By James Reagan
With 14 of 15 games completed, Week 7 of the 2017 NFL season has proven to be one of the least competitive weeks in recent memory. Just five of the 14 games were decided by one score. Of these five, the Baltimore Ravens’ 24-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings was a defensive slugfest that had a last-minute touchdown make the game look closer than it was. The Tennessee Titans’ 12-9 win over the Cleveland Browns was an even worse nightmare for football fans as it featured no touchdowns and went into overtime.
This was a week where lopsided losses were the norm, with an astounding three games ending in shutouts. That’s the first time there have been that many shutouts in one week since Week 15 of the 2012 NFL season. Usually, even in lopsided affairs, the losing team can at least find a tiny measure of redemption with garbage time points. But this week, the shutout losses proved to be devastating for anyone who started offensive players for the Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos and those few brave souls that started anyone from the Andrew Luck-less Indianapolis Colts.
But where NFL scores may have been disappointing, plenty of intriguing fantasy storylines emerged in this week. The shutouts helped three defenses top double digits in standard ESPN leagues, while the surprising Chicago Bears’ defense led the position in scoring with 29 points in standard leagues. There were also two dominant fantasy performances from two players that had fallen under intense scrutiny for very different reasons. Both Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott had the best games of their young careers, with these two players finishing with the most fantasy points this week.
In fact or fiction, we’ll analyze some of the biggest studs and also some of the biggest duds of the NFL week. We’ll also try to look forward a little and try to discern if this was just a fluke performance or a sign of things to come. We start with this week’s surprise of the week.
Note: Points in this article are based on ESPN standard scoring.
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Surprise of the Week
Amari Cooper (OAK, WR)
That seemed to come out of nowhere. Amari Cooper was unequivocally the biggest disappointment among fantasy wide receivers through the first six weeks of the season. In standard leagues, he had posted three consecutive weeks of zero points (Weeks 3-5) and he had put up five consecutive games with 33 or fewer receiving yards. This had left Cooper owners panicking, considering trades or leaving him on the bench or even cutting him in shallow leagues.
Naturally, Cooper was able to shut out all these distractions and annihilate the Kansas City Chiefs’ supposedly stingy pass defense on Thursday Night Football. He caught 11 receptions for a career-high 211 yards and two touchdowns. This gave Cooper 33 points in ESPN standard leagues, just six behind Elliott, who was this week’s leader.
Is Cooper back from the dead or is Kansas City’s defense just not that good against the pass? I think there are reasons for optimism here, but it must be a cautious optimism. For one thing, Cooper dominated the targets on Thursday, getting 19, which was eight more than the second-most targeted Raiders (wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Jared Cook). However, it was Cook and Crabtree that got the targets from Derek Carr during the final drive of the game, which is not all that shocking since both those players are known for being dependable redzone threats.
One of the biggest takeaways from this game is that the Oakland defense is still really struggling to defend the pass, giving up 247 passing yards a game. That’s good for 23rd in the NFL and it’s also a huge reason why a team that was supposed to be a Super Bowl contender has a middling 3-4 record. Unless the defense drastically improves, Carr is going to have to chuck the ball 30+ times to give the Raiders the best chance to win. Rather than continue to force feed the disappointing Marshawn Lynch, the Raiders are going to need to look to their top receivers to give them a shot at winning.
Even with his slow start, Cooper is the Raiders’ top receiver. Expect to see more games where he leads the team in most receiving statistics. But if Cooper is their WR1A, then Crabtree is not far behind at 1B. Both players should remain dependable fantasy starters and though Cooper may not be worth the second round pick many fantasy owners spent on him, it seems safe to assume that his slump is finally over.
O.J. Howard (TB, TE) — Howard’s six catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns is another reminder of the fact that fantasy football can be really weird. We all hear the narrative that rookie tight ends are slow to adjust to the NFL and therefore, you shouldn’t expect too much from them. The past couple weeks, fellow Bucs’ tight end Cameron Brate was far and away the team’s leader at the tight end position, while Howard had not topped two receptions or 12 receiving yards in any of his five games played.
And yet, Howard’s 21 fantasy points in standard leagues led all tight ends for Week 7. He caught all six of his targets and put up easily the best game so far in his young career. But before Brate owners go crazy and swap the older player for the rookie from Bama, note that Brate still had a decent day on his own with six catches for 60 yards on nine targets.
This is probably going to be one of the more frustrating tight end situations to monitor in the NFL. Howard clearly has enormous natural talent and he could become one of the top players at the position, but for the presence of Jameis Winston’s trusted target Brate. I think Brate is still the better tight end option, given that he has 39 targets on the season to Howard’s 18. But if you’re desperate at this already shallow position, you could do worse than starting a raw but talented tight end whose upside is high enough that he could singlehandedly win you some fantasy weeks.
