We were tempted to name this week's fantasy football column "The Shutdown Corner," but given the events on Capitol Hill, it's a joke that tastes bitter on our tongues.
As we round the quarter pole of the 2013 NFL season, we're seeing a pileup of teams around the .500 mark -- it's not as ugly as the current state of our government, but it ain't pretty either. In this morass, with players seemingly getting carted off every week, replacements flashing for a game or two before disappearing, and precious few sure things to be found, how can you make the most of the uncertainty for fantasy gain? Let's start by doing the opposite of Congress and taking a look at what we've done wrong so far.
Whoops! We said the Patriots offense was dead? After a 30-point outburst against the Falcons, New England very much looks alive, especially as rookie WR Kenbrell Thompkins (who we predicted would pay fantasy dividends in the preseason -- just goes to show you that you should stick to first impressions) continues to mature. Expect Tom Brady and company to continue putting up big numbers, especially to compensate for a shaky Patriot defense that has lost NT Vince Wolfork.
Oof! Those young 49er receivers we liked? We should have guessed that the Niners, who tend to be conservative when it comes to phasing in new talent, have stuck to the tried and true over the first four games, with TE Vernon Davis and WR Anquan Boldin getting a majority of the looks in the passing game. Expect that to continue, although there are signs that WR Jon Baldwin will get a chance to make more of an impact.
Ouch! And speaking of young receivers we liked… Minnesota WR Cordarrelle Patterson, New Orleans WR Kenny Stills, Arizona WR Andre Roberts, St. Louis WR Tavon Austin, a legion of beleaguered fantasy owners turns its lonely eyes to you. So much promise still unfulfilled.
Moving on to look at trends for Week 5, and make some picks…
It's a QB league now. Going on fantasy numbers alone, you can legitimately make the case that there are 10 high-level QBs dominating scoring right now. Manning the Elder is blowing everyone else away, of course, with New Orleans QB Drew Brees coming on strong, but even also-rans like Dallas QB Tony Romo and Houston QB Matt Schaub are putting up numbers that no fantasy owner would sneeze at, even if their respective teams aren't too successful at the moment. The good news about this increased production across the board is that you should feel empowered to take a flyer on relative unknowns such as Cleveland QB Bryan Hoyer (see below), who are capable of putting up decent numbers in this new pass-happy league.
Spreading the wealth. Another consequence of this new-era passing league is that a bunch of receivers are getting a taste of the fantasy pie. Even juggernauts like Atlanta WR Julio Jones and Detroit WR Calvin Johnson aren't running away from the competition in terms of total yards. The takeaway here is that there are a lot of mid-level talents that will get you close to the same production week to week, so juggle your lineup accordingly. And maybe more than ever, finding a WR who has a nose for the end zone (i.e., Denver's Wes Welker and the Giants' Victor Cruz) is hugely important.
Is the race to home field advantage already over? Four teams are currently undefeated, and two of them (Seattle, Denver) seem to have the inside track to home field advantage in the playoffs, which brings up the depressing prospect that the rest of the season will be an anti-climactic countdown to the inevitable Broncos-Hawks Super Bowl clash. Can undefeated New England (AFC) and New Orleans (NFC) throw a monkey wrench into the works of this preordained grand plan? We've seen Capitol Hill bring our great nation to a standstill over a petty squabble, so anything's possible. Certainly the Patriots' success against Peyton Manning over the years gives them a decent shot to emerge victorious at crunch time, and the Saints seem to have their offensive mojo back with the return of head coach Sean Payton. One thing for sure: all four teams have fantasy strengths (defense for Seattle; passing for New England, Denver and New Orleans) that will continue to pay dividends throughout the year.
Week 5 Waiver Pick-ups
Cleveland QB Bryan Hoyer: Leading your team to 17 points doesn't raise the temperature all that much in fantasy football, but when those 17 points come against a good Cincy defense and include 2 passing TDs and zero turnovers, we have to say that something good's afoot in Cleveland. Hoyer faces three vulnerable pass defenses the next three weeks (Buffalo, Detroit, Green Bay), and would make a great fill-in for bye week QBs.
San Diego RB Danny Woodhead: You wouldn't peg the hustling, all-motor RB as the AFC version of Darren Sproles, and yet, that's exactly what's happening. Woodhead has value as a pass-catching RB, and in San Diego's wide-open offense he's getting a ton of looks. We expect that to continue moving forward, especially against his less-than-stellar competition the next few weeks (Oakland, Jacksonville).
Oakland RB Rashad Jennings: Take it from someone who owned Jennings for a (mercifully) brief period last year -- he doesn't do anything particularly well. Still, he's the only show in town now that Darren McFadden has pulled his annual injury act, so if you're desperate for some depth at RB, he'll be getting plenty of looks the next two weeks, which is good for PPR leagues. Just don't expect miracles -- he'll be facing San Diego, Kansas City and Pittsburgh, and all three of those teams will look to stuff the run first and worry about the Raider passing game second.
Jacksonville WR Justin Blackmon: As long as he has the likes of Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne throwing him the ball, Blackmon will never be a first-tier fantasy producer, and his history of being a malcontent doesn't help. Still, he immediately steps into a starting position after his four-game suspension, and is a decent gamble for those short on WR production.
Buffalo WR Robert Woods: Stats-wise he doesn't look too impressive thus far, but Woods had what could be a breakthrough performance last week with 80 yards and a TD, and he's starting to steal looks away from WR Stevie Johnson. To become a fantasy force he'll have to take his game up another notch against the Browns, Bengals and Dolphins defenses these next three weeks.
Atlanta Defense: How can we endorse the Atlanta D after it got torched by the Patriots Sunday night? Look at the upcoming competition: the scuffling Jets and Bucs, both teams playing rookie QBs. If that's not a quick get-well prescription for any defense, nothing is.
The Squeaky Wheel Play for This Week: Baltimore RB Ray Rice. After virtually ignoring the running game and watching Joe Flacco throw 5 INTs in a loss to Buffalo last week, we expect Ravens coach John Harbaugh to follow his younger brother Jim's moves and feed the rock to Rice plenty and often this week, just like the Niners did with Frank Gore last Thursday.
Avoid Buying High This Week: Washington RB Roy Helu, New York Jets WR Jeremy Kerley, Tennessee WR Nate Washington -- The first two are tempting given injuries to the starters above them in the depth chart, but remain unproven. Mr. Washington has the misfortune of getting Ryan Fitzpatrick as his QB the next few weeks after building a good rapport with now-injured Jake Locker.