 28th-ranked defense against the run and one that also ranks 21st in Target Success Rate allowed to running backs. As just 3.0-point home underdogs, the game script shouldn't get out of hand, and with presumably more success on the ground, Drake should be able to exceed the volume he saw last week. Like Sanders, he projects as a borderline top-20 back in numberFire's rankings.
Start Raheem Mostert (vs. Atlanta): Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida aren't going anywhere, but the pendulum has swung in Raheem Mostert's direction the past couple games, and with all three 49ers backs active last week, Mostert led the committee with 109 total yards and 2 scores off 12 opportunities and a 59.7% snap rate versus New Orleans. The other two backs would each be held to single-digit opportunities and sub-20% snap rates.
Mostert appears to be the lead back until further notice, and he should continue to have success this week against Atlanta, which ranks 17th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play. San Francisco is also a heavy home favorite, so game script should strongly favor the running game, too.
Sit Sony Michel (at Cincinnati): Sony Michel remains rostered in the majority of formats, but fantasy managers who've held him and have made it this far probably still want to stay away despite a theoretical "Sony Michel game" upcoming at Cincinnati. The matchup is certainly right for Michel to bounce back, as the Patriots are 9.5-point favorites, and the Bengals rank 26th against the run in numberFire's metrics, allowing the sixth-most fantasy points to running backs.
But the floor has been stupidly low for Michel, arguably hitting rock bottom after back-to-back games with snap rates below 18%. That came in negative game scripts against Kansas City and Houston, but those teams aren't exactly tough against the run, so it's still telling that Michel was abandoned so quickly.
The game script ought to be far more favorable this time around, but it's hard to see much upside here. Michel remains a non-factor in the passing game, will lose snaps to James White and Rex Burkhead regardless of game flow, and hasn't scored a touchdown since Week 7 in what has become a disappointing Pats offense. Perhaps Michel finally gets back into the end zone, but even then, he's unlikely to have the type of game that leaves you with post-benching regrets.
Start Christian Kirk (vs. Cleveland): Christian Kirk caught 8-of-9 for 85 yards in a solid outing versus the Steelers last week, so he should be able to find success against the Browns, as well. As noted earlier, Cleveland is also a tougher pass defense, but Kirk continues to see excellent volume in this offense, owning a 26.6% target share and 39.8% air yards share since returning from injury in Week 8. numberFire's projections are perhaps a bit overly optimistic given the matchup, but it's still worth noting they rank Kirk as a top-10 wideout in all formats.
Start A.J. Brown (vs. Houston): The A.J. Brown hype train has been really picking up steam in recent weeks, and he's coming off one of the top wide receiver performances of Week 14, nabbing 5-of-7 targets for 153 yards and 2 touchdowns win a blowout win over Oakland. Since the bye week, he's sporting a team-high 24.6% target share and 34.5% air yards share, and another promising matchup is on tap against Houston. Although Tannehill's limited pass attempts in recent games lowers Brown's floor a bit, the ceiling is readily apparent, and he projects as a rock-solid WR2 this week.
Start Tyler Lockett (at Carolina): Tyler Lockett is a tricky call yet again, and while many fantasy analysts are jumping ship, I still believe he's worth sticking with unless your team is particularly flush with quality wideouts. Lockett turned 6 targets into 4 receptions and 43 yards last week, straddling the line between disappointing and encouraging. It was his fourth straight game under 50 yards and without a score, yet this still represented highs in targets, receptions, and yards over this ice-cold stretch.
After dealing with a leg injury and illness in recent weeks, Lockett is now "really back," according to coach Pete Carroll, and we have to remember that even at Lockett's peak this season, he's never been the most consistent player in this run-heavy offense. Over the first nine games prior to his injury, he logged five or fewer targets four times.
And while Carolina's pitiful run defense falls right in line with what Seattle likes to do, the Panthers haven't been particularly strong against wide receivers, either, ranking 20th in Target Success Rate against the position for the year and just 26th since Week 7. The risks in using Lockett are obvious, but in a game with a shootout-worthy 48.5 total, there's a path to one of those patented Lockett spike weeks. Our model likes him as a top-20 wideout.
Sit John Brown (at Pittsburgh): Considering John Brown's status as Buffalo's top pass catcher this year with a 25.2% target share and 38.8% air yards share, he's still in the flex conversation, but seeing as Josh Allen is likely to struggle against Pittsburgh, that naturally means Brown will have a difficult time putting up points, too.
Furthermore, over the last three games against Denver, Dallas, and Baltimore, Brown has been held under 40 yards all three times and seen those high target and air yards share marks drop to just 19.0% and 27.2%. We know the upside Brown brings to the table, but in what's looking like the worst fantasy game of the week, this probably isn't the game he breaks out.
Other wide receivers to start: Michael Gallup (vs. Los Angeles Rams), Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard (vs. Miami), Emmanuel Sanders (vs. Atlanta), Dede Westbrook (at Oakland; if D.J. Chark is ruled out)
Start Mike Gesicki (at New York Giants): Mike Gesicki failed to produce against the Jets in Week 14, though he still saw five targets and New York has actually been tough on tight ends this year, ranking first in Target Success Rate against them and allowing the second-fewest fantasy points. Gesicki should have an easier time breaking through in a more average matchup against the Giants, and the Dolphins could be sorely lacking healthy pass catchers this weekend. DeVante Parker and Albert Wilson remain in the concussion protocol, while Allen Hurns is dealing with leg injuries. If any of these wideouts sit out, it can only mean bigger things for Gesicki, who's averaged just over six targets over the five games since Preston Williams went down in Week 9.
Start O.J. Howard (at Detroit): Well, here we are in Week 15, so naturally, it's time to consider starting one of the season's biggest disappointments in O.J. Howard. But with Mike Evans reportedly done for the year, there will be extra targets to go around, and Howard has actually shown signs of life the past couple weeks, catching a combined 9-of-11 targets for 134 yards. Detroit is also a plus matchup for tight ends, ranking 31st in Target Success rate allowed to the position. He projects as this week's TE12.