Jared Goff (LAR, QB) — The Los Angeles Rams are off to a fantastic start at 5-2 and though most of the credit goes to running back Todd Gurley, quarterback Jared Goff has clearly made massive strides from his disastrous rookie season. He had his second-best game of 2017 this week going 22-of-37 for 235 yards, a passing touchdown, a rushing touchdown and an interception.
This gives him 18 points in standard leagues and marks his fifth week with double digit fantasy points. What helps Goff this year as opposed to this year, is that he’s not asked to do so much. He has a stud every-down running back in Gurley, who has topped 20 rushing attempts in four games this year. Goff also actually has decent wide receiver targets in rookie Cooper Kupp, and free agent acquisitions Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods.
Like many other quarterbacks this year, Goff is clearly a player that should be considered for streaming situations. But as his struggles against the Seattle Seahawks and the Jacksonville Jaguars show, he’s not a matchup proof starter at quarterback. He’ll take advantage of porous defenses like the Arizona Cardinals and he’ll even show some rushing ability, as he did against the Cardinals this week. For now, you can mostly leave him on the bench as an option for bye weeks or if your quarterback goes down to injury.
Kenny Still (MIA, WR) — The Miami Dolphins pulled off a comeback win against the New York Jets in the one of the most entertaining games of the week, recovering from a 28-14 deficit in the second half. At the heart of the comeback was the often-overlooked Dolphins third receiver Kenny Stills, with six receptions for 85 yards and two touchdowns.
Stills totaled nine targets for the day, a number that was inflated with the absence of DeVante Parker. He also was surprisingly able to benefit from the quarterback change, when Jay Cutler left with a chest injury and trusty backup Matt Moore came in. Moore and Stills clearly have some sort of rapport, with Moore having tossed a touchdown to Stills during each of Moore’s three starts late in the 2016 season.
For this reason, there is definitely some short-term optimism for Stills owners. The Dolphins get the Ravens on Thursday Night Football this week and it’s almost certain that Cutler will not be healthy by then. Parker could be out or limited too. Stills is going to be a hit-or-miss fantasy prospect most weeks due to his place on the depth chart, but as long as Cutler and Parker are injured, the odds are increased that Stills will have a larger role in the Dolphins’ passing attack.
Jordy Nelson (GB, WR) — There is so much reason now for fantasy owners of Green Bay Packers players to panic. The switch from Aaron Rodgers to Brett Hundley did not go well in the first week, with Hundley going 12-of-25 with zero passing touchdowns and one interception.
Jordy Nelson may be the player most negatively affected by this change. Nelson had only one catch for 13 yards, getting one point in ESPN standard and putting up his second-worst game of the year. It was not like he was the only Packer who struggled with no Packer getting more than two receptions. What is slightly more concerning though, is that Nelson was overshadowed by Davante Adams and Aaron Jones in the target department with both them getting five to Nelson’s four.
Sadly, there’s not a lot of reason to expect things to get better. Hundley did have three rushing attempts for 44 yards and a rushing touchdown, suggesting that he might be able to improvise and take off with his legs when the pocket collapses. Jones also had 131 rushing yards, suggesting that the Rodger-less Packers may have a newfound commitment to the run game. Most Nelson owners probably got him in the first or second round, so you will likely have to start him for the rest of the year and just hope that he is able to capitalize on upcoming matchups against susceptible pass defenses like the Detroit Lions and the Buccaneers.
Martavis Bryant (PIT, WR) — Martavis Bryant has had a trying last couple of weeks, thanks to rumors that he wants a trade from the Pittsburgh Steelers. This uncertainty has extended to his on the field performances too, as he’s entered a massive slump with five consecutive weeks of four or fewer fantasy points. This week might have been rock bottom as he totaled one reception for three yards on two targets.
Fantasy football donuts are incredibly frustrating for owners, even though many Bryant owners have probably read the tea leaves and moved on to other receivers. Still, some had seen Bryant as sneaky pick for Week 7 amidst reports that he could be receiving a full workload against the division rival Cincinnati Bengals. Instead, JuJu Smith-Schuster continued to shine as the No. 2 receiver and Antonio Brown kept his ironclad lock as Ben Roethlisberger’s top target.
It’s frustrating to see Bryant struggle to produce, given the immense physical advantages that he enjoys. If he succeeds and forces a trade, watch out. He could be a great steal for a wide receiver needy team. But his current role on the Steelers bears no fantasy relevance whatsoever. Feel free to cut him in shallow leagues and keep him only as a bench stash in the deeper leagues.